Sep 032014
 

I blame Daniel Day-Lewis. I watched Last of the Mohicans and got a hankering to play a game set in the Colonial frontier, one of many periods of history poorly covered by games. In fact, in a reasonably extensive library the only game that really addressed this setting was Assassin’s Creed III, a game that, to put it mildly, I did not like very much. Shorn of its only real virtue, the multiplayer component, I felt reasonably certain I would still hate the game virulently. I’ve given second chances to games I formally liked less, though, so I booted up some flintlock-and-tomahawk action. Spoiler alert—the game is still junk, for largely the same reasons I identified in my review. There is, perhaps, a bit of perverse genius in a game design that systematically expresses the Templar view of the world with the aim of infuriating the player, but it’s difficult to believe this was really the intention of a game that is so incoherent, stupid, and poorly made.

It may seem strange to talk about focus in an open-world game, especially one made by Ubisoft, but it’s worth remembering how very pared-down the original Assassin’s Creed was. That game didn’t even have money, and aside from the viewpoints and a few collectibles there was very little to do aside from story-oriented missions. Money and a loose sort of base development were innovations of Assassin’s Creed II, which kicked off a progressive expansion of both protagonist abilities and potential side-missions that teetered on the edge of real trouble in Revelations and tumbled right over the edge and shattered at the base of a cliff in III. We have hunting, and a homestead, and naval missions, and brotherhood development, and territory to capture, and fistfights to get into, and missions to acquire goods, and sewers to explore for some reason, and also, oh hey, these missions associated with Connor’s actual storyline, not to mention Desmond.

Most of this stuff is half-assed and little of it really fits into a coherent whole. It’s never clear why Connor builds his little homestead or even his brotherhood. He’s a grade-A heel and quickly disillusioned with the Patriots, so his desire to help out these (white) people who need letters and goods delivered feels unmotivated, at best. The hunting and fistfights at least fit his character and personality, but they also just exist off in their own little world without seriously playing into the game’s main storyline or themes. The naval missions are the only legitimately good part of the single-player experience, but I’ll be damned if I understand how they really fit in to the rest of it. As for the Desmond missions…

Ugh, Desmond. I have always hated him, and his only saving grace in this game is that he is actually less of a shithead than Connor. Also, Nolan North doesn’t shout all his lines the way Noah Watts does. I get that Connor is supposed to be seething with barely-suppressed rage, but since this only comes across in the voice acting and a few non-interactive scenes it’s kind of a failed depiction. As with so many open-world games, once an actual mission starts it’s time for helpful!Connor rather than the actual character that has been depicted for 10 hours.

This is not actually the game’s biggest narrative problem, and neither is its bizarre choice not to take the opportunity to free itself forever from the Animus and the horrible frame story that goes with it. Instead, the problem is a change in attitude. Assassin’s Creed, and especially the Ezio trilogy, had previously presented stories that seemingly intended to make history more interesting and exciting than it actually was. One got the impression that the developers had looked at the actual events and asked, “how can we make this more awesome?” That’s how we ended up with Leonardo’s creations coming to life and actually working.

Assassin’s Creed III seems to take the opposite approach: the developers seem to have had the desire to make the real history look as dumb as possible. The emblematic example of this is when Lance recreates Leonardo’s flying apparatus and it fails embarrassingly, but this attitude manifests throughout. I’m all for deconstructing the founding fathers, but Assassin’s Creed III goes out of its way to make these men look like bumbling fools. Thus, Benjamin Franklin shows up only to show off his lechery, Paul Revere is reduced to a goofy backseat driver, and Washington shows up as a bad general but not as a good politician (which even the game admits he was simultaneously). Sam Adams gets a more sympathetic showing, but disappears halfway through the story.

Maybe this is just what you should expect when you ask Canadians to make a game about the Revolutionary War. Still, it seems like the least interesting thing one could possibly do with the conflict, especially when one considers the number of key players belonging to “secret” societies, the intense debates over the proper nature (republic vs monarchy, federalism vs home rule) of the new government, and the personal conflicts (e.g. Jefferson v Hamilton) between the founding fathers themselves. Much fertile ground was ignored in favor of Revere riding double with Connor.

Even those who can ignore the poverty of the narrative shouldn’t forgive the game for being junk on a fundamental level. The addition of free-running in trees is neat, but hardly any salvation given that free-running in the cities is a dull chore thanks to discontinuous buildings, a failure to address climb-lock, and an overabundance of rooftop guards. The repetition of the exact same goddamn tree throughout the wilderness still grinds my gears, especially since it doesn’t include a safe leap of faith from the viewpoint, and of course one cannot mention the viewpoints without pointing out that finding all of them does not reveal all of the game’s absurdly bad map. That’s just one outcropping of the mountain of garbage that is the game’s hideous user interface, which seems to have been designed with the motto: obtuse, obscuring, obstructive.

At least this time a bug didn’t take out a whole district’s worth of assassin missions in New York, but the notoriety system was still thoroughly broken there. I also got to experience a cute bug in the forest where the game spawned something like 9 wolves in a row and then got stuck in combat mode because one of them clipped to the inside of a rock. Naturally this led to a desynch since Connor can leave no dead animal unskinned.

And there you have it. Years later and I still can’t forgive ACIII for being such an utterly dumb, shambolic pile of garbage. Sure, there’s some fun to be had running through the woods shooting deer or sailing on the ocean shooting boats, but the core of the experience is rotten, and it infects everything else. There is not one single aspect of this game that is well-designed, solidly coded, and reasonably well integrated into the whole. In retrospect, my 6/10 score may have been too generous.

Aug 262014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Transitions between 3D and 2D platforming.

Best Design Decision: Adopting noir trappings that go with its mechanics.

Worst Design Decision: Inconsistent behavior of shadow edges.

Summary:

Contrast feels like half of a game. That impression comes from the story, which is short, simpler than its noir aesthetic trappings suggest it should be, and ends abruptly. It also comes from the gameplay, which never reaches a point of maturity. In any platformer I expect to have a moment where I have to put together everything I learned earlier in order to succeed; not coincidentally such challenges tend to demonstrate the developers’ understanding of their own systems. That moment never really comes in Contrast, which instead introduces new tricks almost up to the last minute and seems to forget about half of them.

The game’s story has a weird structure. The most emotionally intense moment comes at the end of the first act, and the rest of the game is overwhelmed by the twee adventures of the little girl and her hapless dad. I suppose I wouldn’t mind this so much if the girl were an actual agent but her role is to show up in a room, act briefly, and then stand there uselessly while Dawn does all the work, even for puzzles that would obviously be most efficiently solved by two people. I didn’t mind so much that the game wasn’t entirely clear about what happened to Dawn, but if Vincenzo was going to be a part of that they should have really done something with it rather than tossing a line in at the end. I came away from the whole thing unsatisfied and underwhelmed.

Verdict: Not recommended.

Aug 182014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Showing off every single input the Vita possesses

Best Design Decision: The “mystery” puzzles, though they could have been harder

Worst Design Decision: Showing off every single input the Vita possesses

Summary:

Well, Golden Abyss is bad, and I’m glad Nick Burgener wrote this detailed post about its many shortcomings so I didn’t have to.  My single point of departure with his opinion would be on the combat, which I thought was also total garbage, albeit in a completely different direction. Drake’s foes are ridiculous bullet sponges in this game in ways that barely make sense, combat encounters are telegraphed at the start and barely coherent afterwards, and it was not long before I dialed down to easy to make them go by faster. The rhythm of the gameplay and story are both completely rote by now, and on the whole it was such a bore that despite having completed it yesterday evening I could not tell you with any specificity one single thing that happened in its story, platforming, or gunplay. I do remember there was some bullshit rowing.

I can’t really blame SCE Bend studio for the disaster. They were handed a beloved property and did a decent job with it (though there were many areas that showed the Vita’s comparative limitations). They were also evidently handed a mandate to incorporate literally every method the Vita had available for input. Most of it turns out to be a dreadful hash or a source of dire boredom—the dust-clearing and charcoal rubbing were abominations, aiming guns and cameras using the gyroscope was a hideous mistake, and so on. I did like the idea of assembling various collectibles and photos into mysteries to be solved, but this was ruined by the damn card-game tie-in (likely also a mandate from corporate), the too-easy puzzle solving, and the awful turquoise and jade lumps. Every time I veered off the main path and found one of those things was three times I saw a side route and moved along to avoid the wasted effort. The one or two good ideas here don’t outweigh the bad, and all in all I’m glad I got this through PS+ rather than buying it.

Verdict: Not recommended

Aug 142014
 

Video games act as a gestalt between many different kinds of art. The player’s experience depends on visuals, on writing, on music, on acting, and of course on the mechanics and dynamics of the gameplay. That these elements can be in tension with one another has been recognized for a while—”ludonarrative dissonance” is a term that encompasses a subset of possible conflicts. Special terms haven’t been invented for instances where the art and level design don’t work with the narrative, or the art style interferes with the player’s assessment of dynamics, and perhaps they need not be. Developers, however, should always be thinking about whether the various elements of their game actually make sense together. Ether One, a competently-made first-person walker/puzzler is a case in point. It has lots of little bits that could make a pretty good game, but it doesn’t assemble them into a coherent whole.

The conceit of Ether One, as it begins, is that the protagonist is a participant in a loosely-defined psychic program, delving into the memories of a person who is suffering from dementia. This program gives him access to a “case” that serves as a combination of home base and inventory, since he can only carry one item at a time. The case is also home to some doorways that open into specific memories where the player’s task changes. Rather than wandering around and solving puzzles, the doorway memories ask the player to wander through a small area and take photographs of important locations. From the case, the protagonist can access five areas (one only temporarily), all of which are seemingly literal recreations of specific locations from the dementia patient’s past, surrounding the town of Pinwheel where the character grew up and lived for a time.

The visuals seem to be in tension with this idea immediately. The harbor area and Pinwheel town seem so normal and mundane it’s hard to buy the game’s fiction that they’re the creations of a subjective mind, much less a damaged one. The shattered industrial area and especially the weird, minimalist mine area give a more powerful impression of being imagined, but they are still very plain. More troubling, these places are entirely devoid of people. While I can remember many places I have been, it’s almost impossible to think of them without recalling the people who were associated with them. I can remember my grandmother’s church with great clarity, but not without remembering my grandmother. The lifelessness of the game’s landscape makes the game ring false as a representation of memory.

Each of the various zones has a required goal and an optional one. The optional task is to solve various puzzles embedded into the environment. In one, for instance, the player is supposed to figure out what equipment a maypole dancer is missing, fill out an order form for it, attach postage, mail it, and put the item in its proper place. Some of the puzzles are a bit more complex and mysterious, but essentially all of them amount to mundane tasks that the dementia patient himself might have performed in the real world. That said, these often involve information that the character could not possibly have known—personal letters, locker combinations, and official memos he had no way of accessing. Although explainable (these documents could represent the character’s suspicions and perceptions rather than reality) these episodes also make the events of the game feel at odds with its conceit.

The essential task for progressing in each area is to collect red ribbons that are placed throughout each environment. Finding all of the ribbons opens a music box back in the case that activates a doorway back in the case. These doorways pose their own problem. Going through them, the protagonist is suddenly equipped with a camera that he can use to take snapshots of particular items that will spur some memories. However, the memories he explores in these dream-worlds have nothing to do with the the spot that unlocked them. Every doorway memory concerns the character’s unhappy childhood with a drunken father who chased off his mother. While that seems to work well with Pinwheel town, where the house associated with the memories is located, it’s less clear why these memories are unlocked by exploration of the harbor, industrial area, or the mine. In fact, when actually playing through these areas, the most critically important event appears to be an accident in the mines, making the childhood focus of the doorway memories seem even more odd.

The end of the game also leans heavily on these formative memories, to its detriment. The story emphasizes the idea that the goal of the experience is to use old memories as a foundation to bring the dementia sufferer forward in time. However, the focus on childhood actually moves the patient backwards in time, almost to the very beginning. This retrograde motion makes the whole experience feel like a failure.

Of course, reaching this point also involves a major twist. Near the end of the game, it is revealed that the sci-fi storyline involving a special machine that allows for a psychic connection is actually entirely fabricated and the protagonist is the dementia patient. This is the game’s worst narrative move. I don’t think a twist like this is bad per se, although the reveal was too abrupt and the explication far too literal. The larger problem is that the sci-fi story doesn’t feel at all organic to the character, who is a miner-turned-artist. The game never gave me a sense that he had the kind of imagination needed to generate a story like this, nor does it really build towards the moment of revelation. Rather than unfolding a coherent story in an unexpected new direction, the twist feels like a misaligned joint where two completely different stories were awkwardly welded together.

The individual pieces of Ether One work reasonably well, but none of it works well together. The environments and the puzzles are fine, but their depopulation and mundanity are at odds with the kind of subjective, remembered spaces they are supposed to be. The process of using some memories to unlock others makes sense. However, the memories the game links together don’t seem to be connected and the way the game works backwards through time feels counter to the apparent goal. The twist that makes the game more grounded and realistic in its final moments isn’t a bad idea intrinsically, but because it lacks any grounding in the characters or their history it comes across as a cheap trick. In isolation each aspect of Ether One is decent enough, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.