Assassin's Creed Origins - title

Hey, I actually managed to play and review all of this past holiday season's big, Triple-A releases! Hooray for me! I mean, sure it's the end of February, and I'm just now reviewing a game that came out last October, but at least I did play it.

Since the refreshing exceptionalism of Black Flag, the Assassin's Creed franchise has been scarred by mediocrity and controversy. As such, I opted to buy the game used off of eBay so as not to support Ubisoft. This is after I had enjoyed Black Flag so much that I happily bought a retail gift copy for a friend and recommended the game to yet another friend. Heck, if the save file could have been transferred over, I would have gladly traded in my PS3 copy of Black Flag for a PS4 retail copy.

Even Ubisoft realized that the series was growing stale, and stopped their cycle of releasing two or three games per year. It's been two full years since the last full release (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate in 2015). The extra time certainly helped elevate Assassin's Creed: Origins above the chaff of the rest of the franchise, but not quite enough to propel it to true greatness.

I played Origins on PS4, which means that I avoided the frustrations that many gamers reported involving Origins' multiple layers of DRM slowing down their computers. Wait, isn't Ubisoft the company that, years ago, publicly stated that DRM doesn't work, and that they "don't want to punish a paying player for what a pirate can easily work around"? This same company is now putting not one ... not two ... but three separate DRM applications on a single game? One of which is their own proprietary distribution service, U-Play? Is the company lying, or are they just scatterbrained and can't make up their mind? Or is the management just incompetent?

Would exploring tombs and temples by torchlight become a common mechanic?

Well, when I started up the actual game, I was pleasantly surprised that it starts off pretty damn strong. Even Black Flag was mired by an opening act that stranded players in a tedious, bog-standard Assassin's Creed sandbox city for a couple hours before opening up the seas by giving us our own pirate ships. Origins, however, has a very strong, distinctive opening chapter that eventually gives way to a more bog-standard gameplay experience.

After an admittedly-silly and confusing opening cutscene that utterly fails to establish the setting or characters, Origins throws the player into a one-on-one duel to highlight the new combat mechanics, then hands main character Bayek a torch and asks the player to explore and escape from a derelict Egyptian temple. Then we head off across an intimidating swath of Saharan desert to the oasis that is Bayek's home town. Here, we have some open-ended exploration, hunting, rescue, and assassination missions. During this, we are introduced to the game's shining star: its setting and environment.

Classical Egypt is magnificently brought to life in this game. The map is vast and spread out, with large swaths of barren desert and sand dunes separating some of the game's regions. Small farming settlements and market hubs dot the environment, and each feels like a necessary part of a functional society. Best of all, Bayek isn't stopping every ten steps to pick up some random, meaningless collectible, and our map isn't cluttered with icons representing all this meaningless garbage.

Egypt feels vast, is beautiful, and is brimming with life and energy.

Not only does the map work well with its sense of physical scale, but it also excels at representing the temporal scale of Egypt. Even though we are playing in antiquity, the game world is still dotted with tombs and abandoned settlements, some of which are thousands of years old. Remember, ancient Egypt is one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the history of the world, having been a world superpower for over three thousand years! The time span between the building of the Great Pyramids in Giza, and the life of Cleopatra is longer than the time span between Cleopatra and our lives today. Assassin's Creed: Origins completely nails that sense of living in this ancient kingdom...


Civilization V - Augustus Caesar of the Roman Empire

I've already covered strategies for the civilizations that have been added or explicitly changed in the Brave New World expansion and its major fall (2013) patch. Now I'm going to move on to other legacy civilizations that have not had explicit changes, but who may have had their strategies significantly altered by the expansions and other updates. This time, I will be covering one civ that surprisingly does not benefit from Brave New World's new mechanics as much as one might think: the Roman Empire.

Rome is one of the most influential and heavily romanticized cultures of the classical world. The early Roman republic was a system of semi-democratic representational government. Power was divided between two consuls who were annually elected by the citizens and alternated as military leaders to check each others' ambitions, while an appointed body of senators directed foreign policy and enacted laws. The city gradually expanded its power and influence in the second half of the first millennium BC through the overwhelming success of its legionary forces and defeat of its primary rival Carthage, until it eventually came to control almost the entire Mediterranean. Rome itself became the center of government and commerce for most of Europe, and it established an elaborate network of roads, aqueducts, and other engineering feats.

The Roman government was generally very tolerant of foreign religions and cultures, which helped to pacify subjugated peoples. But as Rome became an empire, and its holdings expanded, this tolerance became a liability. Foreign peoples were allowed admittance into the army in order to secure Rome's ever-increasing borders, which lead to a decline in loyalty to Rome as the army became more diverse and less centralized. Eventually, generals would begin competing with each other for control of Rome and the title of emperor, weakening the empire from within and making it vulnerable to external threats such as immigrating Germanic tribes displaced by the Huns. Eventually, these threats would culminate in the sacking of Rome by the Visigothic leader Alaric in August of 410 AD, and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. However, the eastern half of the empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, would continue to carry the torch of Rome for another thousand years.

Civilization V - Augustus Caesar

After the death of Julius Caesar, his adopted nephew and heir, Gaius Octavius, along with Marc Antony and Marcus Lepidus, tracked down and defeated Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassins who had conspired against Caesar. This new triumvirate quickly disintigrated into civil war, with Octavius decisively defeating both Lepidus and then Antony and holding sole authority over a new Roman Empire. He changed his name to Caesar in honor of his adopted uncle, and reinstated the Roman senate as a puppet facade government to legitimize his dictatorial leadership. He was extremely popular among the Roman citizens due to his relation to Julius, and was eventually honored with the title Augustus. He instituted numerous domestic reform including official police and fire-fighting services, engineering projects such as roads, and expanded the dominion of Rome in Africa, Hispania, and Germania. Octavius found Rome a city of bricks; Augustus left it a city of marble, and the envy of the western world.


Total War: Attila - game title

A few months ago, I posted an article outlining some suggestion for unique civilization themes and abilities for a possible Sid Meier's Civilization VI game. In it, I proposed a unique characteristic for the Huns or Mongolians: that they be a true nomadic empire. The idea was that they would have traveling cities that allowed them to move their empire with their army and essentially occupy any unclaimed territory or territory vacated by defeated rivals. Well, the Creative Assembly had already beaten me (and Firaxis) to the punch with Total War: Attila (and apparently Firaxis is embracing the idea with Beyond Earth's first expansion). Total War: Attila has a feature almost identical to what I had conceived for the Huns and Mongolians in Civilization. I'm a fan of the Total War series as is, so I was going to play this game for sure. Of course, Creative Assembly running with an idea that I had independently conceived of only made me more curious to play the game.

Attila acts as sort of a sequel to Rome II. While that game was all about building up the Roman empire (or whichever empire you happened to select), Attila is all about tearing down those empires. But this is a fully stand-alone game (like Napoleon Total War was to Empire Total War), and does not require Rome II in any way.

Learning how to be a horde

The Prologue campaign in this game is brutal! It's like a Demon's Souls tutorial that is designed to kick your ass. I restarted it once before realizing that it was designed for the player to fail in order to teach the new migration feature.

This prologue acts as a tutorial for the new features and mechanics of the game, but it doesn't do a particularly good job of teaching these mechanics. It also doesn't go into much detail of the established features of the franchise (other than telling you that a feature exists, then making you click on the button to do it), so new players might find themselves completely turned off by the fact that they are having their asses handed to them and aren't being taught much about how the game actually works, or - more importantly - why they are failing so hard. Perhaps having two separate tutorial campaigns would have been advisable: one to teach basic Total War concepts of empire and army management; and a second tutorial campaign for experienced Total War players that just teaches the migration features.

The brutal tutorial concludes with the challenging, climactic, historical battle of Adrianople,
in which your Visigoths must hold off Emperor Valens' superior army until your cavalry arrives.

Playing as migratory hordes minimizes city management, but you do still have to develop infrastructure for your nomadic armies. Rebuilding conquered cities and defending your borders, however, is not an issue - which was always the most tedious part of the game anyway. You don't need defensive armies in your territory and are free to focus all your efforts on your eventual goal. This change works well with the requirement that all armies must be attached to generals, and is a big step up from Rome II. There were large chunks of Rome II's campaign in which I felt like I couldn't do anything because I had to camp out my armies in cities in order to replenish and improve public order. Since I was at the army cap, the campaign would stagnate because I couldn't build new armies in order to watch over my newly-conquered settlements while also pressing forward with my primary armies...


Total War: Rome II Emperor Edition - game title

A couple years ago, I wrote an impressions post for Total War: Rome II with a tentative review score of 5 out of 10. I never got around to writing a full review of the game because it remained in a near constant state of flux for over a year after its release. The developers kept adding new DLC ranging from modest culture packs to the tiny Blood & Gore pack. Last year, Creative Assembly released a massive DLC pack that also included across-the-board balance updates and expansion of some of the game's core features. This "Emperor Edition", and its attached Imperator Augustus campaign was free to everyone who bought the original Rome II, and so I decided to give it a try to see if it greatly improved the game.

Total War: Rome II - Blood & Gore
Blood & Gore costs a few dollars extra for those who want it, and increases the ESRB rating to Mature.

Core gameplay has subtle changes

Most of the changes to the core game are subtle, but they do add up to create a more enjoyable experience. The A.I. isn't nearly as bad as it originally was, and naval battles are actually playable now. Building effects have been completely rebalanced in order to avoid the problems with rampant squalor and lack of food that plagued the core game, and the politics systems have been changed to be more active and relevant to the game. Unfortunately, many of these changes are so sweeping, that they break existing campaign save games, meaning that if your version of Rome II was automatically updated, then you lost the ability to continue with any of your previous campaigns.

The most notable changes to empire management is that resources and building upgrades allow for much greater specialization of your various regions. This combined with the rebalancing of squalor and food means that there is incentive to actually upgrade your buildings past the first couple of levels. You also have some more meaningful decisions on what buildings you want to build and upgrade.

Total War: Rome II - the glory of Rome
Squalor is no longer an intractable restriction towards building the glory of Rome.

Cities still physically grow on the map as the population grows and more buildings are constructed, and many of the high level buildings can add unique visual flairs to individual cities. It's also informative, since it's easy to see (at a glance) what infrastructure a city might have, which can help you manage your own empire, and can help you to assess the worth of a city for potential conquest.

A.I.s have also been designed to build higher-level settlements and to manage their armies better. Having higher-level buildings means that they have larger armies with more advanced units and better equipment. They provide a much greater challenge, as well as more tempting targets of conquest now. I haven't run into situations in which major factions (Carthage) dissolve into rebellions at the start of the game like I used to see in the base game.

Higher morale means battles last longer

Perhaps the best improvement that's been made by the post-release patches and the Emperor Edition is that the real-time battles are paced much better. Unit morale has been significantly tweaked so that units don't route and flee as soon as they make contact with a superior enemy force. Battles will generally take more than just a couple of minutes to complete, but they still aren't anywhere close to occupying the entire hour that the battle timer allows.

You'll actually have time to move some support units to help out an outnumbered defender before they flee, so there's also a lot more strategy involved in the individual battles. Reserve forces and cavalry flanking maneuvers have more relevance, and generals actually have time to reach front-line units in order to use their powers. You don't have to just clump all your units together in a single wall and ram them into your opponent anymore. You can even engage the enemy with a smaller force if you are stuck having to wait for reinforcements to arrive.

Total War: Rome II - bigger battles
Tactical battles are slower, making cavalry and reserves more relevant, and allowing for more strategic thinking.

Speaking of cavalry, they are actually useful now, since units are generally more responsive to movement commands. In the initial launch version, I found cavalry to be useless because once they engaged an enemy unit, it was almost impossible to disengage without the whole unit getting routed or wiped out. Basically the only thing they were useful for was chasing down enemy skirmishers or flanking artillery. Now, I actually build and use cavalry because they are useful for hit-and-run attacks against regular melee infantry. You still want to keep them away from the pointy end of spears and pikes, but that's to be expected.

I still wish the battles were slowed down a little bit more, but the pacing is a lot better than it was at release. I still rarely see battles last more than 5 minutes of actual fighting, and I still routinely have to pause the game in order to issue orders because unit movement and combat happens so fast ...


Sid Meier's Civilization

With Civilization V apparently at the end of its life cycle and unlikely to receive any more major updates or expansions, it's time to start looking to the future of the franchise: Civilization VI. Civ V was successful enough to spawn several spin-offs: Beyond Earth, Civilization Revolution 2 on mobile devices, Civilization World, and even a Civilization MMO. So it's reasonable to assume that if work hasn't already started on Civlization VI, then it will begin soon.

One of the things that I most love about Civ V is that each civ has unique powers that give them their own playstyles and flavors. The expansions (especially Brave New World) showed a lot of creativity with some of the civilizations. I hope that these design philosophies continue, and that we'll see some even more interesting gameplay variations in the new civilizations of Civilization VI.

To that end, I have a few ideas and suggestions for designs and themes for some of the common civilizations that are likely to appear in Civilization VI. I'll provide at least a unique abilility and at least two unique units / buildings / improvements, but I may also provide additional or alternative unique suggestions in case Firaxis decides to include even more variety and specialization. Since Civ VI will likely be a whole new game on a whole new engine, I can't give specific examples of the mechanics of these ideas. Instead, I'll try to focus on more broad concepts and maybe include examples based on Civ V's mechanics and features if relevant.

* NOTE: this post is a work-in-progress, and will probably be revised as I come up with additional ideas or clarifications.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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