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...

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Middle-Earth: Shadow of War - title

Dang. I was really hoping to have this out before the end of the year...

Shadow of Mordor was easily one of my favorite games of 2015, and one of my best reviewed games of that year, and I even cited it as an example of successful open world game mechanics. I've praised the game for its tightly-focused design, relatively limited scale, and the fact that it didn't waste the player's time with an excess of meaningless collectible hunts.

"The developers showed plenty of restraint in many areas of design so that they could focus on the innovative new feature that everything in the game revolves around. The design is tight and streamlined. They didn't waste the player's time with an excessively large, complicated map, or a multitude of irrelevant mini-games and side quests."
    - from my Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Yes, the original game did have some collectible hunts. It did have some filler content. It did have bullshit, game-y missions with arbitrary win/loss conditions. But those issues weren't pervasive enough to bring down the game as a whole, and the game generally flowed very smoothly. In their quest to mindlessly monetize the sequel, Shadow of War, Warner Brothers and Monolith have doubled down on both the best elements and the worst elements of Shadow of Mordor, and the result is beautiful when it works, and ugly when it doesn't.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War - defending fortress
You now recruit orc captains to defend fortresses from Sauron's army.

The biggest problem is that the game now feels like a grind. In order to get you to pay for in-game, randomized micro-transactions called "War Chests", the campaign has been needlessly padded-out. Instead of having the option to hunt down uruk captains for the utilitarian purposes of gaining intel or gathering an army of mind-controlled slaves to do your bidding, you now must recruit orc captains into your own army in order to siege and then defend castles and fortresses from Sauron's counter-invasion. In principle, this sounds like a brilliant idea! I've often criticized open world and sandbox games for not having actual threats or consequences that pressure the player into acting. In fact, requiring that the player defend and hold captured strongholds from enemy counter-attacks is exactly the sort of thing that I've proposed as a compelling way to keep the game world feeling alive, and to keep the villain actually feeling threatening and antagonistic.

The problem is that (aside from one scripted castle defense) all the castle defending is back-loaded into the final act of the game. At this point, the plot is basically over, ... [More]

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - game title

Shadow of Mordor was a game that almost sold me on the next gen consoles. I knew I was going to need a PS4 for Bloodborne, and I was very tempted to buy one early so that I could play Mordor. The central game mechanic of orc NPCs fighting amongst each other in order to become Sauron's personal favorite sounded like an interesting mechanic for organic story-telling. It was a concept that sounded like something truly deserving of the name "next gen". The biggest thing that held me back was the fact that the game was also available on last-gen consoles, so I figured it probably wasn't pushing any serious boundaries of game design.

Bat-Assassin's Creed: Arkham Middle Earth

The basic gameplay is highly derivative of Assassin's Creed and the Batman Arkham games. It ports both of these feature sets more or less as competently as those original games, including the same perks and problems. The free running feature suffers from the same lack of control that plague's Assassin's Creed, in that it's sometimes hard to predict exactly where the character will land, and he loves to climb up a wall if you run too close to it. Is it really that hard to allocate a dedicated "climb" or "jump" button?! In Mordor's defense, every button on the controller is mapped to something, so at least it has an excuse (unlike Assassin's Creed with its redundant jump button).

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - investigating dead orc
The martial culture of the orcs means that when they find a dead comrade,
they assume he was murdered by an ambitious peer, leaving the player off-the-hook.

Stealth mechanics work pretty well; although the orcs are a bit oblivious to my movements through the game world. Sometimes, I can be moving right across their field of vision within 10 feet of them, but because I'm crouched or hanging off a wall, they just don't see me. Orcs don't care much about each other. Their martial culture means that when they find a fellow orc dead, they assume that he was killed due to his own stupidity, or in a brawl / duel with another orc. This removes the need to drag and dispose of bodies while also masking the fact that orcs don't look for the player when they find a dead body. There are examples of stealth games in which enemy guards don't notice or care about dead bodies that they find, and that's always immersion-breaking. Shadow of Mordor cleverly turns what could have been an immersion-breaking limitation of the A.I. into an appropriate element of the world and narrative. As long as they don't actually see you kill their fellow orc, you can rest assured that throwing an archer off a ledge won't alert any guards who pass below to your presence.

Combat mechanics are almost identical to Arkham Asylum, except you have an ethereal bow instead of all the gadgets or grappling hook. But it also blends some elements of Assassin's Creed insta-kills into the fighting mechanics as well. Fights are much more challenging than in Assassin's Creed because you can't insta-kill enemies when you parry them. Instead, you can stun them and then perform an execution or coup de grace, but you're not impervious during this time. You have to time your coup de graces appropriately in order to avoid being hit in the middle of slitting a prone orc's throat. There are insta-kill special attacks that behave a bit more like Assassin's Creed's counter kills, but you have to build up a combo streak before they become available.

Executing a coup de grace [LEFT] on a single orc in a mob requires split-second precise timing.
Or you can perform a combat execution [RIGHT] mid-combo if you get your hit streak high enough.

Attacks are fluid, controls are responsive, timing is tight, and you can counter or dodge out of any single attack or action. This all combines to give the player a tremendous sense of control as long as you are patient and deliberate in your button-pressing. The strict timing will severely punish you for button-mashing, which makes the combat challenging and satisfying throughout the game.

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It occurs to me that there is a sad dearth of pirate and sailing games in the market. The original Sid Meier's Pirates! is almost 30 years old! And the PC remake was released all the way back in 2004. Other than that, the only pirate or sailing-themed video games that I'm aware of are mobile games.

We saw a proliferation of cowboy and western-themed games after Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption (which, in hindsight, probably isn't as good as I gave it credit for). Perhaps Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag could trigger a similar renaissance for pirate video games. And if those games are as good as Black Flag (or better), then that would be a real treat!

Hrm, this mission seems familiar...
[LEFT] A plantation raid in Assassin's Creed III; [RIGHT] another plantation raid in Black Flag.

The first hour or two after Black Flag's introductory pirate ship battle is a bit dull because it's mostly just the same old stuff that you've played in Assassin's Creed III: exploring the little town and playing a few "go here, do this" missions with an assassination or two.

Being stuck on land is usually pretty dull. In fact, some missions even seem copy-pasted from previous games. When I got to the mission in which I had to raid a sugar plantation, I couldn't help but think "Hey, didn't I already do this in III?" The only notable difference was that that the plantation raid was wrapped in a segment in which I had to pursue the plantation-owner's ship from a trade island to his plantation island.

Over the course of the game, you'll frequently be forced to step back onto land for story missions. some of the environments are a bit original, since there's some trekking through jungles and along beaches and scaling cliffs to break up the monotony of the usual parkour that the series is known for. Most of these jungle paths are closed and linear, so you won't be exploring open jungle with a machete.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - jungle mission
The jungle and beach settings provide some visual variety beyond the city parkour, but are functionally similar.

There aren't any dramatic new gameplay functionalities associated with the more rural and wild settings beyond the tree-hopping that was featured in Assassin's Creed III. So while these missions provide some visual variety, they don't add much to the actual gameplay. The biggest change is that it takes a lot of your freedom of movement away, since you have to follow more of the pre-designed trails through the levels, rather than having the freedom to create your own route.

...

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - sailing into the sunset
Black Flag sails triumphantly into the sunset as a stand-out game in an oversaturated franchise.
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Assassin's Creed III - title

I never really hopped onto the Assassin's Creed bandwagon when the first one was released in 2007. The historical setting and gameplay concepts were intriguing and I wanted to play it, but I wasn't sure if I would like it enough to warrant an outright purchase. And since Ubisoft never bothered to release a playable demo on the PlayStation Network, I never played the game.

So I missed the first two games and their various spin-offs. But when I started seeing information about the third game, and its setting during the American Revolution, my curiosity piqued. The trailers made it look as though parts of the game were played during large-scale battles, and I thought that would be really cool to play. So when I found that a friend (Huh?Mr.Box!) was willing to let me borrow his copy, I decided to give it a chance.

And boy was I disappointed!

My core complaint with Assassin's Creed (and many other games like it) is that I don't like how dumbed down the controls are, and how little actual control the user has. The run button is also the "climb" button and sometimes the "jump" button (even though there is a dedicated "jump" button). I've always held that when a single button does everything, then it really does nothing. Assassin's Creed regularly feels like I am not playing the game; a procedural function created by the developers is playing the game.

Instead of the game just doing what the player tells it to do, it has to determine which of several pre-determined context-sensitive actions the developers decided to pre-program. You might want to try to sprint through a narrow alleyway between two close buildings to chase a courrier, but if you're just a few pixels off, you end up jumping up the side of the wall and climbing to the top of the building. And then it's a pain in the ass to get back down, and the courrier is now two blocks away.

Assassin's Creed III - missing an alley way
Because I wasn't lined up perfectly, the free run forces me to climb up this building,
when all I really wanted to do was chase the courier through this alley way.

Maybe I want to jump off of a building onto a nearby tree branch in order to stay above a group of enemy Redcoats that I'm trying to stealth past. But for some reason, the game decides to make my character leap past the tree branch and right into the middle of the group of bad guys. Now my cover is blown, I'm stuck in combat, and maybe I've even failed a bonus objective or two.

These sorts of problems could be avoided if the "climb" and "jump" commands were their own buttons separate from the "run" button...

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