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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The Evil Within 2 - title

Okay, I said I would give up on Shinji Mikami after the first Evil Within game, but here I am giving that IP a second chance. I had heard that the expansions for Evil Within were actually pretty good, and that they even made the base game better by filling in some of the narrative gaps. But I was so furious with the base game that I sure as hell was not going to shell out more money for DLCs. If they were that integral to the core game, then they should have been included with the core game. Now that my furor over the original has faded a bit, I was hearing that the sequel is also much better than the original game and leans more heavily in the horror camp than the action shooter camp. I was dismissive of the game's announcement, and I was skeptical of the claims that the sequel was actually good, so I picked up a [relatively] cheap used copy off eBay so that I could give it a chance over the Halloween week without necessarily giving any more money to Bethesda.

The Evil Within 2 - Kidman
I feel like I missed something...
Maybe I should've played the DLC?

Besides, Shinji Mikami isn't the director this time around. Instead the sequel is directed by John Johanas, who was the director of the [supposedly] good DLC expansion packs. The first game actually did have some good ideas and set pieces within, so maybe a different directorial approach could bring those ideas out to their full potential?

A more focused package

To Johanas' credit, the game, as a whole, definitely has a more "unified" presentation. The first game felt very scattershot with regard to how it wanted the player to play. It's early chapters (which were also the most enjoyable parts of the game) were focused mostly on stealth, with a few pursuit and escape moments thrown in. It was slow, somewhat atmospheric, and built incredible tension. But those mechanics were quickly dropped in favor of shooting gallery set pieces, constant scripted ambushes, set piece boss encounters, and frantic, funhouse-ish trap / puzzle rooms. The sequel, thankfully, is much more focused. I didn't feel like I was wasting my resources by putting points into Sebastian's stealth skills (a skill tree that was completely absent from the previous game), as you can actually continue to use them over the course of the entire game. Sure, there's still scripted ambushes and puzzle rooms, but the focus is much more firmly planted in sneaking around, exploring the environments, and generally avoiding detection.

Unfortunately, there's still a bit too much of a focus on frenzied action. It detracts significantly from any sort of horror or tension that the game might be trying to build up. The autosaves are fairly generous (even though there are also manual save points in each of the game's safe houses), so enemies come in hordes, hit very hard, and deaths are going to happen. Chapter 3 basically completely desensitized me to death and put me in the habit of just standing up and letting the monsters kill me if I ever screwed up the stealth.

The Evil Within 2 - learning curve
The early combat encounters are not gentle, as they put you up against hordes of enemies.

There's a greater focus on open-ended exploration this time around, and Chapter 3 is the first open map that the player is free to explore. There's basically two main paths through it: the hard one and the easy one. The easy path is basically a straight line due north from where you start, but the game throws some curveball objectives at you that basically encourage you to try the other paths that end up being much harder. You're told about weapon caches and NPCs that you're supposed to try to save. One such weapon is the crossbow, which is actually a pretty necessary tool (because, you know, every game has to have a crossbow). It's right off to the side of where you start, but picking it up can easily lead you down a much harder path to your actual mission objective...

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Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain

Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.

I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.

I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.

Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.

Table of Contents

After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.

Metal Gear Solid V - three days to rescue Miller
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...

At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!

This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.

... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.

Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of...

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The Evil Within - game title

I had some really high hopes for The Evil Within. It looked like Shinji Mikami was trying to bridge a gap between the survival horror trappings of the original Resident Evil and the more action-oriented shooter gameplay style of Resident Evil 4. The former was a slower-paced game that emphasized open-ended exploration, puzzle-solving, and resource management in a horror setting. The latter game dropped most of its horror ambitions in favor of totally campy action shooter schlock. Early trailers for Evil Within looked it would hit a good balance between the two styles.

I didn't jump right on this game at release because I saw some mediocre reviews and heard that it failed to deliver on its promises. After booting up the game, waiting for an hour-and-a-half for the 4.7 GB update file to install (what did this update do? Tack on a whole new game?!), navigating the slick title menu, and then proceeding through the first few chapters, I verified that the game does indeed fail considerably as a horror game.

But it is worth noting that The Evil Within (unlike Resident Evil 4 and Shadows of the Damned) does seem to be making a legitimate attempt at being a horror game, rather than just an action shooter with zombies. It just doesn't really succeed at this goal.

Early levels in particular are full of exceptional lighting and ambient effects that really help to build an ominous atmosphere. The addition of stealth mechanics does put a greater emphasis on avoiding direct conflict and encouraging a more cautious approach (compared to RE4's guns-a-blazing attitude).

I've heard a lot of complaints that this game's story doesn't make sense and is stupid. I think most of these people didn't finish the game (or at least get to the point around chapter 10 where the story is explained). The story makes sense. The problem is that the game is very disjoint and never really builds on these foundations.

The game's narrative causes the character to jump (seemingly at random) from place to place - even within a single chapter. Each new place quickly starts to feel like a narrow-scope set-piece for an action scene rather than any kind of terrifying world. The game and individual chapters lack narrative cohesion and unifying design. There's very little opportunity for the game to allow open exploration or atmosphere-building, since the whole game feels like a collection of randomly-thrown-together set pieces and battle puzzles. So even though the overall story makes sense (in retrospect), the individual scene and level-progression doesn't.

The Evil Within - reality warping
Reality is being warped, resulting in some trippy effects, but a very disjoint sense of progression.

The designers seem to be trying to mimic the Otherworld of Silent Hill, but the transition is so jarring, and the places feel so completely unrelated to one another, that it just doesn't work. You get through a pain in the ass, trap-infested maze while dodging monsters, only to be teleported to another maze area when you reach the exit! "OK, we're done with this area, let's just go to some other random challenge room." There's no sense of ever achieving anything because you're rarely ever allowed to actually go to the places that you are trying so hard to get to. And once that sense of futility sets in, any fear starts to dissipate. You're no longer concerned with getting out or saving yourself or even progressing the story because you realize that you can't achieve anything without the game giving it to you.

It's a real shame too, because some of these reality-warping mind tricks might be very effective if they were organically integrated into the flow of the game. I especially liked one bit in which a character falls down a bottomless pit, only to have the whole world re-orient itself so that the walls become the floor. So instead of falling to his death, he harmlessly rolls to a stop. Unfortunately, these effects lack subtly and feel random...

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Friday, June 13, 2014 04:45 AM

Is AAA survival horror coming back?

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan

As any reader of this blog can probably tell, I consider myself a fan of old-school survival horror. There haven't been too many big-name survival horror releases lately, and the few I've played haven't been particularly good. Indie developers have done a decent job of scratching the survival horror itch, but there's only so far that indie games can go. It would be nice to see AAA developers and publishers regain some faith in more traditional survival horror gameplay and experiment with the genre on the newer generations of consoles and PCs. It looks like that might finally be happening, as there are several survival horror titles that I am eagerly anticipating!

Among the Sleep, The Forest, and Dreadout have already been released on Steam, but I have not played them yet. But these are relatively minor titles. The two big-name games that I'm looking forward to are The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation.

This game is under the creative leadership of Shinji Mikami, the original creator of the Resident Evil series. Despite my well-established passion for the Silent Hill series, I'm also a strong fan and defender of the classic Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 4, however, was not my cup of tea. Despite being a well-designed action game, I harbor a deep resentment towards it for single-handedly killing the survival horror genre and shifting all action games towards third-person shooter gameplay. But that's a discussion for another time...

The Evil Within looks to be a return to more traditional survival horror styles...

Click here to read more of my impressions about The Evil Within.

I am cautiously optimistic. This game looks much more promising than Colonial Marines in both concept and execution. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that any game has been based on the first movie in this franchise...

Click here to read more of my impressions about Alien: Isolation.

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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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