Gaming Doldrums: Pre-Order Pressure & Assassination Exploitation

I was on holiday for some time, and in addition to that, life got crazy (again). But I’ve spent some time catching up on important gaming news and I’m back to ask…what in the actual heck?

You know how the summer is known as a gaming Dead Zone, since there are no major releases and the post-E3 lull has gamers resembling a young child that’s experiencing a severe sugar crash. We replay old games, grind for hours on whatever multiplayer holds our fancy, or put our imagination through its paces by thinking about upcoming titles that we’re just too damned excited about.

*sigh*

I am completely used to being bored out of my skull, gaming-wise, during the summer months. What I never expected to face, though, was a world in which I could potentially be bored out of my skull, gaming-wise, throughout the entire year. I find myself in an enhanced state of “meh” when I think about the titles that are releasing towards the end of 2014 and the start of 2015. Jeez…wasn’t it just yesterday we were getting ready to launch into a new console generation? Crazy. Anyway, lost in the hub-bub of E3 was Assassin’s Creed COMET, which I personally thought meant we would have AC on the MOON, a la Wolfenstein TNO…this would have meant that Ubisoft had utterly lost it, of course.

 

Soon….

However, AC Comet is now Assassin’s Creed Rogue, or, as I like to call it, Ubisoft Open World Game #45, in which you play a Templar named Shay who is given the arduous task of taking out as many assassins as possible. Considering the title is called AC Rogue, I figure somewhere along the way, Shay is going to have an identity crisis wherein he wonders why he follows the Templar order and ends up killing his master/brothers to atone for his sins. Rogue will be released exclusively on XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 and, according to Ubisoft, will be linked to the Kenway Family adventures before the events of Black Flag AND will serve as a lead-in for the events that will occur in AC Unity, which launches for the XBox One and PS4. Say what you will about Ubisoft, but they sure aren’t afraid to hedge their bets. Stuck on previous-gen? We gotcha. Graduated to the big leagues? We gotcha. But aren’t you just exploiting the customer base at this point? I loved Assassin’s Creed right up to the release of Black Flag which, while immensely entertaining when I was on my ship, lacked that extra spice once I hopped off said ship and actually tried to have a story. That Rogue has been snuck into the line-up after a “leak” revealed its trailer and basic story elements does not surprise me; two Assassin’s Creed games in one year? Why not. Ubisoft has been looking more like Activision every year, anyway. What does it tell you that I have yet to finish Watch_Dogs, aka Watch Assassin’s Creed Far Cry of Chicago Dogs?

Perhaps what really irks me is the fact that Rogue has been cobbled together by seven…SEVEN Ubisoft studios around the world, but when asked about female playable assassins for Unity, we were served up a steaming pile of excuses, ranging from delays to the game to the ridiculous “too much work” logic trotted out by creative director Alex Amancio. You know…if you’d reallocated resources from the seven studios working on the useless title that is Rogue, perhaps you could have developed some female assassins for Unity, or at the very least some assassins that reflect the smaller populations within your consumer base. I dunno, I mean, I’m no rocket scientist, but if I want to make a quality product that begins to reflect my corporation’s line of diversity and inclusion, I’d assign additional resources to getting that done. Perhaps it’s just me. At any rate, for the first time in my life, I have no plans to get an AC game. I’ll make do with Unity, since I already planned to get an XBox One for the Master Chief Collection.

Heeee….

 

The last bit of gaming news that made me bristle was the announcement that the original movie cast would be available as pre-order DLC for Alien Isolation. Wait. What?

Yes. You can only play as Ripley and the gang if you pre-order the title. Additionally, you only get access to both “special missions” when you pre-order at GameStop. If you decide not to pre-order because, let’s face it, there are TWO Assassin’s Creed titles coming out this year and you’ve gotta save up so you can do some assassinatin’, then you have to wait until the DLC is offered up as a separate paid download. WHAT?

If a developer wants to endear people to their titles, they should cater to the fan base. I am a huge Alien fan. I am a massive Sigourney Weaver fan. Those are not entities that are able to be logically separated when speaking about a game based on the movie that encompasses both. How do you have an Alien game without Ripley? I dunno. How do you have a Mario game without Mario? What’s a hedgehog if he’s not Sonic? I dunno. These are the questions that haunt me as we continue to spiral into this nickle ‘n dime world where, surprisingly, EA is still the largest offender. I’ve hardly seen any official backlash to the Alien Isolation pre-order pressure, save for an excellent video from Escapist’s Jim Sterling. There are the usual comments under posts discussing the title on IGN etc, but for the most part, Jim and GamingAnarchist are the only two I’ve really seen go nuts about it. Go check that rant out and you’ll see why you should be more pissed off about this game. I am exhausted with the level of lip-service we keep being served by developers and then while waiting for release day, those lips are replaced by giant pythons that wrap around us and try to squeeze every possible cent for every possible bit of content that SHOULD just be part of the actual title at launch. Are we going to be a happy player base when we’re forced to hop from retailer to digital retailer to wherever to get ALL the content that really makes our game? What is the European solution for those who want to play Alien Isolation’s DLC and can only get one Ripley mission because well, we don’t have GameStop on this side of the pond? Did anyone at SEGA have a meeting before they made this decision? Again. These are the questions that haunt me.

Are you planning to throw your chips in and get Alien Isolation or Assassin’s Creed Rogue? Sound off.

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Event: First Look 2013 Review

Every year in Utrecht, The Netherlands, the First Look Event is held at the Jaarbeurs, a gigantic event space that plays host to thousands of gaming and technology fans. It gives attendees the opportunity to view and play upcoming titles before their release dates, as well as get their paws all over the latest in tech offerings from the likes of Asus, Logitech, NVIDIA and more. Last year, Ubisoft reigned supreme with their Assassin’s Creed III preview, the cosplay alone making it worth waiting in line for entry to the venue. The Nintendo WiiU also made its grand appearance at First Look 2012, with a playable preview of ZombiU. Nothing , however, could compare to the almost palpable excitement for today’s First Look outing. In a year in which two top-tier consoles prepare to duke it out for your hard-earned money, who would know which to touch first at First Look 2013?

I arrived at the venue with my band of merry men (and women) at 9:45 AM. As a regular ticket holder, I was only allowed actual entry at 12 PM, but I had learned my lesson from the previous year and decided to line up super early. This was by far the best strategy, as it ensured that we were among the first 10 regular ticket holders to enter (this, of course, after the 800+ VIP ticket holders). Our plan of action was:

– Bathrooms

– Bottled water

– XBox One booth

The Green Monster.

The Green Monster.

Thankfully, we were only in line for an hour and a half. Upon entering the green box, I saw that Microsoft had opted for quite a few XBox Ones, along with the controller and a gaming headset for each player. This was a nice touch, as it provided some blocking for the cacophony of sound happening outside and immersed the player in the game before them. Interestingly enough, one of the XBox guys mentioned that they (the Microsoft team in The Netherlands) were pretty frustrated at the communication debacle that their US counterparts set off with the announcement in April, and subsequent statements in the press and at E3. HOW ABOUT THAT EH? Anyway. I was wonderfully surprised to find that Microsoft had thrown four games into the preview pile for today’s event: Killer Instinct, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3 and Forza 5. Obviously, I am just one person, and this is why I travelled with 6 companions. We decided while on line what games we would each take. After convincing my friends to quickly text me their reactions right after playing their games, I gathered the following impressions:

1. Dead Rising 3: My sister adores the Dead Rising series, so naturally I sent her to play this demo. Her feelings afterwards were a potent mix of rabid excitement and careful awe. As she puts it, “Your shoe is literally a weapon.”She felt that the overall controls were trigger-happy, as in, hyper-sensitive, but that could have been a setting placed by one of the XBox One personnel. But then, she was probably too busy having fun mowing over zombies with a tractor to care much about that. As for graphics, she had nothing but good things to say.

2. Killer Instinct: Two of my friends played the demo version of this highly anticipated title. In addition to their impressions, I got the chance to speak to Ryan Hart about it, and he relayed that he had been impressed and that the potential was all there for this to be an attention-grabbing title. My two pals were so deep into their game, they had to be told twice that the demo time for our group was over and that they had to leave the area. They admitted that there was some lag during the game, but took into consideration that this was a demo version. One said that it reminded him of the classic Killer Instinct, so much so that within a few minutes, he was pulling off ultra combos just like in the old days (we’re not that old). Character select screen, like it was at E3, had an arcade feel to it, but the actual fight boasted seriously beautiful graphics, particularly on Sabre Wolf.

3. Forza 5: I sent my racing game lover to tackle this title (not really; he told me he was going no matter what). He thoroughly enjoyed the game’s admittedly gorgeous design, and he also raved about the controller’s responsiveness and how it seemed to respond to every instance in the game that called for any action. For example, when forced to hit the brakes in-game, the responsible trigger reacted much like a car would once the ABS kicked in for the driver. More on his overall impression at the end of this post.

4. Ryse: Son of Rome: As you may have sorted out, I played this demo myself. It offered a Gladiator-like play-through in which you partner up with either a friend or the AI and then proceed to fight your way through a series of challenges. Visually, Ryse is incredibly pleasing, with extraordinary detail in the environments, armour and weaponry. Game play, however, was a bit confusing to get a handle on at first, considering there was no explanation of controls at the beginning of the demo. However, once I figured out the two-button combination for blocking and countering, combat flowed smoothly and was bloody and brutal. And yet, it was still the usual medieval slash ‘n stab to me; this might be an unfair impression, considering it was just a demo of a gladiator setting, but the general thought was that the story should serve to carry the game through its business-as-usual combat. The AI companion: I can’t even with the world right now. I did truly enjoy the controller; it was a smooth design and was tons more comfortable than the 360’s. Good job, Microsoft.

Once we ended off at the XBox One booth, we took a walk around and enjoyed some of the Ubisoft’s booth Just Dance action, as well as the FIFA 14 station. Somehow we ended up stepping into a demonstration for Raven’s Cry, an upcoming title from Top Ware (the studio behind Two Worlds II) and Reality Pump, I guess? I know that TW handed the title to Reality Pump, but the branding all over this booth belonged to them. Inside was a build of the game dated October 2nd, 2013, loaded onto a PC and played by one of their booth attendants. While the game has some decent graphics, the movement of the main character was slightly off. He seemed to be fighting with himself on whether to do an Ezio-like swagger or a Connor-like stride. Either way, buddy was trying to pull off an Assassin’s Creed gait, even while speed-walking through water like he was Christ himself. Seriously, the man was practically walking on the surface and it was the first of three main complaints that we had about this demo. The second, and most important, would be the combat system. It was incredibly rudimentary and was perhaps the most telling factor behind their decision to transfer the project to Reality Pump’s control. Two combat situations were played on screen, both of which resembled little more than a fencing lesson. And finally, the naval component needs some serious work to even light a candle to hold beside Assassin’s Creed IV. I do hope they get this title off the ground now that Reality Pump’s taken the wheel, because it does look promising and you can never have enough pirate games.

Or...Not So Much?

Or…Not So Much?

After some time, we decided to brave the PlayStation 4 line, which at one point curved two ways across the walkway. With the day winding down, the line moved swiftly and within a few moments we were inside the PS4 booth. This is where you see that, regardless of their earlier communication missteps, Microsoft sometimes does a better job at picking themselves up and marketing their product right. I’m not sure if Sony is so confident in their self-assured superiority that they don’t think they need to put on a good show at these events, but they did not impress me nor any of my friends. While I didn’t have the chance to snap images in the Microsoft booth (you know, because I was playing), I managed to get these two of the PlayStation 4:

The Console.

The Console.

As you can see, the console itself is neat and slim, which I do appreciate. Not particularly flashy or snazzy, but it works.

The Controller.

The Controller.

I have never been a fan of PlayStation controllers, so it would be unfair of me to comment. However, my friend (whose hand you see) and some others with us didn’t particularly think it was as revolutionary as Sony thinks it is. The general verdict within my Magnificent Seven was that if today had been a competition, the XBox One would have won (heh). We’re not fan-boys or fan-girls; we just love games. I fear that the PS4 might suffer from the same launch issues that its predecessor did, but I could be wrong. I previewed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in my play-time with the PS4, and the game looked as beautiful there as it might have on the XBox One. This makes all the ridiculous name-calling and posturing on message boards even more useless, but I know that’s what the companies love. Stir the pot, thicken the stew or whatever? I don’t know.

I ended my day with a visit to the booth I’d been waiting on since the start of the day: Warner Bros’, where I got to have some fun with Batman: Arkham Origins.  I was not allowed to take pictures of the booth itself, so here, have this instead:

He's not the hero First Look deserves, but he's the hero it needs...or something.

He’s not the hero First Look deserves, but he’s the hero it needs…or something.

Running on a PlayStation 3, Arkham Origins was as beautiful as they’ve promised it would be. You were only given one mission to complete, but since there was no timer, you had the opportunity to swoop around the city and beat up thugs. The combat system you’ve come to know and love is still there, and it flows even smoother than it did in Arkham City (is that even possible?). I am most anxious to see how Troy Baker (Joker) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman) will hold up to their predecessors (the incomparable Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy). Baker has such a distinct timbre (most recently, as Bioshock Infinite‘s Booker DeWitt and Joel from The Last of Us) that it will be odd to hear him in insane-mode as The Joker. Smith is most notable as Ezio Auditore da Firenze of Assassin’s Creed II (and all subsequent sequels, aside from III) fame, and I’m interested to see how he handles Bruce Wayne

Fun Fact: Troy Baker voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne in LEGO Batman: DC Superheroes Unite.

Also available at the Warner Bros booth was Dying Light, a zombie game that in all actuality looks and plays like a Dead Island clone with a dash of Mirror’s Edge sprinkled on top, except with an incredibly clunkier combat system. I am not sure if this game should have been first-person; it made it feel awkward and enhanced the unrefined combat mechanics. Zombie game fanatics will enjoy it, but for now, it’s not on my Must Buy list.

Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve played both systems, I can honestly say that the hoopla surrounding their specs and which is better than the other is almost a moot point. Both ran at the same speed when I played, with the PS4 doing a slightly better job at handling the heavy weight that is Assassin’s Creed IV, but I encountered a tiny lag with both consoles, so it’s not as if either one was a perfect smooth ride. Black Flag on the PS4 even seemed choppy at some points, but then, that could have been the monitor they had me playing on. This is where most casual gamers find reason to complain: the graphics. And you know what? I reckon that both consoles have more or less the same to offer in that department. More and more it seems that the display you opt to use for your experience will be the deciding factor in the image you are faced with at play-time. For example…outside the XBox One booth, they had a stream of Forza 5 on an LG 60-inch 4K television which was, in a word, amazing. Inside, we played on LED SMART TVs, which didn’t affect the beauty of the games that drastically, but you could see the obvious difference. I’ve always told people that in the end, if you have a crappy display device, what you see will be crappy. HD doesn’t quite work unless your display is, well, HD.

The Forza fan who accompanied me on Sunday had the following to say about his experience, and I agree with him on every point:

After a few minutes of playing both the XBox One and the PS4, it’s still a difficult choice for me to make a conclusion as to which is better. Theoretically, on paper, the PS4 has the advantage. They both have equal-level graphic cards, both are AMD 7000 HD. However, the XBox one uses 8 GB DDR RAM as the processor with a 32 MB eSRAM, which are current generation and for future game development I’m a bit skeptical if the XBox One launch version will remain a strong fighter in the long run. Of course, they might launch new versions in the future, as both companies did this generation. The PS4 has the same graphics card, but their processor is 8GB GDDR5 RAM so…theoretically, the PS4 wins as a gaming system that is geared towards new game development. When it comes to the gaming experience….this was an entirely different story. The exclusive titles for the XBox One dominates PS4 left, right, and centre. The XBox controller feedback was amazing; I didn’t get the same rush or effect when playing on the PS4. This is where it becomes difficult to choose. I’m trying to keep an open mind and not be brand loyal; the facts and theory tell me to go for the PS4, but the feel and exclusivity of games, along with the experience, has me leaning towards the XBox One.

After First Look, it honestly felt as though we were heading to a similar launch scenario as we had with the PlayStation 3: a short catalogue of launch titles, whereas the XBox One has the advantage of, among others, Killer Instinct. On the train ride back, we discussed the fact that as the years tick by, the number of PlayStation exclusives have slowly dwindled; even Metal Gear Solid is no longer safe. For all the marketing push of the PS4 being more developer friendly than the XBox One, why haven’t they landed the prime real estate titles and held onto historically PlayStation exclusives? It’s something to think about, particularly if you, like me, are exhausted with both companies’ PR machines churning out one silly snarky article after another. Personally, I would love to own both systems; however, if I look at what I play and what I plan to play in the future, then an XBox One it should be…just not right away, because I’m not the launch-day-purchase kind of gamer.

Whew! What a post, eh? I hope you enjoyed this run-through of First Look 2013, and I hope it’s at least given you a clear view of where both consoles stand, as we await their release this year. I sure enjoyed attending it, and I’m looking forward to next year. If you attended and have your own thoughts, please feel free to share them. Until then, peace!

Assassin’s Creed 3: Ubisoft Grows Up

I’ve not yet finished AC 3, and I have seen glimpses of reviews regarding the ending. Some players were unsatisfied, some indifferent and others think it rocked. This post, obviously, won’t reveal anything about the ending but for those who haven’t yet played the game, it might contain some bits about the story that some would consider spoilers. So, reader beware and all that good stuff.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

So with that out of the way, can I just say that I am impressed with Assassin’s Creed 3? I’m aware that some elements of the game are reminiscent of other titles (Red Dead Redemption‘s hunting metagame, for one) but in this day and age, there’s always something borrowed, like weird marriages between different mediums (games and movies). I’m not here to rehash all of that, because it’s already been done by the Big Dogs, aka IGN, Machinima etc. I’m more impressed with Ubisoft’s handling of two incredibly sensitive historical topics that have not often been touched on by developers, for the simple fact that getting it wrong would set off a frenzy of bad publicity.

The depiction of Native Americans and the African slave trade in video games has never really gone well, which is due to a combination of factors, not least of which is an overall lack of respect for the portrayal of minorities in interactive entertainment (women and LGBT people included). Haven’t we always been the white male protagonist, gunning down the Islamic extremists, African warlords and Native American troublemakers (Red Dead Redemption)? I’d read other blog posts regarding the character you play in AC3 prior to it’s release, and most authors regarded it with a sort of careful optimism. After all, just saying it was going to be an awesome game wouldn’t suffice; since its first installment, Assassin’s Creed has probed deep into underlying societal issues that have mostly been associated with religion. From Al Mualim’s misguided zealotry in AC1 to the final boss in AC2, Ubisoft’s never been afraid to make you ask the question “Who exactly was the bad guy in this historical sequence?” It’s no secret that organised religion has had a helping hand in some of history’s worst periods of war, among other atrocities. But that’s a discussion for another blog.

Questionable guy.

Questionable guy.

AC3 goes off the beaten path a bit in the sense that Connor’s not really doing battle for any particular organised religious right, but it sails into all-new territory just by having Connor as its main character and by touching briefly on the African slave trade. There’s no sense of either the rebels or the British being the clear good or bad guy, since after all, we know how this story turns out. We can’t change history, but games that pull from specific periods tickle your brain into looking at a situation from a different angle, provided it’s done right of course. AC3 gets it so right, particularly when you start the mission with your Templar father, Haytham, discovering a missive from George Washington to his troops, ordering the destruction of Connor’s village…his second one thus far, considering his first was razed to the ground. Up until this point in the game, you (as Connor) have been helping Washington and the other rebels to further their cause, believing in your heart of hearts that the Templars are backing the British. It’s incredibly hard to convey the true physical reaction involved with the discovery of a betrayal, but Ubisoft manages to make Connor look both tortured and near-homicidal all at once. On his way to foil the delivery of this order, Connor discovers that his village has also gone crazy and is preparing a stealth-attack of their own. His conflicted emotions are evident when he’s forced to end his friend and fellow villager.

Did Washington himself order the destruction of Native American villages? Ubisoft wants to bring you to the point where you say “It doesn’t matter who gave the order, just that the order was given.” That’s why these games are brilliant. You’re forced to admit to the idea that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. The sheer boatload of information that the game overloads you with helps you ask the question of “what way do you turn and which devil do you trust when your back is against the wall and nothing makes sense anymore?” And then you’re left to answer it, knowing that irregardless of your actions in this historically-inspired work of fiction, it’s all already happened. The beauty of it is that now, you can ask questions you never had before. To me, that’s when a work of art has done its job.

So well done, Ubisoft. Well done.

Replay Values: Assassin’s Creed

Hope everyone had a happy Christmas!

I had a pretty decent gaming haul: Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution. I’ve no idea when I’m going to find the time to play through these titles, but I’m happy to have received them nonetheless. But that’s not what this post is about! No, it’s about something that occurred to me after reading a post in an XBox gaming group I’m a member of on Google+. Someone asked if anyone could recommend some older games that he could get and start playing, while saving up for the abundant selection of recent and upcoming releases on XBox 360. I thought that was pretty cool and thus, Replay Values was born in my overactive brain, a blog series about picking up old games and hugging them like the cousin you haven’t seen in ten years, and then either recalling your love for them or realizing that you still haven’t forgiven them for stepping on and subsequently breaking your collector’s edition Final Fantasy figurine. Ahem.

I love replaying older games; it takes a lot for me to sell a game that I’ve played already, especially if I get all attached to the characters (like I did with the Mass Effect series). One such game for me was Assassin’s Creed. I loved Altair, from his annoyingly cocky swagger to his cool outfit. I mean, come on. Look at this guy.

Bad-assery. A word invented for him.

When I moved to The Netherlands, I had to get rid of all my games, since they would not be region compatible with the new XBox I was buying here in the land of everlasting rain. So I was really happy to get my hands on a copy of the original Assassin’s Creed game last month, and I set about reliving all my Altair memories. I even downloaded map copies to find all those dog-gone flags…you remember…the two billion you had to find, scattered randomly throughout each city. I figured since I was not achievement hunting or playing it for the first time, I could have a lazy play-through. And man…

The game is so much slower and less entertaining than I remembered. All I’ve been doing since loading a new game is comparing it to Assassin’s Creed 2. This is both good and bad. Bad in the sense that it’s incredibly distracting and my Altair has died more often this time around than the first. Good in the sense that it’s wonderful to see, just by playing an older game, just how much Ubisoft has grown and matured as a developer and publisher. When I first saw the renderings of ancient Acre and Jerusalem in Assassin’s Creed, I was impressed. Seeing them again, particularly after the spectacular representations of Venice in AC-II, was not as overwhelming. But this is, in my opinion, what ‘Replay Values’ is all about. Playing an older game, particularly if it’s from a developer you run into often, should be all about seeing them grow and get better with age, like a fine wine.

By getting better I mean on a whole, and not just on one level, such as graphics or gameplay mechanics. Repeating a play-through of AC-I has made me appreciate Ubisoft’s personal and professional growth in AC-II. From what I’ve played of AC-III so far, I’d say they’ve kept going in that same vein. This doesn’t always happen though. I’ve played games that had me wondering what the developer was smoking, and in their second trot around the paddock, they make the same mistakes and seem to have learned nothing about listening to constructive feedback (note how I said, constructive) and learning from the replay value of their earlier attempts.

I hope this first edition of Replay Values was enjoyable! I love comments. Some might say, I’m a comment-digger. That may be so, but feedback is what helps us all get better in the end, wouldn’t you say? So go on…write something…you know you want to. And if you have any old games you think I should play and then see if I want to A) hug the developer or B) beat them with a copy of their own game, then post it and I’ll get my hands on a copy and have at it.

Until next time.