Super Tuesday

Today’s obviously Super Tuesday in American political life, so in that spirit I felt I should “x” that “box”.  Go on, go ahead and groan at the terrible pun.  Won’t hurt my feelings.  I’ve gone back to a few different games I had originally abandoned, and found them each enjoyable in their own way.  So here’s what I’ve been playing:

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Ubisoft 2011)

I’m starting off with a game I didn’t actually abandon… Well, until I finished it, that is.  Coming from Assassin’s Creed, AC2, and AC: Brotherhood, I was absolutely thrilled to play the third and final installment in the Altair/Ezio storyline.  I was ready for free-running, stealth, hidden knives, and the occasional crossbow kill (Okay, more than occasional).  And I got all that, and more features that Ubisoft added to make this game even better… But they didn’t make it better, and ultimately I was left wanting more.

Revelations starts with Ezio as an old man entering Masyaf to find Altair’s hidden library.  He’s already the Mentor of the Assassins, but he forgoes all of that to set off on a new adventure.  He’s immediately captured and set to be executed at the start of the game, and you’re all set to hate the villain behind this, but then you turn around and immediately kill him!  That seems to be the case with each of the Templars you meet in the game; you don’t get enough time to actually develop a reason to hate them before you have to kill them, unlike Rodrigo Borgia in AC2 and Cesare Borgia in AC:B.  The story, while it ties up quite a few loose ends in the Altair/Ezio/Desmond story, isn’t terribly compelling.

But that’s not why most people play Assassin’s Creed.  They play it so they can run across rooftops, stab people, and generally be the bad-a**es they can’t be in real life.  I enjoy that too.  This time around I felt like that got lost.  Mind you, it’s still there, but it’s hidden behind an annoying Ottoman Assassin who constantly harangues you, the Mentor, who blasted through Italy like nobody’s business, as if you were a novice.  It’s hidden behind a bomb-making system that takes quite a bit of time and simply doesn’t add that much to the game.  It’s hidden behind a new territory-defense minigame that doesn’t earn you any rewards but is somehow integral to the main game.  It’s hidden behind a new tower-defense minigame that doesn’t earn you any rewards, takes away the gains you’ve worked hard to make, and yet is somehow entirely avoidable (I played one den defense other than the tutorial through my entire playthrough, and still somehow got the achievement for three).  It’s hidden behind the flash that Ubisoft tried to cram into the title to make it new and exciting.

That’s not to say the game is crap, far from it in fact.  I suppose my point is that we had gotten a far better game in AC2 and ACB than we were given in ACR.  There were minigames in both of those, too, and new features in each, but in those cases the new features served to enhance the core brilliance of the Assassin’s Creed formula.  In Revelations they overwhelm the core formula; it’s a bit like plastering a beautiful sports car with sponsor stickers, a spoiler, underlighting, hydraulics, and the rest.  Sure, each of those can be nice, but if you don’t do it perfectly it takes away from the experience.  In the end I’m sad Ezio went out on this note, but I am not so disappointed that I won’t be first in line to pick up a copy of Assassin’s Creed 3.

Final Result: 7/10

Skyrim (Bethesda 2011)

I initially put this game down because I was literally terrified of combat.  Either because of the way I built my character, or the difficulty setting, or simply never bringing Lydia with me in the first place, my first playthrough was the most excruciating bit of role-playing gaming I’ve done, and that includes two campaigns of Hackmaster.  I threw in the towel right after the reaching the Greybeards and wrote it off as a loss.

Then I came back to it a few weeks ago.  I had tried Fable III and been horrified by the cartoonish art style, I had exhausted myself on Dragon Age, and I was craving a good RPG.  So I put the disc in and started a new character.  The first thing I did differently was pick a specialization.  There’s no formal way to do this in the game, but I immediately grabbed a sword and shield and heavy armor.  No magic for me, no “cross-class” attempts to be an armor-wearing mage.  Then I remembered to take Lydia when she first appeared — now I had someone else to tank for me while I charged through dungeons.  Then I focused on smithing as my main skill, with a side of enchanting.  Now I was actually effective in combat, and even the difficult dungeons were approachable, if not exactly appealing.  Then I had a revelation.

There’s a difficulty setting.

I know, that seems like the sort of thing I should’ve noticed when I was first messing around with the game, but somehow it slipped my notice.  Not only was I playing at the third of five difficulty levels, there aren’t even any achievements tied to difficulty.  So I checked my gamer dignity and knocked it down a notch.  Suddenly I was having fun, not having to fear each and every skeever or horker and actually progressing the storyline.  And what a storyline it is!  I did the first couple of missions for the Companions and the College, but otherwise kept to the Dovahkiin quest path, and I loved the writing and adventure.  I was a little disappointed by the Shouts, since I only ended up using Unrelenting Force and Fire Breath outside of the moments where Clear Skies, Call Dragon, and Dragonrend were required, but I don’t know what I would have changed about them.

Then I went back and played the civil war out.  I ended up siding with the Stormcloaks, which left me uncomfortable but not so much I wanted to change.  This, I think, was some of Bethesda’s better writing; there simply are no good guys in this conflict.  The Stormcloaks are freedom fighters but racist and power-hungry; the Imperials are the legitimate authority and sympathetic to anyone who’s played Oblivion, but they’re oppressive and have sold out to the Thalmor; the supposedly neutral Greybeards will effectively hand the weapon of the Voice to anyone willing to learn but won’t consider themselves responsible for the damage that weapon can do and remain aloof.  It’s a great, gritty, realistic story and I loved it.

For the final review, I can understand why it received the extremely high ratings it did, but I think they were exaggerated just a tad.  The game isn’t easily accessible unless you do what I did and specialize on a lower difficulty setting, so it definitely caters to min/maxing by people familiar with the Elder Scrolls mechanics.  It’s got some brilliant writing, but that’s not entirely consistent, and it’s got great scenery, but you don’t end up seeing that much of it if you want to get anywhere.

Final Rating: 8/10

Mass Effect 2 (Bioware 2010)

I never played Mass Effect 1, but I picked up ME2 when I got my XBox, along with the Bioware titles that drew me in, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II.  I was looking forward to more great writing, engaging characters, and broad customization like I had gotten in the other two games, and I got some of that.  What I wasn’t expecting was a third-person cover-based shooter with an RPG garnish.  That’s why I ended up putting it down shortly after recruiting Garrus.

I came back to the game after completing Skyrim, and decided to approach the game on its own terms.  In that dimension it’s remarkably good, and I started to really enjoy the game.  But I kept running into comparisons with Bioware’s other efforts and realizing how much wasn’t there.  The character interaction, something I loved in Dragon Age, was flat and limited in ME2.  Even the starting squad members, Jacob and Miranda, have limited dialogue options and a single quest tied to their loyalty.  Whereas in Dragon Age you could gain or lose party loyalty by interacting with the world, in Mass Effect that really only happens when you interact with the character in question.  Two exceptions are the moments where you’re forced to choose between Tali and Legion in one case and Miranda and Jack in the other, unless you have high enough Paragon and Renegade scores.  Boosting those scores has been a problem for me, and while I could keep both Tali and Legion loyal I haven’t been able to unlock the option to keep both Miranda and Jack loyal, which poses problems for the end game.

Side quests are another thing I missed in ME2.  I can understand that they wanted to keep gameplay shorter and drive the story forward, but I would rather play a longer game with more side quests than have any incentive to play the same game through twice, especially given the lack of variation within each playthrough.  Customization… Well, the only armor I’ve liked stylistically has been the Blood Dragon Armor DLC, so that’s what I’ve been wearing the entire game.  Ultimately, I have come to regard Mass Effect 2 much less as an RPG with a side of shooter and much more of a shooter with some dialogue options.  And while that’s okay in its own right, it’s disappointing considering the great games Bioware has put out in the very recent past.

Final Rating: 7/10

Now there’s a little room for upcoming releases.  I’m going to focus on Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 and why I’m far more excited for those sequels than I was for their predecessors I just reviewed.

Mass Effect 3 (Bioware 2012)

The very first thing that excited me about the ME3 demo was the option to play as a shooter with cutscene dialogue, as an interactive story with light combat, or as a full-immersion shooter RPG.  This is exactly the sort of thing that was missing from ME2, and now you know exactly what to expect from your gameplay.  Better graphics, more customization options, and a more compelling story — the invasion of Earth by Reapers — combine with familiar mechanics and characters to vastly improve what was already a relatively good game.  I won’t be in the first wave of people to play the game, but I will definitely pick it up and I expect I’ll enjoy it more than I did ME2.

Excitement: 8.5/10

Assassin’s Creed 3 (Ubisoft 2012)

If you followed the hints in AC2, ACB, and ACR, it was pretty clear that AC3 was going to happen in America, specifically starting near upstate New York.  The trailer that dropped yesterday confirms that and puts you firmly in the American Revolution.  I have every reason to believe this is going to be an amazing game, what Revelations should have been.  I’m interested to see if they make the Templar/Assassin divide purely along British/American lines (A minor retcon, but believable) or if they confirm their earlier hints that George Washington was, in fact, a Templar.  Either way I think the story is going to be immediately compelling, especially for American audiences.

One concern other reviewers have had is how the free-running element that made the franchise great is going to be incorporated into an American frontier that was essentially outdoors, especially since the average building in 1770’s America was one story tall.  I think the trailer has answered that quite effectively, with free-running concentrated in forested areas, and makes a convincing adaptation of the traditional Assassin robes to colonial greatcoats.  Sure, the hood will stick out when surrounded by tricorn hats, but that’s been a point of disbelief that has persisted through the entire franchise without taking away from it.

I am thoroughly excited for this game to come out on October 30th.  I am furthermore entirely prepared to completely and unequivocally forgive the grievous error that was Revelations if AC3 lives up to what it’s promised so far.

Excitement: 10/10