Thursday, December 2, 2010

AC: Brotherhood & Project Legacy

Look yes I know, the whole Assassin’s Creed future-plot setup is kind of silly. The “aliens gave us the Apple of Eden” crypto-Truth bullshit is just embarrassing. The Borgia family, though… They had history. Not a codex entry, not an expository cutscene, not a hundred NPCs saying “oh look the Citadel is big and important, look how big and important it is [it is big and important]”, but actual literal history. Yeah okay you probably won’t see the PBS documentary explaining that the Borgia killed Ezio’s uncle or whatever – but that doesn’t undercut the sheer menace of your love interest being held in the Papal prison, or the hilariously overwrought bacchanalia of the collapsing church in the fifteenth century. So if the future-plot seems weak, it’s mostly in contrast to the incredibly strong feeling of historical significance you get from exploring Ezio’s memories.

The historical background also plays off AC’s other core strength contained within the titular Creed: “Nothing is true / everything is permitted”. A lot of the bad guys in the game are bad, sure – plotters, betrayers, incest…ualizers?, and, uh… hypocrites. But you’re a fucking remorseless serial murderer. The future-plot gets a little weaker here, because you don’t really witness Templars acting evil – you just get told over and over how evil they are. But the historical context gives you a lot more motivation in the past-plot – fuck yeah I want to pounce on some Crusaders from above in Jerusalem. Shit just feels right. Hell yes I want to stealthily take out corrupt Church officials at their own orgy. Dudes painted children in gold, like across their entire bodies, until the kids just up and died from the poisonous effects. Future-plot “Templar agents” are launching “a satellite” and use “cell phone radar” to track me? Sure. Whatever. Can I get back to infiltrating the Vatican so I can murder the Pope?

Yes the plot is all an elaborate conspiracy theory - but the actors have emotion, and reasons, and justifications. unlike The Collectors or The Reapers or The Sith or The Darkspawn, who are a threat because of numbers or magic plot-powers you never get to witness, the Borgia aren’t a threat to the world. they’re an annoyance. You don’t act out of some abortive sense of duty – you act out of revenge, and then convenience, and then just because the dude is a incestuous prick who went from tears to full-throated rage when his uncle cut off his funds (god, I love hearing Cesare’s voice break with anger and grief and fear as he demands money and recognition). The writing emphasizes these are all people, who have motivation, who need to react and compete against each other and not just you.  if we as gamers are starting  to push back against the idea that ludonarrative dissonance is a necessary condition of gameplay*, it’s because we’re starting to see that the player character doesn’t always have to be at the center of each and every drama. the player character can just as easily be a bit character hanging off a ledge watching this unfold. it’s no less engrossing that way, and a wonderful change of pace.**

*Not actually a part of the original ludonarrative dissonance critique, but it’s certainly been interpreted to be a necessary part of a game.

** and actually AC is a little weird if you’re talking about ludonarrative because the core of the game is actually a stated simulation via the Animus. So if you try to do something against the narrative – say, kill a civilian – the Animus says “hey, Ezio didn’t do that originally, be careful or you’ll get desync’d and have to start over”. So the entire past-plot exists in the context of reliving memories and if you deviate from that path (by dying, by failing missions, etc) there’s this very neat corrective system that says “oh that’s not how it happened”. essentially you have this additional layer of abstraction to mitigate the player’s natural impulses to fuck around with the rules of the open world against the desires of the story. Is another layer of indirection the only way to counter LND? …time will tell!


Of course, it’s a love-hate relationship with this franchise. Ubisoft, for all its brilliance in game design, still has some serious software design issues – the map is a pain in the ass when you need to see elevation clearly, there’s no way of knowing you need to turn in feathers,  and the assassin missions are more of a chore to organize than anything else (Why are missions organized by region – a useless abstraction with no consequence – when I always want to see missions organized by difficulty?).

There’s a bit of irony here, actually. I’ve seen a few complaints about the “Facebook” nature of the assassin missions. Yet the review didn’t mention there is an actual Facebook game, probably because the facebook game has terrible design. I’ll concede that gameplay mechanics in a Facebook game are historically not very rich, but the interface design is required to be top-notch in order to make success a possibility. Ubisoft’s bungling of the Facebook game is almost entirely because they seem reluctant to engage with actual software design. [For example: unbearably slow loads, not being able to differentiate between different collectables, not being able to see all the requirements a mission has before entering the mission, the hellish and nearly-impossible and undocumented process of linking your uPlay to your Facebook profile to your actual instance of AC:Brotherhood – with exception of the last, all problems that have been long solved by Zynga &c.] And so Project Legacy’s failings mirror Brotherhood’s failings. The feature list is there, but the implementation is senseless, which speaks to a to lack in playtesting/QA.

The worst part about Project Legacy is the brush with greatness. If I could actually organize the accused “facebook-style” assassination missions through Legacy instead of doling out a measly 75 exp every 4 hours, I would have spent a lot more time and care on it. As it stands, I played through a few rounds and promptly forgot about it. It’s a mediocre tie-in, but the richness of interaction is possible – we have a facebook game sending data to an Xbox game*! In near-real time! The next step is being able to play a continuous game session regardless if you’re on a computer, xbox, or (probably Windows 7) phone, where each platform uses its strengths to create a rich, living, interactive environment that you can pick up whenever you need to scratch the itch.


*This connection is through a third-party connection service, uPlay, which like EA’s 3rd party server service is a huge pain in the ass that everyone hates having to deal with (forcing users to create yet another account with yet another password is such a terrible idea). I suspect that the 3rd party service is probably a necessary condition for arbitrary data connections & persistence since xbl does not explicitly provide that service, although obviously I have no idea if this is true or not. 


a few more notes on brotherhood since I love this series obsessively: I’m holding out hope the 3rd game will take place in World War I. Great setting, and, you know – it was triggered by an assassination. I’ll take any non-American historical turmoil, though – French Revolution? The Bolsheviks Revolution? The Boxer Rebellion? All great settings that have been completely untouched by games (except for some dense historical sims).

The ending was the LEAST bullshit ending in an AC game – previously the PoE bullshit came out of nowhere for a ridiculous and unintentionally campy boss fight in the first game, and in the second game the fisticuffs with the Pope leading to space alien creation myth bullshit was just too much – the Truth video was even worse. In Brotherhood, at least dialogue in the credits made returning to the animus complete creepy in a way that nicely mirrors how freaked out I am by the bleeding effect (Which, by the way, completely justifies the entire animus future-plot setup. The first time it happened I actually freaked out and instinctually tried to fight ghost-guards).

The Cristina missions were lovely. Perfect, even. The romance was real – more real than awkwardly seducing a crewmate in Mass Effect – the tension & pathos were affecting, and I love love love that it was triggered by standing next to a very certain type of woman. I love that the explanation was that these were repressed memories. I love that they were completely straightfoward – a lot of side missions feel the need to include lots of worthless combat for no reason, but here it was clean and fast.

The Truth was a fucking copout this time. At least last time we got something. This time we got an abstract “puzzle” lair and a short, nonsensical conversation. The puzzles were worse, too – especially when it named Justice Roberts as a templar because of the Citizens United case. It’s the laziest sort of critique, and violates a key tenet of conspiracy theories – never make a falsifiable assertion.