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!

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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. 

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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.

6 comments:

  1. A lot of things about that game reduced me to a sailor-mouthed termagant. Targeting an enemy in some missions was an effort in futility. Cut scenes would change the weapon you had equipped without telling you. Certain missions denied you access to parachutes without telling you. Horses were incapable of riding across a one-foot drop. In fact, most missions involving horse-riding (whistling for a horse that ran past you AND KEPT GOING even when you pursued, jumping off a horse to a beam above, dismounting from a horse without triggering a hostile take-down of a civilian) were hair-pullingly frustrating. Some missions had to be restarted because NPCs didn't spawn or bugged out. The camera was always working against you.

    As for "inventive" ways to reload after failing in some way, such as dying or not saving an ally, Prince of Persia did this well by pretending it was a story being re-told. Any mistakes were fixed by the prince muttering, "No, no. That's not how it happened."

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  2. yeah i have a nasty habit of sometimes making my point through hypertext links instead of in-line with what I'm saying - I make the sands of time connection explicitly but only through a hyperlink linking the "that's not how it happened" footnote to a bing search for that phrase + "sands of time". i'd break that habit but I'm in love with metatext just as I am in love with not always capitalizing things.

    Some of the complaints we have around AC are around shit that's been around forever - the reviews of the first game talk about the inconsistent platforming controls, terrible camera angles, nonsensical targetting. but most of my complaints are around new elements that have been grafted onto the engine. It's those things that really seem the wonkiest - the horse stuff is a perfect example (jumping off a horse once sent me flying into the sky - infinitely!) as are the parachutes (I regularly would log in and out to find the 15 parachutes I just purchased were now, inexplicably, gone. I learned my lesson after trying to jump off a building and finding I had 0 parachutes). In a sense I am more forgiving of the wonky platforming and terrible camera angles just *because* it's been that way since day 1 (although I agree they are a hilariously high barrier to entry/enjoyment - but hey, as far as I know, there might be a significant technical challenge there, which is why it's still around after years of very specific complaints). the new stuff acting buggy is the most telling symptom of a game adding lots of significant new features in just a year (not a lot of time to add brand-new features and test them thoroughly)

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  3. quick hit:

    another strength of filtering the player from Ezio through the animus: ezio's decisions are a foregone conclusion. the player doesn't *have* to agree with the decision for it to go forward (unlike RPGs which frequently resort to a "will thou rescue the princess / but thou must!" loop) - so it's up to the writing to justify ezio's decisions so they make sense through cutscenes revealing motivations etc.

    contrast this to the final decision the player makes as Desmond - which is very much a "but thou must!" moment.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ButThouMust

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  4. I don't see why people are saying the aliens part of the future plot is the most ridiculous thing they're ever heard...it is almost exactly like Christianity except it was an entire race as opposed to one creator, and the Pieces of Eden are their technologies that are advanced far beyond human technologies so they seem like magic, but to them would have likely been commonplace things.

    The motivations in the future plot are the same as in the past plot, the templars do terrible things and manipulate people. If it didn't change from 1100 something in Altair's time to the late 1400's and early 1500's in Ezio's time why would it change from Ezio's time to the present? They're trying to use their piece of Eden to control people and putting it up in a satellite would boost it's range.

    I can agree with the decisions and the "but thou must!" concept, but Assassins Creed isn't a choose your own adventure story, it is "This is what happened, this is what we're trying to learn from it." so in my eyes that argument is completely and utterly out of place, almost like trying to knock The Ocarina of Time for not giving you the option to spare Ganon from being sealed away.

    As for the platforming...it is awkward at first but once I got used to it it flows very well and I rarely have problems with it...why is everyone complaining?

    As for the other glitches, every game has glitches. I've seen a few minor glitches and a few little targeting problems, but considering how rare they happen you can't really knock the game for them.

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  5. For me the alien stuff isn't the most ridiculous stuff I've ever heard, it's just kinda slapped on at the last second. In contrast to the other "unrealistic" parts of the story, the Animus and the Bleeding Effect, it just gets mentioned once or twice and never really explored. But the Animus, as a plot device, is very well explored - from the production of it (funded by secret Templar efforts and jealously guarded) to the hijacking of it by the Assassins, to the Templars using it en masse as a training device for its members (I love that the multiplayer is canon). And the bleeding effect is used as a bizarre cliffhanger at the end of the first game, but the next 2 games continue to do a great job of developing it (hallucinations, Lucy's concern for Desmond's mental state, Desmond's determination to keep going anyway, subject 16's insanity). In contrast all of the alien stuff is 11th-hour cryptic exposition stuff that never gets explored or explained at all. The cryptic conspiracy plot inserts itself really successfully into the game, especiallly through the Truth puzzles (mostly - I really didn't like the ones in Brotherhood as much), but the alien stuff is consistently dumped into your lap at the end of the game and never resolved, not even the big questions like "No one noticed the massive alien compounds beneath the Vatican and Colosseum?". the point isn't that the question is easy to answer ("stealth self-contained power units shielded from detection with mind control rays and a Someone Else's Problem field around it"), it's that the game doesn't spend the time to explore these questions itself. sure, there's still the 3rd game, but after 3 straight games ending with mystical unexplained bullshit, i would have preferred to at least acknowledge some of these questions by now. it's possible the payoff will change my mind about the alien plot, but right now i'm pretty unfulfilled and apathetic about it.

    I think one solution would be to have Minerva do a data-dump into Ezio's mind that resolves itself as Animus data, so Desmond's animus session gets hijacked and he can learn more about the aliens - maybe even AS an alien, or at least Adam. That would be a great way to get the player involved - you don't have to give EVERYTHING away, but it would be much better than giving NOTHING away. And you could also use the chance to talk about what the PoE and Apple of Eden actually do, and how they work, instead of the kind of bizarre wild abuse of power you end up with in the last few Ezio memories with no acknowledgement of how over-the-top it is.

    The thing about the future plot is that you meet exactly 1 Templar, the doctor who kidnaps you. The rest of it is all second hand information from Lucy and Sean. In the past plot, you see the Templars. You feel the impact of their actions. You learn their names and recieve their deathbed confessions (an aspect I've always loved). In the future, it's just a line of text - The Templars have cell phone tracking! In the past, it's personal - the Templars hung your family in the town square.

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  6. I see what they were going for in the final thing, and I'm not saying it was --wrong--. It's just they shifted the metaphor of control. Previously in the game, you were Desmond, full stop. He did the exact actions you told him to, but you didn't focus on that too much because 90% of the time you were Desmond played as Ezio/Altair - where you have the Pupeeteer thing, and the Animus to guide you back on the path when "that's not how it happened". And then, in the last minute of Brotherhood, it switches from "You are Desmond" to "You are controlling Desmond to make him do something he really doesn't want to do" - inverted the layer of abstraction the player is familiar with. Again, it's not good or bad - it's just very jarring in a game that normally does a great job with the whole ludonarrative dissonance kind of thing.


    My biggest problem with the platforming is that you will be perched on a ledge, and you will press a direction and hit jump, and you will sometimes jump at a complete right angle to where you wanted to go, falling off the ledge and killing yourself. Or climbing and pushing a direction and watching Ezio completely refuse to go in that direction, then pressing another direction and watching him go exactly where you were trying to direct him before. Is it an inevitable consequence of a free-form control system? Maybe. Could you do some design work to make sure it didn't happen as frequently? Almost certainly (one idea: use eagle vision a bit more to show where jumps are going & verify you have them lined up by highlighting - this would be very useful in the combat-free exploration dungeons.also maybe use eagle vision to highlight climbable paths - although that might hurt the puzzling aspect of it a bit). Same for bugs - yeah yeah bugs are inevitable, but I hit more than one bug that made me restart a mission, and I've suffered more than a few hard crashes, and even the minor bugs like parachutes disappearing reproduced pretty consistently. I don't think I "knocked" the game for them, as much as pointed out that this is what happens when you try and build something in a year - there just isn't enough "bake time" to find bugs and get them fixed.


    ANYWAY thanks for reading & for the comments, i do appreciate some good ol-fashioned disagreement :) and sorry about the dual-comments blogger's commenting system is A PIECE OF SHIT

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