Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

VGJ and Writing: Assassin’s Creed 2, Play, and “Preposterous” Difficulty

Posted by deckard47 on November 18, 2009

It’s time for another round of “Tom pointlessly makes snide comments about reviews.” Because it’s a Tuesday, and it isn’t even 3:00 yet. Let’s get this party started.

1up has its Assassin’s Creed 2 review up [link]. I’ll let this bad boy speak for itself:

As for the limitations of the control interface? Ubisoft’s workaround was to create a game that’s almost preposterously easy. Constant in-game text prompts guide your actions from start to finish, generously placed checkpoints soften the blow of screwups, and Ezio can build up his health and healing items to the point where the prospect of losing in combat is unthinkable. It’s definitely the right approach, since failure in AC2 so often seems in no real correlation to player error, but it makes for a game you play to have a bit of carefree escapism rather than a challenge. The tricky Assassin’s Tomb platforming missions are a welcome change of pace, albeit few in number.

Those Ubisoft cats are making games that are too easy again! They have the temerity to include “generously placed checkpoints to soften the blow of screwups.” The author then does an about-face, saying that this is the “right” approach, “but it makes for a game you play to have a bit of carefree escapism rather than a challenge.”

Hmm. Let’s get this out of the way quickly: using checkpoints to punish players is the stupidest thing I can think of to use as a game mechanic. Maybe quicksaves “ruin the moment” or something. Maybe they make players feel too safe or confidant. Guess what developers? I would rather that, than lose minutes and minutes of careful play to an errant sword slash or badly timed jump. I would rather lose some of your vaunted “atmosphere” and “challenge” so that I can play a game free from the threat of sudden and vicious reprisal. If you make me replay a whole chunk of your damn game because I died/didn’t protect the hostage/you didn’t explain your game well enough, you are not “implementing good game design” or something to that effect. You have ill-prepared me for your game, and have decided to (as punishment, plain and simple, punishment designed to “challenge” me) reward my time and effort spent in your world with a slap in the face and the destruction of my progress.

When you take time I have invested and make it meaningless, it pisses me off. Games that are designed around intense, comprehensible difficulty and complicated, well-explained systems can make this kind of punishment part of their aesthetic, part of their feel. Weirdly, it feels right to die and start over weaker in Demon’s Souls, Left 4 Dead, or even in some of the more traditional Survival Horror games. These are games about death and fear. In a game like Uncharted, or Assassin’s Creed, or Red Faction Guerilla, it does no such thing. These games are not about instant, cruel death and a punishing world. They are about adventure, and fun, and outrageous feats of daring-do. They cease to be about these things when I am forced to replay 20 grueling minutes of tricky combat after A) I’m accidentally run over by my Rebel allies, or B) the camera gets stuck in a wall, or C) the game doesn’t inform me that I’m supposed to shoot the tiny silver supports holding the log piles together. Then, these excellent, fantastic (and fantastical) games become exercises in repetition and boredom. Dying and retrying do not equal “challenge,” or a “learning experience,” unless there are actually things being taught and learned. Death (and the deletion of progress) can be a worthwhile mechanic, but only in skilled hands, and only in worlds where such mechanics make sense.

So let me say this: when I’m playing a game that is essentially Grand Theft Italian Renaissance, and I am playing a guy stuck in a genetic time machine who is himself playing an Italian Noble Bad Boy Assassin Who Can Free Run Like Sebastien Foucan, I feel like the “carefree escapism” zone has already been fucking entered. Turn back, all ye who want “realistic” checkpoints.

I think this would be a good time to commend the games that take an admirable approach to death and the ways they deal with player “failure.” First off, I don’t think this is a bad time at all to link to Steve Gaynor’s “Play” article [link]. Game’s that take away from my pleasurable experience by punishing me are pretty bad at aiding me in my Play. Just a little thought.

Back to what I was saying. Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia, and Torchlight all take fun, interesting approaches to death. Torchlight, in a move that goes against years of Action RPG Loot Collecting tradition, gives you three options for respawn after death. You can respawn in camp for no penalty whatsoever, you can respawn at the beginning of the level for a small XP and money fee, or you can respawn instantly on the spot for a larger sum. While I don’t like dying in these kinds of games (I hate, hate, hate corps runs), I love that they let me pick from a variety of options. So that’s another point for the friendly, excellent Runic games. Good for them.

Prince of Persia (every time I mention that game on this blog, I resist the urge to cackle, as I inflict my love for it upon you, yet again!) features what is essentially a glorified, extremely forgiving checkpoint system. When you die during acrobatics, you return to the last solid platform your feet touched. Even at the game’s later, harder sections, this only results in a loss of a minute, maybe two, of play. I approve. While I feel like this approach is strengthened by its increasing integration with the game’s central plot and relationship, I won’t praise it too much. It is “just” a good quicksave feature that you can’t control.

Finally, we come Far Cry 2. In keeping with the game’s blend of gritty seriousness and peculiar, morally repugnant cast, your buddies will save you after you die, pulling you to safety and reviving you. I feel like this is a great mix of the Torchlight and Prince of Persia mechanics. It plops you right back in the action (which should always be what a game does, if possible), and it does it by reinforcing your connection to your buddies, and to the world around you. You start to respect those countless goons a lot more when they kill you and/or your buddy. And they don’t even make you replay the last battle… You can just keep on fighting! How terribly novel. It lets you forgive your buddies for talking like Mercenary versions of the Gilmore Girls.

Let’s finish this up with a snide, parting shot. It’s been that kind of day: if you want “preposterous,” 1up, try this one on for size: Assassin’s Creed 2 is the least preposterous open-world game I have yet to play, and it is precisely because, unlike GTA IV, Red Faction: Guerilla, Infamous, and the original Assassin’s Creed, it lets me play without much hindrance, and it doesn’t punish me for deciding to play that game in a less than Perfect Fashion. It is absolutely “preposterous” that this is the first game of this kind that has allowed me such unhindered, flowing, worry-free experiences. It’s just as preposterous that a company that encourages such fun, non-frustrating play is resoundingly censured for such design decisions.

[Forthcoming: a post on the press’ discussion just how “brave” this second AC is]

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9 Responses to “VGJ and Writing: Assassin’s Creed 2, Play, and “Preposterous” Difficulty”

  1. Sam said

    Hear, hear! Now I just have to get time to /play/ this one. I’m a-Mario! The /best/ in-joke to make in your video game, ever.

  2. Alex said

    SERIOUSLY! Also: LOL! That was great. The whole “Waaah, games are so EASY and ACCESSIBLE nowadays” is not a perspective I can sympathize with. For all the reasons you said, and also because part of the reason old games were hard is because the technology made making intuitive and precise controls, and other important advancements, exceedingly difficult to implement.

    Does the uncle really make a Mario Bros reference? Really? I’m not sure whether that’s amazing or upsetting XD

    • deckard47 said

      Yes, there really is a moment where your uncle tells you that “It’s aaaahhh-mee Mario!” It’s too fast to be humorous, by the time you realize it’s over, you’re already on to the next thing.

      I actually am really happy that Ubi Montreal seems to be making their games more “accessible” from a very particular standpoint. They make games that don’t frustrate me. As you say, much of the “challenge” and frustration people think “belong” in games are holdovers of a technologically different time. It doesn’t need to be that way.

      • Alex said

        Okay, now that I’ve gotten to that part, I think part of the reason I found the line to be funny is *because* it is such a dated, obvious reference. With a bit of “I can’t believe they really did that.” At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

        Agreed! Coincidentally, there was a great discussion of difficult vs frustrating on the latest Joystiq podcast. They were talking about L4D2 and how they didn’t like it because it was difficult in a cheap way rather than a “you need to build your skillz” way. (I haven’t played it myself so I can’t really comment.)

    • deckard47 said

      Alright, I can’t reply to your reply. Whatever WordPress. I was just so surprised by the joke. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any kind of Mario reference (in such an obvious, jokey way) in another game.

      It’s funny, the L4D2 difficulty thing. I think it is incredibly, oppressively difficult, but it feels right to me, in some unidentifiable way. The problem with L4D (non-versus) is that a good crew (hell, even a mediocre one like the one I was always in) could blow through the whole thing, and then the final wait for the boat/helicopter would become a Tank/Instadeath situation.

      In L4D2, the difficulty is _always_ really hard. It feels better, if only because there are never any weird tonal shifts (that I’ve encountered). It is punishingly difficult, but I’ve found that if you have a group of people who are friends/work well together (you don’t have to be good players, just good at teamwork), you can win (or have a good time losing).

      Then again, not everyone likes losing 3 times in a row and playing a campaign for 2.5 hours. It’s not an easy game to like. Honestly, I hope they don’t drop the difficulty in updates. They might, if enough people ask them to.

      • Alex said

        Yeah, the Joystiq crew enjoyed the fact that, with good teamwork, you could play a campaign in L4D in an hour, without wiping (though still having a good fun challenge) on Normal difficulty (which is something I like about it as well and the reason I’m not running out to get L4D2). And their point was that, if people want more of a challenge, they can bump it up to Advanced, Expert, or Expert with Realism; what is the point of having higher difficulties if even Normal is ridiculously hard? Or rather, what is the point of having FOUR difficulty levels for serious players, an Easy mode for new people, and nothing for mid-level players? It seems imbalanced.

        I mean, I’m not going to buy it unless they DO adjust the difficulty, at least in Normal mode (which, I’m not holding my breath). Glad it works for you, though. =)

  3. Games are so EASY and ACCESSIBLE nowadays! You damn kids with your Mario Brothers hinting systems and your ghostly Elika ladyfriends don’t know what it was like back when the entire financial model for games was based around coin drop: getting people addicted and throwing random shit at them to keep them dying/paying!

    That said, I personally enjoy being screwed over by a game every fifteen minutes or so. I’m writing something about game difficulty again soon, whenever I stop playing games and doing homework.

    • deckard47 said

      Me too, I love Demon’s Souls, L4D2 (so hard!), and lots of difficult games. But I do appreciate games that go out of their way to make non-frustrating play, especially when frustration doesn’t fit the tone of the game.

  4. rebent said

    Hi. I found your blog because I was looking for ways to make AC2 more challenging. I like the game a lot but the combat doesn’t really hold much gravitas for me because I can easily widow 20 women without raising a sweat.

    I like your rebuttal of the 1up review, but I also would like AC2 to have been a bit more challenging. I see a lot of people praising AC2 for finding a new way to do stealth (blending with groups vs. hiding in shadows) but just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good. I would like to have seen more stealthy ways to move around the various cities, which would have allowed the developers to make combat a bit harder/more realistic.

    I started playing the game the 3rd time with the intent to “kill no one unless I have to” and “always do a sneaky stealth assassination”. I quickly learned that this was impossible, sadly. This is the other thing I don’t like about the game – you have to kill so many people.

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