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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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VGJ and Writing: Write a Real Review Next Time

Posted by deckard47 on November 17, 2009

Because of Left 4 Dead 2, Dragon Age, and tonight, hopefully, Assassin’s Creed 2. While I can’t speak to the quality of that last game there, and you already know what I think of Dragon Age (about to start up the Orzammar quest, I think), I need to discuss Left 4 Dead 2, briefly.

It really is quite something. I love all of the new characters (I think). They all get to be funny, serious, angry, and scared in just the right amounts, and their humor works into the levels in a very characterful way. They seem like they belong in this game much more than our original band of four. Of course, they work so well together and with the levels because the levels are very well-made. I’ve only played Dead Center on Advanced (brutally hard), but we couldn’t get past the refueling scene. It was like those scenes in the original Left 4 Dead that ended in complete party death, with one key difference: it never felt cheap. When you died in Left 4 Dead, it’s because a Tank booted you off a roof or into deep water or something. In the Atrium, when you die, it’s because you let yourself get separated from your team, or you accidentally lost a gas tank (on the roof!), or something. It feels almost fair. Odd.

Since I’ve only played the first campaign (and have never beaten it), all I can say is this: I love this game. I love it more than the first one. It looks amazing (the burning hotel rooms are both disorienting and beautiful), the new weapons and abilities are perfectly implemented, and the new Infected are hilarious and dangerous. There was a discussion recently on the Twitters about possible games of the year. I would not have included Left 4 Dead 2 on that list yesterday. Now, I don’t see how I could not put it on the list. I will be playing it tonight. See you there.

[Edit: Just came across Kotaku review of Left 4 Dead 2. Really?:]

Left 4 Dead 2 really feels like the game that the original should have been. Even though it was delivered with an astonishing (read: somewhat concerning) turn around time, it ultimately doesn’t feel as rushed as the first, offering—with the exception of a still-missing capable single-player component—a solid multiplayer suite that doesn’t skimp on modes, maps or options.”

Well. Then there’s that. I’m not sure where to start. “Somewhat concerning.” What the hell does that mean? When has the speed with which a game was made ever been legitimately concerning (aside from the babbling surrounding L4D2). Maybe he means concerning to some. If there was anything to be “concerned” about, it was the pricing (and I think this game is worth a hell of a lot more than $60, but I understand the price argument), not the speed with which the game was made. Also, why do you care about single player that “isn’t there?” This isn’t a single player game, plain and simple. I wonder how long it will take the Left 4 Dead series to ditch SP. Maybe they never will. But it is almost totally unimportant to the experience. It’s a pale shadow of what the game can be. For those without the internet, this is a bad thing. But this is a MP game. It’s like the Battlefield games. He’s unhappy that the game is not something else. It’s like me running around Assassin’s Creed  2 and wondering why I can’t have some competitive assassination action now, dammit. That would be another game entirely.

This is the most bizarre trend in the “enthusiast” and professional gaming press. It’s one thing to want a game to be better at what it does (and yes, SP Left 4 Dead 2 is obviously not great), or to want a game to be more radical or ground breaking in its approach to new game systems or methods of play. But to damn it for being a MP game that has less-than great SP? It’s a mindless critique. I don’t understand it. It’s like hating a book (let’s say, Lioness Rampant, for all of us Alanna fans out there. C’mon you lot!) because it’s a fantasy book instead of a murder mystery. Go read a damn murder mystery. It’s a baseless, meaningless critique, and it’s just another sign that I shouldn’t read Kotaku on Tuesdays (or any other day) if I want to see forward-thinking, mature reviews. I’m not even talking about “critiques” or articles or other haughtily self-labeled clever blogging, or any kind of theory-related discussion. I’m talking about reviews.

I understand that it’s a review, but I think it’s a really bad call to give those hilarious L4D2 “rush job” accusations any more credence than is professionally necessary, just because a lot of people did. Address it, debunk it, and move on. Don’t darkly hint at it throughout your review. Among the gaming press there’s still this pervasive, unintelligible notion that a review must be “objective.” No. What does that even mean. You are not objective. No one is. You never were and never will be. When you say objective, you often mean “what a lot of people who I think represent the dominant societal discourse are saying.” Stop talking about it.

A review should prove that you are a thinking, opinionated individual who feels a certain way about a certain game. You might discuss common discourses on the game, but only so much as they a) relate to your argument, and b) are relevant to the public discourses surrounding the game. Even then, you don’t need to address anything, for any reason. Address it because it is relevant to your argument or because to not address it would be misleading to your readers. Give it the weight and time it deserves, not the weight other people give it. So mention the price/development time thing. Tell people it’s a pointless argument, and they can either pay money for the game or legitimately (but foolishly!) refuse to pay a seemingly “too high” of a price. See what I did there? I voiced an opinion! I do it in my reviews all of the time! I have never melted into a puddle lamenting my beautiful wickedness as a result of such opinionated reviewing.No one does. In fact, it makes their reviewing fun and worthwhile. It makes me respect that author. If someone discussed the L4D2 time/pricing issue voiced their own opinion about it, I would listen. I would respect them for thinking a certain way about something else and then informing me of their thought process. Repeating what (par of) the Internet says does not = having an opinion.

Go buy Left 4 Dead 2. It’s an amazing game, and I need more PC player to play with, Simon and Co. are on the damn 360.

Posted in Impressions, VGJ and Writing | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »