Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag Review

Back in my “Top five most anticipated upcoming games” list I said that I have wanted an “Assassin’s Creed” game involving pirates since ACII, and it was true. I’m not sure how the thought came to me but it seemed pretty simple- I like pirates, I like “Assassin’s Creed”, the two most therefore make a good combination. Seems Ubisoft had a similar notion because the latest in the series is pirate themed- taking place during the golden age of piracy and focusing on a number of real life pirates (and some fictional ones) operating in the Caribbean. I was up for this as soon as it was announced. Is it any good? Well yes, but it has problems.

The biggest one is the game’s story, or at least parts of it. There are going to be some light spoilers here but nothing major- no deaths, betrayals or anything like that. Even so, fair warning. The set-up in the opening couple of memory sequences is a great one- shipwrecked pirate Captain Edward Kenway kills an assassin and takes his outfit upon finding a letter mentioning an award waiting for him in Havana. He arrives, takes the place of said assassin and finds his new hosts to be templars who discover his ruse and place him on a cargo ship. He escapes, gets a ship and a crew and the story really starts there- a mixture of him engaging in a variety of pirate business and along the way comes across the area’s assassins guild. Now despite the set-up being good, there’s one major problem with the story: Edward isn’t an assassin. He wears the stolen uniform and uses the hidden blades, but at no point in the game does he ever join the order. The story’s focus on the pirate side of things is great and all, but the assassins don’t get much of a look-in, and to have the protagonist not actually be an assassin is a pretty big plot hole. The game never addresses it either. It’s almost like it was a mistake someone forgot to fix. Elsewhere the ending is pretty weak in my opinion, particularly the way the future segments end. Said future segments revolve around a nameless, faceless Abstergo employee sifting through the late Desmond Miles’ genetic memories (even in death Desmond still finds a way to interrupt my fun) in order to make a video game that is essentially AC IV itself. This part of the plot is a cool idea but these sections don’t really go anywhere. There’s an on-going theme that looks like it’s going to feed into the on-going assassins vs templars plot but ultimately does. The whole thing doesn’t feel entirely necessarry, but fortunately these sections are over pretty quickly.

On the gameplay side, it’s a lot more positive. Whereas the sailing sections in ACIII were a side-quest that could be avoided almost entirely, sailing here is a key element in the game from early on- you use your ship to travel between places, hunt whales and sharks (more on that shortly) and attack and board other ships for resources. The ship is both integral to the gameplay and very fun and rewarding to use- it controls well and boarding ships is easily the most fun thing about the game: wearing a ship down with canon fire, roping it in with grappling hooks then swinging over on a rope to kill the crew is a delight that stays fun throughout the game. The hunting in the game is similar to Ubisoft’s own “Far Cry 3” in that animal parts are required to craft certain items- additional pistol slots, armor and bigger ammo pouches all require animal parts, and if indeed you must have a hunting mechanic in your game this is very much the way to implement it. Upgrades for your ship are bought with a combination of money and wood, cloth and metal taken from other ships, and range from armor to ammo capacity and the number of canons on the side of the ship. A lot of time and effort has been put into making you want to stay on board the ship and use it as much as possible (as you should- it’s important in a game about pirates) and they thoroughly succeeded. Oh, also, you can make your men sing sea shanties. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

On dry land things have been nicey tweaked but not revolutionised- tracking people is now easier due to NPCs retaining their coloured glow after de-activating eagle vision, climbing a viewpoint will make map icons appear as in-game HUD icons to show you the locations of various items, and there are now bushes you can move swiftly through and kill from. Edward can hold up to four one-shot pistols at once that can be chain-fired in sequence or, even better, aimed in over-the-shoulder view with a reticle (a great addition). Best of all though, is a change to the thing I hate most about “Assassin’s Creed”: it’s stealth. In the old games if an enemy became alerted the whole map would know of your presense even if you silently killed said enemy before he even managed to open his mouth to call out. This was ridiculous and made no sense- it ruined every mission it was implemented in and I hated it. I can only think of one on-foot mission where this is the case in AC IV- the stealth mechanics are a lot more forgiving and overall, that makes a real difference.

Overall “Assassin’s Creed IV” is a good time. The story has some problems but when it’s focusing on the pirate side of things is definitely enjoyable, the gameplay is great fun whether you’re on land or at sea, and the whole thing does a great job of making being a pirate fun. Despite the story problems I say give it a look- it’s the best since AC II, and worth the time. Sort of like “Far Cry 3” and “Splinter Cell: Blacklist”. It seems to be something of a running theme with Ubisoft recently.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

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DLC Review: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode One

This needs very little introduction, so I’ll be brief. “Bioshock Infinite” is currently my game of the year (my review for it can be read here: http://www.whatson.uk.com/blog/2013/03/bioshock-infinite-review/ and Reuben and I have been planning a video review/discussion on the game for a while), due to its fantastic story well told, solid gameplay and wonderfully inventive world. This is the first piece of story-based DLC for the game, and it’s been hotly anticipated to say the least, particularly by me. Does it meet the incredibly high standard that “Infinite” set?

“Burial at Sea” is set in Rapture; the underwater city dedicated to complete freedom for the brightest and boldest that provided the backdrop for the original “Bioshock”. It centres on “Infinite” protagonists Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth –  this time recast as a noir private eye and a femme fatale respectively – as they track down a missing girl named Sally on the day before everything went wrong for Rapture- December 31st 1959. Unlike the original “Bioshock” the city is still intact and thriving, and for a little while it can be explored to your heart’s content. The first part of the DLC is all exploration and taking in the city, and it works well. The city has been built from scratch with “Infinite”‘s engine, and it looks lovely- bustling nightlife, shops to visit and one particularly memorable moment involving a waiter who uses a plasmid to teleport around to better serve his patrons. It’s great to revisit the underwater city, but unfortunately it features no areas from the original game that I was aware, and so did feel very different. The whole DLC feels very much like it takes place “Infinite”, which isn’t a problem, but anyone hoping for a return to the original game may be disappointed (more on that shortly). For now, I’ll talk about the story.

Minor spoilers for “Bioshock Infinite” ahead

As I said, the story involves Booker and Elizabeth tracking down a missing girl. What’s most interesting here is how it plays off “Infinite’s” revelation that there are literally infinite universes in the series, and without wishing to spoil the plot of this DLC, it what happens if the story followed a different thread, with interesting consequences and a whole load of new questions. The rapture shown is an interesting one, with themes relating to wrongful imprisonment for political gain, a different side to Booker and Elizabeth and an ending that was genuinely shocking and pulled the rug out from under my feet. It’s a good mystery story and the noir elements are implemented well. It’ll only really make sense to those who finished “Infinite”, but if you did, this will be a treat. It’s a continuation of the game’s themes while exploring a different path, and it does so admirably. Particularly impressive here is Elizabeth, who while fulfilling a similar role to the one she did in “Infinite”, the DLC does enough with her personality in both gameplay and story segments to feel different and interesting once again. It’s an interesting side story that uses the characters in interesting ways, but I do wish they’d used Rapture more from a story standpoint. The narrative focuses on Booker and Elizabeth, which is great, but the city could have been used more.

The spoilers for “Bioshock Infinite” have ended now. Besides, it came out ages ago. If you haven’t finished it yet, why not?

Moving on to the gameplay side of things, it’ll be instantly familiar to anyone familiar with “Infinite”, as things haven’t changed much. The combat is pretty much the same frantic mix of gunplay, vigors (this time called “Plasmids” due to the change of scenery, although they’re still drinkable, and so don’t come in the original game’s big, nasty syringe form) but with two main differences. Well, three really, but I’ll get to the third in a minute. Firstly, you are no longer limited to two weapons at a time. You can now bring up a radial menu a la the original “Bioshock” to select from a number of weapons, however you can only quick select between two at once. This is a nice addition that helped me out in a few firefights, and was definitely welcome. The other main change is that ammo is far more limited this time around. This combined with the third change in that you’re fighting splicers (the original game’s enemies- people who took one plasmid too many and became crazed psychopaths) give proceedings more of a horror feel, and this definitely works in the game’s favour. You can feel secure, but never fully comfortable. Ammo in vending machines is cheap, but you can’t hold much and you’ll use it up rather quickly. I mentioned earlier that people hoping for a return to the original “Bioshock” will be disappointed, and that’s because it still doesn’t feature any hacking, and has very limited plasmids. It plays very much like “Infinite”, and if you didn’t enjoy how that game played, the change of scenery won’t help you. Skyhooks also return with a different look and a new name, and are this time mainly relegated to reaching high areas rather than combat involving zipping around on skylines. I felt they were used just enough given the setting, but if you loved the skylines you may be disappointed.

The main negative point is that the whole thing isn’t very long. It can easily be completed in a couple of hours, and at £11.99 (in the UK) it may seem like a pretty bad deal. However, like the “Dead Space 3” DLC I reviewed a few months ago, I say that if you are interested in the DLC, you shouldn’t let this stop you.

Overall, Burial at Sea is a triumph, but slightly disappointing in places. The characterisation of Booker and Elizabeth is interesting and very well done, and feels different enough to “Infinite” to be noteworthy. It’s nice to be fighting splicers again, but the length and fact that the city isn’t used as much as it could be made me really want to play through the original game again. It plays a lot like “Infinite”, but that’s by no means a bad thing. It’s a very interesting side-story with good gameplay, a good story and great presentation.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

My Thoughts on Beyond: Two Souls (and David Cage in general I guess) STRONG LANGUAGE

Before I start, I’d like to say something: this piece is not going to be at the same standard I try and maintain with my reviews. That isn’t to say it will be a complete right-off, and I will attempt to make some serious points in regards to the utter blackhole for talent and goodness that is David Cage, his company Quantic Dream and its various games, specifically its latest title. I am at the end of my tether with them all, and I have to talk about it here. Oh, also, as it says in the title this piece will contain strong language. Right, with that part over, let’s get the fuck into it.

I’ve played some absolute shit in my time. Hell, I played, finished and reviewed “Ride to Hell: Retribution” for Christ’s sake. One thing you can say about that utter fucking abomination is that it was a video game, though. Something you can’t say about David Cage’s most recent “Interactive Drama” “Beyond: Two Souls”. For those of you who don’t know the title, it’s an “Interactive Drama” (Bear with me here, those are Cage’s words and not mine) starring a fully performance captured Ellen Page and WILLEM DEFOOOOOOOE! (Manic grin while planning to kill Spider-Man)  that follows several years in the life of a woman named Jodie who has an invisible, super-powered entity tethered to her, which WILLEM DEFOOOOOOE! (I won’t do that again) thinks makes her a prime candidate to be a C.I.A agent. That’s the basic outline, and I didn’t actually finish the title. It beat me. I can’t fucking take any more of this. Here’s why:

Like his last two games “Fahrenheit” and “Heavy Rain”, it’s pretentious as all hell. David Cage prides himself on being both an interactive storyteller and some kind of champion for a new form of genre in videogames, which he expresses with games that are basically interactive films with decreasing amounts of interactivity. The stories in his games all veer between flawed and fucking terrible, and he seems to have real problems with effectively writing women, and stuffing in ridiculous, over-long fight scenes. “Fahrenheit” was the worst offender; starting off as a murder mystery and suddenly turning into a really shitty rip-off of “The Matrix” half way through for no fucking reason. That wasn’t the only rip-off- Cage stole key parts of that story from other I.Ps, the most obvious one being “Silence of the Lambs”, a sequence of which is copy-pasted into the game, again for no fucking reason other than Cage thought it would be cool. “Heavy Rain” had the worst depiction of women, with the one female protagonist in the game spending her time fighting off attackers while in her underpants (which turns out to be a dream that adds NOTHING to the game whatsoever), being the potential victim of sexual violence and threats or just helping out the male lead with his own problems. David Cage is a horrible writer and story teller. It’s all he claims to be good at it and he can’t even fucking do that right.

Outside of videogames, he’s just as bad. He’s known for spouting complete bollocks as sound-bites, my personal favorite being “I’ve always felt that ‘game over’ is a state of failure more for the game designer than from the player.” You hear that, guys? Being able to fail the game is the developer fucking up. Not rising to the challenge of a video game? All their fault. Of course he said that in regards to “Beyond”, ignoring the fact that “Fahrenheit” was fucking FULL of game overs, so what does that mean in practice? Well, Jodie can’t die. In-game she just won’t die regardless of what you do, due in part to invisible friend “Aiden” having magical, convenient healing powers for some reason. Just something to point out to David Cage, should he be reading, GAME OVERS ARE A PUNISHMENT FOR YOU NOT RISING TO THE CHALLENGE THE GAME HAS PRESENTED, YOU COMPLETE FUCKING MORON. With no game over states “Beyond’s” “gameplay” (more on that in a minute” offers no challenge. It’s bad enough that the gameplay boils down to context-senstive actions and quick time events. Every now and then during the story the game will present a small white dot that means “Oh shit we forgot this was supposed to be a video game, better make the player move the right analogue stick. That’ll keep them invested” but it’s even worse when you can just ignore all the quick time events and it won’t make a fucking bit of difference in the long term. It’s such a fucking cop-out. It’s not even like Jodie can die early on and that’s it, the game ends. You can’t die because David Cage wants his precious fucking story to keep on going and you pesky fucking human players can either sit down and watch it unfold or fuck off back to “Call of Duty”, you un-educated bastards.

So, the gameplay is insultingly simple and dialed back in favour of the story, but is the story any good? Well, I gave up around half way through (and traded the game in among others in order to buy “Assassin’s Creed IV”) but I saw enough to form an opinion: it’s bad. The story is told completely out of chronological order, which has absolutely no practical effect on the game at all. It leaps back and forth: Little girl Jodie, C.I.A Jodie, Jodie at a party with some fucking horrible kids, Jodie in C.I.A training, ridiculous fight scene on top of a train, homeless Jodie. The game can’t build up any suspense at all because it shows off the fact that Aiden likes choking bitches and Jodie doesn’t like socialising early on, then later will cut back to it to show it off again, forgetting that it’s already done that several fucking times. Nothing I saw in the story was remotely interesting or involving. So, the gameplay was made into hardly-interactive shit in order to accommodate a shit story. Oh the irony.

“Beyond: Two Souls” is not a game. It’s a shitty interactive film- pretentious, barely interactive and generally shit. It retailed at £40 and I bought it for £45 for review- a review I couldn’t even write because it’s SO INSULTING AS A “GAME”. David Cage is an utter fucking hack- he steals from other creators, uses their material badly and when he’s called upon to make up his own ideas he fucks it up royally. He needs to be stopped- his games suck, his storytelling sucks and he’s just really bad at his job. I feel completely robbed having paid for this piece of shit, and David Cage needs to wake the fuck up and realise that what he’s doing is taking the game industry in the wrong direction.

“DURRR, GAMES NEED TO BE LESS INTERACTIVE!”

Fuck you, David Cage. Fuck you.

James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Batman: Arkham Origins Review

The “Batman: Arkham” games breathed some much-needed new life into the superhero genre of video games. Sure there had been the odd game worth checking out, but many superhero games were based on film adaptations (suffering the same fate as most games based on films) or just generally shoddy. Conversely, Rocksteady (creators of the underrated “Urban Chaos” on PS2) created their own Batman universe from scratch, filled with their own take on the caped crusader and his numerous villains with great success. Newly formed developers “WB Games” have taken the reigns for a prequel set two years after Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City, as crime boss Black Mask calls in a massive hit on Batman, drawing in several assassins. In order to review the game properly I feel the need to go into spoiler territory, however I’ll briefly outline the game without spoilers first.

There’s one word that really sums up “Origins”, and that’s “Familiar”. It’s the same mixture of smooth, brutal combat, stealth sections, detective work and exploration. In terms of new features there are a few new animations and enemy types, a couple of tools and a slightly more involving crime scene investigation system, but the gameplay is fundamentally the same. Said crime scene system has gone from observing one thing in a room and following a trail to observing several things in a room and virtually re-creating the crime. It doesn’t add much, but it is a nice touch. The combat is still enjoyable and has new challenge in the form of martial artists and heavy enemies. The former have to be countered twice in a row and can counter your attacks, and the heavy enemies charge and have to be knocked out with beatdowns- basically a long sequence of rapid punches that can be tricky to pull of when surrounded by other enemies. Similarly to “Arkham City” enemies are often uniformed according to their boss, and the only real effect of this is that some heavies are all pumped up on Venom (which is now a popular street drug rather than an experimental serum) a la Bane, and can’t be attacked until you cut off their supply with a takedown. The new enemy types mixed in with returning ones “Shield Guy”, “Electric baton man” and “The merry shankster” mean the combat is still fun, but combined with the fact that enemies now seem more aggressive and their attacks connect just fast enough to get you stun-locked make it begin to drag, particularly late in the game. Faring less well is the stealth, which gets boring quicker due to crap A.I (you can do an inverted takedown from a gargoyle, cut him down from a different perch, then go back to the first gargoyle to do another takedown repeatedly. Between that and chokeholds you’ll have rooms  cleared pretty quickly), and the fact that it’s the element that most has the feeling of “You’ve done this all before” about it. At one point I genuinely thought “Oh good, another room full of eight men with guns and a series of gargoyles has conveniently popped up to pad the game out before I get to where I’m going. Oh joy”. That’s not a good sign.

All I can really say on the story without spoiling it is to say that it starts off being focused on Black Mask and his merry band of hired assassins, then ends up going in a very different direction. The Joker has a large role, and a lot of focus is placed on Batman’s fragile relationship with the police, specifically Captain James Gordon. It has a couple of stand-out moments, but otherwise it’s a pretty standard Batman story. Besides, as I’ll describe shortly, a lot of the best moments are taken from famous Batman comics.

Whether or not you’ll enjoy “Arkham Origins” can be attributed to one main question: do you want more of the same basic “Arkham” framework with a few new additions that end up changing things a bit in the short term but not much in the long term? It’s definitely enjoyable, but they need to make some more drastic changes if this series is going to reach its previous heights.

Anyway, onto the spoiler portion of the review. About a third of the way into the game you arrive at what Batman believes to be the current location of some interesting new villain called “The Joker”. It turns out that Black Mask is actually The Joker in disguise having taken over the former’s operation. Furthermore the assassins were also called in by The Joker, and they all pretty much fall into the “B” plot for the rest of the game, with a few serving as boss fights to pad out the game’s run time, but with some of them relegated to side-quests, including Deadshot and, in an encounter that turns out to be quite disappointing, Lady Shiva. The biggest problem is that the interesting Black Mask set-up and references to the deep-rooted organised crime element that essentially runs Gotham is pushed aside in favour of safer ground. Obviously I’m not going to attack a developer for giving The Joker main antagonist duty in a Batman origin story, he’s Batman’s greatest villain and I like this version, despite him not being particularly original (more on that in a minute). It’s just that the mob set-up is an interesting one, and they could have kept Black Mask as the main antagonist and had The Joker turn up now and then. It’s just a waste of a good idea. The story’s other main problem is that it tries to cram too much in. The Joker’s backstory is taken straight from “The Killing Joke” (which is an amazing story but they could have come up with something different) and one sub-plot involves Bane working out Batman’s secret identity a la “Knightfall” which doesn’t really affect the story in any serious way (Alfred nearly dies but seeing as it’s a prequel you know he’s fine) and it all gets tidied up very conveniently. These, as well as the various sub-plots, villains and Bruce’s story arc (if he even has one, it’s your standard “I won’t kill anyone”, “Oh hey, this Batman guy seems like a good egg”-type plot) make things blur together, apart from one or two stand-out moments (the last confrontation from Batman and The Joker is good, apart from how it ends; a beatdown that goes on for two long and loses all effect).

The story isn’t great, but it’s enjoyable enough. That’s a statement that adequately describes the game as a whole. The mechanics of the “Arkham” series still work well for the most part, but you’ve seen it before. If you loved the first two games and really want another Batman outing, give it a look. If you’re looking for something fresh and different to what’s come before, you might want to hold out to see what Rocksteady is up to.

Oh, one last thing, new voice actors Roger Craig Smith (Ezio Auditore) and Troy Baker (Booker Dewitt) as Batman and The Joker respectively do a good job in the roles, but they’re obviously no Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert