Here’s a videogame thing: The Ezio Trilogy

This weekend, I finally got the last trophy in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy. I promptly deleted the collection off of my PS4, and sincerely hope to never play them again; it was my second time through the three games, having played them on the PS3 before.

As the above paragraph might imply, I have very mixed feelings about the games. Not so mixed that I didn’t sink the ~100 hours into playing them all over again, mind–although some non-trivial part of that was platinum chasing, given that the second and third games were basically impossible to plat by the time I played them, thanks to online-only trophies–but they are deeply, deeply flawed games, and playing them again on the PS4 only heightened those issues for me.

So let’s talk about the good stuff first. For those of you not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed games, they’re third-person open-world adventure games, with the core content set at some time period in the past; you’re experiencing that past through some hokey “DNA memory” machine that we’ll talk about in the “bad stuff” section, but basically it’s an excuse to run around in Ye Olde Times and do cool stuff.

The Ezio Trilogy consists of three games: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. All three games star Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a Florentine from a wealthy family who gets pushed into the stealth-stabby lifestyle due to a series of unfortunate events that occur to his family. One thing this trilogy does that is, I think, unique: you play Ezio over a long period of time, from his late teens until his fifties. During that time, he grows as a person (and an Assassin) in ways that are interesting and genuine. The voice acting is uniformly excellent across all three games, and it’s hard as hell not to empathize–and sympathize–with Ezio as three kinds of hell break out around him and he struggles to do the best with the situation. In terms of game protagonists, he ranks in the highest of tiers, fascinating and nuanced.

The settings of the three games are also fantastic. ACII mostly takes place in Florence and Venice, with a couple of smaller towns as well, and they all look and feel fantastic. AC:B ups the stakes by shrinking the core locations down to a single one… but making it Rome, and doing a really, really good job of making you feel like you’re in Rome, with crumbling monuments and creepy crypts everywhere. AC:B‘s Rome is one of the few videogame worlds I’ve spent hours just running around in, looking at stuff (and I look forward to doing the same eventually in Origins’ Egypt and Odyssey‘s Greece). AC:R is also (mostly) singly-homed, and that home–Istanbul–is almost as fascinating as Rome, and a welcome change from the aggressively Italian locations of the previous two games. There’s nothing like perching on top of the Hagia Sophia and looking out across all of Konstantiniyye in terms of feeling the scope of what almost feels like a living, breathing city.

And, when the action works, Ezio really does feel like an amazing bad-ass. He leaps across roofs, jumps down from high perches to stab the evil Templars in the back with his hidden blades, and disappears in a cloud of smoke to live to fight another day. It’s easy to see how the AC games set the tenor for Rocksteady’s Batman games, because in many ways you feel like a Renaissance Dark Avenger: hiding in the shadows (or amongst groups of civilians), waiting for the perfect moment to strike unsuspecting foes.

Buuuuuuut…

All three of these games’ controls could politely be described as “cantankerous” and impolitely described as “intermittently controller-throwing terrible.” Ezio will take flying leaps off of buildings in the wrong direction in the middle of long chase scenes, he’ll fail to assassinate people even when the text is RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN OH GOD, and your right thumb will be just as sore as your left over the course of a long play session thanks to having to adjust the camera all the time. Many failures in the game will not feel like your fault at all, but just the game randomly deciding, “nope, you’re not gonna make that jump this time; sorry, bub.” And that feels bad.

The designers also got the terrible idea for the second and third games for each mission to have an “optional” (read: required, if you want the trophies) additional goal. Sometimes they’re trivial, but both games have several levels where those “full synchronization” goals are basically going to force you to replay the mission ten to twenty times until a combination of luck and skill let you succeed. That’s not good design; that’s torture.

Also torture: the hot mess that is the framing story. You’re not actually Ezio Auditore in these games; you’re Desmond Miles, a dude in the modern day (well, 2012) who is experiencing Ezio’s life thanks to a machine called the Animus and, uh, DNA race memory? Also there are ancient aliens, everything major that ever happened in history is part of a secret war between the Templars and the Assassins (yes, even that), and the Apple of Eden is an actual artifact in the game. It’s all awful pseudoscience claptrap, impossible to take even the least bit seriously, even in the context of “it’s just a videogame.” (Thankfully the Desmond stuff is closed out with the next game, Assassin’s Creed III, although the secret-war and ancient-alien crap is too baked into the series for them to ever remove it.)

(As a side note, apparently someone looked at the janky mess that is the engine these games use and went “you know, we should make a puzzle-platformer out of this.” That shows up as an extensive set of side-content in Revelations, and it is awful to the max.)

Lastly, other than the setting and story, these three games are essentially the same game, all using the same engine. I ha-ha-only-seriously refer to them as Assassin’s Creed 2, 2.1, and 2.2, because they really do feel like nothing more than expansion packs to the original game. Huge expansion packs, mind you, but mere iterations rather than anything seriously new.

(I could also rant about some terrible trophies that all three games have–particularly Revelations–but I think I’ve said enough about why trophies are bad here in the past.)

Looking back up, it sure seems like I have a lot more to say on the negative side than the positive. That’s a bit of a shame, because I really did enjoy playing through the games again… about 70% of the time, and not counting the last N hours of stupid trophy hunting. If you play them completely casually, ignoring all of the dumb things you have to do to get 100% synchronization, I think they’re solid, charming experiences with janky controls; in particular, I think just about everyone should give Assassin’s Creed II a spin, as it’s both the easiest and the most plot-driven of the three, and Ezio really is one of the best characters in videogame history.

But I’m glad I’m done.

Now to replay Assassin’s Creed III next month… sigh.

Here’s a videogame thing: Let It Die

After months of putting it off, I finally beat Let It Die late Sunday afternoon while a friend of mine watched through the magic of Sony’s “Share Play.”  Monday morning, I uninstalled the game, likely never to play it again.

Total time spent in game: upwards of 560 hours.  That’s a bit of a lie; there’s at least twenty or so hours there that were just the PS4 idling, for Reasons.  But only a bit of one.  I most certainly actively played the game for upwards of five hundred hours.  The only thing I’ve ever played even close to that much is probably the MUD I ran back in the mid-to-late ’90s, sadly defunct now.

So, an important question comes to mind: was Let It Die any good?

I… think so.  I’m not certain.  It’s free-to-play, and while it has without a doubt the least scummy F2P mechanics of any game I’ve played–it actually hands out the premium currency often enough that you never need to spend a penny on the game–I’m also aware that the gacha/slot machine mechanics that underlie basically every F2P game have a nasty way of short-cutting people’s critical faculties.

I’ll talk about the bits I am confident of, though.  Let It Die is an action RPG roguelike… thing, with a distinct sensibility in style and sound design that pretty much had to come from Grasshopper Manufacture, the company that Suda51 (of No More Heroes and Killer7 fame) started.  It has, without a doubt, the best damn soundtrack of any videogame since Katamari Damacy. (The fact that you can’t buy the OST is frickin’ criminal.)  And the combat in the game is extremely satisfying, in a Dark Souls-esque way; you learn how to handle just about everything with careful consideration (and the occasional death).  Most of the enemies in the game amount to AI-controlled versions of your own characters, which at first seems a bit lame–where’s the variety?–but it ends up being a strength, not a weakness, as it gives you a sense of how each weapon works from both sides.

The ending, which I won’t spoil, was something of a disappointment, in that there was a fairly obvious “twist” I was expecting that didn’t actually happen.  And the ending is actually no ending at all, nowadays; the game is fairly crammed with “post-game” content (and only now do I realize just how ridiculous that particular term is… how can anything in a game be, you know, post-game?), but after sinking the amount of time I did into the title I had no interest in pursuing those particular slogs.

It has crafting mechanisms, which are the main place that the gacha/lottery elements come into play, but other than a couple of particular grinds–expect to see a lot of a particular 21-22-23F run–it doesn’t actually feel that onerous.  It has kinda-sorta-not really permadeath, but careful play (and judicious use of the freemium currency) can work around that too.  And the asynchronous multiplayer PVP is an interesting design effort that I wish more single-player games would take a very hard look at copying.

Yes, there are a couple of really nasty difficulty spikes in the game, but they’re nothing that can’t be overcome with good equipment and deilberate care.  Above all, I feel like its design is scrupulously fair, which is basically something that is never ever true for free-to-play games.

This is all very disjointed, so let’s circle back around to the question.  Is Let It Die any good?  Yes.  Yes it is.  But I uninstalled it.

That said, I uninstalled all the other free-to-play games the night before, right after I beat Let It Die, with no sense of loss.  And right now I’m glancing at my PS4 controller, wondering whether I should install LID again and make another run at the Tower of Barbs.

I shouldn’t.

But will I?

[Let It Die is also available on Steam nowadays, for those of you who don’t have a PS4 and want to check it out.  It’s free there too.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you as to how much time it may absorb.]

Here’s a videogame thing: Planetside 2

I’ve had more “oh, damn, it’s 6am and I haven’t gone to bed yet” nights in the last week than I’ve had in total since I retired, and it’s all because of Planetside 2.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Planetside 2 is a massively multiplayer online first-person strategic shooter.  That’s a whole lot of adjectives; put simply, you run around going “pew pew” with laser guns, there’s a lot of people playing at the same time, and there are goals and objectives beyond “pew pew a bunch of them before you get pew pewed back.”

In many ways, the game is a more complicated version of a game mode I was obsessed with many years ago, Unreal Tournament 2004‘s Onslaught mode.  At the depths of my addiction to that particular mode, I would come home from working at LSU at 1700 or so and not stop until 0200 or 0300, night after night, for weeks on end.  I stopped because it was utterly wrecking my wrists; as a keyboard-and-mouse game, I was doing a lot of repetitive strain on my right wrist in particular as I played.

Planetside 2 is basically Onslaught scaled up 64x or so.  There are three teams/factions; the goal is to be the team with the most territory.  You can’t just drop deep into your opponent’s land and capture there, because the only vulnerable territory is that connected to your own by the “Lattice,” which is generally (but not always) the stuff that’s right next to it on the map.  What this means in practice is that the “front” of the fight is constantly shifting but almost never crazily distant, as your faction either successfully claims a bit of territory and pushes further in, or loses territory and is pushed back.

Now, I’m playing on the PS4, which makes it a bit of a double whammy of a mess: I’m already not exactly good at first-person shooters, having lost my high level of coordination as I’ve gotten older, and using a controller rather than keyboard and mouse just makes it worse.  But that’s actually mostly okay, because the game has a bunch of “support” work that you can do.  I spend most of my time as an engineer, repairing vehicles and other things around the bases, and the game rewards me for doing so.

That said, the game has some major issues.  It’s free-to-play, and while its monetization strategy is only mostly scummy, the real problem is that it’s a free-to-play game… on a console… in the dead of summer… where you shoot people.  If you don’t already know what that means, let me tell you: it is absolutely overrun with twelve year old boys who think cursing is the Coolest Thing Ever and constantly kill their own teammates because it’s funny.  There are moments of utter brilliance, when you get in with an organized group and manage to fend off a nasty assault or execute one of your own… and there are moments of utter frustration when the person whose vehicle you were keeping alive turns the turret and shoots you for no good reason.

And while the monetization is only mostly scummy, it is scummy.  The rate at which you get experience (“certifications”) in the game is low, so it strongly encourages you to drop real money on the game to unlock stuff.

But there are some clever things too.  For one, most of the weapons are “sidegrades;” better at some things but worse at others.  You actually really don’t ever need to buy a new weapon for most of the classes, and if you do it can come much later.  That’s surprisingly respectful for a F2P game, where often the person with the most money gets super-awesome ultra better versions of the standard weapons.

Now, I know that I’m not supposed to play massively multiplayer online games, because I know what a time-sink they can be.  But I suspect that I’m going to run Planetside 2 dry in a week or two; it’s fun, but ultimately pretty same-y, and unless I can convince some friends to play with me–it’d sure be nice to team up with actual adults rather than prepubescents–it’s going to end up too lonely to sustain.  But for the time being I’m having fun, and given that I haven’t paid a penny for the game (and don’t plan to), why not?

(If you’re interested in teaming up, drop me a note.  I know no one will, but I feel like I’ve gotta try.)

In conclusion: Planetside 2 is pretty neat.  It’s given me sleepless nights.  Would play again.