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Posts Tagged ‘Game Review’

I’ve just finished three delight-filled weeks of gaming with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

This was entirely expected. AC4 was pretty much guaranteed to be a good time.

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Hijinks on the high seas

For starters, as the title of this blog may indicate, I love pirate games in general. Over the years, I’ve managed to enjoy some pretty mediocre pirate games – including almost all the Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-ins, simply because they reminded me of Monkey Island.

So suffice to say, AC4 was set up to succeed. It was my first game on the PS4 so it was almost certain to be a stunning game, showing off rich tropical environments on the most powerful computing hardware I’ve yet connected to my TV. Furthermore, I already knew that I enjoyed their sailing/naval combat mechanics from ACIII.

I’m sure I was not alone on many if not all these points.

For many games and game designers that would have been enough, but unlike many of its pirate protagonists Assassin’s Creed 4 does more than profiteer from easy wins.

The gameplay is excellent. Tight, focussed and with enough high-seas swashbuckling to keep me interested for 50 hours. I can’t give it any higher commendation than to say that this was the absolute first game where I’ve gotten 100% across all the challenges and collectables. Quests, location of collectables, reasonableness of the additional challenges and the level design were all extremely well designed and executed.

I really have to talk about the shanty system too. Simultaneously one of the best collectables and music implementations I’ve ever seen in a game. The shanties are essentially little pages strewn around the world that you have to chase through the wind, it’s basically a test of your parkour skills as you sprint across rooftops and tree-branches to catch them. But, best of all, once you catch one you have a little double-entendre laden sea shanty to read. Even better, your sailors sing from the list of the shanties you’ve collected while you sail around! I’ve never come across a collectable that contributed to an audio cosmetic before.

Beyond the level design, they also deserve massive commendation for the world they have created. The game steers clear of pirate cliché’s, hardly an Arrr! is uttered as the game instead sticks to a quite historical portrayal of the period – including a cast of characters straight out of the seminal 1724 tome A General History of the Pyrates.

While many characters seem motivated, pretty much unavoidably, by gold, booze and women, the game does also make some effort to fall on the right side of social issues. It deals with the slave-trade history of the Caribbean, including a substantial part of the main story and making the liberation of slaves the central focus of both the single-player DLC extensions that currently exist to the game.

AC4 even does a decent job at having a pair of strong female characters, and just, barely, passes the Bechdel test. And importantly, despite being a sailor, the main character doesn’t make cringingly lewd passes at every lady he sees. It’s not enough to call it a feminist game by any stretch, but it’s not a laddish game like GTA either.

It does somewhat undo its good work in the moral/social conscience stakes by encouraging you to harpoon whales.

Moving on to the storyline. As pirate yarns go, it starts out a little dull, but really picks up as it goes along. It’s the classic tale of man finds ship, man wants treasure, man meets shark, man finds treasure, treasure turns out to be different from what man expected, man needs to save the world from what he unearthed by finding the treasure. It’s a good enough tale, and putting the Assassin’s Creed twist on top of a pirate yarn prevents it from being too derivative.

One of the problems is that I found the main character Edward Kenway to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He has very simplistic motivations that don’t really develop much through the game. You never really feel like you ‘know’ him, although to an extent that does make it a little easier to project yourself into the role. Fortunately, the other major characters are much better and you develop quite an attachment to some of them. Setting up Blackbeard, who by most accounts is one of history’s great psychopaths as a sympathetic character was an interesting, brave and ultimately quite rewarding decision.

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Just some of the motley cast of characters in AC4

But something irked me. Unlike Arkham Asylum, where I really felt like I was Batman, or the Saboteur where I felt I was back in wartime Paris, I never felt like I was a pirate of the Caribbean. This was surprising because on paper a game which allows ample opportunities to unbuckle your swash in a historical world should have been an easy sell. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, I attribute this primarily to two things, the overall feel of the world, and the way the central character progresses.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the game world is probably the most beautiful, historically accurate representation of the golden age of piracy ever developed for a game. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t quite feel alive? This is a game that has largely missed the current trend for ambient/environmental storytelling. While the larger locations like Havana, Kingston and Nassau do have distinct and recognisable architectural styles which contribute to the overall feel of the Caribbean, the little villages around the world felt very same-y, existing only as a source of collectibles and side missions. This was not a Bethesda or MMO-style game where every town has a storyline and progression of its own. With the exception of Nassau which does transform along with the main storyline, none of the other locations were really anything more than a place to visit.

The shipping suffered a similar malaise of pointless presence. Aesthetically it was amazing, you sail along and see ships with their national colours, occasionally even engaged in combat with each other. But as you watch them more closely the illusion is quickly broken. Ships seem to just be sailing aimlessly around, you never really get the sense that the various treasure fleets were going anywhere, or that you’d be able to get more rum by striking shipping near a port with a rum distillery rather than somewhere else. Instead there is a simple mechanic that the various regions of the ocean have ships of differing type, nationality and level, and that’s basically the extent of the variability. Even Sid Meier’s Pirates back in the black and white days had a treasure fleet which had to be tracked as it travelled across the Caribbean.

And then there’s the progression. Both your character and your ship develop in a very quick, linear fashion. You acquire resources, mainly gold, from quests and piracy and then purchase upgrades like better swords and pistols for yourself and cannons and hull siding for your ship. Within about 10 hours of playing the game both I and my ship were far superior to anything around me, meaning that there was little tension. So much so that I wound up accidentally taking one of the toughest forts in the game really early on. It shot at me, I shot back, 10 minutes later it was all over.

Character and ship customisation is a similar story. There’s a reasonable amount of options for outfits, sails and ship figureheads, which normally would allow me to make a character feel like my own, but I just never got there. This may have been partly because it was very much a case of choosing from pre-set options, rather than being able to do anything really creative like design a flag, or choose a combination of hat and coat. Not to mention the fact that it is simply impossible to find an outfit that looks equally at home behind the wheel of a ship and on top of a church steeple.

Assassin's Creed 4 outfit inconsistency

I can only assume the hat is glued onto his head.

So overall, it’s a great game. If I was scoring it on the traditional graphics, story, gameplay type categories then it would seriously be hard to give it anything short of perfect scores across the board. But unfortunately it’s like playing a game on the set of a movie. Everything looks perfect, almost too perfect, but inhabit the world for any length of time – something that you really want to do with this game – and you quickly start to see that there isn’t quite as much behind the façade as you initially thought.

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I didn’t go into God of War III expecting an entirely new experience.  Coming hot on the heels of Bayonetta, even if  developer Sony Santa Monica had’ve  tried something entirely different it probably would’ve fallen flat on its face in the wake of the exhuberant style and fast paced action that Platinum‘s game exuded in spades.  So while God of War III follows a path well-trodden, that path to Mount Olympus , as it turns out, is one made mostly of gold.

God of War III is the final game in Sony Santa Monica’s trilogy that follows Kratos’ persistent war against the Gods of olympus, and the game starts off fittingly, as Kratos heads toward the final battleground with Zeus and his crew of pissed off gods.  To say that the game feels like a conclusion right from the get-go is a severe understatement – think of the start of this game as something akin to the Allies landing on Omaha beach in World War II.  Just as in the previous two games (and the fantastic Chains of Olympus on Sony’s handheld) God of War III has you controlling Kratos as he mames, decapitates, disembowels and de-eyes his way through endless legions of enemies based on ancient Greek mythology.  Everything from Minotaurs to Centaurs and from Chimeras to Cerberii are represented in God of War’s bestiary.  While there’s not a whole lot new in the way of enemy types, the new enemies that are in the game add some very nice multi-staged fights into the mix, with the Chimera probably being the stand out newbie.  Although some of the enemy behaviour has changed from previous entries in the series, Kratos’ fighting style with his standard ‘blades on chains’ moniker definitely hasn’t, and again as with those games, the secondary weapons fail to form a permanent part of your battle plan, even if the Nemean Cestus’ are rather fun to use.  If you played the hell out of the first two games, chances are, you’ll slip right back into the rhythm of the combat relatively quickly.  In fact I found myself falling back into the swing of things so much so that I found the game on its default difficulty to be a much easier game than its predecessors, and in fact much easier than similar games in the genre.  This potential lack of balance of combat (albeit in your favour) shows up no more so than in the boss battles, where a simple strategy of spamming with a simple combo will do the trick in most cases.  This isn’t by any means a criticism of the game, but be warned that if you’re looking for a challenge, you’re not going to find it here.  But for most fans of the series, the familiarity of the tried and true combat will be enough to gain enjoyment from the game.

Kratos hates when people watch him dismember his enemies over his shoulder.

What seperates God of War III from the rest of the series is its incredible sense of scale.  Not that the other games in the series didn’t have scale, in fact at the time the sense of scale was indeed what separated them from the rest of the action game pack even back in 2005, but everything they did is bigger, better and overall more realised in God of War III.  At times, Kratos’ battles against the armies of Zeus seem somewhat secondary to what else is happening on the screen, and the primary role that the Titans play in the overall plotline of the game allowed the developer to create some incredible dynamic environments for Kratos to wage his own personal war in.  A major part of this can obviously be attributed to the fact that the PS3 is streets ahead of its predecessor in terms of power.  But it feels like the developer really pulled every trick out of the proverbial hat in order to create something that fans would be willing to accept as the final chapter in Kratos’ tale.

For the most part, the game does a great job of keeping the momentum going by introducing new and varied areas into the mix.  Its just a shame that around eight or nine hours into what will probably be around thirteen hours for the average player, the game falls into routine of uninspired environments and often tedious environments and level design.  Luckily the very end sequence of the game is satisfying enough to redeem these weaker parts of the game, so much so that despite some very by the numbers game play for three or so hours, by the end of the game I had forgotten about the negatives and was ready for another play through on the hardest difficulty mode.  Although it is worth mentioning that although the game itself has tight controls that are easy to pick up for a newcomer, the double-jump at times felt unresponsive and was probably responsible for half of my deaths in the game.  So prepare yourself for some often frustrating platforming sequences.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about God of War III is that despite its flaws, some of which are annoying enough to mention in short conversations about the game, I was hooked by the cool blend of action, exploration and decent storytelling from the moment I loaded up the game.  Although God of War III isn’t going to set the world on fire with new ideas, gameplay mechanics or control schemes, what it does do is give every game from this point onward something to aim for, not just in terms of sheer production values (this is one pretty game), but also in how to treat a critically and commercially loved franchise.  God of War III is one of the more impressive games of this generation, but the formula is starting to wear thin, so kudos to Sony Santa Monica for doing dignified thing and finishing off Kratos’ story with the release of the third game. It is certainly a fitting end to a playstation legend and a game that I would recommend all but the most sensitive gamers pick up.

OG

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