Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Full Review

I completed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag last night, as I type this, and so now it’s time to give my full thoughts and opinions about the game.

With Assassin’s Creed III, I made the mistake of typing up a partial review, and then being unable to come up with enough new material to fill out a full one, so this time I waited until I was done.

The Basics

Let’s start with the basics.  Like the other main titles in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is an open-world, third-person, stealth-based, action game.  Set mainly in the Caribbean Sea of the early 18th century (known as the Golden Age of Piracy), it follows the life of Edward Kenway, a Welsh farmer turned pirate whose career intersects a number of famous figures of the era.  He also crosses paths with the ancient conspiracy of the Knights Templar, who are seeking to control mankind and institute their ideals of conformity and common purpose, and their enemies, the Assassin Brotherhood, whose creed is freedom of thought and individual responsibility.  Their conflict in this game centers around a mysterious figure called “the Sage” who is the key to finding and opening something called the Observatory, a structure or artifact left behind by The Ones Who Came Before, a precursor race who died out 75,000 years ago.  Edward wants to beat both sides and locate the Observatory for himself in order to use its powers to give himself absolute mastery of the seas and unfettered access to riches thereby.

All of this takes place in the context of a historical research program sponsored in the present day by a company called Abstergo Entertainment, who has hired you (the player) to use a device called the Animus to “play” a virtual reality simulation of a person’s genetic memory so they can gather material to construct a feature film about pirates.  (For some meta-humor, Abstergo has partnered with Ubisoft, the real life developers of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, to produce their video game products.) Abstergo Entertainment is a division of Abstergo Industries, the modern front for the Templars, although most of its employees don’t realize this.  While not in the Animus, you become involved in a plot to hack into Abstergo’s computers on behalf of the modern-day Assassins and a mysterious individual known as “John”, the head of Abstergo Entertainment’s IT department.

If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is.  Assassin’s Creed IV builds on a meta-plot that started with the very first game.  The historical segments where you play as an Assassin (or a pirate pretending to be an Assassin, in this case) are merely the surface layer.  The underlying story is the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars that has been raging for thousands of years, a conflict that originated when the First Civilization was wiped out in a great catastrophe 75,000 years ago.  That civilization’s artifacts and tools litter the globe and their awesome powers are the centerpiece of the Assassin-Templar conflict.

The Assassins, representing the ideal of Freedom, seek to prevent the artifacts from being taken and misused; while the Templars, representing the ideal of Order, wish to use their powers in order to secure their domination of mankind.  Both sides seek to conceal their conflict from civilization as a whole, with the Templars having largely won the battle for control of the history books.

Meanwhile, The Ones Who Came Before have their own agenda, enabled by their ability to predict the future through quantum analysis, and made manifest by the devices they left behind which are programmed to see that future come to pass.  Their major goal — to prevent the recurrence in 2012 of the same disaster that wiped them out — was accomplished in Assassin’s Creed III, but the ramifications of that live on in the form of Juno, a malevolent First Civilization memory-ghost who escaped from the Grand Temple and who now lurks in the world’s computer systems, plotting her revenge against humanity.

I could go on for paragraphs more about the meta-plot, but let’s skip to the game itself.

Graphics and Gameplay

The first thing that must be said is that it is beautiful.  The lush jungles and sandy beaches of the Caribbean, the rolling, foaming waves, the weather effects, the incredibly detailed ships, the powder smoke that surrounds your ship in combat, the character models, all of it is lovingly and fantastically rendered.  You could take screenshots and put them on postcards and someone who isn’t familiar with the game might mistake them for reality.  In fairness, the previous game was beautiful too, but I didn’t have a video card that could do it justice at max settings.  I suppose all modern games might be this cool looking and I just never noticed because I was stuck with crappy hardware.  Still, it felt to me like a revelation: 10/10 on the graphics.

Next, let’s talk about the gameplay mechanics.

While not revolutionary, Ubisoft has continued to iterate on the player controls, introducing new elements and streamlining old ones while retaining the classic feel of the game.  Movement (on a PC, anyway) is based on the standard WASD layout, with the mouse controlling the camera. Movement can be done in two modes: walking, where you move around at a sedate pace and interact with things as would any normal person, and “free-running”, where you climb, jump, and swing over obstacles in your path with an agility that any modern parkour practitioner would envy.  A lot of Assassin’s Creed III‘s innovations have been retained, such as the requirement to press an additional key/button to perform “hazardous” jumps so that you seldom accidentally plummet to your death, and free-running has been reassigned to the Shift key to make it play much more like most shooters.

While Edward’s movement through the environment is fluid and natural in most cases and there is plenty of diversity in terms of scenery to interact with, there is an inevitable repetitiveness to free-running created by the need to reuse environmental elements.  It’s better than the previous game, at least, where there were a surprisingly small number of tree-shapes to practice the game’s vaunted “tree-running” in, but you do still notice it from time to time.  Also, it is sometimes damnably frustrating to get Edward to go exactly where you want him if you aren’t facing exactly the right way.  Occasionally I’ll be chasing a target and I’ll get too close a tree or building, which Edward will “helpfully” attempt to climb, costing me time and some swear words.

Previous games placed a much greater emphasis on climbing puzzles, which are largely absent from this one.  It’s welcome in some respects, even as I retain fond memories of some (but not all) of the puzzle sequences.  It’s therefore somewhat jarring when the game suddenly throws one at you.  Whether climbing a cliff face in a zoomed-out perspective, or traversing a First Civilization structure with “back ejects”, one is suddenly forced to recall skills developed in those previous games, complete with the occasionally unhelpful camera angle.

Combat and Combat Controls

Like in Assassin’s Creed III, the need to hold a button to block has been removed and replaced with a simple button press to counter attacks.  There’s also a button to attack, a button to use your “tool” (an arsenal of pistols, blowgun darts, smoke bombs, and a rope dart that you don’t get until much later), and a button to break your opponent’s guard. Like previous games, some enemies are vulnerable to different combinations of attacks and counters.  This makes combat a combination of offense and defense as you learn which enemies require which tactics to beat, and which you want to play your trump cards on.

One refreshing aspect to the game, for example, is that shooting an enemy in combat is almost always a winning move.  The limitation on your ability to simply gun down enemies is that your arsenal of flintlock pistols (upgradeable to four in total through crafting) are single-shot, requiring extensive time to reload that is best spent out of direct combat.  Smoke bombs are also a winner, incapacitating all nearby enemies and letting you escape or perform assassination moves rather than combat kills.  Midway through the story you acquire the blowgun, which allows you to put enemies to sleep or send them into fits of berserk fury at a long range and in total silence.  Lastly, the late-game rope dart lets you yank enemies toward you and defeat them with your choice of abilities, or simply hang them from trees like macabre piñatas.

All that said, there is a sameness to the combat caused by the lack of variety in opponents.  Regardless of whether you’re fighting privateers, pirates, English soldiers, Spanish soldiers, Dutch soldiers, or whatever, there are only five enemy types.  There’s a basic soldier, equipped with a sword and vulnerable to all of your moves; a “scout” or gunner, armed with a musket but otherwise no stronger than a regular guard; an axe-wielding, bomb-throwing “brute” that resists your chain kills and regular attacks but can be taken out with guard breaks; a faster “officer” that resists normal attacks but not guard breaks or chain kills; and lastly a nasty “captain” that is only vulnerable to a counter followed by a disarm, and also packs a pistol for ranged combat.

Once you figure out all their moves, the challenge of combat is not so much in learning how to beat them as it is timing your counters, remembering which moves work on which enemies, and finding creative ways to chain kills and to use your tools and the environment to your advantage.

With a few exceptions, enemies suffer from uncanny levels of myopia and hearing loss, being unable to see or hear you kill their friends from mere meters away and failing to notice you charging up behind them with swords drawn.  They go on alert upon noticing a dead body, but seem to forget about it within a minute or so if they fail to locate the culprit, cheerfully ignoring their fallen comrade afterwards.  All the soldiers in the  Assassin’s Creed universe apparently suffer from a crippling genetic condition that renders them unable to retain anything in their short-term memory. They are so comically dull-witted that abusing their perceptions becomes a sort of game in and of itself.  The sole exceptions to this general myopia are the gunners, who can see you from an amazing distance, although they too lack the ability to remember you if you’re out of sight for more than a few seconds.

Combat has some other quirks.  The game engine continues to have difficulty handling combat when you are at a different elevation than your opponent.  This is most noticeable when boarding a man o’ war, where there’s an elevated platform in the middle of the deck.  Trying to engage opponents who are lower than you makes Edward either stand around like an idiot, swing futilely above their heads, or attempt an aerial assassination.  Targeting is finicky; sometimes Edward will leap from one nearly dead opponent to a fresh, ready one for no apparent reason, prolonging combat and possibly getting you attacked from behind.  Further, default interactions with stalking zones and haystacks will sometimes make Edward and his enemies conduct a bizarre kind of dance that often results in the opponent committing suicide by throwing himself over a wall.

Naval Exploration

Enough about that, and on to the naval system!

A full third of the game (or more, if you decide to go on piracy sprees) is conducted at sea, and the naval engine has been upgraded and lovingly tweaked from its inception in Assassin’s Creed III.  You pilot your ship, the Jackdaw, from the helm, giving sail and gunnery orders to your crew.  Speeds include full stop; half sail, which grants increased maneuverability at the cost of speed; full-sail, which is faster but slower to turn; and “travel speed”, which accelerates your vessel to traverse the Caribbean more quickly, but can’t be used in combat and in high seas.

For your amusement, your crew can sing sea shanties (traditional songs that are in the public domain, undoubtedly saving Ubisoft a bundle on licensing fees) while you travel, and you can acquire more of them as part of the game’s many collection side quests.

Interacting with land is easy; as long as you aren’t in high seas or in combat, you can stop the ship and leave the helm at any time, diving off the ship to swim to shore or interacting with the elements in your cabin.  Larger islands and forts have docks that you can pull up to, for ease of boarding. The Caribbean is littered with small, uncharted islands, nearly all of which contain some form of collectible, so if you’re interested in full completion, you’ll be spending a lot of time off-ship, accompanied by your crew’s humorous cries of “Cap’n overboard!”

There is a huge number of locations to visit: the aforementioned uncharted islands, simple fishing villages, massive forts constructed atop rocky outcroppings, jungles littered with the ruins of ancient Mayan buildings, and bustling cities like Havana, Nassau, and Kingston.  Each location has a list of side quests that you can complete there, which are conveniently displayed by holding the middle mouse button.

Unlike in Assassin’s Creed III, there are no “hidden” areas of the wilderness; if you access all the viewpoints, you can see the entire map and everything interactive on it.  If you’re having a hard time finding a path to something you want to acquire, you can place a map marker on it and it’ll be highlighted on your in-game HUD. Getting all the collectibles has never been so easy, and collectibles there are, aplenty.

Among the many, many things you can do alongside the main missions are: acquire Animus fragments to unlock Abstergo “cheats” and multiplayer bonuses; loot treasure chests scattered around the world; find maps to lucrative buried treasures; locate hidden Mayan keys that unlock an awesome suit of armor; find messages in bottles that tell the tale of one incarnation of the mysterious Sage; hunt wild animals for crafting materials; free embattled pirates to recruit them for your crew; raid plantation warehouses; dive into shipwrecks and caves to find hidden treasure; conduct land and sea missions for the Assassins and for fellow pirates; and aid various Assassins in return for their help locating keys that unlock an awesome suit of Templar armor. On the high seas, you can defeat and loot a vast number of ships of all sizes, earning materials to sell and to upgrade your ship with, and also capture vessels to add to your personal fleet, which you may then send out on missions to acquire cash and additional items.

Naval Combat

That last part — fighting, looting, and sinking ships — is the main selling point of this installment, and it’s definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects. Many a player may find themselves doing nothing but piracy, slaughtering their way through innumerable English, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and privateer ships.

When the Jackdaw starts out, it’s undermanned and outgunned, and you’re challenged to take out even a ship of comparable size, never mind the massive frigates and men o’ war lurking the seas.  As you acquire upgrades through the crafting system, you get more and more powerful, to the point where you can challenge whole fleets of enemies, or take on the Legendary ships that lurk at the corners of the map, defying all comers.

The combat engine at the heart of this system has been both streamlined and upgraded from Assassin’s Creed III.  Those familiar with that game will remember choosing the shot loaded into your cannons as you would select a weapon from your personal arsenal.  This has been removed, and now the weapons you fire are entirely context-sensitive.  When you are aiming forward, you launch a chain shot that does light damage and slows enemy ships.  When you are aiming to the rear, you drop fire barrels that act as mines.  When you are facing to the sides, you may either aim (with the right mouse button) to use your normal cannons at short to medium ranges, or simply fire to use heavy shot which does enormous damage at close ranges.  For long-range combat, once you have equipped your ship with the mortar, you may hold Q to target it on an area of ocean, then press the fire button to launch a barrage of aerial death.  Once you’ve equipped the naval ram, simply driving your ship into your opponents becomes an option.  Lastly, any of your attacks may expose “weak points” on the enemy vessel which you can then target with your swivel guns for massive damage.

Once a ship has had most of its hit points depleted, it becomes disabled, and you may choose to finish it off or board it.  Choosing the boarding action causes your men to grapple the ships together, during which time you may use your deck guns to target enemy sailors, gunpowder reserves, and the like.  Then it’s time to leap over and fight the crew in direct combat.  The larger the ship, the more crew you have to kill, and you also may have additional objectives to complete, such as blowing up their gunpowder stores, killing their officers or captain, killing scouts in the rigging or cutting down their flag.  Complete these objectives and the ship is yours,  to scuttle for parts to repair your vessel, set free to lower your infamy, or recruit to your fleet.  Regardless of your choice, you get to loot the vessel of goods and ammunition and recruit some of its crew to join your own.

Opponents on the seas come in a decent variety.  The smallest are the gunboats, which are easy kills and cannot be captured.  Going up in size, the smallest ship you can capture is the schooner, which has a small crew and modest armament, followed by brigs which are equipped with rams and have a decent array of guns, frigates which pack substantial armor and powerful cannons, and finally the dreaded man o’ war, which is a floating fortress with massive cannon arrays and mortars.  Galleons are an even larger class of ship that you never engage except in story missions.

Overall, the gameplay is excellent, and the sheer variety of things to do makes up for the basic simplicity of the design. The game is also refreshingly free from the bugs and annoyances that affected Assassin’s Creed III, such as vanishing pistols, awful crafting UI, disappearing ammunition, animation glitches, and occasionally characters getting stuck inside objects.

If I had to have a gripe, it would be with the way that the free-running fails to interact with some objects in a sensible way.  I understand that certain rocks and buildings aren’t meant to be climbed, but they look like they ought to.  If you run Edward into them, he’ll repeatedly attempt to jump-climb like a delirious squirrel, and sometimes stubbornly stick to the scenery even when you try to move him in another direction.

The Main Story

Spoiler alert!

From here on, I’m going to talk about the plot, which may result in some spoilers for anyone who hasn’t played.  You have been warned.

Here we get into what I consider the meat of the game — the story itself.  While the gameplay draws me in, I stay for the deep character drama and the intense emotion that accompanies the moral struggles of the protagonists and even occasionally their enemies.  Assassin’s Creed IV does not disappoint in this regard, although the perspective is subtly different.

Edward Kenway is not an Assassin at first, nor even for most of the game.  He’s an unprincipled rogue who leaves his newly wed wife and sets off to make his fortune at sea because he’ll be damned if he’ll work himself to the bone for pittance wages.  He wants more out of life: he wants riches and fame and he doesn’t mind killing and looting if that’s what it takes.

Edward encounters an Assassin purely by chance — shipwrecked and marooned after he takes the helm during a desperate battle.  The Assassin, Duncan Walpole, has no love for pirates and tries to kill Edward, but Edward comes out the victor.  He discovers that Walpole has been commissioned to go to Havana to meet with the governor on a secret mission, with the promise of much gold.  Not one to squander an opportunity, he dons the Assassin’s robes.

Once in Havana, he meets with an assortment of gentlemen who turn out to be recruits for the Templars — including his assumed identity, Walpole, who intended to betray the Assassins and deliver a map of their hideouts.  He also learns of their plans to use a man known as the Sage to find an ancient site or machine known as the Observatory which can let them spy on men from afar.

Shocked by the amorality they display and disappointed by the size of the payment he is offered, Edward resolves to acquire the Sage’s aid for himself, but is caught and exposed as an impostor.

He’s sent off on a prison ship, but manages to stage a breakout with the aid of a former slave named Adéwale. Together they steal a ship and free some pirates to man it, using the cover of a storm to escape the prison fleet.  Thus begins their friendship and Edward’s true pirate career.

At Nassau, the pair encounter some prominent names that any lover of pirate history will recognize: Edward Thatch, aka Blackbeard, Ben Hornigold, Anne Bonny, James Kidd, and later in the story, “Calico” Jack Rackham and Charles Vane.  These notables have dreams of a Republic of Pirates where men can live as they please, free of the yoke of the English crown.

Naturally, all does not go to plan.  Edward learns the piracy trade from his new mentors, and discovers an affinity for the profession, but his mind remains focused on a greater prize: the Observatory and the man, Roberts, who can find it.  His crew doesn’t agree with his obsession, setting the stage for later conflict.

He also begins to confront the consequences of his earlier actions.  James Kidd proves to be more than he seems at first and introduces Edward to the Assassin Brotherhood.  Their remote island hideout has come under attack by Templar forces led there by the map that Edward unwittingly sold them.  If he wishes to make amends for his mistake, he must aid them.

These two plot threads interweave throughout the story. Edward’s loyalty to his pirate brethren is strained by the increasing pressures put on them by the Crown and their own natures as rogues and scoundrels. Betrayal after betrayal thins the ranks, made worse by the offer of the King’s Pardon to any pirate who will turn himself over.  Meanwhile, he helps the Assassins against their Templar foes for the promise of treasure that they offer, and seeks the Sage Roberts in conflict with both sides.

After a long hunt, Edward does indeed ally with Roberts and find the treasure he seeks. It turns out that the Observatory is a machine that The Ones Who Came Before used to spy on humans (and their own), using blood as a catalyst.  Their genetic technology lets the users of the artifact see through the eyes of any living person whose blood is loaded into it.

Little does Edward suspect that Roberts will turn out to be his greatest enemy, or that his goal of finding the Observatory will be only the beginning of his journey.  The consequences of his selfish actions manifest themselves fully in a tragic death that shocks him to his core, and with the loss of all his pirate friends to one treachery or another, he finally enters the Assassin Brotherhood for real.  This leads to a final showdown with Roberts and with the Templars.

Thoughts

The historical segments do a masterful job, as always, of exploring the truth behind the Golden Age of Piracy.  The pirates are shown in all their human ambition and human weakness, and that weakness is what leads to their downfall.  Blackbeard tires of a life of piracy and wishes to retire, but is betrayed and killed.  Hornigold seeks the King’s Pardon and falls in with the Templars. Vane goes mad fighting for his “freedom”. Rackham descends into drunkenness and debauchery and is hanged.  Bonny and Kidd are captured and sentenced to death. Edward himself only escapes execution with the help of the Assassins.  Playing as a pirate is loads of fun… actually being a pirate, not so much.

The Assassin Brotherhood, for its part, is vital and thriving in the New World — a far cry from the tiny, withered shell it will become by Assassin’s Creed III. They seem to have retained a large part of their earlier moral grandeur in their commitment to building a society of free thought bounded by personal integrity and a respect for the consequences of their actions. In the person of James Kidd, they tease and pry at Edward’s conscience, trying to get him to realize the harm his selfish path is taking.  When Edward finally comes to them as a supplicant, seeking a way to make amends for his actions, it is a powerful moment of catharsis that brought tears to my eyes.

The Templars, for their part, are scheming and dastardly as always, but unfortunately they are the weakest part of the game. By now, their motives have become somewhat generic and their behavior predictable.  They are always scheming to bring their dream of Order to mankind by any means necessary, but what, exactly, they do besides try to eliminate the pirates is not really made clear. Defeating them is a necessary part of the plot but adds very little depth to it.  Even their dying speeches have become somewhat trite by now, as each scolds Edward for his wanton amorality while declaiming about the bright future of mankind that he’s destroying.

The most entertaining missions, ironically, are the Templar Hunt side quests.  Each Assassin that you help in the course of these is a distinctive and wonderful individual, from the man who weeps at the betrayal of his “brother” over a woman, to the bonnie Scottish lass who knows Edward all too well, to the dark-skinned, savage Maroon who wants to free his brethren from slavery, to the native Taino woman who seeks revenge on those who sought to destroy her tribe.  These are the parts of the game that feel most like what an Assassin should do.

Lastly, the story whips back and forth between the Assassin-Templar conflict and the tale of piracy, much as Assassin’s Creed III whipsaws between the Revolution and Connor’s quest to protect his people.  Given the amount of time one can spend at sea sinking ships and hunting lost treasures, the story missions can at times feel like a distraction rather than a crucial part of the game.  It’s a balancing act that Ubisoft clearly struggles with at times.

The Modern Day

As with the other games, the modern day portions are interspersed with the main story, as every few memory sequences you get pulled out of the Animus to engage with your bosses at Abstergo.  In stark contrast to the previous games, where you played as Desmond Miles in his personal journey to learn about his ancestors while fighting Abstergo as a modern-day Assassin, here the player character is you.  Specifically, you play (in first person, as you never see yourself) as a new Abstergo Entertainment researcher whose job is to delve into Edward Kenway’s life through the Animus in order to generate footage for the production of a feature film.  Your boss is an enthusiastic and energetic woman named Melanie who supervises the Animus researches and reports to a man named Olivier, whom you find later reports to Abstergo Industries.

If you’ve played any of the earlier games, you are greeted with a surprise during your initial tour: in the lobby of the unbelievably luxurious Abstergo Entertainment office building stands none other than Shawn Hastings, Assassin and companion of Desmond, posting as a barista at a coffee stand. This becomes important later.  You are also greeted by an IT guy named John who is fixing up your Animus workstation.  This becomes very important later.

There’s not much to do besides wander around the office and recover mysterious encoded sticky notes that contain the scribblings of an apparent madman who is raving about the First Civilization and a woman who can only be Juno. This also becomes important later, but for now all you can do is go back into your Animus.

Things get more interesting when you are called out to attend a meeting, and John asks you to take a detour to help him hack into some computers to obtain information to deliver to a courier who’s waiting in the lobby.  The file you access reveals the post-mortem on Desmond Miles who, we recall, died in the previous game activating the world-saving First Civilization artifact that also released Juno.  And guess who the courier is — no points if you figured out that it is Rebecca Crane, another member of Desmond’s cell.

More breaks from the Animus and more hacking missions, with “John from IT” getting weirder and seemingly crazier as you go on.  The absurdity starts to sink in: you’re hacking the computers of the most paranoid company on the planet at the behest of a man who sounds like a B-movie spymaster and delivering the information you recover to a pair of Assassins operating openly in its lobby. It’s made even more hilarious if you perform some of the optional hacks and realize that Abstergo recovered from Desmond’s phone photographs of all the members of his cell.  Apparently the team took time out from being wanted international fugitives to take selfies.

Anyway, things come to a head in the fourth sequence when you emerge from the Animus in a comfortable, yet sinister prison cell, with Melanie telling you that they have locked down all the Animus techs in search of whoever’s been hacking their computers.  Whoops, maybe those guys aren’t as oblivious as it seems.  But John has a promise: he’ll clear the evidence of your activity if only you’ll go to the Abstergo mainframe (located conveniently on the same floor as the prison cells) and hack into it.

No sooner do you do this than you are greeted with the wavy, holographic face of Juno herself, who laments that she is “not strong enough” to take over your body, accompanied by John’s furious disappointment over your communicator.  Whoops!  It seems that you were intended to be a patsy for her to acquire a living human body, and John’s the crazy person who was leaving all the sticky notes.  There’s nothing you can do with this, though, but return to your Animus workstation.

Your next awakening, however, is to see John standing over you, wearing the same face as Roberts, who wears the same face as all the other incarnations of the Sage, Juno’s long-dead husband who lives on in a genetic program that manifests in only one human per generation.  He’s paralyzed you with a drug and intends to kill you, but Abstergo security guards intervene and shoot him dead.  John has helpfully framed himself for your hacking, and Melanie tells you that you’re cleared of all suspicion and free to continue your work.

Thoughts

The modern sequences are significantly shorter than the main game, even if you do all the optional hacking and collection quests.  To a fan of the series like me, however, they are crucial to the overall plot, as they set the context for everything you’re doing in the Animus.  While your character is largely passive throughout the game, offering nothing but silent assent to everything that’s going on around him (or her), the other characters make up for it in style.

Melanie is the charming middle manager who tries her best to keep the employees happy in an organization that trusts them about as far as it can spit them. Olivier is the creative boss who has to produce a film that meets the requirements of his Templar bosses while at the same time selling tickets to real moviegoers.  He’s not a Templar, just a patsy for the higher-ups at Abstergo, who are really interested in finding the Observatory. John is a lunatic who’s somehow managed to become the head of IT while also plotting to free his beloved wife of 80,000 years from her virtual imprisonment.  And the Assassins, Shawn and Rebecca, seem to have managed the unbelievable feat of hiding in plain sight, right under the noses of people who would as gladly kill them as look at them.

Just as I couldn’t stand the absurdity of blatantly hacking the computers of this massive Templar front organization any longer, suddenly everything got serious in a big hurry, and the revelation about who John is and what he’s up to put everything else into context.  I have to hand major props to Ubisoft for pulling off such a huge twist.

The other awesome part for lovers of the modern era plot like me is getting such an in-depth glimpse into the history and attitudes of Abstergo through the hacked files.  There’s a series of audio tapes labeled “Subject Zero” that explore the development of the very first Animus technology, a number of insider documents revealing the thought processes of the minds behind Abstergo Entertainment, and a series of hilariously awful trailers and internal promotional material that can only be a “Take That Me” at Ubisoft and the entertainment industry in general.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I loved this game.  I give it a 10/10 for presentation, a 10 for graphics and art design, a 9 for gameplay, and a 9 for story.  My main gripe about gameplay is the continued wonkiness of the controls while interacting with the environment.  My main gripe with the story is the way the Templars have become generic evil villains rather than the dastardly masterminds that I loved to hate in earlier games.

Last and not least, there are some nice dangling plot hooks to pick up in later installments.  What’s the future of the protagonist character at Abstergo and the little Assassin cell operating right under their noses?  How will Juno strike next?  What, if anything, will be done with the Sage plot, or is that isolated to this game?  There are tantalizing hints that the next major game will be set during the French Revolution, a wonderfully meaty time for moral conflict, so I hope that the Templars there will be a bit less generic.

That’s it for now, folks.  Thanks for reading this epic screed of a review.

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Let’s Play Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Well, it’s finally here.  I’ve started Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and it’s pretty awesome.  I realize how late it may seem, given that the game came out last year, but as I said in my previous post, I finally hit the limits of what the Radeon HD 5450 in my computer could handle, so I had to get a new video card.  That’s a tale all by itself.  But I now proudly present my Let’s Play!

Some things must be said about this epic adventure.  We’ll start with why it’s not at the beginning of the game — I played through the first few memory sequences, unsure if I was going to make a Let’s Play or not, until some of my friends asked me when I’d do one.  I have followers!  So I finally started recording around the start of Sequence 4.  I hope that doesn’t annoy anyone. Worst case, I’ll start a new game later and comment over it, then paste it to the start of the playlist.

Next, my video card woes.  I mentioned that I bought a new card: a GeForce GTX 660 from Gigabyte, along with a new power supply to run the thing.  Getting it into my tiny uATX formfactor case was a stressful endeavor but I manged it. It’s a fantastic card; it runs every game at blazing speed, but there are a few minor problems; specifically, it crashes constantly, in almost every game.  Sometimes it hard-locks my machine and I have to force a cold restart.

I’ve read about GTX 660 cards failing out of the box and it seems that I got one of the bad ones.  So now I have to RMA the thing to Gigabyte for warranty repair/replacement.  Of course, that means taking it out and putting the old Radeon HD 5450 in, which makes me sad.  I want to at the very least finish this Let’s Play before doing that.

I’ve also had all kinds of recording woes.  I lost an hour and half of footage because I was trying nVidia’s ShadowPlay recording software and it corrupted at high bitrates.  Just the other day I discovered that two whole episodes – 40 minutes of gameplay – were recorded without mic input, apparently because it had gotten muted or something.

Then, my computer started hard-locking at night while I had it uploading to YouTube.  So it’s just been a parade of failure all around.

The game, though… the game is awesome. I want to write a full review of it when I get done, so I won’t wax too poetic here, but it is without a doubt one of the most graphically beautiful games I’ve ever played.  The game mechanics are nicely streamlined, although it’s still possible for you to make some rather stupid free-running moves by mistake.  The piracy adventure is first-rate.  The Assassin-Templar intrigue is muted but strangely appropriate given the point of view character.  The Abstergo sequences and the meta-plot are in full swing, although you don’t really get into the meat of it until fairly late in the game.  Suffice it to say that I was facepalming repeatedly over the cliched nature of the hacking missions, right up until the fourth Abstergo sequence, which had me picking my jaw up from the floor.

So, that’s the deal for now.  There will be more to come soon, when I’ll discuss the full game and hopefully a successful product exchange for my flaky video card.

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My PC Sucks

Well, Assassin’s Creed IV is going to have to wait.  The dinky little Radeon 5450 in my HPE-210f can only run the game at a bare 6-8 FPS, so I’m going to order a GTX 660 and power supply upgrade.  Just have to get all the ducks in a row for it.

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World of Warcraft, Aliens, Let’s Plays, and More

Back to gaming!  Before I got all worked up about Internet drama, I had promised some info about further Let’s Plays.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

World of Warcraft

The patch 5.4 content for World of Warcraft has been a lot of fun.  I’m up to an average 553 item level on my Balance Druid, have completed all the Timeless Isle content, and my guild is now alternating Flex and Normal modes for Siege of Orgrimmar depending on how many players we have on a given night.  I checked wow-heroes.com the other night to find myself listed at #5 on the realm for Balance Druids.  Not bad considering that I haven’t done any heroic content for this tier — but maybe that’s more of a commentary on how weak the raid scene is on US-Vek’nilash, or it could be that Balance is (reputedly) sucking hind teat compared to other damage-dealing classes and specs.  It’s true that I have to fight tooth and nail for every bit of DPS and for my spot on the damage meters, but that’s how I feel that it should be.

Geek talk: I just reforged last night to the second haste tier and tried it out a bit on the Timeless Isle.  It’s not bad; the faster response time is always welcome and I am looking forward to seeing how my DPS improves in raids.  I’ve also been gearing up my alts; 5.4 really seems like the patch designed to get everyone working on them, as you can get what is essentially a free complete set of 496 gear immediately upon hitting 90, and with only a little more work you can have some 535 and 553 pieces, all without setting foot in a raid.

The previews for the 6.0 Warlords of Draenor content look awesome.  I don’t really care what people say about the plot; visiting old Draenor and fighting the Iron Horde is an easy draw for someone like me who loves the history of the franchise, and the new systems they’re working on are tantalizing.

  • Flex-scaling for Normal and Heroic raid modes, with Mythic taking the place of Heroic as the hardest tier.
  • The ability to store vanity and heirloom items on an account-wide level and access them from any character — finally I can alt it up on other realms without feeling like I need to rebuild from scratch or pay money to transfer a character over.
  • Customizable player garrisons.  I’m looking forward to this feature, as it seems like the “player housing” idea that everyone’s been begging for, but far beyond what that simple concept would imply.

Blizzard has guaranteed that they’ll retain my interest with the latest installment, which is no mean feat for a game this old.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Okay, onwards.  Remember how I promised a Let’s Play of Aliens: Colonial Marines?  Well, that didn’t turn out so well.  Seems that the game wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, with the demos having been canned and the actual delivered game about as generic a shooter as one could imagine, that was only saved from the trash bin by being set in the Aliens universe.  Now, I won’t call the game a complete waste.  I did have fun playing it, and the moments when it was immersive and I got interested in the plot served to highlight what could have been had the developers really put their effort into it.

None of this would have stopped me from doing a Let’s Play, except that when I started trying to FRAPS the game, it slowed down to framerates that made my eyes bleed.  I understand that the game was … poorly optimized, shall we say.  Anyway, it ceased being relevant long before a patch came around that supposedly fixed the most egregious issues.

Civilization V: Brave New World

Somewhere along the way, out came an expansion to the Civilization game which has already claimed more of my life than any other in the series to date.  If I get fantastically rich or famous and they bury me in a monument with an engraved history of my life, somewhere in there is going to be a line about the Civilization series.  Anyway, Brave New World is the latest expansion pack, adding the Tourism mechanic, revamped culture trees, the World Congress, and a bunch of refinements to gameplay.  I have 3 AM bedtimes to blame on this product.  Maybe I need therapy.

My only real quibble with BNW is how easy it makes it to stumble your way into a Cultural (aka Tourism) or Diplomatic victory when you were trying for a different kind.  Maybe it’s that I habitually play on Prince difficulty — the ridiculous bonuses the AI gets on higher ones make for endless restarts in search of a perfect starting location and build order, not my idea of fun — but there’s always an inflection point in any game where you leap ahead of the AI, and once that happens, you can’t help but win one of those two victory types. In the few games when I lacked a decisive Tourism lead, technological process was so far behind on a global scale that nobody could have won a Science victory before turns ran out.

To finally win with Science, I had to load up an in-game editor mod and cheat myself into a massively superior position, then deliberately not do any tourism-generating activities and refuse to vote myself world leader in the United Nations.  That’s a broken system.

Don’t Starve

I came across this clever little indie game when we visited friends in Virginia earlier this year.  It’s a survival horror themed game that plays much like a cross between Nethack and Terraria, in that you start empty-handed in a hostile wilderness and have to scavenge to build the tools you need to stay alive while fighting off hunger and creeping insanity.  It’s a “hardcore” game by default, which means that when you die, absent the limited number of extra lives you can activate,  you’re dead – game over, try again.  I’ve managed to live for a few weeks so far, past the first hound attack, and … it’s not for me.  I just run out of patience with the fragility of the progress I can make.  I’ve read about people who survive for hundreds of days and I boggle at their dedication.  Good on you, mates.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

As I write this, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag should have finished installing, and now I just need to wait until tonight when I can play it.  I’ve got high hopes for the game; everything I’ve seen (while carefully avoiding spoilers) is generally positive.  I liked Assassin’s Creed III a lot, not least because it was my first entry into the world of Let’s Plays, but the game did have its unmistakable flaws.

Of course, here’s an obligatory plug for Tobuscus’ Literal Trailer — not that he needs the paltry views I can bring.  He did a great job with the callbacks to his other literals for the series, although I still wish he’d take a crack at the AC III trailer, dated though it might be.  There’s a “Nod at the bird and people die” joke just waiting to escape.

Anyway, if all goes well, and the game doesn’t bring my system to its knees, I’ll start recording this week, maybe even tonight.

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TV Tropes, Part Two

It’s been a while since I posted here, partly because I’ve been busy and partly because nothing has gotten me exercised enough to write anything.  Here I sit at my computer when I ought to be asleep because there’s something on my mind and I want to get it down while it’s fresh.

I mentioned last time that TV Tropes had been subjected to both DDoS attacks and direct vandalism.  As far as we know, the former has ceased; it certainly hasn’t been effective, so a shrug is all it merits.  Security has continued to improve and we have plenty of tools to catch and eliminate vandalism, so in a sense the attacks have served a useful purpose.

We still get them, though, and they seem to come in two flavors. One is the clueless wannabe editor who just can’t get it through his skull why we don’t want him around. One fellow, presumably from India by his account info, has evaded bans no less than a half-dozen times, pleading in mangled English to be allowed to edit the wiki despite our insistence that he learn to write comprehensibly. Another has risen to a kind of stardom even outside TV Tropes, and despite my distaste for linking to trolling sites, he could not have had a more fitting fate than to end up featured on one.  (Warning: that link has a lot of HIGHLY NSFW content behind it. Follow at your own risk.)  He has managed to achieve a kind of record in terms of sheer number of handles created — they must number in the 400-500 range by now.  Clinical insanity.

The second flavor is the kind that has an agenda and insists on telling us all that we’re a bunch of retards for not following it.  Such was apparently behind the DDoS attacks a while back and they’ve returned of late to attempt to lure loyal (but sorely oppressed, apparently) tropers away to a copycat site that promises “freedom from our censorship”.  Oh, and “good wiki software”, which amuses me to no end; these folks miss the fundamental point that it’s the content of a site that matters, not its delivery plaform.  (Yes, our derivative of PMWiki is a kludge, but it works for us.)

They’ve tried to spam links to their wiki all over ours, apparently in the belief that we are some form of free advertising for them.  They’ve sent messages to various tropers and staff members, apparently in the belief that we care, or that telling us how much we suck is going to get us to change our ways.  I even got a comment on this blog, which is amusing because I moderate it, so the only person who saw it was me.  I really have to wonder what they’re trying to persuade me of.  I’m not going to stop banning them and erasing their spam. I’m not going to accede to their Internet Tough Guy act.  I’m not going to suddenly realize the error of my ways and decide to strike a blow for FWEEDOM!!!

There’s also apparently someone (probably the same person) trying to spread some kind of weird meme about our site’s current admin, a meme to which they can’t even get basic facts right, like names. I have to wonder what genius thought this up. It’s not like he has some kind of online reputation to worry about being tarnished by amateur trolling, nor does anyone intelligent care what kind of crap shows up on ED.  Admittedly, the site can be fun if you are of a certain mindset, but to use it as a primary source?  You have got to be kidding.

And all this because we won’t let them use our site as a platform to masturbate over lolicon fetish works and cheap porn. I mean, okay, maybe I could see getting mad if we got rid of all the anime, but seriously, folks.  When their right hands aren’t too busy, maybe they could consider the utter waste they’re making of their lives.  And yes, I fully recognize the irony of writing a blog post about this.

Up next, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (downloading as I type), and maybe some more economics stuff.

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TV Tropes, Porn, and Internet Terrorism

I’ve got something a bit more interesting and involved to talk about in this blog, as opposed to the typical gaming, family, and/or political fare: Internet terrorism (aka “hacktivism”), and how it’s lost its claim to anything resembling a moral high ground.

Some of you who know me may know that I’m a long time member of TV Tropes, a wiki dedicated to identifying and cataloging tropes in media.  A trope, as the wiki defines it, is a storytelling convention, a literary device, plot element, setup, narrative structure, character type, camera trick, editing technique, game mechanic — it’s a recognizable pattern that shapes our perception of media.

As a very simple example, take the Damsel In Distress: a character, usually female, who’s put in danger to set the plot in motion.  If it isn’t to get the hero involved, it’s to make the conflict personal for the hero or to distract the hero from his attempt to defeat the villain.  Frequently, said damsel is the hero’s love interest or becomes his love interest. I could go on for hours, and there’s even a trope for that:  TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

I am a moderator on TV Tropes, meaning it is my “job” (I don’t get paid for this) to help keep things orderly on the wiki and forums. Although I have no administrative control, I do get to witness a lot of what goes on under the hood of a site of this size and complexity, and one of those dubious privileges is dealing with the kinds of folks who don’t play nicely with rules.

TV Tropes has been subject to numerous forms of malicious activity, including simple vandalism like defacing articles and placing insulting comments in discussion pages or forum threads, attempts to recreate articles that were deleted or to delete existing valid articles, attempts to exploit security flaws, and even denial of service attacks, over the site’s administrative and content policies.

Much of the recent furor apparently stems from disagreements over a decision made last year to delete most references to pornographic media and tropes specifically derived from pornographic media, in an effort to keep the site “family friendly“.  What this means is, essentially, that the staff don’t want TV Tropes to be thought of as the kind of place where people go to gush over porn.  As the site is specifically about fandom (although its opposite is acknowledged, that doesn’t mean it is encouraged), it’s inevitable that talking about porn will get it talked about, and not in a favorable way.  It can even get the site in trouble with its advertisers. TV Tropes doesn’t attract nearly enough donations to function ad-free, it doesn’t enjoy the support of a large foundation or sponsors with deep pockets, and Google threatened to pull or actually pulled its ads on at least two occasions over content complaints (despite the suspicion that they may have been malicious). But more than anything, the staff just don’t want it.

Of course, the removal of this content raised a stink with certain parts of the troper community, and that spilled out into the Internet at large.  It was necessary to ban a number of users who wouldn’t accept the decision and committed acts of vandalism in protest, all in the name of what they consider “free speech”. It’s fair to note that there have been other protests against the site’s policies as well, particularly in terms of the enforcement of rules (users can’t talk about themselves or have conversations in the articles, proper grammar and consistent style are required, potholes to the latest fad meme are discouraged, examples require explanation, etc.).

However, this week, the attacks escalated to a full-on denial of service, to the point where TV Tropes was shut down for several hours.  Even after countermeasures were installed, the attacks continued and the site has had to deal with waves of accounts created specifically to vandalize the wiki or to recreate deleted articles.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: Internet terrorism, or “hacktivism” as it is sometimes called.  We all hear talk about groups like Anonymous, who seek out transgressors of various sorts and orchestrate hacks, denial of service attacks, and other forms of vigilantism.  We all know that there’s a hacker underworld that operates botnets (networks of zombie computers employed to send spam, host illegal websites, or conduct attacks).

It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between hacktivism in the service of a principle or a societal ideal and hacktivism for the sake of redressing a personal slight.  Freedom of information and/or anti-censorship is one such principle, and I’m generally in favor of it.  Societies work best when information flows freely and unrestricted.  If a news organization squelches an article because of its political stance, if government demands that the media not report on something that embarrasses it, if a TV show is taken off the air for having an unpopular message, those are all issues that may merit protest from concerned citizens.

TV Tropes, by contrast,  is not a place where freedom of speech can really be said to apply.  It is a privately run fansite, it’s not for-profit, it doesn’t have a broadly scoped mission like Wikipedia, and it never claimed that it would allow anything anyone ever wanted to add.  It has a single owner/administrator (well, two, technically) and a handful of unpaid moderators who do their best to keep a vast and disparate collection of media fans working together in something resembling an orderly fashion.

To be clear, I don’t support criminal activity in the service of activism, even if the cause is something I sympathize with.  Breaking into computers and using them to attack other computers is wrong, and those who do it deserve punishment, regardless of the motive.  Conversely, governments and big businesses have something of an expectation that they will be targeted by people who dislike them, and there is an onus on them to develop proper security measures.  If a company like AT&T gets hacked, it’s no less illegal on the part of the hackers, but it’s an indication that its (presumably well-funded) IT department is not doing its job.

When the services of a botnet and the attentions of these self-styled vigilantes are turned towards sites like TV Tropes without deep pockets or huge IT departments, who rely on the support of their communities to continue existing, it stops resembling anything like nobility and starts looking like plain old bullying.  These people are using the resources of a criminal organization, which are presumably not free, to target a site that annoyed them because it won’t let them talk about porn. One wonders if they are paying money for it, or if the vast gulf between the slight and their response to it occurs to them in any way.

What’s worse is that it discredits the very notion of internet vigilantism as a force for useful change. I can at least sympathize with hacktivism when it’s targeted at a company that has draconian copyright enforcement policies or at a government that supports the suppression of human rights.  It’s still wrong, but I can see why they might feel it serves a greater good.  But attacking a site like TV Tropes that exists solely for the enjoyment of its users, makes no profit, and seeks only to be a useful resource for writers and fans of media in general just makes the perpetrators look petty and makes their cries for freedom of speech sound hollow.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s minds with this post, of course.  I want to get my thoughts out there and maybe have some conversations about it.  TV Tropes will continue to operate whether these attacks continue or not.  If they stop, the site can relax some of its anti-DDoS countermeasures, which have inconvenienced a few tropers.  But the wiki will be up either way, and its policies are not going to change.  I also have to wonder if whoever’s running the attacks is spending money (theirs or someone else’s) on them.  Even in the wild world of hackers and crackers, botnet time isn’t free, even if the cost isn’t expressed in money.

Do they really think they are accomplishing anything?

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JJ Abrams is making Star Wars say what?

Fans of things Star Wars already know that Disney bought LucasFilm a while ago and promised to take us back to the world of Luke Skywalker starting in 2015.  Well, it seems that JJ Abrams, director of such notable films as Mission Impossible III and, yes, the Star Trek reboot, is going to be directing the first installment.  I was chatting with my friends about this and I realized that the situation is ripe for crossover jokes.

“These are the ongoing voyages of the Starship Millennium Falcon.”

“To boldly go where no one has gone before in a galaxy far, far away.”

“Use the force, Kirk!”

What would a crossover between these franchises look like, anyway?  Both have faster than light travel, both have deflector shields, both have ray guns.  Both have galaxy-spanning empires with humans and aliens.  Of course, Star Trek explicitly denies mysticism, whereas Star Wars is built around the concept of the Force.  In Star Trek, humans have only been romping around the galaxy for four centuries or thereabouts, whereas in Star Wars, they’ve been at it for twenty thousand years or more.  Star Trek is about technology and human struggles, whereas Star Wars is about high adventure and romance.  Still, there must be some way to put them together without turning into the cheesefest of Alien vs. Predator.  Get on it, Hollywood!

Silliness aside, I’m mostly interested to see what visual changes Abrams brings to the Star Wars universe.  Lucas is clearly a fan of shiny spaceships and beautiful people, whereas Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek was almost gritty.  I also would be willing to bet good money that we won’t see many Ewoks, Gungans, or similar cutesy comedy relief aliens.

As for what they do with the story, who the hell knows?  In talking with my friends, we noted that Lucas only officially considered the films totally canonical — that is, whatever happened in the films always trumps anything else anyone comes up with, whether it be in the cartoons, novels, roleplaying games, whatever.  But licensed authors have filled in the Star Wars Expanded Universe with what must be thousands of stories from every conceivable angle and about every conceivable character, before, during, and after all six films.  There is barely any part of the galaxy, past, present, or future, that remains unexplored.

So what will Abrams do with this?  Will he cheerfully ignore all the EU material by taking the franchise in a different direction?  Will he pick through bits of it for ideas but forge them into something all his own?  Will Star Wars: Episode VII be cribbed from Timothy Zahn’Dark Force Rising?  More importantly, where will he take the characters?  Will Luke get a love interest?  If Mara Jade becomes canon, it’ll send fans into a tizzy like nothing else could.  If Han and Leia get married and have babies, will they be Force sensitive, and will Luke have to train them?  I can’t see any of those pleasing all of the millions of fans, and no matter what, it’s going to be a bloodbath in the tubes of the Internet.

Gaming updates!  I finished Assassin’s Creed III a while back, and meant to post a full review (there’s a draft sitting around) but I can’t see how much there is to add from the partial review I posted previously.  Maybe I’ll take the time to work it out, or just edit it in to the original one.  My Let’s Play is complete, so check it out if you haven’t already.  I played some multiplayer, and it’s fun, and if I get the energy I may post a few episodes of it.  We’ll see.

My World of Warcraft guild is getting its raid game going, finally, and we got our first guild clear of Mogu’shan Vaults last weekend.  I know that may not seem like much to players who are farming Heroic Terrace of the Endless Spring, but for us it’s a big deal.  Patch 5.2 hits soon, and along with a new raid instance, there will be a boatload of new quest content and some nice updates to pet battles, so it’ll keep things fresh and interesting there.

My friend, Chris, has been bugging me to get back into Diablo III, so once AC III was in the bag, I refocused my attention on getting all my characters to 60 and decked out.  There are some generous folks out there in this game, I tell you.  I got so much stuff donated that all my characters have jumped way up in the gear department.  My Wizard and Barbarian are able to perform reasonably well at Monster Power 2, which I didn’t think would happen nearly as quickly as it did.  Moreover, I’ve arrived at a place that I never imagined when I started playing: uncommon and rare items are vendor trash, and it’s only the very unusual rare that I care about enough to stash.  Legendaries have become the new rares.

I’m looking for something new to play that I can do another Let’s Play of.  Far Cry 3 looks awesome but everyone and their grandma seems to be playing it.  Plus, it’s not really all that appropriate for my son.  I think my best bet is the upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines.  It looked awesome when I previewed it at PAX East 2012, and it’ll be something that not everybody is doing commentary on.

See everyone soon!

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

It looks like we all survived the Mayan apocalypse.  Either that or Desmond Miles saved us all from the solar flare.  Thanks, Desmond!  Speaking of which, I have to post my final review of Assassin’s Creed III at some point.  Look for it soon.

While I’m working on other stuff, such as playing Diablo III and getting all my characters to level 60, I figured I’d republish this video I took and edited together of my son sledding.  I have gotten a lot of compliments on the editing; it’s just an intro clip and some basic transitions, but looking at it I’m actually somewhat astonished at how simple things like that improve the effect.

More later!

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Assassin’s Creed III Partial Review

[Read the following in a dramatic movie trailer voice.]

It is time.  Time to enter the American Revolution and learn the truth of what happened back then.  It is time to unlock the final secrets  of The Ones Who Came Before, to reveal their ultimate plan for saving the world.  It is time to discover Desmond Miles’ fate.  It is time to play Assassin’s Creed III.

[Okay, normal voice. *Cough*]

This blog post is both late and early.  It’s late because Assassin’s Creed III came out on the PC on November 20, almost a month after its X-Box 360 and Playstation 3 release.  I then spent a good day downloading it (16 GB!) and couldn’t play until a day after that because of family stuff.  It’s early because I haven’t beaten it yet, but I want to get my first impressions out there anyway.

I also want to advertise my Let’s Play of it, which I’ve been uploading to YouTube and which can be found here.  Please check it out; I may not be as amusing (or as practiced at recording videos) as Tobuscus but I do try to entertain at least.  In fact, getting the thing to work at all has been something of a learning curve for me; more on that later.

Graphics and Immersion

First things first: the game is unbelievably immersive.  I have not seen a more historically accurate game… ever, really.  Ubisoft is on record as having done sixteen times more research for AC3 than they did for any other game, and it shows.  The reproductions of Boston, New York, even the parts of London that you see are damn near photorealistic, and the new graphics engine slams it out at very respectable framerates for my poor weak computer.

The game does a great job of showcasing the new engine, as well.  The very first scene you enter in the Animus (after the requisite infodump to get us caught up with the plot and a nice justified tutorial of Desmond learning the new Animus interface) is in a 1755 London opera house, and the crowd dynamics are breathtaking.  Every one of those thousands of seats is filled by a fully rendered character, just as Ubisoft promised.

The very next visual spectacle takes place at sea during an Atlantic crossing.  When I saw the ship sailing on those rolling waves, I frankly couldn’t believe that my PC was showing actual gameplay and not a cutscene.  This carries forward to the naval battle missions that unlock later in the game; whether in calm seas or stormy weather, the visuals explode at you like a graphics engineer’s orgasm.  Really, they are that good.

Some other set pieces make it seem like Ubisoft’s design team was borrowing elements from Uncharted.  Not that that’s a bad thing, but when you have to dash through a fort that’s being shelled, with fire everywhere and buildings collapsing around you; or escape from a ship that’s sinking in icy Northern waters, I can’t help but think that Nathan Drake would be right at home.  Cinematic storytelling, one might call it, and it’s exceptional.

The war scenes also live up to their promise.  At Bunker Hill (a level showcased in the promotional material), an outnumbered Patriot army faces off against ranks of Redcoats, and you must skip from cover to cover to avoid their massed musket volleys.  In another mission, you have to command Patriot forces holding the line against the British attack at Concord.  In yet another, you have to run through a city that’s being shelled by British frigates, dodging cannon barrages in an attempt to swim out to the ships and disable them.  All of it is visually rich and would not look out of place on a Hollywood screen.

Of course, the Frontier itself is teeming with spectacular vistas.  Whether locked in winter snows or steaming in the summer heat, it’s a place you can quite literally lose yourself in for hours, soaking up the scenery and murdering the wildlife (more on that later).

And lest we forget, the modern world puts in a few memorable appearances as well.  In the first game, all you saw was Desmond’s little corner of Abstergo.  In the second, you get to wander around parts of the megacorp’s offices and visit an Assassin hideout.  In Brotherhood you see Monteriggioni and a Precursor temple; and in Revelations you see… well, the Animus Island.  Here, at last, Desmond gets to go do all that Assassin stuff that he’s been training for, and the designers pull out all the stops in realizing these missions: a massive office building under construction in New York, a stadium in Brazil, and… well, at least one more place that I haven’t been to yet.

All in all, Ubisoft deserves mad props for delivering what may be the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.

The Story

There’s only so much I can say here without major spoilers.  As I write this, I am on Memory Sequence 9, deep in the Revolutionary War with no end in sight.  There are at least two more sequences to go and the plot twists keep coming hard and fast.  I can say this much: if the myth arc of the Assassin’s Creed series interests you; if your heart beats faster when you see the telltale orange glow that heralds the appearance of The Ones Who Came Before, this game offers a feast of exposition that puts all previous games in the series to shame.

The Precursor race puts in an appearance right at the very beginning of the game, signaling Desmond Miles’ return to the Animus, and Juno, who you may recall playing a pivotal role in the end of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, is here and very vocal.  Not only is she vocal, but she is disturbingly aware: a holographic ghost who flits through the Grand Temple (not a spoiler, it’s literally in the game’s intro) and dispenses information and admonition in equal measure.  At this point in the game I don’t know for sure what she’s up to, but there are tantalizing hints that she may be more than just a mere recording.  Regardless, she has a purpose, which is to see Desmond complete his task by December 21, 2012.

On the historical side, the game pulls a little surprise on you right from the start, by placing you in the life, not of Connor, the featured protagonist, but of one Haytham Kenway, an upper class British gentleman who, in the opening sequence, assassinates a man at an opera and then, at the behest of his superiors, sets sail for the Colonies to look for a Precursor temple.  Yes, you play as Connor’s father.  This dude would make James Bond proud, and as he goes through Boston and the Frontier acquiring allies and assassinating important British figures, I found myself unexpectedly immersed in his story.

Of course, we know more or less what happens next: he helps a Mohawk woman (tongue-twistingly named Kaniehtí:io) rescue her people from an evil slaver in return for her aid in locating what we know (but Haytham does not) to be the Grand Temple, the two fall in love and conceive a child.  This, however, sets up a plot twist that may be one of the greatest in all of video game history — one that had me literally incoherent with shock but that, in retrospect, was foreshadowed all over the place.  Ubisoft deserves incredible commendations for knowing its fans; the plot played me like a finely tuned instrument, toying with my expectations only to upend them.

This leads us to Connor, of course, whom we first meet as a child — a remarkably capable child, I might add, who can apparently read at the ripe age of five and stand up to a Templar in a contest of words.  As we know, his village gets burned by said Templars and later, as a hot blooded teenager spoiling for revenge against the colonists who are taking his people’s land, he receives a vision from our old friend Juno instructing him to seek out Assassin training.

It turns out that the Assassins have fallen on hard times and there’s just one crotchety old man left to accomplish this.  Nevertheless, Connor persists in winning his trust and then undergoes years of training, neatly justifying a few time skips.  During this period, though, he befriends a number of prominent figures in the coming Revolution, including Samuel Adams (yes, that Sam Adams), who helps Connor clear his name after he is falsely accused of instigating the Boston Massacre (yes, that Boston Massacre).  This is also the point where Connor learns naval combat at the hands of a crusty old sea dog.

Once Connor is a full-fledged Assassin (and somehow Ubisoft manages to make the rituals of acquiring the Hidden Blades and donning the Assassin uniform meaningful and dramatic even after all these games), things get started in earnest.  I’m starting to lose count of the famous events I’ve participated in: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s famous ride, the battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the naming of George Washington as commander of the Patriot army, the terrible winter at Valley Forge — it’s all here.

Of course, all is not black and white, and Ubisoft has again gone out of its way to illustrate the grey and gray morality of the Assassin’s Creed universe.  By the time Connor is 22, his recklessness and zeal have gotten him in all kinds of trouble, and the Templars he meets and kills persist in refusing to allow themselves to be easily classified as villains.  There comes a point in Memory Sequence 9 when Connor abandons the guidance of his mentors and strikes out for Freedom and Liberty, and you just know he’s going to screw something up big time in the process.  I just have to keep reminding myself that America does win the war.

This right after a Desmond sequence in which I started to question the basic premise of the series: are the Assassins really fighting on the side of good against the evil Templars, or are both sides merely pawns in a greater scheme?  Worse, I’m having serious doubts about some of Desmond’s companions.  The plot makes a big fuss over all the Assassins who’ve been turned by the Templars (I won’t spoil it by saying the name, but you meet one right out of the blue) and one has to wonder: is any of the stuff Desmond is being told true?  I can’t apply my usual narrative sensibilities here: the premise of the game is such that the ending could be anything.

Gameplay

So far this review has been overwhelmingly positive, so here’s where I start to have some quibbles with the game.  Let’s dive in.

Combat and movement are streamlined, as promised, from earlier games in the series.  There’s a hilarious bit of lampshade hanging when you read Rebecca’s “patch notes” for the Animus where she identifies all the things that were annoying about the previous game and “fixes” them.  So now you have one primary attack button, a “tool” button that uses your secondary item, a high profile toggle, a “use” button, a jump/sprint/miscellaneous button, and a few other buttons to control things like your weapon wheel, your Assassin recruits, reloading, etc.  It works well on mouse and keyboard (something I was concerned about) and my only real quibble is that the buttons are not as responsive as I would like, especially when performing some non-intuitive actions like opening the Assassin recruit missions interface.

There’s certainly far less of Connor/Haytham unexpectedly jumping off of buildings to their doom; one interesting feature is that the default free-run mode is “safe” and won’t make you take highly risky actions.  You need to press the jump button to do those, so at least your fatal plummets are something you explicitly chose to do.  Even with that, though, I found myself occasionally unable to climb something because the game wanted me to do it three or four inches to the left, or stuck inside a climbable structure instead of outside.  And occasionally I’d jump to my death accidentally anyway.  So it’s an improvement, but it’s not perfect.

Combat itself is fast-paced.  Normal enemies fall rapidly to the Assassin repertoire, but there are several enemies with more advanced tricks.  Firing lines are one of the nasty things you have to watch out for — when a flashy yellow alert icon goes up over the enemies’ heads, you’d better grab a human shield quickly or duck behind an obstacle or you’ll take major damage.  Sometimes that doesn’t even help as their musket balls occasionally seem to be able to go around corners.  Some enemies like Jägers and Grenadiers are advanced fighters and won’t fall for ordinary counters; you have to get creative to beat them.  This can occasionally be an exercise in frustration as you have to figure out what techniques work while simultaneously fighting off enemies who will interrupt your combos.

Also I’ve found some rather hilarious animation glitches.  For example, if your opponent is standing on a platform a foot or two above you, and you use an assassination technique, you’ll grab their legs for a choke-out, or stab them viciously in the knees.

For all the brutality of the combat, Ubisoft has elected not to show health bars except for mission-critical characters, and so it’s hard to tell how much you’ve damaged your opponents. In many cases it seems not to matter, as if you don’t finish your kill combos, your enemy may get back up and keep fighting as if nothing happened.  So let me get this straight, being stabbed completely through the chest twice is annoying, but three times is fatal?  And getting thrown into a wall is an instant kill.  These little inconsistencies break immersion.  Although I suppose it’s fair given that Connor also fights perfectly until he loses the last little sliver of his own health.

Counters can be frustrating as well, as the timing windows are not always apparent, nor do they seem to sync up with the visuals.  It’s more a matter of getting used to it; what makes it worse is that sometimes the game will simply omit the incoming attack warning, so you have to watch your opponents’ movements instead.

I should also throw a mention out to the animal combat.  For the most part stalking and hunting animals is a simple matter of stealth, but when you encounter a predator like a wolf or cougar, or an aggressive male elk, you may end up in what is known in the industry as a Quicktime Event — rather than fighting in Open Conflict, you instead have to precisely time pressing the counter button followed by a randomly selected other button, or you get mauled.  And animals hurt; it doesn’t take too many misses for you to desynchronize whilst raging about how you pressed the damn button.  In the end it is just a matter of timing, and I’ve gotten fairly good at it.

For all this, my favorite part of the game is the naval combat.  It’s funny, because the tower-defense minigame of Revelations got rather thoroughly panned, but naval combat in AC3 could easily be a full scale game all by itself.  The sense of maneuvering a powerful vessel on the seas, lining up that perfect shot while seeking cover from enemy volleys, is amazing.

Now, some complaints.  I did say I had some of those, right?

I’ve run into lots of glitchy animations and mechanics that tell me the game could have used a bit more time to polish.  For example, when hunting animals, they will run away if they detect you, but sometimes they will, in their panic, run right back across your path, allowing a ridiculously easy kill.  At other times, they run into trees and get stuck there, letting me walk up to them and murder them.

Horses are a pain in the arse; while they have no trouble at all running on roads, and can even jump over short obstacles like fences, they have an annoying tendency to get hung up on very small changes in elevation and can get completely stuck if you run into an obstructed area, because they’ll refuse to just jump out.  This forces you to either dismount or spin around spastically until the horse clips back to where it should be.

I also saw a few clipping/animation issues, some of which were unintentionally amusing, like in the scene where you meet Kaniehtí:io. Her arms are bound in front of her at first, then the scene switches and they suddenly move behind her, clipping through the wagon.  I also saw a horse get stuck inside a wall, and got stuck inside a gate at one point when it opened while I was standing in its path.

For all the awesomeness of the Frontier and tree-running, it starts to develop a sameness after a while, as there is only so much diversity in the types of tree models in the game.  It allows for a certain ease of planning, to be sure, but you can learn to tell precisely which trees are climbable and which are not, and it’s a little immersion-breaking at times.  Even more so are the “viewpoint” trees.  There are only two models, and one of those only occurs once.  So the “sameness” of the tree-running and climbing paths took away a little of the wonder and awe of traversing the Frontier, replaced by a certain mechanical sense of, “Okay, how did Ubisoft want me to travel here?”

The Homestead is another great idea that could have been executed better.  It’s fun to recruit people to help build up this pioneer town, and with each new addition to the Homestead you unlock new craftables that become your system of upgrades, as well as your primary source of income (other than chests and hunting).  The trouble is that the interface is staggeringly unintuitive.  You can unlock recipes long before you have the people to craft them, and the game gives you precisely zero information on how to acquire the necessary prerequisites for each recipe.  Supposedly I’m to level these guys up?  I’m doing their missions, but they persist in being measly level 1 woodcutters, miners, etc.  And the process of picking things to buy, craft, and sell via convoys is mind-numbingly tedious.

Lastly, I’ve read some complaints about the mission objectives, in particular the “full sync”.  Now, this mechanic started in Brotherhood and it has always been annoying.  The game puts the optional objectives tantalizingly in front of you and dares you to attempt them, chastising you with a red failure notice each time you don’t satisfy them.  If you only care about advancing the story you can skip them, but for a completionist like me it’s impossible to resist their lure.  And some of them are fiendishly difficult, even when I go back later and replay them.  Some of them even had me screaming at my computer in frustration.

Wow, this got long.  I’m over 3,000 words and there’s still a good chunk of the game to go.  If you want to see me play the game, check out my video channel on YouTube.  I’m kind of hoping that I do my last upload on December 21.

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Surviving Sandy, and a bit of volunteering

The threatened flooding from Superstorm Sandy never materialized in our area.  (It wasn’t technically a hurricane, but try telling that to the people in Staten Island and Atlantic City.  Except that, for some reason, insurance adjusters may be forced to pay claims they wouldn’t have had it been an actual hurricane.  Is our system screwed up or what?)

Instead, we got a windstorm that felled trees like a giant’s scythe, knocking out power for millions of people.  Our electricity provider, PPL, had over 300,000 outages in its service area at the peak of the storm.  We lost power on Monday afternoon and didn’t get it back until Thursday.  We were lucky, all things considered — some people still haven’t been restored!  And that’s not counting all of those folks in New York and New Jersey who might not have services back for weeks, and even if they do, their homes may be gone.  What a storm.

I put up a photo album of some trees that fell around our neighborhood.

Of course, our dear Republicans couldn’t wait to turn it into an opportunity to bash President Obama for his mismanagement of the country and … oh, wait, what do you mean FEMA is doing its job and the government response has been praised by people across the political spectrum?  This Cannot Be! New Jersey governor Chris Christie, in a moment of epic awesomeness that may get him reelected, dared to go on Fox News and tell their anchors to stuff it with the politics.  Meanwhile, Romney staged a “relief rally” in Ohio where attendees were given food to “donate” that Romney’s campaign bought from the local Walmart, ignoring the fact that the Red Cross didn’t even want it.

I’ll let Paul Krugman speak to the key differences between Katrina and Sandy in terms of federal response: let it be summarized that under Republican administrations, disaster relief efforts are hampered by the fact that they try very hard to prevent FEMA from being effective, lest people grow too “dependent on government”, ignoring the fact that disaster relief is one of the primary purposes of having government in the first place.

Anyway, we’re all fine, there wasn’t even a trickle of flooding, and all our stuff is back in the basement and garage where it belongs. I even got to vacuum behind my computer desk.  Serendipity, right?

Speaking of the election, I went out and volunteered Sunday evening at the local Obama for America office.  We were doing organized canvassing of neighborhoods in Bethlehem, getting as many people out to vote as possible.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, never having done anything like this before, but what I found surprised and delighted me.  Some people were clearly sick of getting their doors knocked on and their phones called, but most of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful that we cared enough to make the effort to ensure they were ready to go on Tuesday.

We got invited in to a pair of homes where they were ardent Obama supporters, and offered refreshments.  One lady helped us get in contact with her neighbors, and I was able to help a man look up his voter registration online, since he wasn’t on our list and wasn’t sure if it had gone through.  It didn’t feel like I was being a door-to-door salesman, which is something I detest.  It felt like I was doing a genuinely good deed.

This election doesn’t feel like Obama is losing.  It doesn’t feel like the glamour of 2008 is gone.  It feels to me, in this moment, like a bunch of hard working and dedicated people coming together to elect a man we trust over a man we don’t.

Everyone had better come out to vote Tuesday.  It’s worth it.

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