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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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’s 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!
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am beat. With storm predictions telling us to expect upwards of five inches of rain in the Bethlehem area from Hurricane Sandy, we’ve been hauling all our stuff out of the basement/garage and into the main floor. Last year, Irene had us under two and a half feet of water, and we were lucky compared to our neighbors down the street.
By tonight, everything that can be moved upstairs will be. We have water, flashlights, nonperishable food, a gas stove, clean laundry, the works. Much depends on which end of that “5 to 10 inches” prediction the storm tops out at.
Irene last year, Sandy this year… one might almost imagine that increasing global temperatures are causing more severe weather patterns that are causing more frequent and more devastating storms. Or I suppose it could be God’s revenge on us for not stoning gays and lesbians like the Bible tells us to. Me? I’ll take the option backed by science.
I sort of promised a World of Warcraft update when I reached level 90, so here we are.
I got to level 90 on schedule, about halfway through Townlong Steppes. Considering that I also had not finished Krasarang Wilds at this point, that’s about three and a half zones out of six, so the XP curve is definitely fairly forgiving this expansion. I have since finished all the quests in Townlong and Krasarang, so the only thing left for Loremaster of Pandaria is the Dread Wastes, which I shall get to once I finish gearing up for raids.
Speaking of which, I do kind of miss the more casual leveling experience that I had in classic and Burning Crusade, when I didn’t feel pressure to raid as soon as possible after launch and could complete all the zone quests before worrying about other things. Part of the problem is that there is just so much to do in Pandaria that I literally do not have time. I log on and there are no less than four sets of daily quests to do: Arboretum (the celestial dragon dudes), Tillers, Anglers, and Golden Lotus, plus farming mats for endgame cooking and alchemy, plus running dungeons and scenarios to get my item level up. And, of course, pet battles. Who’s a cute little level 20 Mojo? Yes you are!
Note: I am not complaining. I’d rather have stuff to do than no stuff to do. And I haven’t even touched PvP yet or started raiding. It’s just that the sheer amount of content that Blizzard has packed into Mists of Pandaria is a bit overwhelming at times (again: good!), and there’s this competing impetus to “raid, dammit”.
So, back to the list of impressions.
Blizzard was not lying when they said that the questing path this expansion was their best ever. A few minor bugs aside, the quests this time around are as varied and entertaining as I’ve ever seen them. I also like that the zone quest achievements are broken down into segments and you get a toast for every piece of them you complete. The sense of making incremental progress towards the end reward is welcome — much better than a dry “50 of 125″.
Daily quests (which unlock once you reach level 90) are also varied. Once you have done them a few times, you quickly get the idea that they follow a theme: each day, for each faction, a particular questing area is chosen, and then a set of random quests from that area is selected, plus one or more “general” quests. Keeping it thematic helps with immersion and also helps you finish them faster.
Once you hit level 90 and purchase the flying upgrade for Pandaria, you get to really see the world. In addition to the usual map reveals, there are a lot of achievements related to the various lore objects scattered around the continent, which I mentioned in my previous post. Well, it turns out that these objects are the key to upgrading your reputation with the Lorewalkers faction.
Now, if I had all the time in the world, I’d search the continent high and low and not consult a guide — in point of fact, I found almost half of the objects just by encountering them while questing, but others I would not have found had I not specifically gone looking for them. In the end, expediency won out over immersion, and Wowhead came to the rescue by providing me a map to the locations.
A few turn-ins later and I hit Exalted with Lorewalkers. Not much there, though, just a mount to add to my pile and some toys that make Archaeology easier. I do want to get the Archaeology achievements, though, but doing that will involve a lot of time traipsing through digsites, and that’ll have to wait until I’m less busy.
Faction Daily Quests
I mentioned this a bit earlier, but the new faction daily quest system is interesting. First, it’s how you gain most of your reputation in Mists. Sure, there are some reputations you get through killing things (The Black Prince is one of them) and dungeons (in this case, it’s the Tushui Pandaren faction that is part of the Alliance group — the only reason for a level 90 to do this, though, is for the mounts), but most of it is quest grinding. This sets a hard cap on how much you can acquire in a day and some of them are harder than others.
For example, maxing your personal friendships with all of the Tillers NPCs requires searching Pandaria high and low for very hard to spot dirt mounds, so you can dig up quest items to give as gifts. Not very fun, especially as they don’t show up on the minimap radar. Fortunately, Gatherer seems to track them in its latest version, and I’m sure that’d be more helpful if my map weren’t full to the brim of herb locations, to the point where it’s almost annoying.
Also, getting Nat Pagle reputation (which to me seems to be the single most annoying one in the game) requires obsessively fishing for three rare fish that can only be caught once per day. Oh. My. God. And all this just for a book that lets you teach fishing to your alts and an achievement to confirm that you are insane or have OCD.
The other faction dailies are certainly more straightforward, although I need to go look up Shado-Pan, as I haven’t found a quest hub for them yet, oddly. Golden Lotus is the biggest drag in terms of time and sheer quantity, although you do get rewarded with a bunch of those Lesser Charms of Good Fortune that can boost your loot rolls in LFR.
I was prepared mentally for the usual plunge in secondary stats as I leveled from 85 to 90. After all, I’ve seen it with each expansion so far: those hard-won stats you got in raids suddenly are crap when it comes time for the next set of endgame content and you have to gear up all over again. Pandaria hit me really hard, though. I saw my stats plunge by over 75% even with questing gear, and at a current item level of 455 I have barely managed to surpass the DPS I used to be able to pull in Cataclysm. When level 90 mobs have five to ten times the health of level 85 Cataclysm mobs, it is sloooooooow to kill them.
I’ve seen some of the simulations for level 90 performance in Tier 14 gear and I have to say that I’d settle for even half of the notional 100K+ DPS that it says I should be able to do. Still, there’s only up to go, and I do have to admit that the stat boosts with each gear upgrade have a noticeable effect on my performance. The biggest thing that drives me nuts is the loss of haste, though. When I could count on 27% haste in Moonkin Form at baseline, I had a certain set of reflexes built up to handle the pace of casting. DoT rotations, nukes, all of it felt natural and automatic. Now I am constantly fighting against my cast bar and global cooldown, waiting for what feels like an eternity to mash the next button. Damn you, muscle memory!
I am performing well in most fights, though, and I’m competitive over the long haul with other classes. I just have to remember all my tools, like Astral Communion before fights to push me into an Eclipse mode, and using Celestial Alignment on cooldown and at the right times. Also, Hurricane/Astral Storm is king for AoE fights now, unlike before when it was a waste of time. Wild Mushrooms need some kind of buff, though.
Dungeons and Scenarios
The dungeon content so far is varied and challenging. I know many people will say that Heroics are too easy… and they are, for organized groups and guild teams. I’ve been hearing horror stories about PuGs getting flattened by some bosses, and I’ve seen it myself.
I recently got in a Scarlet Monastery group with a tank that insisted on chain pulling everything, pulling two or three trash packs at once, even pulling trash and bosses at the same time. He kept getting mauled and we finally had to tell him, “Hey, dude, we aren’t in 478 gear here. Lay off a bit.” His response was that he was only at 453 or something. I wanted to murder him. We finally convinced him to do one pull at a time and, lo and behold, we won easily.
Some moments in the dungeons are highly memorable, like fighting a giant ale elemental while floating around in bubbles formed from beer suds, or advancing on a wall of archers while holding shields grabbed from the environment. I think that’s what Blizzard was going for with this expansion: making the process of beating on giant health bars for loot more entertaining, and they definitely succeeded.
I think my guild is going to be in shape to hit up raiding in the next week or so, and I’ll report back on how that goes when it happens.
I have a confession: I was going to give up on the pet battle system at one point over frustration with the difficulty of the grind. Beating even-level wild pet teams 50% of the time and getting a meager five or ten percent of the XP bar for each of my pets just wasn’t going to cut it. Then Blizzard apparently put in some undocumented nerfs, specifically to the health scaling of wild pets.
Apparently, this was to differentiate wild pet quality more clearly. Poor quality pets have the lowest health and stats, while Rare quality pets have the best. Well, if you see a group of three level 17 snakes, one with 550 health and another with 950 health, you know which one is the rare and can plan your captures accordingly. Still, the net effect is to make it possible to defeat wild pets of a much higher level than your own pets’. For example, I was winning battles against Pandaria pets (level 23-24) with my level 19 team on a regular basis, and getting decent XP for it too.
That leaves the real challenges to be the master pet trainer encounters, and boy are they challenges. They still do the AI Roulette thing: I’ve seen elite pets that could have wiped the floor with me cast self-buffs multiple times in a row, but I’ve also seen them do some horrible combo attacks, like one pet putting a double damage debuff up and the next one using a super attack that hit for over 1,000 damage. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to clear both Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor and am now working on Outland.
The thing that bothers me now is that there’s apparently a long-standing bug that prevents your traps from getting upgraded once you get certain achievements. Blizzard claims to have hotfixed this, and it does indeed seem to be working for some people, but mainly just those who got the achievement after the hotfix, not before. As I’m in the “before” category, I still have my dinky little baseline traps and it is really annoying, especially as I know that there are better versions available. I realize this could sound hypocritical from someone who’s made a point of criticizing whiners, but please fix it, Blizzard!
Well, that’s it so far. More later as I see what raids are like in this expansion.