Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry (Let’s Play)

Onward with Assassin’s Creed! Fresh off of my playthrough of Liberation, I decided to free some more slaves and pulled out the spinoff game for Black Flag, Freedom Cry.  This game covers the adventures of Adewale, Edward Kenway’s best friend and shipmate, as an Assassin, fifteen years after the events of that entry.  Adewale finds himself shipwrecked in Saint-Domingue and forced to seek the aid of the local revolutionary group (composed of escaped slaves) to return to the Brotherhood.

Oh, and I’m running a Let’s Play, which will be uploaded over the next week or two.

Like Liberation, this game is relatively short; I beat it in less than five hours.  Technically, there is little to say that wasn’t already covered in my review of Black Flag: it gives us more sailing, more piracy, more assassinations of ruthless and brutal men, all set in the luscious and lovingly rendered backdrop of the Caribbean Sea of the mid 18th century.  The major change is that the path to upgrading both Adewale’s gear and his ship is based primarily on how many slaves he frees rather than his acquisition of money.

My most persistent impression while I played this game was that it made a nice break from the usual moral ambiguity of the franchise. No longer did I have to worry about whether it was justified to murder soldiers and governors and such; they are all engaged in the slave trade and as such make up a category known as acceptable targets.  One target, in his dying speech, tells Adewale that he regards slaves as subhuman.  No order versus freedom dilemma here.

Rather, the central issue to the plot is whether Adewale, by freeing slaves and helping them form a resistance group, is making things better or worse for them in the long run.  It is clear that this resistance faces a long battle against an overwhelmingly powerful foe, and pricking it only makes its reprisals worse, its oppression stronger.  Based on the historical record, it seems that some of those communities did manage to remain independent and even played important roles in the later colonial rebellions, so it seems that Ade’s work bore fruit.

All in all, this was a very nice, light game that helped me ease back into the AC franchise.  Next up, Assassin’s Creed Unity.

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Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD

I finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt last week, and the conclusion was pretty awesome.  I was very happy to achieve one of the “good” endings, and the triggers for it were somewhat surprising, if obvious in retrospect.   I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but I will say that I chose or ended up with the following:

  • Nilfgaard won the war.  (Better Emhyr than Radovid.)
  • Temeria remained free.  (Sorry Dijkstra, but you decided to be an ass, and I liked Roche too much.)
  • Keira Metz got her “good” ending.  (No bioweapon for you, Radovid.)
  • I chose Yennefer.  (More or less by default; it’s clear that’s how Geralt leans.)
  • (spoiler) Ciri became Empress of Nilfgaard.

If I do ever replay the game, I think I’ll try to choose Triss over Yen to see how that ending goes, but otherwise I wouldn’t change much.  It probably won’t happen until or unless CD Project releases a “New Game Plus” mode.


Anyway, on to the next game.  Steam had a great sale recently on the latest Assassin’s Creed titles, so I picked up Liberation, Freedom Cry, Rogue, and Unity.  Syndicate is coming out in October, so I want to be caught up on the meta plot.  First up was Liberation.

As a reminder for anyone who’s not up to speed on the franchise, Liberation is the story of Aveline de Grandpré, a French-African Assassin living in New Orleans during the period between 1765 and 1780.  During the daytime, she’s the adopted daughter of a wealthy family, helps manage her father’s business, attends social functions, and plays a mean piano.  At night, she works to free slaves and runs headfirst into a Templar plot to abduct them to create a utopian society in Mexico.

It’s fairly easy to tell that the game was designed for a handheld system, as the story content is fairly short and there’s a paucity of dialogue.  That’s fine; I didn’t mind a break after the epic experiences of Witcher 3, AC III, and AC Black Flag.  It’s still an Assassin’s Creed game through and through, with the same core mechanics as III.  The major addition is Aveline’s “personas” — in addition to her Assassin garb, she can don the guise of a high-status Lady or a common Slave.  The Lady persona is largely immune to suspicion and can infiltrate almost anywhere, but is weak and cannot free run.  The Slave persona is beneath notice, but is weaker in combat and attracts suspicion easily for illegal actions.  Although the game chooses for you in most cases, the missions where you can pick which way to achieve your objective are the most enjoyable.  There are also side quests and bonus objectives that only unlock when you are in a particular persona, giving the game added depth.

I had some muscle memory issues, as I kept wanting to use the same controls as in The Witcher 3, and barring that, the same controls as in Black Flag.  Once I remembered that the right mouse button toggles free-run instead of Witcher Senses Eagle Vision, and that the map is Tab instead of M, I was okay.  Also, the game has a few glitches. Nothing that makes it unplayable, but the feedback text kept disappearing at random intervals, the mouse cursor vanished during the trade mission screen, and in one mission the game entirely blacked out except when I was in Eagle Vision or in a scripted conversation.

The one surprise that Liberation had to offer was the voice acting.  Which is to say, the awfulness of it.  I was taken aback until I remembered a key conceit of this game: it’s framed as a propaganda piece by Abstergo Entertainment, the media division of Abstergo Industries, the modern front for the Templar Order, who are the main villains of the franchise.  We see in Black Flag that Abstergo has virtually zero respect for cultural authenticity and believes in selling to the lowest common denominator.  Accordingly, all references to Templars are edited out, replaced with generic references to “the enemy”, and certain key scenes are entirely changed from the original Animus memories.  To facilitate this, Abstergo hired voice actors to dub over those memories, with hilariously awful results.  For example, Élise Lafleur, a French smuggler, sounds like she’s voiced by an American badly faking a French accent.

What makes all this work is the hidden content — an agent provocateur who calls himself Erudito has snuck easter eggs into the game that the player can unlock, revealing the true scenes that were edited by Abstergo.  This culminates in completely changing the ending from the fake one in which Aveline, confused by the Assassins’ moral failings, joins the Templars, to the true one in which she assassinates all of them.

Anyway, it was a fun romp through the bayous of Louisiana and the ruins of Chichen Itza.  Next up, Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry.  I think I may even test out my new computer’s recording capabilities and put up a Let’s Play of this one.  Look for it.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

I decided to test my fancy new PC this past week with an actual modern game, instead of the creaky stuff I’ve been playing up until now. My friends have been extolling the virtues of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and I realized that I have been missing a good open-world RPG, especially one that’s reputedly as mature-themed as this.

As with Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls series, The Witcher 3 marks my initial entry into an established franchise, so I lack any real references for the characters and lore. I’m playing the game about as “blind” as it’s possible to get. I will say that my initial thoughts will be based on the comparison between those two games, so if I tread on any sacred cows, I apologize in advance. For reference, as of this writing I’m about 26 hours in, level 13, and traipsing through Velen.

First off, this game is indescribably gorgeous. It’s also punishing on my new computer; when I tried to run it at near-max settings, it crushed my GTX 750, so I turned it down to recommended settings. Even with those, it’s by far the best looking game I’ve played. The detail on the characters and their skins, the lush environments, weather effects, water, lighting… CD Projekt Red put in a lot of effort and it shows. I only wish I could afford to spend $400 on a video card to truly do the game justice.

Second, I will take a moment to point at Bethesda and gloat, “See, this is how you develop a vast, open-world RPG that doesn’t depend on fan mods to patch the glaring bugs.” I won’t say that it’s totally glitch free, but nothing has seriously interrupted my play. At worst, I’ve seen a few minor scripting errors with quests, like an NPC failing to despawn after quest completion, so that their default version and quest version are in the same house together.

Now, let’s get down to some specific observations.

  • How does one “witch”?
  • Gwent is surprisingly fun, although I’ve been annoyed at the power of some of the NPCs’ decks — I clearly can’t hope to compete without winning a lot of games and picking up some rare cards.
  • Combat is quite dynamic; the mechanics encourage defense, unlike Skyrim, especially since health can’t be regenerated instantly and runes have cooldowns governed by Stamina. Getting hit interrupts attack chains so you can be overwhelmed by superior numbers.
  • Quen is the best sign, hands down, except against Spectres that can’t be seriously affected without Yrden. I find the others inconsistent.
  • So… much… exploration. So… many… sidequests.
  • I’m so used to scaling difficulty that the static difficulty of this game’s encounters took me aback. It feels almost like a throwback, especially when the difficulty can jump so wildly from location to location. A pack of level 5 wolves can be right next door to a level 23 griffin. It seems to discourage the “explore everything” mentality when you can be brutally one-shotted by wandering into the wrong place.
  • That said, some monsters are much easier or much harder than their level would indicate. For example, I’ve discovered how to beat a griffin’s attack pattern to the point where I can grind out one much, much higher level than I am with judicious use of Quen and dodging. However, beating higher level noonwraiths and their ilk seems almost impossible.
  • The loot system is very, very odd. I suppose it feels more organic to have such wildly varying quality levels and arrays of bonus statistics, but I feel like I need a strategy guide to compare the values of everything. It’s exceedingly rare to find a clear-cut upgrade.
  • Vendors are super, super stingy with their gold. My purse is only now starting to feel full enough to afford buying things, and if I go on a crafting spree at the armorsmith or weaponsmith, I walk away a sad, lean Witcher. As the most profitable quests are the Witcher ones, it definitely behooves you to do them.
  • Mounted combat is disgustingly overpowered. I can cleave my way through hordes of enemies with virtually no risk of counterattack. Some monsters can spook the horse very quickly, though, making this impractical for some fights.
  • I didn’t realize at first that you could use the crossbow underwater, making completing the loot missions rather painful. It would have been nice for this to be called out somewhere other than the loading screen tips.

I’m a bit concerned about the replay value — not that I’ll be starting a new game without mods and cheats, but it seems that the game, by presenting you with only one character and a limited set of development choices, doesn’t offer much more than playing as a hardass versus a pushover. I haven’t gotten to the point of choosing sides in the North vs. Empire battle, though.

Overall this game is keeping me up late at night, which is what I love about them. Good work, guys!

P.S.: I wish I’d thought to start recording a Let’s Play of it.  Next game, I promise!  I could try streaming but my Internet connection sucks way too much to have it be of any decent quality.

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TV Tropes, Part Three: Copyright and Licensing

It’s been a while, my readers!  How are all of you?  I’m fine, thank you.  I went through a bout of pneumonia in November of last year that kept me hospitalized for a week, and up until I got my new computer built a short while ago, there hasn’t been much to discuss in terms of family or gaming.  So, what shall I talk about today?

Well, there has been some interest in continuing the saga of TV Tropes.  Those entries certainly do attract a lot of attention, mainly because they serve as something of an open dialogue with the community.  It’s like carrying on an extended conversation via a public bulletin board, with the added benefit of people scribbling vulgar notes in the margins.  Yes, you know who you are, and no, I won’t publish your comments.

The subject that has gotten me exercised enough to compose this essay is a thorny one in the vast reaches of the Internet: copyright — specifically, who owns what and what sort of claims can they establish on content they contribute to public sites.  Many who read this know exactly why I’m discussing it now; I won’t delve into the precise reasons.  However, it is a subject that crops up from time to time entirely independently of any private drama, and it’s worth trying to lay out my point of view in a permanent fashion.


Overly wordy introduction aside, here’s the question: What rights do you have to material that you contribute to a public information resource such as a wiki, bearing in mind that in traditional copyright law you retain license to anything you write unless you expressly waive it?

Incidentally, I feel obliged to insert a disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, copyright or otherwise, so nothing I say here should be construed as having any binding legal value.  These are my opinions and not that of any organization with which I may be affiliated.

So, let’s say you contribute a paragraph to a Wikipedia article about snail mating habits. Can you lay claim to that as your original work?  Can you demand that Wikipedia remove it because you no longer approve of them using it?  Is there any formal or implied contract between you and Wikipedia that would govern your rights in the matter?  If Wikipedia publishes a book containing the article that you contributed to, are you owed any royalties?

Let’s say you write a TV Tropes article. You go to the effort of putting up a YKTTW, you painstakingly sort through example suggestions, you refine the definition, and you publish your masterpiece for the world to see.  You keep an eye on the article to make sure that nobody tries to steer it too far away from the original idea.  Your idea may even expand to gain memetic status throughout the writing community, with people not even knowing that it originated on TV Tropes.  In short, you are a productive contributor to the site.  Then something changes, and you no longer wish to allow the site to use your work.  You feel that you have the right to revoke the license you granted to publish that material.  Can you?

If you’ve gotten this far and have any context in the matter, you can guess my answer to all of these questions: No.  Read on for the rationale.


A wiki, as a public information resource, collates data from a large number of contributors to create a collaborative project.  The process of collaboration inherently obfuscates the issue of who, specifically, contributed any particular portion of that content.  Collaboration implies that everything you contribute is subject to modification without you having to give express consent.  Nobody has to ask permission to edit your trope example, or change the description of your work article.  It could easily be argued that once your contribution has been modified by anyone other than you, it is no longer yours even if it was to begin with. In short, there is no implied right of ownership to any one user’s contribution.

If Alice, Bob, and Charlie collaborate on an article that’s published in a collective work, such that there is no clear ownership of any one part of it by any one of them, Alice may not retroactively demand that the article be removed on the basis of her copyright claim.  At best, she may have her name excised from the byline.


Allowing a user to selectively remove their contributions would impair a wiki’s function as a public information resource. Even if you could demand the removal of your work in contradiction to the above, you would essentially be tearing out parts of an encyclopedia, leaving gaping holes behind.  It can be argued that a wiki is a collection of common knowledge: public information that nobody owns, but everyone can use.  In that vein, tropes cannot be copyrighted; we do not invent them, merely describe them. That you wrote the Leitmotif article does not mean that the idea of the leitmotif is your intellectual property, and removing it under your copyright claim would substantially impair the wiki’s ability to discuss the idea.

If Alice managed to get her portions of the article selectively deleted, the article would be full of holes and no longer useful unless someone came along and rewrote those portions in their own words. In effect, all Alice has accomplished is to make someone rewrite a third of the article without substantially altering its content.


Licensing use of a wiki’s content is not the same as licensing contributions to that wiki. This is one of the focuses of the current copyright argument against TV Tropes: the idea that contributions are or ever were covered under the Creative Commons license that governs use of the site. In 2013, the license was changed to add a “non-commercial” clause, meaning that you cannot copy the material on the wiki and make any money off it without our express permission.

The argument has been made that changing the license without express permission of every user who contributed content to the wiki prior to said change is illegal; that they “licensed their contributions to us” under “by-sa 3.0”.  This is false.  As noted previously, the CC license applies only to people using material published on the wiki.  The act of contribution is not and never was governed by this license: as soon as you press Send on any form on the wiki, the text you submit becomes irrevocably licensed to the wiki and is ours to do with as we please, including delete, modify, publish, relicense, etc.

If the publication changes its license after Alice, Bob, and Charlie publish their article, they cannot go back and demand that their article be excised because they did not agree to the new terms unless they explicitly signed an agreement licensing their contribution under the prior terms.


I should also note that it is fundamentally impossible to secure the permissions that these people claim are required, since wiki contributors do not provide any personally identifiable information when creating accounts (email registration was not added until well after the change of license), and therefore contributions are anonymous for all intents and purposes.  A person making a claim of ownership would have to prove that the account that they used to contribute content is owned by them and was used by them to make that contribution.  Good luck with that.

If Alice, Bob, and Charlie used pseudonyms while writing the article, then Jane Doe comes up later and claims to have been Alice and therefore have rights to Alice’s contribution, she would have to prove legally that she is Alice. She may also have to find Bob and Charlie and get them to corroborate her claim.


Regarding contributions that are directly identified with an account, like liveblogs, reviews, and forum posts, we have never tried to enforce any copyright claim on this material, even though there is no inherent reason why we could not make the same claim as above.  Therefore, we have explicitly recommended to users that they not post material anywhere on our site that they wish to retain original publication rights to unless they enter into a specific written agreement.  This is common sense and would be an issue even if we did not make an ownership claim.  Don’t use TV Tropes to host content that you want to publish yourself!

If Alice posts her work on a site that does not have a license allowing her to retain a copyright interest, she could lose her rights to publish that work under her own name.


How, you may ask, does this relate to Fair Use and/or claims of plagiarism? This one is fairly simple.  If you post something on our site that you don’t have the rights to — for example, copying and pasting a Wikipedia article or a news article — we don’t own it either and we can be asked to remove it.  We will, of course, comply with any such request assuming that the requester provides sufficient corroboration of their claim.  Fair Use applies here: excerpts and quotations are usually fine, but you don’t inherently own them either, so none of the above considerations apply.

If Alice posts content that is copied from Bob’s work, Bob has a superior claim and could demand it be taken down unless the content falls within the bounds of Fair Use. Alice has no claim whatsoever.


Okay, so what about your original work that has been previously published? Do you lose your copyright interest because you paste it, in whole or in part, to TV Tropes?  In short, you do not; however, you should be aware that posting it on TV Tropes creates a potential conflict with the Creative Commons license, as well as a conflicting claim of ownership.  It would behoove you to obtain an agreement in writing from the staff spelling out your rights.  Lacking that, TV Tropes has no inherent obligation to comply with a future request to take it down, although we will usually make a reasonable effort to comply.

If Charlie publishes material on his site that he later also posts in substantial portion on another site, he should make sure that he both has permission to do so and obtains written verification of his claim to that material.


Does the changing of the Creative Commons license in 2013 affect content that you have already copied from the site in compliance with the previous license?  No.  However, it governs any copying you do from that point forward, regardless of when the content was added to the wiki. It does not mean that you can ignore the new license for anything that was added to the wiki in 2012 or earlier; doing so is an explicit case of infringement.  TV Tropes may change the terms of its content license at any time without any obligation to its contributors.  Again, the content license and the contribution license are separate.

Bob wants to copy a TV Tropes article for his site.  He may do so only if he attributes it to us, shares it under the same license, and doesn’t make money off of it.  It does not matter when the article was written.


Now, we’ll discuss one final issue: Ye Olde Copyright Suit. Yeah, sometimes it comes down to people who don’t buy the rationales above, usually combined with a selfish motivation: they own the stuff they contributed and, by gum, they’ll burn in hell before they’ll see it used in a way that they don’t approve of.  Similarly, sometimes a banned user will decide that they want to remove all evidence of their presence on the site: a particularly vindictive type of rage quit.  And then there’s the variant in the author (usually of fan fiction) who decides that they don’t like TV Tropes having an article on their work and will demand it be removed, sometimes going so far as to try to delete all evidence of their work from the internet in order to establish a claim that it “does not exist” and is therefore ineligible for an article.  The latter happens often enough that there is a policy for it.

To clarify, the fanfic situation isn’t so much a matter of a copyright claim as it is a case of people becoming confused by the distinction between a work and an article about a work.  They own the former; we own the latter.

Anyway, there are three primary reasons why a copyright suit over ownership of content on TV Tropes is pointless.

1) Contributors to TV Tropes do not gain an ownership interest in the content on the site.  All contributions are irrevocably and non-exclusively licensed to TV Tropes, assuming the contributor has the right to do so to begin with.

2) Regardless of the above, establishing a bona fide claim is likely to be impossible, as all wiki contributions are functionally anonymous even if the contributor has a handle.  Even if they weren’t, establishing precisely which part of any given article is an individual’s specific contribution is an exercise in futility.

3) It is impossible to demonstrate any actual or implied injury.  There is no plausible rationale for establishing a claim of actual or implied monetary injury arising from our use of anyone’s contributions. As TV Tropes is a non-profit resource for public education and entertainment; any commercial use of the site’s content is only for funding its continued operation.  The sole rationale might be that having it on TV Tropes may prevent you from making commercial use of it yourself, an issue that would pertain regardless of TV Tropes’ licensing policy thanks to the doctrine of prior publication.


Thanks for reading this post.  I do hope that it has been informative, at least in terms of understanding our approach to the content on our site.  Again, I don’t speak for the site’s owners, nor do I speak with any legal qualifications.

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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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