4 July 2014

Assassin's Creed III - Vision vs. Reality

Kotaku is, obviously, following the chequered alt-history of the Assassin’s Creed franchise as it stumbles from episode to episode trying to give the players what they want. It hasn’t always worked out, as the largely negative reaction to Assassin’s Creed III demonstrated.

There’s been some early speculation about the anticipated awesomeness of this year’s AC:Unity which I shall be commenting on anon. However the article telling us all the things that would be awesome in Unity made the mistake of linking to a previous article that told us all the things that would be awesome with ACIII.

Some of these features were there, but not really all that awesome either way; some were not there, but nearly there and this article just seems to highlight how not awesome the finished product is in comparison to the brash assurances of the pre-finish dev team; or just not even there at all in the end and hence a bit irrelevant, leading to the obvious question “why lie?”

Before we go any further I should point out that I ended up rather enjoying ACIII, although the story team had been given, maybe, way too loose a leash and ended up in a self-indulgent land called “The Land of Let’s Do Things In A Video Game Story That People Never Do In Video Game Stories”.

Unfortunately their excursion deep into this dark continent did not produce a clever, immersive story that thrilled its way to an epic conclusion. Instead it produced a lumpy, slightly pretentious, difficult but ambitious story that was lovable but, tragically, hard to love.

I provide this short list of gripes about promise versus reality as a counterpoint both to the giddy anticipatory tone of the linked article but also as a counterpoint to a similar article looking forward to the next major chapter in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, comments on which will follow shortly. In the end I just find it curious that a laundry list of broad general aims can have been missed in so many different ways. The first and most obvious misdirect in the linked article is a simple picture of Connor in a canoe.

*Canoes not included.
Connor never uses a canoe in ACIII. Aveline uses a canoe in Liberation but the code and whatnot never made the transition. I can kind of forgive this, the canoe stuff in the bayou wasn’t really all that fantastic and there was no real point to it honestly. Still, it seems strange that as they had an engine lying about for it that they didn’t just shove it in.

Except, of course, most memorable bodies of water in the game were rivers and maybe the physics of white-water canoeing just weren’t feasible. It is a great shame because being able to leave the reservation at the beginning by canoe instead of hoofing it across the unmapped frontier would have been pretty cool. Also it might have made more fast travel options possible.

In the rest of the article there are a few more things that are just plain wrong, many are trivial but then you get the odd one like:

There is some sort of system involving ice, possibly involving hiding below it to ambush troops, but the developers aren't getting specific about it yet.

Nor, indeed, do they ever, because I never once encountered ice. Snow, yes, loads of bloody terrible snow, but ice, I believe it is possible that ice maybe never made it into the game? Not sure. At the very least it would appear that if you wanted to use the ice mechanic, if such exists, you will need to seek it out. A quick google reveals that no-one particularly has.

Mmm... Connor loves snow. Press O to build a snowman in this
winter wonderland. Lies.
This is most probably because wading through snow was one of the most irritating frontier experiences of ACIII. Winter on the Eastern Seaboard was no fun at all. I get that I was supposed to be tarzanning my way through the trees but the environment did not always support that. Indeed that whole aspect existed and was pretty good fun but when it comes to statements like this:

"Our goal with the assassin was to make him as capable in the wilderness as Ezio and Altair were in cities, to do this for a forest," [the game's creative director, Alex] Hutchinson said. "For us, trees are 3D navigable space. You'll be able to go up trees, along that branch level, moving around. Some of the early fantasies we were talking about—it's fun to reference movies to get the team to paint a picture in their mind-if you think of the Predator, the original movie, not being [Arnold Schwarzenegger's soldier character] but being the Predator and the Redcoats being Arnie and [his] guys. This unseen force picking them off one-by-one from the trees? This is what we wanted. We want you to be a terrifying force of nature in that spot."

This points to a place where there was such fail, much desultory, terrible fail. I don’t know whether this was because of my mistrust of the enemy AI but I always assumed that if I picked off a guy in a column of redcoats from the trees the AI engine would have all the others see me, start shooting me etc. Maybe I’m wrong. Trees, though, are not stalking zones. You aren’t hard to spot up there, at all. Maybe if they had introuduced the idea of a tree-level stalking zone this would have worked a lot better.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, to date I have not actually tried to do this. I may pop the disc in over the weekend, head off to the frontier and see what happens... I will, of course, report back here.)

Yeah, that's right biznatches I am your hidden doom and...
NO! Don't look up! That's not fair *cries*
I can actually see the mechanics now. Tree level stalking zones, vantage points for clear visibility and swing/climb only zones, making a forest canopy fun zone from which you can take out the guys below.

Of course, then you’d have to tweak the enemy AI. You’d have to program these guys so when you took out the first one they huddled and grouped. Scanning the forest for signs of your approach. Then once you’d managed to pick off a couple more they would scatter. Many panicking running off through the trees, another couple trying to watch one another’s backs. What would be even better there would be if, in their panick, they got turned around, running in circles. Then you drop in or whatever and pick them off. Alternating high stalking zones with low, dividing, conquering, becoming one with the forest.

Needless to say, none of this is the case. You can clumsily slaughter a bunch of soldiers, you can run across pre-determined canopy obstacle courses and, as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, you can stalk to a degree. But it’s nothing like the stated aim of the development team.

I had to loose a chuckle when I continued on to read:

Connor has a rope dart that he can use to hang people from trees with. It's more of a lure than a projectile weapon. An earlier, more aggressive version was more of tethered knife that was thrown from a standing position and then reeled in. "It felt too fantasy, " Hutchinson said. "It started to feel like Scorpion in Mortal Kombat."

But then the rope dart was pretty much just that in the finished product. You could lose them, and they made a mess of hunting kills, but they were pretty fantastic in their operation. They were a fun weapon, ruined partially by the unimaginative way the enemy AI reacted to them e.g. you could rope one sucker but then a sword fight was bound to follow.

Oh goodie... I've managed to provoke yet another
un-stealthy bloodbath...
The Batman: Arkham series did a much better job of this stuff, building in a panic aspect to enemies, so they changed their behaviour when they knew you were near. So I know such a thing is possible. It just seems like a lot of fluff in a game when it’s added with no real consequence.

Finally, there was this gem:

The highlight of the Boston section is what is called a chase-breaker. Connor has barged past some Redcoat guards, who give chase. What would be a standard run through an Assassin's Creed city's street changes radically when a woman in a second-story window opens some shutters to breath in the fresh air. Connor, clambering over a stall in the middle of the road, turns 90 degrees to his right and runs through the open window, shocking the woman. He zips through the interior of her house and out the window on other side, losing his predecessors in one of the coolest moments an Assassin's Creed development team has ever shown to the press.

Ahem, yeah, whatever. I never zipped through an upstairs room, I did see women in second story windows but in forty hours of game play I never got the impression that they, you know, did anything other than provide scenery. I did occasionally trigger a ground floor cut-through, but never in an actual chase. The mechanic was definitely there (at least on the ground floor) but ultimately not useful for much.

The problem here is the old “accidentally run up a wall” thing that has always been the unpleasant side effect of the parkour mechanics. As a seasoned AC player during a chase you attempt to do precisely nothing that will lead to your assassin accidentally running up a wall by accident, bouncing off an unclimbable arch and hastily drawn into combat that you really just wanted to avoid.

Eyes front, avoid the walls... avoid the walls...
OOOH Pretty wall! (attempts to scale, gets shot, desync)
Over the franchise’s development time the notion of running away almost seems to have become more and more shameful to the development team. In ACI the whoosh of the successful escape signal was as much of a victory as slaughtering a dogpile of city guards. Over time it’s come to feel more and more like a sort of grudging shrug as the game puts away its fighting mechanics and slopes off into the background again.

Overall the reasons one might eventually end up liking ACIII are nothing to do with these supposed innovations many of which were half-baked or simply non-existent. As to why, despite these misdirects, I did like ACIII is a topic for another day.

All images are (c) Ubisoft of course and are used for illustrative purposes.

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