Sunday, November 29, 2009

Assassin's Creed II

Almost like platformers, great singleplayer games are a dying breed. Too often are games that are not RPGs and/or lack multiplayer disregarded because of the preconception that they simply aren't worth the price tag. But thankfully, Ubisoft is here to prove that a game can certainly be full of lasting appeal and still lack multiplayer. Enter Assassin's Creed II.

Assassin's Creed II, as the "II" would denote, is a sequel. And a damn good one, at that. The first Assassin's Creed followed a young man named Desmond, who is kidnapped by a large organization known as Abstergo, and forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, starting with a professional assassin named Altair. The player watched Altair as he worked to reclaim his honor after a mishap sees him demoted to the lowest ranks of his order. In the process, both him and Desmond stumble upon a revelation far bigger than they imagined.

At the beginning of Assassin's Creed II, Desmond is rescued from Abstergo, and meets other members of the present-day Assassins. To train Desmond in their ways while simultaneously investigating the information revealed in the first game, this time he relives the memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Much like Desmond, Ezio begins as a regular (albeit mischievous) young man, but the murder of his father and brothers leads him to take up the suit and weaponry of the assassin. What begins as a quest for revenge once again unravels into a plot far larger than him or Desmond.

While the story itself is compelling and well paced, that's only one part of the game. The first Assassin's Creed had a great story, but some will argue that the major pros stopped there. Fortunately, Ubisoft made sure not to repeat this, and went above and beyond to improve every single aspect of the player experience, starting with the Free Run system.

Free Run is an incredibly nifty movement system introduced in the first game that allowed players to traverse almost any type of terrain in a relatively swift and efficient manner. Holding R1 and X while pushing forward on the stick prompts Ezio to sprint forward, automatically climbing or vaulting over any obstacles he encounters. Run into a wall, he'll jump up and immediately start scaling it, continuing to run forward across the rooftop, and automatically leaping across any gaps. All you really have to do is steer, and Ezio will do the rest. However, here's where a slight problem arises. The Free Run system is absolutely great for exploring the cities, but getting much precision out of it for tighter spaces or planned getaways takes more practice than should be necessary. What feels like a slight movement with the stick often translates to a near 90-degree turn in game, which can be annoying at best, and rather frustrating at worst. The other thing is, due to the camera not always giving you the best view of just what you're going to land on when you jump off a roof, eager players will quickly find themselves taking more damage from accidental falls than any enemy's blade. Fortunately, the game rarely seriously penalizes you for movement mistakes outside of the Assassin's Tombs (which are optional). Even the speed run sidequests are often lax on their time goal.

Combat also received a beefy upgrade, as not only does Ezio utilize a few more tools of death than his predecessor, he has a variety of new abilities. Among his new toys are dual hidden blades, a wrist mounted firearm, and poison. The addition of a second hidden blade allows him to perform dual assassinations, killing two targets in one swift motion. Meanwhile, the gauntlet pistol, the last weapon you acquire in the game, allows you to kill targets in one shot. Even with all this new stuff, the game still feels balanced, with each weapon having its pluses and minuses. For example, swords ands hammers are the easiest to parry with, and thus are excellent all-around weapons, though lacking any outstanding attributes. The pistol will kill any target in a single hit, but Ezio requires several seconds to get a perfect bead on the target, and is vulnerable while aiming. It also attracts a lot of attention, and thus isn't usually suited to stealthier kills. Throwing knives, as an alternative, often only do minor damage, but Ezio is quicker on the draw with them, and you can carry far more of them (you can carry up to 20 throwing knives, but only 6 bullets). The hidden blades require far more precise timing to block and parry with than held weapons, and thus aren't suited to all-out combat, but their small size allows Ezio to "kill on the go", quickly stabbing someone from behind or tackling them.

But even with all these new ways to kill people, Ezio still has his fists, potentially the most potent weapon of all. Even with no weapons equipped, you'd be a fool to think he's not dangerous. Upset a villager who wants his pickpocketed money back? With a quick flick of RI and Square, you can counter his clumsily thrown sucker punch and end with a brutally delivered knee to the face, non-lethally defeating him. Beyond regular punches, you can counter almost every attack enemies throw at you. If you are unarmed, fighting an armed opponent, you can even disarm them, wrenching their weapon right out of their hands and, if you so choose, slaughtering them with it.  But Ezio's move repertoire still doesn't end there.  You can taunt enemies to draw their attention (or just talk smack, of course), dodge and strafe, and, if they are weakened enough, grab opponents by the collar and proceed to punch, headbutt, and/or kick the stuffing out of them.  You can even learn how to throw sand/dirt to momentarily blind your enemies.

And let me tell you, the finishers are brutal. The developers once said that they were designed to make you wince when you see them, and it works. I personally unequip any weapons I have when a Brute-type enemy (guards wielding broadswords, battle axes, or spears) is in battle, so I can disarm him and watch one of the finishers for his weapon. Ezio often leaves the weapon stuck in the victim's body, making it even more gruesome to behold. Try hitting an enemy from behind or countering with a sledgehammer or two handed weapon, and you'll see what I mean (though the finishers for ALL the weapons are pretty satisfying).  Overall the fighting system is excellently done, but crowd fights (which are pretty much they only fights you'll be in) are unrealistic.  Enemies take turns attacking, and simply button mashing reveals how stiff Ezio's regular attacks can be.  So while the combat system is still fun, it's not nearly as fluid or believable as, say, the one in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

But sometimes you may find it better to avoid combat altogether.  To avoid attention, you can sit on benches, hide in hay bales or wells, or simply blend by walking with crowds and not doing anything conspicuous.  Not all guards will be fooled however, and depending on your notoriety (which rises with various spectacular actions and is quelled by bribing heralds and ripping down posters of you), they might be actively searching you.  When they're on your tail, like in GTA4 a circle will appear, which indicates the area that they'll be searching for you in.  Leave that circle without being seen, and find a place to hide and they'll quickly give up.

As you progress through the game, you'll be constantly invited to engage in various side activities. Minor examples of this include hunting down cheating husbands, small scale assassinations, and foot races. Most of them are actually pretty amusing (I especially enjoy the extra assassinations). There are also more significant side attractions, such as the Assassin Tombs. These are designed to challenge your agility and ability to think on the go, presenting various areas and obstacles courses you must traverse, usually under a strict time limit. Though entirely optional, completing all of the tombs gives you access to the strongest (and coolest looking) armor in the game. And then there's of course the collectables, which come in two flavors: feathers and glyphs. There are 20 glyphs inscribed on various historical structures in each of the cities, and with each glyph comes an accompanying puzzle presented to you by the mysterious Subject 16, another person captured by Abstergo who learned far more than he bargained for during his time in the Animus, and split up his findings into pieces and encrypted them. The feathers (of which there are 100) aren't quite as significant to the plot at large, but you can collect them as a personal monument of sorts to your slain family members.

But once again the developers didn't stop with just a great story, excellent gameplay and impressive replay value.  They went on to work on the presentation, graphics and overall performance of the game.  Visually, Assassin's Creed II is dazzling.  Ubisoft has successfully managed to emulate the same kind of detail and fluidity that Rockstar achieved with Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV.  Pickpockets dart in between crowds, various shop owners can be heard from all directions hawking out their wares.  Throw money on the ground and people respond in a big way.  Get in a fight, and the citizens will form a ring, cheering excitedly as the action unfolds.  Men try to woo prostitutes, and guards stay on vigilant patrol (unless distracted by money or whores).  Bystanders may cheer you on for defeating guards, but will boo and insult you for being a bully.  This is a living, breathing world and it shows.

The cities themselves are also spectacles to behold, with each one having a very unique feel.  The devs worked hard to rebuild these cities as replicas of their real life counter parts, and it shows.  There are over a dozen historical structures to be found as well.  Basically, this is a game with  not just a rich fictional backstory, but a rich historical backstory.

The game performs well overall, but there some slowdown, notably with large crowds and when the Animus is reconstructing each city (though that may be intentional).  Glitches were few and far between, but the corpse physics are a little weird.  There's a mandatory install, but loading times are not only interactive but not overly long or frequent.

Assassin's Creed II is an excellent game.  Ubisoft knows it, and hopefully after playing it for a bit most other people will too, even if they also know it's not quite their cup of tea (there's a difference between not liking a game, and it being good).  Ezio's tale is one worth hearing, and the story at large, while complex, is interesting (though the ending will break it for some people) and pushes you forward just perfectly, even though it still manages to step around certain tidbits.  There's also a lot of replay value to be had here, from collecting the feathers to solving the glyph puzzles (and I didn't even mention the Villa).  Plus, it's also fun just roaming around getting in fights and such.  A 9.5/10.

Monday, November 23, 2009


This past few years, the shooter genre has become extremely inflated, to the point where creating a truly innovative first-person shooter has become one of the bigger hurdles for developers in the industry. But it's good to see developers are still trying. While games like Modern Warfare 2, Killzone 2 and Halo 3 remain the epitome of the term generic shooter, we've still seen some good attempts to take the genre from a different angle. Borderlands is one such attempt.

However, it's probably best that you live your FPS mindset at the door, because Borderlands is also an RPG. Indeed, perhaps it would be prudent to call this an Action RPG with guns.

The thing even the most seasoned FPS players will be dismayed to learn is that, no matter how quick your reflexes are, you'll still find yourself beating a hasty retreat to enemies who are above your level. Though you do have to aim, of course, it's more just to save bullets than anything else. This is more an RPG with shooter elements, rather than a shooter with RPG elements. That said, the game only offers a core RPG experience, instead making an attempt to balance elements of the two genres.

The game hits the ground running, introducing you to the four classes, while running you through various aspects of the gameplay. The four classes are the Brick (A melee-oriented berserker), Siren (A sassy young woman who has a preference for elemental weapons), Hunter (A sniper with a pet attack hawk), and Soldier (A veteran who has ample medic and support abilities). Each class has its own unique ability and skill tree, and also has preferences for one weapon type or another, granting damage bonuses when a gun of that type is equipped. For example, the Soldier can deploy a turret that not only defends him, but provides decent cover. His skill tree features such perks as having the turret continually restock any allies nearby, or giving his shots healing capabilities (like the Medic's Phoenix weapon in Resistance 2).

Borderlands also features a loot system that Diablo players will be right at home with. The game's engine randomly generates weapons from various parts, colors, and ammo types, meaning there are essentially hundreds of thousands of weapons in the game. You could come across a shotgun with a scope, a pistol that shoots rockets, a submachine gun with incendiary properties, the possibilities are limitless. But since, even with inventory upgrades, you can't carry more than a couple dozen items at a time, you'll be swapping weapons and items VERY frequently, to stay on the cutting edge. Weapons you don't need can be sold for a decent price (I'd say besides quests, selling stuff you don't need will be your primary income source).

However, the story is very light for an RPG. The beginning tells the story of a planet known as Pandora, an unfriendly land featuring little more than dust and rocks. However, legend has it that there's a secret hidden on the planet. This secret, known as the Vault, is said to contain everything a person could ever want, from riches to women. Of course this sounds pretty far-fetched, but as you prepare to get off the bus (after choosing your class), an unknown woman appears in your mind, claiming that the Vault does in fact exist, and encouraging you to seek it out. She continues to pop up periodically throughout the game to offer advice and comment on your journey thus far.

Few of the characters have much of any backstory to speak of, though it's implied in the beginning that the four class characters have been friends since they were children. You arrive on Pandora knowing nothing about it or it's inhabitants; just the legend of the Vault. I think this is a bit of a missed opportunity, but it doesn't seem like the focus of the game was ever on the narrative anyway.

On the HUD you'll find a variety of useful things, including a compass, your level progression meter, and your shield and health meters. Borderlands features a health system much like Halo's (the first one). You have a shield (which, like weapons and other gadgets, is upgradeable and likely will be swapped out frequently) which blocks attacks until it's depleted, at which point your health starts to drop. Your shield will recharge after a few seconds of not being hit, but health usually has to be restored with items. EXP comes from defeating enemies and completing quests. Some will be happy to know that you'll rarely have to grind for XP or even money in Borderlands. Quests give you pretty big chunks of both XP and money for your troubles, and any monsters killed and unneeded weapons sold in between will likely pick up loose ends. As long as you keep a healthy quest log stuffed with active quests, you'll find you're almost always at the right level to continue progressing. And you'll always have something to do, for that matter.

Borderlands also features four player co-op. You can either play locally in two-player splitscreen, or online with three others. The co-op is really fun, but only if each of the players are at or around the same level. While it is possible to boost (MMO term for a veteran player accelerating the level progression of a newer player) lower leveled buddies, until they reach your level, they'll find themselves unable to help much at all in battles, since you'll be hard-pressed to take on enemies more than 2 levels above you (similar to other RPGs). To be frank, comrades that aren't strong enough to help you in battle aren't much more than dead weight.

Overall, Borderlands is also a great-looking game, featuring a cell-shaded graphic engine. Bugs are minimal, and loading times only occur when you first start up the game, and when transporting between regions (yes, regions. Each of which are gigantic, despite the reasonable load time). The engine also handles chaotic situations well. Even in splitscreen the frame rate rarely dips noticeably.

Overall, Borderlands is a great game. More effort could have been put towards the story and characters, and the cooperative play isn't as accessible as I might have liked (though that's to be expected from an RPG). The game is light on both RPG and shooter elements, but retains enough of both to form a really fun experience. Moreover, this is a game with personality, and it really is almost one-of-a-kind. 8.0/10.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tornado Outbreak

Though many of fled the quarter, there's still a fair amount of truly excellent games making their mark on this holiday, among them the Big Three: Uncharted 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Assassin's Creed 2. It's easy for a quaint game like Tornado Outbreak to get completely washed away by blockbusters like these, but developer Loose Cannon Studios stood their ground (which is certainly more than can be said for certain other games), and released their game with apparently no fear. (Because you'd have to be fearless to go toe to toe with some of the other games coming out amirite?). I've heard that Loose Cannon was formed with members from Sucker Punch; It's certainly not hard to believe, as I can see a lot of the charm put into classic Sly Cooper games being placed here. Really, I'm not kidding. If you've played the Sly Cooper games, you will no doubt feel a very light sense of deja vu as you take in the art style, presentation, and soundtrack.

But that's certainly not a bad thing. While Tornado Outbreak might not have all the polish or pure muscle of other giants, it's still a pleasant experience.

In Tornado Outbreak you play as Zephyr, a senior member of a group of wind spirits known as the Wind Warriors. They come across a dying being who claims he was a hero in the dimension he came from, but the villains of his world defeated and banished him, scattering his power orbs as well. Zephyr and the team take it upon themselves to help him out, and head to the nearby Earth to gather up his six power orbs. The story isn't bad, but ultimately forgettable.

Tornado Outbreak's gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a different angle on the Katamari games. You control Zephyr, who in turn controls a tornado, sucking up as much as you can (and steadily growing much bigger in the process) within the time limit. Though the game teaches you the fundamentals in the very first level, it only introduces other nuances of the game to you over a fairly steady basis. First you'll learn about the Fire Flyers, little critters who hide under certain objects and present an opportunity to reap a lot of extra points (and trophies). Then you'll learn new moves that you can use to help other elemental denizens of the world. Just like in Katamari, there's a lot of satisfaction to be had once you hit somewhere around Lv10, at which point you're now big enough to start sucking up individual buildings, skyscrapers, and other gigantic things. But this time I found more satisfaction from the crazy amount of Fire Flyers you can hoard at a time at that size, as larger objects yield larger amounts of Fire Flyers. I remember at one point I was juggling around 60 of them, which of course netted me a substantial time increase and points bonus.

Though the gameplay is solid, it's not especially compelling, and the game itself is pretty short, featuring not more than about ten stages, each of which can be completed in about 20-30 minutes. Granted, there are some unlockables (and, by extension, trophies) providing incentive to go back and ace each stage, but there's no denying that Tornado Outbreak won't last you long.

On a technical level, the graphics are quite lackluster, and look like something a PS2 could churn out (In fact, I saw a couple of effects that could have been ripped right out of an N64 game). The frame rate stutters slightly but noticeably when sucking up a lot of stuff within a small space of time, and becomes downrate unstable when you get somewhere around Lv13. However, the game doesn't require an install, and the loading times are reasonably brisk despite this.

Overall, Tornado Outbreak is good while it lasts, but unfortunately doesn't merit much more than a golf clap. A 6.5/10.