NHL 15 Review

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the bottom of the 9th and we have a barnburner here at the ballpark! In a tie game, with a runner on 2nd, EA Sports is up to bat. He digs into the box… the pitch…! And it’s a weak ground ball to short and he’s out at first.

In fairness… It wasn’t a strikeout. They at least made contact.

Let’s begin by me asking for forgiveness from my obviously bored readers for a sports analogy from a different game than the topic of the review. I truly have no excuse for my actions.

I’m going to open my discussion on the game with how the game opens to the user. An oddly structured, casserole of a menu is presented that ends up having the same (basic) options that many sports-sims do. Your franchise mode is there, creating a prospective player and, of course, quick play to just play once with a friend and call each other turd-gobblers.

EA did something with this game, at the beginning of the experience, which many of these types of games have failed to do in the past – an actual tutorial walk through of the controls in an in-game fashion. Sure, 2k and other developers have thrown in a warm-up game for you to munch on while the game itself installs but, if we’re honest with each other, how advantageous is that? You’re playing as an entire team is these warm ups. With no real guidance or direction, a mass trial-and-error process ensues. Many of the controls aren’t even going to be messed with in those types of introductions. Ultimately, you know you’re not posting up as Steph Curry, or King James – why even try the shoulder buttons – just pull up for a jumper and kill some time.

What EA does is going to be an underappreciated piece of this game. The first time a user logs into the game (take advantage, it won’t come back) in any mode, you are thrown into a one-man crash course of game mechanics. The nice gentleman comes onto the empty-arena speakers, “Now we’re going to see if you can perform a Slap-shot!” Condescending? Sure. But what do you care?! It’s teaching you how to truly play the game successfully and maximize your experience. It even delves into details that I had forgotten were possible with NHL style games. Shot and even pass placement are major focuses along with developing a feel for how a player moves on the ice. It teaches everything about the game’s wacky controls – which we can talk about later. It may be therapeutic.

Like many people that play sports games with an odd combination of “devoted” and “casually” as I do, the main mode of EA Sports’ new project, NHL 15 is the “Live the Life” mode. Sure, this game (nor any other sports game) will not and likely never will live up to the single player mode of the now legendary MLB The Show.

It does however make a fairly solid attempt at The Show’s model and player creation. A start-as-an-amateur timeline is put into place for your place where you initially choose your junior hockey path of WHL or some other garbage Canadian league. The process is appealing and challenging to build a career and, to some degree, dictate how well you’ll do in the draft.

A situation presents itself to give you no attachment to this team at all. With The Show, success came from the fact that you could be placed at the AA level as a baseball player, and actually care how that team does during the season. Because, hey, who knows how long you’re going to be there? In this bizarre, wildly impersonal situation, you’re put onto a team with 3 games to play in the regular season. Yet, seemingly, the ENTIRE season is based on those 3 games. You decide the fate of the Regina Camel-Toes or whatever the hell team you decide to hitch your wagon to. If (god forbid) you win two or even three of those games, you’ll likely be put into the playoffs for the league you chose – which I guarantee has a playoff trophy named after a Canadian with a goofy name.

That’s neither here nor there. Once you’ve made your way through the handful of games you have for the team you don’t care about, you start the draft process. You’ll do a mock couple of questions for teams where you’re slated and there will be only one good answer of the four choices. Fuck up if you don’t want to play for that team, ultimately.

We can spend some time talking about actual game play as I know most reading have probably been yelling about. If I were asked to sum it up in a word, it would be “eh”. Mostly because of the gameplay itself, but partially as a respectful vernacular not to our Canadian brothers.

Ultimately, the main complaint I have is the lack of control with the user’s skater. Skating is this odd amorphous blob of tough-to-change velocity and direction. In our Live the Life mode, the CPU (at least on the low setting I’m playing on) assists with ice position. An arrow pops up under the user to guide them. If I were to guess.. I’ve been in good position about 4% of the time. So, most of the time I’m skating to wherever the hell I’m supposed to be and over-shoot it due to the lack of control you seem to have.

The basic controls also have a few flaws. Namely, and not to rant, but WHY THE FUCK ISN’T THE A OR X BUTTON DEVOTED TO PASSING!!! This is how sports games have existed since the damn pilgrims landed and Normandy or whatever. Instead, it’s a right shoulder button and doesn’t (initially) mold well with the game. In fairness, I’ve put 10 to 12 hours into the game on an overall level thus far, and I have gotten used to it. When I go back to NBA 2k, I will likely throw a fit. Article forthcoming.

I digress. Back to our “Live the Life” Mode. The menu itself in the mode is somewhat of a confusing hodge-podge. There’s a calendar centered at the top, but only for the coming week. Surrounding it is some stats and reactions to previous performances of your player. The bottom right panel of the menu is the one I want to focus on. This is where you are able to see Fan, Management, Team and Family reaction to recent performances and public interactions made by your player. Sport-sims have done this, or a version of it, forever. You answer a question correctly in an interview, fans and management like you. Perform well on the ice, team likes you. But why is family one of these categories? I haven’t yet reached the sub-game mode where I return home from the arena at night to a house with 3 screaming toddlers and a wife claiming “YOU DON’T DO ANYTHING TO HELP ME WITH THIS!!” But again, I’m only 10 to 12 hours in.

One of the other modes is an interesting idea of playing as a “legend”. This, on the surface, is a decent idea. Let’s allow users to go back and play as players they remember watching or, even, learn about players they have heard other generations talking about. However, there are three… THREE.. players available to play as. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemeux and Cammi Granato. Three. Not thirty. Three. A wise woman once told me, “Hey! Go wake up your grandfather, we’re going to Perkins.” EA Sports should have had someone give them this advice. Not because they necessarily needed delicious pancakes, but because they needed something else to do instead of putting a half-assed effort into what could have been a GREAT game mode.

The final mode I’ll cover briefly is what is traditionally known as franchise mode in other sports-sims. It’s labeled as “Be a GM Mode” in NHL 15. An interesting take on the franchise cookie cutter and more for the veteran players and hard-core hockey fans. It caters to the NHL guru’s who know all 30 rosters and how to build an empire with those pieces. The one (and fairly substantial) problem is the fact that you don’t have the ability to play, or sim, a full NHL length 82 game season. You are able to select 25 games as a maximum length and decrease by incriments of 5 if necessary. This leads me to believe one thing – The game mode wasn’t meant for gameplay at all. It was truly meant to build and sim. Draft and wait. Trade and cross-your-fingers. When you read “Be a GM Mode” on the menu, take the advisement (not good, bad or otherwise) that that’s EXACTLY what you’ll get.

The gameplay along pregame and postgame scenes obviously look stunning. No game that doesn’t even makes it to the shelves these days. But don’t buy it thinking you’re walking into a flawless hockey sim. The game, across most chains and smaller sellers, has lowered from the opening $60 to $50. However, as fun as it is at some points, I’m not putting a stamp of approval down for that price. I, as it should be noted, am a much, MUCH bigger basketball fan than a hockey fan. So, NHL 15 and its intricacies are subject to be lost. But for the common man, wait for one more price drop. Like I said, EA Sports didn’t strike out, but they didn’t knock it out of the park.

Saints Row – Gat out of Hell: There will be no Meatloaf jokes in this review

You guys probably don’t know me well enough to understand what a big day this is for me, but Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is out, and I am typing words that will, hopefully, say something about it.

I love these games. The Boss is right up there among my all-time favorite video game psychopaths, right up there with Brick, Cloud, and Toad (those evil eyes… nothing but pupil). I love Saints Row for so many reasons, from the near-perfect gender equality, to the almost endless character customization, to the absolute disregard for video game norms.

When THQ went under, I thought the 3rd Street Saints were gone forever. I also thought the Darksiders franchise was gone forever, but I didn’t care so much about that. I like War and Death fine enough, but The Boss, Pierce, and Shaundi are practically close, personal friends of mine, where the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are more acquaintances. I was particularly sad considering how downright amazing the third Saints Row game had been. None of us had thought that Volition could possibly make a better game than Saints Row 2, and they’d proven us so very wrong.

You see, the primary concept to understand with these games is escalation. Unlike the teams making the games that provided the inspiration for Saints Row (which is pretty much just Grand Theft Auto), the team that makes Saints Row feels the compulsion to make each game more ridiculous and over-the-top than the one before it. GTA does the exact opposite, striving for more and more realism with each iteration. I don’t have a problem with this. In fact, I applaud Rockstar on this effort, if for no other reason than because they actually seem to be succeeding in making their games more realistic. However, I appreciate the absolutely bananas gameplay of Saints Row far more. The sheer complexity of the Chiliad Mystery has kept me fairly interested in GTA V for the last year and a half, but Saints Row has kept me playing their games on a regular basis with nothing more than a giant dildo and The Boss’s all-consuming love for professional wrestling moves.

So, here’s the (bare-bones) story of the 3rd Street Saints, so far. First game, they were nothing. Just a tiny gang that had control of little more than one street. This game followed their rise to power while taking over the city of Stillwater, growing from the smallest gang in town to the biggest. It began with the player character unexpectedly joining the crew and ended with your character becoming The Boss of The Saints. Already, in one game, a distressing amount of escalation has happened. The second game picked up right where the first left off, and chronicled The Saints’ rise to power, again, in Stillwater for reasons that make perfect sense if you’ve played the game and don’t matter if you haven’t. By the end of Saints Row 2, The Saints grow to even more insane levels of power with you, as The Boss, at the helm, and the future is much brighter than at the end of the first game. By the start of Saints Row: The Third, the 3rd Street Saints have, in essence, sold out. They’ve cashed in on their fame as the most badass street gang around and acquired sweet, sweet endorsement cash from energy drinks, clothing lines, and… movie deals? Shit escalates pretty hard. And this other, equally badass gang leader named Killbane calls up The Boss (who is you, by the way) on the phone and says something like, “Maaaaaaaan, you’re a pussy, now; I bet you couldn’t take over a paper bag cuz you’re so full from your fancy movie-food-service-people food,” and The Boss is all, “Nuh-uh,” and he or she and Pierce and Shaundi and Johnny Gat all hop on a plane to go smack some sense into Killbane. The game is spent taking over this man’s city because he called you mean names and you now have the money and resources to basically do whatever the hell you want. The game ends with a tough choice as the ending, and I’m fairly certain that both endings are canon. It ends on a bit more of a down note than Saints Row 2, but the Saints attain a ridiculous amount of fame and wealth. Watching their rampage on TV was the new national pastime, and the movie they filmed, Gangstas in Space, made billions of dollars even though it was godawful. Of course The Boss would win “their” run for president at the start of Saints Row 4, and of course the Earth would get blown up by aliens so you have to take over a city inside an alien simulation, and of course they would still be trying to make movies from their hybrid Matrix/Mass Effect ship. This is a street gang run by complete crazy people, and they survived the end of the world. It’s only natural.

You’re starting to see a trend, here, I hope. Every game escalates pretty hard, in the story department. But, the story is broken up into several familiar parts. First, and most accessible to us, we have the story attached to the gameplay. This is the obligatory “take over a city” part of the story that makes up almost everything you do in the game. It’s the sandbox, and it drives the way you explore the city. It gives you a reason to stop on the way to the next story mission and do a couple side-missions, maybe blow up a few buses, maybe put on a giant, furry mascot costume, maybe fall in front of a few buses to cash in on that insurance money. Every activity you perform earns you Respect, the game’s form of experience points, and most also have a visible impact on taking the city for yourself. Outposts of enemies slowly disappear and are replaced by glorious purple Saints NPCs as you conquer them. Turrets and things stay down, too. Any activity important enough to be on the map is likely to make a permanent change to that area when you complete it. It feels good. It’s rewarding in several ways, which makes it more appealing to do. And it was already pretty appealing to do. My group of friends has a tendency to use the phrase “chaos simulator” when describing GTA and its friends, and any chaos simulator that pays me for doing something I already wanted to do, like shoot something or blow something up or drive something off a cliff, is cool in my book.

The other story that runs beside the obligatory “take over this city because this style of game would make no sense otherwise” is the story of the player character’s personal glory. There are also the other side-stories about the other gangsters’ personal glories, but The Boss is definitely the focus, here. This story is generally conveyed through popularity, which has a tangible manifestation in Respect. Everything The Boss does earns it, and it is reflected in the story. He or she starts off as nothing, and not only becomes the leader of a gang, but also makes that gang the most well-known, far-reaching gang in the known universe. This story can be much more fluid than the story about taking over a city, since it isn’t directly tied to the style of game like the city takeover. There are many different ways to become popular, though, and murder seems to work pretty well. The Boss is about as morally ambivalent as they come, so his or her methods can get highly entertaining.

There is only one character whose story can rival that of The Boss, and that man is Johnny Gat. Johnny Gat is so badass. There is no way to describe Johnny Gat without using the word “badass.” You can’t even say it at a normal volume. It’s like there’s this kid riding a bear that’s pedaling a ten-speed and they all just backflipped over your head, and at the exact instant that the kid passed between you and the sun, he pulled out a bazooka and shot the Turkish drone that was about to take out the mayor, and you felt the words escape your lips in a whisper, “badass.” That’s the sort of shit Johnny Gat does. All you can do sometimes is whisper “badass.” And Mom, I know you hate gratuitous swearing, but I don’t know another word for the emotion that is evoked when someone, like, drives a tank through a plane in mid-air, and whose fault is that, huh!?

Consider all this when you think how excited I was to find out I would be playing as Johnny Gat in the standalone DLC for Saints Row 4, Gat out of Hell. Sure, I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be playing as The Boss, but I had become very used to the vaguely Hispanic female voice, anyway, and it’s either gone entirely and replaced with a French female voice, or it’s being done by a new voice actress who accidentally sounded too French. Playing as someone other than my sad, not-really-Hispanic-anymore character wouldn’t have bothered me no matter who I was playing as. Oh, by the way…

MAJOR FUCKING SPOILERS ARE ALL UP IN THIS BITCH

Seriously, you’re gonna read some shit if you keep going. So, if you haven’t played it yet and it’s gonna bother you to know some bare-bones ridiculous plot, stop reading immediately. I won’t be directly quoting the script, but half of the fun of the script is seeing how the hell they are gonna escalate from where things were, before. Without spoiling anything, though, I can tell you that the story in this game is very different from previous iterations in a lot of ways, and it’s paced a bit strangely. Rather than completing specific story missions from your phone or your PDA or whatever, a gauge fills up as you create chaos, and specific amounts of chaos trigger a small handful of scripted events. It ends up putting the climax roughly in the middle of your takeover of Hell City, which feels kind of soon, but there’s still so much to unlock after completing the story that you’ll be right back out there blowing things up. Anyway, let’s jump right into the spoilers.

Gat out of Hell starts with a birthday party for Kinzie, probably my favorite out of the new generation of characters. She’s fairly agoraphobic, and watching her have to be the center of attention during a party she never would have agreed to is pure schadenfreude. A not-Ouija board is brought out (pretty sure they call it a spirit board?) and the board, of course, opens a portal to Hell and kidnaps The Boss. Fairly straightforward. We knew it was called Gat out of Hell, at the very least, and we had to see some sort of image of Johnny Gat hanging out in the fiery abyss in order to download the game, so some expectations were in place. What we didn’t expect was for Johnny to pull out a gun, shoot a blank portion of the “spirit board,” and intimidate it into opening another portal to Hell so he can get his best friend back. And we definitely didn’t expect Kinzie to pull the “it’s my birthday” card to bully Gat into letting her come along. And NOTHING AT ALL could have prepared us to fly around Hell as Kinzie herself.

Within seconds of making it to Hell, Johnny spots a billboard for the Ultor Corporation, the primary antagonistic force in Saints Row 2. This doesn’t surprise Johnny in the slightest, and he does the only thing he knows how in response: steals a car, drives it into the door of Ultor’s headquarters, and puts a gun to the head of Ultor, Ultor’s head. Here’s a tip for all of you would-be writers of fiction: Give the company head a different name than the company. Makes talking about both of them in the same sentence end up sounding dumb, and apparently even more so when you’re trying to talk about putting a gun to the head’s head. Not everyone is so narcissistic that they’d name a corporation after themselves, and it makes way more sense for someone truly evil to take over an existing company than for them to build their own. Why, look at the 3rd Street Saints. They’re hyper-powerful and dangerously narcissistic, but they don’t spend a ton of time building new towns or naming these admittedly non-existent towns after themselves; they just take over a town that’s already there and paint it bright purple.

Ultor talks Johnny down and explains that he realized how similar The Saints were to himself and his own organization, and he decided after they killed him that he would try to help them out if they ever ended up in Hell. To that end, he gives Johnny Gat the halo that Lucifer lost when he was cast out of Heaven, and it gives him all-burny-lookin’ wings and a bunch of superpowers. This is unsurprising. Come on, guys. They let us have superpowers the whole way through Saints Row 4 and justified it as (pretend the following, in quotes, is said in a spooky, kinda wobbly voice) “part of the simulation,” so they certainly aren’t gonna take the superpowers away, now that we have them. It’s about escalation, people! Can’t escalate something you left out, gotta keep everything in! Just add more!

And add, it did.

Before we talk about gameplay improvements, let’s take a step back and recap something we talked about before, but with a little more emphasis. The main story of the Saints Row games will probably always be directly tied to the gameplay, and it will be about taking over a city. We would hate a Saints Row game that strayed from this formula. As a one-off? Sure! Maybe they could make another piece of standalone DLC, do something linear and super story-heavy. But as a main entry in the series? The fans would abandon this franchise faster than… why is every comparison I can think of about speed of abandonment absolutely horrifying? We’ll skip the metaphor. Suffice to say people would hate it. So, as a result of us, the consumers, flaying developers alive when they change their games too much, some portion of the story and the gameplay will never change. And this is just fine. They aren’t trying to make a life-changing experience in video game form, they’re trying to make something that’s fun to play. As a developer, you accomplish long-term franchise-level entertainment by hitting the sweet spot of fun-to-play for your franchise, then making slight, incremental changes to that formula. Saints Row hit the sweet spot pretty early on. Volition had the advantage of being a late addition to the chaos simulator genre (the first game came out for the Xbox 360, to give you an idea of the timeline), and this has allowed them to really fine-tune their formula. There’s not an awful lot that Volition really needs to change. A juiced-up melee system would be welcome, now that superpowers have rendered cars almost entirely obsolete, but I’m willing to let them cling to the fantasy for a while longer that I will drive anywhere when I can run up the sides of buildings. Seriously, though, if someone at Volition is reading this, you could just make some locations on the map for ridiculous driving minigames, and I bet no one would bat an eye if you mapped something that kicks or punches people to the “steal the nearest car” button. I need to get back on track before I go off about controller schemes, but remind me to talk about it, some time. We have some serious work to do in that regard, since no one has come up with a viable substitute apart from maybe Nintendo, and I am referring specifically to the DS and its touchscreen. I guess the Wii U can come, too.

Anyway, I guess the point is that we have to expect that the gameplay isn’t going to change, much. Luckily, it’s fun. Not much change needed. What matters now is what they do to improve it. And adding semi-realistic flying is quite possibly the best thing they could have done. Well, as someone who is not a man with magic angel wings, I have to assume, with the evidence I have at my disposal, that it is pretty close to the real thing if the real thing was possible. It’s damn fun, too. My biggest gripe with the superpowers in Saints Row 4 was that I had to touch the ground from time to time between super-jumps. Gat out of Hell has almost entirely eliminated the need to land. You can flap your wings a limited number of times each flight, and these “flaps” recharge when you land, which includes flying into a building so hard you sprint up the side of it. That honestly is enough of a rest for you to be able to flap your wings some more. If vertical sprinting is restful enough to recharge your flyin’ juice, how much fucking work is flying?

The guns have also escalated since the previous iteration, and this is mostly for the best. With how far the guns have escalated, though, it can feel counterintuitive to use them before they’re fully upgraded. The strangest gun I’ve unlocked, The Last Supper, shoots frosting at enemies so they eat each other, but I haven’t put any money into upgrades, so I can’t really tell if it’s doing anything at all. Most of the other truly badass guns have the same issue. One gun is so badass it talks to you, and that one also starts off woefully weak. I get why it happens like that, but it breaks the immersion to suddenly realize that the insane new gun you just got isn’t actually all that insane. If they’re gonna give us unlimited rockets at level 20 (which is fairly easy to attain), I don’t see any good reason to not allow one or two guns to be absolutely ridiculous while they still have limited ammo at level 10.

The new superpowers have escalated in a manner quite similar to the guns and, in the same way, this makes some counterintuitive things happen. Some of these superpowers are absolutely worthless until you get their top-end element, and the cost required to really flesh out a power and its elements is absolutely staggering. Unlike the previous iteration, each element is split into a tree in the upgrade menu, and must be upgraded independently, rather than having every upgrade affect all three elements, ala Saints Row 4. The overall cost for upgrades has been slightly lowered to compensate, but not enough, in my opinion. This is particularly noticable because powers like the Aura thingy are unimpressive until they become overpowered, and that can’t happen until you unlock the last element. The stomp power retains its usefulness from the moment you acquire it regardless of the element you’re using, and the new summon power is pretty cool, I guess, but it’s kinda wonky, much like the new projectile power. Some of the projectile’s elements don’t seem to do much, not when compared to the Aura element that makes nearby enemies kneel in reverence to you, allowing for easy melee kills or headshots.

So, the escalation in this game is mostly intact. Again, AND I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH, if you’re expecting anything other than a very slightly upgraded version of Saints Row 4, you will be disappointed, and should think about revisiting the notion of what “standalone DLC” means to you. I don’t know that it compares to the last standalone DLC most of us (I hope) have played, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (and if you haven’t, honestly, do yourself the favor), but it’s on the right track. In terms of the game’s size and the amount of things to do, find, and unlock, I’d say Gat out of Hell has the advantage on Blood Dragon, but all the stuff to do is a little more samey than Blood Dragon. The dozen or so carefully crafted outposts scattered about a couple mountainous islands seem far more engrossing and immersive than the hundred-odd copy/pasted missions in Gat out of Hell. And, maybe I’m just a masochist, but I’d rather spend time in a terrifying open world than a completely unthreatening one. Yet, I am not masochistic enough for one type of mission in Gat out of Hell. The Salvation mission type was a miserable experience every time I tried it. I’m kinda old and slow compared to the days when the NES and SNES really tested our reflexes, but I’m pretty sure Salvation is also insanely hard. There’s so much to manage, and very little time to react. These missions kept me from completing certain side-quests, and that kinda sucks, but none of the good items seem to be locked away behind these side-quests, so I can deal with it. I can’t complain too much about trivial issue like this, though, since it’s standalone DLC for a game that was already, in essence, standalone DLC.

Man, I wasn’t gonna bring that up. I kind of avoided it for a while, but I suppose we do, eventually, have to talk about the elephant in the room: Enter the Dominatrix. It is, after all, the reason for all of this, the single event that most shaped the Saints Row franchise.

In Saints Row: The Third, there was a pretty awesome mission in which The Boss got superpowers. Everyone went crazy over it, and the internet (that’s you guys) clamored for more. Volition responded that it would be nice, and obviously it would be fun to play, but they didn’t know how to pull it off without compromising the base concept of the game. Later, on April Fool’s Day 2012, THQ announced “Enter the Dominatrix,” some obviously fake, superpower-based DLC for Saints Row: The Third. But then, like some hideous mutant in a disturbed middle-school science teacher’s basement lab, it came to life. A while later, it was actually announced, and Enter the Dominatrix took its first shaky steps. Eventually, the project became too large, and the story was scrapped to make room for a new script, and suddenly the superpower-based DLC mutant that was Enter the Dominatrix metamorphosed into Saints Row 4. Out with the leather and whips, in with the aliens, and I guess just go ahead and leave all of those “leather and whips” character models in there, who are we kidding, this is a Saints Row game, we’ll find a use for them.

No shit, people, this happened. I am reviewing DLC for DLC that went way over budget and turned into a full release. Do I think this is acceptable? Yes and no. I think this is incredibly indicative of the current shape of the industry. I think we live in a world where DLC, an idea I abhor, is here to stay. I don’t want developers to spend their time milking an existing game for more money instead of just making the next game, and it happens anyway. We validated it by buying it, so we get to live with what that created. But, at the same time, this is pretty much how every game got a sequel back in the so-called “golden era” before DLC. The developers sat down with their old source code and tweaked it until it was a new game. If I can praise Mega Man, with its ridiculous number of similar games that mostly just made slight improvements over time, I can’t nitpick about how Saints Row, another game from the same school of thought, comes to life. I do recognize that this could impact how some people feel about buying this game, but I encourage those people to let it go. I am one of those stubborn, principled people who refuses to buy games for stuff like this, and I have no regrets on this purchase. It’s nearly as big as Saints Row 4, and an awful lot of new assets were created for this experience. Hell looks absolutely incredible, and you’ll have such a great time flying around on your stolen angel wings that you’ll entirely forget the convoluted development cycle that led to it. Also, the Volition guys don’t seem that greedy when compared to the rest of the industry. Saints Row 4 was released two years after the previous game and only had two sets of DLC released for it, and Gat out of Hell was released eighteen months after that. Maybe a hundred and twenty bucks total over a year and a half, and the drought between the third and fourth games takes a bit of the edge off. Compare that to the cost of annually renewing your ability to play Call of Duty with your friends, and I think you’ll find that Volition is on the low end of the Money Grubber Scale.

Oh, shit. I did it again. Look at all of those words. Jeepers. Sorry, everyone. I get pretty passionate about Saints Row and video games and stuff. It got this long and I didn’t even talk about how much I think Kinzie is doing for gender equality in games (SPOILER: it’s a lot) or who I think The Boss should actually marry (but I hope it’s me). Anyway, I think that Gat out of Hell is a pretty okay game, and worth almost exactly the twenty bucks I had to shell out for it. Maybe even a little more, since I’m sure I’ll crave the flying and revisit this game later on. I am a gigantic sucker for a fun movement system in a game, and this game has one. You ever play City of Heroes? It was like one long orgasm for me. So many options for movement.

Score? Score! For the next step in the Saints franchise, 8/10. In the grand scheme of things, maybe a 5 or a 6. It’s not changing the industry, and it’s a byproduct of the current greed that shapes games, but it’s still pretty great, all things considered. It’s comfortable. It’s cheap. I guess that can’t be a terrible thing.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review – Giving your game a name like this makes it hard for me to decide which tense to use when writing

Alright, it’s been out for a while, we’ve played as much as we’re going to in a lot of cases, so let’s talk about The Pre-Sequel. It’s good to let it sit for a bit before we discuss it, I think.

Here’s what I think: lower gravity is a good thing.

You want more than that? Fine, we’ll break it down a bit.

You know how I feel about this game series. If you don’t, it’s like the last post I put up or something. Go check it out. I think I made some valid points while keeping things light and pleasant, but I’m also my most gentle critic. Short version: I like Borderlands for its concept, and I love Borderlands 2 for refining that concept into something more accessible while jacking up the writing to 11. The second game did let me down in a couple ways, I admit. It wasn’t the step up toward a large, immersive world that I thought it would be, and the exploration was minimal and unrewarding. The first Borderlands was like Fallout 3 cut into bite-sized segments and infused with multiplayer, and I think we all thought the second one would go more that way. When it went more mainstream, it lost a bit of its soul, but it gained a lot of appeal and playability, particularly where multiplayer is concerned, so it’s hard for me to fault Gearbox for these decisions.

Additionally, it seems that Gearbox themselves feel the same way. Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox, has been widely quoted as saying, “When you think of what Borderlands 3 should be… No. we don’t know what that is yet. We can imagine what it must achieve, but we don’t know what it is yet.” There’s a lot of buzz in that statement, as is the tendency when developers talk about their own games, but it belies a certain amount of desire to excel. When held up to the ending of the second Borderlands game, which seems to imply that the third game will be huge, Pitchford’s statement gives me hope.

The Pre-Sequel is not the fulfilment of that hope.

I knew that going into it, though. The screenshots and videos released before the game came out made it pretty damn clear that The Pre-Sequel would be made using the same engine as its predecessor, and we already knew that the engine in question could not handle massive environments. So, rather than the giant leap that Borderlands 3 will (hopefully) be, The Pre-Sequel is more of an incremental step. It’s not ideal, but I can at least respect it for what it is.

This is all talk about franchising, though. To some extent, we always need to judge a game (or a movie, or a book, or an album, for that matter) by the entries that came before. If a studio cannot improve constantly, the franchise stagnates, and the money we gave to the developers goes to waste, and we learn to resent them because of it. I want to make it clear right off the bat that Gearbox has not put me into that position. All-around, it’s a great game, and I love what they did with what they had.

Still, let’s rip it to pieces real quick. Out of respect. Or some shit.

As I mentioned in the previous piece, I don’t play Borderlands games online. I will always prefer local multiplayer games. Borderlands is a franchise my fiancée will play with me, and I’ll game with her any day over total strangers on the internet. No offense, I like you guys and all, but I like her more. That’s why I’m marrying her. That, and she’ll let me marry her. But, I digress. I’m reviewing this as a couch co-op game. I’m sure someone could find something completely obtuse to say about the differences between the methods of playing other than the obvious, but, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s fun to play with one other person, it’s probably fun to play with three other people instead, and it’s also probably fun to play alone.

I’m not gonna get into the general ideas of the gameplay too much, here. It’s a Borderlands game, and it’s the same engine as Borderlands 2. If you like Fallout 3 and/or Diablo, and you’re a fan of shooters, you’ll probably like it. Go pick up a copy of Borderlands 2, play it, then come back and read this. You’ll thank me. You don’t even need to play the first game. Situations derived from the first game’s plot are mentioned maybe once or twice, but the story is an entirely separate beast, and all of the DLC for Borderlands 2, as well as the Pre-Sequel and all its DLC, branch out from the story of Borderlands 2, rather than the first one. As stated earlier, I think the first game has better maps and exploration, so it ends up being a bit meatier of an experience, but it isn’t needed to enjoy what came after.

One might be able to enjoy The Pre-Sequel without playing Borderlands 2, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You won’t get the same impact from the story, and that impact is the whole point of the story. It all revolves around Handsome Jack, the villain of Borderlands 2. The story fills in some gaps between the first and second games, which is why they were able to give it such a ridiculous name. If you haven’t played Borderlands 2 and start up The Pre-Sequel, you’ll probably still be amused by the story, but you’ll be a little lost when it comes to the more nuanced ideas they’re dealing with. After all, Handsome Jack started off as (at least in his eyes) a hero. It’s the story of how Jack came to be the murderous sociopath in charge of the HyHHyperion Corporation. If you didn’t spend an entire game wanting to blow him away, you’re not gonna get the same “oomph” out of the story as everyone else.

The story is, to my mind, at least, both the high and low points of the game. The concept is great: watch a fairly normal, while somewhat narcissistic, guy slowly descend into madness and villainy. It’s a tried-and-true story for most media, but is rarely tackled in video games. Jason Brody may have become less human in his journey through Far Cry 3, but, like other protagonists whose games approach this sort of plot, he’s still the hero when the game ends, and probably didn’t start off as one. Handsome Jack starts off as a hero, and turns into the bad guy over the course of the game we’re playing. The whole script reeks of Anthony Burch’s social awareness, from the lesbian thief who is your main source of interaction in the game to the little orphan boy who know where all of the best scavenging is. Anthony loves to write non-traditional characters and situations, and the Pre-Sequel is no exception.

But, it seems to me that he merely provided suggestions and guidance on the story and characters. Most of the dialogue is a little more clunky than what we’re used to from Mr. Burch, and their character flaws aren’t as pronounced as they have been in the past. Most of them should seem a little evil, or at least psychopathic, as is tradition in these games, but they all ended up a little… happy-go-lucky. Maybe this is by design, to highlight Jack’s descent, or maybe that’s just what all Australians seem like to Americans. I don’t claim to know at all what can be held accountable for the disparity in tone, but there is undeniably a difference between the script of Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

This is not to say that the script is bad. It’s just different. Some of the characters are even more memorable than they were previously, or they’re brand new characters who really stand out. Red and Belly, a pair of enemies who are too close for even each other’s comfort, stick out as particularly magical new additions, and existing characters like Moxxie and Nisha are fleshed out and given depth that they lacked, before. I also really like that the dialogue changes based on what character you are using. The best instance of this is during a mission you receive from the Hyperion lady-voice (You know, “Don’t think of your death as failure, think of it as fun! Don’t think of Hyperion’s New-U respawn charges as war profiteering, think of them as war… fun!”) while playing as Claptrap. I don’t want to spoil it, because the entire script for this mission is so great that you should really just experience it, but I will say that it gives us an almost unwanted look into Claptrap’s head. It’s dialogue you would entirely miss if you weren’t playing as Claptrap, and I can assure you, you don’t want to miss it.

Let’s take a minute to talk Claptrap. I know a lot of people don’t like him. Everyone I talk to about this cites the fact that he’s annoying as their reason for not liking him. I would like to point out that this is the point of his character. Everything he does, he does in the most obnoxious way possible. It’s not about to change, and I love it. We should always have well-written characters around that we don’t particularly like. This character trait actually comes across in the skill tree for Claptrap. All of his skills are just… fucking annoying. Like, annoying to the people you’re playing with. Through gameplay, with no dialogue at all, Claptrap is annoying.

THIS IS FANTASTIC DESIGN.

Yes, that deserved its own paragraph.

So did that. For emphasis. Because, honestly, I hardly ever see so much character in a game’s mechanics as I do with the skill trees in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Claptrap’s skills all revolve around him being terrible at everything. He goes down easily, stays down longer, and does more damage from the ground. Honestly, he’s just lying on the ground and crying for most of the game, and we already knew this to be what his character is like. Wilhelm, who I honestly thought was a robot in Borderlands 2, appears as a human who is addicted to cybernetic implants, and his skill tree not only reflects this but also explains how he ended up as a towering robot monstrosity. Each character feels different from the others, not just because of their special skill like in the previous games, but also their other skills. I feel like this becomes a more impressive feat when we hold it up to another game in a similar style: Diablo 3. The barbarian class is cool in Diablo, and the skills are great, but I am generally just confused by what they might say about the character. Making a volcano erupt at will is neat and all, but all it tells me about the barbarian is that he can make volcanos erupt at will. Claptrap’s skills make him seem like an annoying crybaby, Nisha’s skills make her seem like an Old West sheriff, Wilhelm’s skills make him seem like a technology addict, and Athena’s skills make her seem like a protector of innocents. Absolutely stunning design, in the character skills department, and I applaud Gearbox for every single square in the skill trees.

I know I already mentioned this, but the decision to make a mostly low-gravity game was another fantastic decision. The first Borderlands had pretty low gravity, as evidenced by your character’s above-average jump height and the fact that falling from a great height did very little damage. Borderlands 2 stepped it up, and removed falling damage. Entirely. It was already so low in the first one that it was negligible, but Gearbox committed and just took out fall damage, completely. The Pre-Sequel took it further and lowered the gravity by a lot, allowing for higher jumps that take you much further. Long story short, it’s a fucking blast. They also introduced a new type of gear to assist in this: the Oz Kit. Oz kits give you a refillable source of air that can used to breathe in vacuum (boring) or you can expel some oxygen to propel you in mid-air and give you extra distance and height on your jumps (fucking awesome). The designers recognized that you might not always want to spend 10 full seconds in the air, so the Oz Kits also give you the ability to slam into the ground, Kirby-style, when you have enough height. Slamming is also awesome.

Low-gravity jumping and slamming alone make this game leaps and bounds (damn unavoidable puns) more fun to play than its predecessors. Boss fights will have you jumping over missiles as they fly harmlessly at the space you used to occupy, and slamming is great for crowd control. There are plenty of small, skittery enemies who would be miserable to shoot one at a time, and slamming gives us an efficient and fun way to handle that situation. Again, great design. Once you figure out that you can one-shot the little Torks by slamming, they go from being an enemy you dread to one you actually enjoy fighting. You kind of get excited to jump and slam around like a cracked-out pole-vaulter.

This game is absolutely riddled with great design hampered by its basic nature. No part of this game is bad, but it’s still just a placeholder, something to slake our thirst until Borderlands 3 comes out. And that’s fine! I’m glad I have a game to fill that void! But, I also wish it had been more than it was. I love the bigger maps, but they still aren’t big enough. I like the new gameplay mechanics, but I wish that we’d gotten an updated engine. I like the new characters, but I’m mad that I have nothing bad to say about them or their skill trees. I wish I liked this game more, and my instincts make me think I should like it less.

It is a Borderlands game, though, so I’ll keep playing it.

Score? 8/10, I’d say. It’s passable in every way, but it didn’t change my views on games like the two previous games did. I guess they can’t all be game-changers. I just have to accept that. Gearbox, make us a game that compels us to go 10/10 with Borderlands 3. I want you guys to raise the bar again, like you did twice before.

The Borderlands Franchise Review: How Torgue Saved The World

October 14th is nearly upon us, and release-date delivery from Amazon means the new Borderlands will be waiting in my mailbox. This franchise is very near to my heart, since splitscreen co-op is standard. Things eventually got a little too tough for me to do on my own, and I’m not a huge fan of joining a game with random internet strangers unless I already know those random internet strangers. Convinced the game would stagnate on a shelf, I begged my fiancée to play with me. She agreed almost immediately, on the condition that we start from the beginning. She hadn’t played many shooters before, but she picked it up quickly, and we’ve been playing Borderlands and its sequel together ever since.

So, on this, the eve of new Borderlands, I feel like it’s time we take a minute to talk about Fallout 3.

I mean, really. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? We loved Bethesda’s huge games for so long. We bought millions upon millions of copies of Morrowind and Oblivion. Stepping out into one of their huge, open worlds and slowly realizing the scale of it was a formative moment for a lot of people. But, while playing Oblivion in 2006, I started to wish that Bethesda would make a shooter set in one of these ridiculous worlds. It was already dual analog and I could shoot fireballs, so guns would have to be easy to put in!

Well, turns out, it really wouldn’t be that hard. There were rumblings in the game world when Interplay closed down, and we knew that Bethesda had gotten the rights to Fallout 3. At first glance, it seemed like everything we wanted. In 2007 the first trailer got us hyped beyond reason, and in 2008, Todd Howard smugly played it on stage at E3 and we all salivated on our couches. That October, we finally had it in our hands, and it was even better than we thought it would be.

The old, isometric Fallout games were some of the best of their kind. They were also formative games for many, with their free-form story, open gameplay, and bonkers sense of humor. They were dark and hilarious, and we loved them for that. We wanted Bethesda to do justice to one of our favorite franchises to ever be brought back from the dead, but we also wanted an Elder Scrolls game with guns.

We actually got both. Fallout 3 was a pretty damn great homage.

It was huge, and you hardly had to touch the vast majority of it if you didn’t want to. It supported multiple options for every quest and side-quest, it was disturbing and funny the whole way through, it was blatantly offensive in its unflinching portrayal of mankind, and it… IT WAS AN ELDER SCROLLS GAME WITH GUNS! Faithfulness to the source material aside, it was exactly what many of us had asked for.

But, when given exactly what we want, we tend to want more. Fallout 3 was great, but it got a little lonely in the Capital Wasteland, and that loneliness was the biggest detriment to replayability. If only there was a version of Fallout that let us play with our friends. Then, we’d pretty much just play that all the time.

Enter: Borderlands. You see, as a game, Borderlands doesn’t have to stand on its own merits. There was a niche, and this game filled it. It provided us with something we asked for. It gave us large, open maps to explore, and it let us do it with up to three other people, one of whom could be sitting in the same room as you. There was demand for exactly this, and they supplied it before Bethesda could. It could have been terrible and we still would have played it, because games are fun in a group. Knowing full well that the game could be mediocre and we’d forgive it, we all went out and bought it.

Turns out, even if it didn’t need to stand on its own merits, it could.

Gearbox knew we wanted post-apocalyptic shooting in a group, so they gave us that. That, alone, would have been enough, but they went a step further and gave us customizable characters, shitloads of loot, and a sense of humor that rivaled even Fallout. I will never forget the first time I heard Scooter yell “Four wheels is better’n… zero… I reckon…” or Tannis’s journals about her attempts to not vomit while speaking to other humans. The writing wasn’t perfect, but the personality was.

My fiancée and I played this game several times through, and we loved it. It never occurred to us that it could get better than it was. We were wrong.

Let’s take a moment to talk about DLC. Love it or hate it, downloadable content for games isn’t going anywhere. We already missed our opportunity to tell game developers that it’s no good, because we’ve given them loads of money for DLC in the last few years. We used our wallets to say “Yes, this is an acceptable thing to do.” There are arguments for or against, but the point is moot. DLC is the future. The debate, now, is how to do it right. And Gearbox is one company who I feel does it right.

The first modern DLC for a game was part of a deal between Bethesda (full circle!) and Microsoft. Both companies wanted to figure out how to make it work in a way that made consumers like it. They knew from MMOs that people would become quite angry if what they were buying was “pay-to-win,” so they wanted to avoid DLC that would involve using money to bypass gameplay. Naturally, they figured that cosmetic items were best. That worked for MMOs, so it must work in other games, right?

Wrong. Cosmetic items are popular in MMOs because the escalating nature of gear in these games means that many pieces of gear will be considered to be must-have items. When everyone has the same armor, things start to look boring. So, in this instance, cosmetic armor makes sense; you want to make your character stand out. It does not make sense in an Elder Scrolls game. Oblivion’s Horse Armor was an instant lesson for both companies involved. Cosmetic gear means next to nothing in a single-player game. Bethesda took this to heart, and started making small add-ons that added locations and gameplay to Oblivion. These add-ons were more popular, but still not really anything to write home about. Knights of the Nine was an interesting bit of DLC that expanded on the lore of the series, but, again, it didn’t really wow us.

Then, came The Shivering Isles. Sheogorath, the Daedric Lord of Madness, was already the most popular “god” in the series, so further exposure to him was a natural thing for Bethesda to give us. And, unlike previous expansions in games, we didn’t have to buy a whole new game to play it. We downloaded it, and received a huge addition to the map that didn’t require an extra disc.

It was revolutionary without doing much new. Blizzard was already fond of making expansions for their games, but they had never done it like this. We were convinced. The Shivering Isles sold an obnoxious number of downloads, and DLC was cemented into our lives.

Fallout 3 was the next game to really blow us away with DLC, and they did so in such a thorough manner that it made Oblivion’s DLC look like bullshit. Operation Anchorage was pretty meh, but it added interesting new guns, so I can kind of forgive its blandness. That was the last time Bethesda gave us DLC that was uninteresting. Broken Steel, The Pitt, Mothership Zeta, and Point Lookout all added Shivering-Isles-level amounts of content. 4 sets of DLC, each bigger than most entire games. The golden age of DLC was here, and we loved it.

No one would argue that Fallout 3 was too short. It was massive. Yet, Bethesda knew we wanted to have even more adventures in the Capital Wasteland, so they gave it to us. Each one was so different from the rest of the game, it actually felt like DLC should. We would have been much happier, obviously, if these adventures had been included in the base game, but they were so grand in scale that it felt fair to pay extra. This is how DLC should be handled.

Borderlands handled DLC in a very similar way. The first one, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, did something I like to refer to as “shoving a concept up its own asshole.” It took characters we knew from the base game, changed them slightly, and created a whole new storyline set in a completely new area, just like the Fallout DLC. Zombies might be a tired-out old concept, but they handled it in a way that made it feel new. This DLC set the tone for the future of the Borderlands series. It was still in the same universe as the main game, but the characters really started to develop here. Most importantly, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned took itself even less seriously than the game it added on to. The subsequent DLC, Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot also didn’t take itself very seriously, but it added very little to the game, and was pretty disappointing as a result.

The next DLC did not disappoint. The Secret Armory of General Knoxx was huge and hilarious. We got to see Scooter get pretty flushed out as a character, and new weapons fell like rain. The level cap increased to let us combine skills in even more ridiculous ways, and we got to put these skills to the test against Crawmerax, the first “raid boss” in the series. General Knoxx himself was an incredible character to square off against, and started the trend of memorable enemies in the series, a trend which gave us Handsome Jack, the most killable main villain since Gruntilda in Banjo-Kazooie.

By the time my fiancée and I were ready to start Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, though, Borderlands 2 had come out, and killing Jack was all we could think about. Let me make this clear: I am not exaggerating about how absolutely driving the desire to kill Jack is. Borderlands figured out the best way to make players want to kill the main villain: you give him the player’s phone number. Within minutes of beginning the game, he is calling you to brag about how rich he is and how much he wants you dead. He’s a gigantic douche, and it is highly motivating. There is no way to block these calls. Anthony Burch did a phenomenal job writing the script for this game, so the calls are consistently entertaining, but condescending and annoying enough that you can’t wait to shove an assault rifle down his throat. Also, without spoiling anything, I can assure you that, if you play Borderlands 2, you will get to kill Jack. No bullshit Vault Monster ending like the first one. Satisfaction will be yours.

It’s a nice touch that is sadly missing from most games. For whatever reason, so many modern games go the route of Final Fantasy 8, and have you fight some enemy in the end who you feel no connection to. Someone just up and tells you that the enemy you’ve been trying to find for the last 30 hours was a red herring, and you have to go kill the real bad guy. Why? Why would we want to do that? In the case of Final Fantasy 8 (in my opinion, a fantastic game until the last disc), we were chasing a time-traveling witch from the future who is possessing girls in the present. Esoteric, yes, but we knew what we were doing and why. We had never seen the witch in question, but we’d seen her effects. Then, right at the end, we find out that another time-traveling witch from an even more distant future is possessing the witch we’ve been chasing, and this witch is the one we need to kill. Ultimecia, she is called, and her name isn’t mentioned until the last hour or two of the adventure. The fourth disc is like a completely different game from the previous three discs.

Borderlands 2 maintains one contiguous goal from the beginning of the game: Kill Jack. Even if you forget, Jack will remind you, by being an asshole at you. This creates flow that games like Final Fantasy 8 lack. You are given a goal, and are gently guided to that goal at whatever pace you choose. And, just in case you develop some sympathy toward Jack, Anthony made sure to write in some truly despicable acts, so you can really work up the hate. Trust me, by the time you pull the trigger, your desire to kill Jack has become a need.

If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you’re probably wondering why I am saying so much about the story in a shooter. For the most part, I’m willing to ignore sub-par stories, particularly in action games. Well, the story in Borderlands 2 is that good. The first game had an alright story, supplemented by fantastic gameplay. Borderlands 2 streamlined the gameplay, expanded its scope, and gave us a story to tie it all together. Every bullet fired, every piece of loot acquired, every map traversed is a step in your journey, and the end is established from the very beginning. I simply cannot stress enough how important this is. Making the goal synonymous with the intermediate steps makes games better. No one is going back and playing the old Borderlands much these days, myself included, and the improved story is a big motivator.

The Pre-Sequel launches in a matter of days, and it is already working from a slight disadvantage. Since it is a prequel to Borderlands 2, the story is filling chunks of backstory, which carries the possibility of being awful. I have faith in Anthony’s writing prowess, so I am not too worried, but the possibility is there. If nothing else, it is not likely to be as driving as the previous game’s story, which could create the illusion of lackluster gameplay. Mel and I will be playing this the instant it comes out, though. If our previous experiences with Gearbox’s flagship series are any indicator, it won’t take us terribly long to finish it. As with all games I am interested in playing, I am running under a self-imposed media blackout, so rest assured, my perception of this game will be as untarnished by preconceived notions as possible. All I know, so far, is that there are low-gravity environments, there is a mechanic that utilizes oxygen tanks, and there is something happening called the “Butt-Bomb,” which sounds stupid. My media blackout has been so thorough that I honestly don’t even know who the characters are.

These games aren’t really games. They’re group adventures. And, while I usually only have a party of two, we will be going on this adventure together. Because the gameplay and the story don’t really matter in a game like this. What matters is what we make of it. I don’t want every game to be like this, but I really hope that Borderlands stays the way it is. There are enough games out there trying to make their mark by doing things we’ve never seen before. Borderlands, you just keep on perfecting the Diablo formula. You’re clearly good at it.

I can’t score the first Borderlands in good conscience, since it is overshadowed by its offspring, but Borderlands 2 is a solid 9/10, in my book. Hopefully, The Pre-Sequel knocks it down a peg or two.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag Review: The Game I Never Wanted To Play

I have preconceived notions about Assassin’s Creed. My friends all went crazy about the first game when it came out, and I couldn’t see it as anything other than a more disappointing Prince of Persia. Everything about it was worse, from the combat, to the platforming, to the level design. Where the Prince of Persia games were meticulously crafted games with precise controls, Assassin’s Creed felt like GTA with parkour. It was sloppy and controlled like a drunk rhesus monkey, and the map was basically just a real world map from another time period that I traversed by simply holding down two buttons and pointing at things. But, now that my favorite time-traveling, wall-running, trying-a-hundred-times-to-beat-this-part franchise seems to have gone the way of the buffalo, I guess those of us holding out hope for a true successor to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within have to give up and find something new.

I am definitely not the right person for the job.

I knew, even before I started, that I would try to quit if I was given an eavesdropping mission. You can tell me all you want that it’s been improved since the first game, but a mini-game where I have to keep someone with such a complicated walk animation the exact right distance from a moving target is not fun. It’s a chore. Just like Operation. No one actually likes playing Operation, they just like watching their friends stress out over it.

For me, the most stressful part of Assassin’s Creed was the pathing. For those of you who don’t know what this term refers to, imagine the game as a piece of graph paper. Any game, really. In the olden days, only the lines on the graph could be followed, which helped games control well. You had, in essence, one choice: forward or backward. Maybe a bit of z-axis involvement. Total, you had four directions you could move in, which made games very simple to play and develop. With the dawn of 3D and analog sticks, we were allowed to move diagonally, as well, from corner to corner on the graph paper. When the technology got better, games were still built on the graph paper, but we gained the ability to go wherever we wanted. You can see this when wandering around the streets or on a large rooftop in Assassin’s Creed. You can walk anywhere, right until you hit a vertical edge. Once your travel becomes vertical, you are rigidly held to the points on the graph paper, again. Push the correct direction to continue along the pre-determined path, push any other direction to do nothing or fall to your death.

This has always been an issue with the Assassin’s Creed games, but particularly in the first one. I didn’t realize this was the biggest turn-off for me. I called it imprecise controls. But, when the only thing that changes with the controls is which direction you press the stick, there aren’t actually any controls to be imprecise. The issue is the pathing. The developers, in these situations, have to go through every single location where you can hold down the buttons to freerun, and manually configure paths to follow. Since this is a much more hands-on approach to coding than what they do to the streets and rooftops, there is a lot of room for error. And who can fault them for it? We forgive Bethesda, the kings of hands-on development, every time an enemy tornadoes away into the sky for no good reason in The Elder Scrolls, and we should extend the same courtesy to Ubisoft. It’s only fair. The difference, though, is how it affects the player. Bethesda’s glitches break our immersion, sure, but they’re kind of funny, and they don’t generally affect gameplay. A glitchy ledge in an Assassin’s Creed game will sometimes cause us to repeatedly fail missions, though, and having to repeat ourselves makes us angry. It’s human nature.

Snap decisions are also human nature, and I made one based on my initial impression of the first Assassin’s Creed. I wanted Prince of Persia and didn’t get it. That, alone, was forgivable, but everything about it bored me. The pathing bothered me, the controls were overly-simple, and none of the locations truly wowed me with their design. So, several hours into it, I put it down, never to play it again.

It seemed almost rude to jump into a review of the new one without at least trying one of the intermediate ones, since the internet has been a-twitter for years about the improvements that each new game has brought to the table. I knew the general premise of the series from my brief foray with the first game, and the internet filled me in on what I didn’t know. It was mostly osmosis, really. I never sought out knowledge of the plot, but details come. I’d played as Desmond for a bit before, and I’ve already had the big finale of the third game spoiled, so I didn’t want to play that one. Luckily, Microsoft was kind enough to give me a free download of Assassin’s Creed 2 a while back, so I loaded it up and gave it a shot.

The segment with Desmond in the beginning almost lost me. I’m just not that big a fan of this kind of story device. I am giving you money for an experience. For something I can play. I’m here for the gameplay. Unless your story is really incredible and persistent, like Bioshock or Half-Life, I’m not terribly interested. The story that Desmond experiences are just a series of small reveals, vignettes occasionally splashed with blood for shock value. But, none of his story affects the gameplay. No matter what happens to Desmond, I know that in three to four minutes I will be scampering up buildings as some human-monkey hybrid who has no idea that Desmond will ever exist. There is such a disparity in the Desmond-to-Assassin story ratio that caring about Desmond’s story feels like getting really excited about the wrapper on your candy bar. Gameplay helps drive story home. Even though most argue that the modern-day story in Assassin’s Creed is better than the historical fiction, its impact is so small in the sea of gameplay and story that makes up the bulk of the game.

But, I powered through, and ran away from, then beat up, a whole bunch of guards as magical, shining, invincible, Messiah Desmond, and I made my way to the “hub” of the game. It’s very cliché, from the old, dirty warehouse windows to the bank of TVs hanging in the middle of the room displaying pointless maps of the world to the corkboard wall covered in papers and strings. It is a resistance headquarters. I would get that even without being told, because it looks exactly like every resistance headquarters ever. Also, it is riddled with computers, so you know it’s important.

Seriously, the computers in Assassin’s Creed 2 are hilarious. Every single one, and even every piece of each computer, is covered in lights. They spin around and flash like they were designed by someone who really wanted everything to look “futuristic.” Stuff like this is necessary, though, to make retro-futurism as funny as it needs to be, and it makes me want to play Fallout, which is probably not the goal.

Eventually, I sat down in the magic chair, and got to meet Ezio, the character so great they made two more games starring him. My initial impressions of him were… not so great. I don’t understand what Ezio’s appeal is. Maybe he grows as the story progresses (and I have to assume that he does), but everything I’ve seen of him makes him seem like a caricature of what Americans think of Italians. He talks about nothing except vaginas until his family is murdered, at which point he immediately changes his personality to become the responsible son he needs to be. It’s an abrupt change, but he’s just that kind of guy, apparently.

Within minutes of his story beginning, Ezio confessed he had spent all of his money on whores, would like to get some more whores, and that he totes knows this smokin’ hot lady who he is going to go visit instead of doing his duty for his family. And he does. He goes to her place, yells at her window, and climbs into her bedroom, at which point a quicktime event began that I was not remotely prepared for. Suddenly, the game told me to press Y while he was leaning toward her, and I did, and he proceeded to make out with her. The thought that I had actually done that through gameplay was so funny to me that I missed the subsequent two quicktime prompts in a fit of laughter, so sweet Christina or whatever her name was ended up quite dissatisfied with Ezio’s skill as a lover. I get that this game came out in 2009, and quicktime events had only recently transcended to the rank of Universally Reviled, but at no point could anyone have a quicktime event say “YO, DAWG. PRESS Y TO TOTALLY MACK ON THAT BITCH,” without consequence.

I’ve already stated that, since the story isn’t mind-blowing, it’s tertiary to me, so I’ll skip past all of the other story elements I didn’t like. It did the only things right that matter: it took it easy on me long enough for me to learn the systems, then escalated in a parallel trajectory to the gameplay, and it gave me a reason to kill an awful lot of dudes. That’s why I’m here. To kill dudes. To avenge a murder. To play a game.

All around, I have to say it was already a step up, for me. The improved stealth mechanics were great, and the pathing, while still kinda wiggy in the corners, was much better than before. The combat was fun, but not incredible, and there was an awful lot to do. The invisible walls that didn’t even have the courtesy to be invisible really pissed me off. My hackles raise every time a game puts up huge glowing walls to block me from areas, instead of naturally limiting where I go through harder enemies and clever use of story, but I figured they kind of had a canonical reason for it, so I grumbled and overlooked it.

The notoriety system in Assassin’s Creed 2 is crap. There are wanted posters with Ezio’s face on them scattered around that you are encouraged to tear down in order to lower his notoriety, but they are all located in exceedingly remote locations. How am I to believe that the removal of a poster on the sliver of wall over an old lady’s awning has a noticeable impact on the guards spotting me? One of them was in a particularly impossible to reach spot, and I had to climb around the building and come at it from the opposite side to try to get there. In doing so, I had to drop down several ledges. I pressed B a few times, and he dropped down a ledge at a time like normal, until he let go of the building entirely, fell away from the wall, and leap-of-faithed backwards into a pile of hay. Why, Ezio? Neither you, nor me, nor Desmond knew the hay was there. Why would you do that?

Trying to justify a character’s actions in a video game this meta gets strange. I’m technically playing as Desmond with my knowledge of the game added to his, who is, in turn, playing as Ezio in his own game with all of his own knowledge and mine. Things get a little existential, but in a pretty dumb way. No amount of meta-gaming can ever explain Ezio’s actions, unless we assume it’s all a big game of telephone. I point the sick right at the wall I want to run across, which tells Desmond to tell Ezio to jump onto that wall and run across it, and Ezio instead decides to leap 90 degrees to the left into the wide open plaza filled with guards, land flat on his feet, and shout his own name at the top of his lungs, all while his shattered shin bones spin holes through his legs from the inside. Solid call, Ezio.

Seriously, for an assassin, Ezio spends an awful lot of time shouting his own names at the top of his lungs, and he especially loves to do this at the scene of a crime while holding the bloody murder weapon. That’s another odd choice, Ezio.

About halfway through the second act, I put the game down. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday, but it’s not why I’m here. It’s just context for the real meat in the sandwich, and that meat is pirates.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I bought it on a whim after a number of my friends kept telling me it was “so much better” than the old ones. It sat on my shelf for a long time, but its time has come.

First impression: Edward is a pretty cool guy. He is absolutely pathological, and I love it. He is a fun character to play as. The game even encourages you to role-play as him, instigating crime with on-screen prompts and mission objectives. One mission has Edward bluffing his way into a high-level meeting of the global elite, and the game pops up an optional objective during the meeting that eggs you on to pickpocket all three of the other men in the room. Obviously, I did it. Because that is an awesome thing to do. And, when I was done pilfering their cash, I stood there, staring at the documents on the table, contributing absolutely nothing to the conversation, a wolf in a slightly more sophisticated and ruthless wolf’s clothing.

I like the pirate story a bit more than the Italian story, if only because it gives me cause to do much more awesome things. Blowing up boats will always be more fun than watching Da Vinci decode something. Simple fact. There isn’t much to the story, other than justification for doing increasingly more ridiculous tasks, but I’m also not very far into the story. At the point I’ve reached, a couple dozen hours in, I think I’m still basically still in the tutorial. I just learned about the Mayan statues for the first time, if that helps you place it. But, even if I’d just bombed through the main story as hard as I could, I feel like I’d be maybe five hours in when I hit this point. That’s a pretty long tutorial, man.

Yes, you read that correctly. I have stretched the first five hours of Black Flag’s story into 20-30 hours of play. There is just so much to do, and most of it is surprisingly fun. You see a treasure chest on your map and you go for it, but the building it’s in is heavily guarded. So, you climb up to the roof, murder everyone in sight, then take the chest. There are large, old forts in many of the cities, and just getting into them without raising an alarm is practically a whole game in and of itself. This is where Black Flag starts to really feel like Prince of Persia. The forts are carefully-modeled, with very strict paths you need to find and reason out before trying to climb, much like the game’s Persian predecessor. They are a joy to figure out and climb, and they’re generally big enough that you can raise an alert running up to it, swing and clamber around the outside to find your way, and the alert level will fade before you even reach the top. Of course, you could just murder the guards at the gate and storm the front door, but that would be dumb, and not that much fun. If taking outposts in Far Cry brought light into your life, you’ll get just as big a hard-on from taking a fort in Black Flag.

The game is still riddled with pathing issues, but only in town, really. Freerunning through the rigging of a ship feels tight and much more safe than freerunning on buildings, which is a laugh, considering the first ship I could climb was exponentially taller than any building I’d seen up to that point. Even though I did experience pathing issues, they were nowhere near as prevalent as in either of the previous games I’d played, so I have to give Ubisoft Montreal props on that. Their debugging and playtesting must have been pretty solid, this time around.

The stealth and the combat are meshed perfectly, by now. Enemies are observant, but not too observant, and “stealth points” (which most of us call “bushes”) are plentiful without being too plentiful. Enemies take just long enough to notice you that you can be a little more ballsy than you’re probably used to in a stealth game, but not so much that it feels over the top. The window of opportunity for a stealth kill gives you enough time to sprint at someone from nearly any distance and pull it off. They notice the bodies of their brethren if they can see them, but you’re George of the Jungle, and a top-down approach works like a charm in taking nearly any structure, since the men below will never find the bodies above them. In the assassination missions, your stealth bonus only requires you to remain stealthy until the target is dead, so you can drop out of the sky onto him, collect a huge reward, then fight your way out. The team making these games has clearly been paying attention to the Far Cry franchise, and it has evolved more into that than Prince of Persia. Was it what I wanted? No. Am I okay with it? Yeah, I think I am.

You could pick a much worse franchise to emulate. And, since it’s Ubisoft Montreal’s own franchise, it doesn’t feel like plagiarism; it feels like they’re learning from their mistakes. It’s the growth of a studio. It’s a magical thing to watch. From what I’ve gathered, it seems like the third entry also might have been like this one, albeit on a smaller scale. I might check it out at some point. I haven’t decided, yet. You have to remember, I hated this franchise about three days ago. I have some stuff to work out before I try another one.

Some of my favorite things about the game so far are the little details. I love having an entire armory of flintlock pistols slung about my person that I fire in sequence. I love that Ubisoft has bucked tradition and allows me to sprint endlessly, instead of forcing me to deal with a stamina gauge. I love how chaotic the ship-to-ship combat is while still remaining elegant enough that I’ve only beached my own ship in combat once, so far.

One feature I find hilarious is the “skip” option on the already quite bloodless animal skinning cutscene. The ability to skip cutscenes is either absent or completely unadvertised with other cutscenes, so it is obviously included for the faint of heart, which is a nice thing to do, I guess. It amuses me to imagine someone so squeamish that he or she wrestles with the notion of even pressing B to skin a critter in the first place, then breathing a sigh of relief because he is able to skip it. Imagine how angry he’d be when he eventually forgot to skip it and realized that it shows absolutely nothing. I would like to point out that, in a strange turn of events and an equally strange design decision, every animal’s bloody carcass, in a hilarious amount of decay, is left on display as soon as the skinning is done. I cannot even fathom why this would be the case. Far Cry 3 had extremely bloody, unskippable animal-skinning cutscenes, but no animal was shown during or after. The grinning corpse of a wild boar in Black Flag was a little creepy to even me, and I love eating animals.

The ship to ship combat is the big addition to this game. I understand it happened a few times in Assassin’s Creed 3, but Black Flag puts you at the helm of the Jackdaw an awful lot. It’s nice, though. It plays out like a cross between Windwaker and an Elder Scrolls game, and it helps break the game up and provide structure at the same time. You have to sail to a location the first time you go, but you can then fast-travel to the location once you’ve explored it a bit and synchronized at least once. The game strongly encourages you to keep sailing, though, as you will need the materials to upgrade your boat so you can sail more so you can get more materials, etc. It’s cyclical, in a way, but it’s not annoying. Sailing opens up many other opportunities, such as exploring deserted islands and finding aquatic creatures to harpoon. The harpooning mini-game is fun enough in and of itself, but it also provides materials needed to upgrade the various parts of your outfit, like ammo pouches and pistol holsters. Had the boat only existed to upgrade itself, I would have been upset, but Ubisoft was quite careful to ensure that everything had enough variety to keep things interesting, and that the different gameplay sections benefits each other. It’s balanced pretty well.

I never felt like I was wasting my time while playing Black Flag. I’m not entirely clear on what the “Animus Fragments” do for me, but they’re in crazy enough spots that I enjoy trying to find them. Same with the chests scattered about. 300 bucks isn’t much in Black Flag, which is roughly the max you can get from one of them, but, like the Animus Fragments, a significant portion are placed in locations that are entertaining enough to reach. I spent my entire last play session just running around a few of the cities to find numerous chests and such, and it was honestly pretty fun. I might even pick up this game again at a later date to play some more for my own enjoyment, which was something I was not expecting when I decided to review it.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was pleasantly surprised by Black Flag. I likely would not have enjoyed it if I had just jumped straight in, so I recommend it to those of us who wrote it off immediately with one important caveat: play one of the intermediate games, first, even if it’s just for a little while. The slow progression becomes more tolerable in small doses, and seeing that progression was, for me, at least, necessary to really enjoy Black Flag. It hasn’t revolutionized anything, but it has improved on its own formula enough to merit a second look.

Score? I say 7 out of 10. If the pathing is more thoroughly tested in the nest iteration, it could score higher, but glitches still mar the gameplay, which isn’t quite as thoroughly entertaining as it could be. On the whole, a pretty good game that just about anyone can enjoy. If they can manage to make an entire game as tactical and fun as taking over a fort, I’ll poop myself.