Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Gentlemen's Agreement

For almost three years, I have been an active member and moderator of Pete's Game Room Forum, a video game-related forum created by Pete Dorr, Youtube gaming guru and current co-host of the All Gen Gamers podcast. It's a nice forum that started as a meeting ground for other gamers who run a Youtube channel but has since blossomed into a large community of video game enthusiasts from all corners of the globe. We meet, we chat about games and we generally have a good time. As a moderator, I am one of a few people tasked with keeping the forums free of trolls and spammers, which can sometimes be a hectic task but one that ultimately feels very rewarding.

Anyway, one brilliant idea thought up by forum member and Twitter rascal Andsy was the idea of a "Gentlemen's Club", a fun little endeavor in which the entry requirements are very simple. You must submit a list of unstarted or unfinished games and you are paired up with another member, who has also submitted a list. You then select a game from the other person's list and task them with the duty of completing said game within the next two months. This is a great idea because not only is it a fun and friendly competition, but it also encourages you to go back and play a game you might have otherwise kept shelved. The fun part comes with the choice of games, since you can either pick a great game you know the person will like, or if you're feeling impish, a terrible or overly difficult game that could send them into fits of rage. Cruelty of this nature is not only allowed but it's encouraged. Anyone entering into such an agreement does so with a certain amount of risk, but given that the game selection is limited to what's on your list, you can leave out anything you seriously don't wish to play.

For my agreement, fellow member and Twitter buddy Mike Dunbar has assigned me The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. This is a game that I have tried no fewer than three times to get into but I have yet to find enjoyment with it. I have found the game to be glitchy and plodding, coupled with the clunky combat and abysmal inventory management system, have made me give up on all three occasions. Having said that, the game has a strong following and has received almost endless acclaim, so I suspect it's a game I will grow to enjoy if given the time. Hence, I am delving into it on Mike's recommendation as he thoroughly enjoyed it, and it seemed appropriate given the hype that currently surrounds The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For his end of the bargain, I have tasked him to complete L.A. Noire, one of my favorite games to be released this year and one of the better Rockstar games to come along. It's not for everyone, but I personally loved the 40's setting as well as the emphasis on finding clues and interrogating suspects. In addition to completing said games, we both have an additional task that must be fulfilled. On my end, I must complete the "Hackdirt" side-quest that you come across at some point in the game, while Mike has to complete all cases with a 5-star rating. This is going to be interesting to say the last.

                    My typical "nerd rage" reaction to playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

So what is the prize if you complete your challenge? Nothing, except for the satisfaction of having completed a game and succeeded in a challenge, which is really the essence of why we play video games. On the forum, you can brag about being part of the Gentlemen's Club and joke about donning your smoking jacket and monocle and twiddling your fine moustache with price. It's a good time had by all. If you don't succeed, in the words of Andsy, you will be declared a rascal forevermore and thus not a fine gentleman. At the end of the day, it's a fun, free and fiercely competitive challenge that definitely gives us incentive to game harder.

Both Mike and I will have until January 31, 2012 to complete our respective games and secure our high-backed plushy chairs in the gentlemen's lounge. Personally, I think Mike got the better end of the deal since his game can be beaten in about 15 to 20 hours, while Oblivion can easily take dozens more. Either way, I have accepted the challenge and will give it my best. Who knows? I might actually find something in this game that I finally enjoy.

Click here to view the official thread in the forums and see what other participants have chosen for each other.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Assassin's Creed: Revelations (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

The Assassin's Creed series has been one of the benchmarks of this current gaming generation, combining an innovative parkour-style gameplay and stunning open-world gameplay. Yearly releases may have dulled the sense of wonder and discovery, but fans of the series have consistently been treated to a strong, story-driven experience that has remained consistently strong over four games. Assassin's Creed: Revelations attempts to bring the characters and events of the first three games full circle. Does this conclusion to the Assassin's Creed storyline do the series justice, or is an ending on a low note? Read on. 

The plot in Revelations brings together all three main characters from the series; Ezio Auditore De Firenze, Altair La-Ahad and Desmond Miles, the modern-day protagonist whose ancestral memories you have explored in the previous games. Taking place immediately after the events of Brotherhood, Desmond is trapped in limbo in the Animus where his conscious mind has crumbled and left him in a comatose state. In this nebulous state, he must find keys to link memories of both Ezio and Altair and attempt to return himself to a conscious state. The Ezio storyline make up the bulk of the game and this time we see him in sixteenth century Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey) during the rise of the Ottomans. Ezio, three decades older and infinitely wiser, is drawn into the war between the Assassin's and the Templars and attempts to end it by unearthing a powerful artifact hidden by Altair. Throughout the course of the game, Ezio must unearth artifacts that unlock Altair's memories in order to find this artifact. In all the flip-flopping between different storylines, the plot does get somewhat muddled and you will find yourself confused at various points. However, it is not so obtuse that it detracts from the enjoyment the game provides. 

The gameplay in Assassin's Creed: Revelations is virtually unchanged from the previous two games. Like Rome, Florence and Venice before it, Constantinople is a huge city filled with plenty of rooftops, tall structures and faithful recreations of real-life architecture, most of which can climbed. Ezio, despite his advancing age, is still as agile as ever and the free-running parkour is still the game's highlight. The notable addition to Revelations is a new gadget called the Hookblade, which allows for Ezio to both zipline across strategically-placed ropes that connect fooftops, plus it provides a few extra inches of reach that allows for longer jumps. This is a welcome addition because it helps prevent falling to your death if you misjudge a jump or fall short on reaching a target. The economy also plays a pivotal role, as buying shops not only unlocks new items but also increases the amount of money that you earn, which is accrued and deposited into your bank every 20 minutes. With enough shops purchased, you will quickly find yourself with more money than you can spend. The missions you undertake are also identical to the previous games in the series. The bulk of the assignments involve finding and killing a target, sneaking into an area occupied by the Templars and steal something, or run through setpiece action segments that usually tie into a big event in the game. 

One of the most common complaints about the Assassin's Creed series is that there is little innovation between installments, and the same can be said about Revelations. The same elements introduced in the second game, such as an economy, guilds and tomb-raiding for artifacts are still intact. Key features introduced in Brotherhood, such as the ability to recruit assassins and taking over parts of the city, are also present here and they serve more or less the same function. In Brotherhood, you were responsible for burning down Borgia towers and overthrowing their control over a district. In Revelations, you must take over Templar dens and drive them out in order to claim their land for the assassin's guilds. The twist is that the Templars are stubborn and will attack your dens, requiring you to engage in a tower defense-style game in order to protect your strongholds. Another new addition is the ability to craft various bombs that can aid you during missions. You will acquire various recipe items throughout the game and the function and purpose of the bombs you craft will depend on which combination of ingredients you use. Another twist is the levels in which you play as Desomd trapped in the wastelands of the Animus. By collecting data fragments, you unlike levels in which you play as Desmond in a first-person puzzle platforming game. These segments will remind you of a less puzzle-focused Portal and they are surprisingly enjoyable, plus you will get more exposition on Desmond and his life. 

The single player experience can easily consume 20 hours, possibly more if you're a completionist or achievement/trophy hunter.  Whether you liked it or not in Brotherhood, the multiplayer has returned in Revelations and a few changes that are largely cosmetic. Once again, you are tasked with assassinating an assigned target, while at the same time another player has been assigned to kill you. The frantic cat-and-mouse chases can be tense and exhilarating, and those who found Brotherhood's multiplayer limited will like the expanded maps, game modes, class customization and ability to create guilds. Despite the improvements, the multiplayer does have some issues such as slow pacing and unbalanced player match-ups. The benefits and perks are definitely slanted in favor of high-level players, so new players will find themselves getting killed quickly and often. The multiplayer in Assassin's Creed was a novel idea in Brotherhood and it provided a few hours of enjoyment, but it gets stale rather quickly and it is questionable if it will sustain a solid online community. It should also be noted that the "Uplay Passport", Ubisoft's answer to the online pass, is required to access online multiplayer and this comes included when you purchase the game new. Despite the novelty and the fact that it's something different, the multiplayer still feels somewhat tacked on. If I was required to pay extra for this mode, I would pass.

As fans of the series have come to expect, Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a fantastic looking game. Constantinople is a culturally rich city and the game developers have done an excellent job in bringing it to life. The crowds of people going about their business, the day-night cycle and the little touches such as birds flying around and leaves blowing through the air give the game a sense of immersion that is rarely seen in video games. The character animation is fantastic, and while the combat is virtually unchanged, the ways in which you kill enemies are a grisly treat to enjoy. Special mention also needs to be made of the music and voice acting, all of which is up to the standard that the series has set. The subtle, Middle Eastern-themed soundtrack is fantastic and it sets the right mood, and the voice acting is first rate. With four games under their belt, the developers of the Assassin's Creed series have remained consistent in giving us a stunning world in which to do our killing. 

For all the things that Assassin's Creed does right, there are still a number of missteps that can range from minor quibbles to severe annoyances. As great as the game looks overall, it is riddled with visual quirks included people and sometimes entire buildings popping in, sketchy facial animation and noticeable screen tearing during cutscenes. Given the size and scope of the game, this can be forgiven, however there are some issues with the controls that are harder to ignore. Having Ezio free-run across rooftops and through tombs is generally fluid and rather enjoyable, however this does not always hold true when precise platforming is required. There were many occasions where Ezio missed a ledge he was clearly running towards, he jumped in the opposite direction that I had intended and when I missed a ledge when chasing someone. Most of the time, you will be able to rebound and get back on track, but there were a few occasions where the controls didn't work and a mission desynchronized. Another issue is with the gameplay additions specific to Revelations. As novel as the idea of playing tower defense and being able to craft over 300 different kinds of bombs might be in theory, they are rather boring and time consuming in practice. 

While Assassin's Creed 2 was the home-run success for the series and it remains the best in my opinion, the subsequent games have done a great job of fleshing out the plot and delivering a consistently engrossing and enthralling gaming experience. Revelations is the conclusion to the current storyline and also the last one to be set in the Renaissance era, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the series. As a swan-song, Revelations delivers in more areas than it stumbles, and while not every addition is a good one and some lingering issues abound, there is still no other game series like this. If you're a fan, your time spent delving back into the fray will be very well spent indeed.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10