30 June 2015

Assassin's Creed: Unity

Graphics / Presentation

Let's start with the big obvious element first. Unity is the first Assassin's Creed game made exclusively for the PS4 and Xbox One, and, as such, has a lot to prove, at least technically speaking. Does the tech of the new generation actually make a difference? On the surface, yes, absolutely. Unity is gorgeous. While the crowds of literally hundreds of people rendered in real time don't actually look that impressive, more front-and-center details shine. Arno's parkour animation is incredibly smooth and realistic, rivaling even the Uncharted series. The detailed swaying and flapping of Arno's coat as he runs and climbs looks so good that it's distracting. Characters during cutscenes are probably the best-looking video game characters ever. Seriously, somehow Ubisoft actually managed to make even kissing look realistic in Unity.

Where Unity visually fails is in its overall style. Color-wise, Unity is the blandest Assassin's Creed game by far. The sky of Paris is nearly always overcast, and the buildings are various shades of gray and tan. There are plenty of gorgeous opulent mansion interiors to explore, but most of them look identical on the inside, as though they're all cut-and-pasted versions of one another with different layouts (hint: they are).

There's a general sameness to Unity. Unlike the cities in Assassin's Creed II or the various ports in Black Flag, France in Unity pretty much always looks the same. Paris is where you spend 95% of your time in Unity, and it's basically the same almost everywhere. Which wouldn't be a problem if Paris were any more than mildly visually appealing... but it's not.

Paris is simply not an interesting place to visit in Assassin's Creed. After exploring the Crusades-era Holy Land, Renaissance-era Italy, and the glory days of piracy in the Caribbean, Paris—even during the French Revolution—just seems too close to our modern Western world to be interesting. Instead of a fascinatingly different world, Unity gives us a world that's perhaps too "normal." Maybe if the basic gameplay had been changed more from previous AC games, this wouldn't be much of a problem—but Unity relies heavily on its world and story to carry it, which can only go so far.


Unity is very paint-by-the-numbers Assassin's Creed. If you've played Assassin's Creed II, you've basically played Unity. Unity does have most of the advancements from Assassin's Creed III and IV, which aren't unwelcome, but it doesn't do much with them. There is one great addition, however: downward parkour. Instead of jumping off the side of a building or looking for a haystack to fall into every time you want to descend from high up, just hold the right trigger and Circle/B and watch Arno naturally find a path of descent—or hold X/A to have him ascend.

In any other Assassin's Creed game, this level of control over verticality would be a big deal. But Unity's geometry is so complex—with ridged corners, windows, etc.—that it's just not enough. It doesn't break the parkour very often, but it keeps the vertical control functions from being anything more than a small convenience, rather than a true progression.

The biggest new element of Unity is the focus on multiplayer co-op gameplay. The cover of the game, in fact, shows Arno barely more prominent than the three other assassins next to him. The co-op missions are... well, it's nice that they're there, but they're not super-great, mostly because this is Assassin's Creed, where precision doesn't really exist and deadly accidents happen as often as amazing moments. So having multiple players running around only increases the chances of something going wrong.

Lastly, there's the big elephant in the room that every other review of Unity you'll read talks about but I haven't mentioned yet. Unity is rife with technical problems. Bugs, glitches, performance problems, etc. Or at least it was. I played Unity after the fifth major patch to the game, so the vast majority of the game's issues were gone. There were definitely a few glitches, however. Ever so often a weird visual glitch would occur—an object randomly floating in the air, a set of swords lying in the middle of the street with no guards there to hold them (#TheGuardRaptureIsNigh #BlameItOnTheAnimus), an enemy that wouldn't react to Arno, stuff like that. During a co-op game, both my teammate and I found that we were unable to engage enemies in combat whatsoever, leading us to run around enemies instead of fighting them, turning the whole thing into a level of Pac-Man. The game crashed twice—freezing the PS4 in one case.

Those bugs might sound like a big deal, and they certainly weren't nothing, but they were the exception to the overall experience, not the rule. On the whole, Unity worked really well. It wasn't an amazingly fun game, but it was mildly good.


Unity is set during the French Revolution, but doesn't interact with its history in the same way that Assassin's Creed III deals with the American Revolution. The French Revolution only serves as a backdrop for the real story, which largely focuses on the relationship between Arno and Elise.

Without getting spoilery, Arno's story is filled with hints of classic romance and revenge stories: Romeo and JulietThe Count of Monte Cristo; a tiny bit of The Phantom of the Opera. Arno and Elise have a complex relationship, which is represented very well. Their interactions feel real—more real than just about any other relationship in Assassin's Creed—and their story is legitimately interesting. It might not be interesting enough, however, to support the entirety of Unity. An entire civilization is having a revolt in the background while Arno and Elise try to solve a murder mystery. It's not that their story doesn't deserve to be told, it's just that it seems strange for a story this small and intimate to be given the massive stage that Unity provides. Unfortunately, the ending to the story feels a bit empty, predictable, and meaningless. In fact, the modern-era portion of the story—what little of it exists in Unity—actually ends up directly pointing out that the story of Unity does not matter whatsoever in any large extent. Arno's story matters only to itself, really, which should be enough... but I'm not sure it is, in the end. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad I played the game. I enjoyed it, and the story was probably my favorite part. I only wish that in the end, it had been a great story rather than just a decent one.

"Pretty decent" describes Unity overall. It's a mishmash of epicness and blandness; of good ideas and a lack of ideas. If you go in with low expectations, you should be pleased, maybe even pleasantly surprised. If you go in with high expectations after the epic wonderfulness of Black Flag... go back and play Black Flag again.

At the very least, Unity is better than Assassin's Creed: Rogue. It's better than all of the "bad" games in the AC library, really. It's in an unfortunate middle ground, but it definitely leans far more towards the positive. It's good mild fun.


26 May 2015

Shifting Gears

I'm changing around the way I do things on this here blog. Previously, I archived the review posts as if they were published on the release date of the game, but I've now shifted that around so that new posts will be archived normally, as I post them. But to keep that list of games in some kind of easily-searchable order, I'm making a new page where the reviews will be listed in alphabetical order. It should be over on the right of the blog. —>

24 May 2015

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Full disclosure: I never played Metal Gear Solid 2 at or even near the time of its release in 2001. I played it once in 2008, then again seven years later in 2015. So my view is going to be slightly skewed in that it's very hindsight-heavy.

MGS2 is a very weird game. Not just because of the story and the style, but because it seems to be a game stuck between two generations. While certain aspects of the game (visual detail, cinematic quality, sound) are fantastic by even PS2 standards, the basic gameplay in MGS2 is essentially the same as it's been since the original Metal Gear from 1987... which is more than a little bit problematic.


Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 took the top-down 2D gameplay of Metal Gear 1 and 2 and brought it into 3D. However, despite the fact that MGS's world was made in 3D, and to some degree behaved like a 3D world, the gameplay largely remained 2D. In MGS, the player is finally able to move in any direction (with a dualshock controller), but all the environments in MGS are made to accommodate a 4-directional gameplay style. Most areas are Pac-Man-like groupings of structures with perfect right angles. Even when there are multiple vertical levels of geography, the game seems to behave as though they didn't exist. If the player is on the bottom floor of a room and an enemy is on a catwalk above him, the two characters can't easily interact. You can look upwards (by using binoculars in first-person mode), but you can't shoot upwards. It's counterintuitive and frustrating. Unlike so many other 3D games of that era, like Super Mario 64 or Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid never really behaved like a proper 3D world—it was basically a 2D game given some extra depth.

Metal Gear Solid 2 takes Metal Gear Solid's gameplay to a more advanced level, thankfully—but it only goes so far. Gone is the 4-directional gameplay design, for the most part. Environments are somewhat more realistically laid out. The world behaves more 3-dimensionally, in a multitude of ways. This time, however, the problem isn't that the game isn't truly 3D; it's that the controls aren't built for that.

The controls for MGS2 are still based around the idea of a top-down 2D game, for the most part. Very little in the controls even acknowledges the 3D nature of the game. The biggest 3D element of gameplay is the addition of a first-person combat mode, but the player can't move in first-person mode. Furthermore, the game seems to know just how limited it is, and builds challenges around testing those limits. It's almost as though you're encouraged to try to break the game or find clever ways to get around its problems.

It's hard to know whether the problem lies with the game's stubborn design or if it's just out of date. MGS2 tries to merge aspects of a shooter with a 3rd-person action game, and there weren't too many games in 2001 attempting that. Plenty of games in the 15 years since have found ways of making it work brilliantly—Uncharted, Splinter Cell, etc.—but MGS2 may have been made before those gameplay advances were discovered. One aspect that absolutely is without redemption, however, is the camera.

The camera, as with every Metal Gear game prior, is completely fixed when not in first-person mode. This means that in many situations, you literally can't see where you're going. For a game that prides itself on gameplay requiring precision, this isn't acceptable. There were plenty of action games made years before MGS2 that had controllable cameras, and it's not as though the PS2 doesn't have a second analog stick available for just that purpose. It legitimately hurts the game.

Ultimately, MGS2 tries to do everything—stealth, exploration, 3rd-person combat, 3rd-person shooting, first-person shooting, item collecting, even a tinge of platforming—and only somewhat succeeds at all of them. Fortunately, the stealth and exploration aspects are both the strongest elements and the most common ones, so most of the gameplay works—and sometimes it works brilliantly. It might not be a timeless masterpiece, but MGS2 is certainly good.

Story / Presentation

Metal Gear is known for its trademark "bizarre" style, with over-the-top characters and ideas, with similarly OTT performances from the actors to match. It's ridiculous, but it works for what it is.

The most controversial aspect of Sons of Liberty is the fact that most of the game is played from the perspective of a new character, Raiden, rather than Solid Snake. Raiden is rather androgynous and somewhat naive, in contrast with Snake, who's so masculine it's sometimes funny. For my money, I actually like Raiden. If Snake is a gun—dirty, masculine, precise-but-brutal—then Raiden is a sword—sharp and agile. He and Snake have a good balance, and Raiden's perspective adds something interesting to the Metal Gear storyline.

For the first 75% of MGS2, the story is actually rather low-key, mostly hinting at the greater narrative rather than actually showing it. It's intentional, of course, and that last 25% is just crazy.

The story of Metal Gear is about as convoluted as can be, and MGS2 brings it to a level of near-insanity. If you've ever seen the "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" episode of Community, imagine the plot from that—except nothing in the story is a joke. It's one layer after another of conspiracies of conspiracies secretly built upon conspiracies. By the end of the game, the player—and the main characters—are left wondering what any of it all means. It's certainly interesting, but it almost feels a bit too focused on trying to give the audience a head trip.

Does it work in the end? Well, yes, considering that this isn't the last game in the series. It's got a rather big cliffhanger. If this were actually the end, then no. It's really interesting, but it's not a self-contained story.

I'm honestly not sure what to say about Metal Gear Solid 2. Its gameplay doesn't hold up well in hindsight, but it's still good for what it is. And it's hard to ignore the level of obvious ambition in the game, both in terms of gameplay and cinematic narrative. It doesn't succeed at everything it's trying to do, but it does so much that that's not as damning a statement as it would be for almost any other game. In a lot of ways, Sons of Liberty doesn't work the way it's supposed to, but at the end of the day I really do enjoy it.


02 February 2015

Mario Kart 8

Confession: I've never been the biggest fan of Mario Kart.
I've been a Nintendo fan my whole life, and owned most of the Mario Kart games at one point or another, but I've never really liked the series too much. It's not that I thought the games were bad—there's no Mario Kart game that's technically less than very good, and most are great—they're just not particularly appealing to me. MK to me has always felt too slow and random to be fun or challenging. But holy wow, Mario Kart 8 is amazing.

In the past, I've always preferred Nintendo's other racing franchise, F-Zero. While Mario Kart had slow-paced cartoon antics, F-Zero felt like a blazingly fast adrenaline rush that required incredible skill. Mario Kart 8 feels a lot like F-Zero, especially on the 150cc setting. For a Mario Kart game, MK8 is very, very fast. Tracks twist sideways and upside down, sending karts underwater and gliding through the air. Karts switch to hover mode (a la Back to the Future's DeLorean) and kart-versus-kart dynamics completely change. It's this constant changing that makes Mario Kart 8 the most fun: just when you get used to the "feel" of a course, it changes. It's never annoying or unclear, and it's tons of fun.

There's also a lot of content in MK8. There's 8 Grand Prix cups with 4 courses each, for a total of 24 tracks—with two new cups on the way via DLC. 4 of the new cups are made up of all-new tracks, and the other 4 cups consist of remade versions of tracks from past Mario Kart games. All in all, that's a ton of tracks and a ton of variety. It's legitimately hard to get bored in Mario Kart 8, even when playing alone, which is a surprising thing to be able to say about a Mario Kart game.

I could ramble on about the intricacies of why MK8 is awesome, but at the end of the day it's kind of unnecessary. It's Mario Kart; you already know what it is, basically. This is the best Mario Kart game ever made. Go play it.


13 November 2014

Assassin's Creed: Rogue

Rogue is, putting it plainly, a lower-budget "spin-off" Assassin's Creed game meant to capitalize on the last-gen console market while Assassin's Creed: Unity makes its mark on next-gen (current-gen?) consoles. It's by and large a decent game that does nothing at all to expand the gameplay of Assassin's Creed, but does everything the previous games did pretty well—for the most part.


The big "twist" in Rogue is that the protagonist, Shay Cormac, begins his story as an Assassin, but quickly switches sides and joins the Templars. It's an interesting idea, and it's nice that it was tried, but it comes off as slightly manufactured and odd.

In as simple and spoiler-free a way as possible, this is how the story progresses: Shay has a moral issue with the Assassins, leading him to betray them and flee the guild. He later meets the Templars, who he finds to be pretty nice folks all around. He then sets off on a long quest to kill all his old Assassin friends.

The problem with the story is that it hinges upon Shay's motivation, which is stupid. The conflict between Shay and the Assassins is based on confusion more than anything else. The Assassins barely even understand why Shay betrays and attacks them, and he doesn't know for sure that they're actually evil—at worst, they're somewhat ignorant. Both sides essentially just point fingers and declare the other evil without talking anything out.
Also, Shay joins the Templars for "moral reasons," but somehow misses the fact that the Templars he's working with are cruel murderers. A few Templars in Rogue seem to be legitimately good people, but others are characters we've seen be horrible villains in other games—yet somehow Shay just doesn't seem to notice all the evil. Shay doesn't come across as very smart—which may be intended by the story—but still, it becomes very hard to appreciate Shay's moral resolve when we know he's on the wrong side.

That said, there are still moments where the story is entertaining. It does a decent job of connecting Assassin's Creed III, IV, and Unity, creating an overall continuity that works pretty well. Seeing both the beginning of Unity and the ending of Rogue is a really cool experience.

The "modern-day" story in Rogue is completely pointless. I won't even go into it.

Visual Presentation

Graphics-wise, it looks near-identical to Black Flag, though it seems to run at a lower frame rate for much of the time. The same motion capture animation and voice acting is there at the same level of quality.

The art style is where Rogue's visuals suffer the most. Instead of the lush, colorful Caribbean, we're treated to colonial New England in Winter. Lots and lots of wooden houses, snow, and random icebergs. It's not all that pretty.


The music is above average for a video game, but on the lower end of Assassin's Creed scores. After Black Flag's rousing main theme and sea shanties, this one just feels "there." Like Jack in the Box. But without clever commercials.


There is almost literally nothing in Rogue, on a mechanical level, that wasn't already in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. A few things are borrowed from other games in the AC series—like Brotherhood's ability to take over gang hideouts—but on the whole Rogue is basically Black Flag's gameplay set in the New England world of Assassin's Creed III.

In the end, Rogue doesn't even come close to living up to Black Flag's example, but it's not as abysmal as 3, either. One of the core ideas that made Black Flag work so well was the pirate theme. Edward Kenway was a likable roguish captain who didn't much care for being an Assassin unless it suited him at the time, almost encouraging players to have fun and explore rather than be bogged down by the story. On the other hand, Rogue's seafaring gameplay actually seems to contradict the story. Unlike Edward, Shay Cormac isn't a sailor. He only uses a boat to get from Point A to Point B, sometimes with sea battles in-between. Also unlike Edward, Shay is motivated purely by his desire to fight the Assassins, making all the side quests and collecting somewhat contradictory pursuits.

I realize that so far, my review has been almost entirely negative. I don't mean to say that this is a bad game by any means. It's a decent game for sure. The problem is that it's almost literally an inferior version of a better game.

Should you play Assassin's Creed: Rogue? If you're a completionist, yes. Otherwise, go play Black Flag instead. If you've already played Black Flag, play it a second time.


22 February 2014

Super Mario 3D Land

The first 3D Mario game made originally for handheld systems, Super Mario 3D Land attempts to mix the classic level design of 2D Mario games with the open platforming of the 3D console Mario games. The result is mixed.

Good things out of the way first: the production values are great; exactly what you'd expect from a Nintendo first-party game. It runs flawlessly, and the polygon count is high enough that any and all visual flaws are below the threshold of what the 3DS can display. Which is to say that it looks as good as any 3DS game can look.

As said before, 3D Land is essentially a hybrid 2D/3D Mario game. Instead of focusing on exploration like Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, 3D Land's levels are obstacle courses leading to an end goal. This is somewhat reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out nearly as well this time.

The biggest problem with 3D Land is its slow, cramped control scheme. In keeping with 2D Mario titles, Mario can only run while the "run" button is held down. This doesn't really make sense on the 3DS, which has analog controls. Furthermore, the default run speed for Mario is painfully slow. Holding down the run button is a must for most situations. And therein lies another problem: even the faster run speed is too slow. It doesn't make sense. The courses have a time limit; there is very little reason to move slowly and every reason to run like crazy. It's especially frustrating because the other 3D Mario games (64, Sunshine, Galaxy 1 and 2) have set a precedent for how Mario moves and handles. 3D Land breaks that tradition and constantly makes the player feel like they're wading through molasses.

Another big problem with 3D Land is its incredibly low amount of content. 3D Land's environments are claustrophobic, feeling like miniature bite-size Mario levels instead of full-fledged ones. This is in sharp contrast to the original Super Mario Land on the GameBoy, which felt every bit as "big" as the Super Mario games on consoles. This is undoubtedly the "handheld version" of Mario, and that kinda sucks.

In the end, Super Mario 3D Land is still a good game. But it's not amazing, which means that it falls well below normal 3D Mario standards. You'd probably be better off replaying the DS version of Super Mario 64 than buying this game.


08 November 2012

Halo: The First Decade

I figured it'd be interesting to go through the Halo series, rating each level by level, and average out each game's overall score. I'm really just going by how much I personally liked them, not really aiming to be all that objective.

Halo: Combat Evolved
Pillar of Autumn - 9
Halo - 9
The Truth and Reconciliation - 9
The Silent Cartographer - 9
Assault on the Control Room - 8
343 Guilty Spark - 8
The Library - 8
Two Betrayals - 8
Keyes - 8
The Maw - 9
Average: 8.5

Halo 2
The Heretic - (cutscene; not counted) - 10
The Armory - (tutorial; not counted) - 5
Cairo Station -  7
Outskirts - 6
Metropolis - 7
The Arbiter - 6
The Oracle - 6
Delta Halo - 6
Regret - 7
Sacred Icon - 6
Quarantine Zone - 6
Gravemind - 8
Uprising - 6
High Charity - 7
The Great Journey - 6
Average: 6.46

Halo 3
Arrival - (cutscene & tutorial; not counted) - 7
Sierra 117 - 6
Crow's Nest - 5
Tsavo Highway - 6
The Storm - 7
Floodgate - 7
The Ark - 8
The Covenant - 9
Cortana - 8
Halo - 9
Average: 7.2

Halo 3: ODST
Prepare To Drop - (cutscene; not counted) - 7
Mombasa Streets - 10
Tayari Plaza - 7
Uplift Reserve - 6
Kizingo Boulevard - 7
ONI Alpha Site - 7
Kikowani Station -  8
Data Hive - 8
Coastal Highway - 8
Average: 7.56

Halo: Reach
Noble Actual - (cutscene; not counted) - 6
Winter Contingency - 4
ONI: Sword Base - 7
Nightfall - 8
Tip of The Spear - 7
Long Night of Solace - 9
Exodus - 7
New Alexandria - 8
The Package - 8
The Pillar of Autumn - 8
Lone Wolf - (not complete level; not counted) - 4
Average: 7.33

Well, that's interesting. Each game's average score falls exactly one point below where I'd rate the game as a whole, objectively. So apparently the Halo games really are more than the sum of their parts.

The order of the games from best-to-worst is about right, I think. My personal list goes in the same order: CE, ODST, Reach, 3, 2.

I'll revisit this when I've had more time to process Halo 4.