Monthly Archives: July 2011

Monkey Fun

Enslaved: Odyssey To The West becomes the second game to fall from The Mantelpiece – at this blistering rate I might even get to the end of my ‘List of Shame’ by Christmas! (Christmas 2015 that is.) Still, if all of the games on the list are as fun as this one, it’s going to be a very enjoyable three or four years…

The first thing that strikes you about Enslaved is that the acting is simply stunning. Watching the performances of Monkey and Trip suddenly makes you realise just how damn poor most video game acting is – we’ve had to put up with so much dross over the years that we’ve just become used to it, and it takes a game like Enslaved to make you suddenly realise that it doesn’t have to be like this: you can have good acting in a video game. Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong in the Peter Jackson films) really puts his heart and soul into portraying Monkey as a restless bundle of violent energy, lumbering yet graceful at the same time. However, it’s Lindsey Shaw’s turn as Trip that’s perhaps the most pleasant surprise. When we’re introduced to her near the start of Chapter 2, she’s terrified out of her mind, hugging her knees with fear, and it’s probably the most convincing emotional portrayal I’ve ever seen in a game. And because she’s so convincingly scared, it really makes you want to protect her, so potentially annoying ‘escort and protect’ missions actually become nail-biting episodes of life or death.

Of course, it’s hard to have good acting without good dialogue, and the Alex Garland-penned script keeps things engaging throughout. The bits that are supposed to be funny are actually funny, the bits that are supposed to be sad are actually sad (and occasionally quite moving), and if you think that both of these statements sound like what should be the bare minimum requirement for a video game script, then you obviously haven’t played many video games. (I challenge you to play through any of the Gears of War games without cracking up at the unintentionally hilarious dialogue and painfully bad attempts at pathos.)

Visually, Enslaved raises the bar incredibly high. Part of the reason the acting is so successful is the convincing lip synching and facial animation, which is streets ahead of most other games (except perhaps L.A. Noire). But in addition to the character models, the apocalyptic environments are simply gorgeous, providing a truly imaginative vision of a ruined but stunningly verdant future New York. It initially reminded me of the lush urban environments of GRIN’s criminally underrated Bionic Commando reboot from 2009 (see below), but the sheer graphical vibrancy of Ninja Theory’s creation makes it something unique.

The lush, ravaged New York that Monkey and Trip travel through in the first few levels is by far the graphical highlight of the game (see screenshot below), and although the later levels certainly pack a graphical punch, nothing quite lives up to the ruined beauty of the Big Apple. Gameplay-wise too, I had the feeling that game peaked quite early: the adrenalin rush of the insane first level lingers in the memory long after it’s over, and the skyscraper playground of New York is a real joy to swing through. The game gets a little bit bogged down around the levels set in Pigsy’s junkyard, but things really pick up again for the ending, which involves a truly epic fight.

The only really disappointing thing about Enslaved is that it’s far too short, and once it’s over there’s little incentive to play through it again (except just, you know, for fun). It’s a shame, because there are so many good ideas in there that the existing content could quite easily have been stretched into a game at least twice as long. For example, the impressive ‘dogbot’ (for want of a better word) is a fantastically scary enemy that chases you through one of the earlier levels until you eventually find the means to defeat it, but I’m surprised this beast didn’t turn up more often. There’s one more encounter a couple of levels later, but that’s it, which seems a waste of a good idea. There’s a great sense of progression when you fight the dogbot for the second time, as by now you’ve perfected the techniques for killing it and your character is also in the possession of a few nifty upgrades, so why not take this progression further? Why not make Monkey fight two or three dogbots at the same time? Why not drop in a dogbot along with a few other types of enemy to really shake things up a bit? Likewise, the brilliant ‘rhinobot’ provides a very entertaining boss battle towards the end, but, criminally, this is the sole appearance of the beast.

It’s like the Enslaved team were terrified of reusing their ideas in case the game appeared repetitive. Instead, we have a very short game that’s an absolute rollercoaster of fantastic ideas, but those ideas appear so briefly they never get a chance to truly shine. For example, I really loved the interaction between Trip and Monkey, whereby you can distract enemies and draw their fire away from the other character as they run from cover to cover, but it seems that rather than develop this neat idea, Ninja Theory had all but forgotten about it by the end. It’s a shame, because it’s a clever idea, and it could have been developed in the form of almost puzzle-like action sequences in which you have to keep Trip in cover while you defend her. As it is, this little dynamic barely raises its head again after the first few levels.

I really loved Enslaved: it’s rare to see a game realised with such attention to detail, visual flair and genuine innovation, so it’s a crying shame there isn’t more of it. Let’s just hope Namco see sense and give the green light for a sequel…

[As dictated by Lucius P. Merriweather]

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Pro Evolution Soccer 3D – evolving in the third dimension

I’ll say right off the bat that not a whole lot has changed,  functionally at least, from Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 to Pro Evolution Soccer 3D.  As a result, what has been said before can be said again – if you liked PES before, you’ll likely enjoy it now.  Aside from the addition of the 3D in this portable rendition of the once great football franchise, it looks and plays  like the game that I came to know and love on the Playstation 2. But what can now be said is that if you haven’t played a PES game before, there is no better way to discover the series than through Pro Evolution Soccer 3D. I have always been a fan of the PES series.  To me it always felt that Konami wasn’t looking to push cutting edge-graphics technology or ooze production values with the series, but more to release a game that could satiate the wants of both the casual football fan and the player who wants the option to play a technical game of footy by learning the intricacies of its mechanics and controls, while customising formations and strategies that fundamentally change the way in which the AI would move around on the field.  And even though the game has seen better days, having been almost rendered completely irrelevant with the strides FIFA has taken in recent years, a game of PES is always a game of PES. And it is good. Unsurprisingly, none of that has changed with PES 3D for the Nintendo 3DS.  When on the attack, opening up space in the middle of the pitch and placing the ball onto the feet of a running Centre Forward who has broken through the defence is easy and feels exactly as it should.  Similarly, running the ball up the wing and smashing a lingering cross onto the head of a striker is as satisfying as ever, and even more so if the ball sees the back of the net.  Likewise, moving the ball around your own half while looking for the chance to move the ball swiftly through the midfield is not only possible, but also encouraged by the way in which the AI seems to just know how a real team of players would move on the pitch. Image: www.vgchartz.com But while the attacking half of PES is still as good as it gets, the sometimes clumsy mechanics of defending your own goal can result in the pulling out of many-a-hair as things go awry, sometimes resulting in the loss of a match where you had a majority of possession for most of the 90 odd minutes of the game.  Putting pressure on a player is great  conceptually, but when it comes to moving in to tackle the ball from a player, things get a little more clumsy, with AI players often being unsure with what to do with the ball once it has been removed from the feet of the opposition.  Too many times a swift counter attack from the opposition from a  fumble led to my defence being unable to scramble in time to prevent a goal.  Setting an appropriate formation can mitigate this to some extent, but the defensive aspects of the PES series still aren’t its strongest and can often lead to the slamming of the 3DS shut in protest.

Luckily the game gives you the best reason to hold possession of the game, in that the gratification for scoring that rare goal is amongst one of the great moments in gaming.  Anyone that has played PES before can recount tales of that great goal, the one that was placed in the top right hand corner of the net, that culminated from a slow burn of passing the ball around the pitch until a hole in the defence opened up through which the ball was put to the striker’s feet, who controlled the ball, feinted right and then blasted it past the last defender and just out of reach of the goal keeper.  These moments have always been what keeps me buying PES games year after year, and am happy to say, are still more than intact in the 3DS version.

Miraculously, somehow,  these moments of brilliance that defined the series last generation for many players are made even more special with the addition of 3D, particularly in its default Player view camera setting.  When playing from this camera angle, every opening, every pass and every successful throughball or cross seems that much more poignent and the camera follows the ball across the vast area of the pitch to that perfectly positioned player.  With the 3D effect off, the camera is merely another camera angle that deprives you of a view of player placement behind you, but with the 3D effect turned on, moving the ball forward into your attacking half seems like an unattainable goal as the pitch stretches out for seemingly miles, seemingly even beyond the horizon at times.  Every opening becomes a tangible and urgent opportunity as you watch the opposing team’s players scramble to stop you from capitalising on sloppy defence by placing the ball on that seemingly acute angle straight through to a teammate.  Similarly, every tackle from behind is genuinely surprising, yet deserved, as you realise you weren’t aware enough of your surroundings to be able to outsmart your opponent and move the ball on quickly enough to avoid de-possession.  Being able to accept your mistakes as your own goes a long way to aid your enjoyment of playing from this view.

A game that was once about seemingly arbitrarily moving the ball around the pitch to a very clear end has now become something entirely different through allowing you to experience what being on the pitch is actually like as a player, not a detatched puppeteer outside of the fourth wall.   It is clear that while the more conventional camera settings are still available, getting the most out of the unique perspective that the addition of 3D visuals offers sometimes means persevering through some of the steep learning curves associated with the default player camera perspective.  For example, not being able to see player movement behind you can take some getting used to, but keeping an eye on the map at the bottom of the screen will go some way to alleviating the frustrations this can cause early on.  But after pushing through some of these teething issues, you’ll find it difficult to go back to the ‘vanilla’ wide horizontal view that has become an industry standard for football simulations, for fear of losing the immersion that the player view in this 3DS version offers.

Fundamentally, PES 3D is a solid portable football game that gains nothing in terms of functional gameplay from its predecessors, but gains a whole lot in terms of the experience it offers.  The Master league is still there, as is the ability to play an exhibition match or a consolidated  UEFA Champions League tournament, so the content mirrors almost exactly what the game has been pushing for a number of years on other platforms, including the sporadic inclusion of a number of licensed leagues and teams including the Dutch Eredivisie (my league of choice – go Feyenoord) and the Spanish La Liga.  So if you’re halfway interested in football, the game goes a long way to satisfying what you would expect from a game that depicts the sport.  Convincing you to buy this game for this system depends on whether you’re interested in trying something new and experiencing a football simulation from an entirely different perspective.  If you are open to enduring through learning to play a football videogame in an entirely new way or have been a fan of the PES series in the past, I can wholeheartedly recommend PES 3D.  For everyone else, it depends on whether you can find the game for the right price to justify in your own mind that you should give it a chance.

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Coming of age: has the current generation of consoles finally matured?

At only 27 years of age I already hate teenagers.  I really can’t help it – they wear stupid shoes, stupid hats, stupid pants and have stupid hair.  Worst of all they speak entirely in vowels and the word ‘like’ features far too prominently in their conversations.  Perhaps not an apt analogy for how I feel about video games, but sometimes I don’t feel like it’s far off.  But in good time most of these fast talking teenagers mature to become upstanding citizens ready to contribute to society.  Video games are no different.  The launch of a console is generally one of the most hit and miss periods when it comes to the availability of engrossing, quality software.  The Playstation 2 had its fair share of clunkers at launch.  But over time, the gaming experiences became more varied and interesting as developers grew into the hardware and the Playstation 2 found its way into more houses across the world than any console before it.  Eventually toward the end of its life cycle, the PS2 was home to some of the most divisive games and interesting in history, with veteran game designer and Clover Studios alumni Shinji Mikami-san leading the charge with God Hand.   While not a great success story, God Hand is exactly the kind of game that you wouldn’t see at the start of a generation.  It’s crude.  It’s weird.  And its tongue is planted firmly in cheek.  These are the games that define a console, despite often coming so late in its life cycle.

Some of the most successful consoles of all time have been plagued by poor launch line ups.  My  memories of the first year with my go-to portable console, the 147 million unit seller Nintendo DS, mainly revolve around playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the way to econometrics lectures at University and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance before going to sleep at night – games that although backwards compatible were designed for the system the DS replaced.  The same happened with the first cab off of the next generation rank which sat idly in my living room next to its less powerful console brethren collecting dust.  It seemed that the shiny high definition graphics, wireless controllers and admittedly poor line up of launch titles was not entice me from the comfort of the then current generation of 128 Bit consoles.  As a result I didn’t really give the current generation of hardware the go it deserved when it first started arriving on the scene back in 2006.

All that said, however, eventually I do grow into the new generation.  The current generation of hardware did eventually fight its way into my heart in 2010, as games like Vanquish and Bayonetta made me remember why I loved gaming in the first place – a positive trend that seems to be continuing with Shadows of the Damned, which I am itching to get my hands on.  I could write pages upon pages about how Vanquish and Bayonetta are possibly two of the greatest modern video games ever made, and that they successfully bridge the gap between retro-gaming sentiments while still managing to hopefully appeal to a broader audience of modern gamers expecting pretty graphics and obscene acts of violence.  What makes me the saddest is that I saw both of these games in the bargain bin about a month after their respective releases.

Vanquish (Platinum Games, 2010)

So after 5 years of owning the first piece of current generation of console hardware, despite playing a whole stack of games that I had a great time with, at no point did I have the smile on my face that I did while sliding around the awesomely cool environments in Vanquish, or dancing around killing angels and the like as a cool, sexy and witty witch in Bayonetta.  Not a great testimony for the current state of the video game industry is it?

Actually I’ve perhaps misled the readers with what I’ve written above, because although they are the highlights for me in many ways, they aren’t the only great games of this generation.  In fact one could argue that, pound for pound, this generation has provided gamers with more top tier video games than at any other time in our pastime’s short history.  And that argument would be highly defensible in even the toughest of high school debates.  We’ve had games with high production values, amazing set pieces and mind blowing visuals and stories coming out of our orifices consistently since 2006.  This year alone we’ve been graced by such amazing titles as Portal 2 and Dead Space 2, which continues the amazing form we saw from developers last year where I was so amazed by Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2 that I practically wrote a love letter to them in a former life.   It is so great to be a gaming enthusiast right now and generally speaking I am pretty darn happy when I come home from a busy day at the office to my ever growing game collection.

Bullet Witch (Cavia, 2007)

But what I’m talking about isn’t these games that set the gaming world on fire.  I love those games as much as we all do, trust me.  I’m talking about those games that turn up later in a console’s life cycle – games that while they may not be million-seller set piece fiestas, they fill that niche gap between top tier mass appeal titles.  And because I’m not into online competitive gaming, with the exception of fighters, that gap is exceptionally large.  It is these titles that the current generation just hasn’t really supplied me with en masse, despite getting off to a good start at the beginning of the console cycle with games like Bullet Witch, Earth Defence Force 2017 and the Dutch-developed semi-masterpiece, Overlord being released within around 12 months of the console’s release in PAL regions.  Games like these – while perhaps not masterpieces, were a sign that some of the smaller more niche Japanese developers had taken a fancy Microsoft’s behemoth.  Unfortunately these early signs weren’t indicative of how things would turn out – for the first few years at least.

To me, this is what a console’s coming of age is all about – a well rounded catalogue of games from the triple-A to the barely playable.  So naturally given the nature of developing for new hardware, this takes time.  At a console’s launch everything is shiny, new and best of all, profitable for a big developer with the propensity to spend big on developing tech at the start of a console cycle.  And while this is great for those of us (me included) who want the next Epic Games blockbuster or Id tech driven monster-piece, it doesn’t really extend the olive branch out to the smaller developers who develop for niche audiences or perhaps don’t have the profile to launch new IP successfully.

As noted however, it really is just a matter of time before this happens on any console because as the costs of development fall as tech ages, more risks are taken by developers releasing games in markets that may or may not be receptive to their game.   A few years in as the current generation consoles starts to find their way into more homes, these risks become more calculated, and even those developers who were on the margin start to feature more prominently on store shelves with full retail releases.  Which all means I get some more interesting and obscure games to sink my teeth into.

The cost of gaming (both consuming and anecdotally, developing) this generation has followed a very clear and rapid downward trend, even in comparison to the stickiness of software prices in previous console generations – evidenced by the fact that I can go to either of the proprietary software delivery platforms of the consoles and download a well-rounded quality game like Limbo or Super Meat Boy for less than the opportunity cost of me walking to my local store to pick up a second hand copy of Gears of War.  Whichever you choose, both options are a win for gamers because either way you’re going to be a satisfied customer once you boot up the game on your favourite console.

But there is no doubt that downloadable games on consoles has had the greater impact on the gaming industry, and one that is likely to persist beyond the short term.  The rising prominence of XBLA and PSN as delivery methods for short and more niche gaming experiences that may not perhaps be viable for retail releases has given developers the push they needed to realise that gamers’ collective appetites are varied enough for them to fill a void in someone’s collection.  Not only that, but it is a more palatable test environment for new IP, and provides small niche developers, who often are the innovators of the industry, the revenue stream to fund larger games aimed at a retail market.  These are the developers that have the potential to provide the masses with new gaming experiences that will become future cult classics or perhaps even give birth to major franchises.  Most importantly they are the developers that may provide us with some variety in our gaming experiences.  This diversity in play experiences is the bread and butter of what made the last generation, particularly the PS2, so successful and well-rounded last generation.

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (Tamsoft Corporation, 2009) - While this may not be to everyone's taste, it certainly represents diversity of available software

Although it REALLY doesn’t feel like it, we’re more than five years into this console generation which was kick started by the release of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in North America in 2005, and the rest of the world in 2006.  Now let’s put that into perspective.  The Playstation 2, also the first console in the next generation console war (excluding Sega’s Dreamcast) was released in October 2000 in North America, and in its life span, which could for all intents and purposes,be considered to have ended  in 2007, it had its fair share of amazingly innovative and game changing titles.  It wasn’t all guns and glory for Sony’s record breaking console, and its first year in the ring was full of games that were far from inspiring.  But in stark contrast to the Xbox 360’s beginnings, for every one of those games there was a Sky Odyssey, Ring of Red or Summoner to soften the blow of the best game available for the PS2 being released for the PS1 only a few months beforehand (Vagrant Story still remains one of the better games across any of Sony’s consoles).  The  Xbox 360 on the other hand had owners of the new system literally moving from game to game – seemingly regardless of quality simply because of the relatively limited number (and variety) of games available – and the story wasn’t much better on the Xbox 360 a year later.

Throughout its 7 year reign at the top, the Playstation 2 amassed a catalogue of over 2000 games in PAL regions alone.  Its ever increasing install base meant that a developer or publisher could employ economies of scope in its development and distribution to produce titles, that on any other system, would not be economic to do so. Amongst this cornucopia of titles, the PS2 housed a number of groundbreaking and unique titles like Ico and the Disgaea series, as well as being the system responsible for kicking franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Onimusha, and Devil May Cry into the limelight and the hands of gamers across the world.  I don’t want to bog this tale down in economic theory, but the fact of the matter was that the market dominance of Sony in the console stakes gave them an insurmountable edge in attracting and supporting developers to develop titles specifically for their console.

The economic fortunes resulting from a very clear market dominance meant that the Playstation 2 represented the the first time in some time that a number of niche developers were able to rise to prominence as a result of the sheer number of consoles in people’s homes.  Nippon Ichi is one such developer, and although the studio itself had been around since 1994 and had released games into western markets (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure), it wasn’t until Disgaea : Hour of Darkness was released in 2003 that Nippon Ichi as a developer started to increase in popularity.  While the success of the game was not instant, the word of mouth was so positive – particularly on the internet, that even though the title remained a niche title that only resonated with a certain type of video gamer, that was still enough to ensure Disgaea’s success outside of Japan.  Since then Nippon Ichi has developed a dedicated fan base and has gone on to release multiple sequels and spin-offs to Disgaea and a number of other RPG-type games to success across multiple platforms: success that was launched on the platform of the Playstation 2’s dominance.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (Nippon Ichi Inc, 2003)

The onslaught of unique and niche video games on the PS2 continued through to the end of the console’s life cycle proper.  In through the major game release period between 2005 and 2006, the Playstation 2 maintained its place as a home for high quality and sometimes niche titles that could not be found on any other console – including the newly released Xbox 360.  Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, God Hand, Valkyrie Profile 2, Siren 2 and Shadow Hearts: From a New World were all incredible games released in the twilight years of the PS2, at a time where the current generation competition was winding down the release of games on their systems.  This trend continued through to 2007 when Level 5, the developer of the popular Professor Layton series of games, released the incredible cell-shaded space pirate RPG, Rogue Galaxy in North America and Europe. To put this into perspective the Xbox 360’s top line RPG, Blue Dragon, was released one month before. Even in 2007 the Playstation 2 was still a viable competitor to the ‘next generation’ consoles built simply on the relative strength and variety of titles its back catalogue, and surprisingly, the sheer number of gaming experiences that could not be found on any other platform.

It has taken some time to get going, but I would argue that we are reaching the point of maturity for current generation consoles.

I have already mentioned Platinum Games’ incredibly stylish 2010 releases Vanquish and Bayonetta, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of incredibly interesting innovative and fun releases to burst onto the next generation scene in the last 12 months or so.  In the lead up to Christmas 2010, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 was home to a slew of titles that will in the future likely be viewed as cult classics, as many gamers look back and regret not getting their hands on them earlier.  Game Repubic’s Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, and Ninja Theory’s Enslaved were two such games that were good enough to go toe to toe with the best that the top tier developers had to offer gamers in the prime holiday sales period.  Unfortunately by Christmas both games had been been discounted heavily and sales still haven’t picked up with Majin only managing to sell 22,000 copies across both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 worldwide to date.  Enslaved faired better and has shifted around 610,000 units to date (all sales figures sourced from http://www.vgchartz.com/).

By comparison Call of Duty: Black Ops has sold just under 23 million units to date across console platforms, and Halo Reach has shifted just under 8.5 million units.

Of course sales aren’t everything (the first Overlord sold just over 410,000 units and spawned a sequel) and while this highlights a minor weakness for the video game industry as a whole – the gulf between sales for a top tier mass market title and a smaller more niche title surely isn’t sustainable – the signs for the rest of the duration of the current generation are positive. The current generation of hardware seems to have hit its stride, and developers seem able to recoup their costs even with their titles posting only modest sales numbers.  More importantly the install base of both of the major next generation consoles, with both now having hardware sales numbers in excess of 50 million, is high enough now that those calculated risks to develop and release games and new IP into the market are being taken on more and more often.  The result of this market maturity is games like Shadows of the Damned, and the efforts put in by developers to enhance and remake games like No More Heroes for the HD generation, which is further evidence that it may now prove economic to introduce games that aren’t surefire hits.  This is the precise point where new IPs and innovative titles start to materialise.  It was no accident that Clover Studios’ divisive swan song, God Hand, was released so close to the end of the PS2’s life cycle.

God Hand (Clover Studios, 2006)

The single most important factor that defined the success of the Playstation 2 last generation was the rate at which new IPs were pushed and supported by publishers.  This certainly hasn’t been absent this generation, and the big studios were fast to adapt to the new hardware and produce new IP for the systems that have become some of the best examples of gaming this generation, Uncharted for the Playstation brand and Gears of War for Microsoft among them.  But if this isn’t supported by the medium to small studios acting in the same manner, these titles alone aren’t enough to push a console to maturity.  As I have noted this generation hasn’t been without its new IP and innovative titles, some of which came very early on in this generation: Monolith’s Condemned being one that immediately springs to mind.  But that ‘trend’ seemed to drop off for while, so the fact that we are again starting to see publishers and developers of smaller titles acting in this fashion now can only mean positive things for the industry, and gamers moving forward; and with all signs pointing to a longer console life span this generation than almost any other prior, things can only get better from here on in.  The question is, will the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 get their Persona 4 long after their successors enter the market?  Only time will tell.

[researched and transcribed by Sir Gaulian in The Library]

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Assassination Has Never Been So Much Fun

Assassin’s Creed II has the honour of being the first game to be knocked off The Mantelpiece and into the velvet-lined, taffeter-embroidered bin labelled ‘Games That I’ve Completed This Year’. A rather nasty head cold earlier this month meant I was rendered incapacitated and unable to work for two days, but these rather phlegmy days and nights also gave me the chance to finish a couple of the excellent games that have been gathering dust on The Mantelpiece for far too long. (Enslaved was the other, rather brilliant game I had a chance to play, but more on that another time.)

As an impetuous youth I was lucky enough to undertake a Grand Tour of Europe by train, and Northern Italy was easily the high point of my trip, so I was delighted to discover the astounding level of detail with which Florence and Venice have been recreated in Assassin’s Creed II. Playing the game, and in particular clambering up and down the beautiful Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, brought back some very happy memories of my travels (not that I did much climbing on buildings when I was there, I tended to mostly appreciate them from ground level). As such, my enjoyment of the game was undoubtedly heightened by a sense of familiarity – that moment when you suddenly realise “Ah! I’ve been there!”. In a way it’s a bit like watching a movie that’s been filmed in your home town – your enjoyment of it is intrinsically linked to and heightened by the sense of familiarity and recgonition.

Gameplay wise, ACII is a big improvement on the original, and almost all of the annoying bits of the first game have either been expunged or tweaked. For instance, it’s now possible to fast travel between cities, and the extreme repetitiveness of the missions in the first game has been dealt with to some extent. I was a little bit disappointed with the optional assassination missions though – I was enjoying playing through the game so much, I decided to complete every optional mission in addition to those available through the main quest, but what did I receive for my troubles? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Not even an Achievement or an unlockable costume. Admittedly, I did quite enjoy playing through the various missions, but it seems a bit lazy on the developers’ part not to include at least some reward for trawling through every mission on offer.

One thing I was particularly grateful for was the disappearance of the much maligned flags from the previous game (see this article for my thoughts on such pointless collectibles), but sadly they’ve been replaced by some equally pointless feathers (although at least these are fewer in number). Speaking of pointless collectibles, I initially thought the inclusion of hidden treasure was neat touch, as it provided a collectible you could actually use to buy stuff with. However, I quickly realised that the income you received from upgrading your villa completely dwarfed the tiny amounts of cash you got from finding treasure, so looking for these collectibles also became rather pointless.

Another thing that continues to irritate me about the game (and its prequel) is the utterly ludicrous plot. If you’re unaware of the set-up, the idea is that a shadowy corporation have created a machine called the Animus that can unlock the ‘genetic memories’ of users and allow them to relive the lives of their ancestors. You play as Desmond Miles, whose rather murderous ancestors include the gleefully genocidal Altair (who you play in the first game) and the swarthy emo killer Ezio (who you play in this game and its sequel). From the get-go the plot dives into mystical mumbo-jumbo about the Knights Templar and powerful ancient artefacts that could destroy the world, and the second game happily turns the cliché-o-meter up to 11. Suddenly, Henry Ford, Hitler, Nikola Tesla and Adam and Eve are dragged kicking and screaming to the nonsensical unfoldings, until the game feels like a particularly poor episode of The X Files. Admittedly, the ending does provide a surprisingly effective moment when one of the characters breaks the fourth wall, but generally the ridiculous plot is an unwelcome addition to an otherwise excellent game about running around historical cities and murdering people in various inventive ways. Seriously, if they just chucked out all of the rubbish about ‘genetic memories’ and global conspiracies and just made a game where you played a historical assassin, the gameplay would not suffer in the slightest, and expunging the rather weak sections set in the modern day would actually improve matters.

Having said all that, I should emphasise at this point that despite my moaning, I really did enjoy the game enormously, and I’d highly recommend it. I even learned a bit about Rennaissance Italy, and surely there aren’t many games that you can say that about.

[As dictated by Lucius P. Merriweather]

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Welcome To The Manor

“In Which The Concept Of The Manor Is Explained and we indulge our creativity.  Just go with it”

As you approach the imposing red brick facade of The Manor, the front door glides effortlessly open to reveal the gaunt, hunched figure of Snodgrass the Self-Reflexive Butler. He peers at you myopically over his enormous beak of a nose until he manages to place your features and, with a sudden flash of recognition in his tiny black eyes, his quizzical, downturned mouth transforms into a sideways smile (that could perhaps be more correctly described as a leer).

“Ah, there you are! We’ve been waiting for you! Welcome to The Manor – do come in.”

With trepidation, you step over the threshold into the gloom of the entrance hall. You dimly perceive the shape of an umbrella stand made out of an elephant’s foot, and halfway down the hall there appears to be an enormous Ming vase stuffed with peacock feathers. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, which is punctuated by a single, sputtering gas lamp somewhere off to your right, you realise you are standing near the foot of an enormous, finely carved stairway, decorated with various African flora and fauna. There are many, many doors leading from the hallway in front of you and the landing above…

“As you’ve no doubt realised by now, you’ve walked into an elaborate metaphor”, says Snodgrass as he fixes you with his beady eyes, “Don’t worry, we know it’s a bit much to take in at first, but just go with it – trust us.”

Snodgrass lights the triple candelabra on the side table next to him, then picks it up and sweeps it in a big arc across the hallway, revealing the many doors radiating away into the blackness. He turns to address you.

“You’ve stumbled into The Manor of Lucius P. Merriweather and Sir Gaulian – two Victorian gentlemen who are rather partial to the delights of video gaming.” He sneers the words ‘video gaming’ as if he were describing the contents of the water closet. With a barely perceivable shake of the head to clear his thoughts, he continues: “The many rooms leading from this humble hallway each represent a different topic related to video games. For example, in The Library you can find all sorts of pretent… stimulating discussion about the nature of gaming, whereas in The Cellar you’ll find a treasure trove of long-lost gaming delights. Then there’s The Mantelpiece, on which you can find the embarrassingly large pile of video games that Messrs. Merriweather and Gaulian have hoarded but haven’t quite got round to playing yet. By the way, we know The Mantelpiece isn’t a room, but just go with it OK? It’s hard enough to keep this metaphor sustained without you picking holes in it all the time…”

Snodgrass suddenly looks a bit sheepish and his gaze drops to the floor, before he adds in a muted voice: “Oh, and speaking of exploding metaphors, you might notice that Mr Merriweather and Sir Gaulian don’t always write their posts in the same elaborate, faux Victorian dialogue they describe the rooms in… But give them a break all right, it’s hard enough to keep this metaphor propped up as it is!”

The curious butler clears his throat with an officious ‘ahem’, gathers himself up to his full height (although with his hunch he barely reaches to your chin) and continues: “If you’re curious to meet the gentlemen owners of The Manor, hasten forthwith to The Drawing Room, where you’ll find them engaged in deep conversation, as per usual. Finally, I believe Mr. Bradbrook, our resident artist, can be found painting in The Gallery. Oh, and we’ll probably add more rooms as we think of more things to write about – that’s the beauty of an entirely metaphorical manor you see, it can be as big as you want it to be and we don’t have to seek planning permission if we want to extend.”

Snodgrass pauses and looks at you expectantly. Suitably bewildered, you look around at the many doors, baffled as to which one to try first.

“Well, I’ll leave you to get on with exploring then… Enjoy!”

The sinister butler withdraws down a side corridor, then half turns and whispers menancingly: “Stay a while… STAY FOREVER!!!”

You stare at him in a mixture of shock and incomprehension.

“Ah. Sorry… I’m not sure why I said that,” he admits sheepishly, before shuffling out of sight.

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