Wednesday, November 21, 2012

#47: The Dilution of Game: A Close Look At Assassin's Creed 3

Judging by my previous bodies of work, you may assume that I play only RPGs and very little else. This is a perfectly logical assumption and one that you would be forgiven for making, yet it is not exactly true. I play a variety of games of diverse genres and with different expectations for each one. Recently, I purchased and beat the third main installment of the Assassin's Creed franchise. In the early writings for my blog, I had a few things to say about the franchise, and it is about time I returned to it. While I am a huge fan of the series and enjoyed my time with the new protagonist Connor Kenway from the time of the American Revolution, I noticed that the game was not without flaws which may pose a danger to the series going forward. This is not intended to be a review of the game, rather a collection of thoughts about it that have a general theme. Also, I will not be discussing multiplayer in any shape or form: Assassin's Creed will always be a primarily single player game to me, with an added (but welcome and enjoyable) multiplayer component. Lastly, I intend this to be spoiler free, yet I acknowledge that what I say may come with implicit spoilers, you have been warned. With that in mind, here is my critique of Assassin's Creed 3.

The first thing I really began to notice towards the middle of Assassin's Creed 3 was the vast quantities of side stuff to do. Normally, I would be all for the inclusion of more content in a video game to help justify the $60 purchase price. However, in this game many of the optional missions feel decidedly arbitrary and pointless. Many of them are, and I mean this quite literally, a series of checklists of tasks to perform in order to build rapport for various factions in the game that the player will rarely see or interact with. Things like “Kill X amount of enemies with Y weapon,” “Perform a Leap of Faith X times,” or “Use Z gadget to perform X perfect hunts.” The game asks the player if they want to perform these tasks, yet offers no incentive to do so. While I have not actually completed the tasks myself, as far as I am aware there is no reward besides a useless achievement/trophy for completing them. Players are also invited to explore the underground network of tunnels built by the Free Masons in Boston and New York to unlock fast travel locations. However, the game already offers a sizable number of fast travel locations by default, so this again seems like an empty, pointless gesture, even if the tunnels themselves are very interesting in their own right. There is also an optional moneymaking mechanic in the Davenport Homestead. Connor has to renovate the Homestead and bring enough people to come to live there in order to build a thriving community. The characters and subplots introduced through this quest-line are very well done and help to flesh out Connor as a character (and I have to stress that this does wonders for making Connor a much more relatable protagonist). The problem with this is that the ultimate use for the Homestead is to craft goods and make money by shipping them to various vendors. While players can use this money to purchase new weapons and equipment for use on missions, it is ultimately superfluous because Connor's initial inventory is more than enough to take the player from the start of the game to the end of the game. Lastly, the player can take part in a series of collection quests. They can gather up feathers from the Colonial Frontier, open treasure chests scattered throughout the game world, and reclaim the pages to Benjamin Franklin's legendary almanacs. Yet again, these do not seem to manifest into any tangible gameplay benefits: Collecting feathers nets the player a Native American tribal outfit, opening chests grants the player money and recipes for the Homestead they do not need since the economy confers no real benefit, and the Almanac's again give more recipes. All of these extras are included in the game and provide extra length, yet they all (with the exception of the Homestead) feel tacked on and serve no purpose in the context of the game besides lengthening a playthrough's running time. An average player will have no need to do most of this.

Another observation I made when playing Assassin's Creed 3 is that the game has many different gameplay types, to the point where it may seem somewhat scattered and disjointed. Throughout the game, the player is introduced to a number of different mechanics that are only used once or twice and then never used again. Players will be asked to direct Patriot troops in battle in the middle of a Loyalist siege. In another mission later on, they are tasked with firing a cannon into Loyalist troops in order to stop them cold. At another point in the game, players are forced to cross through no man's land in the middle of a shootout, learning the timing and ducking from cover to cover avoiding the shots. All of these gameplay styles are only used in their respective sequences and never make repeat appearances. While they serve their purpose in breaking up other sections and providing a bit of a breather, the side quests and other missions should be doing that while the main quest sticks to reiterating on their core mechanics in interesting ways. There is one last mechanic that deviates from the standard Assassin's Creed gameplay style, but it is more ingrained into the game: The naval missions. As a part of the story, Connor gains his own ship with which he can sail the sees in pursuit of the Templars and other things. Ship combat sections appear a few separate times in the story and there is an optional quest-chain surrounding naval combat, and they are all very well done and deserve praise. However, it again seems like a distraction from what should be the main mechanics of the franchise. All of these side mechanics seem to get in the way of what should be a game about stabbing dudes in the throat.

Speaking of killing dudes, the arsenal Connor has with which to do so is a fairly decent one. He has access to Hidden Blades, Swords/Axes/War Clubs, Tomahawks/Daggers, Pistols, Bows, Rope Darts, Poison Darts, Trip Mines, Muskets, Snares, and Smoke Bombs. This is quite the inventory. But the problem is that most the this equipment feels completely useless. In my playthrough of the game, I basically only used the Hidden Blade and Tomahawk in combination with Smoke Bombs and Bows. I rarely used the Pistol and NEVER used any of the other pieces of equipment. The game bills Connor's inventory as a toolbox the player can use to solve any problem in any manner they please. However, this is not the case. Due to the optional objectives and constricted, occasionally linear level design, any decision the player might have made with tactics is immediately thrown out the window. Due to the nature of the story, with the player playing as Desmond Miles, who is reliving Connor's memory through the Animus device, the player is given optional objectives in order to improve synchronization with Connor's memory by doing things how he did it. It will give players objectives like “Kill X amount of enemies from a hiding spot” or other such tasks to complete mid-mission. So while the player in theory has a multitude of way to go through many missions, they will in actuality only have one or two “best” ways of successfully pulling it off. Also, many of the missions have the player moving from waypoint to waypoint to waypoint in a decidedly linear fashion. Even without these constraints, just going in and having an all out brawl to kill everyone is generally a tactic that works. The way levels and set-pieces are arranged, there is either very little challenge or a great deal of challenge (depending on whether or not the player chooses to go after optional objective and what those objectives are at times) without much of a middle ground or room for experimentation.

When all of these points are combined, it results in a game that, while well-intentioned, feels like it does not truly know what it wants to be. The game is lacking in an underlying core than binds everything together. It feels like it is juggling too many balls at once and is destined to drop a few of them as a result, even if the vast majority remain in the air. These mechanics dilute the game and keeps it from shining in the way it really should. For future Assassin's Creed games, I recommend making a return to the simplicity and purity of the first game where the goal is to kill targets in creative and sneaky ways, but with the advancements made in the systems by subsequent games. The first game allowed players to research their targets and learn all about their habits and routines, giving them the information to plan their assassinations. I would love to see them weave this investigation into the story-driven plots the series has come to be known for. The story would take players through the investigation, but loosen the leash during the actual assassinations, giving players much more freedom in that respect. It may be wise to kill the concept of optional, mid-mission objectives as they tend to hinder the game more than they help. Go back to the core of the franchise. For all the talk of Assassins vs. Templars, there is very little in the way of assassination that goes on in more recent games in the franchise. Assassins apparently tend to do more faffing about then actual killing.

That is not to say that Assassin's Creed 3 is a bad game by any means. In fact, after the Ezio trilogy, it is a step in the right direction. The game has returned the series to the interesting gray on gray dynamic between the Templars and Assassins over the Chaotic Good vs. Stupid Evil conflict of Assassin's Creed 2. In fact, the plot in general is very well written, even if the rewrites to history done in order to shoehorn Connor into the American Revolution feel a little like Forrest Gump. The improvements they made to the parkour systems really help to improve the overall game. This is a very good game. I am just somewhat disappointed as a long time fan of the franchise that it may be falling victim to the sin of trying of please everyone. This franchise can work, but it needs to be planned more carefully. I do not want to see it fall to the wayside.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

#46: The Distressing Implications Behind “Hepler Mode”

A long time ago (at least 350 internet years, which translates to around one year ago on October 2011), a writer at Bioware named Jennifer Hepler was the object of immense controversy. At the time of this incident, one statement is particular was brought to light that she had made six years ago: She had told interviewers that she wished that developers would more often include more “casual” difficulties for people like her that do not necessarily enjoy playing video games, but like to be engaged in a good story, in which the gameplay sections are skipped in order to go from dialogue to dialogue. Though at first I was in support of this “Hepler Mode,” in time I began to change my mind. This is not to say that I am against making easier difficulties for new players. In fact, quite the opposite is true in that regards. In the past, I have been vocal in my support of simplifying systems and allowing for adjustable difficulties to facilitate a variety of player skill levels. No, the problems with this “Story” mode are related to the underlying assumptions that are implied by the idea.

The fact that this has even come up in discussion is proof of a fundamentally poor design principal which is prevalent in the gaming industry (and honest probably has been for quite some time), which is that story and gameplay can and should be allowed to exist separately. This line of thinking is prevalent in video games of all types, from shooters like Call of Duty, to open-world games like inFamous, and even Western-style RPGs like Mass Effect, which have choice and consequence as major themes and mechanics. In many of these games, there is a clear divide between the moments where the player is engaged in the story and is advancing the plot and the other moments that consist of mostly shooting mooks or other gameplay elements. These sections where the game is nothing but intense combat seem to have no real impact on the outcome of the events and exist merely to extend the length of the game. Mass Effect is a clear example of this in action. In every Mass Effect game (and many other Bioware games if what I am told is true), despite the choices the player makes and the changes to the overall timeline as a result of these choices, the player will always play through the same levels with the same enemies. The only thing that the player can do to change up these encounters is to play as a different class and/or bring different squadmates along. The opposite of this phenomenon is also true. No matter what class the player chooses, who they bring on missions, and what they do during combat scenarios, the story will never be affected by it. Each of these two sections of the game exist, for all intent and purposes, independently of the other. This is not how games should be designed. The gameplay and the story should exist to supplement each other. They should be so entwined as to be nearly inseparable. Interaction and choice are the biggest strengths of the medium. In order to use it to most effective tell a tale, designers need to keep this in mind. Spec Ops: The Line is a fantastic example of that (which will be left vague because of spoilers).

The other error in the underlying assumptions of “Hepler Mode” is the question of who this kind of mode would be aiming for marketing-wise. What I mean by that is that Jennifer Hepler notes that one of the reasons this kind of mode of play would be needed is that there are people out there that do not like video games, yet are interested in a good story. Ignoring whatever opinion you may have of Hepler, why would a game developer or publisher even make an attempt to capture a market that literally has no interest in their products? What would be gained from that? Any interest this non-gamer market would have in video games would be superficial at best. This is not the same thing as attracting people who may have an interest in games, but are put off by the (admittedly high) barriers of entry like consoles/PCs, price of games, and complicated control schemes aimed at those familiar with other games. That makes sense. What does not make sense is marketing to people that literally have no interest in the medium at all. Doing so is a recipe for disaster and one of the easiest ways a developer can piss away the good will of its fans. If the target demographic has no interest in playing games, then the odds are that they will not even know the publisher is marketing to them, let alone have any interest in the games being marketed.

This problem with “Hepler Mode” is not that it is an unsound concept, but rather that it should not be. If the combat system wears down most players so much that the vast majority of them are asking to skip it entirely, then it may be a good idea to revamp the systems of the game to make it more entertaining. It is up to designers to make tough calls like editing, revising, and even removing features or parts of levels in order to improve the overall experience because that is what they are paid to do. The gameplay is just as much a part of the experience as the storyline. To give players the option to skip gameplay is to concede the video games are nothing more than movies with playable segments in between shots. That is not acceptable! It goes against the very strengths of the medium. Games are at their best when they embrace their nature as interactive media and utilized it to the fullest. While this is an old issue, it is still an important one nonetheless and I hope that lessons were learned from it.