The Temptation of Spelunky

A bit of a slow week for me, gaming-wise; Ubisoft have been resolute in their claims that nothing is wrong with the Assassin’s Creed II Uplay service, and none of their suggestions have helped me claim my final mission of the game. So I reckon I’ll give them a fortnight to try and sort something out before dismissing the game as Completed.

I’ve been pottering around with Child of Eden most nights, just trying to brute-force my way into some additional Achievements. I finally cracked the Evolution Archive on the Hard difficulty setting, though it was a close-run thing; I seem completely unable to handle the speed of the incoming enemy fire during the phoenix stage of the boss fight, and I’m buggered if I know how I’m going to gold-star that level (on Hard or Normal). But I’m up to 400GS for that game now, with my Resolution‘s target of 500GS well in sight.

Today, though, found me in a mopey kind of mood. I didn’t want to return to Eden, I’m too scared to practise the boss rush in Skyward Sword, and – despite loading Perfect Dark Zero and watched the superlative opening FMV – couldn’t face that, either. I paired up with a random for the sole online Kinect Adventures Achievement, which inspired me to look at some other games that need some work… but after giving both of the 360’s Geometry Wars games a bash, and been staggered by the poor voice acting in Ninety Nine Nights, I decided to fire up Luxor 2 for the first time in ages… and there I stayed for the rest of the day, grinding out a handful of levels. Only six more levels before I get another Achievement in that, and another five levels for more GamerScore… but it’s getting much, much tougher now, and exploiting the gamesave feature is genuinely nerve-wracking; several times now I’ve made poor calls (with hindsight) that have left me fighting to recover.

But the big game – kinda, sorta – of the week is Spelunky. Now, let me make one thing clear from the outset: I’ve not bought Spelunky (yet), but that doesn’t stop me from being head-over-heels in love with what it is. With what it does. With how it unashamedly brutalises all who choose to play her. The random level generation and deep mechanics, in conjunction with its rich visual lexicon, are a joy to behold; the difficulty cliff and unrepentant intolerance for mistakes is absolutely charming. Giant Bomb’s Quick Look had me giggling away, with back-to-back yelps and sighs of “I fucking hate this game” / “I fucking love this game” warming the blackened areas of my heart. And the demo agrees with everything anyone has said about the game: it’s cruel. It’s vicious. It’s brilliant.

And yet… I’m not sure I’m going to buy it.

As I’ve mentioned before, The List weighs heavy on my psyche, and Spelunky – with it’s chance-influenced Achievements and demand for devotion – would undoubtedly be a List-dweller. And I like enough of what I’ve already played to want to be able to play the game well – even really well – but that would take an almost obsessive amount of time… time which I don’t really have. Time which should be spent becoming better at F-Zero GX, or Metroid Prime, or Geometry Wars… because these are all games I love too, and games that I want to be good at.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s enough room in my life for Spelunky… at the moment…

Assassin’s Creed / Assassin’s Creed II

I’m not usually one for AAA-franchises, Halo notwithstanding; I usually perceive their popularity as symptomatic of the compromise necessary to garner mass appeal. And so, when Ubisoft released the first Assassin’s Creed game way back in 2007 amid a torrent of refined media releases (mostly accompanied by then-producer Jade Raymond), I maintained my distance. The first mutterings around the webosphere were overwhelmingly positive, but they were tempered somewhat with comments about the repetitive nature of the gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed II came and went without piquing my curiosity, as did Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; some of my online cliques raved about the later games, but I remained largely uninterested. One friend, however, was so ebullient towards the Assassin’s Creed universe that her enthusiasm started rubbing off on me; I secretly added the series to my “Must Try” list. Of course, once I vocalised that I’d done so, I was constantly hounded (in a good-natured way!) until I took the plunge: Assassin’s Creed was grabbed (for a damn good price, I might add) off Xbox Live Marketplace.

Now, it must be stated that I knew a little bit about what I was getting into when I elected to start at the beginning of the series: I was fully aware of the grind required by the first game, of the tedious collectible quests, and of the potential for glitchy achievements. But the start of the story is important to me – and I figured that it would be a pretty good introduction into the mechanics of the games. Besides, if the series grabbed my attention in spite of the original game’s foibles, it might be interesting to see how the mechanics of the later instalments develop over time.

And the opening is absolutely engrossing: you’re tossed headlong into a world that twitches with unknowns, and is unafraid to let you wallow and grasp for a moment before pulling you out and explaining the premise. And there, in the cleanliness of an Abstergo lab, the gorgeous desaturated graphics are offset by some perfunctory voice acting and animation; Nolan North’s efforts aside, the rest of the voice work is workmanlike at best, and suffers from some terrible pacing. But then, thrust back into the world of the alter-protagonist Altaïr, you get to experience thirty glorious minutes of gameplay that combines all the fluid movement of Prince of Persia (understandable, given they run on the same game engine) with combat options that – at that early stage – appear to allow you to be as elegant or button-mashy as you’d like.

But then you pay for that glorious opening by having all your weapons and skills taken from you, like a stabby Metroid episode; reclamation of the fun stuff drives the rest of the game, albeit accompanied by the need to assassinate pivotal characters in the historically-influenced storyline. And some of the writing around these characters and events is really quite clever; certainly, the dialogue between Altaïr and his victims – which takes place in a clinical white space afforded by the Animus – is full of bite and intrigue. When Altaïr returns to his Master, however, the writing becomes almost unbearable: there’s a disassociation between the action and the storyline, with the driving force behind the action limited to cutscenes that – for some reason – absolutely failed to grab my attention. Seriously, this is the first time I can remember being so completely annoyed that a cutscene was playing; even when removed from the Animus, protagonist Desmond Miles engages with even more stilted conversations with his Abstergo captors. Whilst atmosphere is (somehow) generated from these exchanges (as opposed to the drudgery of the Al Mualim lectures), it’s not necessarily an atmosphere that encourages me to keep playing.

And, whilst I was expecting a grind, I was not prepared for the extent of it. There’s comparatively few types of mission to be played, and they’re all plagued by horrid voice-work. The civilian-rescuing missions were the worst, with an awfully over-enunciated “another minute and they’d have made off with me” making me cringe every single time, and that made it feel like it was far harder work than it actually was… because it’s a blessedly short game.

Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed never really quite lives up to the strong opening; the fun of those opening thirty minutes is simply replicated (and, in the process, somewhat diluted). But despite its failings – the lack of variety, the poor audio work, and the charmless collection-fests – the storyline was intriguing enough for me to continue on to the next chapter of the series.

By the time I purchased Assassin’s Creed II it had dropped in price (again, in the Games On Demand section of XBLM) to equal that of it’s predecessor. Once the unnerving swagger of the intro movie was over, it soon becomes evident that the gameplay has only slightly evolved from the original game – but what really makes AC2 work is the polish.

Most overt is the much-improved voice acting, married with improved character models (though there’s still a bit of mannequin in the faces). But it’s only after sinking into the game that you realise that Ubisoft quite deftly took care of the biggest complaints of the original game; there’s much more variety in the missions, and far fewer voice hooks that noticeably repeat and annoy. And the gameplay itself… well, AC2 improves on the original’s glorious half-an-hour by adding in reams of extra content, and streamlines some of the processes (hurrah for fast travel!).

There’s still some quality collection-fests there for me, my magic RT+X magic-win bump combo still works, and the rough edges of the original’s conflicts have been smoothed away; there’s nothing quite like dashing over rooftops, throwing money at a group of thieves in your path to encourage them to intercept the enemies in pursuit. And there’s some gorgeous little touches in there, too: the animation of poisoned victims as they flail towards death, or approaching a woman who is going to request the beating of her philandering husband as she hides behind a tree, sobbing, wiping tears from her eyes.


For all the improvements Assassin’s Creed 2 makes over the original game, it also takes steps backwards. The saving grace of the original game – clever and well-weighted writing – veers into self indulgence. For every tongue-in-cheek bit of writing (“Its-a me, Mario!” or the horrible “succour” dialogue), AC2‘s head often disappears up its own arse with suggestions of the Templar & Assassin interferences in history (and the entanglement of Da Vinci, the blunt side-quest references to Michelangelo, and the garish references to coffee all stand out as garish inclusions, too). And my favourite dialogue mechanism – the assassination exchanges in the Animus – lose their erudite edge, becoming a boorish way of reminding the player that their new protagonist is a noble man. And that’s a massive shame; the great thing about the first game was that the dialogue encouraged the player to think in shades of grey, no matter how obvious the outcome was going to be. There’s no grey whatsoever in the sequel… killing innocent civilians is even tolerated to a greater degree, because Ezio is clearly Fighting The Good Fight. And the denouement of the game, in what is clearly intended to garner a “WTF?” response from the player… well, it’s a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? You know there’s more sequels coming, and the ending cheats the story of the game you have been playing a bit… though the idea of breaking the fourth wall for your third-person memory protagonist is the smallest hint of cleverness in an otherwise staid storytelling effort.

My grievances don’t end there. Despite a smoother play experience overall, there were some disconcerting moments where the game would mystifyingly switch into Twitchy Control Mode, causing you to leap inexplicably to your death desynchronisation. The “puzzle” elements in the game (thankfully restricted to the Tombs) don’t even match Uncharted‘s “quality”, veering from the too-easy to too-obscure on a whim. And, in what’s fast becoming my pet hate, the world doesn’t work.

Sure, Assassin’s Creed II does a better job with the consistency of it’s world than the first game; but the problem is that the world – an admittedly visually lush and detailed world – of AC2 is set up with realism as a goal, using history as a guide. But the language of the architecture and its inhabitants feels forced – and the world fails to feel real. Worse still, it occasionally falls into what I call the Just Cause dichotomy – a big world with nothing to do in it (the walled harbour at Venice is a particularly egregious example of this). And then there’s the little things: visual cues for the Leap Of Faith that are inconsistently used (especially late-game), and the barely disguised efforts on Nolan North’s role as Subject 16.

And then there’s the bugs. The main game isn’t too bad, with the odd actionable door allowing me to inadvertently glitch through it and remain confused as to why my mission wouldn’t start. The side-mission system should be labelled buggy, too: Venice has four places you can start an assassination mission from, but it makes the same missions available from each point… so my initial inclination of a challenging mission was rendered moot by restarting from a geographically friendly position. And in one assassination mission, I paid for the help of some friendly rooftop criminals; they promptly killed my accompanying guide, suggesting there is no honour among thieves (though that very premise supports chunks of the game itself). Ironically enough, the mission was called “Honorable Thief”.

And then there’s the DLC.

After discovering that it was only possible to get a “game completion” score of 96.8%, I grabbed the downloadable content associated with AC2 – and what a load of crap it is. The first of the downloadable chapters, Sequence 12, announces its presence with a clumsy “reminder” when you fire it up for the first time; clumsy writing (“I have the instrument to make more” screams Caterina as she flashes her knickers) is only eclipsed by clumsier gameplay, which reduces the flow of Assassin’s Creed‘s usual gameplay to a barely-capable button-mashing hack’n’slash.

Where Sequence 12 felt bereft of ideas, Sequence 13 just seemed full of nonsensical design: secret doors in one area that lead to public spaces? Hardly “secret”, is it? And with this Sequence being little more than a series of simple assassination missions – with the only differentiation from the regular assassination missions being the scenes of the people of Florence reclaiming their city (which are reminiscent of “storytelling” in the previous generation of consoles) – it just feels… well, impotent. Ham-fisted.

The clumsy integration of this DLC is evident everywhere; the new fast-travel locations label themselves in a manner different to the in-game locations, and entire lines of dialogue are either dropped or missing. It all feels… unpolished. Lazy and unfinished, even. Maybe that’s why it was DLC, rather than a delivered part of the game. But it’s still a rip-off… especially when the last 0.79% of the game lies locked on Ubisoft servers which appear to be inaccessible at the moment.

Even worse is the fact that it takes the shine off the main game. And that’s a massive shame, because – despite my complaints above – I actually quite enjoyed the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed II… but favoured the storyline of the of the first in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Between the two games, there’s a single great game struggling to get out… but I’m unlikely to give the series another chance.

After all, I’m still running around and killing people by knifing them through the face… and, with my ongoing years, I’m starting to find that a little distasteful. Give me an emotional excuse to do so, and I can calm the ickiness a little… but in Assassin’s Creed, the emotional support is abstracted behind Desmond via the Animus. There’s a level of removal that, on one hand, could be seen to justify the killing: “it’s all memories,” one might argue. But there’s a little niggle inside my head that reckons that the abstraction is even worse… that the justification actually cheapens the act even further. And that’s something that I’m finding harder to deal with these days.

But that’s very much my problem.

Mid-2012 Recap

Hello again!

It’s been a lazy month or so (alright then… five weeks) since my last post, and so much has happened in-between… let’s get recapping!

The maelstrom of E3 hit and… well, colour me uninspired. Halo 4‘s showing, whilst pretty, ensured that I would no longer venture into the world that Bungie built – they’ve got interesting plans for the multiplayer aspects, to be sure, with ongoing story-driven arcs and oodles of stats. But I struggled to (or am struggling to) reconcile Reach‘s stats, so that’s actually a turn-off for me… and why was Cortana showing up in Master Chief’s HUD? Criterion’s new Need For Speed game looks to have all the addictive qualities of Burnout Paradise, but… I’ve already got Burnout Paradise. I’m not sure I need another one.

The biggest turn-off from E3, however, was the reaction of the crowds to the torture porn demonstrations of titles like the Tomb Raider reboot (and the subsequent she’s-being-raped-so-you-care-about-her idiocy) and The Last of Us. Justifiable context or not, the shotgun-to-the-face closing of the Sony press conference demo was one of the more disgusting public displays by anyone in this industry I care about… and the fact that I had to explain to my nephew why I thought it was wrong gives me reason to think that widespread sensory dulling continues unabated.

There were some lighter moments, too: Michael Pachter’s appearance on Giant Bomb’s podcast covering Day Zero of E3 had some brilliant moments, including analysis on Nintendo’s stock valuation, the admission of Assassin’s Creed overload, and Pachter’s contrary view that attempts to balance the Watch Dogs opinion. But the relatively poor showing of Nintendo, combined with ongoing concerns of asset generation cost (and the aforementioned torture porn response) left me feeling a bit despondent… though this apology from Kotaku for E3 (including the great line “Bad Art is not antimatter”, followed by Tycho’s “more art is always the answer”) leaves me with some hope.

Luckily, I’ve managed to stop worrying about the future of gaming by playing heaps of games. My dedication to my WipEout HD and F-Zero GX spreadsheets (as previously documented) lasted only a week or two – 8.18% and 5.06%, respectively – before getting replaced by a massive Skyward Sword kick. Playing through the most recent Zelda on Hero Mode proved to be tricky early on (no hearts are spawned, and you suffer double damage) until I managed to find the first Heart Medal to redress the balance. I pushed through to the penultimate battle sequence, but there’s the small matter of earning the Hylian Shield that is stopping me from going any farther – and that shield is only obtainable via an eight-battle boss rush challenge, which is something I’m finding too daunting to attempt. I’ll wait until I grow a pair before returning to finish Hero Mode, then duck back for my final play through that glorious game.

A few weeks back I decided to buy a new Xbox 360 – my Premium launch model and my spare Arcade are still going strong (having felt the tender hands of Microsoft once each), but I wanted to get a new 360S (and, more importantly, a new hard drive) before making any significant new game purchases. It turned out that it was only about $10 more expensive to buy a 250GB Kinect bundle than an unbundled 250GB model, so I grabbed that… and the pack-in games that came with it. A bit of furniture shuffling inside the Moobaarn produced a more Kinect-friendly space, and my short-lived assault on Kinect Adventures netted me about half the Achievements trapped therein before I turned my back on it, adamant that I would return when I could coerce someone into playing co-op with me.

The other pack-in “bonus” was Carnival Games, whose high TA-ratio – 2.92 overall – had me worried that it would be a List lingerer. But after a week of jumping, twisting, and posing, I managed to fool the Kinect sensor enough of the time that it was completed… but it’s far from an easy game, with inconsistent movement responses and emphasis on luck, rather than skill. Perseverance pays off, however.

More pestering from Lita ensured that I started playing Assassin’s Creed II on my our TA-Birthday, and the Achievements flowed thick and fast. The main game was wrapped up in about four days, with the terrible DLC falling thereafter… and I’ve currently got a support ticket with Ubisoft to see whether I’ll ever be able to obtain the last 0.79% of the game that is trapped on their Uplay servers.

The last game I’ve been playing recently is Child of Eden. I managed to get a couple of Achievements in that, too (after the best part of a year’s break), and I’m actually starting to get a feel for the game now. Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it was… first impressions, eh?

But I only really started tackling Child of Eden again as a reaction to my 2012 Gaming Resolutions, which are worth addressing since we’re at the halfway point. So… how am I faring?

In 2012, I resolved…

…to leave 2011 with The List pared back to… 64. Yep, the same target as two years ago. Soft, but – on previous efforts – pretty unlikely.

The List currently sits at 71. Might be tough going from here…

…to (still) keep on top of stuff obtained through the year. 50% is fine, since it means that some of the back catalogue is getting wrapped up.

So far, so good: so far I’ve bought thirteen new games, eight of which have already been completed. There’s only a couple of must-buys on the horizon (Fez, Jet Set Radio, and Dyad), so I reckon I’ll manage alright with this one.

…to knock Perfect Dark Zero, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 2, and Halo: Anniversary off The List.

Halo: Anniversary has already been done, and significant work has been done on Skyward Sword and Uncharted 2. PDZ, on the other hand…

…to beat Luxor 2‘s Normal skill level.

Who said what now?

…to make some inroads on both WipEout HD and F-Zero GX. Racing ahoy!

Well, I’ve made some pretty spreadsheets… and I started playing WipEout properly… that counts, right?

…to clear up some of the lingering 360 titles… fo’ real this time. Ninety-Nine Nights, Rez, Shadow Complex.

I fired up Shadow Complex once. Ummm… I had a few boozy levels of Rez, too…

…to break at least 500 GS in Child of Eden.

Woohoo! I’m up to 380!

…to play something new; something outside the stuff I know I like. To take a risk!

I’m going to claim this one as “done” on the basis of Flower, Journey, and the Kinect rubbish.

So, there you go. In short, I’m hanging on my the skin of my teeth.

Less typing, more playing, methinks ;)