Assassin’s Creed II…A Decade Later

The first Assassin’s Creed broke all sorts of records. What started as a spin-off of the then still popular Prince Of Persia series sold over eight million copies in 2007-2008, an impressive feat for a new IP even at a major AAA studio.

According to MCV, it debuted at No.1 in the UK charts, snatching the position from under probably the most influential game of the 2000s, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

In November 2008, CEO of Ubisoft, Yves Guillemot, announced as part of Ubisoft’s financial report that the sequel was in development.

Five months later on April 16th, Assassin’s Creed II was officially announced.

Pre-Production

With Assassin’s Creed being one of the biggest-selling new IPs in history (it is currently 18th of all time), Ubisoft knew they needed to have a sure-fire hit follow-up. This seems to have been the intention from the beginning, with AC1’s producer Jade Raymond stating in an interview,

“We did ask ourselves the question, you know if we do create a game that is successful, how do we make sure there is a structure, an overarching kind of meta-story that can continue to play out…that was one of our aspirations…” (2:03)

Tripling the size of the team in Ubisoft Montreal, with 75% of the original creators working on the sequel, Ubisoft sure had the pedigree.  And with so many features that were missing in AC1 due to development times, the team now had the ability to implement them. Raymond mentioned this in the same interview,

“…we didn’t succeed on all of the fronts and we realised some of the things some of the ideas we tried turned out great and some of the ideas we tried didn’t turn out, and because we were trying to innovate so much we kind of ran out of time to do some of the things we wanted to do.” (4:16)

You have to remember, Assassin’s Creed 1 was built with an entirely new engine, and Raymond said Ubisoft were looking to, “…redefine gameplay…” (1:43). Possibly overly ambitious, but that’s why a sequel seems perfect. Ubisoft wanted a sequel soon, with only two years of development time given compared to the four that the original had got. The first major change would be started with Assassin’s Creed 3, whose production ran concurrently with a second team in Montreal.

But the developers didn’t need a grand vision. They had the perfect base, and now the time and the resources to nail the formula down.

Gameplay and Missions

Even though I just said Ubisoft had the perfect base to create a sequel from, all of it pretty much went out the window from the start. Creative Director Patrice Désilets said in an interview that,

“…we got rid of the entire structure of the first one where we had the investigation part and then the assassination parts. That’s gone.” (0:57).

AC1 Missions
The missions were scrapped and revamped for the sequel (Source: mobygames.com).

What the team kept were the missions. The five or six different missions types in AC1 were taken and expanded upon, with Désilets saying there would be around sixteen different mission types for the sequel (0:39). He expanded upon this by saying that missions would be knitted together to create unique scenarios, such as starting with an escort, then a chase, followed by an assassination.

What helped was that in theory they were working from scratch again. Ezio at the start is not an Assassin. Desmond is the exact same. When Lucy breaks him out of Abstergo and takes him to the Assassin hideout, she says,

“We’re going to train you. Turn you into one of us…if you can follow in [Ezio’s] footsteps, you’ll learn everything he did…years of training absorbed in a matter of days. (8:30).

Instead of starting with a Master Assassin like with AC1 before having all your powers taken away, this time the gameplay and the story would work in tandem. The missions evolve as the game goes on.

In Sequence 1 we have a bit of fighting, a bit of chasing, hiding, and climbing. Each mission is self-contained, focusing on a single aspect of gameplay, maybe two. Most of the missions in Sequence 1 are also in service to the narrative. The gameplay is wrapped around either setting up the wider narrative or adding something to the supporting cast e.g. delivering a letter to disguised Assassin spies, or beating up your sister’s unfaithful fiancée.

The first three sequences follow this learning template, only opening up until Sequence 4. The world is shrunk, but not distilled. Sequence 2 (the first sequence with an assassination mission) gives you everything you would need; weapons training, social stealth, traversal, and lets you play. Even if you muck up your inaugural assassination the target does not flee or fight back, allowing you to take the kill without being overwhelmed like if you messed up the first assassination in AC1.

As the game goes on we find more and more intricate missions, just like Désilets mentioned, with several styles of play weaving between each other.

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One of Venice’s memorable missions; flying into the Doge’s Palace, followed by an assassination, then having to flee. Three unique structures to create a greater whole. (Source: wandering free.co.za).

Along with these new mission types, AC2 has added several new moves to the assassin’s repertoire. I believed that AC1’s gameplay state was one of flow, using timing and precision to effectively play the game. AC2’s mission statement has changed to one of speed.

Most of the new moves are directed at making Ezio as nimble as possible. In low profile mode, the previous ‘blend’ button became a fast walk, allowing Ezio to gain ground without sacrificing exposure. In a similar vein, the crowd systems were overhauled, allowing Ezio to blend with any gathering of NPCs and not just specific groups.

Climbing and traversal were also beefed up with Ezio now able to sprint across beams and scale walls quicker with a jump grab ability.

During combat, the A button, previously the dodge button, now allows Ezio to pirouette around his adversaries, allowing him to stab them in the back for a one-hit kill.

The biggest change was to combat, speaking of which…

Combat

AC1 had five weapons, four of which were of any use (what was the point of using fists aside from the occasional interrogation?). AC2 expanded with not just new weapons but new fighting styles.

Using the R1/RB button would bring up the weapon wheel, with the four directions of the D-Pad allowing for quick selection. The throwing knives, previously a sub category of the dagger, were given their own slots, as well as new additions of smoke bombs (useful for escaping sticky situations) and a moneybag (for drawing crowds and stalling enemies).

The fists became useful during earlier missions, where Ezio was without a sword or blade. Using a similar counter to the first game, Ezio could now disarm enemies, using their own weapons against them. This extended out to all weapons, allowing Ezio to pick up battleaxes, lances, and, err…sweeping brooms. Any of these larger weapons could be bought from stores across the land, each one with stats making them quicker or more deadly.

Assassin,s-creed-II-Screenshots
The lance and battle-axe came with their now unique finishers (Source: wikinut.com).

The former battleaxes and lances could also be upgraded, allowing Ezio to throw the axe or sweep enemy legs with the lances. Throwing knives were also given a boost, allowing three knives to be thrown simultaneously to disperse crowds of enemies. In a similar vein the fists can be upgraded to throw sand.

More ranged options were developed, with one of the later sequences giving Ezio a hidden gun. While a little preposterous, the dev team balanced it well. It takes a long time to aim a shot, with a long reload time and loud gunshot. This meant it could only be used at the most important moments, rather than a squad-devouring machine like it became in ACB. 

The signature Hidden Blades were buffed for the sequel (the most noticeable being that they are now plural). Gone was the counter-only method, allowing the blades to counter, parry and combo into gruesome kills. A poison blade was also added as a distraction method.

But the greatest change were the opportunities now offered to the player. Air assassinations (now helpfully explained in a tutorial), haystack drags, bench reversals, they gave players a large opportunity to experiment and play stealthily.

AC2 Combat 2

But with the Hidden Blades becoming top dog, everything else felt like an afterthought. Swords and daggers, so important in the first game, became useless. Hidden Blades could counter kill in one hit whereas other weapons could take two or three counter hits to kill an enemy.

There were times in AC1 where you had to run. In certain sections of the city such as Acre’s Arsenal, it was nearly impossible to clear all enemies from your sight (that’s why the Sibrand assassination mission in the Arsenal was great). AC2 has the opposite issue; it is easier to kill everyone before moving on. Even in the only mission where it is encouraged to flee (Sequence 1, Memory 12), when you are disarmed and cornered after your family have been murdered, you can still fight back using your fists and actually win.

With new weapons came new enemies. While AC1 had different rankings and skills (such as Captains being able to grab the player and throw them), AC2 made these changes more distinct. Agile guards who could out-run Ezio, Brutes with heavy weapons and would not retreat, seekers with the lances and checked haystacks for Ezio hiding in them, these would throw some x-factor into the sequence, making a carefully laid plan have to adapt.

In response to the enemies, Ezio had helpers in the cities he visited. Courtesans who could act as mobile cover and distract guards, thieves that could follow him across roofs and distract guards, and mercenaries that could remove unwanted guards, these became valuable assets that could aid in granting greater access to a target. In the sequel the factions were added to with the Brotherhood coming to assist Ezio in battle, but it is cool to see the germ of an idea here in only the second game.

Overall, the combat was buffed enough to make combat a little more forward. It would be for another game, the next one, where combat went from an advantage to an absurdity.

AC2 Combat
Ezio could even call upon some mercenaries, thieves, or courtesans to assist him in combat or stealth, obviously gearing up for Brotherhood. (Source: true achievements.com)

The Cities

The setting of Renaissance Italy was a stroke of genius.

Similar to AC1, the game takes place in several cities the player can travel between. These include big cities like Florence and Venice, smaller outposts like Forli and Monteriggioni, and the countryside such as Tuscany, San Gimignano and the Apennine Mountains.

I have previously written about how each place in AC1 has a different tone to them, such as Damascus being bright and cheerful and Acre being grey and depressing. A few of the cities do have this feeling, with Florence (the opening city of the game) having a sense of warmth to it, and Forli looking like Acre 2.0. But I think the cities have moved beyond tone and focus more on player traversal.

While each city in AC1 was distinct, their traversal was very similar. In AC2, each city feels unique in how the player works their way through it. Venice has many tight-knit alleyways. Tuscany and San Gimignano focus on extreme verticality. Forli is flat and low. Florence is the only one that seems so generic, but in a good way. It has a bit of everything, teaching us the mechanics before sending us out into the world.

AC2 Venice Dive
Venice’s verticality and abundance of canals was something unique in the open-world genre. (Source: archdaily.com).

In a piece written for The Guardian, journalist Keith Stuart highlighted Ubisoft’s dedication to recreating the locations,

“Unsurprisingly, the design team talk of long field trips to each location, with artists taking thousands of photos and hours of video footage.”

The designers were so dedicated to representing the cities that they hired Maria Elisa Navarro, a Professor of Architectural History and Theory, as a historical consultant. In a great interview with architect Manuel Saga, Navarro explains how she was brought on board to help not only with architectural inaccuracies, but also with wardrobe and hair styling.

In AC1 the narrative had Altair heading between the three cities and his base in Masyaf, with new parts of the city unlocked as the game progressed. This was to aid non-mini-map design (read the ‘Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map’ section in the AC1 retrospective for more details). From the start of the game, the entire map of the city is open to the player.

While AC2 still included the mini map, the want for accuracy feeds back into the original idea for AC1 to be played without the need for a mini-map. Now with recognisible landmarks such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice or the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) and Giotto’s Campanile in Florence (along with the brilliant database that lists buildings, people and documents), players were able to guide themselves around the city without needing a map.

One of the odd map’s inclusions of AC1 was the Kingdom, a crossroad between the four main cities. AC2 has some countryside, but it is linked with the main cities. It becomes an integral part of the locations (such as the assassination mission of Jacapo De’ Pazzi at the isolated Anitco Teatro Romano, a Roman theatre in the Tuscan countryside), rather than feeling like a timewasting slog during the previous game.

Monteriggioni would take the place of Masyaf, owned by Ezio’s uncle Mario, (yes, they did make a “It’s-a me, Mario!” joke). A safe place outside of Florence, the villa and surrounding town has a few nooks and crannies for curious players, whereas ones who just want to get back to the stabbing can spend as little time there as possible.

AC2 Monteriggioni.png
Monteriggioni started the series mini-game of buying and upgrading property, creating a unique outpost for the player (Source: assassins creed.fandom.com).

The cities were magnificent, each with their own unique quirks and feels. But one thing made them feel extra special…Jepser Kyd. And so it is probably time to turn to his contribution to Assassin’s Creed.

The Music

Eight minim notes in 4/4 time in F Major. D, F, G, A, D F, G, F.

That sequence is imprinted on thousands of gamer’s minds.

Jesper Kyd had worked on quite a few games, notably the Hitman series by IO Interactive. He worked on the soundtrack for first Assassin’s Creed, creating music that evoked the location, using Middle Eastern instruments, percussion, and singing styles, with a hint of synthesizers and reverb to hint at the modern aspect of the game.

With Assassin’s Creed II, he emboldened the score with sweeping strings and operatic style vocals, meshed in with electric guitars and remixes…and in the process created one of the most iconic (real iconic, not Ubisoft iconic) musical scores in gaming.

Just like with the architectural styles are different, each city has its own soundtrack. Florence’s soundtrack is usually light and melodic (reflecting the warm notes in the level design). Even with tracks such as ‘Darkness Falls in Florence,’ it still uses richer instruments that the rest of the OST.

Tuscany is stripped back, with fewer instruments and focusing on small bursts of melody, which feels reminiscent of how the location is wide-open spaces with a few noteworthy constructions dotted in between. Forli is heavy on percussion and deeper notes, evoking the drab and grey surroundings of the wetlands and industry.

And Venice likes to focus on minor keys, starting small in stature before building up with more instruments and higher notes, very much like starting a climb in the city. And ‘Venice Rooftops’ is a kicker of a track, effortlessly rising and falling, feeling almost like the ups and downs of parkour.

But there is one track that stands above them all.

Even now, ten years after AC2 came out, ‘Ezio’s Family’, the track I alluded to at the beginning of the section, is the de-facto theme for the entire series. It is continually referenced in later games in the series, such as Rogue’s ‘Main Theme’, Unity’sLe Roi Est Mort’, Syndicate’s “Frye’s Family” or Origins’ aptly titled ‘Ezio’s Family (Origins Version)’. It’s a beautiful canon style track, effortlessly building, adding anachronistic instruments, getting higher and louder until it quietly returns to the opening notes, simultaneously changing and unchanging at the same time.

Just…if you have never heard this piece before, here it is. Have a listen. And if you are an AC fan, prepare to fall in love again.

This piece opened up the game. Ezio and his brother Frederico admiring the night-sky of Florence from the top of a church, then the camera pulls back, the music swells and the logo indents itself. I think this also started the trend of the series indenting the title with the characters perched somewhere high. Seriously, every game up until Syndicate had the characters looking out over the landscape as the logo popped up.

Anyway, back to ‘Ezio’s Family”…it’s perfect. And while AC1 had some good tracks, none of them have stuck with me like AC2. Every subsequent game’s OST, created by talented composers like Lorne Balfe, Elitsa Alexandrova, Brian Tyler, Austin Wintory, Sarah Schachner, and most recently the composing duo The Flight, is compared to Kyd and his revolutionary work.

I realise writing this section, it is pretty short, but I feel it doesn’t need any more discussion. This is one of the greatest soundtracks that gaming has ever and will ever produce and Jesper Kyd is such a talent.

The Story & The Characters

The story of AC2 is still considered one of the best narratives of the seventh generation and of the series as a whole. Part of that comes down to the main character, Ezio Auditore.

Where previous main character Altair was sour and serious, Ezio was fun and playful. Where we were thrown straight into Altair’s story, we followed Ezio from birth to middle age, filled with both victories and losses. And while Altair’s motives were understandable, Ezio’s connected on a deeper emotional channel.

Aside from an odd birth scene where we control Ezio as he is brought naked and screaming into the world, the narrative really starts on the Ponte Vecchio, with a now 17-year old Ezio before he becomes an Assassin. He is a privileged noble kid, getting into fistfights, boasting of nights spent with wine and women. It’s been thirty seconds and we have learnt the basics of the character; he is charming, he likes a laugh, and when it gets violent he can hold his own.

He is a pastiche of classical literature, part Zorro, part Casanova, and part Monte Cristo, containing all the endearing qualities why we love those characters without any of the downsides.

AC2 Ezio
Ezio giving one of his trademark smirks (Source: theshortgamer.wordpress.com).

The narrative drives like a bullet, none of the fluff or side-quests of a latter day Ubisoft game, and I think that’s another reason why the game is loved. Even with fourteen sequences (two as DLC), Ezio only takes until the finale of Sequence 1 to get his hood and Hidden Blade, and is driven to make the men who killed his father and brothers pay. Even though Ezio starts the narrative worried and alone, facing off against a threat too big to comprehend, he gains friends and allies; mercenaries, thieves, and courtesans, who all believe the same creed. The scene at the end of Sequence 11 where all previous allies come to Ezio’s aid and fight alongside him is one of the high points for the level of fan service.

Another of Ezio’s friends is Leonardo Da Vinci. While later games would sometimes bash the player of the head with historical figures here it feels restrained, using the name but not having Ezio comment on the Mona Lisa or reference certain codes involving Jesus’ descendants. Leonardo starts as a lowly painter who Ezio’s mother is patroning, but eventually he turns into something like a quartermaster by supplying our hero with weapons and equipment. He even takes Ezio in when the Auditores are fugitives, seeing it as a sense of duty to help out the lost and scared Ezio. His ever-jovial nature and wide-eyed wonder is always endearing, giving a lot of the early story points levity, and many of the late-game plot points a sense of satisfied contentment.

With Ezio doing most of the heavy lifting narratively, the modern day plot and Desmond got to grow a litter more. Gone are the sterile hallways of Abstergo and monologues of bad guy Warren Vidic, here Desmond is supported by a relatively warm cast of Abstergo turncoat Lucy, tech support Rebecca, and historical consultant and professional sarcasm champion Shaun Hastings, the latter voiced impeccably by Danny Wallace. Apart from one scene halfway through the game showing that Desmond has started to learn the skills passed through the Animus, we don’t really get much else on the main man. Yet the moments where he gets to interact with his Mystery Machine assortment of chums, either in person or through voicemail in the Animus, never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Another modern day addition were the Glyphs. Hidden around the architecture of Italy were symbols (much like those on Desmond’s floor in Abstergo), left in the Animus by a previous Abstergo test subject, #16. Finding all of these Glyphs and deciphering their codes focusing on everything from Tesla to Milton, unlocked a hidden video featuring the Apple and the Ones That Came Before, adding more to the modern day plot line before it became a main thread in there sequel Brotherhood.

ACB Shaun & Rebecca
From L to R: Rebecca, Desmond, Shaun, and Lucy. Rebecca and Shaun have almost become secondary mascots for the series, turning up in subsequent titles. (Source: cityboygeekiness.com)

While the baddies of AC1 are varied and well-acted during their scenes on screen, many are simple outlines, with stories hinted at in their mannerisms and through half-told whispers in the investigation leading up to the assassination. Most are kept to their occupations; a Slave Trader, a Doctor, a Scribe, a Merchant King. In AC2 we get to spend time with the new bad guys, both in cutscenes well before their assassinations and through the database entries voiced by Danny Wallace. It helps keep us involved by knowing who we are killing and why, a problem that I feel has plagued my enjoyment of other AC games. Here you learn about these characters, how they conduct themselves, how they got to their positions of power, which makes it all the more satisfying to finally take them down.

Speaking of the assassinations, I previously praised the first game’s assassination sequences and said AC2’s are as linear as possible. Nearly every major assassination up until Sequence 7 (when Ezio arrives in Venice) has Ezio chasing his target rather than waiting for the right moment. Even later missions like Sequence 9, set during Carnevale, has only one way to complete it. But I forgive the game because of its uniqueness; having you kill a target during Carnevale using a handcannon, throwing a monk from the tallest tower in San Gimignano, jumping onto a bonfire to ease a target’s suffering, using a hang-glider to enter a target’s palace, these are all completely original ideas that help make the sometimes standard and linear assassinations feel grand in scope and spectacle.

Legacy

Ezio has had the longest run of all AC series leads, fronting two/three major release (Revelations is different in that he shares it with Altair) as well as featuring in smaller titles like Discovery on Nintendo DS and Rebellion for mobile devices. His legacy spans not just across games, but books and animated short films. As Associate Producer Julien Laferrière said in an interview with Eurogamer,

“We made three games with Ezio because people loved Ezio.”

It was nice to nice the Renaissance hunk return after AC2 stalk his way around Rome and then Constantinople, and during that time see a marked change on the man. We’ve had characters get older as games have gone on, Joel from The Last Of Us and Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid are two that come to mind, but I think AC was different in showing Ezio before and after the change into the hooded killer. He starts as simple spoilt noble kid having to mature beyond his years before becoming an Assassin, then graduating to Master and Mentor, and achieving the rank of Assassin General in Revelations.

Looking back at AC2’s ending, before we knew if we would ever see Ezio again, the final moments in the Vatican Vault are oddly chilling. The Assassins have told Ezio that he is the Prophet, the Chosen One, yet when he enters the First Civilization Vault the goddess Minerva greets him then dismisses him, talking instead to Desmond. Here is a man who has spent his whole life dismantling corruption and evil in the name of a higher cause, finding out that he is merely a pawn, with no greater significance.

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The finale follows AC1‘s formula, reinforcing Demond’s story to the detriment of the historical assassin (Source: definition.co.uk).

Imagine if Ezio’s story stopped here, and the next entry was Connor in AC3. We’ve spent 20+ hours with this character, only to find at the end that he isn’t destined for greatness. At the same time this realisation dawns on him we are pulled away, leaving him in the dark. He has spent over twenty years with one goal in mind and now at what should be the apotheosis of his life, he is scared and alone, just as he was in Sequence 1. That image is haunting.

Altair’s ending in AC1 was much the same, realising there was a world and a story greater than his own. This can be seen by reading in his Codex, unlockable text files hidden throughout AC2. Yet Altair understood his ending, Ezio does not, literally saying to Minerva that he has “so many questions.”

I hated this ending when I first played it, only seeing it as a cliffhanger, rather than the gut-punch existential dread I now see it as ten years on. Many of the games in the series follow this thread, with Connor and the Temple, Edward and the Observatory, Arno and the Sage and the Fryes with the Shroud. These men and women, spanning centuries, who glimpse a story bigger than heaven itself, only to realise that their goal in the grand scheme is to procreate enough so that hopefully one of their descendants becomes the mythical ‘Desmond’. It is only by Revelations, when Ezio is into his fifties that he finally understands that he is nothing but a conduit, a lightning rod that allows Minerva to speak to Desmond.

The last media appearance of Ezio is in Assassin’s Creed: Embers, a short animated film detailing the last days of Ezio’s life. In the film it shows a man withered by old age, trying to aid both his family and Chinese Assassin Shao Jun, who has come to speak with the famous Italian Batman. The ending reinforces Ezio’s final words in Revelations, showing that with time he has settled as a man who knows too much but can never do enough.

AC2 Minerva.png
Minerva’s introduction was a new direction for the series, bringing the Ones Who Came Before a major part of the canon after AC1 (Source: eskipaper.com).

One other aspect must be mentioned when it comes to the legacy of AC2, one that still lives to this day. The original run on PC is ‘protected’ by DRM software (digital rights management), an attempt to stop people pirating the game. In an effort to stop this, AC2 was only playable when connected online. No internet connection…you won’t be able to play the product you bought (leading to many frustrated consumers when the company servers go down). Ubisoft still uses these practices today, with AC: Origins doubling-up with two different DRM products. I thankfully never came across these with the console version, but it still needs to be mentioned as it is a very important point of the game’s history.

Conclusion

I will admit, coming back to this game was hard. I had fallen in love with game series before, most notably Timesplitters and the early Lego games. Assassin’s Creed was one of the first major series I played on the seventh generation, and I saw the remarkable jump from AC1 to AC2 in the span of switching out one disc for the other. When I returned after ten years to the first game there was an odd feeling of comfort, settling back in with ease.

I was a little worried that with AC2 I was going to have the reverse. Several games I loved when I was younger have not got better with time. And while I noticed a lot more hand-holding and linearity with the recent playthrough, it still has that charm almost ten years later.

Ezio is one of the biggest draws to replay. I think he is one of the best examples of “people want be him, or people want to be with him”, an all-round top lad whose sense of honour and personal drive keeps us engaged. Another highlight to returning are the locations. The cities are also so much fun to move through and completely different to the Holy Land Of AC1, or the other big-budget open world games like GTAIV‘s Liberty City the previous year, or war-torn Paris in The Saboteur the same year.

The villains are fun, the soundtrack is awe-inspiring, and even poor old Desmond gets to flex his protagonist muscles both in and outside of the Animus. Most of my grumbles are nitpicks; DLC disrupting narrative flow, overpowered attacks, and only a few instances of linear design. None of these spoil the game to any large degree, they can even be a benefit for those more casually inclined, with DLC only being an issue for those that played it in chronological order (I’ve written more about that here).

When I played AC1 for a retrospective I said it felt a lot like a blueprint of games to come. AC2 could almost be the opposite side of the coin, refinement while also laying foundations for later games. While we still have the upgrades and items available for purchase, they don’t swamp out the gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed II took what worked in the first, added its own flavours and tone, and became one of the most adored games of the seventh generation and the series as a whole. It’s a beautiful game and still deserves to be played today.

 

Banner Photo Source: youtube.com

007: Nightfire’s ‘The Exchange’ & Player Induction Through Level Design

I recently finished reading the first James Bond book, Casino Royale. Despite being a 007 fan for as long as I can remember, I had never actually gotten round to reading the classic stories by Ian Fleming.

While I was obviously introduced to the series with the films (every week I would head to Blockbuster and get a new one to watch), I think I truly became a fan when I was introduced to the games.

Picture the scene; it is 2003. I am seven years old. Our household console, the original PlayStation, ups and dies. We upgrade to the PlayStation 2 which is few years into its lifespan. We get three games with the PS2; FIFA, a Dave Mirra game, and James Bond 007: Nightfire.

The latter is the first FPS (first-person shooter) I play, and I become both a lifelong fan of the genre and the character.

There are no nostalgia goggles when I say Nightfire is one of the best games of the sixth generation. I have bought that game several times for different consoles, playing it well into my adult life. And I think that it all comes down to the excellent opening of the game, ‘The Exchange’.

This level features so many variations and little things to help a new player immerse themselves into the world of 007, so I thought I would take a look back and analyse how it creates and inducts the player into the gameplay.

“Provide Conditions In Which Students Learn” (Albert Einstein) – How ‘The Exchange’ Teaches Players Mechanics Through The Level Design

‘The Exchange’ is the second level of 007 Nightfire. The first level, ‘Paris Prelude’, is strictly an on-rails/driving affair with ‘The Exchange’ being the game’s first proper FPS mission.

If a player has not played the game before, ‘Paris Prelude’ starts. Aiming is computer-controlled; the player just has to shoot using the R1 button (the button is helpfully flashed on-screen when it is needed).

Nightfire Paris
‘Paris Prelude’ acts as a tutorial to Nightfire, teaching driving mechanics as well. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

Even if the player has not got to grips with all the controls (by reading the game manual) then they know at least one button and what it does.

‘The Exchange’ begins with 007 on a mission to infiltrate an enemy castle in Austria. Bond starts a few hundred metres away from the front door on top of a guardhouse. This starting placement is important.

This guardhouse allows the player that has never played a game before to get used to the movement controls. This is a safe space. There are no enemies patrolling, nothing shooting at you, it is nice and calm. The game even allows you to fire your weapon once just to try the controls out. If you fire a second shot then a guard will investigate the sound (a good way to discipline the player for forgetting what the button does).

Bond’s placement on top of the guardhouse also helps player navigation. The end of the opening cutscene and the player starting position draw the eyes forward to the large castle, pointing the way forward. The player can venture backwards on the road, but will find the path blocked by a locked door, forcing them to have to move towards the castle.

Exchange Opening
The opening section of ‘The Exchange’. Notice how we are guided towards the castle. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

This is such a small thing, but it helps aid movement. Imagine if the player started inside the guardhouse. It would be a more claustrophobic start instead of the freedom of the open environment. It would be counter-intuitive to player guidance by not showing us the way forward.

Once the player has got the hang of the controls there are three main ways to get into the castle; one aggressive, two stealthy. We will go with aggressive first.

Aggressive

The player makes their way down the stairs of the guardhouse and sees a bad guy stationed just outside the door. This is the first enemy of the game. This set-up allows us to be ushered into combat without being overwhelmed. The guard is facing away, allowing the player to play at their pace.

This is where knowledge of shooting comes back. Guns and bullets are player interaction at its purest. The guard must be dealt with to proceed, but since he is unaware of the player, the player can take their time to line up a shot. If the player has tinkered around on the roof, they may have found Bond can punch or use a stunning gadget. If the player accidentally wanders out of the guardhouse, Bond will make the guard surrender, a safety net for those still struggling with the controls.

And to top it all off, this guard is a singular entity. Unless the player completely messes up and doesn’t deal with him, he cannot alert other guards.

Nightfire First Enemy
The first enemy of the game, allowing the player to get to grips with the game before entering combat. (Source: oocities.org).

Subduing this guard will net us a new weapon, a sniper. The other enemies at the beginning of this level are visible in the distance (white outfits against a black/grey backgrounds), and so the sniper can be used to pick enemies off. Again, the player knows the shoot button and will use it to interact with the world.

The guards further up the road are stationery and will not notice the player until they get close. This allows the player to find an unobstructed viewpoint (the middle of the road) to survey the bad guys. The sniper is also silenced, allowing for players to take down bad guys without alerting others.

As the player moves up and dispatches the bad guys, they may acquire another new gun, a machine gun. This brings Nightfire’s weapon matrix into play. Now we have three distinct weapons. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to damage and range. After the player takes the machine gun, there are two more enemies in this starting area that it can be used against, allowing the player to familiarise themselves with the new weapon.

From there, the player heads to the main door and once they have found the action button, they continue to the next section.

Stealth 1: The Wine Truck

If the player waits on the roof, they can use the wine truck method. When the truck passes through the guardhouse, it will stall for a period of time. This allows the player to hop into the back from the roof and get inside the castle without killing any guards.

Nightfire Truck
It is such a classic Bond moment, one that isn’t signposted and just requires the player to mess around to find. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).

This is one of those moments that reward the player’s imagination. If the player thinks they can do it, then they quite possibly can in Nightfire. It is such a long way from the funneled systems of many big budget games of this generation where a mission will fail if you step an inch outside of the creator’s vision.

Stealth 2: The Castle Wall

Continuing the jumping aspect, if the player jumps from the roof to the rocky cliff face (the same way if they were to head backwards) they will find a footpath that leads to a ravine.

Nigthfire ravine
The ravine is another stealthy way into the castle and gets the player closer to the next objective. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

If they continue, a pop-up in the corner of the screen indicates there is a grappling station nearby. If the player looks around with their grapple equipped they can see a white target reticle. Focussing in on the reticle with the grapple turns it green (the universal colour of ‘go’). Once the player has used the grapple they have to make their way around the outside of the castle, sneaking past other guards.

Nightfire Stealth
You have to monitor enemy movement to sneak past the windows. If you don’t, several bad guys will spawn in. (Source: cheatcodesgalore.com).

This path introduces the (optional) contextual movement aspect where the player can traverse a wall or zipline by shimmying along. These are some serious stealth strategies though and failure will lead to heavily armed goons coming to take you down. This is for a player that has mastered the controls and locates the opportunity.

However…

There is another contextual movement section before the one previously mentioned.

After the player has got through the first wave of bad guys but before the main door, there is a little path leading off to the left.

Nightfire Pathway
Notice the pathway to the left, highlighted by the wooden handrail. (Source: xTimelessGaming, YouTube).

Heading down there allows the player to scale around the wall. During the cutscene Bond moves through some crunchy snow (5:28). The guards at the door (if they are alive) will come and investigate, but soon head back to their post. This introduces sound into a larger gameplay loop.

If the player has gunned their way to this section, they already know about sound and its role in alerting guards. This gameplay section highlights that quick movements can give you away and that slow movements (such as when the player is crouching) can make you silent and less easy to detect.

Each one of these variations on infiltrating the castle starts you in a different place during the next section. If you came in with the wine truck you start near the wine cellars. If you walked through the main door you are a few corridors away. And if you took the ‘Stealth 2’ route you start in a guard tower.

Nightfire Castle
The different play styles net different rewards and new locations, making each style feel unique. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).

Even better, all these other places are available to visit. If you came in via the castle wall you can find the truck and where it ends up. It’s almost like reverse engineering, seeing where certain gameplay decisions spawn you.

Conclusion

I am going to finish this piece here because I don’t want this article to run long, but I will give a few bullet points as to what the next gameplay sections deliver.

  • A non-violent social stealth element where the player must work their way through the environment (useful in later levels like ‘Night Shift’).
  • Bond uses his micro-camera in two cutscenes. Its appearance shows it can be used for surveillance and to complete objectives (like in ‘Chain Reaction’).
  • We are barred from following the bad guys, so we go another way to rendezvous with another agent. On the way back, the barred section is open. As it is now unlocked, we can follow it. This is a perfect way to guide players in a non-linear fashion.
Nightfire Interior
The player is familiarised through non-violent gameplay sections before the level opens up. This allows for the game to guide the player without needing waypoints. (Source: infinitemirai.wordpress.com).
  • After some shooting we get another weapon (an unsilenced machine pistol, another element added to the weapon matrix).
  • We head back outside and encounter a contextual zipline. Like the guardhouse there are no enemies shooting at us, so we can find the button that makes the zipline work without the worry that we will die.
  • Alternatively, the player can stay inside and get to the next objective quicker.
  • Alternatively, if we did go outside we would be awarded with another weapon (a machine gun with a silencer) and a stun grenade. These weapons make quick work of the guards at the objective, as they use cover and have machine pistols.
  • When the player completes the objective by retrieving a suitcase, they also pick up a rocket launcher. It is impossible to pick up the suitcase without also getting the launcher.
  • Once the player has got to the cable car station (which they would have visited if they went outside, but is also in a straight line if they stayed inside), a helicopter shows up. What do we have that can take down a helicopter? The rocket launcher.
Nightfire Helicopter
Bond in combat against the helicopter. (Source: superadventuresingaming.blogspot.com).
  • The cable car has several windows. These can be shot out with regular ammo, allowing an almost perfect 360 degrees view.
  • The rocket is automatically on guided rockets, so when a player first shoots one they control its destination. While this may seem confusing on the first shot, the player’s previous movement controls come back into play and they can deliver several follow up shots on the helicopter.
  • The rocket launcher has full ammo capacity so even if the player misses a few shots, they will have enough to finish the mission.

Each following level takes one of the aspects from the ‘The Exchange’ and expands it, whether that is close quarters combat (‘Double Cross’), stealth (‘Night Shift’) sniping (‘Chain Reaction’) or all-out action (‘Phoenix Fire’).

While there might be some stealth in ‘Phoenix Fire’ or action at the end of ‘Night Shift’, these are only very small elements. This allows the levels to have their own distinct tones and themes. But that is why ‘The Exchange’ is a perfect opening. It allows for that difference in playstyle but also player freedom, educating them on how to play the game.

Newer 007 games like Blood Stone and Goldeneye Reloaded also have this balance of stealth and action in their opening levels, but none of them give the freedom of Nightfire, instead they railroad you through a directed experience.

That is not to say that strict linear games are bad. On the contrary, I love Blood Stone. But I think that freedom gives ‘The Exchange’ and Nightfire an excellent sense of character and gameplay. And that is why it is so fondly remembered.

And it doesn’t hurt that they absolutely killed it with the multiplayer. ‘Skyrail’ anyone?

Banner Photo Source: techraptor.net.

Assassin’s Creed, Jacob Frye, & Bisexuality In Games

I recently completed Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and loved the entire experience. While I have enjoyed certain aspects of each Assassin’s Creed since the exquisite original, none of them have really captivated me as a whole.

While I enjoyed the majority of the predecessor, UnitySyndicate really felt like a step up. The setting of Victorian London was a great location, and the constant liberation missions through the boroughs were on the right side of grinding for me. But the major selling point that got me interested in the game were the dual playable characters, twins Jacob and Evie Frye.

I was excited at playing as Evie due to her being the first playable female Assassin in the main series and loved her no-nonsense attitude and bubbling chemistry with fellow Assassin Henry Green. I at first neglected Jacob for his more charming sister, but became intrigued at reading online that he was confirmed as bisexual. Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for the game, confirmed Jacob’s identity on The Assassin’s Den podcast, and the official Assassin’s Creed Tumblr posted,

“Jacob Frye is bisexual. This is canon. The end.”

AC as a series has always tried tackling serious topics in the games. Religion and hypocrisy managed to fuel four games, but the series has also turned an eye towards colonialism, slavery, and the idea of ends justifying the means.

Even Syndicate manages to debate imperialism, with Evie trying to convince Queen Victoria to retreat from India after the end credits. Syndicate also includes the series’ first openly trans character, so if the game wanted to focus on one of its leads sexuality, I was all for it.

Jacob’s sexuality is brought to the fore in Sequence 8, where a vaguely flirtatious relationship is developed with bad guy Maxwell Roth, culminating is Roth kissing Jacob as the former dies. It was a small moment, and Jacob’s reaction can be read in numerous ways.

Despite being an avid gamer, I can only name a few game characters that are bisexual. Compared to the gay and lesbian characters (both open and can be read as) that I could rattle off with ease, it was a struggle. So, in a bid to both better myself and hopefully learn something new, I decided to go for a look.

“Of course, people do go both ways– (Scarecrow, The Wizard Of Oz) – A Look At & For Bisexual Characters In Games

There is one place that bisexuality does come to the front in gaming spheres; role-playing games. The houses of Bethesda and Bioware have an amazing hold on one subsection of games because they cater to gamers who want to explore a different identity or play as someone similar to themselves.

As Keza McDonald says in the documentary How Video Games Changed The World,

“In Mass Effect your character is basically bisexual by default. You can flirt with whoever you want and pursue a relationship with whoever you want…” (1:02:26)

Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and Fallout start off players in the middle and then allow them to move in any direction they want.

While there are characters like Steve Cortez in Mass Effect that will only romance you if you are the same gender, most characters can be romanced by both genders. There was even some fan backlash when character Kaidan Alenko, who had been a heterosexual character, became a romantic possibility for a male main character in Mass Effect 3.

However, my issue with RPGs like the ones listed above stems from that openness to player choice. While Mass Effect has been thoroughly mocked for its “input-gifts-output-sex” approach to sex and sexuality, it is entirely player driven, and not part of the default character of Shepard.

Games that use the Marvel properties give a massive boost to LGBT representation. Characters like Mystique, Prodigy, Deadpool and Lightspeed are either bi or pan, and have appeared in everything from Ultimate Alliance to Lego Marvel, games catering to all ages and players. Yet these characters are from another medium, they aren’t solely bi/pan within their games. And that is even if the topic of their sexuality comes up during the experience.

In a similar vein, games of other properties have confirmed bisexual characters like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Korra in The Legend Of Korra. But again, does it count toward representation if their sexuality doesn’t come into the game? According to the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, the character of Asami from The Legend Of Korra (and girlfriend of the eponymous bisexual heroine) is omitted from the game, taking away a large amount of bi visibility from the franchise.

And what of people from history that would have identified as bi or pan? In AC: Unity, Marquis De Sade is one of main character Arno’s contacts, and embraces his relationships with both genders. While it is only really found in side-missions rather than the main game, it is nice that it is included.

***

Before doing some research into the topic, I could only name two other bisexual characters besides Jacob Frye. Those two were Juri Han from the Street Fighter series and Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto V.

I like Juri, she’s a fun character and her crazy fighting style in Street Fighter IV drew me to her. All of her dialogue in the games points to her attraction to other characters or being sexually aggressive. When she squares off against Chun-Li in the latter’s Rival Fight, Juri ponders whether Chun-Li has “a schoolgirl crush” on her. However, none of Juri’s flirting is confirmed within game, so it could just be Juri’s way of mentally screwing with her opponents.

With Trevor, the game is explicitly up front about his sexual preferences, with his LifeInvader profile stating that, “any hole’s a goal”. When asked by his friend Franklin if he is gay, Trevor responds,

“No. Yeah. Whatever. Labels, bro…”

He seems indifferent to who his partners are, just going along for the ride and propositioning several members of the cast. That makes a debate on whether Trevor is bisexual or pansexual, but he can be easily identified as ‘not straight’.

With Jacob, it is more layered when it comes to his sexuality. I’ll link here to an excellent article on New Normative by Susana Valdes, which goes into more detail than I ever could. Valdes breaks down all the subtext and personality traits of Jacob, highlighting how his sexuality is foreshadowed throughout the game.

Conclusion

There is one genre that I have neglected to talk about in this post; dating sims. A notable one in recent years was Dream Daddy, a dating simulator game where all the characters that can be romanced are fathers, with the player character being gay or bi, cis or transgender.

And sure, dating sims are a great way to have that diversity, it is inherent to the product. But Jacob’s story is one that I wish we could see more of. Something different to the ‘bisexual-as-sadist/psychopath’ trope that has been perpetuated for years in media (highlighted by Trevor and Juri), or not just as someone to bed like in Mass Effect.

There has been a massive boost to diversity with games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, where characters preferences and sexualities are highlighted, but are never more than a bark or backstory, one that we may never see.

I’ve only really scratched the surface in this short post, and there are much smarter and more qualified people to really dig into the stuff I’ve mentioned. But there is a reason I wanted to write about this topic. While I wholeheartedly approve and promote for more representation and inclusivity, I want to add to it. It was an important first step to show LGBT characters, now I would like to see mainstream games tackle issues around it.

Some of the best books (Giovanni’s Room), television shows (The Soprano’s Seasons 5-6), and films (Call Me By Your Name) have been about coming out, homophobia (internal and external), and civil rights, why not games? The only game I can think of that has broached these subjects is Persona 4. In that game, punk biker dude Kanji Tatsumi struggles between his outward masculinity and his sexual identity, which he feels are incompatible with each other. His internal battle is something rarely seen in games and it helps develop a compelling character in the process.

It doesn’t have to be for a whole game, but have it as a continual thing in the background, waiting for its chance to come into the limelight, rather than being thrown out for a level or two. I want to move the focus to the main character, where their relationships are part of the main story. Player and avatar don’t always have to be in sync, and I feel that’s where the best stories are found, where the player lives in another’s shoes.

Let us step into those stories, experience a character’s world, and who knows, we may find ourselves identifying with them more than we could have ever known. That can only be a good thing.

The LGBTQ Video Game Archive has been instrumental in the creation of this piece. Check out the website here.

Banner Photo Source: assassinscreedfandom.com

L.A. Noire & The Battle Between DLC & Pacing

It is weird to think that L.A. Noire came out eight years ago, back in the good old days of 2011. And being in development of some kind for nearly six years, we are fast coming up on fifteen years of L.A. Noire being a “thing”.

And in the past few years the game got somewhat of a new lease on life, being released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in November 2017, with enhancements to accommodate for new features such as the touch screen on the Switch and VR abilities for the PlayStation.

With these new enhancements came the “complete” story, compiling all of the cases that had previously been DLC (short for downloadable content) into the experience. For me however, these “new” cases being placed into the story has made the game feel a little disjointed.

La Noire VR
L.A. Noire VR allowed to players to step into the (gum)shoes of Cole Phelps in specific cases made for the system. (Source: dualshockers.com)

Let’s have a look at the cases, because while I love nearly all of them, the fact that they are DLC makes me view them differently. And part of it is to do with pacing.

This isn’t me railing against the fact that these are cases that should have been in the original retail experience. The game is already 20+ hours long, five cases of varying length is hardly going to up the playtime.

I can also understand why DLC cases work for something like L.A. Noire. L.A. Noire is designed almost like a TV serial, with each new case being a new episode. It will have scenarios that link between cases such as the Black Dahlia in Homicide and morphine in Vice, but each case is mainly self-contained. And yet these new cases seem to alter the balance of the pacing of the game.

From Snails To Speeding Bullets – A Quick Look At Pacing

Pacing is something that never gets much attention when it comes to games. Similar to editing in film, it is a phenomenon that you don’t know is there until it is not there. For example, pacing is only really brought up when it is a detriment to the game, with many walking simulators or opening hours in open-world games being criticised for their slower pace.

Open-world games are probably the hardest to do; how can you have a character-driven story if the player can decide to head off and not focus on the narrative (see Bethesda’s games). Pacing can also affect a sense of time, feeling like scenes are shunted together. I felt this in AC: Unity, where a moody European white boy became an Assassin and then due to the breakneck presentation felt like he attained the rank of Grand Master within a week.

Talking of assassins, AC: Syndicate’s pacing is better than many of the previous games by virtue of one screen; the shot of Big Ben ticking by. Any time the game wanted to move forward in time the screen cut to sped-up footage of Big Ben cycling through the hours. That at least gives us a sense of progression rather than the Frye Twins seemingly dissolving the criminal underbelly of London over a weekend.

AC Syndicate Big Ben
This one aspect of presentation helped Syndicate’s narrative feel more expansive than previous entries. (Source: steamcommunity.com)

I’ll hold up Spec Ops: The Line as a game with excellent pace and flow. While the twist doesn’t fully work as it shows new material, the pacing goes a long way to help play up the insanity that fuels the twist. Each new chapter from the very start to the very end, starts slow before methodically upping the action, drawing you into the experience and mimicking Walker’s slow descent into brutality and madness. You have your peaks and troughs, intense action with stealth.

That’s why CoD4: Modern Warfare works well too. The game starts slow with the SAS in Russia before becoming an all out action game with the Americans in the Middle East. Once the nuke has gone off, the SAS take over the main action, but the game starts with a distinct “medium” in between stealth and OTT action in the level “Safehouse”.

This works wonders because after the two stealth levels of “All Ghillied Up” and “One Shot, One Kill”, we have the level “Heat”, which uses the same map as “Safehouse”, but has the action on full. CoD4 gives us the stealth to get to grips with the level before ramping up the action. This is seen in the micro in levels such as “Crew Expendable” and “Sins Of The Father”, as well as the macro in how the acts are structured and levels follow on from each other.

CoD4 Crew Expendable
CoD4 starts with stealth to ease players into the controls, before slowly ratcheting up the action. (Source: nerdreactor.com)

Call Of Duty: World At War has some interesting pacing issues. Since the campaign of WaW can be played co-op, certain levels had to be left out. This means that the excellent stealth level “Vendetta” is cut. The following level, “Their Land, Their Blood” works because of the juxtaposition and slower pace of the preceding level, going from being on the back foot to charging at the enemy.

Going straight from “Hard Landing” to “Their Land, Their Blood” feels exhausting. It could be argued that the change of character may add to this jarring tone, however we hardly get any character introduction in “Vendetta” or even at the start of the game, so it feels more to do with the unrelenting gameplay.

This is the same reason I had real trouble with the original Black Ops. My favourite level of the game is “U.S.D.D.”, a level without any shooting and is one big cutscene. I love it because it allows a break after the all-out action of “Operation 40” and “Vorkuta”. And while there are stealth sections in Black Ops, they aren’t mandatory or last an entire level (such as WMD and Rebirth). This can get instill a sense of weariness when explosions end each level.

Now you see how pacing can make a good game turn into a great game. So, back to L.A. Noire.

Back On The Beat – L.A. Noire & Pacing

As previously mentioned, while nearly each case in L.A. Noire is its own story, some cases add together to form a larger picture. These mostly happen on the Vice desk. There is a running B story throughout the whole of L.A. Noire about gangster Mickey Cohen staging a heist of army surplus morphine, which the majority of the Vice desk is spent dealing with.

These cases then lead into the Arson desk that has its own mini arc. Another B story is about property land developers in a building scam, pretending to build homes for returning GIs before burning them and then collecting the insurance. But the man they have sent to burn down the houses (a mentally scarred flamethrower from WW2) has started targeting any and all houses rather than the ones they told him to.

The Arson desk follows this plotline all the way to the conclusion, with every case about the arson attacks and the development fund.

The DLC cases slide into each desk and end the steady pace that the game has because of these running B stories.

LA Noire Gunfight
The DLC is at least thrilling, with several action sequences and memorable investigations. (Source: geforce.com).

Traffic seems to get away pretty unscathed. Each case of Traffic features new suspects and scenarios and has no overarching narrative like the other desks. The new case, A Slip Of The Tongue, slots easily into Traffic, following the same one-off pattern as the previous crimes.

In Vice, things start to get a little tricky. In the original edition, there are only three cases (the same as Traffic), compared to six of Homicide and five of Arson.

The new cases add more variety meaning the Vice desk isn’t all about morphine. One of the new cases, The Naked City, also sets up that Det. Bekowsky, the partner on the Traffic Desk, eventually moved up to Homicide and was partnered with Rusty Galloway, the partner from the Homicide desk.

It is strange how this case was cut, especially as it introduces Bekowksy as part of Homicide before he appears in the final Vice case, Manifest Destiny.

Another reason why it is strange that these cases were cut is that they actually foreshadow Cole’s later infidelity. During driving sequences, Roy mentions Cole’s regular visits to the Blue Room and Bekowsky asking what Cole looks for in a woman. But these lines should have been in the original experience to make that character turn actually feel plausible instead of bizarre.

Arson is the “worst” offender when it comes to pacing. I like the Nicholson Electroplating case and I think it is the best of the DLCs, but when looking at the game as a whole it feels out of place.

First, some background.

Elsa Lichtmann, jazz singer and mistress of lead character Cole Phelps, receives the life insurance payment of her friend, Lou Buchwalter.

Lou was working as carpenter on one of the doomed housing projects, but the timbre he was working on gave way and he fell to his death. The house fires that Cole has been investigating are on the land that the property developers want to build on.

After putting two and two together (the house fires are perpetrated by the developers so they can build shoddy houses), Cole gets threatened by his higher-ups and told to close his investigation.

To keep pressure on the situation outside of the police force, Cole enlists comrade-now-turned insurance investigator Jack Kelso to inspect Elsa’s friend’s death, thus exposing the racket. Jack’s cases play one after the other in the original experience (including the final level), but the DLC case Nicholson Electroplating slots in right before the final level.

LA Noire Nicholson
Nicholson Electroplating starts with a bang…and puts a stop to the Kelso-centric cases. (Source: dsogaming.com).

This completely upends the narrative, with a case that has no bearing on the story while said story is hurtling towards its conclusion.

But that is why they work perfectly as DLC.

Instead of just ANOTHER case in a long line of cases, the DLC is a reminder of that appealing central core of the game. Seeing these old friends again, Bekowsky, Rusty, Roy, and Biggs, and getting to do the old “crack the case” thing one last time (which could get tiring after having several in a row), it feels comfortable, safe even.

So while these new additions can feel out of place, seemingly halting the steady pace of the game, the episodic nature of L.A. Noire allows them to work as individual cases, unmoored to the extravagant length of the base game.

Remasters and definitive editions are becoming a bigger draw in the industry than ever before. Games like Dark Souls and Resident Evil 2 have been remade and changed aspects like bonfire warping and enemy introductions. So that is why we must remember and catalogue the original way that games were played and delivered.

The way L.A. Noire was originally published must be remembered for posterity, a testament to excellent story pacing within the art form, as well as the power in how a narrative can be structured.

Banner Photo Source: ign.com.

El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron & Game Cinematography

I have been on a backlog binge recently. Games that I missed the first time around, I’ve been rooting out copies and giving them a try. A lot of these games are outside of my usual genres, but have something that brought it to my attention.

IL2-Sturmovik: Birds Of Prey is a WW2 flight simulation that subtly evokes themes common in Russian literature and film. Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is a western adaptation of an 16th century Chinese text with motion-capture courtesy of Andy Serkis and was written by Alex Garland (of Ex Machina fame). And Shadows Of The Damned is a puerile and phallus-infused grindhouse romp through hell from legendary creators Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamaoka.

Following the running theme of games with confusingly long titles, recently I’ve been playing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. The reason I became interested in playing El Shaddai is that it is an adaptation of the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text not part of biblical canon and that it was infused with anime visuals. It sounds like an fun prospect.

El-Shaddai Waterfall
From the very first level, El Shaddai is a visually-arresting game. (Source: thesixthaxis.com).

El Shaddai is an odd duck.

You play Enoch, a human and scribe of Heaven, sent down to Earth to capture the souls of fallen angels. If he fails then the archangels have permission to send a great flood and wipe away the world.

Aiding Enoch is the archangel Lucifel who follows along and calls God on his mobile phone to report Enoch’s progress. Oh, and he wears skinny black jeans and snaps his fingers with the frequency of a Broadway actor on opening night (he only snaps with his left hand, which is a neat touch given his name). He also rides a motorbike and constantly breaks the fourth wall.

An example of the latter is where he at one point rewinds time, but ends up going so far back that you get booted to the main menu and have to hit the start button again. Another is when he tells the PLAYER, “You can clear this in seven hours, if you are good enough,” (34:00) which is literally just under the standard play-length of the game

Enoch must make his way through the different realms to take on the fallen angels one at a time. Each realm has a different art style; the first is a cave rave with chanting hordes and psychedelic light shows. Another is filled with soft colours and fluffy clouds. Another seems to be influenced by Tron and another is a 70s glam rock concert complete with back-up dancers.

It gets even weirder when you finish some levels by being eaten whole by a Nephilim; human/angel crossbreeds that roam the land eating each other and destroying the landscape. I would call it Gilliam-esque but even Monty Python wouldn’t think up anything this brazenly ludicrous.

el-shaddai Nephelim
From Sariel’s realm in El Shaddai, featuring an art style similar to Studio Ghibli. (Source: mcmbuzz.com).

It is full of themes to deconstruct; the presence of religion, the nature of silent protagonists, or directionless combat. But let’s get away from those heavy topics and onto something a bit more artistic.

Today I want to talk about one of the aspects that made El Shaddai stand out from the other games I’m playing; the use of the camera.

Double Exposure – The Use Of Camera Techniques in El Shaddai

El Shaddai doesn’t give the player any control over the camera. This usually proves a detriment to player engagement, leading to annoyance at only having a certain degree of gameplay to view. But the limitations give El Shaddai a unique look, one that couldn’t be found in traditional camera controls.

el-shaddai-veil
The entrance to the Fallen Angels’ Tower, always in the player’s view, no matter which way they move. (Source: lifeculturegeekstuff.wordpress.com)

El Shaddai is a mix of genres, mainly hack’n’slash and a third person platformer. Enoch runs through the realms, navigating pathways and pitfalls, as well as taking on hordes of demons, martyrs and, erm…heavily armoured giant pigs.

Like I said, odd duck.

Most hack’n’slashers like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have a camera that hangs back; with so many enemies on screen you need to keep track of all of them. If the camera is too close to the action then it can cause problems, with the player getting tagged by enemies they were unaware of.

El Shaddai during its hack’n’slash sections draws the camera back until the characters are incredibly small in the frame. While being in-keeping with the genre, it also lends thematic resonance. Enoch is a human, not a omni-competent world-shattering entity like the archangels are shown to be (that is when they aren’t being portrayed as talking swans, which is a good 97% of the game. Yeah, have you gathered how weird this game is yet?) The enemies and the landscape dwarf Enoch, as he fights against a world that seems too big to comprehend.

El Shaddai Cave
The Fallen Angels’ Tower stretches onwards and upwards, changing art styles and gameplay on a consistent basis. (Source: newgamenetwork.com).

The hack’n’slash elements are structured in El Shaddai. As Enoch runs along he will come across a circular arena and the enemies will enter into combat. Nearly every encounter works like this, which is understandable. The arena gives the player a safe space to fight without having the fear of falling off the map.

In the boss battles with some the fallen angels such as Sariel, Azazel, and Armaros, they shape-shift into other forms (Sariel becomes a giant bat, Azazel becomes a Locust-like insect and Armaros transforms into some weird bug/whale/dinosaur/Sith lord hybrid, that is as simple as I can describe it).

When these forms appear, the camera shifts downwards, artificially making their scale appear larger. During boss fights, the fallen angel is the only enemy, allowing the fixed camera to not be intrusive. As soon as regular enemies appear, the camera moves higher to accommodate the player.

El Shaddai Sariel
“So long as I can protect this world, I don’t need to be human.” As Sariel takes to the skies, the camera moves closer to the ground, making Enoch seem smaller. (Source: trueachievements.com).

Once these combat sections are done, the game turns back into a platformer and changes its camera subtly. It moves more into a birds-eye view to aid jumping, especially since 3D platforming doesn’t have the precision of its 2D cousin. It is a light touch and is a smooth transition, accommodating for the dual gameplay but without large changes in gameplay or design.

A lot of the time during gameplay the player is running on a singular path, making their way through the expansive locations. The gameplay is predominately 3D, but sometimes the camera becomes stationery, morphing gameplay from 3D to 2D and back again. It creates these beautiful sequences that feel epic in their scope despite how limited they are.

Certain sections of gameplay will only be 2D, but these are usually for narrative reasons. The first section has us admiring a stained-glass window of the archangels. As the silhouette of Enoch climbs upwards, we are treated to beautiful renditions of Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel (who in this interpretation uses female pronouns, an interesting change from biblical tradition). This sequence is used to set up these characters and to inform the player that they are by your side during the adventure.

El Shaddai Window
The depiction of the angel Gabriel in the Fallen Angels’ Tower. “This atmosphere of wisdom truly befits her.” (Source: neogaf.com).

The second time the game uses this technique is after Enoch wakes from his Indecision after he journeyed into Purgatory. Once his soul is purified, Enoch awakens and goes to find Nanna, a little girl who helped guide him through a few of the realms. During his time out, she has grown up and has led a revolt against the fallen angels.

As Enoch runs along the 2D plain, the background shows a silhouette of Nanna fighting the fallen angel Ezekiel, the latter besting the former. The sequence is to illustrate how long Enoch’s journey has been and his desperation to help Nanna against the Fallen Angels.

During these cases, El Shaddai almost feels like an endless runner, focussing more on jumping pitfalls than actually changing direction or speed. It also brings you into the run at a pace, which I love. In certain games they’ll be a “run away from the bad guys/object” segment. Games like UnchartedTomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, even L.A. Noire has a sequence like this.

El Shaddai has these running sequences, but the first few seconds of gameplay already have Enoch running away. It helps guide the player back into the action without losing a sense of flow.

el shaddai ezekiel
Enoch making his way into Ezekiel’s realm. As he reaches the bottom of the stairs the camera moves upward to facilitate gameplay. (Source: paste magazine.com).

Despite the camera moving all around the environment,  El Shaddai always highlights which way you have to go to progress the story through. The camera guides your vision, unobtrusively showing us the way without a mere hint of an objective marker. There are only a few times El Shaddai breaks this rule, but all in service of gameplay.

The first time I realised it was just before Enoch heads into Ezekiel’s realm, the second of the Fallen Angels (9:04). Enoch is heading down a corridor before it is revealed that it is opening up. There is no floor beyond the corridor, only empty space.

A faint outline can be seen outside, but nothing concrete. In essence you are taking a leap of faith. When you do take the leap, the screen blooms and a staircase is revealed where the faint outline was. Much like the walkway at the end of Indiana Jones 3, the path is only fully visible once the player makes that leap and is both stylistically and thematically fitting. The game does this a few times during important moments, where the art will slightly obscure the path to allow those moments of revelation to the player.

Conclusion

Many games try and create a world, but only a few capture an excellent sense of location and space in their camera movements. It is something that Japanese games work well with. Metal Gear Solid, Silent HillResident Evil, Shadow Of The Colossus, 3D Mario games, they are very precise on shot placement and movement in gameplay.

That is not to say Western developers don’t also use these techniques. Gone Home’s use of first-person camera and lighting definitely created a sense of foreboding during gameplay. The original Alone In The Dark is credited with inspiring Silent Hill‘s and Resident Evil‘s camera techniques. Quantic Dream does everything in their power to create cinematic shots in their games. And Ready At Dawn mimicked lens focus and aspect ratios for their launch title The Order: 1886.

Another example may be Uncharted 3 during its chases sequences.

Looking at this sequence in Yemen, the camera moves with the action; zooming, focussing, and wiping to aid player progression.

When main character Nathan Drake and bad guy Talbot are inside, the camera zooms closer in, when they are running on the rooftops the camera heads into more of a birds-eye view to help jumping. My favourite moments are in changes of direction.

Similar to how film editors “wipe” the screen during long takes, Uncharted 3 will make these small adjustments to aid players, such as Nathan banging into walls or being hit by a door (4:23, 5:30, and 6:56).

Control is taken away for a second, the camera shifts where it needs to be (the new direction the player is moving) and then control is given back. It is a smooth transition yet it is distinct; players know that when the camera resets to a certain distance, they are back in control.

Cinematography is alive and well in games and when thought is given to how it is used, a slight camera change can make an intense action set piece more thrilling and enjoyable than it would with a bog-standard third-person view.

An example might be the Skate series. The major skating series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, uses a standard camera to aid traversal and give the player a sense of spatial awareness when moving. Skate on the other hand brings the camera lower, almost touching the ground. This is to mimic home-made skating videos, and somehow makes Skate feel richer, even if the camera can sometimes obscure geography.

With games being able to perform angles and shots that are almost impossible in film, it is always interesting to see where the format will go.

Photo Source: polygon.com

How Animations Help Build Character

A sense of character is one of the things that I look for when playing a game. I play games mainly for the story and a large part of that is the character. If we can’t get emotionally attached to the protagonist, it can create a disconnect between them and us. I have stopped playing games because I can’t see or connect to the main character’s motivation.

Games are an interesting medium to view characters due to player input. Can a character be labeled a badass secret agent if he has trouble navigating tables? In this feature I wanted to zone in on an aspect that can highlight character traits, that being the animation.

Small animations can help fill a character backstory or tell us something about their personality, usually without an ounce of dialogue. To modify an old saying, “A picture paints a thousands words. And an animation at 60FPS conveys a book.”

The inspiration behind this post was the animation of Doom Guy from 2016’s Doom. His animations are intentional. The way he nonchalantly pushes computer screens with vital intelligence on them aside or smashes scientifically important power sources in direct violation of orders shows so much of his personality, all without ever seeing his reactions (here is a video by critic Jim Sterling highlighting these points).

An example of an accidental animation could be how Ned Luke, the actor who plays Michael De Santa in Grand Theft Auto V, moves during gameplay. Luke is deaf in his right ear and in cutscenes he will move to his right if someone is talking to him. This can be seen as a happy accident as it fills in Michael’s backstory. Being partially deaf could be an indication of him being close to guns for a portion of his life (for example, the entire opening of GTAV). Michael was also meant to be slower than the other playable characters Trevor and Franklin, so Luke put on weight for his motion-capture.

So here are five animations that give us a peek at a character’s personality. These aren’t in any ranking, but just five from my some of my favorite games.

  1. Cortez’s Gun Spin in Timesplitters: Future Perfect

When a character picked up a gun in the first two Timesplitters games it would simply pop up on screen. That changed in the third entry, where each weapon had an equipping animation.

The animation I want to highlight is in the third game, at the very start of the second level. Main character Sgt. Cortez is sent back in time to 1924 and teams up with WW1 veteran Captain Ash to retake a Scottish island from some vaguely foreign types. After landing on the shores of the island, Ash gives Cortez a Luger and the duo head off.

When control is given back to the player, Cortez equips the gun and spins it like a Wild West gunslinger.

We’ve seen in the previous mission that Cortez is kind of a super soldier; crashing his spaceship in the middle of a battle zone, holding off Splitter charges singlehandedly, and sniping enemies from impossible distances. But throughout the story he shows a goofier side; fan-boying over his future self, dancing with the R110 war robot, and constantly saying his catchphrase, “Time to Split!” which everyone but him thinks is incredibly uncool.

The gun spin is a distillation of these two traits. It shows his “cool factor” off by being able to pull off the move, but also shows his incredible dorky side that he would do it, instead of just lock and load the gun like very other pistol in the game.

(Start at 2:11)

  1. Haytham Moving Through The Audience in Assassin’s Creed 3

We start AC3 playing as Templar Agent Haytham Kenway on a mission in the Theatre Royal in London. He has to assassinate a British Assassin and steal the First Civilization Medallion that said target keeps around his neck.

It is a great opening to the game and gets us invested in the character. Haytham sits down in the auditorium with Templar Master Reginald Birch as they talk about the performance that night. During his dialogue with Birch, as well as with the Assassin Miko, Haytham displays a veneer of civility, a quintessential Britishness.

After receiving his mission to kill Miko, Haytham starts to make his way past the audience in the auditorium row. As he goes, Haytham whispers out apologies, “A thousand pardons…my apologies…”

One audience member decides to stand up to allow Haytham to pass by. WHAM! Haytham roughly pushes the man back down into his seat and continues moving through the audience. It is such a small animation, but the ferocity and power behind the gesture shows there is much more behind the warm front that Haytham puts on when speaking.

(Start at 2:00)

  1. The Scarecrow’s Running Animation in Lego Batman: The Videogame

The great thing about the Lego games in their infancy is they had to communicate plot points entirely through gestures. While I’m not bashing the later games in the series, it was hilarious to see them riff on Indiana Jones and Star Wars in the vein of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (especially in Episodes IV-VI, with scenes like this 3:54-4:25).

When creating the first Lego Batman game, the folks over at Travellers Tales created their own plots. These stories made allusions to the films, television shows, and comics, but were mainly their own thing. While they have the building blocks (aha!) of the characters, they need to transpose them to the Lego world. So let’s look at Scarecrow.

The major factor in Scarecrow’s run is his arms. When Batman runs, his arms pump up and down to indicate his strength and stamina. When Poison Ivy runs, her arms sway, demonstrating a delicate side. When Scarecrow runs, he holds his arms out in front of him, as if he were a frightening monster chasing someone.

His shoulders bunch up as he runs and there is a definite swing to his movements. The former is indicative of his desire to reach forward and catch whoever he may be chasing, the latter shows that he having fun and delighted that he is chasing some poor, frightened citizen.

Scarecrow doesn’t have a single line of dialogue in the entire game, yet he manages to portray a multi-faceted personality through his over-acted run.

(Start at 3:34)

  1. Larson Conway in Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Switching up the structure here, as this is an enemy rather than a playable character. Yet the animations portray a very layered individual.

We can tell from the start of TR: Anniversary that heroine Lara Croft and anti-hero Larson Conway know each other. The two are on first name terms and have some flirtatious banter (1:34). This banter is important because it feeds into Larson’s later fight animations.

When the two square up against each other, Larson declares he “…prefers a more hands-on approach.” He leaps at Lara and she fends him off using her fists. As Lara continues to best him, Larson becomes more irate until he finally pulls out his gun. The fight takes place during a quick time event and Larson only draws his gun on the final button press.

During another quick time event involving all of the scheming bad guys, Larson doesn’t shoot at Lara, instead trying to strike her with his gun (18:27).

Designer Toby Gard revealed in the developer commentary that Larson has a soft spot for Lara (56:13). You can see this in the animation. He never tries to kill her, instead going for non-lethal attacks and only pulling out a gun when she does the same to him. When she flees during the aforementioned quick time event, he intentionally pushes away other bad guys and aims his shot wayward (18:42).

They are small tweaks but create a character that isn’t a straight-up bad guy, which gives his death at Lara’s hands later in the game a sense of pathos.

  1. Captain Walker’s Changing Animations in Spec Ops: The Line

I love Spec Ops: The Line partly because it is a great deconstruction of the art form as well as being a fun “tactical” shooter.

I’ve talked about how the visual design of Walker changes through the course of the narrative with his design becoming less and less human with each important moment within the story. But this decline is also featured in the audio clips and the animations.

At the start Walker and his team are professional; knocking people unconscious with either the butt of their rifle or with a swift punch/karate chop. But as Walker’s mind slowly descends into insanity, his animations become more violent.

His rifle strikes become longer and more sadistic. He jumps on fallen enemies and gouges at their eyes with his fingernails. He starts breaking necks with ferocity but also indifference, doing so without a second’s hesitation. And when he has finally snapped, Walker drops all pretence of professionalism and starts executing unarmed soldiers with a gunshot to the head.

The cool thing is that most of these are hidden due to player choice. While the player will have to take on close range enemies it is entirely possible that a player could shoot them and not have to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The developers could have just had one or two repeated animations, but decided to have a variety with the possibility that a player would never see their hard work.

Despite the optional aspect, there is one “mandatory” execution in the twelfth chapter (5:28). This helps show the descent into primitive violence without taking control away from the player. In the sequence, Walker ziplines between buildings and lands on a soldier. While it is possible to shoot him, the “execute” button flashes up. If the player chooses execute then Walker goes crazy, smashing the soldier’s head in with his rifle, much to the shock of his sidekicks Adams and Lugo.

And just like the character design and voice barks, the change in animation is seamless. This slow but steady change makes the game that much richer and expresses Walker’s character excellently.

(Start at 3:13)

Conclusion

There are a series of smaller animations that are also great examples of character backstory. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of a variety of animations. The main character James Sunderland has the habit of looking down when people are talking to him, indicative of a feeling of shame or embarrassment. He also has the habit of touching his head when remembering, as pointed out by the YouTube channel The Gaming Muse; I’ll let them explain the reason behind the animation.

Silent Hill 2’s creature animations are also fascinating. Art Director Masahiro Ito said his, “…basic idea for creating the monsters…was to give them a human aspect…then I proceeded to undermine this human aspect.” (16:24). He based the movements on, “…drunk people or the tentative walk of a young child.” (17:19). This is reflective of the idea of the “Unheimlich”, a Freudian concept of something being both familiar and unknown, and is used constantly in horror games and films to create a sense of unease.

The recent Splinter Cell games also have some small animations that lent to the character. In the fifth entry, Conviction, secret agent Sam Fisher has gone rogue, trying to find his daughter’s killer. His hand-to-hand animations are incredibly violent, using pianos, urinals, and even flag poles to interrogate enemies. Much like Walker in Spec Ops, this shows how far the former spy has fallen, but also shows how far he would go to find out what happened to his family.

Another small set of animations that caught my eye were the idle animations of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Part of the appeal of MUA is creating your own four-person squad of heroes from Marvel Comics. When you choose one from the Heroes Gallery, the hero has a ‘move’. Iron Man powers up his suit, Captain America salutes, Human Torch fixes his hair, Luke Cage cracks his knuckles, Spiderman does the “Spider-Man Crouch”, Deadpool spins his guns like Cortez, it goes on and on. Each tiny move tells us all we need to know to get a general idea on the character without learning their backstory.

Talking about how animations feed into characters is a simple idea and I’m definitely not the first to talk about it. I just find it fascinating that entire characters can be found in the smallest movements. That we can find meaning in a wave of a hand, the twinge of a smile, or the placement of a foot.

Photo Banner Source: dumeegamer.com

Driver (1999)…Two Decades Later

Introduction

Games are an outlet for our sometimes drab and dreary lives. The stories and locations that video games transport us to can give us a taste of a life different from ours.

Being able to travel across the entirety of the USA in a muscle car, keeping the gas pedal to the tarmac, while an army of pursuing police cars grows in your rear-view mirror is something that I can’t claim to have done in real life. But for nearly twenty years I’ve been doing it in several games. One stands out however, for being exactly twenty years old in 2019. That game is Driver.

And as it has been two decades since the original entry was released, I thought a deconstruction was due. Does Driver still hold up?

Reflections In The Car Mirror – A Look Back At Driver

Part I: First Gear – Pre-Production

During the late 90s, driving games had been on a string of hits. Every style was catered for; Gran Turismo was simulation, Need For Speed brought underground drag racing, and SF: Rush brought arcade physics and gameplay to home consoles.

During the latter half of the decade, two British teams were working on games with a heavy emphasis on driving, both with a distinctly criminal tone to them. One was DMA Design, who released crime simulator Grand Theft Auto in 1997. With the ability to drive and steal motor vehicles and partake in joyriding and hit-and-runs, the game was blasted by moral guardians and even debated in the House of Lords to be refused classification.

The other game, by Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive also had shades of reckless driving, but had a more cinematic angle to its freewheeling antics rather than the psychotic gameplay of GTA. Reflections were a well-known studio with several successes under their belt including Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby. The latter game and its sequel were pioneers of 3D driving and in Reflections own words were, “Hailed as a significant step forward…” (1999, para. 5), with both games selling over a million copies each.

With the release of Grand Theft Auto, Reflections saw an opportunity. One of the drawbacks of the GTA series in its infancy was the top-down camera, limiting the action to the 2D plain. The team at Reflections had a thought; could the open-world of GTA be married to the 3D design and driving mechanics of Destruction Derby?

Reflections co-founder Martin Edmondson was a fan of car chase films, stating in an interview with gamesindustry.biz that,

“…one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema…was Walter Hill’s The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.” (2011, Meer).

Edmondson was passionate about the idea and designed Driver to be a reflection (aha!) of his personal love of car chase movies. In the same interview, Edmondson highlighted that was the feeling that the team was aiming for,

“There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or attempts to nail the car chase environment, there really isn’t anything out there. I’m talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.” (2011, Meer).

So the team got to work on developing a new title. The game would evoke the feel of the classic car chase films of the 60s and 70s while marrying it to the 3D work of their previous titles and the open-world aspect that was taking the industry by storm.

According to then Project Manager Gareth Edmondson (brother of Martin) it was a tough production cycle as,

“…we were reinventing gameplay technology in many new ways. It was the first game to; tackle the free-roaming city environment; re-create an entirely new vehicle-destruction system, and develop an entirely new in-game AI system.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 3).

But all that hard worked paid off. Two and half years after the release of Grant Theft AutoDriver released to the public on PC and PSOne.

the driver (1976)
Reflections took many inspirations from car chase films of the 70s, with The Driver (1976) sharing many aspects of presentation. (Source: forum.blu-ray.com).

Part II: Five Wheels & An Engine – Controls and Gameplay

It is interesting that if you updated Driver’s graphics it could stand toe-to-toe with any open-world game with driving segments.

While the controls have some kinks (Triangle as handbrake is always a little hard to perform as it is further away than X, the accelerate button) it is a solid basis and is intuitive enough that after a few missions you have mastered it. This was Reflections intention, with the original website for Driver stating, “[Our] titles can be picked up and played instantly by a novice yet provide a tough enough challenge for experienced players.” (1999, para. 12).

X is accelerate, Square is brake/reverse, Triangle is handbrake, L2/R2 are camera controls, and the directional arrows or analog stick are for control, all pretty standard stuff. But Driver has a few unique tricks under its bonnet.

Circle is burnout, which spins your wheels to build up speed. R1 is a horn, seemingly to get cars in front of you to move lanes, although on my playthrough I didn’t see a notable difference of cars getting out of the way. But the one new button that I haven’t seen anywhere else is L1, which locks your wheels to whatever side you press the directional arrows or stick. This button is integral to many of the evasive and film-worthy moves that you can pull off such as drifting and the beautiful 180 Reverse. It is also needed as most of the cars in the game have a habit to understeer, so having a button that can flick the back wheels out helps in certain cornering situations.

And that is pretty much it.

The player car has two bars at the top of the screen, one for “Damage” and the other for “Felony”. Damage is straightforward. Every time your prang your car the bar fills up until the car is busted and you fail whatever mission you were playing.

Felony applies to any laws broken in front of a police vehicle. Burnouts, running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, being a public menace, and going over the speed limit (the latter is only available in the PC version) in view of a police officer will start to fill up your Felony bar. Luckily you can’t kill any pedestrians when driving as each one seems to be related to The Flash and can zip out of the way a second before you flatten them. It is a nice addition after the wanton rampages of Grand Theft Auto. 

With more infractions the Felony bar continues to fill and more police pile in, chasing you and setting up roadblocks. They hunt you down with the ruthlessness of a tiger but the intelligence of a goldfish. With some chases having upwards of ten police cars, their AI is neutered, making them come at you like the Keystone cops (hey, film reference!). Police cars will fly right by you, ping themselves off geometry, or Austin Powers themselves against lampposts and garbage bins.

The main obstacle you’ll come across in the game is the police. Or rival mobsters. Or the FBI. Or just anyone in a car that is gunning for you. Most rival cars are faster than yours, meaning that they can easily catch you and appear constantly in your back mirror. Luckily a lot of them are weaker than your car, meaning they will get damaged quicker and can be dispatched with relative ease. This is obviously done with the intention to keep the tension high while also being able to shake off your pursuers. The game does also have a selectable difficulty level, allowing players to decide their level of challenge.

driver screenshot
Flying around corners in Miami, the first city that Tanner visits in Driver. Notice the wheel lock to aid cornering. (Source: Sega-16.com).

Part III: Manual or Automatic? – Game Modes

Speaking of drifting and the 180 Reverse, before you start the narrative you have to pass “The Interview”. Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from 1976’s The Driver, the player must show off their driving skills to some prospective clients in a parking garage.

This mission is infamous for being incredibly difficult; with a sixty-second time limit and only allowing four “penalties” (crashing your car into objects), many players never actually saw the rest of the game because of this “tutorial”. There is a video on the main menu that tells the player the inputs to perform the moves, but isn’t exactly intuitive.

The narrative (known as Undercover) is the meat of the game. It features several types of driving missions; pursuit, evade, rampage, every single idea you could have about driving a car around a city, Driver probably has it. That does cause a problem in that a lot of the missions have the same objectives, just starting at different ends of the map. This repetitive nature does serve a purpose though, as will be highlighted in Part IV.

Alongside the narrative are a collection of mini games. There are time trials, checkpoint hits, pursuit, getaway, and survival (a variant horde mode where the police will never stop pursuing you). While many are similar to scenarios that the player will perform in Undercover, these are bite-size gameplay modes that provide their own unique fun.

There is also the Take A Ride mode. This is essentially a free roam option, with the player dropped into the map with no restrictions. I bet a lot of memories of this game are based in this mode, featuring high-octane chases and crazy collisions without a time limit to ruin a player’s fun. The player can visit any of the locations in free roam, but must unlock them in the narrative first, with the same being true for the mini games as well. The first two cities are open from the start though, allowing for reckless fun even if you can’t beat The Interview.

Alongside the game modes was a mechanic that elevated the cinematic design that Martin Edmondson wanted from Driver. At any time during the game the player can hit pause and enter the Director Mode. Said mode plays the entirety of the gameplay up to that moment and gives the player control over a slew of camera angles and techniques, letting players create exciting short movies of their car chases. It is quietly revolutionary and predates things like Machinima and sharing/streaming options that have become a major force within the industry.

driver director mode
Director Mode allowed you to place cameras anywhere on the map to capture the action. (Source: playstation.com).

Part IV: Does Anyone Have A Map? – The Cities and Roads

Driver takes place across four cities from all corners of the United States. The cities are Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as a small track in the desert (possibly outside Las Vegas?). There is also a secret city, Newcastle (where Reflections are based) that can be unlocked using cheats and also viewed on the credits. Each city has a day/night variation (except L.A.) and have several weather effects such as rain and snow.

The cities are all distinct from one another, with geography that helps set up the possibility of great movie-esque chases. Miami has wide-open roads for four lane drifts, San Francisco has steep hills to catch some air while speeding, L.A. has long straights that are perfect for police pursuits, and New York has tight-knit neighbourhoods that require excellent use of slaloming. Each city has its own car with unique traits, be it having greater speed or greater traction. While it could be annoying to not be able to choose your favourite car, limiting us to a single vehicle allows you to get to grips with its individual quirks.

Each city is rather small compared to today’s MAHOOSIVE open-worlds (due to obvious memory issues). I timed a drive from one side to the other and it took roughly two minutes to go from point to point on each map. But the smaller intimate design is an asset to the game. With a tight control over player movement, it means that the map gets imprinted on our memory, allowing for quicker recognition and a better game experience, where we know which roads link together rather than relying on the mini map. This is heightened by the fact that a lot of the back streets and alleys aren’t on the mini map. We have to use our minds and instincts rather than the handy GPS in the corner.

Just like using one car per location, the game inadvertently teaches us by dropping us in the deep end. Even just basic map knowledge and semi-competent car control allows for easier getaways and it is more rewarding when you remember which way gives you the best advantage because you know about it, rather than a shiny arrow telling you the way to go.

That’s why the greatest asset to the open-world is the Take A Ride function. Being able to free-roam the map at any point without a time limit holding you back helps novice drivers figure out the basics and lets experienced drivers search for shortcuts to aid in the missions.

driver 1 san francisco
San Francisco during the daytime. While not exactly realistic, Driver managed to capture the feel of each location perfectly. (Source: listal.com).

Part V: Start From The Top  – The Narrative & Characters

Driver does have a narrative, but to call it threadbare is almost a compliment in how non-existent the storyline is.

Inspired by the same car chase films that gave birth to the gameplay, Driver follows NYPD officer John Tanner as he is drafted to go undercover. His target is the powerful and wealthy Castaldi crime family who has set up operations in Miami. Soon the story will take Tanner to different cities all across the USA in a bid to stop the Castaldi family from carrying out a series of high-profile assassinations, culminating in an attempt on the President Of The United States’ life.

Tanner’s backstory is that before he became a police officer he was a racing champion. This is referenced through the story with criminals recognising him from his track days as well as the Police Lieutenant who recruits Tanner saying he is the best driver on the force. That’s pretty much all we get on the man.

Tanner’s dialogue doesn’t give us any hints to his personality either. I would be surprised if his dialogue passes the twenty-word mark from start to finish. It seems the cars we drive have more personality than the protagonist. Sure, he fits the mould of a silent badass (like most great car chase films) and he shows his character through his driving, but it would be nice to learn a little more about the person we are playing as.

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A newspaper that can be seen in Tanner’s apartment. This is the most characterisation we get outside of gameplay. (Source: driver.wikia.com).

Tanner heads to Miami and sets himself up as a wheelman for hire. The game then puts you in Tanner’s spartan apartment, with nothing but a TV and VCR, a toolbox, and an answering machine. Tanner’s apartment is the main menu with each object as a category (VCR is save, toolbox is options, door is quit, and the car keys is Take A Ride). It is a fun concept and cool that the layout changes when the game changes city.

The answering machine is the level select. You listen through messages left by prospective clients in need of your particular driving skills and accept jobs. At the start there is only one message waiting for you, but as you rise through the ranks you will get calls from other criminals in need of your expertise.

It is a limited choice system with only a few branches, but broad enough that a player can have a different experience on a second playthrough. Some missions give a deeper intrigue into the conspiracy at the heart of the story and Driver even has multiple endings depending on the missions that you’ve taken, with distinctly “good” and “bad” endings. The answering machine also houses a few Easter eggs such as repeated wrong numbers.

The game is interspersed with cutscenes. The majority of these are used to set up missions or to help us switch cities. It is apparent that the team were mastering character models, as most walk ramrod straight, with still frames being used when characters are on phones. But there is a charm to it, an obvious want rather than a need. It would have been easy to have talking cars and buildings (much like the more recent Crash Time/Cobra 11 series), but the team went and built over half an hour of cutscenes with character models and camera angles that weren’t needed in the base game.

The voices are delightfully hammy, giving off that 70s grindhouse feel of amateur filmmakers and actors producing a film. The script also has inflections of films from the era, with smooth-talking hustlers, high-pitched squealers, and smoky-voiced police chiefs. These inflections can inadvertently make it hard to understand certain mission briefings, as characters are using 70s slang that hasn’t carried over to the modern day. But since most missions resort to driving fast, we are rarely stuck as what to do.

As mentioned in Part III, the gameplay doesn’t have many variations, only having a few unique missions due to non-standard cars or scenarios. These include levels such as chasing a cable car/yacht, protecting a shipment of guns in a pick-up truck, or escaping an assassination attempt with the President Of The United States. But the team knew that the missions and storyline weren’t the best. In a Developer Diary Interview with GameSpot during the development of Driver: Parallel Lines, original Project Manager Gareth Edmondson said,

“…we were ultimately disappointed in the storyline overall, and we believed the mission design to be weak because it didn’t support the story very well.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 4).

That narrative may have been weak, but it served its purpose. It got us out into the world that Reflections had created and from there they could only go up. And despite the sometimes ropey presentation, there is definitely an attempt at cinematic flair to some shots.

Part VI: Into The Sunset – Legacy

Driver was a smash hit across all markets, quickly going Gold and Platinum. It is the 27th best-selling game on PSOne with over three million copies sold and the 42nd best-selling PC game between 2000 and 2006, with an estimate of close to four million copies.

Despite releasing at the tail end of the PSOne development cycle, the game was massive, spawning a sequel in 2000 named Driver 2: Back On The Streets/The Wheelman Is Back.

Reflections spent only fourteen months on the sequel (Edmondson, 2006, para.5) using the same tech but tweaking it to add more complex road structures and curved objects. The open-ended story was dropped for a more linear structure, with a stronger narrative throughout. The player could also get out of their car and hijack other vehicles around the city, although there was still no interaction besides cars.

Reflections pushed the aging console to its breaking point, trying to squeeze every ounce of processing power into Driver 2. This proved a detriment however with numerous bugs and framerate issues plaguing the entry.

Driver 2 was released just after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. A year later, DMA Design, now renamed Rockstar North, released Grand Theft Auto 3 to the public.

Taking the open world that Driver had popularised, GTAIII took things even further, with out-of-car and shooting sections, allowing player to cause havoc and play at their own pace. GTA even started poking fun at Driver, with missions in both III (GTA Series Videos, 2009) and its sequel Vice City (SebyGaming, 2016) allowing players to kill an undercover cop/driver named Tanner. In the sequel, San Andreas, a rival gangster plays a game made by “Refractions” and says, “Tanner, you suck ass.” (GTA Series Videos, 2010).

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Driver 2 allowed players to explore on-foot. Tanner’s odd running animation was highlighted and mocked in Grand Theft Auto III. (Source: thecheapferret.wordpress.com)

With GTA taking the spotlight, Reflections tried to step up their game. The third entry (stylised as Driv3r) tried to tell a sprawling crime tale with several cities, vehicles, and on-foot segments, but came up weak against Rockstar’s efforts. Driv3r was also mired in controversy before it launched, with exclusive access given in exchange for perfect review scores. Driver: Parallel Lines followed up in 2006, fixing many of Driv3r’s problems but feeling more and more like a Rockstar knock-off.

In late 2006, publisher Atari sold Reflections to Ubisoft. After developing a sequel to Parallel Lines, Driver 76,  which was released for the fledgling PSP, the series would go dormant for a few years.

It took until 2011 for the series, and protagonist John Tanner, to come back in Driver: San Francisco. With a huge city and a new mechanic called “Shift” allowing players to move seamlessly between cars (alleviating any on-foot gameplay), the series seemed to be revived. The notorious garage tutorial of Driver was even remade in San Francisco, unlocked when a player finds a DeLorean and reaches 88mph (ha, more film references!).

Since 2011, there have been a few rumours but no official moves on the Driver series, despite a few mobile and handheld games. San Francisco was a nice return to form and if it is sadly the last we see of the series, then it means it goes out on a high.

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Driver San Francisco brought the series back to its roots and did an excellent job of capturing those movie-quality high speed chases. (Source: gamepur.com).

Part VII: Park it Right Here – Conclusion

Driver was one of the first games I remember playing as a child. I didn’t play the story at all, just Take A Ride. So when I decided to pick up the game twenty years after it was published, I was essentially doing a blind playthrough.

The graphics are obviously a sore point. The draw distance isn’t the best and the environments and cars are blocky boxes. You have to look at it when it came out. This was revolutionary design in 1999, giving the small sandbox genre a much-needed shot in the arm.

The story isn’t exactly presented well, but it does the job fine. As I said previously, it gets us into the cities and into the gameplay with little fanfare. It is kind of refreshing after playing games like Detroit: Become Human and The Pillars Of The Earth (both fantastic games in their own right) that Driver gets straight into gameplay without spending minutes at a time in cutscenes.

Controls are fine. It is a strange mix of sim and arcade, but they are easy to learn. Things like the L1 button were completely new to me and it became invaluable during my playthrough. Even Triangle became intuitive after a while. It caused problems when going back to open-world games on my PS4, as most controllers nowadays use the L2/R2 configuration for accelerate and brake. It led to moments where I would accidentally throw myself out of speeding cars because I mistakenly pressed Triangle or Square.

Driver is a curio, maybe one for driving enthusiasts or for those yearning for nostalgic days of the late 90s. It even became available on the PS Now online service for a short time for less than two quid.

And there is really nothing like it. I bought my copy after watching a slew of car chase films, notably Drive, which game critic Keith Stuart highlighted as a film taking from games, “…I do not believe that film would look the way it does if it wasn’t for Grand Theft Auto…” (Ikoc Voice, 2016).

Just like Martin Edmondson said, there isn’t a game that fully captures a real movie-esque chase scene. The only one that comes close is Driver.

And that means it deserves to be remembered and to be played.

Photo Banner Source: mobygames.com