As the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X finally cement their place as ‘current-gen’, we should take a look back at some of the games that defined the eighth generation of consoles.
We’ve seen multiplayer greats like Call of Duty and Battlefield reinvent themselves with both the old and the new (WW1 for Battlefield and CoD with Modern Warfare).
We’ve watched CD Projekt RED go from critical darling with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt to an out-and-out failure with Cyberpunk 2077.
And narrative behemoths have graced our screens like Red Dead Redemption 2 as well as smaller indie hits such as Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Today I wanted to talk about one of my favourite games from the last generation and hopefully turn a few players onto the gem that is The Pillars of the Earth.
Based on a 1000+ page historical novel by Ken Follett and set over forty years in 12th century England, The Pillars of the Earth is about three characters, Phillip, a monk, Jack, an outcast, and Aliena, a former noblewoman.
The story sees the three cross paths as they try to grow their town of Kingsbridge, fend off rival noble families and vengeful bishops, and build a cathedral the likes the world has never seen before.
It’s not the first book to be translated to gaming. The most famous examples are the aforementioned The Witcher and the excellent Metro series.
But in comparison to those two franchises, The Pillars of the Earth doesn’t sound like it would be a blood-pumping adventure full of swords and shields. It’s a historical novel, not fantasy, so there are no mages or sorcerers to liven up the mostly downbeat and dark mood.
But it’s the moments where the characters cross paths, the battle of wits and scriptures, and the twists and turns as the lead characters sow the wind and reap the whirlwind that make The Pillars of the Earth one of the best narrative games of its generation, and why I want to talk about today.
By God and the Devil – Why The Pillars of the Earth is Great
The Pillars of the Earth is one of those games where everything perfectly comes together to build something remarkable. The artwork, the music, the 40+ hours of performance, and the story, each one is a singular piece that makes the whole that much more enjoyable.
The game is a point-and-click adventure that uses a large canvas as the background, scrolling left and right when the player character moves. The scaling is incredible, with entire cathedrals, estates, and even towns explorable, but still retaining exquisite details.
Due to the ‘static’ backgrounds, the game camera works almost like a film camera, highlighting points it wants to draw attention to but without taking control away from the player. This allows the player to feel like they are naturally discovering each location and the secrets they hold.
One repeated location, the crypt at the bottom of the cathedral, is one of my favourite spots in the entire game just from its atmosphere. The use of light and darkness in this one small room is played with so well that it can evoke fear or fascination, just with a simple change of lighting.
Part of the excellent atmosphere comes from the music by Tilo Alpermann. Since the game is primarily about religion, the majority of the music is ecclesiastical, mixing male choirs with strings and woodwind instruments with heavy brass approaching in Book 2 and 3. However, it’s in the less traditional aspects where the music shines.
Tracks like ‘Hell’, which incorporates faint chimes and cymbals into its rolling strings, or ‘Bishop Waleran’s Wrath’ which uses an electric guitar for its main beat and what sounds like reversed strings or brass on the second beat give this strange sense of foreboding, of power beyond the characters we control.
While I love the graphics and the soundtrack, the story is the high-point of the game for me, and anyone wanting to experience a deeply engaging and philosophical narrative from the last generation should seek it out.
Set over three ‘books’, each with seven chapters, the story is expansive and slow-build, moving at an almost glacial pace at the start to set the major conflicts, but also the tone of those chapters.
Even the main menu helps establish the feeling of each book. Book One is dark and cold, with many thinking the Devil walks amongst them. Book Two is lighter, showing the characters and their town starting the rebuild. Book Three is shrouded in dust and debris as chaos reigns down once again. It’s a masterclass in simple yet effective narrative design.
The game switches perspectives throughout, from Phillip, to Jack, then to Aliena, and back again, each character adding a tiny piece of the narrative puzzle until it all comes together for the final couple of chapters of each book.
You could in fact play each book as a standalone story as they build, climax, and resolve like a standard plot structure, but the fun is watching characters in Chapter Twenty-one reference decisions you made in Chapter Four.
At the end of every chapter you get a itemised list of what you did, what actions you took and who you spoke with. A lot of nouveau point-and-clicks like Detroit: Become Human,Life Is Strange, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have these similar lists.
With The Pillars of the Earth there isn’t always the reference to something that didn’t happen like other games, it’s solely on what did happen, which I feel make it seem more personal, rather than a somewhat A/B approach to narrative.
The main gameplay loop is through dialogue, with your words and tone carving a pathway through the story. While it does have set story beats throughout, there are small paths of deviation that lead to gigantic turns later on, sometimes even in a different ‘book’, so far removed that you might have even forgot what your previous actions were.
While the story is mainly character-based, a major point that dragged me into wanting to see the next chapter are the themes the narrative plays with. Ideas like religion and devotion, sin and violence, even love and sex are explored deeply in The Pillars of the Earth.
Each book features powerful moments that make the story come alive with meaning and emotion. Scenes where characters find or lose their faith while others see the Divine and the Devil amongst them are seared into my mind due to the way they shake the very foundations of the cast, and how there hasn’t been many games that tried to do something similar.
The game also spans the entire development of a romantic relationship, from shy smiles and holding hands to spending passionate nights together (this game actually has my favourite sex scene in all of gaming), and eventually settling down and starting a family, something that up until recently games haven’t tried to depict with any meaningful, long-term effects.
It’s a mature story, not with depictions of violence and nudity but with its ideas and implications, and that’s why I absolutely loved every moment.
I hope that this short post has teased your appetite to experience this incredible game. The Pillars of the Earth was an absolute delight and I can’t wait to dive back in again to one of the best games of the last generation.
I recently finished Hitman 3 and absolutely loved it. The game, no, the entire World of Assassination trilogy, starting in 2016, has been one of the greatest gaming experiences I have ever had.
IO Interactive really pulled out all the stops for this trilogy, with stunning locations, unique scenarios, and one of the most personal and human stories in the AAA gaming scene. The reboot, which is now over five years old, still looks beautiful even when running off an ageing PS4.
Today I wanted to talk more about the locations Agent 47 visits in his grand tours around the world. The series is known for creating some of the most breath-taking and intricate levels in gaming, so I wanted to rank the best locations from every single game, starting with Codename 47 from 2000 up until the most recent game from 2021. Let’s start!
Hitman: Codename 47 – “Traditions of the Trade”
Despite being over twenty years old, theoriginal Hitman has one of the best levels the series has ever devised, containing a perfect blend of location and eliminations.
“Traditions of the Trade” sees 47 head to the Hotel Galar in Budapest (based on the famous Hotel Gellért) to take out Austrian terrorists Frantz and Fritz Fuchs and collect a chemical bomb Frantz has planted in the hotel.
The level is absolutely stunning, giving the players an entire hotel to explore. In comparison to the other levels in the original Hitman, this one values player freedom and non-linear gameplay as the highest priority. There are zero waypoints to your targets, but the game gives you clues to where to start searching.
For example, what would be the first thing to do in a hotel? Maybe check-in at the front desk. When you sign the guest book, you see one of the target’s room numbers. It’s so simple but perfectly logical, and the entire series has made a habit of including details like these.
The hotel is a nice and calm setting, you’re not immediately being hunted or needing to be stealthy. But that doesn’t mean the level is easy to beat. Security is tight (the hotel is about to host the UN, hence the threat of a terrorist event) so players have to work within the limitations set.
Metal detectors are placed at the entrance of the hotel, meaning you can’t bring any weapons with you. That’s something quite revolutionary for the series, you can complete the level without firing a single shot.
Some unique kills and scenarios (staples of the series) are present here, such as trapping Fritz in a sauna and turning up the heat, and jumping from balcony to balcony to reached Frantz’s bathroom, the only place he isn’t surrounded by guards.
Despite its simple premise, “Traditions of the Trade” is a quintessential Hitman level, with it being the template for many locations throughout the series.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin – “The Jacuzzi Job”
A short level, but a fun one due to the location alone. “The Jacuzzi Job” is the final section of three missions that see 47 head to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, chasing a hacker who has stolen a valuable missile software programme.
I absolutely love this set of missions purely due to the setting, the Petronas Towers, which at the time were the tallest structures in the world. And while the first mission set in the towers takes 47 to the basement, “The Jacuzzi Job”takes place in the penthouse suite.
To reach his target, 47 first has to traverse the roof of the skybridge between the two structures, before using a window-cleaning platform to reach what is, essentially, the top of the world. Taking place during a horrendous thunder storm, with rain lashing down the windows, the location is dark and creepy.
47 must make his way through a series of work offices before the penthouse, with the soft glow of the computers casting shadows across the smart yet mundane work spaces. This is then contrasted with the penthouse suite with its dark-red lighting fixtures, ostentatious architecture, and tacky signs of luxury.
The target, Charlie Sidjan, is surrounded by his female bodyguards (you could call them is ‘Angels’?), chilling in the jacuzzi as the level implies.
To not arouse suspicion from the authorities following Sidjan’s death, 47 has to make his hit look like a robbery gone wrong by stealing some tasteless yet expensive art. It’s an interesting inversion of the standard Hitman trope of being a ‘silent assassin’, leaving no evidence you were even there, making it stand out amongst the rest of the series.
Hitman: Contracts – “The Meat King’s Party”
Hitman: Contracts took a series already known for its dark tone and turned it up to eleven. While some fans think the mission “Beldingford Manor” is the better level, I think the “The Meat King’s Party” is the more iconic.
Set in Romania, 47 is tasked with killing slaughterhouse entrepreneur Campbell Sturrock, and his lawyer, Andrei Puscus.
Sturrock was accused of kidnapping the daughter of an ICA cilent (the International Contracts Agency, 47’s employers), but because of legal technicalities and a few bribes, Sturrock got away scott-free. 47 infiltrates the celebratory freedom party being hosted at one of Sturrock’s slaughterhouses to rescue the daughter and eliminate his targets.
The party is absolutely wild. A BDSM-inspired rave with leather-clad guests fuelled by opium pipes and dancing to a dark techno beat, strobe lights dancing off the clinical white walls and machinery, the location alone would be enough to grant its place on this list.
The main target is another highlight. Campbell Sturrock is absolutely grotesque. Morbidly obese, unable to leave his bed due to his size, and eating entire roast chickens with his hands, he is disgusting and vulgar, and one of the stand out targets of the entire series.
But the detail that makes “The Meat King’s Party” stick in the mind is The Girl. Kidnapped by Campbell before being handed over to his psychotic brother Malcolm, 47 finds the girl hanging upside down, her eyes gouged out and her severed arm on the floor under her. Car tree air fresheners hang from the ceiling with her. To one side is a shrine of sorts, and to another is a gramophone playing Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”.
And the most chilling part…despite Malcolm being the girl’s killer, Diana, 47’s handler, tells him the mission hasn’t changed. To get the perfect rating, Malcolm must survive. Even in Hitman’s twisted world, sometimes the bad guys still escape justice.
Hitman: Blood Money – “A House of Cards”
Hitman: Blood Money is widely considered to be the best game of the series. With improved AI, greater flexibility with kills, and a story that takes 47 all across America, it is still the benchmark for every subsequent game to compare itself against.
With levels such as “A Dance With The Devil” (a Heaven/Hell themed party filled with rival assassins) “Curtains Down” (killing the lead tenor during an opera house rehearsal) or “Amendment XXV” (killing the US Vice-President INSIDE the White House), it takes something special to stand out in Blood Money. For me, “A House of Cards” reaches that peak.
Set in a giant, Arabic-inspired hotel and casino, “A House of Cards” has three targets for 47 to eliminate, each one working on a different schedule, but crossing paths at set times. It creates a tense atmosphere when trying to juggle all the moving parts and manipulating events, making it that much more rewarding when the plan goes right.
It’s also remarkable how many ways you can take out your targets; catching them alone in their hotel suite, sniping them from the roof, strangling them in the elevator shaft, or even impersonating one of the targets and heading to a secret meeting with the others. With everywhere from the casino floor to the penthouse suites being available, it is truly one of the greatest of Blood Money’s stellar levels.
Hitman: Absolution – “Attack of the Saints”
While Absolution is seen as a lesser game in comparison to its franchise, it still has a few stand-out levels.
Some favorites include “Run For Your Life”, with 47 on the run from the police, ending with him having to wait in a crowded metro station without being spotted, hiding amongst the civilians, before slipping away onto an incoming train.
Another is “One of a Kind”, where 47 visits his blind tailor, Tommy Clemenza, to fix him a new suit. It’s a small level, but adds so much to 47 and his world.
But the one I chose for this list is the big one, “Attack of the Saints”. First seen in a promotional teaser trailer, the Saints are a team of female assassins who are dressed in BDSM-inspired nun outfits. It’s a little out-there, but it fits into the grindhouse aesthetic Absolution goes with.
The Saints hunt 47 down to a seedy motel he’s laying low in, and proceed to blow up the entire complex. It’s the first time 47 has ever been caught completely off-guard, dressed in nothing but a skimpy bathrobe and having none of his gear, as the Saints close in to make sure the job is done.
The setting of the motel and surrounding landscape including Tiki bars, a mini-golf course, and cornfields, are the perfect variety of locations, giving us everything from tight hallways to open plains. The cornfield especially, it’s so much fun stalking through the long grass, silently taking out one Saint after another, with bonus points for dressing up as a scarecrow in the cornfield and hanging from his post.
It’s one of the few levels in Absolution that reaches to Blood Money’s success, giving us a variety of targets spread across the map and lets us get on with it, taking them out how we see fit. The Saints are touted as the best agents below 47 and are all heavily armed, so it does feel suitably badass to see 47 take down the people gunning for his job as top of the ICA.
Hitman (2016) – “World of Tomorrow”
To anyone that has played through Hitman (2016) the choice of this level is no surprise and for good reason. The second level of the World of Assassination trilogy takes 47 to Sapienza, a small fishing town in Italy, which hides a dark secret.
While the first mission of the reboot, “The Showstopper” (set in Paris), was an excellent first step for the game, “World of Tomorrow” was the perfect follow-up. The location is amazing; a beautiful sea-side town, complete with cafes, winding narrow streets, and even beaches.
The targets, two bio-engineers, are housed in an impressive manor built amongst ancient castle ruins, with spectacular gardens and walkways and even an observatory dome complete with giant telescope.
But the location that makes “World of Tomorrow”such a memorable level is the almost sci-fi chemical weapons laboratory underneath the small town. Hitman has always had a little dash of sci-fi (I mean, 47 is a result of a Cold War cloning experiment), but this feels like something straight out of a James Bond film (funnily enough, IOI are now working on a 007 game, which I have previously written about).
Along with the two targets, 47 is tasked with destroying the virus they had been working on. It’s always fun when the levels ask us to do more than just kill targets, such as crack safes or even destroying organs ready for transplant surgery. What’s even better, there is more than one way to destroy the virus, one remotely and one more up-close and personal, catering to different play styles.
Player freedom is at an all-time high in “World of Tomorrow”, with several ways of killing the targets, anything from shooting down a plane using a cannon (from the castle walls), to using an explosive golf ball when a target practices their drive.
The location, tied with the signature eliminations, makes it one of the best levels the series has to offer.
Hitman 2 (2018) – “The Ark Society”
Hitman 2 expanded on its predecessor’s work with more intricate level design, distinctive scenarios for each location, and more unique ways to eliminate a target.
Levels such as “The Finish Line”, set at a Miami racing event (with one target driving their prototype vehicle), “Chasing a Ghost”, set in the Mumbai slums (where 47 has to deduce who one of his targets is), and “The Last Resort”, set in the Maldives (with targets hiring you mid-mission to enact their own schemes) are absolutely stunning and worthy of taking 2nd place on this list. But for me, the top place has to go to “The Ark Society”.
Set on a remote North Atlantic island off the coast of Scotland, “The Ark Society” is mesmerising as a location. The main complex is a medieval castle with burial sites, chapels, and a maze of sewer tunnels underneath, yet has a giant glass meeting box perched atop the keep, a dash of modernity clashing with the ancient.
The Ark Society are a collection of wealthy elites, plotting how they will survive the apocalypse, designing remote cities to flee to, researching new ways to extend their lives, and checking out the newest and most lucrative tech companies to invest in.
And because it’s a party, everyone is donned in formal wear and domino masks, aside from the higher level members, who have ceremonial robes.
It’s all pomp and circus, pageantry and playing at running the world, yet it is the perfect hunting ground for 47.
The two targets, the leaders of The Ark Society, are twin sisters coming from a nouveau riche family. To prove they belong with the old money members, they enact crazy schemes like placing themselves inside a phoenix effigy or putting prospective members through a polygraph test and electroshock torture.
The great twist on this level is the VIP, The Constant. 47 wants to extract him for later interrogation, but the twins are under strict orders that if The Constant becomes compromised then they have authority to use a “kill switch”. Inside The Constant’s head is a poison chip, and each twin has a detonator on them to use at any point. Before 47 can secure The Constant, he needs to be in possession of both switches.
It’s a cool theme, taking away a small amount of freedom to make players feel tense, having to ‘protect’ someone from the other targets has been done before but not to this extreme.
“The Ark Society” is an amazing level and the perfect crescendo to Hitman 2.
Hitman 3 – “Apex Predator”
Some fans of Hitman 3 will say that “Death In The Family” is the best mission of the game. It’s a good candidate; set in an old country manor in Dartmoor, England, and featuring a Knives Out-inspired murder mystery that the player can solve…but for me “Apex Predator” takes the top honour.
The set up; 47 is on the run from his own people and the shadowy Providence faction. It’s not the first time that 47 has been hunted, but after being possibly betrayed by his long-time handler and friend, Diana, 47 is at rock-bottom. He plans to meet his only other contact, Olivia, in Berlin, but just as he zeroes in on her location she tells him to abort their mission.
47’s employer, the ICA, has found the duo, with agents having orders to shoot on sight. Olivia is ready to cut and run, but 47 calmly tells her to keep her head down, signing off with, “I’ll take care of this.”
“Apex Predator” has one of the best locations of the entire series. IO Interactive love setting missions in clubs. We’ve had “The Meat King’s Party” in Contracts, “A Dance With The Devil” in Blood Money, and “Hunter and Hunted” in Absolution.
“Apex Predator” builds upon Blood Money‘s club setting, even keeping the Hell motif, with the name of the nightclub being Club Hölle, and expanding the rival agents from two in Blood Money to twelve in Hitman 3.
Set in a disused nuclear power plant and based on the infamous and iconic Berghain nightclub, it is disorientating and imposing. Between the three separate dance floors, coat rooms, smoking areas, juice bars, back rooms filled with gun-toting bikers, and even the DJ booth, it is an excellent sandbox for the player.
The best part though, the player has no idea who the enemy agents are. Disguised amongst the party goers, club security, bar staff, and more, it is a real unique and discomforting experience, not knowing if the next person you bump into is one of your hunters.
As the level goes on, 47 gets hold of an earpiece and listens in on the handler controlling the operation and the cocky agents who don’t realise they are in way over their heads.
As 47 picks off each agent, the handler, Jiao, becomes more and more panicked, eventually calling off the mission once enough agents are dispatched. If the player manages to kill all twelve, Jiao remarks, “Expertly done, 47. Expertly fucking done.”
It’s a small moment, but paired with 47’s line, “I’ll take care of this”, it elevates the level into iconic territory. Despite being hunted by some of the ICA’s most accomplished and battle-hardened assets, 47 is…well, the apex predator.
The variety of kills is astonishing, with everything from dropping lighting fixtures onto the dance floor, to arranging a closed door meeting with several assassins, where 47 reveals his identity before getting into a raging gun fight.
The location, paired with the excellent set up and loop of hunting and being hunted, make it quite possibly my favourite level of the entire series.
I’ve just finished playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, originally a PlayStation Vita exclusive, now bundled with the recent Assassin’s Creed III remaster.
It feels refreshing and fun to go back to a game that uses the old AC formula, but with a new location, story and character.
And even after a short time playing it, Liberation is probably one of my favourite AC games, easily passing III and Black Flag in my ranking of the series.
So I thought a little breakdown of what I loved about it, and hoped to spread the good word to some AC fans that may want to return to something with a classic feel.
Ragin’ Cajun: Why I love Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
As mentioned previously, AC: Liberation was originally released on the PS Vita in 2012, to tie-in with the mainline entry ACIII. With the smaller hardware, reductions were needed to be made, but every change seems to benefit the game.
Instead of an intensely expansive world, Ubiosft Sofia (creators of the Prince of Persia HD release as well as the AC spinoff, Rogue) decided to keep things small and contained.
New Orleans and the Bayou, the two main areas of the game, are comparable to AC2’s Florence or Venice than the sprawling maps in ACIII (here is a forum thread of players calculating the size of the cities).
Smaller design leads to more intimate and detailed sections of the map, and allows players to get quickly attuned to their surroundings.
The churches of New Orleans, with their towering spires, become waypoints, allowing players to orient themselves to the location without having to pull the map out every few seconds.
It’s similar to the original Assassin’s Creed in that regard; a small contained map, with distinct areas, and easy, identifiable landmarks. It helps the city feel rich and unique, directly because it is smaller.
This direction of scope is even found in the story and characters. While ACIII spends almost five whole sequences setting up the tragic backstory and family dynamic of its lead, Liberation does it in less than thirty seconds, with only around ten lines of dialogue.
It’s a masterstroke of character and lore-building and gets you right into the story. So let’s talk about that next.
2. The Story
Written by veteran narrative designers Richard Faresee (who worked on Revelations and III) and Jill Murray (who worked on Black Flag, its expansion Freedom Cry, and recently Shadow of the Tomb Raider), Liberation is one of the more unique narratives of the AC franchise, with it winning the Writer’s Guild of America Award for game writing for 2012.
After the Ezio Trilogy, Assassin’s Creed started to play with the formula for its stories. During AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations, the Templar’s were moustache-twirling bad guys worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon.
From ACIII to Unity, the mood shifted to portraying the Templars and Assassins as two side of the same coin, with more in common than what separates them.
Liberation follows this theme, but takes it even further, having a fun meta narrative within the story. Liberation is in fact a game created by Abstergo Entertainment, a video game branch of the Templar company, wanting to push their propaganda onto the public.
Your game signal is ‘hacked’ by an Assassin, who tells you the Templar’s are hiding the truth. The Templars doctor the events to suit their purposes, so you have to hunt down a ‘glitch’ known as ‘Citizen E’, who then reveals the truth behind each edited scene.
It’s a cool idea, echoing the interrogations and glitches from the first Assassin’s Creed, of a world beyond the one we are perceiving, of secrets and subterfuge that some of the other games have lacked (looking at you, Unity, where nearly every NPC knew who the Assassins were).
The “Full Synchronisation” elements (where players can complete extra challenges during missions) are well thought out and aren’t just added difficulty. Ever since the concept was introduced in Brotherhood, I’ve felt that this was the most ‘game-y’ aspect of the series and didn’t fit either with the mission or the previous freedom of gameplay choice.
Here the Full Syncs add to the narrative, giving hints to the main character, Aveline’s, backstory. For example, the first assassination of the game (and possibly Aveline’s first assassination) isn’t with a hidden blade but with a musket stolen from an enemy.
It’s such a small detail but adds a ton of information to Aveline’s first recorded kill just by what weapon was used.
The story, like all ACs, twists and turns, threading the role of women, race, and indigenous people, something powerful and note-worthy in a major franchise like AC.
Another franchise staple, the First Civilisation, is present, but it isn’t treated with the same world-shattering aspects like previous games.
It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game (and has a nice twist at the end), so I’m happy that this series thread is kept to the background.
But the high point of the story is it never loses sight of its lead. The story is squarely on the Assassin, Aveline de Grandpré. We see her triumphs and defeats, and turning from naive freedom fighter, into stalwart Assassin, and finally someone who can see from all sides, and carves out a path of her own.
Speaking of which…
Aveline is such a cool character. While it would take another three years until a female protagonist became a lead character (Evie Frye sharing with her brother Jacob in Syndicate), Aveline is no slouch when it comes to characterisation.
Aveline is constantly torn between two worlds, playing all sides, creating an interesting dynamic not only in story but also gameplay.
The most on-the-nose is her status in New Orleans. Born to a white wealthy merchant and a slave mother, Aveline has known both the stuffy aristocratic life afforded to her by her father, but also the hardships of slave life, even having nightmares of being snatched with her mother by traders right off the street.
Throughout the game Aveline switches outfits, from her Assassin ‘robes’ to ball gowns to slave attire, each one with their own abilities and quirks.
Her Assassin outfit is the one suited for combat, allowing for all her weapons and tactics, and also shows some cool details on her personality. For instance, instead of the trademark hood, Aveline uses a tricorn hat, allowing her braided hair to flow freely.
It’s a small detail but something that gives her an edge, of defining herself by her own skills and attire, not standing by the tradition of the Assassins.
When in her ‘lady’ outfit, Aveline can ‘charm’ guards away from their post and has lower notoriety, but is only limited to her hidden blade and can’t freerun.
When dressed as a slave, Aveline also only has her hidden blade, but can blend with other slaves and free-run, while gaining higher notoriety when doing ‘high profile’ actions.
While incredibly gendered, it adds a small layer of choice and tactics to the game, using Aveline’s duality as part of gameplay, with Aveline even altering her speech when wearing different outfits. It’s a great mechanical example of one of the tenets of the creed, “hide in plain sight”.
Storywise, Aveline’s status as an Assassin also rides the dual aspect. Neither her father or mother are Assassins, a far cry from the rest of the series where it is usually a family tradition.
She may be inexperienced, but Aveline has already earned her hidden blades, allowing the narrative to skip the ‘origin’ story and get right into the main events without showing us her discovering the Brotherhood.
The only person who ‘knows’ about her rooftop exploits is Gérald, an employee of Aveline’s father, who holds down Aveline’s base of operations in New Orleans. Gérald gives Aveline information and equipment and knows of the Assassin/Templar conflict, but he is not immersed in the Assassin life.
Aveline is alone in her pursuit, not chasing down her family’s murderers or looking to gain back her family’s honour like other AC leads, but just watching over New Orleans, leaving only when needs must.
She helps free slaves and guides them to the bayou, she disrupts over-zealous colonial rulers and greedy merchants, and kills any Templar that sets foot in her town.
Aveline’s actions sometimes bring her into conflict with her mentor as she goes against Assassin dogma, not in a ‘trying-to-be-edgy/I-don’t-play-by-the-rules’ way, but as Aveline’s internal struggle with the tenets of the Creed and wanting to act.
It’s such a departure from the rest of the series, but every other attempt at ideas like this in later games has come across as being contrarian for the sake of it (mostly in AC: Unity).
While Aveline is cool and calm under pressure, smart and resourceful, she isn’t afraid to lose her temper or her composure.
There are several stand-out scenes near the end of the game which top any other moment in the series with their levels of emotion, pathos, and engagement.
One other major section that helps build Aveline’s character is…
4. The Combat
Liberation uses the same combat as ACIII and Black Flag, but has its own quirks that for me add to Aveline’s characterisation and to the game as a whole.
Aveline has the regular assortment of swords, daggers, hidden blades, and accessories, but the animations and their usage are so powerful.
Take the sword for instance. While other Assassins are usually hacking and slashing (such as Connor), Aveline’s sword-work is based more on cut and thrusts, disengages and parries.
It’s more intricate and indicates some formal training, indicative of her childhood in one of the more affluent families of New Orleans.
Her short blade is at the complete opposite end of the social scale. In the first mission of the game Aveline frees a slave and then fights off the enraged owner with his own sugarcane machete.
In another slave encampment, she wrestles away a slaver’s whip before turning it on him, and uses it to hang her enemies from tree branches.
It’s a powerful image of a young black woman using the tools of her oppressors against them, similar to Lincoln Clay’s rampages in Mafia III, a game which similarly stars a bi-racial main character fighting against the systemic racial prejudice of the time, also set in Louisiana.
In the same camp where Aveline gains the whip, she builds her own hidden blades. Pickpocketing materials from around the camp; a small plank of wood here, a kitchen knife there, and finally a few soldier’s belts, Aveline lashes them all together to re-arm herself.
It’s a cool moment after a long section of having to work around enemies rather than face them head-on, now being able to break free and take on the rulers of the camp.
For many missions Aveline has to use her fists, which adds another layer to her characterisation. It’s mentioned in dialogue and appears in-game when she wears the slave disguise, Aveline is attacked by thugs that roam New Orleans.
In direct opposition to her bladework, Aveline’s hand-to-hand combat is brutal and lacks formal training. She swings wide haymakers, incorporates stomps and flying knees, it is the exact type of combat I would expect someone who had to fend for themselves on the street would have.
And since the game is based off the updated ACIII engine, there is less of the stop/start counter combat from the earlier AC games.
I did’t have much hope for Liberation when I first booted it up.
I wasn’t a major fan of either ACIII or Black Flag when I first played them, only really feeling the series had won me back when I played Syndicate.
And as the game was a PlayStation Vita exclusive when it first came out, it gave the impression Liberation was an also-ran, a stop-gap that played safe and didn’t offer anything of value.
But I gave it a chance and found myself relaxing into it, feeling comfortable in my controls and abilities, challenged by new locales and events and spirited away by an unspoiled story, but having a sense of familiarity, old yet new.
It’s been almost five years since AC has leapt from action-adventure to the RPG crowd, and I don’t fault it. Sale numbers and audience reception to Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla have been phenomenal.
But if you a looking for a change of pace, a palette cleanser between the big, bombastic games, something that tells a small story in a larger frame, or is just a nice reminder of a time and gameplay styling that has been absent, then AC Liberation might just be right for you.
It’s been a pleasure to play as Aveline, and my only wish is that I wanted more.
2021 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tomb Raider franchise.
While there is no new game on the horizon, Crystal Dynamics, the main studio that has been creating Tomb Raider since 2006, did announce something big, something to change the landscape of the franchise.
Up until now there have been three separate timelines of Lara Croft; the original Core Design era, the first reboot by Crystal Dynamics (often referred to as LAU, the letters of the three games of said reboot), and most recently the trilogy known as the Survivor timeline, starting with TR: 2013.
While these separate timelines have had crossover characters and reimagined scenes, they are mostly thought of as three interpretations of the character…until now.
In a video celebrating the anniversary, it was revealed that whenever the new game will be revealed, it will incorporate every single Tomb Raider game before it, creating the newly-dubbed Unified timeline.
While the Unified timeline has been announced, there have been zero hints as the chronology or where the series will pick up afterwards. But as someone has more than a passing interest in the last twenty-five years of Tomb Raider, I thought I would give a go at laying out a possible timeline, trying to knit it all together in one continuous line with as little breaks as possible.
Tempus Fugit – Tomb Raider’s Unified Timeline (in what I have to admit amounts to fan-fiction)
We start with the plane crash over the Himalayas. This was the backstory for Lara in both Classic and LAU timelines, with the only differences being age of Lara (21 in the original, 8 in LAU) and Lara’s mother, Amelia being present in the latter.
I think the new series will keep the LAU ideas but age Lara up, maybe into her early teens. This allows them to neatly tie up the mother/father storylines of the new games into the Classic games.
Trekking through the snow after the disappearance of her mother, Lara finds a need to be on the edge of life (as laid out in the Classic timeline), and she starts to head to all sorts of places with her father, Richard Croft, alongside his friends Conrad Roth, Werner Von Croy and Charles Kane.
One of the expeditions is a fateful trip to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia with only Werner and Lara present (as seen in Tomb Raider IV). Werner is injured by a trap Lara told him about but he dismissed as ‘hocus-pocus’, and as the tomb starts to collapse, Lara escapes, leaving Werner behind.
A search and rescue is ordered (maybe even led by Roth and Papa Croft) but they find Werner has already escaped using the magical artefact, the Iris (that Werner was searching for in Cambodia in TR4, and which it is shown has teleportation powers in Tomb Raider: Chronicles). Despite escaping, Werner now has a permanent limp (even being wheelchair bound for a while) and has a grudge against Lara for leaving him.
Richard Croft is unsure of putting his daughter in danger and tries to stamp out her need to experience the wild, sending her to Ireland with the butler Winston. Lara still manages to get into scrapes as she explores the haunted Black Isle (as seen by the Ireland levels in Tomb Raider: Chronicles).
Richard Croft is now invested in the mysterious and magical, inspired by Werner’s experience with the Iris. He starts neglecting Lara to do more search into immortality and items to bring back the dead, or finding where his wife vanished. This leads Lara to become increasingly reliant on Conrad Roth.
Roth, seeing that Lara will continue to travel the world, starts to train her in some skills like trekking, rock climbing, and even archery.
At around this time, Richard Croft exits the story. In the Survivor timeline he is murdered in his office, but I believe they will have him disappear while working in the field (as seen in the LAU timeline).
This leads into…
There’s no getting around it, the Survivor games are seen as Lara’s introduction to being the ‘Tomb Raider’ so this bit has to go first.
Everything in the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as well as little bit of the comics happens in the Unified timeline. Roth goes with Lara, hoping to mentor her better than Werner all of those years ago.
The only caveat I will make is that by the end of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Trinity, the nefarious organisation that Lara has been battling with since the reboot began (and was instrumental in the death of her father) are wiped out, or are brought down enough that they will never return.
With the death of many of their high-ranking operatives at her hands, Trinity goes away, and Lara starts to enjoy life again, even starting to do some archeology (ya know, the thing she got a degree in).
She leads an archeological dig to Paraiso in Peru, but soon tragedy strikes when the dig site is attacked by a monstrous shadow being (as seen in TR: Legend, the first of the LAU games) and kills nearly everyone else on the dig.
After all these expeditions and seeing the countless deaths of her friends and colleagues, Lara decides it is time to head out into the world alone. She also vows to keep as many powerful artefacts in her possession, lest Trinity or another similar force gets their hands on them first.
As time has gone on, Lara has encountered many treasure hunters and explorers, searching for the same artefacts as she does.
Some notable ones are Pierre Dupont and Larson Conway (from the Classic series) and Carter Bell (from the side game Temple of Osiris and the comic books) as well as her old mentor Werner Von Croy.
As seen in Tomb Raider: Chronicles (and the first expedition of Lara being alone) she battles against Pierre and Larson for the Philospher’s Stone. She meets them again later when Lara is hired by Jacqueline Natla to find the pieces of the mythical Scion and uncovers the remains of Atlantis (as seen in TR1/Anniversary).
Next, Tomb Raider II, sending Lara all the way from Venice, to the Indian Ocean, Tibet and finally China.
Soon after she heads to Russia after hearing about an underwater reconnaissance for a mysterious artefact. She calls one of her father’s old friends, Charles Kane, for assistance, due to his knowledge of countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain (as seen in Chronicles and referenced in Anniversary).
When Kane tells her she will be going up against the Russia mob, Lara replies, “Dealt with mafiaoso before, unpleasant memories,” showing that this section happens after TR2.
After Russia, Lara learns that Werner Von Croy has been doing tests on the Iris that he escaped with in Cambodia.
From the cutscene at the beginning of TR4, Lara knows that this artefact is dangerous, so breaks into Von Croy’s HQ in New York (as seen in Chronicles) and steals the Iris (as the Iris can be seen in Lara’s treasure vault in TR3, showing she came into possession before the events of TR3).
Lara stealing the Iris widens the rift between Werner and Lara, but also ends Lara’s insistence on being alone during her expeditions. To break into Von Croy’s building, she needs help from a man called Zip, a former employee of Von Croy’s.
Using his knowledge of the building was instrumental for Lara, and so she hires him as a general tech advisor and aide. While she is out in the field, he stays behind at Croft Manor.
Before fully hiring him though, she has one last trip by herself in the form of Tomb Raider III. It is here though where she realises that she’ll need some extra help.
The amount of high-tech security she had to bypass in TRIII, not to mention the many hours of research to find her next destination have obviously taken a toll on Lara. She wants to be out in the world, not be in her manor doing thousands of hours of research.
So, alongside hiring Zip as her tech expert, she also hires Alistair, an old history colleague who helps research the places she needs to go to find her next artefact.
This leads into the Legend storyline, which then leads into Underworld (part of the LAU timeline). In Underworld Croft Manor is destroyed, Alistair is killed, and Lara does battle with Natla for the final time.
Lara once again is reminded that everyone around her is unsafe because of her, and so she severs ties with Zip, with only Winston staying with her.
Final Years (Death and Resurrection)
Leaving Winston to manage the rebuilding of Croft Manor, Lara heads back out into the world, alone, and into the story of The Last Revelation.
Learning that Von Croy is doing an excavation in Egypt for the fabled Tomb of Set, Lara sets out to beat him to the punch and steal whatever artefacts are buried in the tomb.
She does so, and inadvertently unlocks the Egyptian god of chaos from his prison. So begins a race against time between her and Von Croy, with him unaware of the larger implications of Set coming to destroy the world.
Von Croy is possessed by Set, but Lara manages to seal the evil god away beneath the Pyramids of Giza. As she exits the tomb, she sees Von Croy standing before her. The tomb starts to collapse and Von Croy offers his hand, seeing Lara in the same position as he was all those years ago.
Lara is still unsure whether Von Croy is under the influence of Set though, and so sadly falls into the tomb, presumed to be dead (all seen in TR4).
A memorial service is held for her (as seen at the beginning of Chronicles) at the recently rebuilt Croft Manor. While everyone else left her for dead, Von Croy is busy digging through the pyramid, eventually finding her.
It’s never actually explained how long Lara is buried underneath the pyramid for, but for the Unified Timeline, I’m going to say it was anywhere from a couple of weeks to a full month, with Lara barely surviving.
Having been buried alive, Lara is no longer the seasoned raider she once was. This can be seen in the next and final game in the Unified Timeline, Angel of Darkness. She does not have the strength, stamina, or reserve she was once known for, now she is cold, ruthless, and angry.
At the end of the game, where she once again saves the world but at the cost of Von Croy and her new friend Kurtis, she walks off into the darkness…
Where to go now?
Let’s do a bit of a time scale. TR 2013 to Shadow is approximately five years. That puts Lara at 26 years old.
After a few more years of archeology with groups, ending with the massacre at Paraiso, Lara is now into her thirties.
Everything from Paraiso to the destruction of Croft Manor is would estimate to be another five to six years, meaning Lara starts her trip in Egypt at around 35 years old.
After the events of The Last Revelation, she takes a few years before Angel of Darkness starts. So in my approximation of the Unified timeline, Lara is nearing her forties.
I think this is where the Unified timeline will pick up. Keeley Hawes (voice actress for Lara during the LAU reboot and the ‘Lara Croft’ spin offs games) is returning to the series for the new Tomb Raider: Reloaded mobile game.
Could this mean she is coming back for the mainline series? It would fit age-wise, with Lara and Keeley Hawes being within the same range.
I also think the Angel of Darkness ending leaves the door open to a new game. I don’t think Crystal Dynamics will make a sequel to Angel of Darkness (two were planned, but when AoD was a commercial and critical failure, all future sequels were scrapped), but they might take aspects of the Lara we last saw in that game.
Lara was a lot colder in AoD than she had been before, jaded by her experiences and not being able to climb and jump as well as she used to. I’m not saying the next game has to be about building Lara up again into the Tomb Raider, but maybe showing a harder, colder edge.
But then we also have all the returning characters from all the timelines; Jonah, Zip, Charles Kane maybe, Winston obviously. These character will allow our heroine to take a breather, to smile, to be happy. That would be the best compromise between Core and Crystal’s two sides of Lara.
Fans should rejoice. Everyone is getting their Lara back. And I for one can’t wait to she where she takes us next.
Banner Photo Source: “Evolution of Tomb Raider (Lara Croft) 1996 – 2014” by blazeofmind.
Death and mourning aren’t explored much in gaming.
Sure, every now and again you’ll get some big budget, AAA video game where the main hero or heroine will lose someone close to them. The main character will shout, scream, maybe even cry, before they steel themselves and return to their gameplay activities.
You may get a little scene at the end of the game where they look longingly into the sunset and think of their lost friend or companion, but for the majority of games, the grief is tied solely to the moment.
It just so happens that I played a game earlier this year, When The Past Was Around, a point-and-click puzzle game, that tackles the issues around grief and death; the empty space, the silence now they are gone…and succeeds in perfectly evoking those feelings.
I wanted to share this game with you, its beautiful hand-drawn art, its excellent musical score, and small yet powerful story, and how it manages to capture the idea of grief into a way only games could do.
Mild spoilers ahead.
When The Past Was Around Dealing with Love, Loss, and Death
When The Past Was Around follows a young girl called Eda. She’s in her mid-twenties, recently moved into her own place, and is in a bit of a funk. We learn through her photos that she was once a violinist, but gave up when she was younger, and is now trying to get back into it.
It’s a simple scene, with only four photos chronicling Eda’s childhood, yet gives us so much on her mental state and her personality; talented, passionate, yet prone to criticism and overwhelming anxiety, all conveyed through through single snapshots of her previous performances.
Eda keeps a music box with an owl as the centre piece. One afternoon she hears the same tune the music box used to play (the one that inspired her to learn violin) being played on the street. She follows the sound, almost floating towards the music, and finds the violinist playing to patients in the child hospital.
The she sneezes, interrupting the performance, but coming face-to-face with Owl.
Yes, a man-sized owl, named, well…Owl. The game follows Eda and Owl’s time as a couple, until tragedy strikes, with Owl dying, and Eda being heartbroken.
Many stories that deal with grief usually personify it; a shadow, an item of clothing, something that ties the present to the past. So here, Eda’s lost love is an owl, and ties well into concept of grief and loss.
One of the main narrative signifiers is fallen feathers. The end of every chapter is signalled with one, such as in Eda’s finding one in a cardboard box when she’s unpacking, or when she is wearing Owl’s old scarf. Collecting these feathers are what unlock the next memory as she gets closer to Owl’s departure from the story, and that’s their real meaning.
The feathers are tokens of the memories that Eda and Owl have together, and as she collects them, more are taken away from him, until there can be none left. It’s and excellent metaphor for the passage of time, and yet cruelly bittersweet.
The game switches between the memories of Eda and Owl together, and Eda at the graveyard at the ‘end’ of their story. During her time at the graveyard she is seemingly haunted by a shadowy silhouette of a man, enclosed in a giant bird cage.
When Eda finally reaches the silhouette after reliving all of her memories and collecting Owl’s feathers, the feathers attach themselves to the shadow man, revealing that he is Owl. It’s a great moment, showing how Eda’s memory of Owl had changed over time, and how he effectively became ‘entombed’ inside her head, only being set free once she looked back over her time with him.
There is zero dialogue in the game, which I think is to its benefit. While it would have been easy to add voices to the characters, the silence of the protagonists allows the story to reach a broader audience and speak to more people. It’s that old adage of actions speaking louder than words, as Owl and Eda mentally and physically get closer (literally, they move closer to each other as the game progresses).
Some people may not be able to relate to Eda and Owl’s if they had talked about their love of the violin or the name of the stars in the night sky, but they can relate much more to a feeling or an emotion that the characters are going through, which the game captures perfectly.
Part of that excellent communication of emotion comes from the fantastic artwork by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena. The character models have a stunningly simplicity to them, yet are incredibly expressive. The animations are through a standard fade effect between each character stance, bringing a dream-like quality to most scenes, but also capturing incredible immediate snapshots as there will be many moments of stillness, highlighting the emotion of the scene.
While the characters are simple, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and given the feeling of being ‘lived-in’.
Those backgrounds are a key part of the game’s core loop, as the player must find hidden objects to progress in the story by moving objects around. The game presents it as being constructive or destructive, clean vs. cluttered.
The cleaning and constructive might task you with tidying up Eda’s bedroom, putting posters on her walls, or hanging the washing up.
Construction is the main engagement when Eda and Owl are dating, including coffee and tea at Owl’s home, going to the beach together, or camping out overnight and looking at the stars.
In each of these scenarios the player has to ‘build’ the setting around them; collecting seaweed and shells to go in a glass bottle (which the couple keep in their apartment), setting up the campsite and building paper windmills, or even fixing Owl and Eda’s drink of choice at his house.
These little constructions exaggerate the fact that we are essentially going through Eda’s memories of Owl, and so she would focus on all the small things that she remembers from those times, the things that make it ‘her’ memory.
When the gameplay switches to destruction, you might find yourself smashing countless plant pots, throwing books off shelves, or pulling down curtains.
These aspects perfectly match up in the order of the story, with Eda being tidier when she is with Owl, but messier both before she met him and after he is gone, for different yet obvious reasons. Her final scene with Owl where Eda searches for his pills uses the clean vs. cluttered to great effect, as players have to frantically search the apartment, pulling books off shelves and knocking over chairs in a desperate bid to find them.
Music also plays a strong part of the story, with both Owl and Eda playing the violin, and music being the thing that brings them closer together. There is a leitmotif that runs through the entire game (the same one played by Eda’s music box), which subtly changes with each chapter.
At the start when Eda has given up on playing the violin, the stringed instrument is removed from the soundtrack, instead a mournful piano plays in the background. As soon as Owl enters the story, the violin features again, playing a much more cheerful tone. As their relationship grows more instruments and accents are added.
By the final scene when Eda is alone once again, the piano has returned, but her memory of Owl is so strong that the violin jumps in, with the entire song picking up speed as it reaches the climax.
Even the title references music, with a stylised repeat sign incorporated into it. This sign in sheet music indicates a section to be played more than once, referencing Eda’s journey back through her life.
When The Past Was Around is a whole package of a game wrapped up in around an hour, maybe little over if you are intent on finding all the hidden clues that inform more about Eda and Owl’s relationship.
For anyone looking for a short game with fantastic visuals, a great sense of gameplay as narrative, or just something a little different than anything else on the market, When The Past Was Around is heartily recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.
It was with a mix of trepidation and eagerness that I picked up Battlefield V. I had enjoyed the excellent War Stories in the previous game, Battlefield 1, and wished to see what creators DICE had followed up with. Yet I remained cautious. The previous War Stories had been a high point of my gaming experience of recent times and I didn’t want to raise my hopes too high in case they were dashed.
The sequence started beautifully, reusing the iconic shot from BF1 of the two opposing troops levelling their weapons at each other as the sun breaks through to the battlefield. That was one of the defining moments of BF1; it is abrupt from the carnage that we have been a part of and distinct in its imagery.
I had previously written about how even though I liked the War Stories of BF1 and the opening, it could have toyed with player expectations a little more with its use of death. BFV’s opening reuses this defeatist attitude and makes it work. We aren’t told that are characters are destined to die yet most of them do. But unlike BF1 we do not see their names upon death, an aspect that is sorely missing. While I am happy that DICE isn’t directly lifting from BF1 for the semi-sequel, the inclusion of character names added a sense of humanity that can usually get lost in the larger stories of a world war.
BFV also switches characters through its opening, circling around the locations that appear in the later War Stories. On the surface this is good. The major problem with the shorter stories in BF1 was the lack of narrative cohesion. With each story lasting around an hour, the overall arc falls flat with predictable peaks and troughs, leaving the game without a strong climax and resolution. The opening of BFV helps aid the previous lack of narrative structure by having the opening focus on the locations, but not always on the playable characters.
The paratroopers dropping into Norway, the German tank crew driving forward in the desert, the Senegalese troops providing covering sniper fire, and the German planes flying overhead, they give us a taster of what is to come and also help set up the story. For example, the paratroopers in Norway get slaughtered in the first few minutes of gameplay, with the playable character in the Norway section being the resistance member they were meant to rendezvous with.
The opening is also a beautiful example of editing within gaming. Each scene leads into one another and connected with excellent scene transitions. The tank in the Norway section rolls out into Libya, the plane flying overhead in the Kasserine Pass moves into dogfights over Germany, before said plane crashes into the Netherlands right in front of our new character. It is a nice flow of scenes and heightens that feeling of a world consumed by war.
However, while the changing characters help create that crux for the larger narrative, it means it loses something of its previous identity. BF1’s opening was set entirely on a singular battlefield. The fight was contained to one narrative with sweeping long shots taking us across the lines to the next solider after one had died. It told a solid story on its own and helped set that “anything goes” precedent of that game.
Swapping between five different fronts and fighting styles in the BFV opening feels disjointed and uneven and it is partly because of the change of scenery. The stakes change on a dime and the enemy we were previously charging is now half a valley away. It loses that excellent pace and momentum that the opening of BF1 had. This isn’t helped by the gameplay. In BF1 you could fight for as long as you wanted, but eventually you were going to be brought down by the enemy soldiers. In BFV the onus is on you to continue the story. This was especially evident in the Senegalese sniping and the German dogfight sections.
As I was getting to grips with the controls, my sniper aim lacked finesse, with shots widely missing the enemy targets. Only when all the targets are down will the prologue continue. In the German dogfight section I managed to shoot down several Allied bombers, but was unable to see the tiny red marker that indicated the ONE plane I was meant to shoot to continue the sequence.
The whole pacing is off. Each section starts the same; the player slowly moves forward before being presented with a few enemies and then ends with explosions. At least BF1 kept the explosions as a constant, throwing the players into disarray and keeping them on edge. It feels like there is a distinct lull in BFV’s opening and feels antithesis to the tone that it seems to be aiming for.
This comes to a head at the final playable section. After shooting some soldiers on a turret, you turn said turret around and direct the fire back. Your squad is bombed and you are paralysed, trying to hold off the oncoming enemies with only your pistol. It feels so odd to go from the excellent Remarquism of BF1 to this Hollywood-ised, last-man-standing depiction of battle.
I understand why it was done. This is the final scene, the gameplay needs to end at the same time as the narration for the pacing, but it doesn’t have that brutal edge that worked wonders in BF1. This final scene could have worked if we had control of our movement, if we were allowed to charge, retreat, anything other that having to sit still, playing out a sequence ripped straight out of Call Of Duty 4.
It is also a context problem. BF1 worked because it wasn’t about the grand ideas, rather focusing on the little person caught in the whirlwind of history. It was a pointless war with both sides fighting for pretty much the same reason and therefore could focus on the personal stories.
While there are flourishes of these individual stories in BFV’s campaign, the grand ideas can’t help but push through. Every fight (bar the Tiger tank story) is about pushing back the forces of darkness from enveloping the world. Every fight is about how to weaken and dismantle the Nazi war machine. It can’t help but BE that.
That’s not to say that grander stories are bad. Grand ideas work well in several games; Civilization, various CoDs, the first Assassin’s Creed, but the smaller stories are what gave BF1 a bit of bite and it is sad that BFV is without it. It means the characters in BFV don’t get a chance to shine since we don’t focus on them.
Characters like Zara Ghufran and Frederick Bishop in BF1 get small moments in between all the fighting, giving us hints of their personality and time outside the war. This makes them richer, making them more than the “stoic badass” or “stealthy assassin” archetypes. And I haven’t got that from a single lead in BFV yet.
Either way, I’m still enjoying BFV. I’m blazing through the campaign and will hopefully look fondly on my time spent with it. And while the opening fixes a lot of the issues I had with BF1’s, it can’t help but produce a few of its own.
Edit: Now that I have finished the campaign my feelings on BFV have changed. I started to really like the story and have written a follow up. You can read it here.
I recently finished Mafia 3 after a good few months playing it. It was one of the first games I got when I upgraded to the newest console generation and I was pretty much playing it non-stop, leaving other newer games by the wayside just to come back to this one again and again.
And after finishing the game I’m certain this will be among my favourite games I will play on this system.
Not since Remember Me has a whole game caught with me rather than just one or two good parts of it. So I thought a little breakdown about the points that hooked me into staying in New Bordeaux for much longer than I would ever imagine…
“We are a cruel and wicked people”– Why I love Mafia 3
The Story and Characters.
The story is the high point of the game. Telling the story of bi-racial orphan and Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay, the narrative is told in a documentary flashback format. Characters tell their story in interview format, evoking recent films like Precinct Seven Five.
This feeds into the linear game structure, as we are being told a story (much like the previous Mafia games) which helps keep the pace up which can sometimes suffer in a game where you can go anywhere, anytime.
Despite having this linear structure the multiple endings all fit the character depending on the player’s reading of Lincoln.
I was surprised we didn’t start in Vietnam, similar to Mafia 2 starting in WW2 Italy, but that added to the characters, leaving us open to interpret Lincoln actions in Vietnam from his and comrade Donavan’s stories.
The story is beautifully realised with several standout characters. We have the three main bosses, Burke, Cassandra, and Vito, each with their own unique quirks. Vito is especially interesting, it’s fun to see a once playable character from the other side (again), where his simple layers in Mafia 2 (due to being a playable character) become a lot greyer with age and antagonism.
The second-in-commands too are well defined and have some interesting layers to them, making them more than cardboard cut outs that sometimes arrive with games as big as this. Emmanuel, the once refugee-saver reduced to dope peddling, Alma, the businesswoman not afraid to use female charms for her own gain, and Nicki, a woman struggling with her sexuality in a time and place that does not care for it, they all add something to the game, all through optional dialogue (which I am a big fan of ever since I first encountered it in PoP 2008).
But highest praise must go to Alex Hernandez for his portrayal of Lincoln Clay. Convincingly switching from cocky and confident to anger, sadness, joviality and eventually blood-driven when the time comes, he is truly an asset to the game.
One of the main criticisms of Mafia 3 is its mission structure. Very much like the first Assassin’s Creed, the game centers itself around taking down members of the Marcano crime family one district at a time.
Once you talk to a contact in the district you have several tasks dealt out to you, but these always follow the same path; kill some people, interrogate a member of the crime family or destroy their shipments. Once done then you can take over the rackets in that area before going after the main controller of the area.
This is just going to be one of those cases where I find enjoyment that others don’t. I think it might be because I really enjoyed the driving and combat (more on the latter next) so I had fun being given new scenarios lasting a few minutes to make my way through.
Hangar 13 said their approach to the missions, at least side missions, was “Lincoln doesn’t go fishing”. Essentially, this means the mission must make sense for the character to do (why does psychopathic murderer Michael De Santa do yoga in GTAV?). This feeds back into the story, again, keeping the pace and flow up rather than bogging the game down.
The Marcano capo missions are fun due to their added story and setting with each one being a completely unique situation; a shootout on a sinking steamboat, sneaking into a swanky whites-only party, breaking up a KKK-inspired cross burning, the list goes on and on (all involving excellent and period-fitting musical accompaniment such as the Rolling Stones, Del Shannon, and Janis Joplin).
While most devolve into shootouts the combat is so fun I never got bored. Speaking of which…
I can’t actually remember how long it’s been to have a combat system this satisfying, but it was probably at least back on the PS2 (I’m going to have a wild guess and say 007: Everything Or Nothing).
It’s your standard shooting, melee, and stealth tri-factor, but each one is done so well.
The gunplay feels responsive and sounds meaty, with a vast array of weapons to choose from.
At the start I was on-the-fly, picking up weapons due to limited ammo. Then I specialized in a sawn-off shotgun and sniper for both range advantages, before coming round to silenced pistol and assault weapons for an action/stealth combination. This is a perfect distillation of Hangar 13’s motto, “Every player’s story is unique”, and can be seen in the multiple approaches to combat as well as hidden pathways through the missions.
The animations in combat as well are a nice detail. With lovely smooth transitions from running (where Lincoln holds the gun one handed), to ADS, to the short sidestep after coming out of sights, the little points make the game feel rich and loved by the creators.
While the melee can become stale after the fiftieth whistle-come-stab, it does have moments of intense fun especially with the running takedowns. Only in a handful of games have I audibly “oohhhed” at the brutality I’ve dished out on NPCs (Sleeping Dogs is probably the main one), and Mafia 3’s American Football-style takedowns are poetry in motion.
You can choose between lethal and non-lethal attack as well. Even if the change is hidden in the pause menu rather than switching in gameplay it’s nice that you at least have the option. Especially since most games just give you “kill” as a catch-all for their combat.
The Open World and Travel
The world of New Bordeaux is a lovely city to drive around in. The cars seem more arcade-y than the previous Mafia games (there is an option of a Simulation mode for purists in the option menu). Lincoln’s signature vehicle is a classic, wheel spinning, fire spitting, drifting muscle car, and sliding across three lanes of traffic or 180 hand brake turns are easy to pull off and create that sense of spectacle and wonder we want from games.
As usual in Mafia games the setting is an approximation of a real city (this one being New Orleans), but has enough of its own style to stand out rather than feel like a copy/paste of Google Maps. The South has been the setting before in games, with indie hits like Virginia being in, well…Virginia, Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 in Georgia, GTA: Vice City in Vice City (a version of Miami) and Left 4 Dead 2 in a swathe of southern states.
I would say only the latter two come close to creating a sense of place as good as New Bordeaux with Vice City also having Haitian and Cuban influences (but better at creating a sense of time rather than place) and L4D2 having a wide range of locales like Mafia 3 (but most feeling more like shells rather than a fleshed-out world). Mafia 3 is the first one that actually feels like a living place with countless indoor locations, pedestrians, and drivers.
Talking of the variety of locations, Mafia 3 has a selection to rival most other open world games. With settings such as the bayou, junkyards, quarries, downtown areas, and its own version to the French Quarter, the city has a tremendous scope of backgrounds for Lincoln to dish out punishment on the Italian mob.
And despite having these completely distinct sections the map, New Bordeaux doesn’t feel disjointed when moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, which has happened within other open world titles focusing on rising criminal empires.
The interesting part about my time with Mafia 3 is I was completely sick of open world games when I started. I was sick of the endless stream of side missions, the “revealing” of the world through climbing towers, the largely meandering story that can sometimes come with having a sandbox as big as it can be.
I had been wanting a more refined experience and Mafia 3 delivered. That’s what sets it apart from its contemporaries; GTA has the bustling modern metropolis filled to the brim, AC has the historical fiction, Fallout has the nuclear dys/utopia, and The Witcher/Skyrimhave the magical fantasy. The Mafia series works because it has a focused central story that fires straight as an arrow carving out its niche in the market.
And that niche made me adore Mafia 3. Add in a cracking sense of time and history, as well as vivid locations and brutal, satisfying combat sections, Mafia 3 is a gem in my game library.
When players of the future will look back on games that could be part of the ludo-canon there will be a whole host of different styles and genres, from indie games to AAA releases. Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto III, won’t be the best in their series, but will indicate the start of something bigger. Some, like Bioshock, show a more thoughtful, provocative, and literate attempt at the art form. And some, like Minecraft, are, well…revolutionary.
The list will go on and on as more games and platforms are released, but today I want to focus on one game. This game, much like GTAIII before it, was the start of not just a best-selling franchise, but managed to blend genres, brought a completely revolutionary idea of multiplayer to our screens, and kick-started a whole slew of imitators. Today, I’ll be talking about Assassin’s Creed, all the way back from 2007.
At the time of writing the series has been going for eleven years with nine games so far. Its most recent release, Origins, came out in late 2017, ten years after the first game. So, with over a decade of gaming to look back over let’s dive in.
This isn’t going to be a simple re-review of the game, but more a sort of breakdown and rethinking of the game. Enjoy!
Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted – A Look Back at Assassin’s Creed (2007)
Origins (no, not that Origins)
At the tale end of 2003, Ubisoft Montreal had just released Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Sands Of Time was the reboot of the series and would go on to spawn two sequels, Warrior Within in 2004, and Two Thrones in 2005. It was from this creative team that Assassin’s Creed would be born.
In a surprisingly detailed feature in Edge Magazine(Note: This is a second-hand account of the work, as all links to the original revert back to GamesRadar’s homepage), Creative Director Patrice Désilets talked about how the idea grew from the PoP series, where the player would be an assassin bodyguard protecting the child version of the Prince. Long after the game was released, this test footage of the game was leaked. (Source: Felipe Orion).
You can see the building blocks of the series; the crowd mechanics, the ominous white hoods, and hidden blades. There is a lot of stuff in that trailer that would take several games to be brought back into the series, with the main ones being co-op and bows and arrows being used.
You can easily see how PoP was the precursor. The free-running mechanics are obviously the key influence, but in a much larger way. The fun of a PoP game, even the more open ended-style like the 2008 reboot, the free running is in more of a linear sequence. The game world is an assault course; you see the path and you have to hit the buttons at the correct time to move through the land. It’s not experimental or improvisational; the path forward is set. Assassin’s Creed is more open with a world full of opportunities and pathways. In the feature Désilets remarks the freerunning was meant to be similar to the use of vehicles in GTA, “The pleasure of driving a car in Liberty City should be the same as a main character in Assassin’s Creed.” (para. 19).
The Arabian aesthetic would be another key factor. While PoP would feature expansive areas, the game is limited mostly to palaces and corridors to feature the prince’s wall-hopping acrobatics. Assassin’s Creed builds on that by opening up the world, not just into outdoor areas, but three different cities and a huge countryside to explore.
So with the building blocks of the game set let’s look into how Assassin’s Creed actually works.
“The World is a Stage” – The City and Lands of Assassin’s Creed
Assassin’s Creed is set in the Holy Land and the bulk of gameplay is divided between three cities in the region; Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre. Despite all being in relative proximity to each other they all have different design and artwork.
Damascus is bright and tan, with minarets and spires stretching high into the sky. Jerusalem is has muted shades of brown, with mosques sitting beside churches and synagogues. And Acre, well, Acre is a warzone; cold, dark, and grey, with most houses reduced to smouldering ash and rubble.
The three cities are distinct and each tell a different facet of the Crusades. For example, the Teutonic Crusaders were the invaders of Acre, so while they want to be seen as the saviours of the city’s Christian inhabitants, the scars of war show them to also be invaders and destroyers. The cities are split between three districts; poor, middle and rich. While this helps design variety, it’s also meant to be a visual signifier for player interaction and gameplay (which we will talk about later in this retrospective).
The only part of the world that seems a bit pointless is the Kingdom. It boils down to a really big set of crossroads with a single path leading to each city and to the Assassin’s mountain top castle, Masyaf. There is nothing to do here, apart from collect flags (for no benefit besides 100% completion) and annoy roaming Saracens and Templars (although according to Désilets, this was an effort for an “improv” sense of gameplay, where each player’s story is different (para. 24-26)).
Masyaf is, again, different to any of the other cities. Having the game unceremoniously start there in a weird dream sequence and also end there with the fight against the shape-shifting Al Mualim has a nice cyclical nature to it. Again, like the Kingdom, there isn’t really a need to explore aside from flag collecting, so they majority of the gameplay will be spent in the targets hometowns.
I mentioned that visual significance of the districts allowing for greater player clarity in traversing the city, so let’s explore that idea. The problem of the city comes down to the inclusion of the mini map.
“In the Kingdom of the Blind, The Man with Eagle Vision is King” – Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map (and also the side missions)
One of the biggest faults many people find with Assassin’s Creed is its repetitive nature. Receive a target, go to the city, talk to the Assassin Bureau, do three tasks such as eavesdrop, pickpocket, or beat up a public speaker, return to the Bureau and then assassinate your target. Rinse and repeat nine times, game over. But that is a shallow experience of the game, and I would expect 98% of that comes from the mini-map.
Back in May 2017 on Twitter I got into a conversation with Stanislav Costiuc, a developer at Ubisoft, who wrote a fantastic essay on how Assassin’s Creed was designed for HUD-less gameplay and no mini-map. Costiuc explains that the levels and districts were designed in such a way to aid player exploration but also player interaction with the world.
Going back and playing Assassin’s Creed without the HUD makes playing the game a much different experience. You have to be in tune with your surroundings and recognise patterns. Costiuc shows this with a running commentary of how he played through one of the assassinations without the HUD.
Without the map telling him where to go, Costiuc had to find markers in the world that would help him find the Bureau and his targets. Each Bureau leader tells the player where to start their investigations; the north markets, the west gardens, the south gates, each one filling in the world. All these dialogues are meant to help the player rather than just fill for time. That’s why the different sections of the maps and specific locations are needed in AC1 because they were originally used for player education, without the mini-map as a crutch.
This is one thing I wish had been carried over to the rest of the games. With the more detailed world and the inclusion of a database helping identify actual buildings, this type of landmark guidance would have worked wonders. For example, after getting back one holiday from Florence I booted up AC2 and was able to find my hotel just by going to the buildings I recognised.
This makes me think the original game was meant to be much slower paced, almost similar to IO-Interactive’s Hitman, with the player finding pieces of information that could help or hinder them with their assassination attempt.
For those assassination attempts the player needs to get close to the target and then attack them with a weapon. So, let’s talk about traversal and combat.
“He’s Going to Hurt Himself” – Freerunning, Movement, and Killing Targets
I previously talked about the freerunning aspect in comparison with Prince Of Persia, but Assassin’s Creed has a more dynamic movement system than its ancestor. Each of the face buttons is a part of the body; A/X is legs, B/Circle is empty hand, X/Square is weapon hand, and Y/Triangle is for the head. All of these are then modified with the use of RT/R2 into high-profile moves. In the Edge feature Désilets mentioned how it was based on puppets (para. 21), and the system is simple enough that you don’t have to spend several hours getting to grips with the control layout.
Again, AC1 is slower than its sequels; there is no jump climb ability and you can’t sprint across beams, but the central mechanics are solid. Swimming is also absent (there is a debate over whether it’s historical accuracy since we are covered in armour, or a technical feat since swimming mechanics were still in their infancy, only appearing a few years prior in Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas), but this is offset by only having a few water sections in the game. This does come to the fore during the assassination of Sibrand in Acre, where the stealthiest way to his ship is via jumping precariously around the harbour.
Freerunning is especially well defined for such an early game. Apart from PoP I can’t think of many games before the first Assassin’s Creed that had a smooth freerunning mechanic. It also feels like there is small amount of auto-guiding in terms of chasing targets. Many times in AC sequels I would find myself chasing a target and instead of following them through an archway, Ezio or Connor would instead get stuck to the doorframe or run up a wall. I’ve never had that problem during my playthroughs with Altair.
The combat of AC1 is my favourite of the entire series. I’ve written previously about the feeling of the combat, how the sword has weight behind it, but there is so much more than that. It feels like a multi-tiered system with different moves for skill levels and play-styles. For those just wanting to kill enemies with brute strength there is the charge up sword. For those with patience there is the counter mechanic. And for those with good timing there is the combo kill and the break defence, which are rewarding for being the quickest kills.
None of the skill-based attacks have the same depth as in later games and merely reduced to a single button presses (AC2 was concered more on movement, but because the Hidden Blades were perfect counters and the sword/short blade took two or three counters and are slower in general, there is no reason to use them).
The revamped combat in the sequels was due to the supposed stalling enemies, crowding around you and staring you down for several seconds before attacking. But that is simply not true in AC1. Sure, if all you are using are counters then yes there is a lot of dead air when it comes to battles. But using the break defence and combo kills, or the Short Blade and Throwing Knives, and again, recognising the visual signifiers of scared/taunting soldiers (which leaves them open to a quick hidden blade or throwing knife kill) the combat is far from static.
You get these moves through the game so you are meant to up your strategy. The problem is that the counter is way too powerful leading to players defaulting to that, making the battles seems stilted. These was “rectified” in later games by having enemies that could stop counters (here is a video by Extra Credits talking about this problem, calling them FOO strategies), but made combat even more stilted by having to perform these actions several times to defeat one enemy.
The weapons feed into the aspect of upping strategy alongside the moveset. The sword is good for defence and strong attacks but is slow. The short blade/knives are faster, and the hidden blade (which we will get onto next) is a one-hit kill. They allow for a sense of personalisation when it comes to combat.
The Hidden Blade is the best weapon in the game. The blade only kills in low profile situations (or as a counter), otherwise the target can block your attack and force you into open combat. Knowing this feeds back into the world and those visual signifiers, trying to find a way to get close to your target without raising the alarm.
For example, the assassination of Majd Addin in Jerusalem has the target on a platform surrounded by guards. There is no way to break through the guards and get a clean kill with the hidden blade. You have to look at your surroundings; should you take the ladder to the side of you to climb up and around to the platform, or should you hide among the scholars to try and pass through the crowds? The limits of the blade make you work for the best kills, but then the sequels turned them into insta-kill spree-delivering devices.
The only problems with combat in Assassin’s Creed are in hindsight of the sequels. Things like Air Assassinations and Haystack Drags that debuted in AC2 are sorely missing. And while the throwing knives are a good ranged weapon, certain guards seem invincible to them which breaks immersion. AC1 also has the odd habit of making you a wanted man just for locking onto a guard.
Now that I’ve talked about most of the design and gameplay aspects that I wanted to mention, let’s move onto the story and narrative.
“Sit Down and I Will Tell you a Tale Like None You Have Ever Heard!” – The Dual Narrative
I remember when I first played Assassin’s Creed I thought, “This is so cool, I get to run around fighting medieval knights, run across rooftops like a high-wire trapeze artist, and there is even some conspiracies and intrigue. I love this!” Then the game would wrench me out the experience, taking me away from the badass Altair and replacing him with bland bartender Desmond Miles.
I think the overarching, modern day narrative was the part that lost a lot of players. Because we don’t spend enough time with dear old Desmond we have no reason to care about him or his trials. Even when the games tried to jazz up his role such as learning the skills of the Assassin’s in Brotherhood, learning about his past in Revelations, or making him the most super special person in the world in III, Desmond still felt like an afterthought. Even next to Connor “What-Would-You-Have-Me-Do” Kenway (honestly the worst protagonist I’ve ever played as), Desmond was a poorly defined character. Another problem with the wider narrative is that it never got a satisfying ending. Every game would end with Desmond and his posse running from the Templars to another safe haven, meaning we would have to buy the next instalment to get a follow up.
I’m not sure how I feel about Desmond’s departure after III and Abstergo basically turning into Ubisoft and selling genetic memories as games, but it seems a rather silly hold over. The modern aspect is only in there for the game to have overt gamey-aspects not break narrative cohesion by saying “we’re in the Animus”. It should just be ditched; I think gamers would understand that their game has to have some anachronisms. The fact that both Subject 16 and Desmond both started hallucinating outside of Animus shows that humans can experience genetic memories without a wacky machine. Why not focus on that; a character that has learnt to go into a zen-like trance to relive their memories?
The reveals of the wider story, especially the surprise ending where the Apple Of Eden presents us with several Precursor Temple sites, would have worked a lot better without the pre-knowledge of technology and conspiracy. That reveal of a story much wider than the one being presented to you would have been a gut-punch of a reveal, possibly similar to the world of Columbia and “swimming in different oceans but landing on the same shores”. It still sets up the possibility of other Assassins around the globe and without Desmond’s genes limiting the range of Assassins for sequels to mostly European white guys.
One thing I do like about the Holy Land story of Assassin’s Creed is that it takes some risks. It brings ideas about religion, secularism, hypocrisy, and violence to the table, and explores them with each target during the confessions sequences. It’s interesting and I can’t think of another game bar the AC sequels that tries to shine a torch on some of the not-too-pleasant aspects of mankind. While the splash screen at the front of the game, with the now infamous “various different religions and cultures” was meant to be a failsafe against typecasting most of the Arab characters as cutthroat murderers, I think the Templars are portrayed much worse. They are already the invaders, destroying Acre pre-game, and just from my own play sessions, they are always seem more aggressive.
Legacy (no, not that Legacy)
The first Assassin’s Creed is seen as an important stepping-stone in the way open-world games are developed nowadays. While more people find AC2 to be the high point of the series (including me until this final play session, where I think AC1 just pips it), AC1 is remarkable in how if you updated the graphics it could still stand somewhat with its contemporaries.
Let’s count them off;
Open world, check.
Collectables that are pretty meaningless, check.
Map that opens up when you scale towers, even Ubisoft made a joke about how much of a trope it had become in their games.
This idea of AC1 as being more of a proof-of-concept is so ingrained that it has become shorthand for other similarly repetitive games. Mafia 3 was unfavourably compared to AC1 by it being a mostly empty map with the same few side missions.
Looking at Assassin’s Creed nowadays, you can see how it influenced the later games. Characters like Ezio, Edward, and the Frye twins were obviously created in response to Altair and his other sour brothers, Connor and Arno. The setting influenced later games locations, with Revelations obviously taking inspiration from AC1 with its Eastern location and design after having two games of classical European architecture in the form of AC2 and Brotherhood.
In my experience though I feel the later games fall prey to trying to compensate for the somewhat spartan presentation of AC1. This came to the forefront when I recently played AC: Unity. When I first brought the map up I said to myself, “What is this?!” The map was full of stuff, juststuff, that had very little bearing on the main narrative; chests, cockades, underground systems, side quests, murder mysteries, cryptic puzzles, hours upon hours of nebulous content. For the longest time I didn’t synchronise viewpoints and turned all the collectables off, because I knew the game was screwing with my completionist tendencies.
Altair is also a major factor in AC2. Thinking back to 2009 before we knew that he would come back in Revelations, Altair does share brief moments with us again. First and most notably, Altair returns in the Codex pages. As we read his notes we see an older and more cynical Altair, testing out the Apple of Eden, creating new mechanics for the Assassins such as the Poison Blade, and writing about the upcoming Mongol threat. Then we see him in a flashback getting busy with Maria Thorpe, with the player staying with Maria and entering her womb once Altair has deposited his seed. While the descendant aspect of the series had been explained at this point in the series this was the first time it was “shown” to an extent.
And just talking numbers, Assassin’s Creed was a hit. In Ubisoft’s own words it, “greatly outstripped” their expectations. It became the fastest-selling new IP at the time, projected to sell five million copies for 2007-2008. This was enough to send what was originally a spinoff of Ubisoft’s popular wall-crawler into a multi-million dollar franchising spanning books, comics, and even films.
After going back to the first Assassin’s Creed my views on it have changed quite a bit. I played AC1 and AC2 back-to-back, with only a few hours between finishing AC1 and starting AC2. And now having played all the way up until AC: Unity, what I used to see as a nice blueprint feels much more like a refined experience.
The brilliant open-ended assassinations are obviously a high point especially as soon as AC2, the assassinations were distilled and streamlined (mainly for narrative sense). For reference even now in Unity I play the “levantine” approach to combat; sneak until within a few metres, high-profile assassination, then flee into the crowds. It’s a classic set of moves that AC1 instilled into me, highlighted with its “Chase Cam”.
The repetitive grinding of missions is the takeaway most people get from the gameplay with the assassinations only being a sliver of the content on offer. That obviously wasn’t the intention, with the side quests meaning to be information on how to approach your target, but the mini-map turns them into chores.
The combat suffers from the same aspect of having good intentions, but it not being found when first playing. The combat arena where you learn new moves doesn’t do a great job at telling you how to fight and so we revert to what we know; hold RT/R2, pressing X/Square when hit.
The open world, especially the Kingdom, feels like needless padding and is only really there for the first feeling of odyssey-like wonder at riding off into unknown lands. The cities though are a fantastic if not realistic portrayal, having rooftops close enough that endless running is a delight. This is where the freerunning in III didn’t work, with cities that might be historically accurate but aren’t fun to parkour around due to the wide gaps between buildings.
Looking at it eleven years later, it’s obvious that Assassin’s Creed grabbed people because it was fresh and exciting. We had seen open-worlds before and we had seen historical action combat before. But together they were a match made in heaven, a license to go to whatever historical setting Ubisoft wanted and print money to set up new IPs with.
That same sense of freshness is why I think we all got on board for the modern day aspect. While Desmond’s story did get little payoff in the grand scheme of things, that new blend for gaming was novel. While we had seen the same beats in media such as The Matrix or Ghost In The Shell, in gaming it hadn’t really been explored before apart from maybe David Cage’s debut, Omnikron: The Nomad Soul.
With the new game AC: Origins, the series seemed to be travelling back to its roots. With a revamped modern day aspect that is moving away from the memories-as-games plot thread as well as bringing back a more branching style to combat, Origins was seen as a return to form to what many thought to be a dying and withered franchise.
Many have been quick to dismiss the new Assassin’s Creeds as not true AC experiences. I understand their criticisms, but don’t necessarily agree with them. Assassin’s Creed 1 shows us that you can pretty much take a whole new spin on a well known trope and make it its own thing, and that’s pretty much the defining theme of the series;
I really like the Civilization series. I first came to the series with Civilization II on the original Playstation and sucked at it. Please understand I was probably around four or five years old at the time and pretty much completely blown away with what I had to do. I think I spent the majority of the game looking at the box cover which I still think is a elegant bit of art.
Through the years I would play different Civs, but only really got into the series with Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360. While Civ Rev (as it is more commonly known as) is seen as a runt of the litter by fans due to its more simplistic design and streamlining due to being on consoles it still holds a dear place in my heart.
It is one of those special games that managed to connect with non-gamers I know, with its mix of history, politics, and geography (all helpfully illustrated with the Civilopedia). I loved the game so much I even went out and got an old copy Sid Meier’s Pirates!, created by the main lead designer of the Civ series, Sid Meier.
Today I wanted to write about something I find fascinating about Civ Rev that I don’t see much of, that is adaptive music and sound effects.
Introduction – Music in the Games Industry
Music has become a large part of the culture behind video games. What started out as what Melanie Fritsch described as, “…a ‘bip’ disrupt[ing] the silence…” (pg. 12, 2013) has transformed into an integral part of the system.
This can be seen with the rise of famous composers being brought it to do video games soundtracks, with notable examples being Hans Zimmer (Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2009), Joe Hisashi (Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch, 2013), and Tyler Bates (Rise Of The Argonauts, 2008).
There are even stars that are well known for their work on games. One of the high-profile creators is Jesper Kyd. Kyd is known for his work on the Hitman series as well as creating one of the most famous pieces of the seventh generation, Ezio’s Family, for Assassin’s Creed II (which has become THE defining piece for the entire series).
The music is so high profile now that games are picking up awards (Christopher Tin for Civ IV won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement with Vocalist(s)) and there are live performances for the music, for example, I went to the Tomb Raider Suite back in December 2016. In a similar vein Video Games Live is a major-selling show that plays famous video game music to sold-out venues.
But anyway, let’s move to focusing on Civ Rev.
The Silence in Between – Music and Sound in Civilization Revolution
A game of Civilization Revolution takes place over 6000 years. It starts in 4000BC with the game finally stopping at 2100AD if the player or AI haven’t reached a win situation.
The game is split up into four distinct eras, Ancient, Medieval, Industrial, and Modern. These rely on how advanced your civilization gets, with more technologies you discover your civ keeps moving forward.
The techs reflect this, with Bronze/Iron Working and Alphabet in the Ancient Era, Engineering and Banking in the Medieval, Gunpowder and the Railroad in the Industrial, and Electronics and Space Flight in the Modern.
As the game moves through time the music adapts and changes. It’s something that is so small but so engrossing. It would have been easy to have a singular “fight” sound, a continual loop that plays with every encounter, but for Civ Rev it changes based on your era.
Michael Liebe notes this as, “…linear music…” as it;
“…runs incessantly without any direct influence on the player’s action… [but] may change with different levels or milestones in the game.” (pg.47, 2013).
However, it also is part of what Liebe calls;
“…reactive music…[a] type of game-music [that is] is triggered by specific micro-actions… [such as] beginning a fight…” (pg. 47, 2013) because the battle music changes according to the era.
In the Ancient era, the player’s aggressive interactions with other civs or barbarians will produce woodwind and drums, perfectly evoking primitive instruments (4:23, 6:11, 12:24).
Moving to the Medieval era, there is a light accompaniment of brass into the mix, sometimes having an almost ecclesiastical quality (32:45, 33:23, 38:10).
The Industrial era brings with it strings, and heavier, lower-registered brass, hinting at the more expansionist, mechanized warfare as well as a more romanticized view of warfare that came with the age (1:04:24, 1:09:55, 1:10:28, 1:12:52, 1:15:57).
When a player reaches the Modern era, the sound completely changes with hints of synthesizers, metallic percussion, and even some electric guitar thrown into the mix (35:23, 35:39, 42:46).
The sound effects also follow this mode of changing although these can also be based on the unit (be it the ship, warrior, caravan etc.). While each has a “movement” sound effect, with marching boots, revving engines, or oars in water depending on the unit, it was the idle sounds that drew my attention.
Just hovering your cursor over a galley or galleon produces creaking wood and flapping sails. Hover over a warrior and your hear swinging swords, or pawing hooves on a horseman unit.
This even translates to the world. As you move over the ocean, crashing waves greet you. If you have built a city near the sea you hear crowing seagulls and shoreline swash. Build a strong market place and you hear barters conversing in shouts, or if you select a high profile mining and factory town, the sounds of hammers on metal and machines can be heard.
It’s not a subtle change, but it is somehow smooth. As we move through the eras not just the music changes but the visuals too, with our “advisors” (who look strikingly similar to Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) taking on different dresses and outfits depending on the era. Roads adapt too, moving from dirt tracks, to cobbled streets, and finish as tarmac highways.
I previously mentioned Sid Meier’s Pirates! as being another game I picked up due to loving Civ Rev. Despite the remake of Pirates! being thirteen years old at this point its music is very much the same; always playing, but then reactive as to the situation, the location, and your reputation.
As you pass by ports of the different nations they each have their own theme. Even passing by the ports of pirate havens, Jesuit missions, and natives have their own musical accompaniments. Upon entering into the towns, the music seamlessly switches into different tones for the merchant, governor, tavern, and shipwright. But it’s the way the music adapts that got me again.
One of the gameplay themes of Pirates! is making money for certain nationalities. You can do this in many ways; become a pirate and plunder gold, trade professionally with merchants, or even send in some pirates or natives to raid towns.
This creates wealth disparity between ports with some being filthy rich (with the nation’s flag above being crisp and clean) while others are desolate (with the same flag being dirty and torn). The music reflects this with rich towns having beautiful renditions of the nations tune while poorer towns have maybe a single instrument with some notes being off-key. For example, here is the standard British theme and here is the poorer version.
All the parts I’ve talked about are small parts of the games. Most of these are not even needed as far as a minimum viable product; they are there as nice additions to the final published work. But that makes me love them even more.
They are so small but they create a much better product by having it adapt to the changing landscape and react to the player’s decisions.
It’s almost comfortable; a change that doesn’t jar you out of the experience but lets you settle into it. And with even the shortest Civ games taking place over a good few hours it helps aid that sense of progression.
Edit: This comes to an apotheosis with Civ VI, with the themes for the countries adapting and adding instruments as time continues. Similar to Civ Rev the themes are traditional songs from each civilisation, but these variations are excellent additions and aid that sense of passing time. My favourites are the Americans, Indian, and Greek.
[Back to original text].
We’ve all played games where the same two or three sound effects are used for battle sequences or playing over menus and load screens. Some of these soundtracks are great and I love them just as much.
But that reactive quality that I previously mentioned gives Civ Rev an extra quality that I never thought about let alone be able to vocalize a need for it.
It’s such a small touch and elevates Civ Rev in my mind to a much higher place for having it in.
Fritsch, M. (2013). History Of Video Game Music. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p.11-40). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.
Liebe, M. (2013). Interactivity and Music in Video Games. In Moormman, P. (Ed.) Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. (p. 41-62). Springer Fachmedien: Wiesbaden, Germany.