Why You Should Play – The Pillars of the Earth

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.

Jack and Aliena meet when both are still children and we get to see them change with age and experience. It’s an interesting scenario that hasn’t been explored much in gaming. (Source: amazon.de).

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 So 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.

The crypt merges from dark and disturbing to a place of comfort and solitude, all through the lighting and camera focus of the stage. (Source: mathlidesound.de)

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.

The tracks ‘Hell’ and ‘He That Committeth Sin’ blend in one of the darkest and disturbing moments of Book Two. (Source: gamingcypher.com)

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 start of Book Three: “Eye of the Storm”, sees death and war come to England, with the landscape in every chapter shrouded in dark fog. (Source: cosmocover.com)

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.

Dialogue choices and quick-time-events from the main crux of the gameplay loop, yet from simple premises your choices can destroy families, lead countries to war, and even cause the optional deaths of central characters. (Source: daedlic.com)

While the story is mainly character-based, a major point that dragged me into wanting to see the next chapter is 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.

The water mill, where Jack and Aliena’s romance begins to flourish. (Source: steampowered.com)

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.

Banner Photo Source: iphonelife.com

The Best Levels From The Entire Hitman Series

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, the original 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.

“Traditions of the Trade” is so iconic it was remastered for the 2004 game, Hitman: Contracts, almost unchanged in terms of gameplay. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

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.

Charlie with his ‘Angels’, with 47 waiting for the right moment to strike. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

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.

47 collecting ‘evidence’ of The Girl, truly ones of the most chilling moments in a series known for its dark tone. (Source: YouTube, Willzyyy)

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.

The Shamal Hotel & Casino sets the stage for one of the most intricate and layered missions in all of Hitman. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

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.

The Saints in their debut appearance, the E3 ‘Attack of the Saints’ trailer, gearing up to take down 47. (Source: gamezone.de)

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.

Death and destruction are always an inch away in Sapienza, where 47 hunts down the greatest minds of their generation. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

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.

The blend of the old and the new makes The Isle of Sgàil one of the most memorable and unique locations of the entire series. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

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.

Death awaits 47 on the dance floor of Club Hölle, the main location of “Apex Predator”. Source: pcgamer.com.

Banner Photo Source: playstationlifestyle.com

Assassin’s Creed: Liberation – Discovering A Classic

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

  1. Scope

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.

Despite its smaller scale, New Orleans feels as detailed, polished, and alive as later games in the series. (Source: ign.com)

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 ‘Citizen E’ missions add an air of mystery and suspicion to the narrative, making the player question Aveline, her allies, and her enemies. (Source: assassinscreedwiki.com)

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.

Liberation takes short detours to Chitzen Itza and Mexico, adding First Civilization temples and items, and uses them as standout platforming sequences (Source: assassinscreed.fandom.com)

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…

3. Aveline

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”.

Aveline uses a variety of disguises to achieve her goals. I love this aspect and wish it would make a return in the series. (Source: siliconera.com)

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.

Late in the game Aveline leaves New Orleans for Boston to hunt down a spy and enlists Connor Kenway’s aid. They fight side-by-side in a knockout cameo sequence (Source: assassinscreed.wikia.com)

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.

Aveline strangling an enemy with her whip, getting ready to equip her machete to deliver the killing blow (Source: gamerstemple.net)

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.

Aveline has all the tools of the trade at her disposal and can easily go toe-to-toe with any Templar that gets in her way. (Source: spieltipps.de)

Conclusion

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.

Banner Photo Source: gamestar.de

Assassin’s Creed, Evie Frye, & Older Female Characters In Games

I recently finished Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s Jack The Ripper downloadable add-on. It was a fun little side story featuring some stand out moments and mechanics, but what really sucked me into the story was the change to the playable character, Evie Frye.

Evie and her twin brother Jacob, the two playable characters in Syndicate, are in their mid-to-late twenties during the course of the main story. The Jack the Ripper DLC is set twenty years after the conclusion of the Fryes’ narrative, making the twins both over forty in the game. Jacob is missing from the story, having being kidnapped by Jack, meaning the entire narrative is played from Evie’s point of view.

And that struck me as something quite unique. When was the last time I had played as a female character over forty years old? Heck, when had I ever played as a female character that made a point of them being over thirty?

The gaming landscape is becoming more diverse with each game that comes out. Characters that are male or female (or in some cases neither), black, brown, or white-skinned, and LGBT+ are increasingly common on our screens. The only outlier is age, I can’t remember a playable character with graying hair or a few wrinkles.

Well, apart from male characters.

Some of the biggest characters in gaming are men in their later years, such as Ezio Auditore in Assassin’s Creed and Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell/Rainbow Six (around fifty years old), Max Payne in Max Payne 3 (forty-eight years old), Joel from The Last of Us (late forties), Geralt in The Witcher (late forties), and Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4 (who even though is canonically forty-two years old, looks closer to eighty), yet I couldn’t think of a single female character that could fit the same age bracket.

So I went for a look.

More Than A Number? – A Search For Older Female Characters

First, some people might take umbrage at my liberal use of the phrase ‘older female characters’. One person’s idea of old might be another’s thought of coming into the best years of their life. I’m going to use the phrase ‘older female characters’ just as a catch-all term, but I’m trying to match male for female characters, like the male characters listed before.

And secondly, this is only for PLAYABLE characters.

The first older female character that came to mind was Iden Verso, the lead character of EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II. Iden is a member of Inferno Squad, the special forces of the Sith Empire, and her story plays out from the end of Return of the Jedi, as she slowly changes sides from the Empire to the Rebels.

Iden’s story comes to close a few months after the destruction of the second Death Star when she is still in her thirties, but the rest of her story continues in a downloadable epilogue, dubbed Resurrection. Here, Iden, now with graying hair, brings herself back into the fight against the First Order. However, these final levels amount to three playable sections out of thirteen overall levels.

Iden as she appears in SW: Resurrection. Iden was one of the only older female characters I could remember playing (source: reddit.com).

Evie and Iden are of the same cloth; the most elite warriors of their day, brought out of retirement to bring the fight to enemies once again (funnily enough they almost mirror each other, being brought away from familial duties by the disappearance/death of a loved one, to do battle against a former friend turned enemy).

And after Iden and Evie, I had to do a deep dive to find some more older female characters, which was much harder to do that I previously thought it would be.

First was Selene, the main character of the recent sci-fi-Souls-like Returnal. Selene is middle-aged in the game, but is just as smart, capable, and agile as any of the thousands of playable white men in her same age category. Without giving much away, Returnal is all about the passage of time, and so an older character with skills and knowledge that a younger person does not possess factors in pretty well.

Another character is the ‘Crime Granny’, Helen Dashwood, from Watch Dogs: Legion. This character, despite being nearly eighty years old, became the stand-out character of the E3 Reveal Trailer, and when she became freely playable in-game, we found she was just as capable as any of the other resistance fighters. However, Helen must come with a caveat; she is an optional character to play as, as all characters in Legion are, and so doesn’t carry the same weight as Evie, Iden, or Selene.

Helen fights to free London and isn’t afraid to pull out the big guns to get the job done (source: tweaktown.com).

Rainbow Six: Siege has twenty-five out of its sixty-one operators identifying as female. Most of these characters are actually in their thirties, with only a few outliers in their late twenties. The oldest is the Peruvian operator Amaru, who is forty-eight, but the oldest male operator is Zero (Sam Fisher under a different codename), who is sixty-three in the game.

One place I didn’t think would have older female characters were fighting games. While all fighting games have at least one old man archetype (usually doing some powerful ancient martial art), I didn’t realise that Chun-Li from Street Fighter is fifty-three in the most recent game. The same goes for Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat, who in MK11 is now well into her fifties. But while these are both kicakss older characters, would we ever see Chun-Li reach the same age as Gen, one of the older men of Street Fighter, who is believed to be in his seventies?

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So from everything above you could say there are quite a few older female characters. But all of these characters come with asterisks; most are character selections, or if they are the main character then they are relegated to a downloadable extra or an epilogue. Why is that? Why have older female characters not taken centre stage like older males?

Plausibility is out of the window. Iden and Evie are raised from birth to be fighters. Selene is an accomplished astronaut. Helen is a retired police engineer. All of Rainbow’s operators are hand-picked due to their combat skills. Chun-Li and Sonya have dedicated themselves to perfecting martial arts. Each of these women have learnt the skills to be competent and capable video game protagonists.

Is is just…the ‘M’ word? Possibly. But I would also posit that age factors into that discussion as well, as a younger woman on the cover is an easier sell than an old-age pensioner in the same position.

But then I have to think, are people coming to these games for the female characters, and not say the frenetic multiplayer, or the fact it’s another Souls-like game, or high review scores, or the myriad reasons that people chose to play their games?

Again, possibly. But somewhere there is someone playing the game because there is a woman in the main role. Anecdotal evidence aside…it’s me. I was drawn to Evie Frye for being the first female Assassin in the series, in the same way as I’m drawn to Kassandra and female Eivor. And upon learning that Evie was approaching middle-age in Jack the Ripper, I was hooked.

Time has changed Evie, both inside and out, and it was cool to see how she had developed into a different role and personality (source: steamcommunity.com).

An older character can give us something unique, bringing up questions that have rarely been explored in gaming like ageing and the concept of change. Losing skills that were once easy, a defiance against advanced/unemotional responses in war and peace…or even just to see a character grow and mould over time.

Not to mention, women are going to have different responses and issues to grapple with than their male counterparts, would this not also be something new and interesting for the industry to show?

And even if a game doesn’t tackle personal drama and age is relegated to cosmetics, just making the character look older would be something special.

I want to see Lara Croft raiding tombs in her 50s.

I want to see Chun-Li with graying hair still being able to go toe-to-toe with Ryu.

I want to see Ellie in TLoU3 be older than Joel was in TLoU2.

It’s possible and there is no real reason why it can’t be so.

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Banner Photo Source: steamcommunity.com (User: EndsWithABulletOnline)

Tomb Raider’s Unified Timeline: Explained

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.

Oh, and I would just like to say I called the Unified timeline two years ago when I wrote a post outlining what I would want to see in the next Tomb Raider game (in Section Four).

Tempus FugitTomb Raider’s Unified Timeline (in what I have to admit amounts to fan-fiction)

Early Lara

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…

First Expeditions

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.

Seasoned Raider

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.

When The Past Was Around & Grief As Gameplay

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.

With each feather the story moves forward, bringing Eda closer and closer to tragedy. (Source: gonintendo.com)

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.

Eda and Owl’s first meeting. The character’s faces and style is so simple yet has layers of emotion. (Source: heypoorplayer.com)

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.

A date at the beach. Through these moments you feel the promise of two strangers growing closer together. (Source: taminggaming.com)

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.

The story is not just of love between Eda and Owl, but of Eda and herself, highlighted by her learning the violin again. (Source: indie-hive.com)

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.

Banner Photo Source: nintendo.de

Five Things I Want To See In The Next Splinter Cell Game

I love Splinter Cell. I am a massive fan of James Bond and spy stories in general, so the main crux of Splinter Cell, being a super secret stealthy agent, greatly appeals to me. 

I’ve loved every game in the series, from the hard-as-nails original game to the modern and fluid games like Blacklist. Every game brings something new to the table, with ethical tales of the horrors of war, torture, war profiteering and the US government spying on its own people, with the series rarely dropping into po-faced American jingoism.

There have been recent rumours of a new Splinter Cell game coming in the near future. Indeed, it has been seven years since the last full game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist hit our shelves, with nearly every other game in the Tom Clancy pantheon getting regular updates.

Talking of those other games, Splinter Cell has been keen to get involved, with leading man Sam Fisher featured as a special guest in the most recent Ghost Recon games (Wildlands and Breakpoint), as well as a leaked Splinter Cell-inspired operator for Rainbow Six: Siege. Why would there be all this push for the series if no new game was to be announced?

Well, as a fan who has waited a very long time for a new game, I thought I would have a go at what I would want to see in a new Splinter Cell game.

Play It Again Sam – What I Would Like To See In The Next Splinter Cell Game

1. Sam

An easy one to start with, Sam Fisher needs to be in Splinter Cell. He is the face of the franchise and cannot be allowed to be absent from the game.

There was a big row during the release of the last game, Blacklist, as Michael Ironside, the iconic voice of Sam Fisher, was recast with Eric Johnson. Lots of fans were angry over the change, seeing Sam losing a big part of his character with Ironside being replaced.

Ironside however has voiced Sam during his last two cameos in the Ghost Recon games, so it seems as if Ironside is returning to the role.

This puts Sam in a precarious place though. Sam is fifty-five years old in Blacklist, and in his most recent appearances sees him going grey and wrinkled. Sam is a superman, but his is still only human. I think it would break the laws of physics to see a pensioner taking on heavily-armed militias all around the world.

So there are two compromises; Eric Johnson (or another actor) returns to give us a younger Sam, essentially rebooting the series, or Sam moves into a support role with Ironside voicing him and a new Splinter Cell agent steps into the frame. It looked like in Blacklist they were going to do that with the character of Briggs, but it is unclear what they will do now.

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Sam is getting old. Is it time for him to retire and give his goggles to a protege? (Source: dailytech.page).

2. No Open World

The company in charge of Splinter Cell, Ubisoft, are known for their open worlds. Everything from Assassin’s Creed, The Crew, Far Cry, and other Tom Clancy properties The Division and recently Ghost Recon have all been set in expansive environments, ranging from cities to entire countries.

While Ubisoft would want to get another open world extravaganza out of their properties, it would not work for Splinter Cell.

Splinter Cell is all about sneaking and stealth, unseen and unheard. High-security buildings and compounds are Splinter Cell’s bread and butter, it doesn’t need a whole country to explore.

This quite nicely leads onto my third point…

3. Level Design and Locations

What I also love about Splinter Cell is the…mundanity of the locations. Let me explain. Most spy thrillers and games take place in exotic locations, partly inspired by the ‘travelogue’ aspect of James Bond films. Splinter Cell rejects those ideas.

Locations from the games are noticeably different and much more lifelike. Sure, every now and again you’ll get a standout level such as an oil tanker stuck in frozen waters off the coast of Japan, a high-security bank in Panama, a terrorist-owned villa-turned-fortress in Malta, or the 88-floored Jin Mao Hotel in Shanghai.

But for every mind-blowing location, the others are nice and tame in comparison; office buildings and embassies across the world, a police station in T’blisi , abandoned factories and dockyards in London, a shopping mall in Chicago, and an overnight train heading from Paris to Nice. This is the essence of Splinter Cell, the normal and drab turned into the battleground for tense spy vs. spy standoffs, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

When Splinter Cell decides to come out of the shadows, it needs to stick to single levels.

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Border crossings, embassies, highly populated areas, these are the places where Splinter Cell shines. (Source: splintercellwikia.com)

4. A Blend Of Stealth And Combat (and Player Freedom)

Splinter Cell has always been about sneaking around in the shadows, slipping unnoticed by the guards and enemies, or silently taking them out when nobody is looking.

The fifth game in the series, Conviction, turned this on its head and made aggression a core tenant. The next in the series, Blacklist, also followed this push towards combat, but adding back the stealth experience.

While I sometimes like the ability to go full Rambo on enemies, it doesn’t scream Splinter Cell to me. The majority of the game should be stealth, sneaking around in the dark with your night-vision goggles, being a ghost.

However, giving Sam every single ability under the sun is a great way to let players play how they want. Lethal and non-lethal hand-to-hand combat, gadgets to distract, incapacitate and complete objectives, aggressive ways to move forward like breaking open doors, and if needs be, some combat in there as well.

Conviction and Blacklist both implemented an upgrade system where players could choose to customise their equipment. While Conviction was limited to just combat, this made the upgrades skew towards that. In Blacklist, players could choose between stealth-focused and combat-focused upgrades. This would work…until mandatory stealth or combat sections would start, leading to many level restarts on my end.

If players are going to be given freedom of choice, then every situation and level has to be built for it. A great example would be the modern Deus Ex games, where nearly every situation and scenario can be tackled from any and every angle.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist gave the player the freedom to tackle objectives and missions how they wanted. This needs to continue in the next game. (Source: steamcommunity.com)

5. The Story (And The World Of Spies)

I won’t write a summary or synopsis, but rather a few things that might be cool to see.

The games are set in the modern day, focussing on what could be the next big threat to come along. These have included North Korea, former Soviet states, Indonesian rebels, Iranian hit squads, war profiteers, and traitorous United States officials, as well as the identikit Middle Eastern terrorists that littered shooters for the better part of a decade. While Blacklist was an interesting proposition (former spies becoming turncoats), I wouldn’t mind going in a different direction, namely the Cold War in the 1980s.

The Cold War gives Sam the greatest of stages as a spy. The setting gives the all-American spook some beautiful Communist-controlled nations to visit such as Cuba, Russia, and the best setting for any Cold War spy, Berlin, complete with Wall. The time period also allows Sam to face off against his Soviet counterparts. In Conviction and Blacklist players were introduced to Agent Kestrel of Voron, the Russian equivalent to Sam’s Third Echelon. Having East vs. West as the backdrop allows for tense spy battles as each tries to outwit the other. The 1980s also allows the game to have ‘prototype’ gadgets like the iconic trifocal goggles, OPSAT computer and trusty SC20k rifle. It doesn’t need to be an origin story or Sam’s first mission as a Splinter Cell, but just a retro-fitted adventure.

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Voron’s Kestrel (L) and 3E’s Archer (R), the two leads of Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s co-op story. These two opposing forces led to an excellent dynamic of trust and mistrust. (Source: pinterest.com)

The stories have always been the usual Clancy fare about rogue nations and terrorist cells, hoping to cause damage to America. Sam works for the NSA, who are specifically based on protecting the United States, whereas the CIA focus their tasks on foreign interests. This has always led Sam and the NSA into morally dark territory, where they are spying on the CIA, FBI, the government, US citizens, and carrying out illegal assassinations (known as the ‘Fifth Freedom’ in-game). That darker edge is always an interesting angle, with Sam not always agreeing with his superiors. Add the murky ethical questions with all the declassified defections, false nuclear alerts and NATO/Warsaw Pact war games from the entire history of the Cold War, it is a great canvas for the game to build on.

Another note to mention, during his excursion in Wildlands, Sam was shipping out on a mission due to an “empty quiver” (codeword for a missing, lost, or stolen nuclear weapon). Could this be the plot of the next SC game? It wouldn’t be first time for a Tom Clancy property; the book The Sum Of All Fears also focuses on a similar premise. Aside from the original Rainbow Six, the games have strayed further from Clancy’s original text. Is this a sign they’ll be making their way back?

Conclusion

In the final cutscene during his mission in Wildlands, Sam remarks that “they don’t make ’em [spies like him] anymore.” It’s a sad remark on the nature of stealth games. Metal Gear Solid has gone the way of the dodo. Thief has slipped back into the shadows.

Hitman is still going strong, but had to go through a whole heap of publisher interference, a radical change of release, and finally developer IO Interactive going independent, all while Hitman 2 was still in development.

Aside from these games, there isn’t a true stealth game left in the market. Sure there are games like Alien: Isolation and Deus Ex which have stealth elements, but they are both influenced by other genres, namely survival and RPG respectively.

With Rainbow Six Siege now entering its fifth year, alongside the release of The Division 2 and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint in 2019, Ubisoft look set on bringing back their Clancy properties.

It took eight years between Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 and Siege. It took five between Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Wildlands. It has been seven years since Splinter Cell: Blacklist. With all the Clancy properties on the rise (not mention Sam’s appearance), along with no true stealth competitor left in the market, the time is now for Splinter Cell to come back.

 

Photo Banner Source: shopify.com

Why Splinter Cell Conviction’s Non-Canon Ending Is Its Best

I love Splinter Cell and its lead Sam Fisher. I am a Tom Clancy fan and love playing the games bearing his endorsement filled with his pulpy action and ultra-competent badasses.

While Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have the fun of being a member of an elite squad, Splinter Cell always held more of a draw for me. Perhaps it was because a fan of James Bond, being a lone operative and relying only on your wits and tactics to survive seemed much more thrilling.

While I did enjoy the first four games in the franchise, with Chaos Theory being the best of that set, I am only truly a mega-fan due to the fifth entry, Conviction. This may raise some eyebrows among other SC fans as Conviction is seen as a lesser game for its shift towards action and linearity, but I love Conviction for its story and presentation.

While the narrative is the usual Clancy stuff about secret government conspiracies, industrial espionage, and spy vs. spy standoffs, the story of Conviction is a good deconstruction of the entire series to that point. However, the deconstruction only works if you pick the non-canon ending.

Everybody Walks – How Splinter Cell: Conviction’s Ending Deconstructs The Entire Series

All games have messages. There has been debate recently with games like Modern Warfare (2019) and The Division 2 (another Clancy game), over messages and political leanings in games. Splinter Cell, along with other games in the same stealth genre, are not immune to adding messages and themes in their games.

The Metal Gear Solid series was famously anti-war and dealt with themes of marginalised servicemen and women, the military-industrial complex, and the repercussions of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The earlier Hitman games had subtle hints on the dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism such as original sin, the capacity for God, and absolution (so much that they subtitled the fifth Hitman game Absolution).

Splinter Cell’s overarching theme is family and friendship. From the beginning of the series there has always been a sense of camaraderie, of not just co-workers, but of intimate connections. These can be seen both in the larger frame of the story as well as in individual scenes.

During the first three games Sam has a tendency to crack some jokes and have some light-hearted banter with his handlers over the radio. He argues with Grim over whether lasers or a 90s spy thing or 70s spy thing in Chaos Theory, discusses relationships and religion with Frances in Pandora Tomorrow, or asks a guard he has taken hostage if the coffee machine in the room uses ground or dried beans, again in Chaos Theory.

Michael Ironside Sam
Michael Ironside was the voice of Sam Fisher until Blacklist. He sat down with Ubisoft to flesh out Sam’s character, making him more human and less gung-ho. (Source: YouTube.com)

In terms of the story as a whole, friends and connections to Sam appear in every game. His daughter, Sarah, has been a major figure from the start. Her inclusion gives Sam something to focus on outside of work. In the ending cutscene of the first game when Sam laughs at the news covering up all the spy intrigue, Sarah says she hasn’t heard him laugh like that, “…since the Reagan administration!”

Sarah is also the focal point of the Conviction storyline. Sarah is supposedly killed by a drunk driver at the start of the previous game, Double Agent, but it is revealed her death was faked so an enemy agent couldn’t use her as leverage over Sam. Upon hearing his daughter’s voice for the first time in three years, Sam audibly clams up, stuttering over his words. His reunion with her later in the game has no dialogue, just a look between the two before they embrace.

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During Conviction we see Sam and Sarah before he lost her, strengthening the bond between the two. (Source: splinter cell.wikia.com).

During the events of Pandora Tomorrow, the second game, Sam saves an old army buddy, Douglas Shetland, from a guerrilla camp. In the sequel, Chaos Theory, Shetland is a valuable asset to Sam, helping with logistics and even offering him a job at his mercenary company if Sam wanted to leave the spy work behind. However, Shetland had been using his contacts to fuel a war between the United States, Japan, Korea, and China, and Sam confronts him at the end of the game. Sam and Shetland level their weapons at each other as Shetland starts to monologue about his reasoning. He ends with, “You wouldn’t shoot an old friend…” Sam can either shoot him, or if Shetland goes to shoot, Sam ducks and stabs Shetland with his knife, before pushing him off the roof they were on. Sam replies, “You’re right Doug, I wouldn’t shoot an old friend.”

During Double Agent, Sam has conflicting allegiances between the NSA and the terrorist group John Brown’s Army (JBA). He obviously doesn’t align with the JBA, but does emotionally connect with Enrica, the weapons expert of the JBA. The two become romantically involved and plan to run away together by the end of the game. Enrica is killed by another Splinter Cell just before the finale. Sam murders the Splinter Cell in a fit of rage before fleeing.

Another major event that happens in Double Agent is the death of Irving Lambert, Sam’s boss and friend. Lambert is taken hostage by the JBA, and Sam is forced to either shoot him or blow his cover. It is confirmed in Conviction that Sam did in fact shoot Lambert. When the scene is referenced in Conviction, the narrator, Victor Coste, says, “Lambert died that day by Sam’s hand. And so did Sam.”

Victor Coste is another of Sam’s army buddies and tells the story of Conviction via flashbacks. During the Gulf War Coste saved Sam after enemy forces captured the latter. Upon saving Sam, Coste chuckles, “You don’t leave a brother behind Sam. You don’t leave family.” Another theme present in Conviction is paranoia, with the voice of Sam, Michael Ironside stating in an interview, “Sam doesn’t trust anyone…” (1:31). His former handler, Grim, has seemingly become a turncoat, both helping and hindering Sam. It is seen through flash-forwards that she shoots Sam and captures him for the bad guy, Tom Reed.

Splinter Cell Grim Airfield
When Sam meets Grim face-to-face after she had him captured and tortured, his trust in her has already started to crack. (Source: steamcommunity.com).

Grim holds Sarah hostage and forces Sam back into duty if he wants to see her again. During the climax of the game Grim reveals that it was Lambert who faked Sarah’s death to make sure Sam couldn’t be compromised. She plays Sam a recording Lambert made before he died, explaining his motives and saying how he, “…lied to his [my] best friend.” Grim follows up by saying that she never held Sarah hostage, “That was just a bluff to get you in the game and for whatever it’s worth…I’m sorry.”

And we finally get to the ending of Conviction. After killing all the remaining Splinter Cells and saving the President, Sam has the traitorous head of the NSA, Tom Reed, at gunpoint. There are two options; kill him dead or spare him. Killing him is the canonical ending. Sam has been ‘activated’ again by the events of the game and is back to being a spy. In the final custscene of the game he breaks Coste out of the prison cell that he has been telling his story from (with Coste repeating his line about being ‘brothers’).

In the non-canon ending, Grim shoots Reed. The game ends with the following conversation.

Sam: You didn’t have to do that.

Grim: I disagree.

Sam: There was a time where you wouldn’t have said that.

Grim: Things change Sam.

Sam: Yeah, things change. Remember what you told me Anna, when this was over? Everybody walks. I’m walking.

Grim: You can’t. There is too much left to do.

Sam: Ask Lambert. I’ve done too much already.

Grim: Sam, please. I don’t know who else I can trust.

Sam: Trust? Funny you should say that. Goodbye Grim.

Throughout the entire series of Splinter Cell, Sam has always had his morals. Even when friends have become enemies, such as Shetland, he has always rationalised killing them, seeing them as bad guys.

After all that he has seen over the narrative of Conviction and the revelations of Grim and Lambert, he is an old and broken man. He may have got his daughter back, but he has lost everything else. And when Grim tries to reconcile and make it just like the ‘good old days’ Sam snubs her. It makes total sense that he would walk just like he did after Lambert’s death.

Splinter Cell Grim
Throughout the game Grim is constantly switching sides, leaving Sam never knowing if he can truly trust her. (Source: steamcommunity.com)

While I enjoy the sequel, Blacklist, I feel that the original run of Splinter Cell should have ended here with Sam coming to terms with his former allies and retiring into the sunset. Blacklist could have been a reboot as they changed the entire principal cast, with a new voice for Sam and Grim (as well as not having Sam Fisher, who is pushing fifty-four in Conviction, still be a spy).

By the time of Conviction we see those friends and relationships finally break down and rot, held together by only lies and deceit. It is a beautiful melancholic arc that punctuates the end of not just Michael Ironside’s last performance as Sam Fisher, but the last performances of the original voices of Grim and Lambert, Claudia Besso and Don Jordan respectively.

So while it was good to see Sam back in action both in Blacklist and more recently in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it is here where Sam’s story came to a fitting end. When Sam leaves the Oval Office, he has nothing but Sarah. After years of field work where he would never get the recognition for his sacrifices, losing friends and lovers, until he can longer trust those he never thought would betray him, he still has a reason to go on.

It is the best ending the man could hope for despite the circumstances and one of my favourite narrative conclusions.

 

Banner Photo Source: moddb.com

Assassin’s Creed II…A Decade Later

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

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

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

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

Pre-Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay and Missions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest change was to combat, speaking of which…

Combat

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

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

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

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The lance and battle-axe came with their now unique finishers (Source: wikinut.com).

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

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

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

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

AC2 Combat 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cities

The setting of Renaissance Italy was a stroke of genius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is one track that stands above them all.

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

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

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

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

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

The Story & The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Banner Photo Source: youtube.com

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019): An Analysis

I was rather excited when I picked up Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) on opening day. It has been nearly a decade since Modern Warfare 3 came out and I was interested to see what this supposed reboot would bring to the table.

After Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty kept pushing and pushing further into science fiction, with 2017’s WWII as the outlier by being set during, well…World War 2.

Then the series jumped forward again the following year and ditched single player in Black Ops 4. So with a return to both single player and the setting that made Call of Duty the household name it is, I was looking forward to it.

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Modern Warfare (2019) takes the characters from the original game from 2007 and updates them for the present day. (Source: callofduty.fandom.com)

I wasn’t the only one excited for the new game. At the time of writing the reveal trailer for Modern Warfare sits at over thirty-three million views, with a 99.7% positive like-bar. That is phenomenal. The game has received generally favourable reviews, despite some controversy over rewriting history about locations and atrocities mentioned in-game.

I’ll be going on a whistle-stop tour of everything I felt during the campaign, so there will be some spoilers. It is less of a review and more of an impression. Enjoy!

“Let’s Do Dis!” – A Look At The New Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare was a sensation back in 2007. While games set in a modern conflict had existed before then, nothing had really grabbed hold of the zeitgeist aside from the sci-fi romp Halo 3 two months earlier.

It was clearly a market that wanted something before it knew what ‘it’ was. MW1 was both a crazy power fantasy willed into existence to satiate public opinion on two Middle East conflicts that had outlived their welcome, but also a brutal critique on the nature of said conflicts and the forces that conducted them. The new Modern Warfare continues the former thread, but never follows through on the latter.

While MW1 had major set pieces take place on highways, dusty streets, and palaces (all iconic imagery of both invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan), the new Modern Warfare tries to echo more recent events with levels set in urban areas as a first responder, suburban anti-terror operations, and protecting an embassy from waves of enemies.

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A night-time raid on a house in Camden Town is tense and thrilling, with tight corners and hidden enemies. (Source: escapistmagazine.com)

It feels odd to play some of these missions as the game is obviously making references to certain real-world events (anyone who says that “The Embassy” mission is not a reference to Benghazi is just wrong, plain and simple) because when someone says “terrorist”, these are the first things that come to mind; atrocities and rabid hordes.

But this isn’t new. The Modern Warfare series has always used real life events to influence its campaign. After Somali pirates infamously took control of the Maersk Alabama freighter ship in mid 2009, the next modern CoD game, Modern Warfare 3, had a level set in a shipyard in Somalia.

MW1 had its Middle Eastern sections set in a nameless region, but by the time MW2 and MW3 rolled around they were much more upfront with their locations, with Afghanistan getting prominent billing as the first location of MW2. The new Modern Warfare creates a fictitious country to set part of its conflict in, Urzikstan (cos if its got a ‘Stan at the end it must be full of terrorists, right?) with the characters speaking Arabic, just to fill in another stereotype (and not say any of the other languages spoken in the bordering countries of Georgia, Russia, or Turkey).

We sadly don’t get much information on Urzikstan during the campaign. It is the background to a three-way war between Russia, freedom fighters (backed by the USA) and a terrorist group, Al-Qatala. It would have been interesting to see what the battle in Urzikstan was about, and what each group was fighting over.

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Despite being set on the Black Sea, Urzkistan is portrayed using the same desert-blasted cities synonymous with the War on Terror. (Source: forbes.com)

The whole game is like this, no narrative fluff to give flavour or even context, it is just a succession of scenes ripped from the headlines. An action game like this can get away with exposition in the form of mission briefings, but here “show don’t tell” has been skewed so much that we aren’t shown why we are fighting, just that we are.

I only learnt that the Russians invaded Urzikstan to stop terrorists heading into Russia from a loading screen. It would have been good to know that before the game dropped me into a firefight and told me to shoot all the Russians on sight.

The invasion plot gets even more ridiculous when it turns out the Russian leader, General Barkov, has apparently got so much influence over the Russian Government that they simultaneously endorse his actions and believe he has gone rogue. It’s another reductionist quality brought over from the original game, “These are ultra-nationalists, not like regular Russians. These are only the bad ones.”

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The player takes over a child fighting for her life during the initial Russian invasion, using a pair of scissors to defend herself. (Source: gamerant.com).

At least the game deals with its Arabic characters better (relatively speaking). There is a split between the freedom fighters and the terrorist organisation Al-Qatala. It’s better that having all enemies as the monolithic Arab ‘other’, dressed in identikit robes and turbans that MW1 ignited. But again, we have no reason other than a short freeform poem read by bad guy “The Wolf” at the beginning of the game telling us what Al-Qatala’s aims are. It is mentioned during “The Embassy” that Al-Qatala was once supported by the West, but it is never addressed again in-game.

On the freedom fighters side, having their leader be a kickass woman was a charming turn. Come to think of it, a lot of the characters are rather refreshing. The main British character, Kyle Garrick (who is revealed to be fan favourite character Gaz at the end of the game) is Black British, which adds a nice bit of diversity to the series and the industry (I can think of only one other Black British character in gaming, that being Dudley in the Street Fighter series).

The main American character, CIA operative “Alex”, (his name is always in quotations, which is cute) has some good conversations with rebel leader Farah, giving them a few more shades that just “Gruff Military Type #147” and “Silent Female Warrior #12”. For a moment I thought we were about to get a “ships in the night” romance from the two, considering all the longing looks and shy smiles that they share in later scenes. Their relationship is natural and isn’t rushed, feeling like the two have actually started to care for each other away from the battlefield (I never thought I would find and praise a display of mutual sexual tension and chemistry in a CoD game!).

Series icon Captain Price has a nice showing of softer tones when coaching Garrick, with Barry Sloane doing a fantastic job of replicating the iconic Billy Murray voice from the original game while putting his own spin on the character.

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From L to R: “Alex”, Cpt. Price, Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, and Farah, the main characters of Modern Warfare (2019). I would love to see these characters again in the next game. (Source: metro.co.uk)

But apart from these isolated scenes, most of the rest of the game veers from scene to scene trying to outdo itself on shock value. The opening warning labels of CoD have almost become a staple of the series in of itself. Ever since MW2 let you shoot up an airport, the series has been trying to make a level that is guaranteed to send tabloids into apoplectic rage.

In the new Modern Warfare we have terror attacks in Piccadilly Circus, chemical warfare, child soldiers, a waterboarding mini-game, and play Russian Roulette as part of an interrogation. Another part that ticked me off were the American Marines cheering and oo-rahing like a bunch of drunken fratboys as they gun down and blow up bad guys, without a hint of self-awareness.

MW1 had some, shall we say, morally questionable scenes. One that sticks with me has secondary villain, Khaled Al-Asad, tied to a chair as Captain Price beats him to a pulp. However, one dramatic scene that is remembered from the original game is a nuclear weapon going off and killing the playable character. It was shocking, but didn’t feel as uncomfortable as threatening a man’s unarmed wife and son with a loaded pistol, something which I did during the campaign of the new title. You are able to skip the torture in one scene, but all it does is fade to black and skips to the next part.

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The player threatens the wife and son of a terrorist in a bid to trade intelligence for their safety. (Source: gamerant.com)

And yet the game seems to just brush it off without lingering. In the original Modern Warfare the SAS toughs are seen as violent thugs, ready to throw allies off cliff edges and repeatedly stab enemies in an act of mutilation. In the new story, they still have that ruthless streak but it is moralised in dialogue by them saying that the world needs people morally questionable people to act. It feels even weirder when I realised that we weren’t playing as a squad of SAS or US Marines, but just a ragtag collection of shooters. Captain Price is seemingly known throughout the military world and can be called by a CIA handler to help kill some terrorists on his off days.

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The great moustachioed one returns, seemingly because he had nothing better to do than shoot some foreign types on his holiday. (Source: gamespot.com).

Part of the reason Call of Duty gained prominence when it first came out was that the player was part of a squad and wasn’t a one-man-army. In the new Modern Warfare quite a few of the missions feel like we are fighting entire battalions by ourselves.

The game pulls me in two different directions. It looks beautiful, sounds great, is responsive, and the acting is phenomenal, but nearly everything that is wrapped around the game puts me off. And while it seems to want to be taken seriously, it starts throwing out memes and references to the original such as reusing the iconic lines, “check your corners,” and “your fruit-killing skills are remarkable”. The references weren’t even in the lighter scenes, thrown in the middle of a terrorist event and stealth mission as a nudge and a wink.

Even still, I am excited by the return to the modern day. I enjoyed the original Modern Warfare Trilogy and enjoyed the Medal of Honor reboot that was set during the 2001 Afghanistan invasion.

I want to see where the series goes after this, but this time it just wasn’t my type.

Banner Photo Source: game4u.co.za