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.
Throughout the game, the concept of fallen feathers stretches from starts to finish. The end of every chapter is signalled with a feather, such as in Eda’s finding one in a cardboard box when she’s unpacking, or when she is wearing Owl’s old scarf. Collecting these feathers are what unlock the next memory as she gets closer to Owl’s departure from the story, and that’s their real meaning.
The feathers are tokens of the memories that Eda and Owl have together, and as she collects them, more are taken away from him, until there can be none left. It’s and excellent metaphor for the passage of time, and yet cruelly bittersweet.
The game switches between the memories of Eda and Owl together, and Eda at the graveyard at the ‘end’ of their story. During her time at the graveyard she is seemingly haunted by a shadowy silhouette of a man, enclosed in a giant bird cage.
When Eda finally reaches the silhouette after reliving all of her memories and collecting Owl’s feathers, the feathers attach themselves to the shadow man, revealing that he is Owl. It’s a great moment, showing how Eda’s memory of Owl had changed over time, and how he effectively became ‘entombed’ inside her head, only being set free once she looked back over her time with him.
There is zero dialogue in the game, which I think is to its benefit. While it would have been easy to add voices to the characters, the silence of the protagonists allows the story to reach a broader audience and speak to more people. It’s that old adage of actions speaking louder than words, as Owl and Eda mentally and physically get closer (literally, they move closer to each other as the game progresses).
Some people may not be able to relate to Eda and Owl’s if they had talked about their love of the violin or the name of the stars in the night sky, but they can relate much more to a feeling or an emotion that the characters are going through, which the game captures perfectly.
Part of that excellent communication of emotion comes from the fantastic artwork by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena. The character models have a stunningly simplicity to them, yet are incredibly expressive. The animations are through a standard fade effect between each character stance, bringing a dream-like quality to most scenes, but also capturing incredible immediate snapshots as there will be many moments of stillness, highlighting the emotion of the scene.
While the characters are simple, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and given the feeling of being ‘lived-in’.
Those backgrounds are a key part of the game’s core loop, as the player must find hidden objects to progress in the story by moving objects around. The game presents it as being constructive or destructive, clean vs. cluttered.
The cleaning and constructive might task you with tidying up Eda’s bedroom, putting posters on her walls, or hanging the washing up.
Construction is the main engagement when Eda and Owl are dating, including coffee and tea at Owl’s home, going to the beach together, or camping out overnight and looking at the stars.
In each of these scenarios the player has to ‘build’ the setting around them; collecting seaweed and shells to go in a glass bottle (which the couple keep in their apartment), setting up the campsite and building paper windmills, or even fixing Owl and Eda’s drink of choice at his house.
These little constructions exaggerate the fact that we are essentially going through Eda’s memories of Owl, and so she would focus on all the small things that she remembers from those times, the things that make it ‘her’ memory.
When the gameplay switches to destruction, you might find yourself smashing countless plant pots, throwing books off shelves, or pulling down curtains.
These aspects perfectly match up in the order of the story, with Eda being tidier when she is with Owl, but messier both before she met him and after he is gone, for different yet obvious reasons. Her final scene with Owl where Eda searches for his pills uses the clean vs. cluttered to great effect, as players have to frantically search the apartment, pulling books off shelves and knocking over chairs in a desperate bid to find them.
Music also plays a strong part of the story, with both Owl and Eda playing the violin, and music being the thing that brings them closer together. There is a leitmotif that runs through the entire game (the same one played by Eda’s music box), which subtly changes with each chapter.
At the start when Eda has given up on playing the violin, the stringed instrument is removed from the soundtrack, instead a mournful piano plays in the background. As soon as Owl enters the story, the violin features again, playing a much more cheerful tone. As their relationship grows more instruments and accents are added.
By the final scene when Eda is alone once again, the piano has returned, but her memory of Owl is so strong that the violin jumps in, with the entire song picking up speed as it reaches the climax.
Even the title references music, with a stylised repeat sign incorporated into it. This sign in sheet music indicates a section to be played more than once, referencing Eda’s journey back through her life.
When The Past Was Around is a whole package of a game wrapped up in around an hour, maybe little over if you are intent on finding all the hidden clues that inform more about Eda and Owl’s relationship.
For anyone looking for a short game with fantastic visuals, a great sense of gameplay as narrative, or just something a little different than anything else on the market, When The Past Was Around is heartily recommended.
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
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.
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.
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, alsofollowed 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.
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.
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?
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.
He is undoubtedly the face of a franchise, a mascot of the seventh generation, the most famous fictional assassin to come across a computer screen…and yet only the second-most-famous Italian in gaming.
Ten years after his debut, Ezio Auditore da Firenze is still held in high regard at the best protagonist of the Assassin’s Creed series. He’s many people’s introduction to the series, appearing in three of the top-selling games of the time, reinvigorating the series and pushing it in new directions.
His connection over three games allows us as players to see new dimensions and sides to Ezio as he begins to age and his body begins to fail him. We see Ezio grow in stature, from noble child to Master, then Mentor and eventually Assassin General.
We grew up with Ezio, just as main character and descendant Desmond grew as well. It’s a fascinating character, both from what he brought to gaming and to real life.
So let’s dive in, here is why Ezio Auditore is such a great character.
“You are the man I long to meet…” – (Yusuf Tazimto Ezio, AC: Revelations), What Makes Ezio Auditore A Great Character
There are three major factors when looking at not just Ezio, but any AC character, that need to be addressed. Firstly, the game is not just the story of Ezio Auditore. The player actually controls Desmond Miles, Ezio’s descendant, and through Desmond we play Ezio.
As seen in the first Assassin’s Creed, not all memories flow in a sequential order. At many points the Animus, the machine that allows Desmond to relive Ezio’s memories, skips forward to a more recent one.
In AC1 this time-hopping is to facilitate story flow, but in the Ezio Trilogythis cuts significant story points out of the game. We see more than the vague snapshots of Altair in AC1, but we miss out on important points and character turns that Ezio has.
Concurrently, in comparison to Altair, Ezio is a new Assassin. Altair knows most of the acrobatic and combat skills to be an Assassin, while Ezio learns them as he goes. While this is mainly a gameplay loop, it undoubtedly affects the story and character.
Finally, the Animus adapts speech for Desmond and therefore the player to aid understanding. In the first game it was 12th Century Arabic and English into modern vernacular, and in the Ezio Trilogyit is 15th-16th Century Italian, Turkish and Greek. Words don’t always have exact translations, not just through different languages but also time periods. These are factors to keep in mind when thinking about the game.
But with those arguments out of the way, let’s begin.
We are introduced to Ezio twice within the first five minutes of AC2, with both scenes shedding light on his character. The first is his literal birth. Yet when he is born he is not moving, not breathing. His father urges him to hang on to life,
“You are an Auditore. You are a fighter. So fight!” (1:09).
It was only on a recent play through of this game that I caught this character moment. The scene is taken over by the player making Ezio kicks his legs, punch his fists, and scream the roof down, but for a moment we nearly lost him. This is such a small scene but reverberates through to the end of the trilogy.
After his birth the game jumps seventeen years into the future. We get a build-up of shots, teenage nobles congregating on a bridge, one steps out of the crowd, his back to the camera. It tracks up this mysterious man’s back before he turns and is revealed as Ezio, giving off the first of his trademark smiles.
It’s instantly iconic, a real character defining moment, distilling all we know into him from his mannerisms, to his tone of voice, his friendships and infamy. We don’t need the previous seventeen years, as we can get everything from these opening moments.
In a developer diary of the first game, Project Manager Jean-Francois Boivin described Ezio’s personality,
“…he’s a carefree guy, he does what he has to do, he’s got lots of money, he’s got lots of friends and in regards to the women he is very charming…he always says the right thing to surprise them, to make him stand out from the crowd.” (1:17).
It’s an easy and almost archetypal creation, evoking pop culture staples like the Three Musketeers. We get a basis of the character and from there it helps create a really good portrait when he moves from that basis.
In a retrospective when the Ezio Trilogy was re-released, Producer Sebastien Puel said in an interview,
“Ezio grows as a warrior, he’s an Assassin, he has that in his blood. He is very gifted and along the game he learns to become a better warrior. But what is really important for us as a development team is he becomes a better human.” (0:31).
Puel continues saying that at the start of AC2, Ezio is a very ‘callous’ young man. As seen during the first sequence he believes in the social hierarchy. Ezio looks down on the thieves and courtesans (such as when he delivers a message in “Special Delivery (1:09)), and putting faith in the nobles that betray his family. Over time he begins to respect and find family in these outcasts, leading them to take over not just Florence and Venice, but Rome and then Constantinople, liberating the districts from the Templar’s control.
The change in his character is also thrust upon him by circumstance. After the death of his father and brothers Ezio is the head of the Auditore household, trying to care for his mother and sister. As seen when the family flees Florence in Sequence 2, Ezio tries to keep his voice low and commanding, but is noticeably agitated and worried (2:50).
Once they are safe in Monteriggioni, Ezio returns a little to his old carefree self, with only one major break in Sequence 3 when he kills Vieri De Pazzi. Ezio tries to pull a confession from Vieri, but he dies before Ezio can learn anything from him. Ezio begins to berate Vieri’s corpse until his Uncle Mario tells him to not disrespect the dead, saying, “You are not Vieri, do not become him.” (2:15). Ezio takes this to heart, and for the rest of the series gives all his targets their last rites.
Another significant moment is in Sequence 13 of AC2, the Bonfire of the Vanities. The city has been taken over by a puritanical friar named Savonarola, aided by the Apple of Eden. Ezio takes out the friar’s lieutenants to cause havoc in the city and the giving last rites his manner changes from the emotionless blessings he gives the main Templars.
The first target is an artist that was bewitched by the Apple (4:08) and Ezio feel remorse at felling a man in the prime of his life. There is a similar feeling when Ezio kills a street preacher, who when bewitched led his flock astray. Yet when Ezio kills those who would have profited from the rioting or starved the innocent, he is noticeably angry (13:20).
By the end of the sequence, Savonarola is tied to a stake and left to burn by the enraged citizens. Ezio believes that it is too cruel a death and leaps onto the pyre and killing the monk with his Hidden Blade. He turns to crowd and delivers a speech,
“Twenty-two years ago, I stood where I stand now and watched my loved ones die, betrayed by those I called friends. Vengeance clouded my mind. It would have consumed me, were it not for the wisdom of a few strangers, who taught me to look past my instincts. They never preached answers, but guided me to learn from myself…there is no book or teacher to give you the answers, to show you the path! Choose your own way. Do not follow me. Or anyone else.”
It’s a special moment in AC2 that shows Ezio’s growth as he enters the final sequence, only let down by the fact this wasn’t in the original product. Sequences 12 and 13 were DLC, yet hold vital clues as to see Ezio’s growth as a character.
With the death of his Uncle Mario at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ezio takes on the mantle of Mentor Assassin. While he is light and humorous in AC2,he is stoic and commanding when interacting with his new recruits in ACB. His voice booms, telling them that the liberation of Roma has begun.
Every person he saves swears allegiance to him and the Assassins, offering their life in debt (for example, 18:54). It’s an odd contradiction to Ezio’s speech in the Bonfire of the Vanities, but could be said that Ezio is giving these people the option to follow him rather than forcing them into servitude.
Scriptwriter of the series, Jeffery Yohalem says in the Developer Diary for Brotherhood that one of the aspects of Ezio’s journey is whether he “…truly can lead [the Assassin Order].” (3:09). In the final act of ACB, Ezio finally realises his purpose as the leader of the Assassins, telling Cesare Borgia that,
“A true leader empowers the people he rules.” (9:57).
Ezio continues to bolster the ranks of the Brotherhood in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but his marketing tactic changes when talking to new recruits. His voice is softer, as if he is only imparting words for their ears to catch. Instead of declaring war on the city and its rulers, Ezio focuses on the internal struggles of the person, telling them they need not be afraid or that they should better themselves, telling them the Assassins will welcome any and all (3:12, 7:47, 9:14, 10:18).
It’s an indication that with age, Ezio has seen past the black vs. white morality shown in AC2 and ACB and if people do not want to follow him then they can leave, but are always welcome back.
The shift into old age and the change to Ezio’s outlook on life is a great theme for the series. While we’ve seen characters change over games, I find the span over an entire trilogy helps aid that change from naive teen to world-weary man.
“I did not choose this path. It was chosen for me.”
In Sequence 11 of AC2, it is revealed that all the Thieves, Courtesans and Mercenaries that Ezio has met along the way have been guiding Ezio into becoming a true Assassin. Under the guidance of Niccolo Machiavelli, the Order believes Ezio is the Prophet, the Chosen One to open the vault beneath the Vatican and bring peace to the world.
The burden of godhood doesn’t mesh well with Ezio though. Much like Desmond at the end of AC3, Ezio rejects anything that is special about him. His speech in Sequence 13 explicitly states that he is not the leader they seek, but he still enters the vault. Once Minerva has used him to deliver her message to Desmond she leaves, leaving Ezio literally and metaphorically in the dark with him calling out to her saying he has, “so many questions.”
It is a cruel and curt drop for Ezio, at that moment he believes for a second he may be the Chosen One, but he is shown to be nothing but a conduit, an anchor for his descendants.
Ezio only confides to a handful of his most trusted confidantes about what happened between him and Rodrigo Borgia down in the vault, knowing that others would not understand and would try to rediscover the power. Even his mentor Machiavelli is doubtful over Ezio’s story.
So Ezio relegates the image of the Chosen One to the back of his mind, instead taking up the mantle of Mentor and putting the Brotherhood before all else. When he sees his oldest friend Leonardo Da Vinci for the final time in ACB, he tells him,
“I built this Brotherhood to last, with or without me.” (3:40).
He’s had the idea of his destiny, the thing he was made for, the thing he fought to stay alive for when he had just been born, completed as soon as he stepped into the Vatican. He was given a glimpse at a world beyond the one he knew, but he has no claim to it.
This could be why he throws himself into the Brotherhood, into building the systems, dismantling the Templars in an effect to be remembered, to be forgiven for not achieving what everyone believed he could. By the beginning of Revelations he is resigned to meet his maker, stating in the launch trailer,
“Fate may command I die before the answers are discovered.” (1:22).
He is hardly a member of the Brotherhood anymore, only establishing connections with the Ottoman Assassins as more of a courtesy. Ezio finds purpose outside of the Brotherhood, directing the teenage Prince Sueliman into adulthood, settling down with the Venetian merchant Sofia Sartor, and discussing his disillusionment of the Creed with the Assassin contact Piri Reis.
It feels like the game and story were meant as a deconstruction of what had come before. Indeed, the final scenes of Ezio and Sofia at Masyaf are punctuated with Ezio breaking down the famous Creed, identifying its faults and compromises. When he finally makes it Altair’s Library, Ezio is greeted by another Piece of Eden, but leaves it, now content with not knowing what lays beyond, saying,
“I have seen enough for one life.”
But just before he leaves Masyaf and the Assassins behind, he calls out to Desmond again. Throughout the series Ezio has been a pragmatist, finding realistic solutions to the problems of the Brotherhood and creating guidelines for his followers to live by. This is the first time he has had to take a metaphorical ‘Leap of Faith’, unsure of what or how the message will be received, but just that it will.
I’m trying to think of another character we get to see change over such a span of games. The only other character that comes to mind is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series, with character duties swapping to other protagonists after his death in Metal Gear Solid 4. Even then, MGS is a pretty niche series in comparison, and we learnt of Snake’s eventual demise in the first Metal Gear Solid, so it was always on the cards. The same cannot be said for Ezio.
The closest I can think is possibly Vito Scaletta in the Mafia series, but he is only a playable character in one game. Ezio is playable across his entire life, from his birth to him leaving the Brotherhood, with his death featured in the animated film Assassin’s Creed: Embers. The sequence and change that is noticeable in gaming is something new and remarkable for a mainstream AAA series.
Ezio came to the series when it was hitting its stride. The seventh console cycle inducted a whole new generation to gaming, with Assassin’s Creed being one of the tentpole games every Holiday Season. It was possible that he was one of the first characters that a lot of people were introduced to on their new console.
Being the most recognisable face of a new series, having three games to himself, and being the lead of a solely single-player, narrative heavy story would endear him to a willing and waiting audience.
What did I see in him? The story and character is definitely there, playing as a noble in 1500s Italy, scaling rooftops and getting embroiled in conspiracies is a fun product. But I think it comes down to that I was a part of that generation that grew up with him.
I had played games all my life and already had a favourite character, Lara Croft. But I think the seventh generation is when I really became a ‘gamer’, for want of a better word. Yet I played the original AC, and while I like Altair…there is just something else about Ezio, that mystical ideal of ‘people want to be him or people want to be with him’.
He is still undoubtedly the mascot of the franchise and he deserves it. It has been a pleasure to play through his life, to see him rise, fall, and rise again, to continue on even after his time in the limelight has long faded.
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 thefranchise, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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’s ‘Le 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I wasn’t the only one. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It has just been over one year since Shadow Of The Tomb Raider was released. I wasn’t bowled over by the game (Rise is still my favourite of the new reboot series), but it had enough to keep me engaged.
However, I feel a need for change is coming on again. 2013 was a revelation, creating a Tomb Raider game and a Lara we hadn’t seen before. Rise built upon its predecessor’s work and tweaked and refined the experience.
Shadow… it feels a bit like replication. It is a very good replication and has a few nifty surprises hidden in its backpack, but it is not so much a step forward rather than a step sideways.
I don’t think this is just personal bias. For all the talk of Shadow being the final event that turned Lara Croft into the Tomb Raider, it felt like a story being stretched further than it needed to be.
So, with the reboot trilogy finished, let us throw a few ideas around that I would want to see in a new Tomb Raider game.
Where Should Tomb Raider Go After Shadow Of The Tomb Raider?
A Different Lara
One of the things I find fascinating about Lara is that in twenty years she has gone through several redesigns but remains instantly recognisible. That may be a statement on female characters in gaming, but also could be because of her iconic outfit and accessories.
Now that we’ve had half a decade of hyper-realistic Lara, I wouldn’t mind a touch of cartoon styling for her next appearance. I don’t mean make her the impossibly proportioned character from the 90s, but something a bit more…Amazonian (a descriptor that was actually used in The Angel of Darkness at 1:03:16).
Lara is meant to be this kickass character able to throw herself up sheer cliff faces and fight a whole manner of creatures, so make her the peak of ‘killer kickass’. Shadow teased us with a character model with biceps before they nixed the idea. Let’s see that this time around.
My main two ideas for a cartoony Croft were Gridlock from Rainbow Six Siege and Laura from Street Fighter V (seen down below respectively). Both these women look like (and can) go toe-to-toe with any male character in their games, and I think it would work well seeing a physically imposing Lara, showing how she has changed over time. I wouldn’t even mind if they kept the scars from Rise and Shadow, another token of the change and history of the character.
With a less realistic design we could change Lara’s movement as well. I’ve recently been replaying Legend and one thing that struck me was that Lara’s movement is…goofier?
For example, instead of just climbing up a ledge, Lara will fling herself up using only her upper body strength and onto her feet. If a player continues to tap the Roll button, Lara will throw herself into a gymnastic display worthy of an Olympic gold medal. I haven’t even mentioned the swan dive and handstand that she could perform in the original series. I like these more over-the-top approaches.
In terms of character, yeah, I kind of want to see a more playful Lara next time around. Rise had a few moments, but I felt Shadow had hardly any levity (although that game was about the apocalypse so I’ll let it slide). And regarding her parents, it’s been cleared up, let’s move on.
A Reworked World
It was quite a big step in 2013 to have Tomb Raider set in an open world, although it seems rather obvious. Previous games would have massive levels (with some in TR4 actually having multiple points of entry and having to return to a few of them several times), but 2013 nailed a great formula.
But just like a change regarding Lara, I am feeling an itch for a change in the level design. While I was playing Shadow I went for a trek and found some interesting places and hidden nooks, but then when I returned and spoke to the NPC to start a mission, the NPC took me through a whistle-stop tour of everywhere I had just been. It felt so weird to play through, and this would happen multiple times throughout the game, to the point where I stopped exploring (which is the antithesis of the game’s vision).
However, going back to a more linear frame would hamper the series, as it seems to have flourished now it has more room to play around with. So let’s make a compromise; a big but linear hub world, with several paths leading to several tombs. These tombs can be signposted by small but very deliberate signs like rocks in an odd formation or a broken tree (similar to the Monolith Puzzles in Shadow,which I suggested could be a gameplay feature back in 2017).
Once we play through the tomb we return to the hub world and follow another path to another tomb. The hub world could be a mash-up of Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge, with Tomb Raider’s aesthetic and individual trappings giving the world flavour (come to think of it, with all that climbing, surely Lara Croft would have learnt some gymnastics or parkour?).
The hub world also allows us to open up geographically. While I enjoyed the single locations of the past three games (with Yamatai and Siberia having some geographical variety), the hub world allows our explorer to find all the pieces to a treasure in one location (after finishing all the tombs), before heading off to a new location with its own hub world and selection of tombs.
One request though, cut the collectibles, at least in the hub world. I get anxious whenever I access an open world map for the first time and all the items load in, and I can’t be the only one (not to mention ‘Touch The Shiny Thing’ doesn’t exactly get my blood racing). Keep the secrets to the levels and leave it as that. However, a counter argument to this would be,
“Why have an open world if there is nothing to do in it?”
This is a valid question. So I propose another solution to go with the level-based secrets; unmapped locations.
While Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Skyrim had some locations off their maps, the main game that gave me this inspiration was the original Mafia.
Mafia had an open city to drive around in, but many prominent locations were just off the map edge, giving the countryside a sense of danger and making any mission set outside the city tenser. There were several places in the city of Lost Heaven that the player was under no obligation to visit, such as the Lost Heaven Lighthouse or Dam. I think something like this but for Tomb Raider, like a disguised path leading to an optional tomb or puzzle, would be a good addition.
Part of Lara’s iconic image is the twin pistols. They were missing from the reboot series, instead replaced with another now-iconic weapon, the bow.
Whoever the developer of the next game ends up being, the bow has been an integral inclusion of the rebooted Tomb Raider games and it would be a little sad to see it leave after three games.
The pistols were seen for one small scene near the end of the 2013 game, with Lara wielding akimbo pistols to shoot bad guy Mathias off a cliff edge. However I thought the dual pistols scene looked silly (even in a game about Sun Queens and zombie samurai) because the game had been aiming for realism for the past 20+ hours. If the series were to take a less realistic slant then twin pistols could make a return, complete with flips and kicks.
In terms of gameplay, of Lara is already throwing herself over ledges and walls why not have her take a leaf from Max Payne or Rubi Malone and fly through the air? TR has dabbled in bullet time before, both in set pieces and player enabled so it might be a cool thing to include.
The main reason why I wanted to mention combat is violence and death. The older Tomb Raider games got away with some gruesome deaths by their lack of graphics. Spike pits, being set on fire, drowned, shot, stabbed, eaten alive, blown up, disintegrated, all that jazz got Tomb Raider an 11+ rating.
Over time the series has fluctuated between 11+ and 16+, with the reboot being the first time that the series broke the 18+ rating. President of Eidos Interactive, Ian Livingstone, said the change was made to deliver the “gritty realism” that players wanted.
And I get it, the market in 2013 was heading in that direction. However, a lot of the violent deaths in the reboot felt that they were going for shock value (especially that spike through the neck, you know the one I’m talking about, 2:02).
The market today is a lot more colourful and cartoony. I want Tomb Raider to be playable to anyone who wants to pick up the controller, and I think taking that step back on the snuff film aesthetic would be a bit more refreshing.
I’m not going into an in-depth “what-I-would-write” post, but there was a tease at the end of Shadow as to where Lara would be going next before it was patched out. On Lara’s desk in the original epilogue scene, there was a letter addressed to her from a Jacqueline Natla. Natla was the head baddy in both Tomb Raider 1 and the remake Anniversary.
I don’t want this to be the next Tomb Raider game. That story has already been done twice and I don’t know what making that game a third time will add to the experience.
So instead, I propose this. This is the trailer to the Hitman reboot, released in 2016.
To fans of the Hitman franchise (such as myself), this was a geek-out moment. All of the kills featured come from the previous games.
The sniper kill is “Kowloon Triads in Gang War” from the original Hitman game. The sushi death is from “Tracking Hayamoto” from Hitman 2. The drowning man is Fritz Fuchs in “Traditions of the Trade” from Contracts. The cello player is Don Fernando Delgado in “A Vintage Year” from Blood Money. And the final bullet through the one-way mirror kills Dom Osmond during “Hunter and Hunted” from Absolution.
There was a lot of grumbling in the Hitman community as to what it meant to the legacy of Agent 47 when 2016’s Hitman was referred to as a reboot. Fans were assuaged when we heard David Bateson’s voice in the “Sapienza” trailer, and this trailer was even better. We weren’t losing the character’s history, this trailer showed we were continuing on from Absolution.
I think this would be a good way to reintroduce Lara. A trailer in a similar style, seeing Lara at Yamatai, Kitezh, and Paititi (the reboot games), then St. Francis Folly (TR1), Venice/Barkhang Monastery (TR2), River Ganges/RX-Tech Mines (TR3), Valley Of The Kings (TR4) and beyond would be a great moment. It would allow Lara to grow beyond the reboot without throwing out the character established in the past three games.
Call it a soft reboot; heading back to square two, restarting the series but with the knowledge and experiences of previous games filling in Lara’s backstory.
Speaking of all of that established lore, a soft reboot allows us to keep the excellent Camilla Luddington as Lara and bring back many characters. Winston and Jonah are a given and I would personally love the return of Sam, Zip, and Alister as periphery characters.
One thing I would love to see in Tomb Raider are rival archeologists. We had Pierre and Larson in TR1/TRA and Chronicles, Von Croy in TR4, Chronicles, and Angel of Darkness, and Carter Bell in The Temple Of Osiris. It would be fun to have a story where Lara is facing off against people who are just as smart and slick as her. There is even a multiplayer component there, having players face off against each other if the developers wanted to.
I remember when Shadow was first teased, Square Enix said in a statement that it wouldn’t, “…be very long between the official reveal and when you can play.” With Shadow Of The Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition releasing earlier this month, a new lease of life has been given to the instalment.
There will probably be a moderate wait before any new moves for the franchise are announced. Square Enix, working with Eidos Montreal on Shadow, were able to deliver a relatively quick follow up to Rise as most of the pieces were in place. But for now they should have some time to relax, celebrate their success, before coming back with whatever new ideas they want to explore.
The reboot was a much needed boost for Tomb Raider. It brought me back to the series, and brought in a whole new set of fans. I don’t want to forget it, but I think Tomb Raider needs to strike out again.
During the late 2000s and most of the 2010s I was the owner of an Xbox 360. I think my main reasoning behind choosing that system was that all my friends had one, so if I wanted to play with them, that would be the console.
Before I had chosen a 360 I was scouring through games that looked interesting to me and I remember one catching my eye. I remember going into game stores and continually picking up one box and reading and re-reading the back cover.
That game was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I knew nothing about the series at that part of my life, but I was already hooked. I mean, it looked like a modern Indiana Jones game. Anyone who knows me knows I love Tomb Raider, so another treasure-hunting simulator would be right up my street.
But alas, when I finally picked up an Xbox I realised that Uncharted was a PlayStation exclusive title, therefore I couldn’t play it (and I was not the position to buy a separate console). So Uncharted moved to the back of my mind until I picked up a PlayStation 4 in mid-2018.
With Uncharted being one of Sony’s premiere exclusives, the first three games were given a quick polish and sent out as a boxset to customers. I quickly bought the collection and settled down for some classic shooting/platforming fun. I mean, these games were beloved, how could they be anything more than excellent?
What Spending 100+ Hours With Nathan Drake Looks Like
I felt very confused while playing Uncharted 1. Here was this game, lauded as inspirational and influential in its design and gameplay…yet all I could think was single sight plains, flat geometry, and tedious whack-a-mole gameplay.
I died many times just to try and speed up the process; it felt like my life was ebbing away from me as I continued to play. The only time when it livened up for me was when the Nazi Mutants appeared, changing gameplay into a more run-and-gun affair. This was on normal/moderate difficulty setting (because ‘normal’, as the word suggests, would be the standard way to play the game), yet it was like pulling teeth.
I rationalised my thoughts by thinking, ‘Maybe this was standard for 2007.” However, 2007 also gave us Assassin’s Creed (genre-defining), Bioshock (narrative behemoth), CoD4 and Halo 3 (game-changers). Even Tomb Raider Anniversary, much maligned by its own fanbase, felt fluid and fast, the complete opposite of UC1.
So maybe this was just a blueprint game, one that would get better with subsequent titles.
I put those bad feelings aside as I booted up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This one was going to be good. It is generally accepted as the best game in the series.
There have been times where I have played games I haven’t enjoyed. There have been games I’ve actively disliked. But never have I played a game that has made me waver in my love of the medium.
Most of my complaints for UC1 were back, but tenfold. Long flat corridors or arenas, plinking away from behind cover with ineffective weapons, I could feel that draining sensation again.
The gunplay was serviceable, but it was nothing compared to the climbing. In most platforming sections, Uncharted 2 switches to a cinematic camera. I’m all for the cinematic approach to games, especially when it heightens the gameplay.
I hated Uncharted 2 from the very first sequence because of that bloody camera. Climbing up the train cars is a moment most gamers found thrilling, but because of the camera switches I couldn’t even figure out where to go.
The angles would throw off my depth perception, making me push forward and die when I should have been pushing sideways. Dying over and over again two minutes in because the game is giving you insufficient information will drive anyone to anger.
Even the introduction of Chloe Frazer hardly tempered my loathing. Just like UC1, the game picked up during the final stretch at the monastery, mainly due to the excellent level design and geometry, and the inclusion of the Nazi Mutants again.
As I booted up Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was worried. Was this third entry going to be more of the same? What was wrong with me? Was I playing the game wrong?
I knew I liked third-person shooters; I’ve spent unknown hours with several 007 games, I love all of Remedy Entertainment’s work, Spec Ops: The Line is my favourite game of all time. Even at the same time of playing UC2 I played The Order: 1886, Ready at Dawn’s Victorian-steampunk shooter PS4 launch title. I loved that game and still hope to see a sequel some day.
So, I started Uncharted 3…and a new feeling came over me. I was having fun. Good-hearted, honest fun. I thought there had to be a catch, but none came. It was a blast.
The fights and shootouts in London, the rooftop chases in Colombia and Yemen, the attack on the citadel in Syria, the shipyard/sunken cruiser (with a beautiful cinematic camera, this time not obscuring the way to go), the cargo plane…repeat, THE CARGO PLANE, the horse ride into the desert, then finishing off once more with an ancient city crumbling to dust, I loved it from start to finish.
Upon finishing UC3 I had a lull in my games at the time, so I went back to the first two games and cranked up the difficulty to Crushing. I had nothing to lose if I didn’t enjoy it, but I adored every second.
I don’t know what came over me, but it was like experiencing the game for the first time again, but this time being the game that everyone told me it was. Even in Uncharted 2, it seemed all the levels I had hated had switched positions, making the final push towards the monastery even better.
Uncharted 4 follows in UC3’s stellar footsteps. I’ve always liked when Nathan has had someone to bounce off like Charlie or Chloe, and Sam is a great addition to the narrative. Throw in some excellent set pieces and locations and delving into the married life of Elena and Nathan (something seldom seen in games), I think this one might be my favourite one.
So what changed? Well, obviously the graphics and design became better and more intricate as subsequent games were made, but what about that turnaround for UC1 and UC2?
As I said previously, I’ve played my fair share of third-person shooters, but I wasn’t exactly raised on them in same way I was raised on racing games or Tomb Raider. Looking back at my favourite TPSes, most come from the PS2 or 360 generations. I haven’t played a straight, linear shooter since Spec Ops, because they aren’t really made as much any more.
Sure, there are shooting games galore, but not many single player shooter games. Even Amy Hennig said they are “…a harder and harder proposition.” (Takahashi, D. 2019). The closest I could think of besides The Order: 1886 was Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which is another open-world extravaganza from Ubisoft.
That might be the reason. It is enthralling to see a gameplay or mechanic that hasn’t been felt in over a decade, to see a simple beginning-middle-end structure with some shooty bits in the middle. I know, what a concept!
But that sounds offensive, ‘I only liked your game because I had nothing else to play,’ that is definitely not the case. I must come clean and say the problem was probably me.
I just needed time. I came to Uncharted with my own ideas on what it would be and my own biases. I wasn’t on the game’s wavelength, and I found it increasingly hard to get a handle on.
It may have taken a few games to get me to understand, but I get it now.
Historical and biographical media is currently riding high in a big way.
Chernobyl, HBO’s newest mini-series, retelling the worst nuclear disaster in history, is the highest rated television show of all time on IMDb. Gentleman Jack, another HBO/BBC series following the true story of the first modern lesbian, Anne Lister, has just been greenlit for a second series.
It is a great polyphonic work filled with both mundane stories of waiting for hours in a ditch for a battle that never arrived, to the tense such as running into No Man’s Land to drag away the wounded whilst dodging gunfire.
While reading The Unwomanly Face Of War I got thinking about the recent Battlefield games 1 and V that both featured female warriors in Arabia and Norway respectively. While there was some…‘spirited’ discussion on the historical accuracy of the stories in Battlefield, it got me thinking about the stories highlighted by Alexievich, and how similar they were to the BF narratives. I started to think about stories in games and tried to think if there were any with biographical qualities.
The games industry has always had genres, but these are still mostly on how we experience the game; it is an adventure game, a point-and-click, a first-person shooter. But from there we can have genres of story; a war story, an adaptation of religious text, a comedy, sci-fi, the list goes on.
Even in the small grouping of “open-world crime story” we have satire (GTA), historical (Mafia III), drama (Yakuza), and techno-thriller (Watch_Dogs). There are so many genres to explore.
So would it be possible to make a biographical game, or do we have some already? I went for a look.
Life Without Theory – Biographical Accounts In Video Games
The first thing that comes to my head when I think of biographical features in games is the one I started with at the beginning of this post, war stories.
With Medal of Honor in 1998, the game was touted for its account of true events and scenarios that soldiers would have faced during WWII. The continued throughout the early 00s as WWII shooters became the norm for almost the entire FPS genre.
Even when Medal of Honor followed the market leader Call Of Duty into the modern day in 2010 and 2012, there was another attempt at bringing an authenticity to proceedings. Some levels in the 2012 release, Warfighter, were subtitled “Inspired By True Events”. This was in stark contrast to Call of Duty, which would often leave details vague on locations, time, and people.
One instance of ‘historical retelling’ in game that I remember from my childhood is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Of the fourteen pro skaters in the game, several of their ‘Pro Challenge’ missions were based off their previous exhibitions. While some changes were made, these missions were meant to be recreations of famous skating moments such as Tony Hawk’s Indy 900 gap, Bob Burnquist’s loop-da-loop or Jamie Thomas’ one-day photo shoot.
Another might be The Beatles Rockband. With the song progression being in release order and with stages set in the Cavern Club, on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the Apple Corps roof, it felt like a memorial and musical biography, like a video game adaptation of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week.
Another game that comes to mind when I think ‘biographical narratives’ is Assassin’s Creed. Ever since AC2 first included a database filled with locations, customs, and characters, detailed historical biographies (narrated excellently by Danny Wallace) have become a staple of the series. When I first played AC2 I spent an untold amount of time scrolling through the database, reading every last scrap of text. One entry that has stuck with me over the past ten years is Annetta.
Annetta is one of the first characters outside of the Auditore family that the player meets. She is one of the Auditore family’s servants and helps Ezio get his mother and sister out of Florence after the family are branded as traitors. Her database entry is only six lines long, ending quite sadly,
“Ultimately, little is known about Annetta’s life. She passed on without making a mark on history.”
I still think back on that entry even to this day, mainly for its almost achingly beautiful melancholic tone, but now I think how interesting it would have been to follow a servant girl during the tumultuous time of Renaissance Italy, rather than the 1500s answer to Batman.
However, most of the games mentioned above are historical retellings. They are facts and dates, historical figures and public affairs.
Even in the historical offshoot of “heritage” media, which focuses on historical periods, but with fictional characters, I can name several games; the previously mentioned Assassin’s Creed, the Mafia series, Kingdom Come, Pillars Of The Earth (which is also a novel adaptation). Where are the personal tales that aren’t straight historical documentations?
A Different Perspective – The Personal Angle
There have been two games that I’ve been leaving off mentioning until now, as they are almost perfect examples of the autobiographical form, both from the indie market.
The main one is That Dragon, Cancer, a 2016 release created by Ryan and Amy Green, Josh Larson, and the studio Numinous Games. The game is based around the Green family and their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old. The game follows the five years of Joel’s life and how the family coped with his illness. It is a raw personal story, with Ryan Green stating in an interview with The Telegraph,
“[Video games] can do something no other medium can, you can create this world and ask the player to live in it and love what you have created.” (Robertson, A. 2013).
The game was praised widely for its story and heartbreaking exploration that could only be achieved in a game, whereas others believed that its lack of gameplay disqualified it from being a game.
The other game that came to mind when thinking of biographical games was Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. While Quinn and Depression Quest are more likely known from the ‘GamerGate’ hashtag, is was created as a form of self-expression. Quoted in The New Yorker,
“Quinn…has suffered from depression since she was a teen-ager…game-making provided Quinn with a community and introduced her to Lindsey, who also suffers from depression. Lindsey suggested that the pair attempt to communicate their experience through a computer game.” (Parkin, S, 2014).
While not a direct autobiographical tale, the game was informed by the duo’s experiences and the game was praised for its depiction of depression with gaming. However, some claimed it was too simplistic a representation, which Quinn admits to in the interview with The New Yorker. Just like That Dragon, Cancer, the game was also criticised for its lack of entertaining quality or gameplay, being mainly a text adventure.
In research for this piece I found an article by Kawika Guillermo on Mediumthat also discussed the autobiographical nature of some games. Alongside That Dragon, Cancer, Guillermo gave a host of other examples such as Cibele and How Do You Do It by Nina Freeman.
Guillermo talks about the ‘death of the author’, a term coined by Roland Barthes, which posits there can be no singular reading of a work because we all have our own prejudices and views. Guillermo quotes game designer Robert Yang who said, “No-one makes personal games,” mentioning that due to the international market, what he terms ‘identity stories’ would lose meaning to non-Americans.
However, people do write their own tales into their work, be it in literature, film, or even games. Recently there was a thread on Twitter by Osama Dorias where developers described when they had put personal stories into games. I gave my personal experiences that informed my work on Story Beats. While these games may not have been fully autobiographical, there is a sense that this could be a new, mostly unmapped avenue for the industry to explore in the future.
We also have to think about what biographical stories that can be explored. The top selling biographies have included former presidents, businessmen, and musicians and have ranged in topics from road trips, traumatic childhoods and the final days of living with cancer. We would have to think on how to represent those in gameplay form. With a resurgent of point-and-click style games as well as the gameplay stylings of David Cage, there is more outside of the general action/adventure mould for games.
However, in the FPS/action genre there was Six Days in Fallujah, which was an attempt to document the Second Battle of Fallujah of the 2003 Iraq War. The game, by Atomic Games, was made alongside veterans of the battle and was made to highlight, in the words of Creative Director Juan Benito,
“…the importance of the stories of the marines that we worked with and were inspired by…to make people understand what those individuals faced…What we had set on was the first war documentary that was a video game…” (Paprocki, M, 2018).
The game was said to feature interviews with veterans between missions, bringing the story to life (GVMERS, 2017, 5:05). The game was cancelled after backlash from several anti-war groups and parents of soldiers that died during the conflict. A similar viewpoint came from Captain Dale Dye back in 1998 when he was asked to consult on the first Medal of Honor. When first told about the game, he was said to have called it, “…an exploitative, tone-deaf, irresponsible thing.” (Edge Staff, 2015).
To quote Linda Hutchinson, “Whether it be in the form of a videogame or a musical, an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary…” (2006, p.xii).
These are things that would have to be addressed in making a biographical game. What would be removed, what would be added? Can we only make stories about events far in the past? Are no living people to be represented in games? Or would most of these games be too inherently political, grappling with the social and cultural context of the time?
Maybe biographical games are to stay in the independent or experimental market. But then there are stories that are almost stand-ins for AAA games already. For example, Paris by Julian Green is a semi-biographical book where the narrator takes a stroll through the French capital and describes the locations he visits. Could that not be similar to a Ubisoft game, describing the city as we travel it? But again, that is just a history lesson.
Where is the story of the man or woman in the street, of the personal tales that enthral audiences across the world? Where is Annetta’s story? Those are possibly harder to capture, but can offer a story rarely seen in games and bring a new facet to the medium.
I recently finished reading the first James Bond book, Casino Royale. Despite being a 007 fan for as long as I can remember, I had never actually gotten round to reading the classic stories by Ian Fleming.
While I was obviously introduced to the series with the films (every week I would head to Blockbuster and get a new one to watch), I think I truly became a fan when I was introduced to the games.
Picture the scene; it is 2003. I am seven years old. Our household console, the original PlayStation, ups and dies. We upgrade to the PlayStation 2 which is few years into its lifespan. We get three games with the PS2; FIFA, a Dave Mirra game, and James Bond 007: Nightfire.
The latter is the first FPS (first-person shooter) I play, and I become both a lifelong fan of the genre and the character.
There are no nostalgia goggles when I say Nightfire is one of the best games of the sixth generation. I have bought that game several times for different consoles, playing it well into my adult life. And I think that it all comes down to the excellent opening of the game, ‘The Exchange’.
This level features so many variations and little things to help a new player immerse themselves into the world of 007, so I thought I would take a look back and analyse how it creates and inducts the player into the gameplay.
“Now, Pay Attention 007!”– How ‘The Exchange’ Teaches Players Mechanics Through The Level Design
‘The Exchange’ is the second level of 007 Nightfire. The first level, ‘Paris Prelude’, is strictly an on-rails/driving affair with ‘The Exchange’ being the game’s first proper FPS mission.
If a player has not played the game before, ‘Paris Prelude’ starts. Aiming is computer-controlled; the player just has to shoot using the R1 button (the button is helpfully flashed on-screen when it is needed).
Even if the player has not got to grips with all the controls (by reading the game manual) then they know at least one button and what it does.
‘The Exchange’ begins with 007 on a mission to infiltrate an enemy castle in Austria. Bond starts a few hundred metres away from the front door on top of a guardhouse. This starting placement is important.
This guardhouse allows the player that has never played a game before to get used to the movement controls. This is a safe space. There are no enemies patrolling, nothing shooting at you, it is nice and calm. The game even allows you to fire your weapon once just to try the controls out. If you fire a second shot then a guard will investigate the sound (a good way to discipline the player for forgetting what the button does).
Bond’s placement on top of the guardhouse also helps player navigation. The end of the opening cutscene and the player starting position draw the eyes forward to the large castle, pointing the way forward. The player can venture backwards on the road, but will find the path blocked by a locked door, forcing them to have to move towards the castle.
This is such a small thing, but it helps aid movement. Imagine if the player started inside the guardhouse. It would be a more claustrophobic start instead of the freedom of the open environment. It would be counter-intuitive to player guidance by not showing us the way forward.
Once the player has got the hang of the controls there are three main ways to get into the castle; one aggressive, two stealthy. We will go with aggressive first.
The player makes their way down the stairs of the guardhouse and sees a bad guy stationed just outside the door. This is the first enemy of the game. This set-up allows us to be ushered into combat without being overwhelmed. The guard is facing away, allowing the player to play at their pace.
This is where knowledge of shooting comes back. Guns and bullets are player interaction at its purest. The guard must be dealt with to proceed, but since he is unaware of the player, the player can take their time to line up a shot. If the player has tinkered around on the roof, they may have found Bond can punch or use a stunning gadget. If the player accidentally wanders out of the guardhouse, Bond will make the guard surrender, a safety net for those still struggling with the controls.
And to top it all off, this guard is a singular entity. Unless the player completely messes up and doesn’t deal with him, he cannot alert other guards.
Subduing this guard will net us a new weapon, a sniper. The other enemies at the beginning of this level are visible in the distance (white outfits against a black/grey backgrounds), and so the sniper can be used to pick enemies off. Again, the player knows the shoot button and will use it to interact with the world.
The guards further up the road are stationery and will not notice the player until they get close. This allows the player to find an unobstructed viewpoint (the middle of the road) to survey the bad guys. The sniper is also silenced, allowing for players to take down bad guys without alerting others.
As the player moves up and dispatches the bad guys, they may acquire another new gun, a machine gun. This brings Nightfire’s weapon matrix into play. Now we have three distinct weapons. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to damage and range. After the player takes the machine gun, there are two more enemies in this starting area that it can be used against, allowing the player to familiarise themselves with the new weapon.
From there, the player heads to the main door and once they have found the action button, they continue to the next section.
Stealth 1: The Wine Truck
If the player waits on the roof, they can use the wine truck method. When the truck passes through the guardhouse, it will stall for a period of time. This allows the player to hop into the back from the roof and get inside the castle without killing any guards.
This is one of those moments that reward the player’s imagination. If the player thinks they can do it, then they quite possibly can in Nightfire. It is such a long way from the funneled systems of many big budget games of this generation where a mission will fail if you step an inch outside of the creator’s vision.
Stealth 2: The Castle Wall
Continuing the jumping aspect, if the player jumps from the roof to the rocky cliff face (the same way if they were to head backwards) they will find a footpath that leads to a ravine.
If they continue, a pop-up in the corner of the screen indicates there is a grappling station nearby. If the player looks around with their grapple equipped they can see a white target reticle. Focussing in on the reticle with the grapple turns it green (the universal colour of ‘go’). Once the player has used the grapple they have to make their way around the outside of the castle, sneaking past other guards.
This path introduces the (optional) contextual movement aspect where the player can traverse a wall or zipline by shimmying along. These are some serious stealth strategies though and failure will lead to heavily armed goons coming to take you down. This is for a player that has mastered the controls and locates the opportunity.
There is another contextual movement section before the one previously mentioned.
After the player has got through the first wave of bad guys but before the main door, there is a little path leading off to the left.
Heading down there allows the player to scale around the wall. During the cutscene Bond moves through some crunchy snow (5:28). The guards at the door (if they are alive) will come and investigate, but soon head back to their post. This introduces sound into a larger gameplay loop.
If the player has gunned their way to this section, they already know about sound and its role in alerting guards. This gameplay section highlights that quick movements can give you away and that slow movements (such as when the player is crouching) can make you silent and less easy to detect.
Each one of these variations on infiltrating the castle starts you in a different place during the next section. If you came in with the wine truck you start near the wine cellars. If you walked through the main door you are a few corridors away. And if you took the ‘Stealth 2’ route you start in a guard tower.
Even better, all these other places are available to visit. If you came in via the castle wall you can find the truck and where it ends up. It’s almost like reverse engineering, seeing where certain gameplay decisions spawn you.
I am going to finish this piece here because I don’t want this article to run long, but I will give a few bullet points as to what the next gameplay sections deliver.
A non-violent social stealth element where the player must work their way through the environment (useful in later levels like ‘Night Shift’).
Bond uses his micro-camera in two cutscenes. Its appearance shows it can be used for surveillance and to complete objectives (like in ‘Chain Reaction’).
We are barred from following the bad guys, so we go another way to rendezvous with another agent. On the way back, the barred section is open. As it is now unlocked, we can follow it. This is a perfect way to guide players in a non-linear fashion.
After some shooting we get another weapon (an unsilenced machine pistol, another element added to the weapon matrix).
We head back outside and encounter a contextual zipline. Like the guardhouse there are no enemies shooting at us, so we can find the button that makes the zipline work without the worry that we will die.
Alternatively, the player can stay inside and get to the next objective quicker.
Alternatively, if we did go outside we would be awarded with another weapon (a machine gun with a silencer) and a stun grenade. These weapons make quick work of the guards at the objective, as they use cover and have machine pistols.
When the player completes the objective by retrieving a suitcase, they also pick up a rocket launcher. It is impossible to pick up the suitcase without also getting the launcher.
Once the player has got to the cable car station (which they would have visited if they went outside, but is also in a straight line if they stayed inside), a helicopter shows up. What do we have that can take down a helicopter? The rocket launcher.
The cable car has several windows. These can be shot out with regular ammo, allowing an almost perfect 360 degrees view.
The rocket is automatically on guided rockets, so when a player first shoots one they control its destination. While this may seem confusing on the first shot, the player’s previous movement controls come back into play and they can deliver several follow up shots on the helicopter.
The rocket launcher has full ammo capacity so even if the player misses a few shots, they will have enough to finish the mission.
Each following level takes one of the aspects from the ‘The Exchange’ and expands it, whether that is close quarters combat (‘Double Cross’), stealth (‘Night Shift’) sniping (‘Chain Reaction’) or all-out action (‘Phoenix Fire’).
While there might be some stealth in ‘Phoenix Fire’ or action at the end of ‘Night Shift’, these are only very small elements. This allows the levels to have their own distinct tones and themes. But that is why ‘The Exchange’ is a perfect opening. It allows for that difference in playstyle but also player freedom, educating them on how to play the game.
Newer 007 games like Blood Stone and Goldeneye Reloaded also have this balance of stealth and action in their opening levels, but none of them give the freedom of Nightfire, instead they railroad you through a directed experience.
That is not to say that strict linear games are bad. On the contrary, I love Blood Stone. But I think that freedom gives ‘The Exchange’ and Nightfire an excellent sense of character and gameplay. And that is why it is so fondly remembered.
And it doesn’t hurt that they absolutely killed it with the multiplayer. ‘Skyrail’ anyone?