Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Game Review: Assassin's Creed II

I just finished Assassin’s Creed II, which was released quite a while ago (2009), with two sequels AC: Brotherhood and very recently AC: Revelations) already available. So never let it be said I’m not a year or two behind the ball. But at least this means you can pick up the 'Game of the Year' edition of it, which includes all the downloadable content, for next to nothing. Here goes.

I like games I can dive into, with a high level of immersion. This is a tricky thing when it comes to gaming. Generally it is helped by games keeping their mechanics out of sight as much as possible and just letting you go about your business as – say – an assassin in 15th century Italy. But the more complex a game wants to be, the more it will need to get a little abstract, explaining how it needs to be played and giving the necessary information at the right moments without throwing the player out of the game too much. The Assassin’s Creed franchise cleverly solves this conundrum by creating an extra level of reality within the game world: Desmond is a current-day descendant of a long line of assassins and through the help of a machine which can read *cough* ‘genetic memories,’ he relives key events from the lives of his ancestors. This enables him to learn secrets of the past and gain the skills of those who came before him, to fight an evil organization in the here and now. However, you spend relatively little time as Desmond and are mostly running stealthily along the rooftops and streets of the Florence and Venice of yore as assassin Ezio, offing people who are taking part in an evil conspiracy.

Because you are seeing things through the eyes of Desmond - who is in turn linked to a computer interface - the little map pointing out objectives, the health bar, the shimmering boundaries to the area you are confined to and the special mode of vision which points out your intended victim as well as guards in the middle of a crowd all make some sense within the story. (Even if the gimmick of ‘genetic memory’ in itself makes you giggle like a maniac and the little map-circle on the main screen looks distractingly like it was copied straight out of GTA IV.) Additionally, you can opt to turn off these little helpers if they bother you. The atmospheric music and great visuals which lovingly create various old cities, manage to draw you in and successfully make you feel like you are running around on a clear day subtly slaughtering villains as well as truckloads of anonymous guards, no doubt orphaning many unseen, blameless children.

That’s not to say the game is averse to reality-bending silliness. A few examples: as you are seen murdering people, your infamy grows and guards will attack you on sight. You can greatly reduce your bad reputation by ripping a few ‘wanted’ poster off walls. Not too farfetched so far. Except these posters tend to be a bit hidden because this ups the challenge of finding them for the player. Which – of course - means people wouldn’t actually see them and be influenced by them. And when you manage to slip your blade into a conspirator, time slows down while you have a short heart-to-heart with them as they breathe their last, any nearby guards apparently respecting your right to privacy during this intimate moment, only jumping you once the cut-scene is over. (I also encountered one such death scene after which all the nearby guards had mysteriously evaporated, though I suspect that was a glitch in the game.) The guards in general are a terribly dimwitted bunch, with bad hearing, memory and eyesight – forgetting who you are after losing track of you for a moment and not hearing or seeing you as you eliminate a shouting colleague on a nearby roof, while clearly in their sights.

Also not the best of friends with believability are the little glowing chests with money left lying around everywhere. Assassin’s Creed in particular can’t be blamed for this phenomenon however, as it’s a gaming cliché: resources which would have obvious value to a lot of people just lying around for the taking, be it currency, equipment or health packs. ACII at least limits the free giveaways to money; the other stuff you have to buy from vendors or pick-pocket from your victims. Pick-pocketing can also get you some cash, but it is far more time-consuming and the amounts you get are much smaller than those you get from looking for treasure in unlikely places, so it is hardly worth it. You can also choose to renovate a small town bit by bit, reinvesting what you start to earn by doing so, until more money is constantly pouring in than you will know what to do with.

The main event is clambering around a few beautifully rendered cities like a monkey whose arms don’t ever get tired and who will never miss a jump unless you press the wrong button. The controls for this are fairly intuitive and dependable, though the context-sensitive buttons mean that Ezio may occasionally start climbing a wall or an obstacle during a chase when you get too close to it, instead of running along as intended. And I did spend a good ten minutes at one point jumping around on a balcony, before managing to make my usually astonishingly nimble alter ego grab a wooden beam which was right in front of him, with no other route available to advance the game. There are indoor obstacle courses which apart from the different setting seem lifted straight out of Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, in which you have to find your way to the top of a church or dungeon by jumping around. These are fun, except – like in the games mentioned – the camera may sometimes decide you are only allowed to see the parcours from one awkward angle which isn’t the best to actually see where you are jumping to. (Fun fact: the Assassin’s Creed franchise evolved out of an idea for a Prince of Persia sequel.)

ACII being a so-called ‘sandbox’ game, you have a fair amount of freedom to do what you please, when you please, apart from ultimately taking on the missions which advance the story. I have to admit I mostly ignored the optional assassination contracts, races and fights as there is plenty of that woven into the main narrative and I was aware that there are two more mostly similar AC games following this one, which would allow me to have my fill. I also mostly ignored the distractingly glowing feathers scattered about to collect: apart from it getting you an ‘achievement’ I couldn’t see how hunting them all down would serve as anything but a waste of time. I enjoyed finding the highest viewpoints, which open up the maps of the various cities and give a good vista. Thirty ‘codex pages’ add up to a giant puzzle and are fun to hunt down and some buildings contain hidden symbols which unlock a short (and ultimately silly) video called ‘the truth’ by way of thematically vague and somewhat obtuse brainteasers. By trekking through various dungeons, you can unlock the powerful threads of Altair, the anti-hero of the first AC game.

The main story missions are fun and just about varied enough, even though the basic activities of killing, platforming and collecting started to feel a bit repetitive near the end, making me wonder if I’ll get bored playing the sequels. The details of the conspiracy – the names and the ways in which they were connected – didn’t really stick with me. Though that meant I didn’t always understand why exactly I was eliminating someone and even though I generally feel bad about doing morally dubious things even in a game, I had no problem going ‘dark’ this time, since that was the entire point. I even offed a pushy minstrel or two, only partly by accident. The various ways you can approach a kill – hire a group to fight with you, hire ladies to distract guards, attack from above, blend in with a crowd as you approach your target – keep things interesting. Oh, and you get to hang around with Leonardo DaVinci, easily the most personable character in the game. Machiavelli puts in an appearance too.

I can recommend ACII as a fun, pretty easy and atmospheric game that mostly allows you to set your own pace. I enjoyed the platforming aspect more than the fighting, despite the occasional tendency to put a timer on you, which can be frustrating given the sometimes willful camera and context-sensitive controls. But no matter where your preference lies, ACII is worth your time. Quick word of warning though: the climax of the story is actually a somewhat silly cliffhanger, serving as a hook to get you playing the sequel. Not so much because of this as because of the gameplay, I’ll definitely rejoin Ezio in Rome for AC: Brotherhood sometime soon.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ye Olde Television Review: Farscape

Farscape is a scifi-series which ran for four full seasons (1999-2003) and then got hastily wrapped up in a mini-series. I’d missed out on the original run but have now finally gotten around to watching the series from beginning to end.

American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Bowder) accidentally drops himself and his space-shuttle through an inconvenient wormhole while on a mission called ‘Farscape’, ending up somewhere quite far indeed. Before he can even get his bearings on the other end of the universe, he is implicated in the death of the brother of a certain Captain Crais, who carries a grudge and uses his authority with the awkwardly named Peacekeeper army to hunt John down over the span of quite a few episodes. John bands together with a group of aliens – this being a relative term of course – who had all been captured by the Peacekeepers and are now on the run on board of a ship called Moya: a ‘live’ ship akin to a space-whale, which has been bonded to an alien to serve as her pilot (who appropriately is simply named ‘Pilot’). There is a blue priestess called Zhaan, who likes to show off lots of her intricately textured skin, has a dark side and is technically a plant. There is D’Argo: a red-faced, passionate warrior with tentacles on his face who resembles a Klingon, but has more of a sense of humor. And there is a small slug-like puppet who floats around on a motorized sled – he’s called Rygel and is a lying, cowardly, greedy little egomaniac who used to be quite a big deal on his home planet until he was deposed. Rounding out the merry little band is John’s love interest Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black): a raven-haired Peacekeeper who despite her dedication to the cause is booted from the Peacekeepers because contact with John has supposedly ‘contaminated’ her. Note to intergalactic organizations intending to establish peace among all species: if blanket xenophobia is part of your statutes and at obvious odds with your main goal, you may need to rethink your basic approach.

Distrustful of each other at first, the group of convicts grows into a highly dysfunctional family in the end even as it loses some members and gains others. The most substantial late addition is Chiana, a white-haired, grey-skinned, playful sex-kitten. Lesser and more temporary ones are a rather hysterical fellow who can commune with the dead (Stark), a red or orange-haired – literally depending on her mood - spoilt brat whose screams melt metal (Jool), a kooky grandma who has a way with herbs as well as spit (Noranti) and a morally ambiguous special agent whose limbs can be reattached after removal (Sikozu).

Farscape presents a large and messy universe as seen through the eyes of astronaut John, full of truly alien-looking aliens with odd habits and cultures. And he doesn’t have it especially easy: after sorting out the wrongful accusation of murder, an ancient alien race decides to plonk the secret to making wormholes into his brain which makes him a target for the deliciously Evil Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who proceeds to chase him unflaggingly for the duration of the series while wearing what looks to be a very tight leather S&M outfit. Scorpius gets inside John’s mind both figuratively and literally, planting a ‘neural clone’ of himself and making John go insane for a bit. All the while, John and Aeryn circle each other as her cold exterior starts to defrost and their mutual attraction becomes undeniable. But there is always something in their way, be it an emotional issue or a second John Crichton or quite simply death. Can these crazy kids get it together while keeping the wormhole technology – which could be used as a horrible weapon – out of the hands of all dubiously interested parties?

Farscape has a unique look because of the studio behind it: The Jim Henson Company. It was originally meant as a showcase for their creations and some of the scripts had their origin in the design of a particular puppet, rather than the other way around. This means a lot of the aliens look spectacular and there is more variety than you’ll find on Babylon 5, Stargate or Star Trek. However, because the puppets do tend to look as such, it gives the show a deceptively childish first impression. In reality Farscape is fairly adult in a fun and coarse way: bodily fluids of various kinds feature, there is a lot of exotic swearing and the aliens seem to be a kinky bunch sexually, not fazed by variations in physiology or race. Then again, in a galaxy with so much diversity, an intrigued and open-minded attitude seems to make the most sense.

Rather than come up with one potentially interesting idea at a time, Farscape tends to throw handfuls of them at the screen to see what will stick. The more far-fetched concepts make you work hard for your suspension of disbelief and it’s best not to ponder some of the sillier ideas too closely: trying to figure out how Moya the space-whale would actually operate or how she could get pregnant and give birth to an emotionally confused warship, could give one a headache. Farscape is about emotions more than logic: it is the ‘id’ to Star Trek’s ‘super-ego’. This extends to the scripts as well, where character-moments supersede clarity or story flow on occasion. But the fearlessness in trying new things is exciting as a viewer, even if it means you do occasionally sit through an episode which you have to write off as a failed experiment. It’s the price you have to pay for original high-adventure elsewhere.

As is the case with a lot of series, there are episodes which strongly push the overall story arc and some which are relatively self-contained. A not-so exciting sub-category of the second variety is the recurring ship-under-siege set-up, in which Moya and her crew must fend off a threat on the outside or inside of the ship. These stories tend to feature the main cast running around the samey corridors of Moya. A lot. Though a few are done well, mostly you can sense the need to save money powering these adventures, which does make a lot of sense considering how expensive this show must have been to make. The ambition of showing a vast galaxy full of alien creatures while on a tv budget is a lofty one, but can’t have been easy to pull off.

The show originally survived through some complex international funding, season by season, but just as the producers got cocky and took a next (fifth) season pretty much for granted for the first time, the house of cards came tumbling down as the final episode for season four was being shot. Without any closure to running storylines and ending on a massive cliffhanger, it would have been a bad note to leave the universe on. Thankfully, fervent fans managed to make enough noise to get financing off the ground for a miniseries which would wrap things up and could serve as a launch pad for more Farscape. It wasn’t enough of a ratings success to do the latter, but did serve to give a proper, if somewhat rushed, ending to Farscape’s tale of intergalactic high adventure. Even now, years later, there are the occasional rumblings of a web-series or some other form of live-action continuation, but nothing has actually been produced. If you are jonesing for more Farscape after seeing the series, check out the recent comics published by Boom! Studios, which pick up the story where the series left off.

All in all, the show has aged pretty well and the humor, larger-than-life characters and chemistry between the leads – especially John and Aeryn – still stand. The main ‘wormhole’ intrigue does start to wear thin near the end of the series, but doesn’t spoil the fun. If you can get past the puppets which look like puppets and sets which often do clearly look like a set, the series rewards you with many, many ‘arns’ (that’s ‘hours’) of joyful escapism. And with the sight of hunky Ben Bowder running around in leather pants. A frellin’ good time!

The full series, including the mini-series which ended things, is available as ‘Farscape - The Definitive Collection’ on DVD and soon on BluRay.