Monday 22 March 2021

The blade itself incites to deeds of violence

Melmoth has been playing Assassin’s Creed a lot recently, and with a combination of his enthusiastic thumbs up and a Lunar New Year sale I grabbed Odyssey myself, or ACsurprised face if you have an intrusively pictorial chat system that absolutely insists on rendering :O as an animated emoji.

It’s the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played; I’m vaguely aware of the general idea of projecting yourself backwards in time but I’ve no idea what’s specifically happening with the characters and factions in the introduction, there was no “Previously on Assassin’s Creed…” recap. I guess it’s easy enough to go and read up on if you’re particularly bothered, it doesn’t seem of vital importance in the main Greek part of the game. That main part is a well-polished Standard Ubisoft Map-Mopper; not having played the rest of the series I can’t particularly pinpoint which elements originated in earlier instalments of the series and which are blended in from elsewhere, but if you like climbing towers, revealing sections of map, and causing unrest to destabilise regions then overthrowing their leaders, it’s got you covered. Some mechanics feel a little too by-the-numbers; where contemporary game use a drone to scout around and spot enemies or objectives, in AC:O your pet eagle fulfils the same function. Presumably there was a conversation along the lines of…
“No drones in ancient Greece, guess we’ll have to drop the spotting system”
“What about telescopes?”
“Nope, still too early”
“Any characters of the Odyssey noted for having particularly keen senses? Eupithes The Far-Sighted? Antinous The Hawk-Eyed? Steve The Bloke Who Can See Stuff Really Far Away?”
“Don’t think so…”
“OK, magic eagle it is. Next!”

In place of the ‘Wanted’ stars of Grand Theft Auto there are Bounty Hunter Helmets that fill up if citizens clock you being a bad sort (stealing, attacking innocents, embarking on a murderous rampage cutting a swathe through a shadowy cult and their henchmen). Too much mayhem and a bounty hunter starts hunting you, and I’m often in trouble with the law as the game has a really fluid movement system. The tap of a key sends you jumping, climbing and rolling up or over almost any obstacle, the complete antithesis of something like the original Guild Wars with its complete lack of jumping where any shin-high wall or moderate incline was an impregnable obstacle. Sheer cliff face? Up you hop with fearsome free climbing skills. Statue? Shinny up the legs and perch on the head, no trouble! Buildings? Climbing frames, more like. As a result, moving through cities there’s little incentive not to take the most direct route between points; quite the opposite in fact. Why trudge along the streets detouring around a building when you can scale its walls, run along the roof, dive onto a canopy, hop up to a balcony, over a washing line, and get to your destination quicker and more stylishly; never taken a shortcut before? This does mean I end up jumping over or running through market stalls, temples, random houses, barracks and such, doubtless to the great annoyance of the residents, but their cries of “I’ll get the bounty hunter on you!” aren’t particularly troubling – the system is rather fatally undermined by the fact that another game mechanism rewards you for killing those very bounty hunters, propelling you up the mercenary ranks, so it’s less a deterrent than another source of shiny loot. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Only in Greek rather than Latin, and hunting bounty hunters rather than guarding guards, but I don’t trust Google Translate to capture the nuance.)

The one time that bounty hunters/rival mercenaries can really throw a spanner in the works is when they turn up at a ludicrously high level; AC:O has a very RPG level system, where enemies of the same level tend to be a reasonable challenge but as soon as they’re few levels above you they might as well be invulnerable. Around level 15 I spotted a helmet symbol on the HUD, toddled over to introduce myself via the medium of sneak attack, and was promptly despatched by a careless slap from the level 47 mercenary; since then I’ve been rather more cautious about eagle-scanning potential adversaries first. For the most part the game seems to nudge you gently enough through level-appropriate areas while allowing latitude for exploration, but when it goes wrong you do get the incongruity of taking on a good portion of an army and its champions one minute to seize control of an island, then being completely unable to handle a common street thug the next because you went a bit off-piste into a higher level area.

The tricky part of open world games is to keep up the momentum once the mechanics have been introduced, my last couple of efforts (Far Cry 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2) rather fizzled out. So far AC:O is holding up well, the main story is interesting enough but with latitude for random exploration when in the mood. I’m having the most fun taking on forts and bandit encampments, carefully scoping out the area then dealing with the defenders one by one, with the good old stealth game trope of being able to pick up bodies to hide them leading to storerooms quickly becoming impromptu morgues (or dormitories, if I’m on a less-violent knocking-out rampage rather than a killing spree). I have noticed a skill that will summon one of my lieutenants to cause a diversion; I’m rather hoping I can recruit a Spaniard to stroll up to guards and say “Excuse me, meister“, it would be a bit anachronistic, but I’m already dressed up in a patchwork of historical armour anyway thanks to assorted tie-in rewards so I don’t think anyone would notice.

No comments: