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July 12, 2009

Eating Popcorn in the Holy Land

A month or so ago I finished Assassin's Creed as my first foray into high-def gaming¹.

I had bought myself a big TV and a 360 with Halo 3 and Fable II² and considered what games I most wanted to jump in and play. Without a doubt, the first that came to mind was AC, since I remembered being very interested in it years ago when creative director Patrice Desilets and producer Jade Raymond showed some early work at GDC 2006.

I want to say from the outset that I loved this game, but I have to be honest and say I loved it largely in the way I love popcorn. For me, there was a definite thrill to be had from the parkour elements, and the graphics were frankly stupendous. I used to be the sort of person who wouldn't really care about graphics, but to be fair in this case, they completely drew me in. In the future, I guess I'm more likely to say that while the play of a game remains most interesting to me, there are certainly large benefits in the areas of immersion to be had from excellent graphics. Not a great insight by any means, but certainly a change in my own thinking.

That said, I truly felt like the gameplay of the game was a bit schizophrenic. In essence, whilst in cities there are two forms of locomotion, walking around slowly on the ground and flying parkour style amongst the rooftops.

The action on the ground seems largely made from negative reinforcement. Moving quickly is discouraged, because if you bump anyone too hard, the guards will wake up and you'll be fighting your way clear, which is fun if you're doing that intentionally because you enjoy the combat, but significantly less fun when you're attempting to execute some mission.

A quick catalogue of the ground obstructions:

  • Guards, around whom you must move slowly, because they will otherwise realize that Altair, who is dressed all in white unlike all the folks around him, somehow doesn't fit in and must be that assassin everyone's all worried about
  • Beggarwomen, who are placed at various locations and who run up and deliberately obstruct your progress, crying out about their family, and how they have nothing, etc. ³
  • Madmen, who simply run up and push you, therefore slowing you down
  • Women with baskets, vases, urns and what have you balanced precariously upon their heads, who must be carefully navigated via the game's "push through a crowd" button
  • Thieves, who can be pickpocketed for resources (throwing stars, which are of use in the rooftop game), but who, in cases of failure, engage you in a fistfight. These stop randomly, leading to failure.
  • Scholars, who obscure your presence but walk maddeningly slowly. They aren't properly speaking an obstruction, but they are indicative of the problem I describe.

This is in signficant contrast to the rooftop game, which is all about speed, killing guards quickly and quietly, moving from place to place with great rapidity, and generally getting that sense of flying that I loved so much from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The extreme positive reinforcement of running around on the rooftops should be reason enough to go up there; the game doesn't need to negatively reinforce the ground game by making it so much slower-paced.

It's particularly noticeable because so much of the game must take place on the ground. Contacts are on the ground, your throwing star refills are on the ground, side missions are on the ground, assassinations are on the ground, which is perfectly sensible and realistic. However, spending time on the ground is such a slog, the differences between it and the rooftop game are so different, that the one feels constantly as if it is fighting the other, like two sides of a split personality.

How would I fix it? (After all, it's easy to complain.) I'd relax the always-on alerts until the main assassinations actually occur, or in particularly sensitive areas like palaces or guard barracks. I'd tie pickpocketing, which already exists, to a small amount of resource management whereby merchants can be pickpocketed and the money given to beggarwomen. Thieves would stop less frequently and for more clear reasons, and vase-carrying women would be automatically navigated unless Altair is running. I'd remove the madmen altogether, and I'd speed up the motion of scholars. In short, I'd aim to make the ground game more quickly paced and only deploy those resources as obstructions when they really ought to be.

I hope I'll be back soon to talk a little bit about how weird it felt to be playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on D-Day.

¹Aside, that is, from time at work spent test/playing Fallout 3, but that doesn't count -- the focus of the eye is less drawn to the positives than the negatives when you're readying a game for ship. (back)

²Both of which will likely see a write-up here at some point, since I've finished F2 already and played it quite alot. And look for a bit about FPS design in reaction to my playthrough of Gears of War, which I finished yesterday. (back)

³I actually found this quite frustrating, because what I really wanted was to give them some money and have them never bother me again. This felt a bit like a lost opportunity element; I would have been interested in paying a beggarwoman money to distract a guard. Instead I found myself tossing dozens of them aside so that I could get 5 cheap achievement points. It didn't work and led to significant unnecessary frustration, quite apart from the realism it was likely intended to convey. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 12, 2009 10:33 AM