Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Assassin's Creed : Syndicate - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC 

The grappling hook, one of the few new additions in this latest Assassin’s Creed instalment, sums up all of the series problems. In theory it’s a pretty good addition to the game, it allows you to traverse London at a much faster rate. A jab of a button will send you hurtling up to the top of a building in mere seconds. Yet, despite all the good it does, it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the game. After all, when this series started, wasn’t one of the core joys of the series the ability to climb anywhere? In its quest to make constant minor adjustments to an aging formula Assassin’s Creed Syndicate threatens to make its original gameplay obsolete.  

Now, it should be stressed that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is an improvement on last year’s abysmal Unity, a game that was barely in working order upon release, and, even after an abundance of patches, still felt like little more than a lazy afterthought from Ubisoft. Initially, there’s quite a bit to get excited about with Syndicate; it feels like its stripping back the bloat of the series. After Black Flag and Rogue stretched the game into an almost overwhelming adventure, being left to simply explore London can be something of a relief.

Yet, it’s not long before the disappointment sets in. Ironically, Syndicate feels most like the original Assassin’s Creed game, in that it re-uses the same three or four activities in order to bulk out the majority of its gameplay. Whether its rescuing child labourers, assassinating Templar agents, or kidnapping criminals, all of the game’s moments essentially operate in the same way, merging into the same bland activity. That’s right, your modern shiny new game running on shiny new hardware feels like just like a game you played back in 2007…only now it has more glitches. 

The other major change this time around, aside from the aforementioned grappling hook, is the chance to play as two characters. The Frye twins are certainly more interesting than many other recent protagonists in the series, and their bickering and wobbly cooperation makes for more interesting characterization than the usual, dull, ominous-spouting bores that have usually taken up centre stage in these games since Ezio’s passing. 

Sadly, Ubisoft don’t leverage this element nearly enough, either in a narrative or gameplay sense. In terms of the story there’s an attempt to pit the brother and sister off as two different approaches to the same ideology, and, to begin with, it threatens to become somewhat interesting. Evie is the straight and narrow character, the one that does things by the books but also understands that the ends don’t always justify the means; blowing up a room full of Templars doesn’t do much good if you’ve also severely damaged the city’ infrastructure.

Jacob, meanwhile, is an Assassin more out of his own self-interest than for any lofty goals. Following the code is more an excuse to get into a fight or shoot someone than it is to genuinely change the world.

I give credit to Ubisoft for at least trying to explore this idea. For far too long now the Assassins have been little more than kill-happy thugs; little better than the Templars they despise. Their concept of “freedom”, as it’s depicted in most of the games, is crude and childish, seeing as the series attempts to comment on concepts such as freedom and equality without really addressing politics whatsoever. 

Yet, the rushed development still means that any hope for an entertaining plot is quickly scuppered. The Assassin’s overall goal is still nebulous and bizarre, with the only real objective being to steal the latest MacGuffin from the Templars. The game has the Frye twins up against Crawford Starrick, a Templar mastermind, yet, throughout the entire game he’s little more than a moustache twirling villain. It’s a great performance by Kris Holden-Ried but there’s little for him to do other than grumble incessantly as his entire Templar operation is slowly dismantled by two Assassins. It’s an episodic “villain of the month” affair as you slowly work your way through Starrick’s crew.

The Assassins are incredibly hypocritical too, I should point out. Whilst the previous games have had the Assassins aid revolutionary movements, by the end of the campaign, Evie and Jacob are happy to be knighted by Queen Victoria. This is minutes after, Evie angrily shouts at Starrick that “London belongs to the people!” Monarchy is great for the UK, apparently, but must be overthrown in America and France.

It doesn’t help that the open-ended nature of the game (you can continue playing any remaining side quests after the credits) means that the story must ensure that all the characters remain in exactly the same state before any major events happened. In other words, no one dies, everything remains the same, all to ensure you can keep running around the little virtual world completing all the identikit missions.

Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t benefit from two playable characters either. There’s some slight variations between Evie and Jacob. Whilst Evie is overall better at stealth, her brother is more capable in a fight. Yet, when it comes down to actually playing the game, you’d be hard-pressed for the most part to discern any tangible difference between characters, even after selecting different upgrades.

Syndicate’s RPG-lite elements occupy that space of looking important but not really doing anything that’s all that tangible. Levelling up your health, or how long it takes enemies to detect you, is about as exciting as it gets. Furthermore, some of the upgrades are downright stupid, with one granting you the “ability” to not have to press a button anymore whenever you’re threatening a guard. 

The equipment is hardly any better and suffers from that ugly, asinine menu-overload that Unity had smeared all over it. There’s dozens of weapons, and Ubisoft are keen to advertise that there’s more available on the online store, yet they all function exactly the same (provided they are of the same arbitrary level), with differences being entirely cosmetic.

The weapon system itself is split into three different types: knives, canes, and knuckle-dusters, all with variable stats. Canes, for example, are better at stunning, whilst knives kill faster. Yet, regardless of your weapon type of choice, the combat is still little more than vague button-mashing. It sort of plays like Rocksteady’s Batman games, but also has a very strange and poorly thought out combo system, which, when mapped to some frankly unresponsive controls, means fights are a total bore. 

That leaves stealth as the alternative option, but this oscillates between “merely bad” and “downright terrible”. Guards don’t have the same bizarre binocular vision that they had in Unity but instead suffer from some strange selective myopia. Sometimes they’ll spot you straight away, other times they’ll ignore you even when you’re right in front of them as they plod on along their robotically-planned routes.

Even the setting, that one consistently solid element of Assassin’s Creed, suffers this time around. Whilst Victorian London is impressive, it lacks the uniqueness of, say, Renaissance Italy or 18th Century America. Ubisoft’s guiding mantra has been to take players to historical periods they’ve never visited before in video games, and, whilst that’s technically true, even with Syndicate, we have played plenty of Steampunk games. It’s not a gigantic leap to get from Dishonoured to Victorian London.

Even the famous faces seem to have been selected in a hectic manner. Previous games weaved in characters from actual history with some degree of care, and had them fit organically into the story. By contrast, Syndicate simply lobs them at your face, or buries them away in the side content. Charles Darwin only turns up because he coincidentally finds himself creeping into a factory that Jacob’s trying to sneak into. Meanwhile, Karl Marx and Charles Dickens only bother to show up if you go and hunt down their bland “go here do A, then go here do B” bonus missions.

Everything about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is half-hearted, which makes sense when it’s spent less than two years in development. It’s rushed, bland and suffers from the growing sense that this series has no idea where it’s going. The constant, incremental tinkering with the core mechanics is actually making them worse not better. Combat here is far clunkier and less satisfying than it was in Assassin’s Creed II.  

No doubt the annual release of this series will continue while ever there’s money to be made. Ubisoft have already announced two more instalments to their spin-off series, so another full-fledged release next year is highly likely. At one point, Assassin’s Creed, for better or worse, was the benchmark for open-world exploration; striking, original and accessible. Now though, in comparison to plenty of other more exciting, fresher and better made games, it’s beginning to look embarrassing. More so, year after year. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Halo 5 : Guardians - Review

Developer: 343 Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox One

Halo 4 marked the biggest creative turning point in the entire Halo series. It was the moment where Bungie handed the reins of their green-suited space marine to another developer and left. It’s for that reason that you can almost forgive Halo 4 for its safe approach, after Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach attempted to experiment with the core tone and formula of the series, Halo 4 stuck firmly to the original game’s roots. It’s a game that effectively shouts out “hey, look, we can do this too”, in an attempt to placate what could otherwise have been a nervous fan base.

So, with Halo 4 having laid out the groundwork of 343’s approach to the series, Halo 5: Guardians should be there shot at improving upon the formula. They’ve shown they can do Bungie, and emulate them fairly well, now’s the time to pull something new out of the hat.

Except, Halo 5 doesn’t do that. It’s perhaps the most safe and predictable instalment that the series has ever had. At least Halo 4 introduced the Prometheans and their weaponry, for better or worse. All we get here is the Prometheans all over again. 

That’s the major crux with Halo 5. Hardcore fans will no doubt be up in arms at anyone criticizing their gun-toting space man. After all, on the surface there’s seemingly nothing wrong with it: it looks great, sounds great and shooting that classic assault rifle still feels as satisfying as ever. All those little check boxes that the mainstream gaming press loves so much, well, Halo 5 pretty much checks all of them. Yet, dig around a little and you start asking for something more, something new and fresh. It’s a game that’s lacking and it’s not always entirely clear why that is. 

I once joked that Bungie got away with making the same game three times with the original Halo trilogy. The original game was so polished and unique for its time that they simply went and remade it twice over and hoped no one would notice. They even went as far as to practically reuse the same narrative beats in the story; introducing the Flood at the exact same point in both sequels and expecting the player to be just as shocked. In contrast to Halo 5, Halo 2 and Halo 3 feel like bold reinventions.

The most significant change this time round is that the single player campaign can played through with up to three other players. Should you play on your own those three spots are filled with A.I. companions. It informs a lot of the level design. There’s plenty of moments where it’s clear the game wants two players to act as an anvil, drawing the Covenant or Promethean’s fire, whilst the remaining two players wing around and flank from either side.

Halo 5’s campaign is serviceable but its beats all feel like weak copies of what the earlier games set out to do. There’s the same wide combat spaces to navigate, and there’s still some satisfaction to be had flanking enemies as you weave in and out of cover. There’s a fight with a Kraken at one point too, except this time, rather than taking place in a wide open battlefield like in Halo 3, it’s lodged in the middle of a cliff, making the whole thing less impressive because it feels that much more staged and controlled.

It’s a testament to the lasting quality of Halo’s core gameplay that, when it’s done right, it feels so fluid and has some genuine depth to it, and Halo 5 is no exception. Yet, for every engaging firefight that occurs they’ll be several battles that are lacklustre and have the game cramping you down bland, narrow hallways, rather than giving you the breadth and diversity that the best parts of the series are known for. 

The other major change this time around is the introduction of the jet pack. I say jet pack, it’s more of a speed boost, allowing you to zip left or right, preferably into cover. Likewise, if you’ve jumping in the air, looking down the iron-sights will slow your descent, allowing you to pull off that perfect headshot in mid-fall.

It explains why, even when the game forces you down those less interesting and narrow corridors, they typically remain much more vertical. There’s a real “height” to Halo 5’s gameplay and it’s perhaps the most significant change that the game does to the core level design. Sometimes it’s less Master Chief and more Mario as you clamber from ledge to ledge to get the drop on your enemies. Quite literally, I should say, as you now come equipped with a pretty satisfying ground pound. 

It’s something of a shame then, that those enemies remain disappointing. The Covenant comprise about half of the game’s enemies and still remain the most satisfying to fight. There’s an interesting dynamic going on as each enemy type requires different tactics. The Elites are more dangerous and require dedicated focus fire, but the little Grunts can be dangerous in numbers, especially if one decides to go suicidal and run at you with live grenades.

The Prometheans though, still remain the blandest of any Halo enemy. I grew tired of the original games continuing to rehash the same Flood monsters but I’d give anything to have them replace the dull, Tron-meets-Transformers aesthetic that the Prometheans have. It’s odd, but there’s little “weight” to the Promethean units, shooting at them lacks the visceral feedback that the Covenant possess and they likewise don’t have the same interesting hierarchy of Grunt-Jackal-Elite that’s been at the core of Halo’s combat design from the very beginning. 

There’s a similar like of inspiration when it comes to the boss encounters. Although, “encounters” is something of a misnomer. There’s one boss in Halo 5; singular, and you’ll encounter him god knows how many times throughout the course of the campaign. Sometimes he’ll multiply which means more of the same fight that feels less like Halo and more, ironically, like Destiny. It’s a dull grind as you wail on his health with the strongest weapon you have.

That’s one of the major problems with Halo 5’s campaign: its focus. It introduces four-player co-op but rather than enhance the gameplay it begins to morph it into a bland multiplayer off-shoot. Halo has never been a series heavy on story, but the focus on catering to a bunch of gun-happy players over the internet means that there’s a distinct loss of atmosphere and tension that was present in earlier instalments.

And while the “single” player takes the lion’s share of the flaws in Halo 5, the actual multiplayer is essentially more of the same. Granted, I’m not the kind of person to play endless amounts of online matches but the overwhelming feeling after several hours of play was a resounding “meh.” It suffers from an astonishing sense of playing it safe, and whilst the new Warzone mode makes for bigger battles with potentially greater scope, it’s still hard to imagine whether the overall online package is going to tempt diehards away from their Halo: The Master Chief Collection. 

Halo 5 is arguably the worst instalment in the core series. On the surface it looks perfectly good but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s altogether hollow. It’s never horrendously bad, it’s just painfully average, afraid to do anything new or challenging for fear it’ll somehow upset someone.

In short, it’s like the video game equivalent of a politician; it tries to act like Halo, talk like Halo and have all the trappings of Halo, yet, in reality, it’s nothing but hollow promises.