Tag Archives: Ubisoft

Splinter Cell Conviction Preview

Amidst several consulting jobs, I was happily able to visit Microsoft’s XO10 conference, where I got a hands-on session with two of the Splinter Cell Conviction’s first levels.  For impressions, check my preview at GamesRadar.com.

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Recession: publishers slash projections

With EA and Ubisoft appearing as the most recent publishers to slash projections for 2010, analysts who only look at the bottom line miss a lot of things, from developing IP, changing tastes in games, and slower than expected hardware sales.

Don’t the analysts get it? There is a recession going on, a really big one, and it’s affecting everyone’s pocketbooks.

Activision’s Bobby Kotick says his company will focus on quality not quantity in the upcoming years, which is a direct result of his overly conservative approach to game development and high sales of Modern Warfare 2.  We’ll see how well his old franchises due in a few years when something new and better comes along and Activision is left high and dry without new IPs, and everyone is just sick to the gills (if they aren’t already) with Guitar Hero 101, Tony Hawk 19, Call of Duty 54, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2,000,001.

This is a time to cut back, due to the economy; that’s true. But it’s also time to create new games in new areas such as smart phones and DLC, and to maximize efforts on the Xbox 360 and PS3, as developers can really put innovation and polish on consoles that are well understood.

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Red Steel 2 builds arm strength

I’m writing a story on Red Steel 2; I can’t tell you what kind of story because it’s classified. Seriously! The crazy thing, however, isn’t the type of story I am writing. It’s what Red Steel 2 is doing to my physique, my body. After three days of playing it, not one but both of my arms are ridiculously sore. Red Steel 2 is giving me a workout and it’s making my shoulders (deltoids) and back muscles (laterals) more sore than rowing on my home-owned Concept Rower 2. If you’ve ever rowed on a rowing machine, or rowed on a competitive team in college, you know that is saying something.

For example, today against several heavy duty bosses in arenas where other ninja types joined into the fray, I worked up a serious sweat fighting them all off. I pushed away my chair, stood up and felt like I was in a boxing ring (only with a sword). I moved around, got in a bent-knee fighting stance, arms sustained in air, grim determination on my face. In these particular fights, I had to employ all of the techniques the game had to teach. I swung hard and wide, delivering upper cuts, and slashed the sword down vertically in hopeful, knock-down attacks. There are certain foes you have to slash the armor off; they require multiple horizontal slashes, and then follow-up attacks. Others, like the guy above, you’ll have to avoid, strafe, and attack from behind.

I swear, afterward, I felt like I had been to the gym. Yes, you say, I must be out of shape. Ah, true that. I am no triathlete. But I’m not in terrible shape either. I walk, row, run, and bike. So, you know, this is the real deal. I know Ubisoft isn’t going to sell this game as a workout regimen,  but gamers who play Red Steel 2 will not feel like coach potatoes when they’re done, they’ll feel sore and, strangely, better.

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What’s wrong with the VGAs

When Zach Braff (Scrubs) stepped on stage at the VGAs Saturday night, his face said it all. Escorted on stage by a model dressed as valkyrie warrior (or something), Braff sized up the tall vixen at his side, feigned fright, then appeared on the verge of laughter. He looked embarrassed. To begin his speech, he yelled, “Hello, fellow nerds!”

Last night as I watched the VGAs, a landslide of feelings poured across me, and like Braff, one of those feelings was embarrassment. I felt pride, happiness, and angst, too. But it’s the former emotion that raised my hackles. I was embarrassed by the very tall model having to wear those stupid get-ups. (She never spoke, but she certainly gave Braff a look.) I was embarrassed by the mention of the phrase “balls” more than a half dozen times, courtesy of Jake Gyllenhaal’s game of the year monologue and Joel McHale’s catchy little mid-show appearance. And I was angered by Hollywood’s general sense of embarrassment at appearing on the VGAs, while talented and hardworking designers and producers got on stage, unfolded their acceptance speeches, and bravely flashed their souls in front of millions of people.

Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig receives the game of the year award at the VGAs (AP).

The Video Game Awards (VGAs), the closest thing the video game industry has to Hollywood’s Oscars, still has a long way to go before it really makes sense of the videogame industry–and before it’s taken seriously by the Hollywood stars that line its runways. What I saw last night was a flashier, better produced, and certainly more star-studded show than ever before (with fewer gaffes, to be fair), but I still got the sense that, from a show about video games, video games are still very much Hollywood’s nerdy little cousin–and they still haven’t found their place on TV.

I wonder, is it possible to air a video game show without the constant flash of violence, big tits, and an endless array of explosions? The collage of images I saw Saturday night showed little intrinsic value to video games. Perhaps that’s why Braff, along with Olivia Wilde (who was thrown off her short script by calls from the audience), didn’t take it seriously. If there is anything genuine, human, and real about the video game industry, is there is any art, innovation, or brilliance, it wasn’t shown at the VGAs.

There were sparks of human emotion, and these were the few moments where I felt the show succeeded. It’s great, truly great, that Flower won the Best Independent Videogame Award and that Chair Studio won Best Downloadable Game. These weren’t even categories a few years ago. One of the most genuine acceptance speeches I saw all night was from the Flower team, where they briefly explained the absurdity of pitching a game about emotions and blossoming to Sony, and ended by asking all of the millions of laid off game makers to join them in indie development.

Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig gave a heartfelt acceptance speech, and because I have spent many hours talking with Amy about games, I could tell she delivered a genuine heartfelt speech that didn’t fit any mold or formula. I am so happy for her and her team. They fully deserve all the recognition they get.

It was great to see the Assassin’s Creed II team receive their award for best action-adventure game. The Ubisoft Montreal team spoke in both English and in French on stage, didn’t ham it up and, for anyone paying attention to the shift in talent traveling to Canada, represent some of our Northern neighbor’s growing top talent.

Perhaps the biggest win of the night was the best studio award. The guys from Rocksteady, basically an unknown English studio whose claim to fame was the totally ignored Urban Chaos: Riot Response, were grateful, excited, and earnest. Their success story is just fantastic, and their game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, is equally fantastic. It perfectly balances high production values and smart writing that shows the writers really get the Batman character and the universe, and an excellent balance of stealth, action, and adventure. Every comic book videogame from now on will have to reach as high as Batman Arkham Asylum from here on out.

When I think of the Oscars, I often remember the collages of movies and actors who have been a part of the industry’s success; the retrospectives about people who made a difference. When the great directors, actors, writers, and special effects technicians who excel at their craft are recognized and rewarded for their achievements, it puts in perspective what the industry has achieved in the past in comparison to the achievements its awarding today. When I saw the VGAs Saturday night, I saw a show that gave no recognition to its past, that gave no award to its founders, that didn’t seem to have a past or a future, just a right-here, right-now orgasm of action, flashing lights and…the Bravery. Yes, I too like action, flashing lights, and a little Snoop Dog in my cultural diet, but when I eat a meal, I don’t just eat steak by itself.

What’s perhaps equally disturbing is that all night I listened to invisible “professional announcers” guide me through the show. There was no guide, no host, no person, who represented the world of videogames to hold my hand, make me laugh, show me the history of the industry, and again, put the awards, and the industry, in perspective. What does it mean to win best shooter of the year? Who won last year? Are their any journalists out there who could be interviewed to put the games in perspective? One easy solution is to have the previous year’s winner present the current year’s award, informing the audience and passing the torch in a way that means something.

There is a reason no real host was called upon last night. That person doesn’t exist. For starters, actors regularly fail at representing the industry because it’s clear they get paid lots of money to act in films, and that they appear on videogame shows for charity or because of a contract agreement (with notable exceptions like Vin Diesel). Second, there is no charming gamer nerd with the savvy to get up on stage and ride the fence between games and film/TV with moxie, perspective, and charm. From the game industry, the closest anyone has come to nailing that perfect blend are Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski, and Ken Levine. I am sure there are other talented game creators and personalities around who could pull it off.

Perhaps the show could hire better, funnier writers, too. The joke Tony Hawk told about action adventure games created a dreaded void of discomfort afterward. Almost every actor who took the stage was given sub-par lines, and the Tiger Woods jokes were just plain terrible. Stevie Wonder’s appearance was smart and his challenge to developers to create games for the blind and handicapped will be remembered as a highlight of the show. Jack Black’s entertaining skit for mistaking his best game of the year acceptance speech was pure Jack Black–silly, ballsy, and fun. But in all, instead of being helmed by a person, the host-less VGAs were peppered with Hollywood actors who looked out of place, embarrassed, and itching to get off that stage.

In the end, the VGAs represent the video game industry’s struggle for acceptance in the mainstream world in just the same way movies and TV are accepted. The truth is, the video game industry isn’t the same as the movie industry–though with shows like the VGAs, it’s clear the desire to be like Hollywood still burns brightly. And while I understand last night’s show was fully sponsored by Mountain Dew (the night’s biggest message), and it has to make money and attract an audience, the game industry needs better representation than last night’s show. It needs smarter, funnier video game people and less Mike Tyson. It needs fewer embarrassed actors and more genuine ones. It needs better writing that doesn’t rely on mentioning testicles over and over again to show that the industry actually has balls, and it needs to show its rich heritage, interesting origins, and the stories and characters that made it what it is today. And I don’t mean just trotting out Nolan Bushnell again and again (although he is great in his own way), but getting Shigeru Miyamoto out there to give us a sense of where we started and have come. Putting Will Wright out there to share with us his rocket scientist vision of the future of games. Hauling out Jordan Mechner to put the upcoming Prince of Persia movie in perspective–and not just his happiness at its acknowledgement. What about getting Ken Levine on stage to show us his quirky brilliance? Or having David Jaffe up there? That man’s blog is a world of entertainment.

With a better mixture of video game talent, more relevant Hollywood talent (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jack Black = good; Tyson, Jersey Shore = bad), a perspective, and a smart host, the VGAs could really be something worthy of the industry it represents. As it is, the VGAs are just a sideshow in Hollywood’s ongoing carnival.

Check this story for the show’s full list of winners (a lot of news stories out there show incomplete lists).

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Assassin’s Creed 2 Review

In nearly every respect, Assassin’s Creed was a success story. An industry darling from its debut, the new IP earned a groundswell of hype and praise and attracted the likes of Steven Spielberg, gathered talk of movie options, won industry awards, and more. After its release, the game raked in remarkable, record-breaking sales numbers for a new IP. There was only one thing that publicly troubled Ubisoft: Reviews ranged from high nines to low sevens and sixes. Critics either loved or hated it.

Beneath its gorgeous exterior and sweeping vistas, Assassin’s Creed didn’t deliver the high-octane experience everyone, including Ubisoft, hoped it would be. Two years later, the French publisher’s vast, sweeping sequel answers its critics in every way. Where the first game was rigid, repetitive, and uncompromising in design and gameplay, the sequel is open, diverse, and full of options. The first game’s title, Assassin’s Creed, messaged “stealth,” but in reality it failed most stealth tests. The sequel, however, delivers innovative and exciting stealth components. The list of improvements goes on. The combat is deeper and more robust, the interactions with civilians are more interesting, and the exploration options are in many ways more manageable than before. To cut myself short, Assassin’s Creed II (AC2) actually over-delivers in the same way that Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV did, improving in every way over the original and creates a distinct, forceful, and full game that truly delivers on the original’s promise.

The Story So Far

With a complicated storyline full of twists and turns, time travel, and a mixture of religious and science fiction themes, Assassin’s Creed II’s narrative is a handful. You play modern day bartender Desmond Miles, an apparently normal guy who happens to have been reared by a family of assassins, and whose DNA contains secrets of his family’s past. Captured by Abstergo Industries, Miles is forced into a lab to undergo sessions in which a software tool called the Animus mines his DNA for memories. The first game traced Miles back to the role of Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad, in 1191. AC2 sends Miles back to Renaissance Italy, 1476, and puts him in the role of young Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Yes, that is his real name. And yes, the game is full of Italian names just like that.

Like the first game, the second one takes place in the present and the past. Thankfully, you’ll experience a majority of it in the past, while a sprinkling of events in the future explain your predicament, adding new twists to the dual narrative. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll remain a little vague on the story details. The original game took itself a little too seriously. Instead of the characters’ intensity gripping players’ interest, the modern day scenes with Lucy and doctor felt like interruptions and resulted in annoyance rather than intrigue. In AC2, players quickly discover that Miles’ new science/medical team is quirkier, funnier, even a little nastier, but even when nasty, they’re always more comical. A little light comedy might seem like a minor addition, but considering how heavy the subject matter is, the comical asides and more colorful characters add much needed balance to the dialogue and narrative flow.

Within the first few minutes of the game, you dive deep into Miles’ DNA history and you become Ezio, the second oldest child in the prominent Auditore family. Ezio’s father is a prominent banker and primary supporter of the ruling class Medici family of Florence. The Medicis, it turns out, are facing political challenges from another prominent family and, after a series of shocking events, these challenges turn into a confrontation that forces Ezio’s hand. He takes his family into hiding and then takes on the role of an assassin, seeking sweeping vengeance for those involved in his family’s tragedy.

In truth, AC2’s story feels like a forerunner to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with warring families killing each other in the dark and sophisticated factions strategizing to one-up another for power and prominence. It’s all quite dramatic and serious in nature, though just like the modern day characters in AC2, Ubisoft has injected the Italian narrative with light humor and some GTA-style one-liners for good measure.

The story is vast, involves a lot of characters, both fictional and real, and Ubisoft does an excellent job of blending their known history into the fiction. Each time you meet a new character or see a new piece of historic architecture, you can read about their roles in history. You can easily skip the optional text. But Ubisoft’s inclusion of historical better explains why this period in Italy was important in history and gives an underlying depth to the game. AC2 actually makes a good case for a bit of historic education while gaming.

Bigger in Every Way

The first Assassin’s Creed was not a small game. You could walk, run, jump across building tops, and ride horse back in ancient locations such as Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus. AC2 is not only bigger in literal surface-level geography, it’s also taller and digs deeper underground. In AC2, Ezio will travel on foot, on horseback, in carriages, and in a flying machine across a vast region of Italian spots including various portions both inside and outside of Florence and Venice, Rome, the mountains, and various outlying countryside locations as well. The game’s size is impressive on its own, but more importantly, Ubisoft has made good use of the new space.

Just like the first, Ezio will uncover regions in each city by climbing to Eagle’s nests, but these buildings are more like 40 stories high instead of 20 stories high. The cities themselves are vast labyrinths of asymmetric streets, alleyways, and marketplaces, making for fun/challenging escape routes, with erudite re-creations of Italy’s famous religious structures peppering every region. Additionally, Ubisoft has introduced assassin’s tombs hidden deep underground. These tombs are physical puzzles in the vein of Prince of Persia/Tomb Raider, and while optional, they add mode depth and variation to the central game. They’re also good for gathering more information and money.

Assassin’s Creed is as much about historical conspiracy betrayal as any good drama or noir movie. Folding in more layers to the game’s depth, Ubisoft has introduced collectible glyphs. These hidden glyphs are located in hard-to-reach locations, and each one can only be opened after solving a trio of puzzles, each of which incorporates classic art (more education!). Once solved, the riddles reveal a small video clip. The object is to collect them all and piece them together to help you solve a bigger puzzle. The bigger puzzle? Yes, these glyphs appear to be from the future, and are a message sent by a previous Animus subject who was overexposed to the Animus and got lost in it. These are his means of communicating what he has found.

Adding even more depth to the game, Ezio is re-introduced to long lost family members, including one rowdy mercenary uncle who grants him his villa. Like Grand Theft Auto Vice City’s real estate mechanic, you’re able to invest and improve the villa, which in turn produces revenue. You don’t have to invest in the villa to beat the game, but the upside is tangible. You’re able to own a place of your own, generate extra cash, and visit your family once in a while.

Although I haven’t measured them side-by-side, the enormous geographical landscape of AC2 is reminiscent, once again, of Rockstar’s landmark action-adventure series. Translation: it’s really, really, really big. The result of such enormity is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you will experience a minimum of 25-30 hours of gameplay–that’s without collecting everything–providing little doubt you will get your money’s worth. On the other hand, despite the addition of a horse carriage function designed to quickly transport you between most major cities, getting around is a slow, arduous process.

The upshot of all this space and additional depth is that AC2 isn’t just bigger for the sake of being bigger. Everything works into the main story and is incorporated into the game design in a fundamental way. This is important, and with the exception of one huge fetch-quest near the end (which is one of the few down-sides to the game), you’ll feel like every big new city you visit has a meaning and purpose of its own.

System Shocker

The original Assassin’s Creed had some interesting ideas in it that didn’t necessarily work out. For instance, why did it have a Halo-style health system? Why did it have these neat eaves-dropping missions, but lack basic mission variety? Why did it seem like a stealth game but play like an action game? And why were you always displaying poor public conduct?

AC2 discards a number of systems from the first and replaces them with better ones in the second. In the original game, Altaïr regenerated his health automatically, just like in Halo. In AC2, a full monetary system requires Ezio to not only buy health, but buy clothes, weapons, weapon upgrades, and armor. Of course, you earn money too. And this is where the monetary system gets interesting. You can steal money from local citizens by simply brushing up against them; not much, like 2-4 lire per person. But if you brush up against 100 people, all of a sudden you’re in the money. Citizens take about two seconds to realize they’ve been robbed, and you have to do is keep moving on down the road. As I mentioned earlier, upgrading your villa earns you money, but it requires you to constantly revisit it, which is slow, slow, slow. Tumbling down into tombs earns serious cash, as does completing primary, secondary, or tertiary missions. But no matter what, you will need to earn money to keep up your health, and even to repair your armor. This could sound like a red flag to some, but because you can buy five viles of health potion at a time, and doctors are plentiful in each city, a little planning usually goes a long way.

The AI has improved for the better. In Assassin’s Creed 1, if you were found out, you basically had to head for the hills. The original game’s AI was binary. As is the sequel’s theme, everything in AC2 is loosened and broadened. If you attract unwanted attention, you can still jump to rooftops or find hay bales or find wells to hide in. Or you can be pro-active, pulling down posters with your mug on them, or silencing witnesses through a bribe or with a stiletto. It’s your choice, and it’s now fun to be a stealthy bastard.

You can also use the crowds in a far more intuitive and useful way than before. Unlike the unforgiving priest crowds in the first, Ezio can blend into ANY crowd of two or more people, indicated by a gray circle of computer data icons on the ground. This simple evolution of the original game’s crowd mechanic makes the blending work 200% better. You can now sift through the crowds like ghost. Conversely, you can hide among prostitutes or hire them to distract enemies. Or you can bulk up against an oncoming squadron of enemies by hiring thieves or mercenaries to fight by your side. I often found myself just hiring thieves and just killing as many guards as possible.

Think about this for a moment. When was the last time you were rewarded for beating up a philanderer? In AC2, the explosion of mission types makes sure you won’t feel the dread of repetition again. You’ll beat up disloyal husbands, escort important citizens across town, enter into races across town, explore distinct parts of the city, explore tombs, collect special items, rob important people, get to hard-to-reach spots under a timer, and so on. There are countless primary missions to push the story forward, but there are an equal amount of side missions providing money and information too.

The New Killing Instinct

The combat in Assassin’s Creed was decent at best, and like many other aspects of the first game, it was repetitive and underwhelming. AC2 brings serious chops to the fighting table. First, with the money you’ll earn, you can upgrade to more powerful swords, spears, poles, and axes. Or you can just pick up the weapons dead enemies leave behind. Second, your hands are powerful tools. You can throw solo jabs at enemies or pummel them with impressive combos. Later in the game you’ll earn knives, so you can throw knives from a distance at enemies, and much later in the game you’ll earn the ability to use a primitive handgun, which isn’t as fun as it sounds.

Like the first game, you’ll re-learn how to deflect enemy attacks and counter. You’ll also be able to strafe, jump back, and disarm. The disarm move is especially cool. As the game progresses, you’ll face different classes of enemies. You’ll start facing basic thugs with swords, arrow-shooting guardsmen, then spear and hammer wielding enemies; and later on, you’ll face axe- and long-pole wielding brutes wearing armor. You can eventually wear these last types down, but the best way to confront them is to retract any weapon you’re holding, strip down to your bare hands, and disarm them. Once you strip them of their axes and long-poles, you’ll see some of the best death animations the game has to offer. Now, instead of being an annoyance, the combat is easily one of the best parts of the game!

But Ezio is limited in what he can carry. He can wield one sword, one dagger, one gun, and at a certain point in the game, he’ll upgrade to double wrist blades. Any enemy weapons he picks up are dropped when he switches to his personal weapons, or when he climbs or swims (yes, you thankfully can swim this time).

Still, if you thought a single-jump stealth kill was wildly exciting in AC1, brace yourself. Easily one of the coolest, most exciting new moves in the game is the double wrist blade kills. I yelled several times at the top of my lungs to an empty room when I performed these stealth kills. Making them especially fun is the newly added stealth kill moves. You can pull enemies down while hanging from a balcony, stealth kill them while hiding in a well or in hay, or jump down from a balcony to assassinate them. Doubling the stealthy death is indescribably satisfying. While in Venice, you swim up to the shore, a boat, or a gondola, and silently drop kill enemies too.

Overall

Assassin’s Creed 2 delivers a game that’s bigger, better, and deeper than the first. And it’s actually fun as a fully functional stealth-action game. It not only answers criticisms aimed at the first, it fixes almost every problem, and adds more variety, combat depth, exploration, and personality to the mix. Nearly everything has a purpose for being in the game, and everything ties back into the main theme. In amongst the great expanse of gameplay, a few minor issues stuck out: collecting 100 feathers is a ridiculous, arduous task; the required fetch quest near the game’s end is forced and annoying, and because of the game’s size, some gamers won’t ever return to the game’s early cities. Still, these are small complaints laid upon a game that fulfills the original’s promise.

Score: 9.5 (out of 10)

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Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Review

There is something innately exciting about Western stories. The Wild West is usually depicted as a lawless land of id-driven pursuits where lust, greed, and fame always end up dragging a wagon of bullet-ridden bodies behind it. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood fits this bill perfectly. Following the first relatively decent game, Call of Juarez, Techland’s prequel-sequel tells the story of three McCall brothers determined to restore their family’s pride, and creates a better-than-average–and in respects a surprisingly good–first-person shooter in the process.

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The story is at times wonderful, at times cliché. The same goes for the dialogue. The presentation does a lot with a little, and in so many ways this game pulls itself out of rough territory, coming up with compelling little touches and thoughtful additions that kept me interested all the way through.

In nearly every level, Bound in Blood offers you the choice of playing either brother, Ray or Thomas, upping the ante over the stricter original. Ray is the wild, crazy, dual-fisted gun-slinger who likes to carry sticks of dynamite for fun, and Ray is the calmer rifle-wielding killer who carries a lasso and a bow and arrow for kicks. Techland’s eight-hour FPS is packed with a corral of surprisingly diverse missions, keeping the action fresh and focused. The wide range of missions offer co-op situations, like breaking into saloons with unfavored odds, broad environments designed for exploration and item gathering, and a keen breadth, enabling each brother to execute his distinct brand of justice upon the enemy. For instance, both can ride horses. But only Thomas can climb onto rooftops to snipe or use a lasso, while Ray is especially adroit at close-encounter brawls thanks to his duel-wielding action.

Techland presents each new mission with narration from the third brother, a preacher who desperately follows his brothers in hopes to save their souls. His narration gives the game a sometimes preachy, annoying tone, but while I often fond myself saying out loud, “Shut the *&^% up, you whiny barnacle!!!!, in calmer moments, I also found the holy chatter to balance the story with a tone that smartly counters the immoral acts of gun-slinging for gold. The preachy brother doesn’t just narrate the story; he plays a big part in the story’s twisting plot and its intriguing end.

The solid gunplay mechanics are brought to fruition by a mixture of straight-up gunfights, RPG-lite aspects like chasing down criminals in side-story paths and upgrading a variety of guns, to a handful of climbing, rescue, and escort missions. The shooting and movement mechanics are solid, and the surprisingly fun horse-riding sections also added nice wrinkles to the overall feel. The healthy set of bosses also keeps the action diverse and the challenges constant. The main issue I had with the game is the trial-and-error showdowns. These are must-haves for any Western, but Techland’s try-and-die method leaves a lot to be desired. This is mainly due to the fact that you’ll have to endure a handful of deaths before you hopefully, and through more luck than skill, shoot down your opponent.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the game is the multiplayer games. Instead of just added on haphazardly, there are a handful of game types that enhance the Western theme and the FPS base play. The dust-ridden towns aren’t just 2D props, but fully usable, 3D buildings, houses, saloons, and banks with second stories, roofs, and back doors to run through, giving the maps a big, connected continuity. And the basic shoot-’em-up gameplay is just fun. There is something funny and real about a tall, bald shopkeeper sprinting down the street with a shotgun, mowing down enemies.  I especially liked the Rob/Defend Bank missions.

All in all, this rather low-budget game does its best to be better than just another low-budget first-person shooter. Techland uses the Western theme to add a solid variety of mission and gameplay types into the fold, and the horse riding, side missions, and alternate use of Thomas or Ray keep the game fresh and interesting. And believe it or not, the story is quite good, too. The multiplayer component is the biggest surprise, building on the Western theme and creating persuasive reasons to play long after the single-player game is completed.

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E3 2009: Assassin’s Creed II Impressions

Easily one of my personal most anticipated games in 2007 was Assassin’s Creed, the Ubisoft action adventure game that went on to sell, to date, more than 8 million units worldwide. The game was, and is, still very beautiful and sold way more than I expected, perhaps way more than anyone expected. Sales of this nature–Assassin’s Creed is the best-selling new IP ever–scream for a sequel, and this year Ubisoft demoed Assassin’s Creed II at its bustling booth, showing off what the development team has learned, what problems it’s going to fix, and why this game will be better than the last one.

Assassin’s Creed II begins directly after Assassin’s Creed 1 (AC1), in 146 Venice, Italy. You take on the role of Desmond, the last in the line of family of assassin’s dating back to the 15th Renaissance period, and the lead character from the first game. Desmond is now equipped with a more diverse set of athletic attacks, more and better weapons, and the environment around him is also more diverse.

The scenario I witnessed was a hunt-and-kill mission in which Desmond seeks out to kill a powerful religious figure who has disappeared into a labyrinthine compound that is too difficult to reach by foot. The first scene opens up in a center square in which a gala party takes place. You see a tower in the distance, where Leonardo di Vinci has left you a flying device to reach the compound, so Desmond make his way through the crowd, climbs up the scaffolding of several buildings, and, showing off the his new, more diverse move set, climbs under an open tower window in which a sentry is staying guard, reaches up, grabs him, and throws him to his death. In AC1, Desmond had a single removable dagger device strapped to his wrist and hidden under his cloak. In AC2, he is equipped with one for each arm, which my Ubisoft demo driver Animator Mike Memmico, deftly demonstrates, instantly rushing to, and killing to more sentries among the rooftops.

Upon reaching the tower top, Desmond straps on a “flying machine,” a primitive set of glider wings (that looks a little like primitive Batman wings), and glides down to the Venice canal below. He uses the heat from gondolas that have been lit on fire to boost him higher into the air, and because nobody has ever seen a flying person before, the local police force, in symphony, freak out and start shooting arrows at him. But my Ubisoft driver has done this before and Desmond lands safely on the rooftops of the compound. If in the first game Desmond was limited in the range of his kills, in AC2, he has been freed. I watched as Desmond leaped off two story buildings onto his prey, instantly killing them, crept up buildings to kill enemies, snuck through windows, jumped off ledges, and more.

While this sounds like a natural and logical move to evolve the game, in practice it means that AC2 is less arduous and task-oriented, and more free-flowing and fun to play. On the subject of evolved melee, players will find that Desmond is no longer limited to just countering enemies; now the deadly cloaked assassin can attack, dodge and counter, but he is equally talented in countering weapon attacks, which he can then strip the enemy of, and use against them. He can do this with any weapon, from swords to long poles to hand axes.

While we didn’t see it all of the game’s newest features, AC2 is a much more complex game than the first, and it is essentially the title Ubisoft wanted to make the first time around but couldn’t quite pull off. In this light, players can now hire factions. Desmond can befriend three types of goons or assistants, mercenaries, courtesans (beautiful but dangerous female distracters), and thieves. Additional new moves include the ability to swim (Yay! The GTA evolution!) and throw smoke bombs–he’ll need it because he’ll be fighting more enemies with bigger weapons, and there are some enemies simply too difficult to defeat. If you felt that AC1 was as repetitive and work-oriented as I did, then in theory you’ll be happy to know that the mission diversity has evolved, too, including 18 different kinds of missions, all of which, if you die and have to re-do, will play out differently the second or even third time around.

Our assassin finally reaches the powerful religious figure he has been bent of killing, dropping in to his compound from the rooftops and dealing his special brand of death and the mission is complete.

My demo ended but I had questions, because after all, AC1 was a single-player action-adventure game with no co-op, online, or multiplayer features. Not all games need to have these features, but when executed well, they add more replay value and social elements to the game, giving it longer legs to stand on. Ubisoft said that it’s not discussing any co-op, multiplayer or online functions and hasn’t made any announcements on that subject…yet. Expect news in this arena in the next few months. Assassin’s Creed 2 is set to arrive on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 November 17, 2009.

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