Monday, 9 April 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 - Preview

In the new film from the Dardenne brothers, the wonderful The Kid With A Bike, a local drug dealer uses the lure of playing the new Assassin's Creed game to tempt the film’s titular kid back to his flat, in a bid to recruit him for a robbery. We'll take any excuse to mention French arthouse cinema.

Anyway, it was of course the extraordinary success of 2009’s Assassin’s Creed 2 that put Ubisoft’s franchise onto the lofty path it currently treads. Two sequels followed in successive years, giving the historical open-world adventure a status shared only by a handful of other games – that of the inevitable, annually updated Christmas-friendly moneyspinners. With such an escalation in exposure came the inevitable ‘criticisms’ that also regularly follow the likes of Call Of Duty and FIFA: that they’re casual games for casual gamers, the annual sequels leaving little time for innovation, diluting what was once a unique experience via the laws of diminishing returns.

Ubisoft have been nothing if not alive to such perceptions. Assassin’s Creed 3 is the first full sequel in the series for three years. It uses a new engine, is set in a new era, and stars a new hero (Connor). Everything else though, give or take some iterations, is business as usual. We’ll start with the era first.

Set in the years 1753-1783, this stretch of American history takes in the decade predating the start of the American revolutionary era and ends with the war between Great Britain and the United States concluding. It’s an ambitious framework for the game, and great attention has been taken to ensure historical accuracy. We’re shown a mission that takes place with the battle of Bunker Hill as its backdrop. The visual scale of the conflict, with columns of soldiers marching and firing in unison, is a high point for the series, whilst the famous order given to troops – “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” – is heard as you walk among the troops, waiting for the mission proper to begin. The care for these little details – the verbatim speech, the slow pace of reloading – is in stark contrast to the traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay, as Connor uses the armies’ confrontation to sneak around the field’s outskirts to kill a general on horseback.

The changes come thanks to the new engine, allowing Connor to climb trees and rockfaces with fluidity. In motion Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but crucially it does look like a big enough step beyond the Ezio trilogy to seem, at the very least, like a series suitably refreshed. Other changes brought on by the update in technology include dynamic weather cycles, more natural NPC behaviour and the ability, via new animations, to clamber manfully through thick snow. In fact it’s these snow-based sections, which take place in the Frontier – a barren landscape of mountain ranges and roaming wildlife – that thrill the most. Looking isolated and not unlike a certain Rockstar-developed western, the Frontier territory gives ample opportunities for Ubisoft to demonstrate how this new game will differ.

Although development started over two years ago, the influence of Red Dead Redemption is felt in these brooding, convincingly isolated passages, not to mention the slaying of a bear followed by the option to skin the slain creature. That said, the athletic, fantastical manner in which Connor traverses the environment is far removed from that of John Marston, and it’s the surrounding milieu of Assassin’s Creed 3 – the passing regiments, the scattered villages – which should help differentiate Ubisoft’s excursion into wilderness territory. Apparently 30% of the game’s missions take place here, a sizeable chunk and a figure that the team will have to work with carefully if they’re to avoid the trap of repetition that afflicted previous games.

Unfortunately – albeit unsurprisingly – the narrative will once again be formed around the idea of an Animus meaning that the game world is, to all intents, a fabrication in the mind of contemporary protagonist Desmond Miles. A witty comment on videogaming construction it may be, but the story in Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of that game’s biggest failings, the tedious mythologizing and confusing plotting proving a barrier to the immersion that the best open-worlds offer. That said, this time around the Animus is more closely integrated into the game, which should help alleviate the disjunction between worlds that existed before.

Here are some other bullet points:
- So far three locations have been confirmed: the aforementioned Frontier lands, Boston and - still under wraps - a New York under siege.
- The name of the new engine is Anvil Next.
- Cut-scene technology has been vastly improved.
- Lead character Connor stands, apparently, for justice, and is half-British/half-Mojave.

Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t the only major release this year to use American history as a foundation. BioShock Infinite, which releases just a few weeks before AC3, also hinges on a depiction of America, except its use is more of an allegorical one centred around the turn of the 20th century, and America’s growing status as a world superpower. Although the approach is markedly different, there’s something more exciting about Ken Levine’s thoughtful, nuanced vision.

The numbers, features and quotes we hear at this preview are impressive on paper, but leave us feeling generally unmoved. History, as the series' IP and development director Tommy Francois says, may be the developer’s “playground”, and the themes of the American Revolution may mirror those of Assassin’s Creed (liberty or death, power or oppression, control or freedom) but there appears to be a tension between the lengths to which historical accuracy has attempted to be followed, and the sci-fi narrative overlaid on top. It’s a trap that Assassin’s Creed 2, for all it's strengths, also fell into. This third chapter doesn’t as yet appear to share the same sense of revolution as its setting; we’ll have to wait until October to see if that will be enough.

Devil May Cry 4

Devil May Cry 4, with its introduction of a new character and an ending that hinted at further adventures to come, was likely meant to herald the beginning of a healthy new life for the series on next-generation consoles. Despite being a praiseworthy, albeit unadventurous, fourth chapter in Dante’s saga, it seems something didn’t quite go to plan as far as Capcom were concerned. That last line in this re-visited review – “from here, everything is looking very bright indeed” – sounds a tad optimistic now.

Over four years on from Devil May Cry 4’s release, and there still isn’t any hint of a ‘proper’ fifth chapter. Instead, last week saw the European release of the inevitable retro exercise Devil May Cry HD Collection whilst – far more controversially – development duties for a new full-blown DMC game have been handed to Ninja Theory, the developers of the underrated Heavenly Sword and, er, the overrated Enslaved. Set in a “parallel, non-canon” version of the DMC universe, and featuring the sort of self-consciously gritty restyling that tends to be shorthand for a developer unsure of which direction their creation can go next, early reports on DmC: Devil May Cry (because nothing shouts reboot like a minimal title) haven’t been encouraging. But there’s something fascinating about DmC, especially as it’s, by our account, the first big Japanese franchise to be entrusted to a Western studio. That’s one for the future (well, E3 2012).

For now, to celebrate the release of the aforementioned Devil May Cry HD Collection, here’s our 2008 review of DMC4. And to think, Bayonetta was still two years away…

The amount of criticism regularly directed at Devil May Cry 2 even today may seem disproportionate and in no uncertain terms a little picky, but the overwhelmingly negative light in which that 2003 release is still held suggests two things: 1) Devil May Cry is a series that demands an opinion, whether devotional or not, like few others; and 2) the second game remains an albatross hanging around the neck of the franchise, which even the fantastic previous instalment has failed to dislodge completely.

That’s why when in this latest instalment new character Gloria says to Dante “Looks like you’ve got a rep to live up to”, it’s almost as if the developers are not only acknowledging that there’s still some debt to pay, but that there are certain things the player expects from a Devil May Cry game; outrageously flashy action, lots of guns and a nonsensical narrative, to give but three examples. It almost goes without saying that Devil May Cry 4 delivers emphatically on these fronts, despite featuring some disheartening flaws.

New character Nero is central to proceedings in the tricky plot, a naive and eager foil to the brash, cocksure Dante. A convincing relationship of master and apprentice develops between these two as the game progresses, although to explain more would be to potentially spoil moments that are best appreciated when accompanied by the most OTT cut-scenes in the short history of Devil May Cry (and that’s quite an achievement in itself).

That this is the first established Capcom franchise to receive a next-gen makeover meant that the graphics and general presentation were invariably going to be a significant step ahead of what we’d seen before, and sure enough ‘Devil May Cry 4’ positively glistens. The lighting through- out is wonderful, the backgrounds expansive and dramatic (the entire forest sequence being a particular highlight), while in crucial areas such as character animation and bosses, the increased processing power has clearly played an integral role. We can only imagine the delights Resident Evil 5 will offer in twelve months time.

There isn’t anything radical underlining this extra flourish and polish, just Capcom aggressively pushing Devil May Cry 4 towards everything that the series has ever stood for; that fleeting impres- sion of a PlayStation 2 game wrapped in more expensive visuals is quickly replaced with the instant gratification of seeing Dante cut a wall into the shape of a heart using an endless shower of blades, or of watching Nero shatter the armour of flying knights whilst in balletic slow-motion. So far, so thrilling. The major problem though isn’t what Capcom has done with the leap to next-generation, but rather what they haven’t.

The charge often levelled at recent titles such as Call of Duty 4 and Heavenly Sword (to give a more relevant example) is that however enjoyable the games, the overall experiences have been extremely brief, lengthened in these cases by an impeccable online mode and a clever system of unlockable extras. Capcom has rather cynically (or deceptively, if we’re being charitable) attempted to swerve this issue by masking some significant repetition with the otherwise welcome introduction of Dante. It is no exaggeration to say that one-third of the game involves Dante traversing across almost exactly the same route that Nero takes, albeit in the opposite direction. Additionally, though the bosses are all suitably memorable creations, expect to encounter them more than once. Never mind the consistent beauty of the fighting system, such design feels unfairly cheap and draws attention to the potential ideas and environments that could have been explored across such a large portion of the game given more development time.

Just as well then that the mechanics of combat are so finely balanced, for this is truly some of the finest action gaming of recent years. Nero’s new Devil Bringer ability is the most important addition to the already bulging repertoire, allowing him to drag enemies closer as well as frequently swinging them into the path of others. It’s testament to how well the fighting system works though that once play switches to Dante you’re not left hankering for Nero, but are instead fondly recalling the suave carnage of the third game - Dante’s four fighting styles, changeable with the touch of the d-pad, each making a return. The combinational and tactical possibilities are numerous, and it’s this unprecedented depth and flexibility afforded to the player that raises Devil May Cry 4 beyond the more consistently surprising God Of War 2, or the more studious Ninja Gaiden.

The combat system is also the aspect of the game that goes furthest in (almost) justifying the aforementioned recurring mission structure. Devil May Cry has always placed a strong emphasis on style; completing the game for some players is almost a side concern when there are SSS rankings to achieve and air combos to master. The ends are less important than the means used to get there, and within this context Devil May Cry 4 makes perfect sense.

Although true redemption for this most singular of franchises is still tantalisingly out of reach, consider Devil May Cry 4 a devastatingly impressive placeholder, a flamboyant consolidation of everything you ever loved about the series. It’s impossible to ignore, a joy to watch and suggests that finally, after much internal anxiety, it’s time to stop looking back and instead embrace the future of Devil May Cry. And from here, everything is looking very bright indeed.