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Jetpacks. Skiing. Free to play.
If you haven’t already rushed off to download this game after seeing those three features I can say that you probably should. Unless you’re even worse than me when it comes to competitive games and you can’t play them for more than five minutes. I have a similar problem with most competitive multiplayer games as I do with MMOs, I never play them long enough. I’ve only played around five hours of Battlefield 3, I bounce off Team Fortress 2 and it didn’t take long for me to leave Planetside 2’s orbit. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that I’m particularly bad at them, I’m entirely competent. And I can happily complete every Homestead Mission in Assassin’s Creed 3, spend hours continually smithing slightly better armour in Skyrim and biotically detonate many a Reaper in Mass Effect co-op. I suppose there is one very competitive game that’s managed to hold my attention, but I’ll get to that later.
Despite my lack of commitment to it I can still safely say that Tribes: Ascend is a real treat. As developers are increasingly starting to realise (Assassin’s Creed, Dishonoured, Brink) movement is great and players are always on the look out for exciting, new methods of mobility. Tribes is largely about shooting people whilst moving very, very quickly, be it with sniper rifles, explodey crossbows or launchers that fire ruddy great exploding disks (Spinfusors). There’s a job for everyone, you can be a sniper (which is much harder when you’re trying to hit the head of a little man jetpacking over a hill at 200 miles an hour), a turret toting engineer, a mortar rounds spewing muscle man or, my personal favourite, a speedy bloke/blokette with a shotgun and a mini Spinfusor, specialising in daring flag grabs and chases. What are you waiting for? Why haven’t you played it yet? Get out there and llama grab yourself a free download!
Assassin’s Creed III
Disclaimer:The only previous Assassin’s Creed game I played properly was Brotherhood, so when I say that this is the best one yet that statement is based entirely on the fact that before III everyone in the know said that Brotherhood held that title, and ACIII is better than that one.
The best thing about Assassin’s Creed III is the setting, but don’t let that belittle the rest of it. Ubisoft took quite a risk taking their big, triple-A money-maker to the American Revolution and then exposing the darker side of some of the U.S’s national heroes, and I’d say it paid off. I’ve always wanted to know more about the period, it was a pretty important time. The American Revolution would have been a much better topic to study in Year 9 history lessons than 2 months of Jack the Ripper. In the one week I spent with Assassin’s Creed III’s single player I learnt as much about the critical historical period as I’d picked up in the whole of the rest of my life. Now obviously playing the game alone wouldn’t do as a very good history lesson, John Pitcairn wasn’t really assassinated by a moody native American jumping out of a tree fighting for an organisation dedicated to protecting ancient alien artefacts, but if one reads the codex entries that pop up throughout the story one can learn a great deal. Now I actually know why the Americans have that image of the Indians throwing tea into the sea. Ubisoft kept insisting before the game was released that it wouldn’t just be a load of anachronistic jingoism, even if they didn’t show us much to prove it, and they were right. Turns out George Washington was quite the arse, Ben Franklin was a terrible womaniser and Paul Revere wouldn’t shut up when riding on the back of horses.
And isn’t it refreshing to see a Native American protagonist in such a major video game? Connor’s (or Ratohnhaké:ton, as the developers are happy to stress is his real name) race means a lot more than just tomahawks and feathers. Connor is plagued with the realisation that there is far more trouble ahead for his tribe as he is forced to help those that may sooner see his people dead. Connor is an interesting character in his own right too, while they may be at odds with the scores of soldiers he brutally cuts down his moral dilemmas are intriguing. It’s such a shame, then, that such a great character is spoilt somewhat by a frequently dry performance. The actor (Noah Watts) has angry and stoic down to a tee. When Connor gets p’ed off or monologues on his troubles it’s convincing and involving, but when he tries to engage in friendly conversation problems arise. Connor can’t switch off, it seems. When he’s supposed to be congratulating his friends on their marriage he still sounds as if he’s at a funeral. I suppose it helps that his lack of positive emotion is mirrored in his facial animation (which is top quality), he spends so much time frowning and glowering that when he occasionally does smile it’s kind of frightening.
What can I say about the gameplay? Yes, it’s had the little incremental improvements people have come to expect from the series (grabbing a human shield to defend yourself from firing lines doesn’t get old and big steps have been made to prevent fights just turning into counter-chain-executions) but it hasn’t had an overhaul. Personally, I’m content with it, the combat’s still a lot of fun for me, but I can imagine that people who’ve played through the whole series would want more change. Ranged weapons that can be aimed freely would be a nice touch; the bow would be a lot more useful if enemies had more health but could be taken out with a headshot. A lot of the joy is in the fluid animations, which rank pretty highly on the badassitude scale. The naval battles (as everyone says, especially console players) are a good, if odd, addition. They have just the right level of arcadeyness to them. A major flaw I found though, is that it costs so much to buy most of the improvements for the ship that you’ll barely get to use grape or explosive shot.
The game also features another revamp of the excellent multiplayer mode that first appeared in Brotherhood. Reminiscent of Outerlight’s Murder Simulator ‘The Ship’ but far more polished and refined, the multiplayer is all about identifying your allocated target amongst crowds of well-coded NPCs whilst also trying to hide from your own pursuer. The clever AI of the crowds is vital to the experience. The AI will randomly sprint to pass short distances or bump into each other. The trick comes from knowing how much you can get away with without alerting your hunter or target to your presence. How many seconds can you afford to jog for? Do I have to time to jump over this rooftop and land on the other side before my target comes round the corner? Would an AI be stupid enough to try to sit on a full bench resulting in them walking into the wall elevated a foot above the ground for three seconds? (The answer:no, but I was. It got me rumbled most painfully.) A chase in Assassin’s Creed multiplayer, whether you’re the one frantically trying to dart behind a corner and hide in a hay-bale or a group of chatting clones or the one forced to scale a building because your fleeing target slammed a barn door in your face, is a beautiful thing. Though it’s a shame there aren’t some modes that make free-running the centre piece. The multiplayer is an oft-forgotten treat and this time the team have put even more effort into fleshing it out, adding, admittedly rather redundant, improved character customisation options and millions of emblems. For those that found the single-player’s mission design lacking the multiplayer makes for a good retreat.
Disclaimer: DOTA 2 isn’t officially released yet, it’s still in a very well-polished beta, but since this is the year that it really caught on I think it’s allowed a place here.
Help! How could this have happened? I’ve played nearly two-hundred hours of a competitive multiplayer game! And not just any competitive game, this is the most competitive of games, you will be sworn at and insulted on a regular basis. Thankfully I’ve negated this a bit by only ever playing with friendly Mumble chums on my team but I do still see a lot of people ask me to report someone on their team for playing a little bit off, or just for being Russian. It’s also horribly complex and there’s so much to remember. There are ninety unique heroes and rising, each with many potential good builds, and over two hundred items. So much of the game is counter intuitive, the whole concept of last hits, denying and pushing is baffling for newcomers. I keep discovering things I didn’t know about the game. I only just found out that if you shoot at things up some stairs you have a chance to miss. What the heck is a unique attack modifier? The game has a vicious first learning curve. Failing in DOTA is horrible; an overfed enemy team soon becomes impossible to defeat without suffering casualties and painful respawn times. Despite this it still takes a long, drawn-out, inescapable wait whilst they finish off your base (though, admittedly, when you’re on the other side of a stomp it’s surprisingly entertaining). It’s very intimidating and for a long time I couldn’t comprehend why I was still playing.
But… I’m putting it in my end of year roundup so you can tell that something must have happened. It’s difficult to explain the appeal. Sure, a great deal of it is about tactics and strategy but I very rarely get the feelings of intellectual superiority that I get all the time with a game like XCOM or an RTS. A lot of it is about reflexes (and a little accuracy, surprisingly), but it’s mostly about understanding how to best use the tools at your disposal. I think it’s the teamwork. I doubt I’d enjoy it much if I wasn’t in constant communication with my companions. Dying repeatedly isn’t fun, but it may be worth it for that moment where you dropped your zombie gravestone on the invading enemy hoard just in time for your wounded teammate to make their escape, or the time you teleported down to pillage the lower lane whilst your friends distracted the enemy’s eye up top. Co-ordination is key and knowing that you won because you co-operated and planned with your group is what you remember, not that time the enemy got a one minute ancient. This is what DOTA means to me. Well, that and some god-awful accents (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish).
Come back later for further parts where I talk about (among others) XCOM, The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Borderlands and Far Cry and reveal my number one game of 2012.