Thursday, July 21, 2011

Assassin's Creed II + Brotherhood double review

Over the last couple of months I have played through both Assassin's Creed II and its follow up, Brotherhood, with only a few days between ending one and starting the other. As they are so similar mechanically, and Brotherhood is really an extension of the AC II storyline, I've decided to review both games at once. I may also follow this up with a summary of the DLC packs that have been released for both games. So now, let's take a stab at summing up two of the finest games of recent memory...

Format: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Expect to pay:
£15 to £20 (maybe a little more if you want the special editions with DLC included)

Graphics: 9 out of 10
The original Assassin's Creed was definitely a pretty game when it was released, but the two releases that comprise Ezio's story so far take things to another level in terms of scope and detail. Firstly, in AC II you have the sheer variety of Italian towns and cities to explore, including Florence, Venice and your fortified hideout at Montereggioni. Then in Brotherhood the action is transported to Rome, and it initially feels like a step backwards to set the new game in just one city instead of the multitude from before. However, Rome is a huge place and each district has its own features and lighting to help set it apart from the others.

You also have various set pieces throughout the game that take you outside of the capital for brief sections of time, such as the missions that have you controlling an ancient tank prototype or manning an early machine gun on the back of a horse and cart. These add some much needed variety to the game and are quite spectacular to take part in. I can't really say that Brotherhood is any prettier than AC II as it is so obviously running on the the same engine and lot of the same textures are reused. This doesn't detract from the experience in a big way though as there is still a ton of variety in the game play, unlike the first game in the series which suffered greatly from its small range of mission types that were constantly repeated.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10

Firstly I absolutely have to say just how amazing Jesper Kyd's musical score is on these games. Throughout both stories, he conjures up a soundtrack that would be worthy of the very best movie, with a strong theme flowing throughout the many compositions. Though much like the graphics some of the music in Brotherhood has been reused from AC II, much of it is still new or remixed in some fashion. It was a pleasure upon completing both games to sit and watch the credits scroll past, as it meant you got the opportunity to listen to the music is all its glory.

The voice work in these games is of a similarly high standard, as Ubisoft have hired genuine Italian actors to play the parts, ensuring that the accents are authentic and don't sound phony like so many games do. For extra authenticity you can even have full Italian voice overs and keep the English subtitles, though even if you have the game set to English the characters still lapse into the odd bit of Italian from time to time (mostly when there's swearing involved). There are a few celebrity voices amongst the cast including Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Elle from Heroes), Nolan "Nathan Drake" North and the UK's very own author and DJ, Danny Wallace. The final component in this category, the sound effects, are also on par with the rest of the game as sword strikes, shots from your hidden pistol, and Borgia towers exploding all sound exactly as you would hope.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
As I've already touched upon briefly the first Assassin's Creed was a decent game that suffered from repetition in a big way. There were only a handful of different mission types that you would repeat over and over again from one city to the next. The developers had quite a momentous task in building the first game, and it would appear that the temptation to just get the game out of the door became too much and they released it before it was quite ready for public consumption.

Assassin's Creed II takes everything that worked from the original game and layers on many new things to do, cities to visit, and people to stab. The main story itself is fairly lengthy and varied - on top of this a short while into the game you are given a whole town to develop (Montereggioni). This is entails renovating buildings and shops, buying paintings to hang in your villa and more. The more money you put in the more cash is generated every 20 minutes, more than enough to keep you stocked up with the latest armour, weapons and vital healing potions.

By far the most enjoyable part of both this and Brotherhood are the optional breaks that you can take to do a spot of tomb raiding. These linear stages play out like something from Prince of Persia (both games share similar climbing/platforming mechanics). Sometimes these levels can be a test of your controller dexterity, others are more combat focused, and some are a mixture of both types. Your reward for completing all six in both games are some nice achievement points and access to the best armour in the game. Brotherhood takes things one step further and introduces new criteria that you need to fulfill in order to achieve 100% synchronisation, which not only applies to these tomb stages but to every memory (mission) in the game. They can include things like using a particular weapon to take town your target, finishing a mission within a time limit, or not losing any health. You can earn some more achievement points and a special item if you manage to 100% every mission in the game (including optional ones) but it isn't required to see the end of the story.

Both games also include hidden codes on particular buildings left behind by subject 16, another person who was forced to relive the memories of his ancestors by the Templar owned Abstergo corporation. These puzzles usually aren't too taxing, and often involve a little bit of trial and error. Successfully completing them unlocks a brief movie snippet which gradually builds up into a longer clip that teases some of the secrets behind the story of the games. Now I'm going to cover a couple of things that set Brotherhood apart from the previous title: namely the ability to enlist assassin recruits and the multi player.

After around four "segments" (chapters) into the game you can start recruiting potential assassins from the general populace and train them to be efficient killers. You first have to help them fight off the guards that are assaulting them, then once you have saved their life they will join your cause. From that point on you can send them on missions at any pigeon coup or your home base on Tiber Island. Recruits start at level 1 and go up to 10 before being embraced by the order completely and taking part in their initiation ceremony. The missions themselves are chosen from a list that vary in difficulty from one to five points, and when you select a recruit you can clearly see the likelihood of them completing their mission successfully and indeed surviving. To increase the chances of success you can send up to five recruits at once, and should they come back having achieved their goals (which takes a given number of minutes) they will each get a share of XP towards their next level. Sometimes rare items will also be awarded, many of which are used to unlocked certain armour and weapon sets from vendors.

The most useful aspect of having your recruits is the ability to summon them in the field and have them take out your targets for you. The amount of recruits you can send into combat at any time is tied to the number of Borgia towers that you've destroyed, up to three at a time maximum. A quick press of LB will call them into to take on whichever enemies you've currently got targeted. If you have all three pips charged and ready to go, holding down LB for longer triggers an arrow storm move where multiple enemies are shot down quickly. The recruits will earn some XP when you summon them as well, but not as much as sending them off on missions. As they progress through the levels you can equip them with better armour and weapons, thus increasing their effectiveness. It's a great mechanic that adds another layer of depth to the game.

The other thing that differentiates Brotherhood from the second game in the series is the addition of multi player. There are a variety of game modes including solo and team based games, but basically they all involve hunting down your fellow players and killing them as quietly and inventively as possible. Simply rushing straight towards your target and leaping at their neck will earn you the bare minimum reward, but by carefully stalking your prey or using special abilities you can earn much more. There are 50 levels to progress through and each one unlocks something, be it an ability, a new character skin or something else. Abilities include disguising yourself as a different character model for a brief spell of time, or using a hidden pistol.

I did find the multi player a bit unbalanced for low level players (I've got up to level 8 so far) because those who had already reached level 50 had access to abilities such as poison that allows them to kill you without getting anywhere near you, and an ability that allows your target to see who's coming after them. There were many times that I would be carefully trying to deduce which of several similar looking people I was supposed to kill, only for them to hit me (thus losing the contract). The other problem I had is something that effects many multi player games that aren't Call of Duty or Halo - the number of people playing starts to get a bit thin on the ground after a while. I found it hard to find a match unless I was playing at peak times. So my advice, if you want to check out the multi player mode of Brotherhood, is to either check it out right now while there's still people playing it, or just wait until Revelations is released which will include a refined version of it.

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
Ubisoft got the traversal mechanics just right with the first game in the series, but the game felt empty and I lost interest before the end. By introducing so many new aspects to Assassin's Creed II, they've crafted one of the finest open world games of recent years. Then with Brotherhood they've done it again. The Borgia towers, the recruits and the multi player all shake things up once again and help to keep the experience feeling very fresh, despite essentially using the same engine as before.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
There is a decent amount of content in both games. I would say that the main story mode of Brotherhood is somewhat shorter, but on the other hand the amount of optional missions has increased so on the whole they're about even. Then the multi player mode gives you a whole other type of experience to try out, and it works pretty well. It certainly makes a refreshing change from playing another FPS online.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Ubisoft has made turning out a new game in this franchise every year appear almost effortless. When you look at the amount of stuff crammed into each game and how polished they feel, it's actually quite amazing what they've achieved (especially compared to Duke Nukem Forever). Today you can pick up both of these games in editions that also include their DLC for less than the price of one new release, and they're definitely well worth it. I have great confidence that Assassin's Creed: Revelations will develop the franchise even more, and I look forward to the eventual release of Assassin's Creed III even more. I wonder which time period we will be in next?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Child of Eden review

At long last, the fantastic music/on rails shooter hybrid Rez gets a pseudo sequel in the form of Child of Eden. It shares many elements with its predecessor yet also manages to make its own mark with its use of the Kinect sensor and the Genki Rockets soundtrack that is present throughout every stage. Does it live up to the brilliance of the older game? Let's jump right in and see...

Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Q Games

Expect to pay:

Graphics: 9 out of 10
The visuals within Child of Eden are a fantastic blend of bright neon colours, sea creatures, insects, cogs and other imagery, depending on the theme. Whereas most of Rez had a techno industrial vibe, the themes used for the various levels in the follow up are much more organic in their nature. For example the second level is entitled Beauty, and features many colourful flowers that bloom when you shoot them. When you shoot down the enemy bullets during this stage they make the sound of raindrops.
Most levels feature multiple boss encounters, usually one around the middle and another at the end, and these are impressive multi stage battles. My favourite of these comes at the end of the fourth stage, entitled Passion. This level shares the most in common with the design of Rez, as it takes place within machinery and features a fast paced techno tune. The boss is a giant green machine which keeps you on your toes by making you constantly switch between your two weapon types (more on this is a little while). Overall the graphics of Child of Eden are great, but it's when they are combined in synch with the music and the game play that the game truly becomes something special.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
At the most basic level, Tetsuya Miziguchi and Q Games have used various tunes by J-pop group Genki Rockets (which is itself a project by Miziguchi). However, things are a bit more complex that that because not only are the tracks remixed, they've also been cut up, split into their separate channels and rearranged into unique forms just for this new game. It works extremely well as the tunes usually build into a crescendo by the close of a level and gradually the vocals are introduced. The Genki Rockets tracks that have been used are the singles from their Heavenly Star album that can be downloaded from iTunes. Since buying the game I have bought the album myself and am loving it.

Besides the music, the sound effects add another layer to the experience and are created directly by the player. As you lock on to your enemies and shoot them down, various effects are released such as a hi hat or the aforementioned raindrop sound. This ties into the game plays well because if you lock onto the maximum 8 enemies at a time and then fire on the beat, you get a perfect score bonus. This is fun when playing the game with a controller because the force feedback rumbles in time with the beats, but it truly comes into its own when playing the game with Kinect. In order to stay in time, it helps to groove along with music, and when you're using your body to control the game this will probably happen without you even realising it.

Check out some footage of the early stages of the game, thanks to GhostRobo

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
Child of Eden takes place over 5 levels initially, with an additional challenge stage that is unlocked once you've completed it for the first time, and a series of different visual skins that are gradually made available by earning stars. The stars are handed out at the end of each stage and the quantity received depends on the percentage of enemies and bonus items you manage to shoot, your total score and how much health you have left. Because it's harder to be precise while using the Kinect controls instead of the controller, the game is slightly more lenient with you. Those who play with the controller will have a smaller targeting reticule, the thresholds for awarding stars will become more stringent, and each control method also has its own scoreboard (which is only fair, to be honest).

The control method that you favour will depend on you as a gamer, and what your living situation is like. Though you can technically play the game with the Kinect while sat down on your couch, it is a much more enjoyable experience when played whilst standing up. I don't have much room to move furniture around in my flat unfortunately so it is easier to use the standard controller. Whichever option you go for, they both work, and this game shows the true promise of the Kinect when it is applied to a "proper" game, and not the usual mini game collections that have littered the Wii release schedule for years and what we've seen from the Kinect to date.

While this review splits the game into graphics, sound and music and game play, with this particular game these three aspects are so inextricably linked to the overall experience that you really have to consider them all together. Those expecting another Rez run the risk of being disappointed because the music is of a different style which may not be to the taste of everyone. I also don't think that any of the levels quite match up the to the excellence of Area 5 from Rez, though its counterpart does come quite close.

This is the trailer that was revealed back at E3 2010, where I fell in love with the music.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While the overall structure of the game and the concept is fundamentally the same as Rez, the implementation of the Kinect sensor shows its true potential as a platform for serious games and so Child of Eden deserves a respectable score here.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
This may be the one potential sore spot for gamers - the five main levels of the game can feasibly all be unlocked and completed within a couple of hours. For some, they may decide they've seen enough there and regret spending £40 on such a short lived experience. Others like me will probably consider Child of Eden less of a game in the conventional sense and more of an interactive album - something that you will come back to time and time again. The different visual effects do help to add a little variety, but don't really change the game at its core. If you're someone who tends to play through a game once and move on, then I would recommend renting Child of Eden as it's definitely worth experiencing. I'm glad I have another game to go along with Rez and the two Space Channel 5 releases in the "interactive album" category.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Child of Eden is a fantastic experience that I think falls just short of the brilliance of Rez. It deserves to do well, but I fear that the majority of gamers are content to keep playing "Generic Military Shooter X" rather than trying something different. Saying that though, as long as we have game designers like Tetsuya Miziguchi in the world, and publishers like Ubisoft and Sega that are willing to give them the freedom to design the games that they want to design, I will be happy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Game Diary: Dog people, robots and airships

I have been commuting to and from London on a daily basis for over two weeks now, a trip that takes just over two hours, and only now have I started playing games to pass the time. I depart so early in the morning (and I am definitely not a morning person) that I often just want to chill out on the way in, and I had a fairly sizable backlog of podcasts that I hadn't been listening to while I was off work. Now that I've settled into the routine and caught up with all the episodes of Retronauts Live, Weekend Confirmed and others, I will be spending more time with my 3DS, Caanoo and tablet. A little while ago Ocarina of Time 3D was released of course, and while it is undoubtedly a fantastic game, I've already completed it - twice, on older hardware. I do intend to play all the way through eventually but at the moment it's not really firing my imagination. There is another game that has just been released this past Friday though, that I find thoroughly engaging, and it goes by the name of Solatorobo.

During the PS1 era, a game was released by the name of Tail Concerto, which took place in a world of talking dog and cat people. I have played small portion of this game, but enough to know that it was a high quality action game. Solatorobo is a sequel of sorts to that game, and it takes place in the same world but centres around a new cast of characters. In it you play Red the Hunter, a vulpine bounty hunter who stomps around on a giant robot while helping out the local populace for money. A short while into the game, you can also use your robot to fly for a finite amount of time, and also enter into full on air races that play rather like an airborne variant of Mario Kart.
The are many side quests and distractions throughout the game, including finding kittens who have stolen somebodies photo collection, and a fighting arena.

This is just scratching the surface, and I'm only a few hours into the game at the moment so there is a lot more to see and do. Most missions in the game take 10 minutes at the most to play through, so it is an ideal game to play on the go. Despite running on the original DS hardware rather than the more powerful 3D, the game looks great too, with the sort of hand painted anime look and European style towns that frequent many of Miyazaki's best works. It's definitely a keeper, and looks set to become on of the true hidden gems of the Nintendo DS. It's currently not released in the US, but XSEED Games have plans to bring it out there in the Autumn. If their past releases are anything to go by, they will have some lavish packaging to go with it, so it may well be worth holding out for. Should something go awry though and the game doesn't come out as planned, at least now they have the option of importing the game from Europe. It would be well worth the effort.

My Child of Eden review is still on course for later this week, but I want to spend a bit more time playing it with Kinect, as most of my play time so far has been spent using the controller.