Tales of Misery and Woe

4 Sep

Ezio Auditore: Smarmy Motherfucker

Given my recent block of free time (read: procrastinating as hard as I god damn can) I went and did something almost unthinkable – I started playing a video game made after 1995, and one from a proper studio and everything. I’ve been avoiding the vast majority of the major titles, not out of some desire to stick it to the man – although I suppose that’s a legitimate way of doing so, even if it is the lamest way possible- but because with a few exceptions they’re shinier variations of things I did a decade ago. Kill the demon,  drive the car, defeat the Nazis.

Assassins Creed 2 somehow manages to be better than that by offering a compelling narrative, a likeable protagonist, a rich and varied world to play in and an improvement of the gameplay mechanics of the first game. Essentially, what all game sequels say they’ll do, they actually did. AC1  had such a compelling free-running mechanic that it nearly compensated for everything else in the game feeling half-arsed. It also didn’t help that the protagonist, Altair, had two emotions: stoic and stoically confused. AC2 provides Ezio (pictured above) a spoiled, oversexed nobility brat who spends the course of the game becoming something that resembles a responsible adult. The game has an occasional sense of humour that’s so refreshing, and a welcome change of pace from the usual ‘YOU ARE THE SAVIOUR OF MANKIND’ stuff. The depiction of Leonardo Da Vinci is particularly good, his childlike awe and excitability for basically everything is a more compelling characterisation then the ‘learned-dude-with-beard’ that a less imaginative writer would’ve chosen, and the game gives character backgrounds for all the major villains which are filled with gory little anecdotes told with dry wit from the Snippy British Person helping out in the real world. At its best, it’s like you’re playing Medieval Iron Man– a pulp novel with enough twists on the formula to keep you entertained.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what videogames should be like in order to make them better. Some say they should be more like books, some say they should be more like movies, and others say you should stop being a faggot and put Master Chief in everything. Personally I don’t think there’s any single approach that’s the best, and that the idea that there is is detrimental to video games as a whole. Stuff like “everything needs a morality scale!”,  “everything needs MMO elements!” or “everything needs regenerating health” results in a dozen games a year being released without a single differentiating feature.

Take, for example, Fallout 3. By far the most compelling part of that game was picking a direction and walking until you find something cool. While the main quest was pretty dull stuff, the game shone in the margins, which I suspect was the work of the junior writers trying to impress dedicated players. If so, kudos. The wasteland was filled with weird things to discover: The crashed spaceship complete with awesome ray-gun, the vault where you trip balls and go back in time to the 1950s, the hamlet where the locals seem blissfully unaware that the apocalypse even happened and the Lovecraftian horror of The Dunwich Building. Fallout 3 was more  like playing through a short story anthology than a novel and was all the better for it. I have high hopes for Fallout: New Vegas, a quasi spinoff/sequel developed by Obsidian, which still retains some employees old enough to have worked on the best novel-as-videogame ever made, Planescape Torment.  Here’s to hoping.

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