Game Ramblings #180 – Assassin’s Creed Mirage

More Info from Ubisoft

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC

Is it weird to say that the thirteenth entry in a series feels like a breath of fresh air? This one absolutely does. If I look at the recent super open world AC entries I loved Origins, I liked Odyssey, and then Valhalla totally lost me. As the series got bigger it became less about stealth and more about RPG systems. The environments were impressive as hell, but they grew increasingly empty. The games just lost what made AC fun for me. In going smaller for Mirage, it feels like a return to form combined with iteration learned in the larger entries, leading to something that feels like a better version of where the series was going for the AC2 trilogy of titles.

To me, one-hit assassinations were essential to Assassin’s Creed. The open world titles starting with Origins did away with that. You could improve your gear and get skill upgrades to eventually get to that point in those games, but by the time Valhalla came around it was clear that they wanted to steer you into combat. My issue there is that the combat was ultimately not that great. One-on-one it worked pretty well, but as the target count increased it became increasingly annoying to deal with the timing of parries and dodges. Oddly enough, Mirage manages to kind of solve both problems.

In the few situations where I did get into combat it was much improved, and to me it was simple – parries were hugely powerful. My target count problem in AC was ultimately that clearing out the crowd was a huge chore. You could parry and dodge, but it would take what felt like forever to clear a crowd. In Mirage, it’s one or two parries max to stun an enemy and the stun state is a guaranteed kill. That puts it in the territory of assassinations in terms of speed and efficiency. It removes so much of the drag of combat and makes combat fun again. However, they also improved some of the enemy attack order, so it feels more like watching for one attack at a time, and less like randomly being spammed by a group. It’s a small change with huge ramifications.

However, the big thing is that literally EVERYTHING can be assassinated fully. Normal NPCs, armored NPCs, all but a handful of bosses. If you choose to, this game has returned to the point where you can run the experience full stealth and treat it as more of a puzzle game instead of action. To me that is the perfect experience. I love the process of finding paths through enemy bases; the process of pulling enemies to stealth areas to get rid of them safely; the process of finding ways to get through locked doors into safe areas. Being able to solely focus on that is the best way for me to enjoy this type of gameplay, so it being a sole focus is such a huge improvement back to what I wanted from this series.

The other important thing I suppose is that this game is short. It takes place specifically within Baghdad and a very limited surrounding desert area and focuses on a single quick 5 target story. However, that isn’t saying that it feels like a skimpy amount of content. What it feels like is a practical and good amount of content. Each core target takes place within a series of smaller subquests, often involving the search for clues to their location and name. There’s a nice pattern that evolves here where you get some story and interactions with NPCs, then a bit of stealth for investigating, then a big final segment to assassinate the target. It’s got a rhythm that works perfectly in terms of pacing. All told it ends up being about 20 hours if you do most of the content in place, which was long enough to feel meaty but short enough to not drag out.

In my Valhalla ramblings I said:

This series is ready for that next step forward, and it’s got some great examples to look at if they’re ready to make that push.

I can’t tell if Mirage is necessarily that step forward, but it at least feels like recognition that the formula was stale. This is obviously a DLC that got turned into a standalone title, but whether or not that was an accident it ended up to the series’ benefit. This is such a focused and fun experience that it makes me hope that they push for these tighter experiences. It gets rid of so much unnecessary bulk to just make a fun game and ended up being my favorite AC since at least Origins, and likely since Black Flag. If you’ve been on the fence for the series for the past few years that’s probably for good reason, but this is a pretty good spot to jump back in if you’ve got the itch for sneaking around.

Game Ramblings #179 – Spider-Man 2

More Info from Insomniac Games

  • Genre: Action
  • Platform: PS5

I’m going to be real here. You could read my ramblings on Spider-Man and know where I landed on this one. My thoughts on swinging through the city are the same. My thoughts on combat – and particularly the power curve – are exactly the same. What I’m going to focus on instead is where a few points of polish really stood out to me as huge improvements to the experience. As an iterative experience, this is a standout example of making tweaks where there’s opportunities while keeping the rest of the game solid.

The first thing that really stands out to me is the web line ability. It looks like they were probably experimenting with this for the original game but I’m glad this made the cut for the sequel. What this does is lets you put a line between two points that can be used for all the normal abilities (grabbing, ledge takedowns, etc). This is a game changer for stealth segments. Rather than being limited to existing ledges and poles, you now make your own platforms. What this ended up doing for me was making any sort of base encounter feel a lot more free form than in the past. Instead of hopping from point to point finding angles that work, I was observing enemy movement patterns and setting up lines above them to do takedowns.

I get where some people may find that this trivializes stealth, and frankly it does make staying in stealth a lot easier than the original game. However, rather than being annoyed by it I found that it fit the power dynamic of the character. What I see as the comic book ideal for Spider-man is someone who uses their powers to trivially take out the hordes of stupid minions while focusing their fighting power on the current big bad, and this fits it perfectly. I could use the web line power to quickly take out dozens of enemies, then swing in to finish off whatever the boss-type thing was for the section. It allowed me to focus my combat capabilities on where I felt combat really continues to shine – in one-on-one combat. This is a game that still has some issues with multi-person combat encounters in terms of just too much going on at once, so having improved stealth was a huge personal boon.

The second piece I want to point out is the wing suit. The original game was one in which traversal around the city was so fun that I just did not want to fast travel. The sequel is absolutely the same, despite the fact that fast travel in the sequel is extraordinarily fast loading wizardry. A lot of why I enjoy the traversal so much is down to the inclusion of the wing suit.

The first game really shone in the tall buildings of Manhattan, but getting towards the water or to the north of the city with smaller buildings was a bit less fun. There was simply less places to grab with webs, so you could hit the ground a lot easier. The wing suit solves so many of those problems. Now if you’re in one of those spots, you turn on the wing suit and glide between vertical drafts or air currents that propel you forward. It keeps your momentum going at all times, and frankly is probably the one thing that allowed them to open up the city to more boroughs. Now that smaller housing areas of queens aren’t a travel headache. Going through Central Park is an easier option. Heading across the East River from downtown Manhattan towards Coney Island is entirely doable. These are all things that only exist in a fun way because of the inclusion of the wing suit and its ability to give you extended fast traversal options without web slinging.

The final thing is that this game continues to be an absolute tech standout on the platform. The video above shows what is clearly Insomniac bringing in the portal tech they made for Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart into this title, but it’s just as impressive as ever in its second use. I mentioned not using the fast travel system earlier, but it’s also impressive as hell. You go into the map, hold a button as more of a UX confirmation, and you’re immediately at where you intend to be, including an impressive as hell seamless transition animation from the map view into the world view. This is all backed by a visual option for a full time 60 FPS that I used throughout my play through. It’s a standout AAA experience on the level of things like God of War: Ragnarok or the city visuals in Cyberpunk 2077. It’s just one of those rare games that finally feel next-gen to me, despite the fact that the gameplay is often not that different from the previous game.

This is just a fun, impressive game. It takes a game that I liked, tweaks some things in ways that make sense within the context of the series progressing. It’s an easy game to fall into and just enjoy. It also does something that I hope to see more of – be simple. They pulled away some of the extraneous activities in the open world. They pulled away some extraneous gadgets from the original game. What it all results in is an open-world experience that somehow feels tight and efficient. It’s a mix that really just works.

Game Ramblings #177 – Cyberpunk 2077

More Info from CD Projekt Red

  • Genre: FPS
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC

I know. I’m spectacularly late on this one. In general I was weary of the original release since I tend to not really find long-form FPS games that appealing. The genre is something that I want to play for a few hours, destroy hordes of enemies, and be done with. However, three years and a big 2.0 patch later I figured it was time to get around to playing this one. What I found was a AAA experience that matches a lot of what I’ve seen in a lot of AAA games in the past decade or so. It does a spectacular amount of different things to a reasonably good standard, but I found myself really struggling to find something that it does to a great standard, and that was something I found across the board.

The city visuals themselves are done to a high level of polish and it’s honestly probably the standout feature of the game as a whole on PS5. The story is a bit of take it or leave it for me, but it was effective enough – at least until the end. Those things are typically not really something that get me to put down a game early, so they kind of hit enough of a mark to be strong for me. I suppose I’m ultimately a gameplay guy, so that’s where my real focus was. The gameplay is really the thing where I kept going “why isn’t there more polish here?”

The most obvious flaw to me playing on console is that it just felt like they didn’t consider the gamepad experience when they were putting it together. It’s not necessarily that the gamepad experience is difficult, but that the depth of assists is just not there. There’s a single setting to manipulate that to the best I could tell only affected an angle of aim correction, as well as typical ADS lock. It didn’t feel like there was any real aim adhesion – where the camera is pulled towards targets based on either the player’s or their movements. It didn’t feel like there was any aim friction – where the movement of the camera slows when panning across a target. For what I expect out of a AAA experience, there was just no depth to modify how the game felt to play on a gamepad.

I know some of you are screaming “just play it on PC” and I don’t necessarily disagree. However, I’ve made these systems for console shooters recently and it’s just not a difficult thing to implement. What it does give you is an ability to craft combat on a gamepad that isn’t spectacularly easy due to aim correction without making it impossible for the player to effectively aim. It also gives the player a much wider range of potential for tweaks to their experience to match their skill level. As implemented in CP2077, it just feels like they slapped aim correction in, said “screw consoles”, and went about their day. It’s a really weird thing to see in this level of budget when the reality is that the console market is a huge revenue driver.

Outside of the core shooting experience, the RPG aspects also had weird things to them that kind of made me question some decisions here. One of the things that really bugged me early on was that weapons were tied to specific parts of the skill tree. My preferred play style as I went through was to go full stealth, inevitably fuck it up about half way through a mission, then go full shotgun chaos. However, stealth and shotguns were in different skill trees. The weapons in the stealth tree weren’t my preferred play style, and the skills in the shotgun tree weren’t my preferred play style. I’d have generally preferred to keep them entirely separate.

However, about half way through I sort of realized that I was no longer actually using the skill tree and I had about 10 points unused. It dawned on me that they really didn’t feel like they were modifying my power curve at all. The only thing I ended up really using the points for was to directly pass skill check requirements to do specific things (ex: open doors with technical knowledge, overpower things with strength, etc). Maybe it’s something that is more relevant to higher difficulties, but on the normal difficulty it was a weird thing to be suddenly wrapping my head around. The power curve was entirely in finding whatever weapon had bigger numbers, and not in applying skills to craft your perfect character. They were irrelevant. For a game that is theoretically trying to be an RPG, having your main RPG system not feel powerful or useful is just weird. It makes me think that separating weapons and skills would have been useful, both to allow players to build in a more weapon-focused direction as well as to allow the skill trees to be made more singularly useful.

All of this is compounded by a bunch of really weird UX decisions that made navigating information really obnoxious. Why can I not get to the crafting screen from the inventory menu? I have to go out a menu, scroll to inventory, scroll down, then go to crafting. Why is the default sorting of the inventory some seemingly random horseshit? At least make it something immediately useful like type sorting. What relevance does the sorting in the journal have? Other than the immediate story mission being at the top, I could never figure out what order the rest is since there’s a mix of basic chores intermingling with stuff that could become story relevant later on. It’s just a bizarre set of menuing that I don’t see working with keyboard/mouse, let alone with the setup on a gamepad.

I guess that sounds like a lot of ragging on the game, and I guess I kind of am. I’ve sounded similarly negative about some other AAA titles that I’ve played in the past few years – Final Fantasy 16, Halo Infinite, Horizon: Forbidden West, or Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla are a few that come to mind. I think ultimately what my frustration is in a lot of these cases is that the games are doing so many things in them that they just don’t need to do, and in going wide on systems they’re losing depth and polish on important things. This game did not need so many skill trees. This game did not need the 8 or 10 categories of player mods. This game did not need as many categories of weapons. This game did not need pages and pages of writing for little journal entries you pick up everywhere. It all feels like things done for the sake of filling a budget that I can only ever dream of working with. However, in going so wide they never really got any system to a place where it was simply great.

That amount of stuff ultimately does mean that as a whole the game is good enough to be fun to play and even recommend, but it also means that the game will never really be at a point where it’s anything other than a footnote as something I’ve played through. I’m not going to remember the writing like I will a game like Spiritfarer, where the journey of death is so crucial and specific that it becomes the core focus of the entire game. It isn’t going to be something like Tears of the Kingdom where they built an entire game around one core idea of sticking things together and letting that one feature breathe. It isn’t going to be like a Ratchet and Clank where they are so focused on making sure their weaponry is fun to use that anything outside of that is basically unnecessary.

I just don’t think these sort of do everything open world scale games are generally that necessary, and I’m hoping we’re starting to turn a corner on it. Ubisoft just released a shorter Assassin’s Creed game that is no longer open world. Some of the common complaints about this year’s big title in Starfield is that it’s effectively unnecessarily too big. I expect that we’ll keep seeing a lot of large open games (hell, Spider-Man 2 is about to come out), but I also hope that companies will start crafting tighter experiences that focus on making a small set of features spectacularly good, rather than making every feature under the sun simply good enough.