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.

Shelved It #20 – Tunic

More Info from Isometric Corp Games

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

Tunic is one of those games that just convinces me that somewhere along the way I’ve been left behind by a certain subset of games. It’s the type of game that I can see why people enjoy, but for the life of me I just cannot wrap my head around. There’s little things that annoy me that should be relatively minor, but as a whole just frustrated me to the point where I go, “nope, this isn’t for me.” I guess for me it comes down to too much Souls in a Zelda game ruins my fun.

This is absolutely the type of game that I should love since I’m a huge fan of the 2D Zelda games. It’s got a similar approach to combat. It’s got a similar approach to world design. It’s got a similar approach to exploration. However, I just could not grok any of that in the same way that I could a Zelda game. In a couple of nights of sitting here trying to suss out my frustrations playing this, I’ve been able to narrow it down to two specific things that really got under my skin – core combat delays and overworld design.

Core combat is really down to one thing for me, and it’s an inherent difficulty of the game, not necessarily because the game is hard, but because of how they handle specifically the attack animation. Anything that happens after the attack animation must wait for the animation to complete. In particular that means you can’t dodge and you can’t defend with your shield. Because of this, I found myself taking a lot of what I thought were unnecessary hits. I could start an attack, see that the enemy is about to attack themselves, and be unable to do anything about the incoming damage. I would just have to eat the damage and hope for the best. This is the same issue I have with the Souls series, which is another one that has me convinced that some part of gaming has left me behind.

Ultimately, I guess my frustration here isn’t so much that I can’t dodge when I want to and cancel the attack animation – although frankly I think that is a good option to have – but that it slows the pace down in a way that feels not fun. Rather than being in the attack and actively using my defensive measures, I’m staying back in a full defensive posture, making sure that I’m in an absolutely safe position to attack, and getting in a single swing. If I happen to notice that I knocked an enemy back I could go for a combo, but it often wasn’t worth the risk. There’s too many situations where the game has you fighting 1v3 or more, so getting a combo in on a knocked back enemy just opens you up for damage from other targets. This sort of pace of play is something that I never enjoy, and having it be because I simply can’t play at a faster pace safely is something that I really don’t enjoy in modern Souls-ish games.

The other thing that really killed a lot of my enjoyment ended up being the overworld design, and this can be traced to a culmination of a few things. The first is that there’s not really an effective map in place. You get a sort of overworld map early on, but it doesn’t show where the player is so you have to contextually know roughly where you are to make much use of it. It also doesn’t extend to the sort of dungeon areas at all, which is less helpful. The second part is that the overworld is intentionally built like a maze, so it doesn’t exactly match up with the provided map anyway. This is then tied to a distinct inconsistency in finding save points. In the main overworld area, the only one that I actually found was the one in the first picture, which I happened to accidentally keep looping back to while I wandered around lost like an idiot, or when I died running into something that I wasn’t ready to fight.

I guess ultimately I feel like you kind of have to pick your poison. If you want difficulty, I feel like you need to be consistent in the player’s ability to save their progress as they make it. If you want to avoid hand holding their progress, then you need some clarity over where the player has been. If you want to not really give an effective map, the player should have a pretty clear path through the world. It’s not like the genre has never had these things. Even the old Game Boy Zelda games had pretty clear maps, pretty clear idea of what the player needed to do (follow the dungeons in order, but we aren’t telling you precisely where they are), and pretty fair difficulty. The combination they picked is none of that, and in doing so it just kind of felt like the worst kind of 90s gameplay where you’re wasting time for the sake of wasting time in trying to figure out what you’re doing, and more often than not accidentally going the right way eventually.

As I was playing through the first sort of side dungeon area, I thought I was getting to a point where I was starting to wrap my head around the game, but getting back into the main overworld made it clear to me that it just wasn’t coming together for me. I think there’s something there when the game works, because a legitimately harder 2D Zelda I think is something I want to like, but this one just didn’t hit for me. It felt like the worst combination of things that I don’t enjoy in the sort of Souls-adjacent rush to market that’s happened in the last few years and it just left me wanting to move on.