Game Ramblings #143 – Watch Dogs: Legion

More Info from Ubisoft

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

I really enjoyed Watch Dogs 2. Ya, it’s clearly an Ubisoft open world game with all the things that come with that. Ya, it’s clearly got some elements of Grand Theft Auto. However, where it stood out was in its use of stealth and hacking to make direct combat largely a choice, and not a necessity. Legion continues that path, and improves in it in a number of ways. While some of their story and metagame choices didn’t hit as well as me, the stealth aspects alone ended up being enough for me to recommend this one.

We’re starting here because the stealth spider is where I spent probably 75% of my game time. I’m not kidding. As a gadget, it does damn near everything the player can do in terms of the core loop in Watch Dogs. It can take out guards, it can hack things, it can open doors, it can pick up items. What it also does is give a much smaller visual footprint, allowing for an even better ability to hide. It transforms the series from something where a stealth focus feels like a fun but lucky situation into a place where stealth is absolutely a primary way to play the game.

However, this thing isn’t just useful for stealth on its own. Outside of combat and need to get in tight spaces? Use the spider. Stuck in cover trying not to get shot? Toss the spider thing out to flank your enemies and start taking them out one by one to open things up a bit for you. Need some sight lines but don’t have a camera to hack? Toss the spider out to a spot with a better vantage point. It’s such a versatile tool that in a lot of cases it would feel incredibly overpowered. However, in game like Watch Dogs? It just makes sense thematically with all the hacking and hi-tech involved, and makes sense within the gameplay where stealth as a full-time option is already encouraged.

If there’s anything I really had a big issue with, it’s around the story. It’s not that I found it bad – generally speaking I found the overall story to be fairly interesting – it just felt unfocused.

One of the big marketing features around the game was that you can recruit anyone and play as anyone. That’s pretty close to true. If you see someone that you find interesting in the world, you can start a recruitment mission for them. Finish up the mission, and they’re added to your team roster. You can hot swap to them at any time and go right away. If you die in a mission, the person that died can either be perma-dead or on a bit of a timeout, depending on the difficulty you choose. This part is all pretty interesting. You can build out your roster focusing on the skill set you want – whether it’s hacking, weapons, stealth, team buffs, etc. In that regard, I think the system succeeded.

However, on the story front it felt less successful. Since anyone can be thrown into the story at any time, it felt like the story happened around the team members. If they die, it’s not generally a big deal. They’re replaceable. They each have some voice acting, but most of the story is presented by fixed members, whether it be your AI assistant, the DedSec London leader, or the antagonists. From a story perspective, it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing as so in that regard the stakes for individual team members feel pretty low. Within the overall narrative, you have an interesting tech-focused story, but it feels like something that happens regardless of who you’re playing as. It was kind of a weird thing that I never really could reconcile in my head, and it resulted in the gameplay being the thing that drove me forward, and not so much caring about where the story was going to end up.

Luckily, this is a game I would recommend on the basis of its gameplay alone. The core game is fun enough. Combat works pretty well, driving works pretty well, the upgrade systems work pretty well, there’s enough fun side content to do between story missions. However, the star of the show is the stealth aspects for me. Those alone make this game one that will bring me back when the DLC expansion comes out, and it’s enough to have me looking forward to the future of this series.

Shelved It #9 – Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

More Info From Ubisoft

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Stadia, Luna

Kotaku has an article called Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Is Too Damn Long. That really is the crux of the problem, but it’s not that simple. Yes it’s too long, but for me a lot of it being too long is that this game didn’t do anything new. It’s the same as Assassin’s Creedy Origins and Odyssey. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all I really enjoyed OdysseyValhalla falls in a place where there’s been better in the intervening years, and that’s the biggest thing that caused me to give up. I put about 30 hours into this one and kind of didn’t feel like I needed to move on from there.

The first problem I ran into is that combat wasn’t that fun and stealth was systematically nerfed, so I didn’t feel like I had a gameplay path that really fit anything. My past tendency in AC games was always to go full stealth – sneak into places, pick guys off one by one, finish my objective, and sneak on out. However, a lot of the main storyline in Valhalla requires straight combat. There’s viking raids that force the entire area into active combat. There’s story missions that have AI buddies that cause active combat. Basically, I spent a lot of time in places that forced me to fight or do some extraordinarily annoying things to get to a point where I could try to stealth while chaos was going on around me. It actively fought how I wanted to play the game, which is not really something I want to be doing in an Assassin’s Creed title.

This would be all well and good if combat was fun, but frankly it just wasn’t. Ghost of Tsushima had its combat problems, but it felt like a logical progression in combat in this type of subgenre. Valhalla has a lot of the same core elements, but a couple main things really felt like a step backwards. For one, the lack of stances made combat feel like it lacked variety. Beyond some light defensive aspects of some shielded units, the difference between enemy weapon types or trash vs. brutes felt minimal to the point of irrelevance.

However, the AI in groups felt like the biggest oddity to me. Group combat in the AC genre has never been that great, and frankly it was the biggest downfall of Ghost of Tsushima as well. However, group AI really feels like it doesn’t do anything to divvy out who is actively going to attack. It results in a situation where the group AI feels less opportunistic and planned, and more random happenstance. Sure it’s probably more realistic, but it’s also boring. Attack avoidance becomes dodge spam as the practical option instead of better parry timing or intelligent target selection. It’s effective, but it’s boring. The lack of unique duels from Tsushima really then pulls away one of my favorite combat setups in that game, so there’s no real payoff moments, even in big story moments.

It doesn’t help that Immortals: Fenyx Rising by Ubisoft was one of my recent played titles, and despite similar combat, was simply more fun due to much better grouping tactics for AI, doing one at a time attacks with good tells, instead of seemingly random spam.

The exploration metagame was also a big disappointment here, and felt like a step back even within the series. Origin and Odyssey both had camps and towns with distinct goals – take out a leader, kill all enemies, eliminate a legendary animal. Valhalla just…..doesn’t. All of the location stuff is there, but without goals it all feels irrelevant. You’ll go to your Assassin’s Creed viewpoints and it will find a bunch of stuff, but it’s scattered everywhere. Your three main collectibles – wealth, mysteries (side quests), and artifacts – are scattered randomly around, so there never feels like a real focus to going to a location and clearing it out. You can just kind of set your sights in a direction and you’ll inevitably run into things. Going into a camp is more of a run to a dot on the map where you can ignore the enemies in the camp. Mysteries exist as one-off events instead of more interesting side quest chains. And ya, there’s longer side quest chains but they feel less present than in the last two titles, which was a big disappointment.

The collectibles themselves also just have a distinct lack of importance. Gear isn’t inherently level-based anymore, so going out and finding new armor isn’t necessarily helpful. Once you find your preferred gear and upgrade past a point, going out and finding new materials isn’t necessarily helpful anymore. It just puts a drag on the game when you get to the point where you inherently outgear an area, because it doesn’t scale as smoothly as the past couple of games – much to Valhalla’s detriment.

All of this is also not helped by the existence of Immortals. That one did such a good job of integrating cool traversal into exploration that it was simply more fun just to run around. Happening upon legendary units and animals in that one meant a really fun one on one fight. Happening upon a shrine meant a really fun puzzle segment or arena segment. All of the things you ran into in that game felt like a nice change of pace that provided a really good rhythmic flow to running between quest locations. Valhalla on the other hand feels like a huge step back where traversing for the sake of exploration feels like a hassle, and going to places for the hell of it feels like a chore.

Valhalla feels like an inflection point for the series overall. AC3 felt like a stale experience after the Ezio games, and that led to Black Flag. Unity and Syndicate felt like games that ran out of ideas, which led to the series reinvention in Origins. This feels similar. While Valhalla is a far better game than either of the last two problem areas, it feels similarly stale. This is a game that feels like a retread, instead of a game that feels like a step forward. Other games in the interim have done it far better. Immortals did a much better job of making exploration fun. Ghost of Tsushima did a far better job integrating stealth and combat in a way that both paths were interesting and worth playing. 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.

Game Ramblings #127 – Immortals: Fenyx Rising

More Info from Ubisoft

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Stadia, Switch, PC

It’s pretty easy to look at this game and consider it a ripoff on Breath of the Wild, and frankly that isn’t necessarily the most wrong thing. It definitely shares a general metagame with BOTW, and it has the obvious gameplay hook of stamina while climbing. However, that’s taking an overly simple look at things. Immortals takes some steps in interesting directions that give it some unique legs – and quite frankly shows some good iteration on the general style beyond BOTW.

If there’s one way I’d really describe the overall metagame of Breath of the Wild it would be exploration supported by combat. Combat wasn’t the focus, and for the most part you could get through the game without fighting just about anything. The meat of that game was exploring to find shrines, and finishing the puzzles within. Immortals feels like a very different approach to me – combat supported by exploration. There’s definitely not a lack of puzzle dungeons, and the overall game flow is similar, but so much more of this game is based on combat, and that’s really the first bulk of differences from BOTW.

I suppose what’s important here is that their combat is really a lot of fun. There’s definitely a very Assassin’s Creed approach here, which isn’t that surprising. At its core you’ve got a similar approach of watching for enemy tells so you can parry or dodge attacks. There’s definite lessons learned here from their other series because the tells are extremely well done. Even with short timing, the enemy will have some obvious windup tick or some flash of particles or some full-body emissive effect to tell you that an attack is coming. For me it hit that nice line where the tells are fair, but still require good timing. Simply dodging or parrying is effective on its own, but nailing the timing gives you things like slow motion to get in some quick hits so there’s a certain level of benefit that makes being effective at these moves worthwhile.

There’s a secondary layer to combat that really worked out well in the integration of a stun system. This feels pulled right out of Final Fantasy 15, but the short version is that damaging an enemy enough can cause it to go into a stun state, opening up the enemy for some real big damage. Where this is really well integrated is that your best use of stuns is a slower attack axe, where the real damage potential is in a fast attack sword. This hugely encouraged me to be switching between the two weapons a lot, which really prevented combat from becoming boring. This also provided some interesting potential for larger group fights. Stunning a few enemies would allow me to then shift my attention elsewhere, rather than being overwhelmed by a bunch of enemies. In both group and larger solo fights, the system is extremely effective in a way that feels completely unique to this title, and really provides a direction for how improved combat mechanics could improve BOTW2.

That’s not to say that the game is all combat all the time. There’s definitely a lot of cool puzzle shrines here, and in a lot of cases they’re similarly silly and physics based like BOTW. However, there’s a lot more traversal mechanics at play that really give another sort of +1 to this iteration of the overall gameplay. BOTW had a lot of incidental secondary ways to solve shrines through clever or weird use of mechanics. Immortals feels a lot more direct. It’s got things like vertical and forward dashes to really push traversal. It’s got a magnetic-style ability that can push and pull objects around to set off weight plates. And ya, BOTW had some of this stuff, but Immortals separates itself out by having everything more easily accessible.

Immortals has everything on hotkeys. L1 plus a face button will activate one of these abilities, so they’re always there. You don’t have to switch between abilities in a slowing menu, which is a huge benefit for general speed of use. The other benefit is that all of these abilities use the shared stamina pool, rather than individual cooldowns, so they’re available all the time and can be chained back to back. The net result of this change is that puzzles are often less about doing a sequence of steps one at a time, and more often executing a fast series of steps rapidly. It’s an interesting dynamic shift from some of the more logic-based puzzles of BOTW and instead really reinforces the heavy physics-based puzzles that were some of my favorites.

When I did my ramblings for Breath of the Wild, it was pretty clear how special that game was. Even with four years gone, that’s still apparent. However, I think Immortals is at this point the better game. It clearly took the metagame and general physics fun of BOTW, but added in a lot of iterations in combat and ability use. Having the combat iteration in place added so much variety to what you’re doing, which is never a bad thing. Instead of going from spot to spot looking for a shrine ping, I was now going from spot to spot sometimes doing puzzles, but just as often fighting epic bosses and creatures of legend. It’s those kinds of changes that really push games forward, and in doing so it’s pretty clearly shown that there’s a lot of room for iteration in the sort of exploration-based open world ARPG subgenre.