The Way Open-World Games Can Kill The Gaming Experience


Once upon a time, in the near past, gamers cried out against the flood of linear, set-piece heavy games. It wasn’t worth the money to play a game that lasted 7 hours, involved limited choices and a crippling amount of hand holding.

Sandbox gaming brought with it a much-needed reprieve from the boredom of most AAA action games. Players could go anywhere on the map rather than being ushered through narrow corridors, we could ride horses or drive cars, there was a renewed sense of exploration in gaming. NPCs entered the frame and memorable quotes and animations not to mention glitches became the fuel for countless memes. Sandbox gaming rose to become the dominant force in gaming.

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But with all this freedom and choice there is one area that inevitably suffers, the narrative. When developers seek to give us a wealth of experiences they seem to either offer us clichéd stories or stories so vast in their complexity that they are hard to follow and ultimately fall flat. In comparison when developers like Tell-Tale choose to focus our attention on the story but offer a simplified gameplay experience, we find ourselves drawn into these worlds and are unable to tear our eyes away from our screens.

Now I understand that there are many gamers who love the countless fetch quests, hunts, escort excursions and good old start a fight with that guy missions, but I find that many of these side quest detract from the main story and only offer minimal opportunities for advancement and add little to my enjoyment of the game.

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game where all too often side quests and the illusion of a dynamic world detracted so much from my experience that I found everything hard to follow and ultimately uninteresting. I love the chance to jump and run my way through beautifully recreated historic sites and I love random events unfolding in front of me that I can either watch or get involved in. However, following the story in dribs and drabs if I happened to try a detective mission, or do a co-op mission, or jump through to another time period which at best is a disjointed experience and at worst is a confusing jumble of good guys who are bad guys and bad guys who are good guys and a bunch of characters and factions I couldn’t give a fig about.

The Order 1886

Many of us don’t want the interactive movie style of Call of Duty or the clumsy on rails feel of The Order, we want a bit more freedom. But if open-world freedom is constantly presenting a massive list of distractions then inevitably the story is going to suffer.

In my opinion well-structured and interesting narrative should be a major focus in games. We are so impressed by the technology that offer dynamic worlds but all too often these nuances act as nothing more than padding and add nothing to the narrative.

So what is the true gaming utopia we seek?

Balance isn’t easy in games. If you have narrative that is too self-indulgent or convoluted you could end up alienating potential players, the Metal Gear series risks this with their flair for the dramatic. However, the Metal Gear series has got the right idea generally – make story and characters highly important, full of twists and turns and character development, coupled with gameplay that complements the story. Just don’t overdo it with cut scenes.

Game environments are also something to get right. Sound and setting are very important but many open-world games cut and paste locations to accommodate the vast amount of side missions, NPCs and miscellaneous happenings.

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What’s more, they stick to one location with a minor sub-location to make it look different. In Assassin’s Creed: Rogue we had snow, water, forest, towns, forts, but these were repeated throughout the world ad nauseum. One of the best parts in my experience was the adrenaline-pumping run through Lisbon during an earthquake. Guess what? It was linear and the only place away from the wilds of North America, which we largely explored previously in Assassin’s Creed III.

City-focused games like InFamous are the same. Once you’ve explored the Space Needle, had fun catching the monorail, and found the few other buildings that look a bit different, Seattle loses its appeal to explore. Then it depends completely on the gameplay experience and story, because you are stuck in that place. The solution is to have less focus on building a massive cityscape with millions of side-options and gimmicks, and instead focus on a tight narrative that grabs you and carries you along slowly, but with more freedom and choice than a film, through a number of beautifully created environments.

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Impossible? I don’t think so. It’s about balance. Assassin’s Creed II had a good degree of that balance and diversity despite being open world. Metal Gear Solid 4 felt more open than it was, despite the great variety of stunning settings and largely linear approach, an illusion that allowed differences of gameplay style (stealth or run and gun) encased in a continually progressing story flow. Wolfenstein: The New Order brought both self-aware kitsch and sentimental depth to the shooter story, and if it had a bit more open environment would have had that balance.

Bigger is not necessarily better here. Allow me to point out the painfully obvious – most of us have to work, study, take care of kids or do other things besides sit down and play games. In this ‘time poor’ life, most of us enjoy games in bits and pieces when we can find the time.

This means the story should be strong and easy to follow, even after weeks spent away, with interesting multi-faceted characters. It should be easy to jump back into, gameplay-wise, without having to strain our memories. Ultimately it’s how engaging the experience is that determines if we come back and finish the game or move on, disappointed.

OXCGN’s Indie Kickstarter Review : Herald


I was recently sent a demo from the Dutch indie game company, Wispfire, on a game they’re Kickstarting called Herald. The basic synopsis given to me at the start was that the game mixes “Downton Abbey with visual novels and story-driven adventure games“. Well, that’s certainly a very nice way of putting it.  Considering my love of Downton Abbey and my super love for visual novels, I am totally in.

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Gorgeous artwork and interesting character design

Furthermore, the story, like many new indie games do, explores issues on identity, racism and class, all set in a period where colonialism was more or less the name of the game. Being a sucker to most things nautical, and historical, I was definitely intrigued by this adventure.

The demo starts with our main character, Devan Rensburg, speaking to a character called The Rani about his journals aboard the ship, the Herald. The demo enters gameplay with Devan recounting one particular story in which he was told that there was a pistol missing aboard the ship and he was tasked to locate it and find the perpetrator of the theft.

The main character, Devan, is quite well fleshed out. His short but detailed bio tells us that he is of mixed race heritage and he is also the steward aboard the ship. He is curious about his mixed race origins as he was raised in the west but has a whole unknown history laying in wait for him in the east. This brief introduction to Devan tells me enough about his likely struggles as he wrestles with his loyalty to the his western overlords and possible resentment against them for the treatment he gets for being of mixed race.

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The gameplay in the demo is styled in the basic point and click adventure template. The graphic layout of the scene allows you to explore story points and move around the area whilst clicking on specific items. Oftentimes I found it hard to move around, Devan would only move to certain areas and thus, change the camera angle only if you clicked on something specific. Sometimes the thing you needed to click on was off camera and it could take someone a while to know how to change the view.

Everything you clicked on had some sort of narrative which could be expanded on later (or was kept in your notes separately). After clicking on a wardrobe which held nothing of interest, Devan still wondered what manner of skeletons were hidden in there. It was a nice touch as it made every movement relevant and the scripting of Devan’s internal monologue left a few hints that this could be an item that might be used later. Who knows though, maybe I was reading too much into things.

After reading all the relevant dialog boxes and material, I found where the pistol was and who had stolen it, presenting me with a dilemma where my choices would affect the outcome of the game.

Another thing I found buggy was that you really had to click in and out of dialog boxes quite a lot.  After reading you had to manually close each dialog box by clicking on the close button. This means a lot of clicking. After having mentioned this to Wispfire, they had told they were looking at quicker and innovative ways to click in and out of objects and dialog boxes more efficiently.

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The thief’s motivations could resonate in a way with Devan’s own motivations, touching slightly on racial biases as well as the importance of carrying out one’s duty.

The demo is surprisingly short, and does not give us the chance to properly resolve it outside of making an important choice.  I suppose this teases us enough to wonder what the repercussions of our decision will play out.

For a short demo, I was immensely pleased with what I saw. Above all things, the graphics are utterly luscious. The game design is quite luxurious and while the 3d graphics are still relatively simple, it doesn’t take away from the detail in the graphic rendering of items and background. The small character animations are lovely to look at.  Oftentimes, Devan cycles through different facial expressions as you point and click around the room, showing at least that the character is not static to the things he interacts with.

Finally, the fictional world the game is set in the fictional Western Protectorate, which could be considered an analogue to many European colonial powers of the 15th to 19th centuries.  The Eastern colonies, whose names more or less speak for themselves, are where Devan’s interests lie, as he yearns to learn of the lush jungles of his homeland, which certainly hint at countries like India, the Caribbean or the Philippines. While all these locations seem fictional, there is a strong feeling that the Herald is modelled on the many trading companies of the time, like the Dutch Indies or West Indies Companies. It doesn’t have that Pirates of the Caribbean feel, but it still has the feel of brass buttons and powdered wigs for sure.

Nonetheless, this is only a demo and from the sounds of it, there is yet a bit more to tweak and fix before the Kickstarter finishes up.

Having previously reviewed a documentary on the rise of indie games, Herald sits comfortably in there as an example of the innovative and creative ways games can explore new themes and human issues as well as revive and innovate on old gaming style of play. Likewise, indie games are certainly the new frontier for finding interestingly designed main characters who fit outside the ”spacemarine/sportsbro/sexy-spy-action-lady/beefybrute/mysterious-but-not-actually-that-stealthy-when-you-think-about-it-ninja/unshaven-tall-brooding-dark-haired-guy-with-guns’ stereotype.

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Another gorgeous sample of the of the quality of the artwork. However, it would be cool if you could unlock a headless chicken as a playable character.

Perhaps its my own bias towards seeing diversity of character design, but meeting someone as interesting as Devan has definitely sparked my own interest in this game. Never mind that I love point and click adventure games. And I like period and historical pieces (for example: I stared at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in Assassins Creed for a good 10 minutes and took at least 30 screenshots, like a friggin tourist). Likewise, the demo has already walked away with some prizes for best graphics and best narrative at the Amsterdam Casual Connect Forum of 2015.

All in all, I’m quite keen to see Herald fully developed. It’s a simple game with a not so simple storyline. The graphics are amazing and beautifully rendered and add an extra touch of interactivity to the point and click genre. Seeing all these new up and coming indie games is genuinely exciting since they’re adding a little spice to the life of gaming.

For more information on the game and kickstarter, click here.

Media note: All provided media and images are copyright and belong to Wispfire.  

Liberate Victorian London From Oppression in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate


Today Ubisoft announced in their world premiere that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the newest installment in the blockbuster Assassin’s Creed franchise will be available worldwide on 23 October 23 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Windows PC version will be available this autumn.

Developed by Ubisoft Quebec in collaboration with eight other Ubisoft studios, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is an epic single player experience set in London during the height of the Industrial Revolution which is an incredible age of invention that transforms the lives of millions. During this time the gap between the poor and the rich expands exponentially making workers’ lives little more than legalised slavery. The lower classes fight for survival by forming a new kind of family – gangs – and adapting to life in the criminal underworld. Players will embody both Jacob Frye and Evie Frye, twin Assassins raised to follow the Creed. Jacob is a determined, hot-headed and rebellious leader of an underground gang who is vastly different than his sister Evie, a master of stealth and control. Together, Jacob and Evie team up to challenge rivals, plutocrats and Templars alike to free the masses from poverty and corruption and ultimately wrestle back control of London.

In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, players explore the largest most modern open-world city ever created in an Assassin’s Creed game. The fighting is more brutal than ever as players combat rival gangs and grow their sphere of influence throughout London using new weapons including brass knuckles, a kukri knife, a revolver and the Assassin’s gauntlet. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate also includes innovative navigation and transportation throughout the open world, including a rope launcher for scaling tall Victorian buildings, zip-lining from rooftop to rooftop or performing aerial assassinations, and horse-drawn carriages and high-speed trains for free-running, tracking down enemies or escaping after daring raids.

Marc-Alexis Côté, Creative Director at Ubisoft, has stated:

The ability to lead an underground gang, commandeer any vehicle on hand and use modern tools to take on an expansive and fast-paced Victorian London sets this game apart. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has been in development for more than two years and this new modern take on the living open world will please Assassin’s Creed fans and newcomers alike.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes in 4 different editions this year. The Standard (lncludes Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy Mission), Gold Edition (Includes Season Pass, Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy Mission, and exclusive Baker Street outfit), Rooks, Charing Cross (exclusive to EB Games and Uplay Store) and Big Ben (Exclusive to Uplay Store) Editions which are priced at AU$79.95, AU$119.95, AU$109.95, AU$139.95, AU$199.95 respectively and the contents of each edition can be seen below:

Now sit back and enjoy the debut trailer for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate below:

New Assassin’s Creed Reveal is Incoming


As of this morning, Ubisoft have teased the incoming announcement of the next chapter in the Assassin’s Creed universe.

With only a bladed gauntlet and gilded walking stick to offer any information, the setting of the next instalment is still well hidden away.

What can you make of the illusive image? Is it an industrial era escapade, or a steampunk world of clockwork machinery? Time will tell, and you can find the answers at 2:00AM Sydney time on Wednesday the 13th of May at the youtube link below:

 

Assassin’s Creed Movie Casts Another Star


According to Deadline, Oscar winning actress, Marion Cotillard, has signed on to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie.

She will be acting alongside Michael Fassbender, whom she had been working with in an upcoming adaption of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel, the director of the Assassin’s Creed movie.

Cotillard has won an Oscar for her role in 2007’s La vie en Rose where she plays as the singer Édith Piaf and she’s also famous for her roles in The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. 

Last week it was announced that the Assassin’s Creed movie entered production and it will open in cinemas December 21, 2016.

Vidja, Will You Tell Me A Story?


I recently finished The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Holy mother of tamales – That game is good.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a video game review.  If it was there would be expletives, and bad replacement words for technical terms such as; ‘Oh so pretty’ (Unreal Engine), my feels were everywhere (Great mechanics), and ‘Hurgle, I love Lovecraft’ (Good game design).

But it was the fact that Ethan Carter is more of a story, rather than a game, that really, really does it for me.

On one particular episode on the sensationally fun, insightful, and brainy Youtube Channel PBS Games Show, the host explored the different motivations that shaped different types of games and what that said about the gamer.  I, apparently am a story-teller.

Considering that books are so fruitful in my house that some are now making a convenient short table to sit my toilet paper on at home, I’d say this has some grain of truth (I also have an old P.G. Wodehouse acting as a doorstop, shameful, I know).

So yes, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game that has pretty much lowered me to my knees in worship and awe.  This is because the medium of video games is not only turning into serious entertainment business, but because creators are recognising it’s valid function for making genuine, bonafide, soul moving, earth shaking art.

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Ethan Carter, To the Moon (OMG, I CRIED SO MUCH GUYS, HOW CAN PIXELS GIVE ME SO MUCH FEELS?!), The Last of Us, and anything by Telltale Games, really, has such a pull on me that sometimes I come out of a game not just fully immersed and soaked in it’s story, but moved, as if some basic foundation in me has been changed by what it has told and shown me.

And moreso, games are allowing us not only to participate and interact in a story, like a movie , but also some will alter it’s story according to how you want it told.

The Wolf Among Us threw me loop for loop as I realised that I really, genuinely had to think about my answers, everything has repercussions, and I am always left at the edge of my seat, like the chapter you’re trying to finish on the train before your stop – What will happen next?

And while we have those interactive tales, choose-your-own-adventure, or third person types of narratives, all games require a story.

Pew, pew, pew is no longer good enough (Although, there’s nothing wrong with a good, mindless shooter – Unless it’s that new game Hatred, that just looks… wrong).  We like good dialogue, objectives and perhaps some sort of plot.

Granted, some games didn’t have the story well thought out, mainly because it was all about the Pew Pew Pew (See: Gears of War [Except Joe Dimaggio – awesome!]), but eventually a story emerges, from our own making as the player or, more weirdly, from the community.

I have been on forums where not only Assassin’s Creed fan-fiction flies fast and true, but also, genuine discussions as to the origins of Altair’s personality are discussed.

Or attempts to explain the emotional motivations of Triss Merigold in The Witcher.  We create narratives everywhere, even when not gaming.

It’s amazing, mainly because games are starting to resonate with us as players on super deep and emotional levels, and story telling lies at that core.

Crisis Core

I am not ashamed to admit I sobbed like a three year old after a grueling kissing and cheek pulling session with grandma at the ending of Crisis Core.  Playing this game, which was a prequel to the remaining FF7 franchise, and seeing how everything in that game eventually led to the story we all know and love (and are probably sick of too), was actually heart wrenching.

To sympathise with a character you know will die, to see the inevitable fall into madness of a generally likeable villain (Ok, well everyone has some sort of thing for Sephiroth right?), it’s sad really and the story really got to me.

So yes, story, narrative, fairytale, epic – It doesn’t matter, we need them in our lives and playing them fulfills that.

Sometimes it gives us a modicum of control, makes us think that we are the writers of our own narrative destiny, only to reveal that sometimes, the plot still leads to the inevitable end. That not all stories end happily, or the way we want.

(I’m talking to you Mass Effect 3 – But that’s also the beauty of the game; all those choices and all those decisions, but sometimes, ultimately, we cannot escape fate, no matter our choices).

That primordial need to weave tales in the sky like bards, charlatans, and troubadours, like Shakespeare or J. K Rowling – Games are a new form of page turning that captures our imagination in a similar (but not the same) way a book does.

What that story may teach us is another story (Heh heh… uh… bad one, right? yep).

After Ethan Carter’s end credits rolled out after the final plot twist; I was left with that same feeling I get when I finish a really good but possibly sad book on a train. Slightly lonely and bereft, like I had lived a little life and now felt a tiny bit emptier for it.  You just stare at the cover of the book, sometimes fiddling with the last pages or re-reading the blurb, running your hand across the cover as if saying your final goodbye.

And off the train I went, got home, shelved the finished book, turned on the PC and let it tell me a new story.

Wanting More Pop! Vinyl To Join Your Collection?


Well you’re in luck because Funko have announced their newest characters to join their Pop! line including some from Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft and LittleBigPlanet.

In November Series 2 of World of Warcraft Pop! will be available including four new characters from the world of Azeroth, a land of swords and mystical creatures, as well as the adorable, knitted Sackboy from the LittleBigPlanet series.

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Pop! will also include characters from Assassin’s Creed: Unity with Arno available in December and Elise releasing in February next year.

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Assassin’s Creed Rogue Confirmed


Ubisoft have officially announced the newest addition in the Assassin’s Creed series with a new cinematic trailer.

Dubbed Assassin’s Creed Rogue the game puts you into the role of a Templar seeking revenge on the assassins that have wronged you.

Betrayal can do terrible things to a person’s psyche. After a mission for the Assassin Brotherhood goes terribly wrong, Shay Patrick Cormac leaves the Order, prompting his former brothers to make an attempt on his life. Of course, what doesn’t kill you turns you into a hunter. Now Shay is on a path of vengeance, tracking down the Assassins and systematically eliminating them. Assassin’s Creed Rogue will be the darkest chapter in the franchise as you take off your Assassin hood and step into the role of a Templar.

According to Ubisoft’s blog the game is set inbetween the events of Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag, completing the North American Saga.

The game will include new weapons and a new ship, Morrigan, which will be equipped with a puckle gun (a machine gun-like weapon) and burning oil, which creates a trail of fire behind your ship.

Ubisoft Sophia is developing the game in collaboration with Ubisoft’s Montreal, Quebec, Singapore, Chengdu, Bucharest and Milan studios.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue has been set for release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on November 11 globally, a couple of weeks after the release for Assassin’s Creed Unity which is exclusive for Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.