October 2018


The second draft is almost done, so it’s time for a page on the book on my site.

Syntax-Front-Cover

What’s in the book?  Well, I just wrote a whole page on that, so just go read it!

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I haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed since the first, and I never finished that. But touring (and murdering half of) Greece sounded fun, so I picked up ACO.

aco ships

Now how do you suppose I’m going to get a ship to go over there?

I am playing, of course, as Kassandra, because why wouldn’t you? A badass dude is boring; a badass woman is interesting. The voice actor, Melissanthi Mahut, even gives her a strong accent, which is a little unusual for the protagonist of a game.

Overall stuff: I’m not very far in (9 hours), but it’s fun so far.  Almost all of the baggage in the series– the Templars and Assassins, the future stuff, the assassination structure– has been downplayed.  It’s a lot like The Witcher 3, in fact.  Kassandra is a misthios, or mercenary, so your character, like you, wants to accumulate money and gear and murderate people. You work for various disreputable people, and there are plenty of side quests along the way. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and they’ve found a way to have quite a population of NPCs at any one time, so it doesn’t have the “three people represent a village” thing that many games have.

You can tell if a character is unimportant, because they’ll be speaking Greek. The handling of Greek seems inconsistent… characters pronounce the same word different ways (this is especially noticeable with drachmae), and it seems to me that some pronunciations are Hellenic and others modern. Definitely not classical: ph th kh are not aspirated, but fricativized. Kassandra seems to drop her h’s (Helios = Elios), but at least Kephallonia gets a [k] not an [s].

The writing is, well, serviceable. You start out doing errands for your disreputable pal Markos. Apparently you washed up on the beach as a young girl and he took care of you, but he’s a hustler and ne’er-do-well, kind of like Roman in Grand Theft Auto IV. He’s in debt to the local gangster, the Cyclops, who is the focus of the early missions.

Which is fine as a general setup, but if you look at any episode carefully, it falls to pieces. Markos owes a debt to Cyclops, and proposes paying for it by stealing a treasure of his. But you never actually sell it, and eventually– when you’ve advanced enough levels– you just murder him. Cyclops apparently has a ship, which is good because you want one. But instead of getting that ship, you rescue a ship-owner from Cyclops and he gives you his ship and crew. (For that matter, you’re also sent to talk to a shipbuilder, who quotes you an insane price.)

Now, Shamus Young would give you a 20-part series tearing all this apart, and probably will, but I’d just note that it all seems cobbled together to make the game work. We need an early infiltration mission, thus the theft; we need a ship, thus the rescue of the sea captain. Yet another mission is simply an excuse to meet Elpanor, the next quest giver once you’ve left Markos behind.

That’s all fine; it’s just an excuse to wander around being violent. The fighting is enjoyable, though I should really master the dodge mechanic. (You avoid damage if you parry or dodge, though if you fight people of your level– this is always clearly marked– you can get knocked about quite a lot before dying.) The stealth is more fun.  You can scout out an area with your eagle and mark enemies. You can parkour around, you can hide in bushes, and a stealth assassination is fast and powerful, more so than fighting.

Here and there you get choices which are apparently meaningful later. E.g. there are characters you can romance, though apparently this takes awhile.  (For reference, the first one is Odessa, who you meet on Ithaka.) I do like the climbing mechanic– Kassandra can climb just about anything. (There are high points you can clamber up, then use as fast travel points.)

One story thing that does bug me is that Kassandra seems to know little about her own home island.  She’s apparently known to be a mercenary, but the local thugs don’t fear her, nor does she work for them… what the hell has she been doing for her ten years on the island? There’s a burnt-out village a short walk from her house, and she doesn’t know about it. She doesn’t know that Odysseus’s palace is right there on Ithaka, the next island north, which she can swim to if she wanted. She also has a house, but she doesn’t seem to care about it and there’s nothing really to do there. It’s not even marked on the map; before leaving Kephallonia I found it again and made a note of the location:

aco my house

My record collection of ancient bards is there

I know, most adventure games don’t do this either. But they should! It’s nice to have a place on the map that’s yours, ideally customizable.

Once you get the ship, you can go and discover the wider world.  Naval combat is a whole ‘nother beast. Athens and Sparta are having a war, which you can join in, changing sides at will. The map looks intimidatingly large at this point… if it’s as full of things to do as Kephallonia, it could take weeks to finish. I don’t think games have to be this open-world; in fact, it can be discouraging to look at a huge map full of to-do icons. I think Arkham City is about perfect for the size and complexity of a map.  On the other hand, I’d like to think it works like a Fallout game, so I can choose to go to Athens or Sparta or Crete and just see what’s there.

One thing I absolutely don’t miss, by the way, is the future-world stuff from the first game. Or the Templars and Assassins, for that matter. There’s a cut-scene in the beginning that references the apparently interminable story, but it’s soon over; the game doesn’t even pretend to be interested in that stuff any more. (Maybe it does later.) I note in my review of the first game that it didn’t have a save command; in ACO you can save any time except in combat.

My one complaint, and it’s minor, is that the game can be short on guidance. There’s tutorials for fighting, but not for climbing. (You just use shift; I kept trying space, as in other games.) The fast-travel mechanic isn’t explained, though it’s quite simple (climb to the highest point, then you’ll finally get a prompt). Also, you can fail a romance– or at least it seems you can; with my first options Odessa ran off in a huff. So maybe save before trying to make it with someone.

I’ve already heard speculations on what other locations should get the same treatment. Well, duh, Three Kingdoms China. I would love to be able to pick a side and fight at Red Cliffs. Of course I’d be against Cáo Cāo, but either of the southern kingdoms would be a good client. I’ll even suggest a great protagonist: Sūn Quán’s daughter, who in fact is fascinated by war and has her own troop of female archers.