Assassin’s Creed 3 Thoughts

I have been out of the blockbuster video game loop for a while now. For this whole generation, actually. This wasn’t entirely by choice, but I haven’t felt like I’ve been missing out. I’ve been more than happy with the games I’ve been playing. I choose the Wii 5 years ago and have had little cause to regret that choice. While I have had access to a PS3 for a couple years now, but I still haven’t really scratched the games available on it. Plus, the preponderance of shooters has left me with less to catch up on than I expected. (My position of shooters is that I don’t like them very much, so I don’t play them.) However, a couple of months ago, flush with dropping 400 bones on a WiiU and eager to have things to play on it, I decided to tip my toe back in the blockbuster pool with Assassin’s Creed 3. If this is the sort of experience I have been missing while playing my Wii and DS, I think I’ll stick with what I’ve been playing.

assassins-creed-3

Assassin’s Creed 3 is not that bad of a game, but it is severely flawed. The frustrating thing about it is that parts of the game a nearly excellent, but the broken and stupid parts really drag the whole experience down. To start with, and this is a problem I’ve found to be prevalent on HD consoles, this game is buggy as shit. I really don’t understand how a game that crashes this often made it on to the shelves. The gameplay framework that ACIII is built on is very good. Running across rooftops in Boston and New York and through the trees on the frontier is a blast. And through the combat can get tedious, it works well. The problem is that the majority of the story sequences focus on bullshit minigames and stealth crap like eavesdropping . Assassin’s Creed III falters because its story sequences are just no damn fun to play.

The story itself is not much better. The setting is great and underused. There are tons of points in history with plenty of gameplay to mine, and the Revolutionary War/Colonial America is near the top of the list. In their desire to get most bang for the historical buck, the completely fumbled the story that holds it all together. Sure, you get to hang out with George Washington and Sam Adams, but don’t expect anything coherent in the development of Conner, Haytham and Achilles. Since I haven’t played any of the other Assassin’s Creed games, I won’t comment on the Desmond sections except to say that what is there is nowhere close to a complete story. Connor’s story jumps from scene to scene with only the slightest bit of continuity. Characters change opinions and motivations with no warning or reason and the game forces actions on the player that make no sense. Really, the story is a complete mess.

Assassins-Creed-3-Perch

If I disliked so much about AC3, why did I play it for more than 20 hours? Because removed from the story sequences, the game is a lot of fun. The assassin recruitment missions are fun, as is picking up a group of fellow assassins. Too bad they are almost completely optional and have little to do outside of recruitment. Exploring is great fun; I found nearly all of the trinkets. There is also significant side-quest about building a community on the frontier. While I wish it was more fleshed out, the stories of those townsfolk make more sense than the main story.

At its best, Assassin’s Creed III is a nearly great game. Unfortunately, anything good is equaled by broken, stupid and frustrating bad parts. It is a flawed experience that is just barely worth the player’s time.

What I Read in November and December ‘12

Yes, I missed a month of my reading update. This is because I didn’t read anything to cover in November. I did read a lot, but it was all Wheel of Time. Reading several doorstop sized tomes really takes some time. The Wheel of Time completely consumed my reading time for more than a month there. I did manage one other book in that time, though.

Original cover of Winter's Heart

Winter’s Heart

Robert Jordan

Original cover of Crossroads of Twilight

Crossroads of Twilight

Robert Jordan

Gaul, Galina, Perrin, Arganda''

Knife of Dreams

Robert Jordan

Cover of "Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, Bo...

Cover of Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, Book 6)

Among the Mad

Jacqueline Winspear

Another Maisie Dobbs book, and I am running out of things to say about this series. I like the books, as soon as I finish one I buy the next, but they fade pretty quickly out of my consciousness.  In Among the Mad, Maisie works with the Government to find a man who is threatening to unleash chemical weapons in London. Again, this case has its roots in the first World War. Unfortunately, they know nothing of about the person they are looking for other than that he knows Maisie. It also has her dealing with the breakdown of Billy’s wife following the death of their daughter. While the connections between Maisie’s personal life and her case usually seem very coincidental, this time it seems more organic. The combination of the race against time and the unfortunate situation with Billy, Among the Mad comes together as one of the more satisfying entries in the series.

Not Sweating the Backlog and some thoughts on Muramasa

One of my goals for the new year was to ignore my video game backlog and play whatever I want to play. This probably doesn’t sound like a revolutionary thought to any sane person. It is pretty much how anyone with half a brain spends their free time. Unfortunately for me, though I have made changing my mentality about this a goal before, I continually fall back to trying to beat every game I have purchased and check them off a check list. If I want to replay Lunar or spend two weeks playing nothing but Mr. Driller, I damn well intend to do so.

There are several reasons I do this. The first is that if I spend money on a game, I want to get my money’s worth by playing it. It would be a waste of money to buy a game and not play it. Even if I have other games I would rather play and now I’m wasting my time as well as my money, I’ll keep going back to game to get them beat. The other reason is that beating a game and crossing it off my list gives me a sense of accomplishment. It feels like I did something rather than just waste my time playing games. I plan to break this pattern by first buying fewer games. Unless I intend to play it almost immediately, I will not buy games this year. Even if they are really cheap or part of a special deal, Steam sales be damned. The other way is that I will stop keeping a backlog list. I’ll still use the backloggery site, but I’ll stop manually making lists and stop organizing my games with the unbeaten ones in front.

How’s it going after two weeks? Pretty well. I’ve beaten Muramasa: The Demon Blade on Momohime’s path. It is a game that would have been near the top of my backlog list, but it was also a game I really wanted to play. Two things stand out about Muramasa: it is beautiful and it is shallow. It is a lot of fun and it ends before the glaring lack of depth really becomes a problem, though.

Vanillaware has done wonderful things with 2D sprites in this game. The graphics are crisp, clear and colorful. It makes me pine for a world where 3D graphics never took off and 2D games still ruled the land. I also never encountered any technical hiccups, slow-down and the like. While there are some oddities, like the ponderous breast on anything female, no one could ask for a better looking game.

It is too bad the gameplay is not as excellent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad game. It just lacks any semblance of depth. Muramasa is a brawler. They try to dress it up by grafting some RPG mechanics on to it, but they do more to hinder the experience than help. Making the most of the fights essentially random battles just slows everything down, killing any fluidity it would have. And while your character levels up and supposedly gets stronger, enemies always take about the same number of hits. There are more than 100 blades to forge, but there are really only two different kinds, though there are plenty of different special attacks. Really, most of the things they add get in the way and they add less depth than River City Ransom had back on the NES.

Fortunately, the base mechanics are solid. Jumping, running and slashing are good fun. It is so smooth to plow through hordes of ninja. It lasts about six hours, and that is about how much game there is. Sure, you have to play it through multiple times to get the real ending, but I think taking a break in between each play through will help keep the game fresh. I don’t fault the game for being a beat-um-up. I like this sort of game. The RPG mechanics are superfluous , but they don’t get too much in the way of the rest of the game. This is a refreshing throwback. There need to be more games like Muramasa: the Demon Blade.

The Hobbit Review

I’m about a month late, but I did see the Hobbit at a midnight release. Then I saw it two more times that week. I like the Hobbit. A lot. It is basically everything I want to see in an adventure movie. Director Peter Jackson did change some things to bring it more in line with his Lord of the Rings movies, but they stayed true to the heart of the book and deftly portrayed all the memorable characters and scenes from the first half of the book. The Hobbit surpasses even its predecessors in transporting viewers to another world.

One part where the movie definitely shines is in the acting. The returning players: Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and especially Ian McKellan, all do a great job of stepping back into their roles. For the most part they aren’t given a lot to do, Gandalf excepted of course, but they effectively tie the movie to the LotR movies. Which makes the opening scene with young Frodo and old Bilbo almost completely useless. That is the biggest flaw in an already slightly too long movie, an unnecessary ten minute scene at the start. All things considered, that is a pretty slight flaw. Another actor that shines is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. He has the perfect mix of bemused facial expressions and nervous jumpiness. But underneath his unassuming exterior he shows the adaptable quick thinking that proves his worth to the rest of the group. The dwarves that make up that group kind of blend together, which is exactly how it is in the book. They all play their roles well, as ill-defined as most of them are.

The biggest change to the narrative is the addition of Azog, the white orc to play the villain for this first third of the trilogy. Once the decision was made to split the movie, it would have become obvious that the first part was short a villain. By making the orc a greater presence, it makes for a stronger film than the episodic book would have. One thing kept perfectly was the near incompetence of most of those dwarves. In the book they ran from one capture to another and they do the same here. Sure, Thorin, Kili, Fili and Dwalin are made more competent warriors, but most of the fights amount to a mad scramble for survival. Plus, they kept the songs this time.

The early parts are great but the movie really shines in the final act. From the point the dwarves are captured by the goblins the movie is nearly perfect. The Goblin King is grotesque and hilarious, and the fight to escape is a roller coaster of amazing set pieces. While on their own they are powerless, with Gandalf to lead the way they manage their escape. Then there is Bilbo, lost in the caverns. His riddle game with Gollum is one of the best scenes in a movie this year. Though he became something of a joke in LotR, Gollum is terrifying here. He seems just a step away from killing Bilbo at any time. His funny conversations with himself have a more sinister edge here. It is riveting.

The Hobbit is not a perfect adaptation, nor is it a perfect movie but it is nearly as good example of both as can be found. The movie manages keep most of the majesty of the Lord of the Rings with keeping the Hobbit’s more jocular tone. There are some flaws in this delicate balance, with bloodless scenes of goblin and troll fighting weighed against some unnecessary beheadings. Still, the Hobbit is definitely a must see movie and I eagerly await the next one.

Some Spoiler Free Thoughts on A Memory of Light and Endings

I spent most of the last two days steaming through A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series from Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. To say I was greatly anticipating the book would be a bit of an understatement. As my (soon to be completed) reread shows, I love this series. I am more invested in this story and its world than I have ever been in a fictional world. Which is why it is hard for me to process my reaction to this last book. I have never anticipated an ending like this and had it actually meet my expectations.

A Memory of Light is a nearly perfect ending to this monumental series. It is not the best book in the series, probably not even in the top half of the series, but it ties up nearly everything in a better way than could have been reasonably expected. There are flaws to the book. It often feels scattered and rushed. Part of that is obviously intentional, as the forces of the Light are scattered. Also, many pages are devoted to relatively new characters and threats while storylines that have been building for book or in some cases the whole series are finished off in a few short pages. These flaws do little to detract from the overall experience. A Memory of Light is filled with moments. Moments of incredible heroism and bravery, moments of triumph and moments of bone deep tragedy. If you have any connection to these characters it is a hard book to read, to see their final fates. However, it is also incredibly well worth the bittersweet moments and the tragedy. It is awesome.

As I said, I am having trouble processing actually liking how this concluded. While I am more invested in the Wheel of Time than any other series, I have had several other book and movie series that is was into. I was big into the Harry Potter books, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, the X-Men and Matrix movies and everything Star Wars. All of those series invariably let me down at their conclusion, to one degree or another. The first Matrix movie was terrific, but the two that followed it up were all but unwatchable. The third X-Men movie failed similar spectacular fashion. Those I didn’t like, but it didn’t affect me much. Harry Potter is a little different from the rest. For one, by the time the last book came out, I had kind of outgrown the series. I was at the target age with the first one, but I was a few steps outside of it by the end. By then it was not a book for me. Also, it didn’t really disappoint me as much as the rest. It abandoned a lot the things I liked about the previous books, most notably the school setting and focus. That had to go for story reasons, but that part of the series was what I liked most about the series. I wouldn’t call the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a disappointment, but I definitely didn’t like it as much as the rest of the series. The Dark Tower, on the other hand, killed any interest I had in reading anything else by Stephen King. Up until the seventh book I greatly enjoyed the series, even the interminable asides into past stories with little relevance and King’s degeneration into laughable self-insertion. But the second half of that last book was insultingly awful. It somehow manages to both pander and deliver nothing that reader wants. King’s in book defense of his ending simply proved that he knew it was junk. Then there is Star Wars. I am actually talking about the Expanded Universe novels, which I know have not ended, but the New Jedi Order series was the ending for me. The original trilogy was already complete before I was born and though RotJ is likely the weakest of the three it is still a fine movie. When they first started publishing post-RotJ novels, I was there to snap them up. Not all of them were great. When a dozen plus writers are all taking shots with the characters the story is not going to be perfectly cohesive and the quality is going to vary. But I liked plenty of them. Then came New Jedi Order. It came with a mandate to shake things up, but to me it seemed to be burning down and salting the earth of my then favorite fictional world. While I don’t have specific criticisms, it did end my interest in reading any more books from then on. What all of these series have in common is that none of the endings lived up to my expectations of what they should be. But A Memory of Light did and I do not know how to react. What do I do when the destination is as good as the journey?

I haven’t touched the Harry Potter books since I finished book 7, I will never read another Stephen King book, and when I come across The Matrix or X-Men on TV, I change the channel. I am completely finished with those series. But I have been reading the Wheel of Time pretty much constantly for the last ten years. My good friend Bob turned me on to the series in high school and since then I have read the first six books in the series at least five times apiece, and the rest aren’t far behind. Now that is it finished, that I am no longer going to be pouring over each tome in search of what is to come, I still think I am going to keep reading the series. A break is coming, as the last two months have been nothing but Wheel of Time for me, but I know I will pick up the series again. The Wheel of Time really got me into reading fantasy, it made me want to be a writer and for that it will always be special to me, but based on my past experience, I expected the ending to kill my desire to relive it again. But it hasn’t.

A Memory of Light is the conclusion to a monumental journey, one that took nearly a quarter of a century and has held readers in suspense that whole time. The series set the bar so high for a satisfying conclusion that I thought getting one would be impossible, but Sanderson and Jordan greatly surpassed my expectations. The Wheel of Time is the greatest work in its genre, and its ending further cements its place as the best fantasy series ever written.

Wheel of Time Reread Part 10

Original cover of Crossroads of Twilight

Original cover of Crossroads of Twilight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crossroads of Twilight

There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. SO starts each Wheel of Time book and it is never more true than in Crossroads of Twilight. There are no new plot threads started in CoT, and none of the continuing stories end. It is just incremental steps forward. Crossroads of Twilight is easily my least favorite book in the series. It feels both slight on developments and bloated. It takes the flaws of the previous two books and leaves their strengths. It feels in large part like the second half of Winter’s Heart that didn’t make it into the previous book. More than half of the book takes place before Winter’s Heart ends. In all, Crossroads of Twilight is the nadir of the series, where the increasingly unwieldy structure finally collapsed, at least in part.

Crossroads does accomplish a reset of all of the character’s timelines. The cleansing of saidin in Winter’s Heart is a world changing event, as well as one that could be immediately felt all around the world. It provides a spot to sync all of the characters. Since they have split up over the last few books, there is little way to tell when they are in relation to each other. For first half of this book, plus some, it is merely showing where they are and what they were doing when Rand cleansed the taint. While it could have been done with more elegance, having the characters all at the same time is a good thing. It is also notable that the big events of Crossroads of Twilight are not actions, but choices. Characters do come to crossroads, and they must make important decisions.

The most obvious one is Perrin. He is still hunting down his wife in the center of the map. He is forced to make several tough decisions, like asking the Seanchan for help and getting the food from So Harbor, but the big one is his choice of the hammer over the axe. While the central philosophical dilemma still haunts him after this book, here is where he finally throws away his axe and chooses the hammer. He does it after seeing how far he will go to save Faile. He cuts off the hand of a captured Aiel and threatens to do more. Disgusted with himself, he casts the axe aside. It is a philosophical choice, leaving the axe, which only destroys, for the hammer, which can both destroy and create. Perrin is choosing to not be a destructive force, or at least not only that.

The incentive for all this crossroading is Rand cleansing the taint. To do that he used enough of the power that every character who can channel felt it. The overwhelming feeling is whatever it is that they felt was so powerful that it surely changed the world. If they world has changed, they must change too. That is right. The problem with CoT is that seeing everybody react to the giant glowing beacon is just not that interesting. It really just serves to slow everything down. It also hurts that so much time is spent on Perrin and Elayne in this book and their current stories are just not that interesting. Every other character of importance has been stripped from Elayne’s storyline. Aviendha leaves in this book, Nynaeve and Lan are already gone. It is just Elayne, embroiled in a not particularly enthralling political battle. The real problem with it is the disproportionate amount of time spent on her story. And I say this as a big fan of Elayne.

Crossroads of Twilight is almost a necessary book for moving into the end phase of this series, but that doesn’t make it not a slog to work through. The quality of the writing never falters, but the plotting and structure are completely broken here. It feels like unraveling a tangled knot. It’s not pleasant, but it must be done before you can tie another knot.