Sunday, March 30, 2008

Assassin's Creed and Shadow of the Colossus

So, I've been meaning to get around to writing this post for a long while. However, each time I think about it, this post gets longer. And, well, I've thought about it a fair amount by this time. So, we'll just have to see what happens.

Anyways, I've been playing Assassin's Creed (when I'm not watching Blu-ray movies or playing Rock Band...okay, so actually I'm only sorta playing it, but that's not the point). Since, I've been playing it, it's been reminding me of the classic PS2 game, Shadow of the Colossus. Now, off-hand, you might assume that this is because they both involve riding a gorgeously animated horse. And, you'd be right. But, that's just a single, superficial similarity. On the other hand, it's as good a starting point as any.

So Assassin's Creed has some of the best graphics available in this new generation of video games. It really looks awesome. Not only is there an amazing amount of detail, but they're able to capture it on a truly awesome scale. There are very few things as satisfying as climbing to the top of a building and taking in the view of the huge city. Also, just running around said city and through the crowds and everything is very cool too.

Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, dealt with graphics in a very different way. It does not have the most amazing graphics you'll see on the PS2 (I kind of assume that honor goes to the God of War games, but don't quote me on that). In fact, it's graphics are pretty unimpressive for a game so late in the PS2's life cycle. However, a lot of people see it and come out really impressed with how the graphics look. That's because Shadow of the Colossus gets the animations right. For example, when you're riding the horse. Riding the horse in SOTC actually looks better than riding your horse in AC (I'm going to be typing these games' titles a lot and I got tired of spelling it out). And, I can assure you that it's not because the horse looks especially nice in SOTC (because it doesn't). However, the way it moves is downright glorious, which gives SOTC the one-up over the more recent, more graphically impressive game. SOTC also gets bonus points for giving you much better camera controls while riding the horse, so you can be your own choreographer, staging the camera just right to provide the most dramatic view of the glorious horse-riding animation possible.

Another interesting challenge they both deal with in similar, and instructive, ways is the eternal battle of telling a story without losing player interactions. One of the common complaints with JRPGs (note that I don't have this complaint, but it's a common complaint) is the problem inherent to that story telling method. They regularly pull the player out of the fantasy they've created and force them to sit and watch what is effectively a movie for a little while (or a very long while, in some Xenosaga).

In the worst cases, the movie doesn't have voice actors, so the player is watching the characters move and scrolling through text. Even in the best case scenarios, the player is watching the characters do things that they themselves can't make the characters do, which kind of sucks (it's that whole situation when you watch a character make some bad-ass entrance where he takes out a room full of bad guys, and then find that you're going to have to level him up because he can't actually kill anything yet).

Now, there are a variety of solutions to this. Assassin's Creed strategy is simple: the player always has control of the character, Altair. Even when you're watching someone have a conversation with him, you can have him wondering around the room and jumping around or whatever. In fact, even during the loading scenes, you're given control of Altair (he's basically standing in an infinite white room and you can run around and stuff until it finishes loading...too bad there's nothing to actually do in this infinite white room). The idea behind this decision is very simple. So long as the player is in control of Altair, the fantasy can be maintained (the fantasy being the player imprinting himself on the main character).

However, it fails miserably. In fact, it fails for the exact reason that SOTC succeeds brilliantly. They don't give the player control of the camera; they only give him control of Altair. So, if someone is talking to you, you can make Altair leave the room, but the camera will still be pointed at the guy talking to you. This was a terrible decision. The moment that the camera is no longer focused on the player, it breaks the fantasy. In fact, it breaks the fantasy in a much bigger way than losing control of the character, because when the camera isn't centered on Altair, he stops being the main character. If I can't see him, then I can't control him. It's extra stupid because the system has this whole digital sound thing going, so having control of the camera while someone is talking to you could be a really great way to keep yourself oriented.

I mean, imagine you're sneaking up on someone giving a speech to a crowd. The way they do it right now, the camera becomes focused on the target and Altair is basically stuck in the crowd until the guy finishes his speech, because I can't see the crowd to navigate through them. It would be totally awesome if I could hear his speech while navigating through the crowd to climb up the nearby walls, with his speech coming in from behind me, and then walk around the walls, hearing his speech now coming from the side until I'm behind him, waiting to strike. They could even keep the timed events to switch the camera to focused on the speaker if it pleased them (only it would be dangerous because I couldn't be sure a guard wouldn't see me while I was completely focused on him).

So, yeah, AC tried to make the right decision and it backfired on them. They wanted the player to always feel like they were in control of Altair, but they forgot to make sure that the player always had control of his eyes. That's too bad for them.

Now, SOTC very regularly takes away control of the main character. However, they never, ever take away control of the camera (so, like the opposite of what AC does). In fact, even during the title screen's little cinematic, I have control of the camera. They point the camera where it's supposed to be looking, but I can turn it about 45 degrees in every direction and I can zoom in and out. This means that anytime something catches my eyes, I can follow it and even look closely at it. This is simply brilliant. I have never been more involved in a cut scene than I was while playing SOTC. I remember that the next game I played was FFXII, and just feeling pained all the time because I didn't have control of the camera during those cut-scenes.

Now, this is especially interesting because it shows what's really important for a sense of immersion. The ability to look and examine what I want to see, during the game, that's immersion. I don't know for sure, but I think even some of the Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies have stuff like that, where viewers can control the camera during some cool scenes to get a better idea of the action. I haven't tried anything like that, but I think I heard about it somewhere. But, in any case, I preferred that strategy of taking control of the character away while allowing the player to still feel like he's present (because he can look at whatever he wants). I'm still waiting to find another game that uses that system. Maybe I'll just have to wait until that group makes a PS3 game (which I will buy without any hesitation).

Briefly, I just want to mention that I loved the gorgeous scenes present in the worlds of both games. AC provides breathtaking views of cities, hills, cliffs, even oceans. It is almost mind-boggling, especially when you realize that many of these places aren't reachable. They're just created to maintain the huge sense of scale throughout the game. Similarly, SOTC also has a huge overworld (and it doesn't have load screens). This overworld is nearly empty, compared to AC, but it's also filled with extra sights to create a sense of history and scale. I remember wandering a forest, lost, and suddenly finding a stunningly beautiful waterfall falling into an abyss. There were no monster in this area. In fact, there was no reason to be there at all (I had gotten lost). But the reward for stumbling upon it was more memorable than half the colossi I fought. To me, that's something really special.

The last key similarity is what my personal enjoyment arises from. In SOTC, my favorite part was the puzzle aspect of figuring out how I was going climb up the colossus to hit his weak spots. In many cases, I found out later that I wasn't even using the intended strategy, but my way worked for me, which was all that was really important. AC, on the other hand, was made by the people behind Prince of Persia. Those games had some of the most interesting architectural puzzles ever designed (note that this might change in a post-Portal and Echochrome world). However, the prince always had a limited number of abilities and the goal was to figure out the one single path that existed to get him from point A to point B, which always seemed to require a point C that wasn't immediately obvious at point A.

In AC, though, Altair's climbing skills are borderline superhuman. He can climb just about anything. However, these designers took that as a challenge to carefully design huge towers to climb that also had that same A to B via C mechanic. And it's ingenious. In the best cases, it's actually harder than Prince of Persia, since at point A you have so many different options, but only one is going to get you to just the right location where you can just barely make the jump to grab hold of the one specific ledge that'll give you the starting point you need to begin climbing the tower. These make for some really great puzzles.

So, yeah, for me, AC uses giants towers as substitutes for the climbing puzzles that SOTC provides. Ironically, I watched this movie a little while back called Reign Over Me, with Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler, that actually used the colossi from SOTC as a metaphor/substitute for the falling towers of 9/11. So, I guess things just come full circle, don't they? By the way, the movie was decent, but not that great. It wasn't as depressing as I was worried it might be. And, yes, I really only watched it to see how they used the video game in the movie (I thought they used it well, at least there was less of the random button mashing that movies typically try to pass off as playing video games).

Lastly, I just want to say that I don't know whose decision it was, but making Altair die whenever he falls into some water was a really, really poor decision. I mean, this guy can do anything, but the moment he touches some water, he sinks like a stone to his doom. I initially didn't mind since for a long while the only time I'd fall into water would be if I screwed up my climbing on a wall that was a couple hundred feet above the surface of the water. But, eventually, I started exploring docks that were three feet above the surface of the water. Dying in those instances, pretty much sucks. Much better would be that it alerts the guards or something. Just dying immediately is kind of frustrating, especially when they start filling the docks with psycho drunk dudes who all just want to push you into the water. Then it's just kind of silly...but not in a funny sort of way.

That is all.


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