Monday, November 12, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 7) - Gameplay

In this final post on the Assassin's Creed series, I'm going to talk about arguably the most important aspect of the series - the gameplay itself.  I've left this discussion to last because so much of the development of the game mechanics has been influenced by the other factors in its development. The shifting focus of the series and changes in other aspects of the design of the games is inherently related to how the game is played. This truly should allow anyone to appreciate the myriad of factors that have to come together in order to create a cohesive gaming experience. Games should be designed such that all these factors come together effectively.

Initially the game was a concept and an ideal more than a comprehensively designed gameplay experience. It was a sandbox with the primary character as a free-running assassin, and this is entirely reflected in the way the game plays out. It represented an interesting experiment that delivered a large world to the player, but gave them fewer direct reasons to explore it, instead rewarding those who wanted to roam of their own accord. Structured gameplay was minimal and mostly consisted of a small stable of repetitive tasks.

Then the "reward" of long-winded speeches...

Yet the designers recognised the shallow nature of the first experience and sought to expand upon it. This was a vast success in the second game, with the transformation in narrative and gameplay design leading to a superior and varied experience for players. Some of additions were not particularly exciting, races in particular being a somewhat tedious addition, and these rapidly dropped in number in Brotherhood and Revelations.  The increased variety in mission design and even changes to mechanics and structure are of significant note throughout the series.

Providing tangible benefits from doing additional content is something the series has always tried to do, firstly by provided increased health, then subsequently by making the player money, advancing recruits, and allowing them to buy better gear to make the do more damage or increase their health. Unfortunately, the designers have never seemed to quite pull this off entirely successfully. The first game's side content just ended up being repetitive and tedious, and in AC2 it was quite feasible to end up rolling around in ridiculous amounts of money with nothing to spend it on. Brotherhood and Revelations did reign this tendency in by introducing big money sinks, but aside from a few key valuable items, most of the point of making money was to spend money to make more money. The design was such that the goal was just a goal that helped fulfill that same goal, so ultimately didn't feel that rewarding for the player.

Yeah, because that made sense...

Subtle changes to stealth mechanics both made stealth more successful and viable, but at the same time, perhaps made it feel less special and involving for the player. The ditching of the "active blending" from AC2 is perhaps the biggest step back for player involvement in stealth. Don't make stealth a simple "push button" like it was in the original game. That's neither challenging nor interesting for the player. It should require some effort on their part.

The changes to notoriety in Revelations came a close second to this step backwards when it came to gameplay. Managing notoriety was never particularly challenging, and seemingly this led the designers to believe that it wasn't particularly valuable. However, ditching it in favour of templar awareness was a very poor decision. Managing "templar awareness" for the sake of preventing a potential attack on an assassin den was far less personal and engaging, and had less direct impact upon the player. The player typically had to perform a significant number of "unacceptable" actions after hitting maximum awareness to provoke an attack, which meant that getting a full meter didn't seem like cause for concern. A notorious Ezio did potentially have to makes changes to his behaviour (even if small or subtle) to avoid attracting attention or at least minimising it.

The better choice would have been to tweak the consequences of attaining notoriety and making it more difficult to reduce notoriety. The abundance of posters made it a trivial task to keep notoriety low, and heralds could easily be bribed and then pickpocketed for a significant decrease in notoriety. If the number of posters had been dropped, and pickpocketing a herald resulted in a vast increase in notoriety, then a far better balance would have been struck. Or perhaps offering increased dangers but with a potential small bonus to performing actions/missions while notorious would have provided a better risk/reward system for players.

Plus no-one particularly wanted a tower defense minigame...

Finally, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention the combat and assassinations in the game in this discussion. The introduction of additional assassination methods as of AC2 made the series remarkably better. Actually being able to leap and kill someone, or toss them down onto the street while hanging on a ledge was a huge step forward for player freedom. But this isn't the only place where combat took a step forward.

The variety in enemies provided a significant improvement in combat across the series. Requiring players to switch up their tactics a little made combat more interesting, even though the difficulty has never really ramped up across the games. The variety in weaponry provides a range of tools that allows the player to switch up their killing method and their attack style, from fast and furious to slow but lethal. The only potential drawback here is that as the series has progressed, there are arguably too many options with too little difference between them. Why is the crossbow more advantageous than knives, and which bomb loadout should the player use, and how useful are they really? There's a lot of choice, but the differentiation between those choices seems minimal, meaning that those choices don't really seem to offer a whole lot to the player.

Crossbows and throwing knives and assassins... oh my!

The greatest problem with combat is that the player doesn't really ever feel like they are under significant threat, and even when they can take a sound beating quickly (as can happen in Revelations), it doesn't really provide that sense of threat or danger to the player with any meaningful feedback until the player is almost dead. Just like the concept of the animus itself, there's very little "tactile" or tangible feedback to the player. Combat has never been difficult or a challenge because the fighting system has very little individual complexity. There's no combos like a fighting game or real individual move variety like a beat-em-up. Mostly it's a simple choice of "enemy X, attack A", enemy Y, attack B" with little to no difference in overall approach. There's no fluidity to the system that allows for the player to have free flowing combat when compared to something like Batman: Arkham Asylum/City. If the Assassin's Creed series wants to continue to develop, this is they key area of gameplay that designers really needs to concentrate on.

Overall, the first four entries in the Assassin's Creed has been interesting titles. With varying strengths and weaknesses, this franchise offers an insight into how developers seek to change their formula and attempt to keep a series fresh while retaining true to the core premise of a series. If all the strong points of the series were combined in a single title, you'd have a truly excellent game, but the difficulty that the design team seems to have had thus far is picking how to tweak those aspects to obtain the right balance to fit the overall creative direction. I'll likely make another post on how well they have (or haven't) managed this when I get around to playing Assassin's Creed 3 - until then, I'm calling a close to my commentary on this series.

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