Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: A conversation

We like to try and mix it up a bit around here from time to time so for our Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review, guest writer Dylan Burns and myself decided to chew the fat about it. Via Google Docs, of course, not in front of a roaring fire, with a glass or port or whisky, given there’s no Trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand … yet. So grab a glass of ale, yell “skol” at the top of your lungs, and let’s go …

Dylan: I believe that Assassin’s Creed games have passed the point where they are designed to be completed in a week or a month or even a year. As a reviewer, the prospect of grinding out 70+ hours needed to get through Valhalla’s main story and to see almost everything – all in the space of a week or two – to then present to readers a comprehensive appraisal of all that falls within, feels, to me, disingenuous to the way these titles are designed. Instead, they are crafted as something to come back to between games, to get addicted for 10 or 20 hours all over again, before getting distracted for a month or two and then coming back – repeating across the stretch of years until the next AC title comes along and you slip right into that like a transferred child that has been lulled to sleep during a night drive home.

Gerard: Oh, I agree 100% that they’re huge games now, where you need to be prepared to put in the hours to get the pay off. A cursory dozen or so hours isn’t enough in a modern AC game these days: 12 hours is barely scratching the surface. It’s the type of game that will stretch a reviewer  but – and I’m playing devil’s advocate here – I’m wondering whether the daunting task of multiple hours of exploration and game play might put the more casual player off, scared off by an open-world that seemingly stretches on forever with multiple branching storylines. I’m only a handful of hours into Valhalla and I’m quite liking what I’ve played so far: The Norse setting is definitely a highlight but, again playing devil’s advocate, I can potentially see open-world fatigue setting in for me at some point.  It seems more structured than Odyssey, which I struggled with majorly, but I’m just concerned that the game is padded out with too much to do and that fatigue will come eventually.

Visually, the mountainous vistas are just stunning, especially if you’ve trekked to a high peak and there’s no denying the landscapes are stunning and I like how you can autopilot routine things like travelling to destinations by longboat, letting me just sit back and let the game handle all the busy work.

Dylan: I think that fatigue is lessened a bit by the design of things, with blue and white and gold dots all over the map. Each dot might be a little 5-minute side quest or a soldier carrying some loot or a treasure chest with armour or some new skill you can discover – so the random aspect of these is quite compelling and really helps to keep you addicted and flowing on to each point naturally. I felt that Odyssey was AC becoming a full-fledged RPG, with the levelling system and lots of loot. However, here, things seem to have taken a side-step, with levels eschewed for a Destiny-style Power system that relates to the number of skills you have unlocked (on the woefully designed skill tree, by the way) and how powerful your weapons and armour are. It’s a system that sees you less concerned with a specific number, although it still forces you to play in the kiddy pool for many hours, with some areas remaining in the red zone of over 100 or even 200 power recommended. How do you feel about the reduction in RPG systems, and in particular the lessened loot?

Gerard: I’m not sure I completely agree that the fatigue will be lessened due to the coloured dots all about the map: I felt the map could get quite busy at times with all the different icons (synchronization points, monasteries to raid, ports to visit). I liked the idea of the skill tree (designed like a star constellation) but I did find it quite hard to navigate and it wasn’t the most user friendly, was it? I can’t imagine how many hours you’d have to sink into the game to raid a level 200 location. I definitely agree that Odyssey was moving towards the series becoming more RPG-like and I feel Valhalla is still embracing that, especially given that obtaining resources from nearby monasteries is crucial in building up your settlement. I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on Valhalla’s story yet, though, and whether it will capture me for multiple hours but I definitely think it is the sort of game that you can pick up, complete a few quests, level up a bit, then move onto something else. I don’t think it’s really designed as a play from start to finish without interruption type game. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I have so far is the combat: It works most of the time but then other times seem quite janky. What are your thoughts?

Dylan: The combat is flat out strange. Like, I was told there is a stamina meter, but to be honest I’ve never looked at it since learning about it, and it doesn’t seem to impact my ability to completely kick arse wherever I go. In fact, the combat is so overpowered that stealth is almost completely broken/unnecessary in this game. There is absolutely no reason to stealth any section when you can run in and completely slaughter 30 enemies without fearing for your health bar or any other consequence. The only time difficulty enters into the equation is if you try and attack enemies in an area above your recommended level – but if you stick around the zones the game leads you through, you’ll cruise. 

I can see that they tried to make the combat a bit more involved, though. Parrying is essential if you want to beat bosses, and there are impossible-to-block moves (indicated by red flashes from enemies) where you need to roll away. You can also wear down enemy stamina by using heavy attacks, which then opens them up to a devastating blow by pressing in R. But again, I am getting by just fine spamming the crap out of light attack and dodging around. This is combined with enemy AI that is absolutely woeful. You can take out half a camp and still have the other half completely oblivious to the ten-minute battle that just took place next to them. 

I’ve had guards see me and not react while I mosey up to them and kill them with one blow. I’ve had them chase me for all of a few metres, before giving up and returning to patrol. They are perhaps the stupidest they’ve ever been in this series. Even the zealots are bereft of brains. I had one zealot attack me during a mission (this was a random encounter, he wasn’t scripted to be aggressive to me) and then when I lost him by hiding behind a rock, his aggressive state disappeared and he proceeded to converse with me as if he was just passing by – “Oh, isn’t it a nice day, Dane – see you later!” (I am paraphrasing here). The game is also really buggy. I’ve had lots of quests bug out on me, including a couple of freezes and crashes. It’s not at all stable and I can’t help but feel that perhaps that long tail of playing that we’ve talked about can only benefit the devs as they support and refine the experience with patches.

Gerard: I’ve assassinated a few enemies in enemy camps but just because that’s what I feel I should do from time to time: I am supposed to be an assassin, after all, although I’m not not sure the whole “stealth” game was really favoured with the vikings. You’re right about the enemy AI, too: I managed to clear one camp out without anyone being aware of what was going on around them. Oh, I think one of them got slightly intrigued but that was about it. 

Something you haven’t touched upon is the “real world”/Animus segments and I completely forgot they were part of the series janked back into the real world environment and had to endure some really cringe dialogue. These segments just don’t feel like they belong anymore and, maybe it’s because I’m not a fan of the Animus sections at all, they just felt shoehorned in there and are perhaps indicative of the AC series becoming more bloated with content with each iteration.

I’ve had the odd “player stuck on the environment” bug and one bug that forced me to restart my Xbox Series X as the longboat I was in refused to dock, despite being near shore. Valhalla is fun at times but there’s no way I can actually see myself sinking anything like 70 hours into it. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to do that. 

Dylan: Yeah, it’s easy to forget the future storyline completely, and being forced to play it out does feel like a chore. At least there are many hours in between these snippets, and they rarely last for too long before you can lose yourself once more into the animus. 

Overall, though, I love how Valhalla looks, how it plays and how it feels historically accurate, at least in terms of design and the words they use when talking to each other. I’ve always enjoyed the way AC games increase my curiosity about the eras they are set in (I borrowed and read a huge book about the history of Egypt when I started playing Origins). I don’t know a lot about viking history, but it’s enough for this to feel comfortably realistic, nestled against an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the English countryside, not to mention a breathtaking section of Norway in the opening. 

It’s perhaps not as compelling as Odyssey, with a less defined story that takes a long time to circle around to its eventual direction. In simplifying the systems, particularly the loot, it seems that Valhalla may have undercut a bit too much. However, I think this map is the most enticing and hauntingly beautiful of all the AC games so far, and I just can’t get enough of moving through it, finding beautiful moments and clicking in both sticks to take a photo. I can see myself coming back to this time and again until the next AC game.

All the images but one were captured by Dylan using the game’s photo mode. Thanks to Ubisoft for the code.

Assassin’s Creed Origins: The video review

OK, I’m trying something new here: A video review rather than a long-form written one.

It’s not perfect – word from pre-screening audiences say that the game volume is quite loud in the beginning (so you’ve been warned) – and I likely bumble a few words here and there (thanks nerves). Also, at times it sounds like I’m reading from a script, which, funnily enough, I was.

I’ve taken a while to take the plunge to do video interviews: As a former newspaper and online journalist, I hate the sound of my own recorded voice, after years of hearing it while transcribing audio interviews, so have tended to stick to what I felt safest doing: Written word reviews where I can express my opinions without anyone hearing what I sound like.

So, have a listen, prepare yourself for slightly loud game audio, and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your feedback, and who knows? If it’s positive enough, I might do more of them.

As always, thanks for visiting.

Watchdogs 2: Hacking in San Francisco

Let’s get this out of the way first, shall we?

Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.

Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.

I get the feeling that Watchdogs 2 is the game that Ubisoft wishes the first Watchdogs was.

The first Watchdogs was massively overhyped by Ubisoft and I think that was its downfall, to be honest. It was never going to live up to the massive expectation Ubisoft heaped upon it.

I bought Watchdogs on PC but stopped playing it after a handful of hours (I was part way through a mission where main character Aidan Pearce had to infiltrate an inner city prison) because, frankly, I lost interest.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130182756Watchdogs 2, by comparison, is a complete contrast to the original. Instead of being dark and gloomy, Watchdogs 2 is popping with bright colours and sprinkled with popular culture. Its lead character Marcus Holloway is a much more personable and likeable character than Pearce ever was, too.  Holloway is a genuinely interesting character,  even if the underground hacker group that he joins is a little too clichéd and seems like the game’s writers watched too many ’80s movies to get inspiration. Marcus is quite with a witty response and has a swagger about him that just fits with the more jaunty vibe of Watchdogs 2.

With a narrative tightly focused on Marcus’ hacker group using the power of social media and popular media to bring down the conglomerate behind the increasingly pervasive ctOS, Holloway can hack just about everything in the city, from scissor lifts and control panels to garage doors and other people’s phones. It’s intuitive and works nicely and there’s something satisfying about being able to blow up an underground pipe after you’ve driven over it, causing issues to anyone pursuing you. Doing that never got tired.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180820Marcus has a few gadgets at his disposal, too, to help hack the world, with an airborne drone and small motorised drone, a RC jumper that he can deploy  to infiltrate tricky environments, places, highlight enemies and even remotely hack computers to make things easier as he skulks through enemy territory.

Like all open world games these days, Watchdog 2 is overflowing with an abundance of activities to do but I almost wondered at times if there were too many things to do. Marcus’ phone seemed to be constantly buzzing with a new quest or side mission. The story takes pot shots at popular culture (Scientology for example) but as nice looking and vibrant as Watchdogs 2 is something kept nagging at me while I was playing it, gnawing at my brain.

Then I realised what it was: I kept on comparing Watchdogs 2’s game world to that of GTAV – and Rockstar’s open-world masterpiece just kept on trumping Ubisoft’s San Francisco. GTAV just seems to do open-world so much better than the others. It’s cities looked lived in and populated. Look, Watchdogs is a great game but I guess if you put any open-world game up against GTAV, its shortcomings are always going to come to the fore.

You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.

You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.

The main story missions are the standard “Go here, do this/collect this/talk to this person then move to the next one” variety but I found Watchdogs was a lot more enjoyable and at its best when you go off the beaten track and forget about the main story missions. Doing things like using your phone’s Scout app to track down landmarks dotted about San Francisco and take a selfie in front of it to gain more followers, petting dogs, eavesdropping on conversations. Watchdogs 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously and I like that.

It has some things that niggled me. The police force in particular is really, really aggressive (in fact, I found the security forces in the game in general really aggressive). Once, I slightly grazed a police car as I negotiated a two-lane road. Instead of the minor reaction from the police I was suspecting, suddenly I was being chased by five police cars, complete with a police woman yelling at the top of her lungs for me to pull over. When I eventually stopped, I was expecting a telling off and to get arrested. Nope: Two cops pulled out guns and started shooting. Talk about over reaction, fellas.

I haven’t touched on any of the multiplayer because, frankly, I don’t really play multiplayer but there is something called seamless multiplayer which I’m guessing is when another play can enter your game and attempts to hack your phone. This happened to me twice and  you have to find the person before they download your data and escape.

The first time I didn’t find the guy (he was on an overpass above where I was) but the second time I found the guy hiding behind a bush nearby. He took off and I gave chase, trying to hit him comically with taser bolts: It didn’t work. He hijacked a motorbike and drove off. It was interesting, to say the least.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180552Watchdogs 2 is a fun game that has a lot of charm and it’s much better than the dark original and it shows that Ubisoft has learned some things as it refines its open-world games. Sure, the narrative is  a little too bogged down in clichés for my liking but I grew to (kind of) like Marcus’ fellow hackers the more the game progressed.

Watchdogs 2 isn’t my favourite game of the year and it doesn’t do anything innovative to move the open-world genre along – and if you’re bored with open-world games that tick all the required boxes, then this isn’t the game for you – but its fun for a bit, and worth a look if you want a game that has an upbeat vibe and plenty of content to keep you occupied for a while.

  • Thanks to Ubisoft for the PS4 review copy of Watchdogs 2.

Far Cry 4 review: A land where you’re really just lunch for a wild animal

Far Cry 4: It looks idyllic but I bet there's a ferocious honey badger lurking behind a rock somewhere.

Far Cry 4: It looks idyllic but I bet there’s a ferocious honey badger lurking behind a rock somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Far Cry 4, Ubisoft’s latest in the series which pits a normal guy against a raging loony in a Himalayan principality called Kyrat, I like to think of the player as nothing more than a meatsicle. A tasty treat just waiting to be eaten by a bear, a bengal tiger or … a honey badger.

You see, in Far Cry 4 you’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head so you can see the animals coming in for the kill. I lost count how many times I was standing on the top of a grassy knoll when for no reason, I was attacked by a pack of wolves.

Or the time I was minding my own business and a bloody great eagle swooped down and attacked me. Or the time I was standing on the roof of a shack and something with sharp teeth decided it wanted to eat me for lunch. That’s the proof right there: That Far Cry 4 is nothing more than a game where the wild animals are more frightening that dictator Pagan Min’s thugs. As well as tigers and bears,  you’ll encounter rhinos, yaks, deer, pigs …

Then there’s the honey badger. What the hell is a honey badger? I can’t say I actually knew what a honey badger was before Far Cry 4. They look so cute until they start biting your face. One thing I know: A few honey badger skins make for a nice weapon holster.

It makes it sound like all there is in Far Cry 4 is animals that want to eat you, and that’s not true. There’s a heck of a lot to do as you fill the boots of Kyrat-born but US raised Ajay Ghale as he tries to get his dead mother’s ashes to her final resting place, and if you’ve played Far Cry 3, you’ll recognise the pattern where the more of the game world you unlock, the more side missions you unlock.  Far Cry 4 is like a fancy all-you-can-eat buffet: There are plenty of delights to keep you satisfied for a very, very long time.

I’m going to digress for a minute: my history with Far Cry began when I played the original game on PC, a few years ago. It was a game that would cause your PC to smoke if it wasn’t powerful enough (much like Crysis). Sadly, mine was never as grunty as it should have been.

But back to Far Cry 4 … In terms of open-world games, Number 4 ticks all the right boxes – without really being revolutionary. That said, some of the most serene moments were when I hopped onto a little propellor-driven helicopter and glide across the Himalayan tree tops. You can jump onboard an ATV and blat about the dusty trails, drifting around corners (although I struggled with the controls to start with) You can scale radio towers to destroy the propaganda-spouting machines at the top.

Another great thing was actually using the environment as a means of clearing out enemy outposts. Elephants, wild dogs, bees … In one case, an elephant was being held in a pen. I shot the lock (alerting the guards, of course) but causing the elephant to rampage, trampling the soldiers, leaving me with only one or two to take care of. Once you unlock the ability to ride elephants you get to cause all sorts of chaos.

far_cry_42If you’ve played FC3, you’ll get to grips with FC4 right away, too  – it’s not that much different from FC3 (but now have auto-drive on vehicles if you have a side-arm equipped and there’s a co-op mode) but it’s villain Pagan Min that really shines, here. If you thought Vaas in Far Cry 3 was a brilliant bad guy and couldn’t be beaten, well, think again. Pagan Min takes the crown.

I’ve loved exploring Kyrat and as I often do with open-world games I’ll get sidetracked by side missions and ignore the story missions all together (eventually you’ll have to get back to the main missions, though). As I said before, there’s enough content to keep an open-world fan busy for weeks –  although that can be a double-edged sword. Often games that have too much to do, too much content, can be overwhelming and players might give up because they just can’t do it all.

Far Cry 4 is a great game that is strengthened by its villain Pagan Min.

Just watch out for those honey badgers. They’re not as cute as they first appear.

Watch Dogs delayed: I have some theories

Wait a little longer: You'll have to wait until next year to play Ubisoft's Watch Dogs.

Wait a little longer: You’ll have to wait until next year to play Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs, from Ubisoft, was a game I was looking forward to, so I was disappointed when Ubi announced the other day that it had been delayed until 2014.

Here’s the official line from the company: “Our ambition from the start with Watch_Dogs has been to deliver something that embodies what we wanted to see in the next-generation of gaming. It is with this in mind that we’ve made the tough decision to delay the release until Autumn 2014.

“We know a lot of you are probably wondering ‘why now?’ We struggled with whether we would delay the game. But from the beginning, we have adopted the attitude that we will not compromise on quality. As we got closer to release, as all the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place in our last push before completion, it became clear to us that we needed to take the extra time to polish and fine tune every detail so we can deliver a truly memorable and exceptional experience.

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you. We thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the way you respond on the web, at events, press conferences and during other opportunities we have to interact. Your passion is what drives us.

“We can’t wait to see you in Chicago next Spring. We are confident you’ll love this game as much as we love working on it.”

I’m all for games being delayed if it’s going to give a better game – I think we all are – but is the delay of Watch Dogs really because Ubisoft wants “extra time to polish and fine tune every detail” or is it because Ubisoft was fearful that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which is releasing on October 29,  almost a month before Watch Dogs, would have taken sales away from Watch Dogs, a new and untested IP.  It’s a theory, anyway.

Watch-Dogs-Splash-Image

And here’s a conspiracy theory that I’m going to throw into the mix: Could the real reason for Watch Dogs being delayed be because Ubisoft aren’t happy with the state of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 version – and will eventually announce that the game will only come out on PC and next-generation consoles, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

I mean, it could happen, right? I saw some video comparisons of current generation Watch Dogs versus next-generation Watch Dogs and the current generation visuals looked poor when put alongside their next-generation brothers.  Will Ubisoft eventually make a surprise announcement that Watch Dogs is next-generation console and PC only?

I’m not worried about the console versions, anyway, I was going to buy it on PC anyway but one upside with the delay is that I now have a little longer before I’m forced to upgrade to Windows 8 from WIndows 7.

[Although, I may have to upgrade to Windows 8 sooner than expected as I’m expecting a review copy of Battlefield 4 and I believe that it runs better under Win 8. Oh, well.]

 

Pirate Tuesday: Assassin’s Creed IV trailer

What is this madness, I hear you mutter to yourself? “Is it worth putting down my controller/mouse to check out?”

Well, it depends on what your thoughts on Assassin’s Creed are, I guess, but yes, this is the second game play trailer on Game Junkie 2.0 in one week.

Now, I’m tempering any expectations about Black Flag until (if?) I actually play it: I adored Assassin’s Creed 2 but was disappointed by AC3 – it just wasn’t fun and almost felt as if it was trying to be a little bit Red Dead Redemption with all the crafting and stuff. I’m hoping ACIV is going to learn from the mistakes in AC3, to be honest.

Anyway, enjoy the video. Looking forward to ACIV: Black Flag or going to give it a miss?