Monthly Archives: June 2016

Screw You, Ubisoft, I’m Gonna Go Do Parkour

 

Ubisoft pretty much single-handedly killed open worlds for me.  I’m sure anyone who plays games regularly can remember the excitement open world games used to bring, and I blame Ubisoft for stamping that excitement out.  I can trace this arc most clearly through how I played the Assassin’s Creed series, which is perhaps the purest distillation of Ubisoft’s open-world formula.  I played Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and III over the course of about a month, voraciously devouring them in a mad dash to complete the games before III came out.  When I started the franchise, I was in love, and when I finished it, there were few games I hated more.  And the core of this very strong emotional response was how the games handled their open worlds.

See, Ubisoft games have one *hell* of a honeymoon period.  When I started all of the Assassin’s Creed games, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 4, I was raving about how great they were.  I talked about their amazing ideas, reveled in their genuinely novel high concepts, and delighted in exploring their mechanical idiosyncrasies.  But then, about four hours in, the honeymoon phase fades, and I realized the relationship was shit all along.  I discovered that the parkour really is that shallow, that the driving really is that shit and it’s never going to get better, that, oh my god, they seriously expect me to climb this tower for the seventh time.  And then the monotony hits, usually all at once.  I start to dread having to explore the open world, I started to cringe how formulaic the story is, and, most of all, I start to notice the checklists.  

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Out of everything in Ubisoft games, the checklists are the things I despise the most.  They turn the wonder and mystery of an entire, digitally-created world into a series of to do lists for you to complete to increase your overall completion percentage, which is clearly your objective meter of how much Fun(TM) you’re having.  Soon, the allure of exploring a new world fades into the conditioned monotony of seeing how many items you can check off this list before you get so bored that you give up on it.  And that emotion, boredom, becomes the driver for how I play Ubisoft-style open world games.  I have to do all these side missions, so let’s keep doing them until I get bored and have to do a story mission to hold me over until the boredom peaks again.  I’ve thought about it, and even my favorite open world games like Skyrim could have their core engagement of exploration obliterated with a simple checklist.  The greatest moments in those games are when you find a hidden cave tucked away behind some out-of-the-way mountain, explore every nook and cranny, and find some magic item with a weird effect that you hang onto because, sure, it’s a good item, but you have a story about how you found it.  If Skyrim was made by Ubisoft, you would see a marker on your map for the magic item’s exact location, and be told that you need to collect it and the 2534 other magic items in the world to reach 100% completion, so that by the time you got there you would just follow the line on your map to the item, pick it up, and leave.  All the magic is gone, you’re just going from Point A to Point B.

So, is that it?  Has Ubisoft’s destruction of the reasons I loved open world games infested the industry so thoroughly that I will never enjoy one again?  Apparently not, because Mirror’s Edge Catalyst came out last week, was a Ubisoft-style open world in everything but name, and I loved the goddamn hell out of it.  

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_412583521_previewThe original Mirror’s Edge game came out some eight years ago, and has been one of my all-time favorites ever since I first played the demo at a friend’s house.  In the time since then, there has never quite been anything like it.  Sure, Brink had some parkour, Titanfall took the basic stylings and made it crazy fast (and added jetpacks, which is always nice), and Dying Light applied it to a Ubisoft-styled open world on their own, but while I love all of those games (except Brink, c’mon, Bethesda, what were you thinking?), none of them even come close to Mirror’s Edge.  Because as fun as their movement systems are, at the end of the day, the feel just a bit too floaty, too removed, and, most importantly, too easy.  Movement is never the core gameplay of those games.  In Mirror’s Edge, it was basically all you had (I’m not going to talk about the shooting mechanics, and no one else should either).  While Ubisoft games had me hating going from Point A to Point B, Mirror’s Edge is basically nothing but that.  So, they figured, if our game is entirely about getting from one place to another, why not make that really freaking fun?  And they did! The movement in Mirror’s Edge is filled with this flow, heft and weight.  Faith can get up to some serious speed, but she lands with a thud, will get hurt if you don’t time your roll right, and fall to the ground with a sickening crunch if you miss a ledge grab.  The game asked you to be constantly aware, not just to stay alive, but to move as fast as you can and look as cool as you can while doing it.  The aesthetics of parkour, of traversing a complicated space in a unique way and making it look effortless, translated so well into gameplay that I am amazed that, eight years later, NO ONE ELSE HAS GOTTEN IT RIGHT.  But the first Mirror’s Edge was a linear, level-to-level game, and while I really admire and enjoy its purity, this year,  when we *finally* got a sequel, they changed that.

mapMirror’s Edge Catalyst is a straight-up, Ubisoft-inspired, checkbox-ridden, collectible-filled open world.  It has an overall completion rate, barfs icons for random tasks onto your map, and doesn’t provide and mechanical incentive to do any of those things.  And I freaking love it.  Most open world games get very tedious, very fast, because a decent chunk of your game time is just walking from objective to objective, but in Mirror’s Edge, running everywhere is the core gameplay, so they focus on making it as engaging as possible.  I had a blast finding out different routes from the various points of interest in the game, felt amazing whenever I found a new shortcut to shave off some travel time, and got genuinely, shout-an-exclamation-of-joy-at-two-in-the-morning-and-piss-off-my-parents excited when I unlocked a new upgrade that let me double wall jump.  I didn’t care if I was parkouring to a fixed objective on the map that added to my overall completion, I was doing parkour!  I wish I had more to say about it than that, but all it took to make this style of open world enjoyable was to just make going from place to place exciting.  The walking wasn’t a chore anymore.  I learned every detail of the environments because they were useful to me.  And a type of game that I had *hated* for years suddenly was something I was raving to friends about again.  Except this time, the honeymoon phase didn’t wear off.

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Overwatch & Support Classes

Playing a support class in a multiplayer game is a strangely contradictory decision.  Competitive multiplayer games are almost always about empowerment, about kicking as much ass as you possibly can and being named the Best Ass-Kicker That Ever Was.  Multiplayer games have score screens that praise the most skillful ass-kickers and lead to derision of the less-skilled ones.  They emphasize kill-death ratios, the ultimate measurement of a player’s skill, and, despite the team focus of these games, tend to hold personal kill performance above all else.  This makes playing a support class kind of go against the ethos of this style of gaming.  If multiplayer games are all about killing as many players as you can, then why would anyone want to play a class that, if they’re doing their job right, doesn’t get any kills?  Well, it seems that, despite the importance of support roles in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, World of WarCraft, etc., not to many people want to play them.  I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch since its release last month, and I’ve ended up playing primarily as Mercy and Lucio, two of the game’s primary healer classes, not because I find them more fun, but because no one else will.  One encounter that I have every three games like clockwork is a starting phase where no one has chosen support, and the one guy playing Reaper (it’s always Reaper) starts yelling at the team in chat for someone to play support.  When people suggest to this player that he, perhaps, play support, he suspiciously goes silent.  So, I end up playing Mercy or Lucio again.  So it would seem that not too many people want to play support classes, and most players will end up fighting over the few attack/damage roles.

If this is the case, and support really is antithetical to the ethos of multiplayer gaming, then why do I enjoy playing these support roles so much?  Yeah, I’m annoyed that I’m usually boxed in to playing them, but I’ve been having a blast playing healers.  The primary reason for this, I’ve found, is the type of rewards you get for playing support.  When you’re playing a damage-focused character like Reaper, Genji or Bastion, you get a lot of mechanical rewards, like high kill streaks, crazy plays of the game, and medals on the score screen.  But, when you’re playing support, you get something different: social rewards.  When I get an insane kill streak as Pharah, the other players on my team mostly ignore it unless it is particularly game-changing.  However, when I jump into the middle of four dead teammates as Mercy and resurrect all of them at just the right moment, I get compliments, thanks and praise for doing so.  This type of social reward is why I enjoy playing support so much.  It is not about doing the best I personally can, like getting 40 kills in a match, it’s about helping others do the best they can, and feeling a sense of vicarious accomplishment.  The role feels more like that of a parent or teacher, oddly enough.  Instead of kicking ass yourself, you’re helping other people do it instead.

But there is a serious tradeoff there.  Blizzard ranks Mercy as one of the easiest characters to play, and, I’ll admit, there’s not as much second-to-second mechanical depth to her.  You’re making decisions about who to fly to in order to heal and where to position yourself, but you don’t have the skill of twitch aiming or ability timing.  Mercy’s healing wave, afterall, isn’t a skill shot, you just hover over the player you want to heal and lock on.  So, whenever I play a healer, I always feel like I’m trading mechanical depth for social enjoyment.  This isn’t as true in games like World of WarCraft, healing there is much more complicated, but I do still feel that tradeoff.  Blizzard has tried to acknowledge this with tricks such as removing the kill-death focused scoreboard and replacing it with objective-based medals, but there is still a long way to go.

And this comes with another problem: what if your team is a bunch of insufferable assholes?  I’ve had this problem time and time again: I get grouped with players who are toxic as all hell, constantly ask me to heal them when the entire team is at half health, and spew slur-infused bile at me in chat when they die.  This makes games as a damage or tank character annoying, but it makes games a support near unbearable.  If most of your reward for playing the game is social, then when that social reward is removed, you have nothing to fall back on.  If you’re playing a game with a bad team as a damage character, you can still get kills from time to time, which at least give you something to enjoy, but a support, the game just becomes grueling.  Most of the time when I stop playing Overwatch, it is because of games like that.

In this model, support is a class that works fundamentally differently from damage or tank classes.  Supports have a much larger gulf in enjoyment from game-to-game, and much less minute-to-minute enjoyment.  Basically, if you have a good team, you’re probably going to have an experience that is consistently enjoyable, and if you have a bad team, the game will just suck.  Because I’m usually playing Overwatch with a group of friends, I can more easily avoid those bad games, and I’m not quite sure how Blizzard could fix that.  Maybe they can’t, maybe they just want you to play with friends instead of alone.  And, in a style of game focused around personal empowerment despite having all of this potential for team play, I think a bit of a tradeoff is acceptable.