Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Reason for the Season

At a Menorah lighting in Springfield, Massachusetts, a local city councilor has a message:
“Jesus is the reason for the season."

“I thought it added something to the service, it didn’t take away,” [Bud] Williams, who is not Jewish, told on Tuesday night.
Williams went on to say that his message was not meant to be one of "dominance".

I almost can't be mad, because, let's face it, Jesus is the "reason for the season." As it stands, a goodly portion of secular Jews are in some ways more invested in not celebrating Christmas than they are in celebrating the Chanukah (or any other Jewish holiday). I know of a great many Jews who have long since ceased setting foot inside a synagogue, but who take great pride in grabbing Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. We certainly have Jesus to thank for that. More importantly, Chanukah, as every good Jew knows, is a minor holiday that received a battlefield promotion because we needed something to compete with Christmas. If it wasn't for Christmas, Jews wouldn't care (much) about the Festival of Lights.

Then again, as any good historian knows, the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is due to its resonance with various pagan winter festivals. So in reality, the reason for the season is Roman celebrations of the Winter Solstice.

Power Story

The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of Samantha Power, currently America's ambassador to the United Nations. As a longstanding SP admirer, it makes for a good read. Incidentally, browsing through that last link resurrected this gem, wherein Frank Gaffney predicted that Obama was gearing up to invade Israel. I must have slept through that one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ranking Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed is one of my favorite video game series of all time. It is probably the only series which I constantly preorder, I believe starting from Revalations. I've also played all the console games except Liberation and Rogue (the latter I want to get, but I already switched from a 360 to an Xbox One and it's hard to motivate myself to revert [Update: I've now played Rogue and would slot it in as the #4 game on this list, between Revelations and Black Flag]). In any event, those titles won't be on the list. But that still gives us seven games to rank in order. And who doesn't love ranking?

Enough with the preface! Let's begin:

7. Assassin's Creed: Unity

I thought very hard about whether I'm underrating this because I'm playing (and being frustrated by) it right now. But I honestly don't think I am. What clinched Unity's bottom ranking for me is that I largely haven't experienced all the technical glitches that plagued the game's release, and I still have found it inordinately annoying (in fact, the technical glitches worked to my benefit -- Ubisoft promised all of us Season Pass holders a free copy of Far Cry 4 as penance! Advantage, David). First of all, the multiplatform elements (computer, iPhone, etc.) are nothing short of infuriating. They're not fun, they break immersion, basically, they turn what was normally a nice set of mini-game diversions into a giant chore. And if we restrict ourselves to the game proper? Major problems there too.

A lot of basic gameplay mechanics seem to have been eliminated -- what happened to the "whistle" function? And what's there often doesn't seem to work: I gather I'm supposed to attract guards by having them see me and provoking them to give chase, but that basically never works (particularly if you want to stay in stealth). The "cover" system is a disaster under the best of circumstances -- the percentage of cases where "press A to enter cover" has actually succeeded in doing so is well under 50 -- but it borders on farcical once you find out that you can't round a corner while hiding. You need to get up, wander around aimlessly in plain site for awhile, probably accidentally hide behind the same corner you started in at least once ... it's jaw-dropping. And while I feel like I've said this for every AC game, I could swear that the controls are stickier and less responsive this time around.

To be sure, it isn't all bad. Arno is an average protagonist -- worse than Ezio or Edward, better than Altair or the wretched Connor. I genuinely enjoy the Helix Rift mini-games. Also, I recognize that -- as someone who never plays multiplayer -- Unity may not appeal to my style of gaming (and I do appreciate that they allow the co-op missions to be done single player, so I don't feel like I'm missing out just because I lack gamer friends). But even some of Unity's supposed strengths don't work for me. A lot has been said about the incredible detail that was put into Paris and, in particular, the sheer number of NPCs wandering (or rioting) throughout the city that makes it feel alive. And while I can appreciate that on an aesthetic level, on a gameplay level the main function of all those crowds is to make it really annoying to get from place to place. This is compounded by the decision to have certain common classes of enemy always recognize you, so you're always one step away from being dragged into a fight. And the combat is a drag: I mocked Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor as "Assassin's Earth: Shadow of Arkham", but Unity only wished it had that games' combat system. In particular, the sharpshooters are wildly overpowered; often times it seems my combat choices are "be sniped while engaging in a sword fight" or "be sniped while running away."

Of all the games in the series, this one might be the only one I've affirmatively not enjoyed. And that makes it the easy choice to place on the bottom of the list.

6. Assassin's Creed

This was a very tough game to rank. Objectively speaking, the original Assassin's Creed had a lot of problems. An unlikeable protagonist. Repetitive mission design. Repetitive level design. You get the idea. If you had me play the original Assassin's Creed and Unity right now, I'd probably enjoy Unity more. There's just so much development we've become accustomed to in this series that the original game lacked. There's a reason it's been described as "proof of concept."

But what a concept it was. When Assassin's Creed came out, there was nothing like it. It was a true open-world, go-anywhere-do-anything game like nothing I'd ever seen. And the way it was located in this neat alternative-history-cum=sci-fi setting was awesome. In a sense, there isn't much to say about Assassin's Creed because it just set the stage for its successors to outshine it. Which they did -- but still, what a stage it was.

5. Assassin's Creed 3

We all knew that Ezio couldn't last forever, but what a comedown from him to Connor. AC3 had a lot of potential, and I give it credit for genuinely trying to be new. The frontier-forest setting didn't really work for me -- it felt empty instead of open (what's the big difference between one tree and another?). Like the space in between the towns in the original game, I didn't really get the purpose of the AC3 frontier. And the oh-so-trendy crafting dynamic was wildly overdone. The American Revolution setting didn't live up to its potential, but that's more the fault of the surrounding elements -- I still think it was a good setting for the game. One problem with moving the series to the colonies is that 18th century America lacked the grand, sweeping architecture of Renaissance Europe. For a series so dependent on verticality and exploration of crumbling churches, this was a dramatic shift and one I personally didn't like.

There's one thing that saves AC3 from falling further down the list, and that was its introduction of naval combat. That was a blast, and forgives a lot of sins. It's no accident that the sequel was naval-focused, nor is it any accident that the sequel was brilliant. In a sense, Assassin's Creed 3 was a lot like the original: a lot of innovation (and an obnoxious protagonist) that maybe didn't work perfectly on its own merits, but definitely shone a path towards something great.

4. Assassin's Creed 2: Revelations

As far as I'm concerned, the top 3 and bottom 3 Assassin's Creed games are indisputable, which means it is likewise indisputable that Revalations is very obviously in the middle. The only one of the Ezio games which was not great, which is to say, it was still very good. People who were complaining about how the series had lost its edge in Revelations got a bitter shock when AC3 came out. In any event, I liked this game. It provided a satisfying resolution to Ezio's story arc (and he remains the only protagonist in the series I actually cared about). The gameplay was not particularly innovative, but since it was based off the near-perfect system developed in AC2 and Brotherhood who cares? We got an early warning of Ubisoft's trend-obsession with that wretched tower defense minigame, which was really the only truly foul note in the game, and Constantinople was clearly inferior to Italy as a setting. But other than that, it was pretty straightforward: fun protagonist, fun story, fun gameplay = fun game.

3. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

This was Ubisoft learning from its mistakes (and its triumphs). It took the best element of its predecessor (the naval combat) and made a whole game out of it. It also remembered that we don't want whining brooders as our protagonist and instead gave us Captain Jack Sparrow Edward Kenway, who was a lot of fun. Certainly, Black Flag was the most different AC game to come out across the series' history. The naval orientation was like nothing that came before, and it became immediately clear that yes it could support an entire game. The game took full advantage of its shipboard dynamics and really made them work beautifully. Building up my pirate fleet was a great joy, as was storming forts. I actually felt like a sea captain. Oh, and I should also say that the modern-era story in Black Flag Was arguably the strongest yet in the series.

Because so much of the open Caribbean map was water and small islands, the game's cities did sometimes feel a little small. That didn't really impact my enjoyment, but it did certainly cabin the gameplay a bit (and Black Flag was noticeably weaker when it did take you ashore). But still, pirate ship! Cannon fire! Ghost ships! If only I could have gotten my crew to stop singing those damn shanties....

2. Assassin's Creed 2 and 1. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

I don't put these two together out of laziness. I think these two are obviously the pinnacle of the series, but I have an irreparable bias. The debate over whether AC2 or Brotherhood is better is primarily philosophical, depending on whether you favor the game that introduced all the best elements of the series and demonstrated how wonderfully they could work, or the sequel which tweaked, fine-tuned, and sanded down what few rough edges remained to produce a truly perfect (albeit by necessity less original) experience. My problem is that I played Brotherhood before AC2, meaning that for me Brotherhood was the best of both worlds: it was novel and innovative while also being fully rounded and improved. So for me, it's obviously the best of the series. If I had played them in order, would I still think so? I don't know -- I go back and forth between Might & Magic VI and VII along precisely these lines.

So I'll just group them together as the clear one/two. Ezio was a great protagonist; he was suave and funny and didn't take himself too seriously. Really, he ranks as one of my favorites across any video game series. The gameplay was well-nigh perfect, combining puzzle/exploration in crumbling ruins with stealth/combat to brilliant effect. The alternative history shone, helped along by great antagonists in the form of the Borgias. Really, these games are what sold me (and, I dare say, the world) that this was a series that had staying power. I've yet to meet anyone who did not think these games were amongst the best they've ever played.