By GrantHeaslip 11 Comments
Super Mario 3D World
Super Mario 3D World is a great game. There's very little to criticize about it, and I've enjoyed all of my time with it thus far (I just saw the credits, so there's worlds I haven't touched yet). But I'm also not hugely enthusiastic about it, and I don't think it's going to stick with me for very long.
For what it's worth, I felt very similarly about Super Mario 3D Land. Both games are proficiently designed, absurdly polished, and do exactly what they set out to do. But, at least to me, they're not memorable. I remember more about Super Mario Galaxy six years out than I do about Super Mario 3D Land, which I played less than two years ago. Galaxy had a unique and cohesive look, inventive gameplay mechanics, and a contemplative atmosphere that felt way more nuanced than the saccharine Mario 3D games. This, again, isn't meant to disparage Super Mario 3D Land -- it just doesn't feel special to me the same way Super Mario Galaxy does.
When I really think about it, I've felt this way about a lot of recent Nintendo games. I liked Skyward Sword, but it won't stick with me like Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker. The New Super Mario Bros. games are good, but they never grabbed me like Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or even Yoshi's Island. There's a certain je ne sais quoi, and I think I'd know it if I saw it in a contemporary Nintendo game. It's hard to say if I'm onto something concrete, of if I'm just chasing the dragon. Maybe people born a decade after me will feel the same way about Skyward Sword that I felt about Ocarina of Time. I still really like Nintendo -- enough to buy into the Wii U despite its unclear future -- and I'd take Super Mario 3D World over almost any other 2013 release. I don't think they're going down the drain, but I hope they manage to make whatever nebulous experience I'm looking for.
To end this on a positive note, I was a big fan of the live music. The bombastic big band treatment fit the game really well, and was a unique new direction for the series. I've liked big band music for most of my life, and this was right in my wheelhouse. Here's a few picks:
- Athletic Theme 1
- Athletic Theme 2
- Savanna Theme
- Bowser's Highway Showdown
- Hisstocrat Battle
- Staff Roll
By the way, if you were into this game's jazzier music, check out Mario & Zelda Big Band Live, which is one of my favourite video-game-related albums of all time.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Brotherhood might be where I give up on Assassin's Creed. I want to like this series, but three games in -- and after playing the game many agree is its peak -- I've yet to find much genuine enjoyment.
Brotherhood feels like the result of polishing mechanics that were never fun in the first place. Instead of making the combat actually engaging and skillful, they made it boil down to hitting one counter than mashing the attack button as Ezio auto-murders every soldier in sight. Instead of really taking a step back and thinking about the value of the lame side content from the first two games, they added way more of it. The traversal is the same as it ever was -- neat, but not mechanically satisfying, and far too often frustratingly unpredictable.
The game is still, for the most part, laughably easy. The stealth can be mildly annoying because the vision cones of the guards are so unclear, but once you've got the crossbow, the only real challenge is managing your own patience. This is the kind of game in which nothing feels like a threat. The only thing stopping me from waltzing into the final area and murdering everyone right off the bat was the invisible walls, which continue to suck, especially since they're not marked on the map. It's telling that the super power you get at the end of the game makes it noticeably more time-consuming to kill soldiers.
When I played Assassin's Creed back in 2007, I was a lot more willing to forgive its flaws. It was a game in which you played a capital-A Assassin (to be fair, without the hashish part) traversing the 12th-century Middle East(!), and ran headfirst into controversial subjects you'd never expect a big publisher to touch. In the early days of the generation, the crowd mechanics, view distance, animation quality, and sheer scope were impressive, novel achievements. The combat and stealth was mechanically suspect, but there had been nothing quite like it before, and that went a long way. It was a heavily flawed and repetitive game, but it was endearingly ambitious.
Assassin's Creed II changed up the setting, added some (thought not enough) variety, tightened up some of the mechanics, and made the in-Animus story more personal. I probably enjoyed it less than the first game -- the core gameplay mechanics remained the same while my ability to look past them waned, and most of the side content they added was boring and unwelcome -- but it had its charm, not the least of which as a 15th-century Italian tourism simulator.
My tolerance for Assassin's Creed II was tacitly contingent on it being all of the Assassin's Creed II I ever wanted to play. And that's the problem with Brotherhood, and I presume the problem with Revelations. Brotherhood is basically Assassin's Creed II, except with even more cruft, and without the brisk changes in location that kept the previous games from getting too stale. Rome may be bigger than the cities in the previous games, but running through the same streets quickly became tiresome, and the size ended up being a liability as far as getting around was concerned. When Assassin's Creed II started getting boring, it transported you to Venice. When Brotherhood started getting boring, it just got boring.
The story is completely forgettable, and aside from the last fifteen minutes, seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the series' plot. Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II, while they weren't masterpieces, at least had competent story arcs. Assassin's Creed II in particular did a good job of making you empathize with Ezio's motivations. Brotherhood's in-Animus story basically boils down to "you've got the Apple, a character you didn't care about dies and loses the Apple, and you get the Apple back." You end exactly where you started, and the only real source of dramatic tension comes from the predictable Machiavelli plot. With the possible exception of Ezio's sister, I had a hard time caring about any of the characters. Near the end, the game hits you with a series of baffling flash-forwards that destroy any sense of temporal grounding, making the last sequence feel weirdly standalone. The real-world side of the plot is so bare-bones that any emotion I was supposed to be feeling about Kristen Bell's death was unearned, and the payoff-less cliffhanger just felt cheap.
The game's also rife with technical issues, at least on the PS3. Screen tearing, framey action scenes, interminable load times, random menu load times, level-of-detail pop-in, out-of-sync voices, invisible character models, animation glitches, confused AI, in-action loading pauses, and game-breaking control glitches -- Brotherhood's got it all! I'm not often one to complain about performance, but this game constantly felt like it was on the verge of coming apart at the seams, and it noticeably impacted the experience. There's a lot going on, and it's impressive considering that, but that's no consolation when I'm being chased through a crowd at 10 FPS before running headfirst into an invisible (not yet loaded?) NPC.
I really want to like this series, but I just can't see myself giving it another try, especially since Revelations and Assassin's Creed III are the next games in line, and even Assassin's Creed IV by all accounts doesn't do a lot to fix the core gameplay. If I didn't particularly like the two best games in the series, I think that's as good a cue as any to part ways with it.