Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Impressions of Assassin's Creed 4 (Black Flag)

The last Assassin's Creed game I played was the first one, which I played to boredom (somewhere in Jerusalem, I think). I like the concept of romping through history. The series' biggest impediment to my own enjoyment is that I have no interest in being an assassin, let alone one who wears a goofy hood or has a goofy past-lives wrapper story. So I sat out most of the games.

I picked up Assassin's Creed 4 for the PS4 recently and have put a few hours into it. The ship sailing is new to me. Once I arrived in the first city, though, I was struck by how little had changed in the series. My wife walked in and saw me trying to run away from some guards and instead climbing a wall, turning around and leaping back into the fray. “That looks like an Assassin's Creed game,” she said.

The number of people who have worked on Assassin's Creed games is mind-boggling (in the low thousands, I'm guessing). In all these years, though, they appear to have changed the fluidity of the basic gameplay not one iota. I suppose that once you've committed thousands of lives to a course of action, you become very conservative about changing important things.

There's a “quantity over quality” mentality to the Creed games. The city of Havana is large but very samey-looking. There are great vistas from any of the five identical church towers that you have to climb, but when you're down in the streets there are very few landmarks to work from. The streets are all the same width and are laid out to block sightlines. (I think the intent here is to disguise the miniature nature of the town.) There are no major avenues running through the city. When I'm running through the city I'm following a minimap waypoint, or running blindly.

The gameplay itself is just a whole lot of the same things. I did an hour or two of killing people, pickpocketing, chasing sea shanties (!), opening chests, and picking up shards (i.e. crystals; can't have a game without crystals) before getting very bored.

We'll see if it picks up. I haven't returned to sea yet, and I'm hoping maybe it'll be better out there.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

King Solomon Designs Windows 8

I bought my home computer at the tail end of the Windows Vista era, and never got around to upgrading it to Windows 7 because operating system upgrades are such a giant waste of time.

Visual Studio Express 2012 doesn't allow itself to be installed on Windows Vista. That, coupled with a day off and the relatively inexpensive upgrade price prompted me to upgrade to Windows 8.

As I was Googling to figure out how to shut the computer down last night I was reminded of the Bible's story of King Solomon's Judgment.

Engraving by Gustave Doré (via Wikipedia)

In the story, two prostitutes had a baby each, one of which died in the night. Due to a midnight baby swap, they both claimed the remaining live baby. Solomon recommended cutting it in half and sharing it between the disputing mothers. The real mother, of course, put the baby's life above her rights and cried out for the king's sword to stop: give the baby to the other mother. Thus was her true love revealed.

In Microsoft's case, we have two warring divisions who each claim their baby is Microsoft's sole offspring. Solomon orders the head to be cut off of one and grafted onto the other. Surely this madness will cause the divisions to put the company's (and babies') interests above their own? Sadly, no. “Truly, thou art wise!” they say, and thus Windows 8 is created.

As John Scalzi says in Punting the Start Screen:
I’ve come to believe the Win 8 start screen, and the whole environment it propagates is just terrible UI for those of us who actually use their computers for work, rather than using them just to play games and get on Facebook.
I have to say this seems like a fair assessment. It's clear that they either didn't try, or didn't care, to make it usable. Which is a shame, because under the bolted-on head of Metro is a decent operating system.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Martha Wells

Over the holidays, among other things I was on a Martha Wells reading binge. So far I've read her Raksura trilogy, City of Bones and The Death of the Necromancer. She is kind of a cross between Leigh Brackett and Ursula Le Guin: truculent heroes kicking ass across anthropologically fascinating worlds.

As usual, I encountered her via her Big Idea essays (here and here) on John Scalzi's site.

First up, her Raksura trilogy, consisting of The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths:

These books follow the adventures of Moon, a shape-shifter with two forms: a humanoid form and a winged form capable of flight. Moon's world has a varied collection of sentient species, but he is an orphan and knows no others of his kind.

Moon lives with a human girlfriend in her settlement, hiding his flying Raksura form since it is easily mistaken by the people in his area for that of the predatory Fell. When his secret is discovered he is driven from the village, where he runs into an elder Raksura who takes him under his wing, so to speak. Many adventures follow as Moon tries to establish his place in the world.

It's a good series; I highly recommend it. Ms. Wells obviously loves world-building, and she's really good at constructing alien social arrangements. The Raksura live in tribes with matriarchs (who have male consorts), with various specialized types of workers and warriors. Kind of like a bee hive. But they have recognizable emotions and relationships; it's quite relatable. If you ever read Le Guin's work, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, just imagine that with more fighting.

City of Bones was Wells' second published novel. In it she's constructed a tiered city (much like Tolkien's Minas Tirith) on the edge of a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a collision of worlds, of sorts. The main character is a hunter of and dealer in ancient relics, drawn into a conflict between the movers and shakers of the city over some potentially powerful Ancient MacGuffins.

I enjoyed this book very much, too. It's very evocative of place. The MacGuffin and the plot surrounding it are really just an excuse to visit all the interesting corners of the tiered city: the slums, the university, the palace, the surrounding wastes, and so forth. The main characters are likable. One character is described repeatedly as “mad” with very little evidence of said madness; he is really more “crazy cool.” But overall it's a good read.

The final book, The Death of the Necromancer, I read quite some time ago, so I'm working from recollection. It's about your typical gentleman thief (I hear Dashiell Hammett snorting) and his ragtag band. He has a vendetta against someone dastardly, Count of Monte Cristo style, but there are darker supernatural forces at work that draw him inexorably in. I thought it was a good read. It's set in the same universe as another series of Wells' books, although I think it might be in a different era or something.

The book links all have excerpts on them so head over and have a look if any of these sound interesting. Martha Wells deserves a wide audience.