Monthly Archives: August 2018

Assassin’s Creed Origins Review

No story spoilers except for setting/time period.

Assassin’s Creed has often struggled to find its identity as a series in the last few years. The first few games all felt like natural successors to each other, and generally AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations either matched or improved upon their immediate predecessors. Then the series lost its way somewhat, which was a bit predictable, given that Revelations wrote out Ezio and Altair, the two most popular playable characters in the series, and Desmond Miles and Warren Vidic, the last two links to the first game, both exited in AC3.

That’s not to say the intervening games haven’t had their plus points. AC3 started the trend of having more open-world style areas, Black Flag and Freedom Cry gave us a delightful ship combat system, Rogue’s story is often praised as one of the best in the series and Syndicate’s Jacob and Evie were highlighted in reviews as the first memorable main characters since Ezio. But none of those games were perfect – the combat system often felt dated, games became increasingly buggy on release, the modern day story got increasingly hard to care about post-Desmond, and the settings just weren’t as interesting as the Crusades or renaissance Italy or Constantinople (I mean, was anyone crying out for games set in the American or French revolutions? I’ve never spoken to anyone who particularly wanted an Assassin’s Creed game in those eras).

With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the series may finally have found its groove again.

Ptolemaic Egypt is a setting that deserves the current gen’s graphics, and boy, is the game world absolutely stunning. This is somewhere you will never get tired of exploring, and whether you’re exploring Alexandria, crossing the desert or sailing up the Nile, you’ll always be aware of how beautifully rendered everything is – and you’ll end up using the game’s photo mode a fair bit, let me tell you. It’s day/night cycle really makes a tangible difference to how the world feels, in a way only games like Horizon: Zero Dawn have done previously. Its a completely open world experience too, and while you’ll have an occasional moment where the game pauses to load the next area, its mostly pretty seamless at having you move around the map. Fast travel is available too, which helps a lot, although you have a lot of different transport options available (including horses, camels, ships and chariots).

The game’s playable characters are also a lot more memorable than in previous entries. You’ll spend most of your time playing as Bayek, the last of the Medjay, who’s a protector of the common folk but has a winning personality as well, and whose responses always seem human and believable – his outrage at atrocities, his snide dislike for corrupt officials, his sympathy for downtrodden peasants, it all seems natural and relatable. Bayek’s status as a Egyptian comes in play a lot, as he sees his country and people suffering a lot on account of their inferior status to Greeks, not to mention their vulnerability to the Romans, who are starting to encroach on Egyptian territory. You also get several levels as Bayek’s wife Aya, who’s equally compelling if not quite as likeable, as the two of them are caught between pursuing a revenge quest and trying to free Egypt from the grip of a civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. The modern day stuff is kept to a minimum, but in Layla, we finally have a modern-day character who seems interesting enough to care about, even though she’s only on screen for 20 or so minutes.

The gameplay has also between heavily revamped to have a more RPG feel to things – there’s still a wide variety of weaponry available (spears, swords, axes, sceptres etc.) as well as four varieties of bows all tailored to different scenarios (hunting, stealth kills, boss fights, rapid fire etc.) which gives you a lot of scope for how you approach combat scenarios. There’s now a levelling system with numerous perks you can use to upgrade Bayek (providing him with poison darts, fire bombs and other tools, increasing his proficiency in combat or improving archery skills) and you can pretty much build his skillset as suits you. You gain XP for kills and completing missions, of which there are a multitude. In additional to the dozen or so main quests, which are fairly long and take you all over the map, there are around a hundred or so side quests, which usually involve you rescuing locals, clearing out bandit camps, dealing with animal attacks, evading Ptolemy’s soldiers or exploring tombs.

There’s a lot to do in this game in general – most tombs and camps have treasure for you to loot or captains to assassinate, and there are loads of them dotted around the map. There’s a fair amount of cities and towns too, most of which have a unique feel and plenty of inhabitants to interact with. You can become a gladiator in the arenas in Cyrene or Krokodilopolis, or a chariot racer in Alexandria. There’s a lot of sunken ships around the Nile for you to scavenge too. In short, you’ll never run out of things to do in this game – there’s almost too much of it to be honest.

Further embracing the RPG side of things, the game has a new game plus mode and an option that will scale lower level enemies to your level, if either of those things interest you. Origins also introduces variable difficulty into the series, with the standard game options of easy, normal, hard and nightmare which seem near universal at this point. Normal still presents a reasonable challenge, though it doesn’t require the precision of God of War on normal and is hardly comparable to RPG’s like Dark Souls. There’s a large variety of enemies: Human enemies are a mix of archers, spearman, standard soldiers, Brutes (heavy weapons), Elites (with shields) and bosses. There are also various animals to contend with, including Crocodiles (who are a much larger threat in water, obviously), Hippos (engage at range), hyenas (troublesome in packs), lions (surprisingly easy) and, rarely, a war elephant (these fuckers are VERY tough). Most annoying are snakes, who tend to lurk in the dark corners of tombs or caves, or worse, inside destroyable pots, and thus you often don’t see them until you run straight into them (which as snakes kill Bayek in 3-4 hits can be very irritating). Ultimately, whether you want a challenge or a stress-free run, there’ll be a difficulty setting that works for you.

The crafting system is crucial but easy to get to grips with, as you gather various metals, leathers, wood and animal skins, which can upgrade Bayek’s health, damage and the amount of equipment and arrows he can carry. Fortunately, gathering these materials is rarely a chore, as there’s only six main varieties of them, some of which can be looted from convoys of soldiers, others you can find from hunting animals or from scrapping weaponry, and if worst comes to worst, you can take a perk which allows you to purchase extra materials at shops. The currency system is more of a challenge than previous games – Bayek won’t be drowning in cash the way Ezio was, and will need to loot tombs and camps and sell old equipment a lot to have enough to buy new outfits and upgrade his weapons.

So all in all, pretty positive? Yeah, there’s one or two downsides: the game’s plot meanders a bit too much at times, not all the side quests are that interesting (some areas are definitely more fun than others) and shield combat isn’t done all that well, but overall, its such an improvement over its predecessors that I have to give it a rating of…

4.5 out of 5. Not perfect, but getting there.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be leaning even further into RPG elements (choice of main character, romance options etc.) and refining combat even further to fit ancient Greece. Fingers crossed it will be as compelling as Egypt. But for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to what the Assassin’s Creed team is working on, and that’s largely thanks to how well they’ve turned things around with origins.

Orange is the New Black Season 6 Review

Starring Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Selenis Leyva, Nick Sandow and Kate Mulgrew.

Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers follow for Season 6. Major Spoilers for Season 5.

Season 5 got mixed reviews. I personally loved it, but I can see why some thought it got too fan-service-y in places. Even it detractors have to admit the riot made for compelling viewing. But there were always going to be consequences. The first half of S6 is all about those consequences, and the two key themes of the season are betrayal and redemption.

The opening episodes see the feds out to pin the blame for both the riot and Humphrey and Piscatella’s deaths on at least 5 of the inmates, which leads to a lot of backstabbing and mud-slinging as the various inmates try to save themselves or settle old scores. Some betrayals you really won’t see coming, others are what season 5 was all building up to. The remaining episodes deal with the consequences, as the inmates in question seek revenge, struggle with guilt or fear retribution.

While most of the regulars are back this season, a lot of familiar faces are missing (because they were put in a different prison, while we follow the ones sent to Litchfield Max). Characters like Big Boo and Helen get mere cameos, while ones like Watson, Norma and Chang are entirely absent. A third of the guards from last season are gone too, though Dixon, Luschek, Donuts and McCullough are all back to some extent.

There are various new characters too, both prisoners and guards, some of whom are more memorable than others. The main plot of the season sees the inmates caught up in the tension between C-block and D-block in Maximum Security, driven by a long-standing feud between sisters Carol and Barbara, who are the two major players in Max. Other newbies include their enforcers, Badison (who might just be the nastiest piece of work OITNB has given us) and Daddy (who strikes up a surprisingly sweet relationship with one of the series regulars). The new guards are similarly hit-and-miss, but chief Hopper, Luschek and McCullough’s arcs make up for the less interesting ones.

Things feel a lot more tense this season – the very nature of Max has you constantly worried that someone is about to get shivved or beaten up (both of which happen) while some of the guards are beyond brutal in how they treat Daya and the riot leaders. Orange is the New Black has always been good at mixing humour and drama with the darker side of prison life, and that balance remains as compelling as ever here. If had to criticise, the central conflict between the blocks peters out a bit too much, and there’s no shocks here up there with Poussey or Piscatella’s deaths, but the season as a whole is still pretty great viewing regardless.

The humour is still on point, with highlights including Flaca and Black Cindy teaming up as the new prison radio hosts and Suzanne and Freida becoming cellmates. While most of the romance focus is on Piper and Alex, there are several other compelling pairings throughout the season (including a somewhat unlikely love triangle involving Luschek and two of the prisoners, as well as the conclusion of the Doggett/Donuts arc). Surprisingly the best pairing of the season is Caputo and Fig, who’s relationship plays a much bigger part in the story than you might expect.

Meanwhile it’s Red, Taystee, Daya and Ruiz who get the lion’s share of the drama side of things. The flashbacks remain mostly interesting – Freida’s is arguably the most important, though its Nicky and Cindy’s snapshots that will probably leave a lasting impression. The majority of flashbacks tend to focus on the new characters rather than existing ones, but this was pretty inevitable given the number of cast changes this season.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is OITNB’s best season, but its a damn good one, even if the finale lacks the punch of recent seasons. Focusing in on a smaller section of the cast seemed to work well, but the quality of the newcomers varied. The show still remains the best Netflix has to offer though.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Incredibles 2 Review

Starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Brad Bird and Samuel L. Jackson

Spoiler-free review.

The original Incredibles still stands as one of the best animated films of all time – not to mention one of the best superhero films of all time. Aside from Logan and the Dark Knight Trilogy, there isn’t a lot I’d place above The Incredibles in the Superhero pecking order. All of which begs the question: how on earth can the sequel live up to it?

Answer: it doesn’t try to. Incredibles 2 focuses on doing its own thing, and there aren’t too many callbacks to the first film, despite the sequel picking up from where the first left off. It’s probably the right call, as this film will work whether you saw the original or not. That said, most of what made the first film great is still here. The cast is virtually the same (Dash’s voice actor has changed, but you honestly won’t notice), Brad Bird is in control of the production yet again, and Michael Giacchino does another fine job with the soundtrack (I still prefer the first’s score but this one has its moments and is more memorable than any music you’d hear in a Marvel film).

The humour is strong throughout, with very few dud jokes and plenty of moments that both kids and adults will enjoy. See Despicable Me franchise – you don’t have to dumb things down to make kids laugh. This is undoubtedly a smart film – there’s virtually no infantile or toilet humour to be found, and even when it does resort to it, it still works well. The film’s best comedy comes from Jack-Jack’s wide variety of powers and Edna Mode’s yet again hilarious cameos, though some of Violet’s moments are up their too.The script is pretty tight as well – there’s no pacing issues and things never get bogged down in exposition, with the balance between set-pieces and character moments feeling about right.

As for the acting, the film is well served by giving Holly Hunter (Elastigirl) the lead this time round, as it gives her character different material to work with and proves she’s every bit as cool as Mr. Incredible. Bob and the kids still get their fair share of the action though, and Samuel L. Jackson makes the most of his role as Frozone. I’ll be honest, there aren’t many better superhero ensembles out there, and the new characters slot into their roles nicely.

The one way this film betters the original is, unsurprisingly, the animation, which is amazing by comparison, but that’s what you’d expect 15 years later. Hell, the animation is a hell of a lot more convincing than the CGI in Black Panther was! Humans in particular are much more convincingly animated, and you can tell the production team had great confidence in the animation by how ambitious the various action scenes are.

The only place the film falls down is its story, which can’t match the original, and its villains, who are good, but aren’t as memorable as Syndrome. It’s not that the plot is dull, its just not as compelling as the original’s, though given how good the humour and action are, I doubt anyone will care much. Screenslaver makes for an interesting villain (indeed, they’re better written than most Marvel or DC villains from the past 5 years, excepting Thanos) but lacks the flamboyance of Syndrome and suffers slightly by comparison. The Underminer leaves a good impression but isn’t on screen for very long – perhaps he’ll return in a possible third film?

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a fun, well-animated romp which will leave you entertained. Just don’t expect it to match the original. But then again, how could it?

Rating: 4 out of 5 – it matches Infinity War!

My next review will be Orange is the New Black season 6, followed by Assassin’s Creed Origins sometime after.