Tag Archives: Assassin’s Creed

Fearful

Fearful

They’re afraid. As consistently innovative as they are—even to the massive detriment of their biggest ongoing franchise—Ubisoft seems deathly afraid of making the big changes. The times when they should be swinging for the fences finds them tenderly dipping a toe into the water, reassessing, and then going with another toe.

Why hasn’t Assassin’s Creed, for instance, made it to the modern era? Sure, Desmond’s tale took place present day, but the bulk of the series has relied on the kindness of history’s lack of audio video surveillance. Even with Assassin’s Creed III, the game with the most Desmond bits, had him quarantined off in extremely linear, almost fearful gameplay sections.

But those parts were interesting. You were in environments that designers could wholly conjure up from their minds. You were fighting against enemies that you’ve never seen before in any past Assassin’s Creed game instead of the usual palette-swapped grunts, brutes, and elites. More than that, you were facing them in situations you’ve never faced before.

Assassin's Creed III

Since the very first game in the series, it seems like we were teased with the intrigue of a fully modern Assassin. They tested the waters with some fun stealth and subtle yet elaborate story shenanigans and quickly moved onto giving Desmond his full Assassin abilities, allowing him to freerun and fighting and whatnot. And he constantly evolved, leading any reasonable person to believe it would soon be happening.

After the culmination of the Desmond storyline, however, hopes were dashed. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag tried something new outside of the Animus sans Desmond, but it was still the story of a seafaring scallywag. Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t even have anything outside of Arno’s story. It wasn’t the assumption that followed Assassin’s Creed; it wasn’t the hope after Assassin’s Creed III; it was just disappointment.

It feels like fear. So much of what they’ve built relies on the lack of modern implements. And as they introduce more of them like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s grappling hook and carriages in an Industrial Revolution-era England, you realize how much they could be rid of by go further into the future.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

That’s not necessarily a good thing or a cure for the series’ ails. It’s a remark upon how much they’re afraid they’ll lose if they go full-bore on that concept, if they extrapolate out Desmond’s time out into a full game. Will they lose the core mechanics that many identify with the franchise? Will they lose the uniqueness as they skew too close to games like Watch Dogs or Splinter Cell, cannibalizing other Ubisoft lines?

They are entirely valid questions. When was the last time you saw a series reinvent themselves to such a degree? It’s just not how the industry works. You take a concept, give it a go, and if people latch on, you iterate to fix the flaws and juice up the working parts to see if they still like it. But eventually you have to call it quits.

If you look at Gears of War, Epic Games fulfilled the Marcus/Dom saga, gave it another go with Gears of War: Judgment, and called it when that failed to find traction and giving it up to Microsoft and Black Tusk Studios for something new. Visceral Games actually dipped out after a rock solid three Dead Space games.

Gears of War: Judgment

Ubisoft, however, feels content with taking a more Call of Duty or Guitar Hero—really Activision—approach: run it into the ground. For as long as people are buying, just have studio after studio go at it until they stop buying. It’s a solid strategy that responds to the essence of capitalism. After all, if consumers don’t want it, they show it with their money, or lack thereof.

That is perhaps the great virtue of indie game development. It’s not that they can’t employ the same strategy but rather that they choose not to. It’s a conscious decision and seems to be one based largely on guilt and internal obligation.

It’s not that there aren’t indie series because there totally are like Amnesia and Hotline Miami, but it’s rarely a triple-A farming situation. For all the problems of the insular, nigh incestuous component of video games that is the indie (those two descriptors, though, apply to the entire industry as well from development to press to players), it has imbued those independent devs to feel obligated to not be That Guy.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Instead we have multimillion dollar That Guys all trying really hard to be the Thattest That Guy in the biz, almost as if it were a point of pride. How many Hindenburgs have you piloted straight into the ground? Only four? Amateur hour.

Picking on Assassin’s Creed isn’t fair when there are a half dozen more just like it. But it did just make a recent and sizable announcement that was hilariously lukewarm in its reception. Even the most diehard of apologists could only tend to the crowd and say you could look away if you wanted while they sorted out their feelings. The well eventually dries up. Seems like Ubisoft finally found the bottom.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate And What It Means For You

Assassin's Creed Syndicate and What It Means For You

Innovation is dangerous. It’s a lesson that Ubisoft should be well familiar with by now. As one particularly and magnificently hairy Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Consider that the very first Assassin’s Creed was lauded for it’s fresh parkour traversal system (and, to be fair, it’s fascinating pseudo time travel conceit). In fact, that was just about all it was lauded for. And it remained largely the same for the next dozen or so games. Instead of refining its single biggest component, they became obsessed with innovation, often at the cost of excising additions that wholeheartedly worked.

There was a brotherhood mechanic of training and raising new assassins into the order; there was a vastly expanded property management system; there an interesting dip into two different types of multiplayer in two different games; and a lot more. There was pretty much only a single instance of refinement in the transition from Assassin’s Creed III to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with the naval combat.

Now, like clockwork, we stand on the precipice of another entry into the franchise based on excessive ambition and innovation. Yesterday morning saw the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I guess we really are done with the colons in the titles). It’ll throw us into the Industrial Revolution in London as Assassin Jacob Frye.

If you watch that archived bit of announcement stream, you can see a lot of interesting bits that are worth mining. The first is a protracted segment lauding the single greatest folly of the franchise. The next is a categorical admission of the failure of Unity while simultaneously shifting the root cause of the problem from rampant, unfettered innovation to overflowing ambition.

They’re similar qualities, but the nuanced difference is the key here. It wasn’t that they saw a world far more grand than they could build (the world they built was actually a saving grace for the game), but rather that their failure to refine caught up with them the invention was thrust upon them. Unity was the first of the series to be totally on the next generation of consoles, so time spent drumming up new things went into making sure the old things still worked.

The loops were still as tired as they ever was. Enter a new area, climb a tower, ignore all the icons on the map, and start a mission. And during the mission, you would climb a building, sneak around, get spotted, and fight your way out. And during the fight, you would mash a button, counter, and then mash again. The random events in the water surrounding Nassau transformed into interpersonal encounters on the streets of Paris and your real estate endeavors carried a miniature narrative, but it’s mostly old mechanics trying to find value in a world built beyond their scopes.

With a settling into the new consoles, Syndicate is free to fall back into the trap. While it feels more considered in this turn—if the developers’ words are anything to go by—we’ve been burned before. Combat was never a highlight of the series, so it’s great they made it faster, keeping everything closer and more brutal. It still looks like it takes way too long to beat a brute into the ground.

The new grappling hook system allows for even more facilitated ascension, no longer restricting the skyward zip to cutting loaded lines and hauling up. But there’s still the problem of getting back down, something Unity moderately addressed but never quite resolved. And external locomotion sounds cool, but riding that horse in the smothering confines of Florence was an absolute nightmare. How is a full-blown carriage supposed to handle the increasingly narrow streets of 1800 London?

Without a doubt, though, the absolutely most impressive thing the franchise has consistently pulled off has been integrating their Assassin-Templar war into the real world. This has a great deal to do with the artistic direction of the assassins themselves. Connor’s garb looked unquestionably colonial and Arno’s kit was decidedly eighteenth century French. (I don’t know how, but even Arno’s running looked French.)

The spectacular trend appears to continue in Syndicate. Jacob and his sister Evie Frye both look 100 per cent like nineteenth century scoundrels. Better yet, while integrating Arno’s quest for vengeance into the French Revolution was cool, Syndicate seems to be building its systems directly into the settings.

From the Gangs of New York-ish street fights to the segmented districts of wealth and poverty, it world has hopefully and finally transcended the mere place of deciding what clothes should look like. And speaking of Evie, it seems like that much deserved derision from excluding women from Unity as made an impact. She will be a playable character alongside Jacob, utilizing a sort of Grand Theft Auto V-type switching mechanic.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

So it seems like after eight main series releases in as many years, they’re finally learning. But the question is if there’s even room for this kind marginal kind of growth. The framework is old and creaky that surely stuffing it with more grandiose ideas would surely cause it to crumble. It’s still standing atop eight-year-old systems of annoying traversal that only sometimes provides moments of “god damn that was cool.” It still forces a laundry list of activity down the player’s throat that has been hated since 2007.

Is there a fear of true change? At the end of the first Assassin’s Creed, it was assumed (or, perhaps, just hoped) that the next game would throw us into solely the modern age. Assassin’s Creed but with guns and a greater exploration of the Abstergo conspiracy? Oh hell yeah. But then we were only tossed slightly forward into the fifteenth century Renaissance. Granted, the Ezio trilogy was fantastic, but it wasn’t the monumental shift we’d all hoped for.

Now we are so tantalizingly close to the true modern era. The Industrial Revolution is basically the catalyst for much of what we take for granted today as token conveniences instead of the world-shattering advances that they were. How much further can the series comfortably go until they are forced to take the plunge into today or beyond? (Yes, the Desmond stuff was the future, but it was superficial.)

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

But how much more patience does the public have for Assassin’s Creed? By virtue of switching between drastically different eras and studios that tell relatively contrasting stories, Call of Duty has lived far past its Old Yeller time. But Assassin’s Creed has been lead by a single creative vision and a single studio since 2007. It is exhausting.

Not just for the developers but also the players. We finished the Desmond saga and now it feels…gluttonous. Maybe not that. Perhaps just excessive. Like a shotgun blast of ideas that never quite made it when the lone view was laid out. Only last year with Assassin’s Creed Rogue and with Syndicate do we see new studios try their hand at leading the hooded charge.

Rogue was somewhat more well-received than Unity and it was led by Ubisoft Sofia instead of Ubisoft Montreal. With Syndicate, we have Ubisoft Quebec taking the lead instead of just contributing and porting. There’s a pang of hope in that exchange. Ill-advised or not, only time will tell.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

I don’t want Syndicate to fail. That would just be crazy. It’s far more fun to have more stuff to like in the world that stuff to hate. But free of the veil of cynicism, there is skepticism, earned and valued, just as there is reason to hope. Based on the reveal, though, there isn’t as much as you’d want. Let’s all find out on October 23rd.

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Revisitation Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

Revisitation Hours: Assassin's Creed Unity

At the time, it felt foolish. Asking if I wanted to download 8.6GB of patches to play Assassin’s Creed Unity seemed like the most effective way to make anyone turn the other way. Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of me.

Its myriad of frame rate issues and crashes and bugs were enough to stop me and many others from playing more than five minutes upon release. Now the question is whether the patches worked. Unity actually fell into two camps of terrible practices from 2014 including shipping prohibitively broken or unfinished games and Ubisoft’s seemingly nefarious dissemination of open world game design.

Luckily (I guess?), one of those two things could be fixed post-release. (The damage, however, had mostly been done at that point in terms of player trust. Not even a free Dead Kings DLC could help the situation.) Right out of the gate, yes, those problems are fixed. Somewhere in all those gigabytes, there was a solid combination of solutions that turned a burning heap of hard locks and falling through the floor into a real game.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Now that simply navigating the world isn’t a chore (a task which is at least 99% of all video games, let alone Assassin’s Creed ones), it is truly hard to deny that this is one of the most beautifully realized virtual environments ever seen. It feels often far less like a video game and more like a real tour of Paris during the French Revolution.

The streets are overflowing with people. It’s coming up on Dead Rising numbers, to be honest, and it’s spectacular, especially because Arno seems to have overcome his ancestors’ inability to run into people without falling over. But these people are also living their fully Revolutionary lives.

They are rioting, soapboxing, and amassing all over the place. It gives the worldly historical context more meat than ever before. This is in addition to the fact that most of the buildings you’re clambering over have fully realized interiors with hidden artifacts, treasure chests, and folk. Actually, it’s not most of them, but it certainly feels like that, which is just as important.

Assassin's Creed Unity

This seems to have the biggest consequence on the gameplay (right after violently shoving you into one of the most violent parts of modern history). For the first time in the series’ history, there is genuine stealth. Black Flag tried its hardest with systemic bits of hiding in bramble and bush, but holy moly, Unity has a crouch button, y’all.

More than that, Arno has the ability to take cover behind objects and walls. Being able to stick to a flat surface no longer gives you the lingering question of “can they see me” while you uncomfortably shift about under a doorframe. And now missions are designed around those two improvements, offering you the ability to finagle around guards on rooftops and shifting inside to come up behind and shiv them in the most satisfying ways.

It’s also worth noting that imbuing the world with an early modernism is that fact that your opponents are far more deadly. Instead of throwing rocks or firing arrows, they will straight-up gun you down from a few dozen yards away and you will die. It—and the random in-world events—offers a glimpse into the lethality of this and the coming age.

Assassin's Creed Unity

But for all the self-awareness of the time and place, this is still in escapably an Assassin’s Creed game. Whenever you do anything, you just wish it was easier, and not in terms of difficulty but rather in terms of implementation. Some things have been improved from past games and it’s still not enough.

It’s easier to avoid accidentally jumping to your death, but you still wish it was faster—or at least more fun than just holding a button down. And even when I could just eagle-dive down, most of the time I just wanted to stop halfway and stay on the rooftops.

And when you just want to run straight ahead, there is invariably a chair to stop you. Or a wall that Arno simply can’t figure out what he wants to do with. I found most of my time not just holding the freerun button but also the freerun up or freerun down button as well, though the down one has height limitations while the up one takes longer to get past basic structures.

Assassin's Creed Unity

It’s really just a staple of the series. Since its inception, the games have been just as much about fighting yourself as it has been about fighting the Templars. Every step is rife with opportunity to screw yourself over simply by playing the game as it was designed because for all the chances for joy it carries in its mechanics, they are also the sole source of its greatest frustrations.

I guess it really comes down to one singular sensation that defines Unity: a total and abject lack of surprise. From its story to its new mechanics laid on top of old ones—hell, even the degree to which it was totally busted to hell—there was nothing surprising about the game. Reactions span from “about god damn time” to “oh come on” to even a rock solid “meh.”

Even after coming back to the game half a year later, it’s hard to suss out any answer to any amount of why.

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Open Formula

Open Formula

Tokenism. You’re familiar, right? It’s generally used to talk about the superficial inclusion of a minority or marginalized group of people, often regarding the integration as perfunctory. It is the opposite of an ancillary melding.

It’s a concept that is beginning to run rampant in open world video game design, and for some reason, it can be blamed largely on Ubisoft. They have the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the Far Cry games, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and more. And that’s just from last year. (Assassin’s Creed actually squeezed in two of ’em in 2014.)

And what’s more is that they all seemingly abide by some template for interactive structure. To some extent that can’t be avoided—”open world” is a genre after all, and genres have staples for a reason—but some of it is reaching peak levels of absurdity.

Assassins Creed Unity

Obligatory map discovery? Yep. Point-to-point interest activation? Absolutely. It’s starting to feel like a rubber stamp of game with just different characters: assassins, rebels, cars. Of course it’s not all bad. Certainly there is virtue to each of these implements of gameplay and design. Like curiosity propels discovery and vice versa. It’s nicely symbiotic like that.

It’s why those bits and pieces have remained and been refined over the course of many years and many games. But at some point you have to wonder where has the innovation gone. Or rather, where has the impetus for such inclusion gone? Why did we go from ancillary to perfunctory? From necessity to tokenism?

Dying Light came out this week. It’s also an open world game, but this one features a bunch of zombies and parkour. It’s a pretty fun game that improves on a lot of things from Techland’s previous first person undead outing Dead Island, though it also sadly removes the analog combat from its spiritual predecessor.

The thing is that there are many portions of Dying Light that still strongly abide the steps laid out by Ubisoft, and this is a Warner Bros. publication. (This isn’t entirely unprecedented for them, though, as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor aped large portions of Assassin’s Creed design.) You can, in fact, still climb towers.

This brings about an interesting notion that Ubisoft has unearthed and fully realized the whole body of open world clichés, and now when we see them trickle down to other open world games, we are reminded of their popular genesis. And then, of course, we are forced to analyze the merit of their inclusion.

It was a praiseworthy situation in Shadow of Mordor, where it had largely improved and successfully integrated those platitudes into some bigger and more interesting. It’s even arguable that their familiarity enhanced the overall experience by contrasting the impressive Nemesis system.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

But then it was a source of derision for the Fury, a film that seemed to only want to complete a checklist of war movie clichés just for the sake of seeing a bunch of boxes get ticked off at the end of production. It was a series of token scenes, moving a tank from one place to its final place.

These staple components of genres can’t be tossed into a bucket and be assumed a success. They need to be laid into the foundation and built up into something grander. The reason needs to be there. A game like Miasmata is shaped around the idea of exploration and discovery, earning its foggy map and hidden locations. What benefit is there to doing so in Assassin’s Creed?

There really isn’t one, other than finding a reason for you to climb towers, which was the biggest draw of the original game and arguably still the biggest draw of the series. The designers needed a way to force you to utilize this sizable mechanical system, and the missions rarely forced you to sneak around like that. The solution was to hide the map and show it to you as you used the system.

Dying Light

Dying Light would have a more interesting validation for hiding or restricting terrain knowledge. With unknown and mindless threats, it’s much more engaging to hide layout and structure from you. The surprise of navigating over and under and around things like fences, buildings, and the like forces you to dive into things confidently and boldly, persuading you to play a certain style and engage in specific experiences.

It’s a subtle difference between the two outcomes. Either way, you are being pushed into doing something. One, however, has a careless result, like a detour shoving your route onto a congested highway. The other puts a brick on the gas and hands you the wheel. You can still get somewhere how you want and even hit the brakes, but it wants to propel you forward. The other way kind of yanks you around just because.

There’s nothing wrong with clichés so long as they have a reason, some validation for being there. Otherwise it’s just perfunctory, and nobody likes that.

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Heroic Contrast

Heroic Contrast

Creating a hero is a tricky, subtle art. There are some ground rules that apply, though they’re more guidelines for generally creating friendly characters. For instance, don’t make them evil. That, in addition to making it very hard for them to be a protagonist, is just not very likable. Great starting point.

It’s not, however, an exact science. You can be the villain and still be liked. Loki as played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is by all counts a bad guy, but people still love him. And if you look at Gru in Despicable Me, you can be evil and still be the hero. (Though the argument could be made he was bad at being, well, bad.) The point is there are no hard and fast rules for this.

This notion comes to mind when comparing two somewhat recent game releases. The first being Assassin’s Creed Unity where, with Desmond Mason out of the picture, tragically abandoned and French Arno Dorian takes the full mantle of main character. And then there’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which is “recent” only in a technical sense considering it’s comprised of games all two to 13 years old. And we’re all familiar, whether you’ve played the games or not, with Master Chief.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Good ol’ Spartan 117 is fine place to start, actually. Chief is, more or less, without a personality. In fact, Halo 4 opens with a cinematic accusation that he is a broken man (with the additional supposition that is the reason why he’s been so successful). He’s nearly a silent protagonist, never speaking during gameplay but then making gruff utterances during choice cutscenes.

But people find this shell of a human agreeable anyways. It’s a curious thing that this would happen. How do you identify with something that has nothing to identify with? But there are two key components to Master Chief’s ramp up into an iconic character. The first is his chronically epic circumstances. There is never a moment where his existence does not the fate of humanity or the universe or something equally significant.

This plays into the universal and very human desire to be needed and validated. And by being silent—or at least nearly silent—it makes it much easier for the player to fill those giant Spartan-sized shoes. It’s a sentiment shared even by Frank O’Connor, currently Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries, in a 2007 interview. But that only works because of Master Chief’s inability to be insignificant. Otherwise why would we even want to inhabit that role?

Halo 4

The second component is Cortana, Master Chief’s artificial intelligence. She carries the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to voicing the opinions and concerns of our hero, which in turn should be the voice and concerns of us. Consider her a diegetic Greek chorus, if you will. She is largely the vein in which we tap to find grounding in this otherwise unrelatable and unattached world.

So then, when Cortana enters rampancy (a state in which AIs in the Halo universe go insane after accruing too much knowledge), Master Chief sets out to right this injustice. It is just about the first time we see him decide to do something for himself, though outwardly it’s to do something for Cortana. This is not just because he would be lost without her but because we see our connection to this silent, towering beast of a man slipping away.

Contrasted, then, with Arno of Assassin’s Creed Unity, the feeling surrounding the two characters is vastly different. Namely, Arno is a dick. Some people may disagree, but even then, it plays into the idea that creating a favored protagonist is not a surefire thing. His upbringing is doubly and predictably tragic what with first his real father and then his adopted father both being murdered (don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers; this all happens in the opening bits).

Assassin's Creed Unity

But perhaps the most tragic part—and the portion of Arno that is really dissociative—is that he’s dickish but fun the very beginning. He, in fact, has an almost Ezio-like feel to him, the best of the heroes the Assassin’s Creed franchise has to offer by a mile, a charming rogue hardened by hard times but retaining his core of plucky, puckish, and snappy personality.

With Arno, though, we are left with a husk. A mean, unidentifiable husk that, while being hollow, also leaves us feeling hollow. Feeling hollow and abandoned with this grim man who is still kind of a dick but is also now not very fun at all. More than anything, it feels like a bait and switch, as if we were deceived into liking Arno at all in the first place. No one is blaming Arno for his circumstances, but there is fault when we are asked to like him anyways.

On one hand, we have a silent, basically inhuman warrior that we all manage to like, even want to be. As a sole entity, there is nothing there to latch on to and yet we do grab hold. On the other, there’s a man full of personality and victim of consequence of dire actions. And he’s the one we cannot abide. He’s been bored out from tragedy and leaves us as hollow as it leaves him.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Circumstance directs our sympathies and relational capacity towards one in concept, but it plays out very differently. Maybe it’s not just heroes that are tricky. It’s really some gamble on an emotional payout. And based on fickle hearts and malleable minds, no one really knows how it’ll go until it happens.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Tex-Orc-Ana

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Much of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is completely unoriginal. From its combat to its traversal to the very foundation of its narrative lore, this is a game that stands wholly on the shoulders of those that came before it. Even its most distinguishing feature (the Nemesis System) brings up old flavors of racing rivals. And despite all that, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most inspiring and well-executed games made this year.

The crux of the game is that you play Talion, a Ranger guarding the Black Gate between Mordor and the less sticky-looking part of Middle-earth. Set somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, your watch is attacked by Orcs, resulting in a dead squad, a dead family, and a dead Talion. But when he wakes up inextricably attached to a wraith, things get really interesting.

Strangely enough, it’s almost entirely the things not related to Talion’s quest that are most enticing. Well to do the story justice, it’s important to note that it actually goes some cool places and introduces nuance to an otherwise straightforward tale of vengeance. The dead family and revival thing rings a bit hard for God of War, but after coming across some twists and layered characters, the quality writing becomes apparent and showcases an engaging story, if you can ignore a few misguided delves into the land of tropes.

But the big highlight is the aforementioned Nemesis System. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game replete with the usual and well-strewn smattering of collectibles and what not, but it feels far more like a living, breathing organism than most other open worlds before it. The Nemesis System complexly but intuitively replicates and integrates an Orc hierarchy into the game’s emergent narrative.

There is a continual upheaval of both what you would expect fodder enemies to do with their time and what you would expect from a game otherwise centered on delivering a predetermined, discrete tale. You see, as time passes, these Orcs and Uruks go about their lives with their weaknesses, strengths, desires, vices, and history. For instance, one lower ranking grunt may make a power grab at the captain above him. If successful, he will move up. If not, he leaves a hole for an even lower foe to advance.

You will develop a personal history with your ladder of Uruk. One warchief of never failed to call me a coward, relishing that he forced me to retreat once. (Like, once, dude. Let it go!) Another bore the scars of my sword from our first encounter to our last, ending with my blade finishing what it started so long ago. And it’s remarkable just how much they can react to and, just as importantly, vocalize. They call you out with incredible specificity, especially when you meet the hand that fell you.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

More than advancing graphic fidelity and 3D-modeled, physically accurate sound echoing, this is one of the first things you will encounter in the new generation and realize what beefier machines can offer. It is emergent yet personal, feeling both wide open to reaction and designed with staid consideration. It is finally an open world that feels entirely open while being an actual world. And once you are able to directly manipulate Orcs in the hierarchy, a modicum of unexpected political strategy enters the mix.

It’s important to mention alongside this fantastic systemic development that it integrates a refined retelling of some previously explored mechanics. The combat is wholly lifted from the Arkham series, using unreal acrobatics to enable a fluid, combo-oriented fighting system. Attack, dodge, and counter, with special variants directed towards specific enemies. For instance, shielded enemies require you to flip over them, and others only can be killed by stealth. Sound familiar?

It is especially evident where the inspiration came from as you earn upgrades to your combat that allow you to use your special moves that would normally require a high combo to only need a small one. And as you sneak around, using arrows to attract and sonically manipulate wandering guards, you realize that both Arkham managed to nail action and stealth all in one go and that Shadow of Mordor managed to not fuck it up. (More superficially, the way Talion’s cape flows around him in a fashion eerily identical to Batman’s cape.)

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

And in a smart move, opting to fuse with a more interesting and more appropriate method for traversal, the freerunning over obstacles and up walls comes straight from Assassin’s Creed. It’s simple but satisfying pushing your stick a direction and having Talion figure out a badass way up there, making huge leaps from window to window and leaping sizable gaps.

But the game also makes wise improvements. For instance, rather than have to climb down or jump down from only particular points, you just leap and it’s all good on the ground. And if you run for a bit, you engage with a super fast wraith run, speeding up otherwise tedious late-game maneuvers. Also, believe it or not, the stealth actually works.

Then, rather than piling on more and more gadgets and weapons, you only ever have you bow, your dagger, and your sword and then get to bind with runes that enable special abilities. Some allow you to regain health as you inflict damage while others or prevent Uruk from running away. Most of them, though, allow for experimentation and noteworthy shifts in play styles.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Combined with increasingly complex enemies and terrain, fighting becomes as interesting and as personal as the Nemesis System. Rather than being a set of mechanics that fill out some arbitrary (and potentially imaginary) content requirement, combat in the game only serves to become more layered and nuanced but never complicated or rote.

Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the scripted parts of the game are the bits that are lacking. Missions are often simplistic and lack any impetus to internalize its context. So much of what was made to be deliberately fun and engaging ended up being obstacles to the juicy bits of Nemesis. Then the instilled drama of slow motion sword-bashing and head-rolling can eventually take its toll on your patience.

There’s also a distinct lack of an endgame regarding the Nemesis System. It ambiguously (yet strongly) motivates you to engage with its advancing slots and players but never reaches a conclusion beyond having reached your self-proclaimed goal of overtaking the Orc military society. And while a sharp-looking game, it only becomes a good-looking one after it opens up in the second half.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Those, however, are middling affections floating amidst the scope of a feature that should define other open-world games that follow. Innovation lacks in the majority of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s designed feature set, borrowing from successful and tested franchises that have come before it, but refinement is not lost on this melting pot. It all supports the Nemesis System, a network of intrigue and personalization meant to drag make-believe vendettas into a shifting, systemic tableau. It comes together in one of the best action packages of the year.

+ Borrows and refines combat and traversal from tried and true methods
+ The Nemesis System makes slaying hundreds of Uruk (and even death) interesting
+ Rune system makes meaningful changes to your play style
– Lack of goal to Nemesis makes the climb up the ladder eventually feel fruitless
– Terribly bland campaign missions

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Release: September 30, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Monolith Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.shadowofmordor.com/

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Amalgams and Whatnot

Amalgams and Whatnot

There’s a trailer for an upcoming game that everyone’s been talking about. (I know. What a shock!) It’s an eight-minute walkthrough for Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wherein the protagonist—a ranger by the name of Talion—shows off his Wraith-like abilities by peering into the nether, controlling simple minds, and racking up a body count higher than the actual The Lord of the Rings movies.

It looks cool. Correction: it looks super cool. It captures much of what makes the battles of the films so cool, which is to say it makes the heroes feel powerful and the big bad guys commensurate, ensuring that victories feel worthwhile. The literal balance isn’t right, but hey, this is a pre-alpha build. And besides, it feels right. I mean, I’ve never sliced the head off of an orc, but I imagine it feels pretty good after slugging it out with him with sword and shield.

The crux of the trailer is highlighting the fact that every single playthrough of the game will be unique. Major enemies (and there are a lot of them) each have their own memetic interpretation and physical reminders of past events in the world. For instance, it could be as obvious as Orthog Troll Slayer having burn scars from Talion and his last fiery encounter, but it could also mean Ratbag’s career path goes down a different path, leading us to find him in one place instead of another.

It’s called the Nemesis system and seems pretty slick. Given that this is a game from Monolith, I have no small amount of faith in the game following through with the words of its marketing. We do have the results of F.E.A.R. and Condemned to back it up, so a modicum of respect is appropriate. Even their last Tolkien outing fared pretty well.

The strange thing is that bits and pieces of the trailer (once you get past the highfalutin talk of dynamic, persistent, and determinant world interactions) feel just a bit…off. Perhaps just a tad too familiar, so much so that they actually seem too foreign to work. In reality, those moments of discontent—those moments where you try to recall something on the tip of your tongue while the answer hops away—are too familiar.

That’s because they are too familiar. It combines nearly every pillar of every successful franchise in the past few years into a single game and applies its own layer of specificity (which, obviously, is the most important part, but we’ll get there later). Talion can climb around on just about any piece of the environment, moving around the world like a Nathan Drake. He strikes with the speed and ferocity—and single-buttonness—of Batman in the Arkham series. Then his Wraith vision gives him Assassin’s Creed-like insight into any given encounter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Each of these pieces has been previously adopted into other games as well, perhaps for similar reasons. Jumping and clambering about ledges and walls and conveniently placed ropes, we get hints of Tomb Raider as well, the bounciness of Croft and Drake’s collective climbing abilities noteworthy and inhuman in every regard.

The Arkham implementation of combat has been shoehorned into so many varied titles from Captain America: Super Soldier to The Amazing Spider-Man. Quick, one-time button presses that directly correspond to attack and defense, and each one as a response to an immediate need.

Detective vision has been the bane of many game critics’ existence. Named as such after the Arkham version as well, its origins go far deeper. Assassin’s Creed‘s Eagle Vision accomplishes the same thing, and The Amazing Spider-Man actually has something similar. Dishonored does it, too. But it’s a fine line between an addendum ability thrown in at the end of production and one that is finely integrated into the experience. Not sure where Shadow of Mordor lies yet.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It’s very clear, though, that outside of the open world of responsive and unique enemies, Shadow of Mordor is really an amalgam of past mechanics du jour. It seems to have looked at a Rolodex of successful franchises in the past five years and said, “We’ll take one of each of those.” Once the initial amazement faded, a lot of ire of the trailer began to surface for this exact reason.

The thing to remember, however, is that it’s the particulars that make something work or fall apart. You know, devils and details and all that. Take a look at Resogun, one of the best games from last year. It was, without question, a simple cocktail of bullet hell games, Defender, and its own past amalgam of old school tropes Super Stardust HD.

It worked precisely because it combined all of those familiar elements in such a specific way. Like a surgeon, it cut out laser-level portions of things you’re accustomed to and then like Frankenstein, stitched it all together into something new. It’s the same reason why you can take flour, butter, and eggs and end up with either a bunch of great pancakes or a ruined Sunday brunch. It’s the particulars that matter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Of course, the argument of familiarity is also an authentic one. A lot of resources obviously went into the whole Nemesis system; it’s not easy creating an open world that wholly responds to player actions like that. It’s pretty easy to cobble together proven successes when you run out of time to gin up something entirely original.

But that is also a cynical way of looking at it. The auteurship involved in mold individual corners of a simple box elevate or degrade it either to art or a travesty. We are, after all, all just lumps of carbon and water; what makes any of us better than another? The details, of course. That’s where all the devils live, after all.

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A Challenge to Pleasure

A Challenge to Pleasure

The old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is pretty dead-on. (Okay, fine, it’s also a song lyric.) The idea of contrast is important in making what matters stand out. Happiness emerging out of sadness; sated hunger after starvation; you get the idea. After all, a roller coaster has to go up to go back down, right?

In that, there is actually more to say. What if a roller coaster was just the best bits? What if a roller coaster only ever went down? Or, if you’d prefer, it can go only in loops. All that time you spend going up, waiting, listening to the dull clink of the chains rattling your train higher and higher, is eliminated and the rush of falling faster and faster towards the ground is your immediate reward.

One of the early trailers for Assassin’s Creed III featured a major run of gameplay that showed off Connor’s new and expanded list of abilities. One of them included a running assassination. We’re not talking about a hearty dive blades-first or an airborne death from above but a one-and-done moment of advantageous fighting. And then he does it again.

Just moments before, however, we see Connor sneak up on a fort and clamber up around some trees. It ends with him engaging a small group of guards, fighting and counterattacking and dodging his way to victory. It looks exciting, but we are reminded—somewhere in the back of our minds where rationality persists—that fighting in Assassin’s Creed games are never that fun.

Granted, it has improved with each game, and by improved I mean they make each fight take less and less time. Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the most capable fighter of them all, his kill combos and counterattacks the most potent of all the robed predecessors. Two swords and two guns and a lust for blood will make anyone deadly, I guess.

And yet the running assassinations still stand out. Enemies seem even more open to the efficient attack in this iteration. We have a whole franchise dedicated to teaching us that you should sneak around instead of getting into blade-addled scraps (though the sneaking mechanics never quite supported that invitation), so see an opportunity to blend the rush of a quick and brutal kill with the entropy of battle is welcome.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Imagine, however, if we could just do that with every enemy. Picture if every enemy you came across was defenseless against your galloping death stride. That isn’t very much fun. Killing the citizens of Athens in God of War gets tiring after, what, 10 seconds? The civilians of Infamous in a minute? Consider, then, how much time you spend actually fighting capable enemies. Is it necessarily constantly more fun experience? Probably not.

But it is more rewarding, much like the running kills are in Black Flag. You understand and have gone through the struggles of hacking and slashing and shooting your way to not do it anymore, so the moment you get a leg up on the hordes before you, it feels earned. It feels special. It feels like all that time spent going up the coaster was well worth it just to go back down.

It’s strange and counterintuitive. Spending time purposefully impeding the joy of the player doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re trying to give them a good time. But the key to it is proper design, which I would argue the times you get to dive from a crow’s nest onto someone’s neck or drive a guard into the ground with your hidden blades or pull off a double counterattack are well designed. They make that ride back to the bottom exciting.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The ups and down have to pace themselves. A slow descent into a free fall imbues both turns with drama and excitement and anticipation. But a single drop or an hour long ride to the bottom just doesn’t work. And in Black Flag, if you can work your way to the top, the game will make it worth your while on the way down, blades-first.

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A Black Flag in the Wind

A Black Flag in the Wind

Playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag caused me to ruminate on the franchise quite a bit over the course of the 50 hours I put into it. A lot of the meditations concerned themselves with objective quality, namely the series’ story arc and various character growths. It’s easy to see where all the missteps occurred in the first game and the seemingly aggressive indifference with which Assassin’s Creed III was approached, but it goes much deeper.

I can recall the single question I would meaningfully ask myself at the beginning of each game because it strangely carries massive import for me: what is the new interface going to look like? It’s so strange that something that only serves to provide a path from one metaphysical layer to another—a necessary roadblock to provide intermediate actions—when there’s so much to climb, stab, and discover.

It makes me happy, though, seeing discrete differences crop up within each franchise iteration, even when the interfaces themselves are somewhat lackluster. (While serviceable, the menus in Black Flag are missing any sort of visual movement and excitement.) Slices of DNA-based memories floating in the ether, beautifully minimalist red blocks over gray clouds, and all that sort give the impression of progress in the series.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

It then makes me wonder, however, if it is nothing more than an impression, a facade. It’s all fine and dandy to put a new coat of paint and some wax on your old beat-up Chevy, but it doesn’t make the engine more powerful or the steering any tighter.

As we go through each game in the series, it’s obvious the changes made to the game’s core. Ezio’s climbing animations became more varied and the highly repetitive mission structure became slightly less repetitive. Connor finally learned how to strafe ever-so slightly while sprinting and assassinate dudes on the run. Edward then made combat the fastest it’s ever been and figured out how to aim cannons on a ship.

Save for the naval stuff starting in Assassin’s Creed III and the use of other assassins with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the improvements are, well, less than substantial. Many of the complaints you can level against the first and extremely divisive game still hold true with Black Flag. Eight games later and they still haven’t figured out that no one likes eavesdropping on guards, tailing noblemen, or spending egregious amounts of time fighting. But guess what: that’s all still there.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

To the high point of the franchise (which I consider Brotherhood to be), Ubisoft simply added more layers to the cake until all those problems eventually become peas under the mattress. Improving the villa, recruiting assassins, and buying landmarks were all distractions from the still too-often-annoying combat and sometimes frustrating parkour, the two biggest parts of the games.

Sometimes they were obvious mistakes like the tower defense stuff in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but they were quickly excised. And then other times they were iterated on until everyone realized the problems the first time around are inherent to the framework like ship battles. But whether a step forward or a step back or a step in a new direction, none of them directly address the problems that still exist even in Black Flag.

Case in point: the ultimate culmination in things that are horrible with Assassin’s Creed in tailing another ship with your own ship that turns at a glacial pace, like a record player attempting to rotate running, half-frozen maple syrup. Ubisoft wondered if attaching one of the more popular parts of Assassin’s Creed III could fix one of the most hated parts of every other game would create an exciting new amalgam. Instead they created a monster.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Kirk Hamilton’s review of Black Flag opens with a sort of thesis-rumination hybrid. You spend an interminable amount of time running nowhere in each Assassin’s Creed game as new levels and missions load. Running and running and running forever, getting nowhere and seeing nothing. He views it as a question of whether the series has a destination, much like you don’t have one running in those Animus clouds of digital nonsense.

But it seems to me more like it’s running away instead. It’s trying to avoid all the problems the series has cultivated since 2007, closing doors and pulling down merchant stands as you try to catch it to enumerate the issues you’ve had logged in an ever growing notebook. But it can’t run away. It ends up exactly where it began: mired in a pool of its own struggles, festering and unattended.

I still think Black Flag is a good game, just as is Brotherhood and certain parts of, well, all the rest of them. But the series as a whole is lost, a buoy floating in the middle of an endless sea. It bobs up and down with a depressing yet somewhat charming futility, clamoring with increasing frequency and amplitude as the shore becomes an impossible dream. And the ripples quickly die out mere inches from its base. No one sees its desires for a land-side salvation. We only see a buoy floating, bobbing. Heading nowhere.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review: Fun in the Sun

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The Assassin’s Creed series has become something like a Highlights for Kids magazine. It’s mostly a franchise of spot-the-differences at this point but it also tells some fun little stories of Goofus and Gallant. And strangely enough, those small little changes can completely make or break the iteration they go towards. In this case, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has taken a turn for the better.

Black Flag is the first game in the freerunning wannabe stealth franchise to actually take a step back in the flow of time by putting you in the shoes and pegleg-adjacent life of Edward Kenway, the grandfather to the protagonist Ratanhnhaké:ton of Assassin’s Creed III. Unlike stoic and honor-bound Connor, Edward is a pirate and simply falls into the Assassin-Templar feud like a found lotto ticket that wins you a bunch of stabbing.

And unlike Connor, Edward is actually a fun character. He is way more Ezio than Connor, and that’s a good thing. He’s brash, loud, and a jaunty sea fellow who loves drinking and looting. He, as a person, embodies the entire philosophical change of Black Flag by being someone we like (he’s still an affable fellow, despite his swashbuckling ways, a brush applied in broad strokes across all the pirates for some reason) and someone we want to be around.

Black Flag begins with a bang. Well, a very loud clap, let’s say, but it’s a bang in contrast to Assassin’s Creed III. Its predecessor began with a painfully slow introduction that led to a semi-worthwhile plot development (if predictable) and took hours and hours to reach anything resembling fun and the more often broken chase sequences. Within a couple of hours, you are stealing brigs, recruiting pirates, and sailing across the open Caribbean. It’s a much improved jump off the starting blocks.

However, you do still have to grind through the ever-present Assassin’s Creed mission-based tutorial structure. The game will continue to teach you new things all the way until the ninth or tenth hour, which is fair considering there are a lot of systems going on, but boy howdy does it get tiring. Half of the activities and abilities they teach you by putting objective markers over dummies to shoot and ship and character upgrades to buy will be things you’ve already done multiple times by the time they decide you’re ready for them.

Most of them are fun, though. A standout, actually, is when you first sail a ship and escape other angry ships in the midst of a storm. It’s exhilarating to say the least as you break rogue waves and dodge water spouts. But then there are the necessary ones that include hunting iguanas and eavesdropping on conversations and (ugh) tailing targets. If you were hoping those had gone the way of Altäir, then you’ll be severely disappointed, especially when you have to stealthily tail another ship with your ship. Just awful.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The majority of the missions, though, are effective at conveying both plot and pleasure to you as a player. Stealth actually works this time around with stalking zones and tagging patrolling guards, so the ones that demand you to sneak around are far less frustrating than before. Fighting, when you must do it, moves faster than before, a concession to the realization that the less of it you do, the better the game flows. Enemies seem to sometimes go down in a single hit and it’s fantastic.

And the reasons behind doing both the sneaking and the stabbing actually feel interesting. Once you involve Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, you get deep into the swarthy yet charming life of plundering booty blended together with a reluctant assassin and you just might find joy somewhere under the iterative layers of still annoying freerunning mechanics and mapping collectibles and wondering if guards can see you.

The story, though, does get a bit too big for its britches. (Or pantaloons or whatever it is pirates wear.) Even though we don’t have the Desmond half to contend with where the majority of the mishandled complications and clumsy gameplay lay in past games, we do still have to consolidate a lighthearted tale of pirates and mistaken identity in the beautiful blue sea with the sci-fi mess of the First Civilization and the forever-fight between Templars and Assassins. The seams really begin to come loose towards the end, as Assassin’s Creed games are wont to do.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

If I hadn’t been keeping notes for this review, I probably would have lost the thread somewhere around the twentieth hour or so and not bothered to find it again. All I really l liked were the characters as the madcap ending comes barreling towards them and you as the curtains begin to close. And once you involve the strange Desmond replacement in the real world, feelings become a lot more mixed.

You are really a new designer hired at Abstergo Entertainment, an obvious mirror to Ubisoft in Montreal. In a first-person view, you go through the onboarding process of reading about employee benefits (which don’t seem that great) and getting an employee communicator which stores files and acts as a compass to mark objectives and interact with networked devices.

It feels a whole lot like walking through a museum, or a tribute to the studio that made Assassin’s Creed. There is concept art everywhere and little statues of past franchise characters on display in cubicles, but no one talks to you outside of the ones necessary to the real world part of the plot. They mill around the coffee stand and stare at screens and sit silently at the break areas staring off into nothing. All you do is read cryptic notes and hack computers. It feels so incredibly dead in there with an eerie sheen like a one-percenter mortician got his hands on it or something.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

It’s a bit on-the-nose for me and generally feels like it’s all trying to be too cute. (Oh, an ad for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation! How playful!) It’s all a bit lackluster as well considering how expansive and ambitious—however sloppy—Desmond’s story was. As a non-speaking character, it seems painfully obvious that the structure is still built for a speaking part, though the voice memos you unlock and find make it similarly clear that the budget for voice acting is quite ample. They are pretty great either way, though.

Perhaps more time was spent in designing the levels because this time around, the world feels much more cohesive. It was part of the problem of setting itself in a wide open city like colonial Boston, but Assassin’s Creed III was a pain to navigate, often running in the streets more than doing fun things like climbing and jumping. Black Flag actually has tiny islands that are altogether more interesting than Connor’s world.

Pirate hovels on split-level islands with tons of tropical foliage to hide in and clamber up make the largely unchanged parkour mechanics feel like they’ve evolved at least a little bit. It doesn’t quite explain how a pirate can climb as well as a lifelong Assassin despite the unconvincing explanation given in the game.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The naval combat, however, has changed into something much more robust while the navigation across an open tropical setting with the ability to stop on any number of islands gins up a great The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker feel. Now you just aim forward to fire off slowing chain shot and aim backwards to drop fire barrels before you hold and release a single button to automatically hit ship weak points or detonate said barrels. And then being able to even just manually aim and tweak cannon fire is a godsend.

As is the entire boarding process. Your crew will grapple the burning opposition and pull you two together before you grab a rope and swing across. Midair assassinations and deck blade-crossing is just the tops as you scramble to subdue the ship before you lose any of your crew. I’d often fire off a few swivel gun rounds before I’d swing across, knock down the biggest dude, and fire off all my pistols just for fun before I stab everyone and everything. (BRB, gonna go board more ships.)

The refinements do show the inherent weaknesses of the combat system, though, as you begin to dread the moment you miss a single shot and are forced to painfully and slowly come around again for another chance. And attempting to navigate the shallows around islands is an exercise in frustrating blind faith and guessing.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

At least it all looks utterly fantastic. This is perhaps the best representation of the Caribbean since The Secret to Monkey Island where the idyllic and stunning blue waters wash up into turquoise shades against ports and shores. The night falls into an indigo-black across the lush green set amidst the shimmering sands is enough to make anyone long for the seafaring life.

Taking the helm boosts up the appeal as your crew welcomes you back with a jolly growl before they break out into a catchy set of sea shanties as you break out into the deep. It reminds me that despite the problems, this is the best part of the game. Sailing, discovering the unknown, and generally being a salty bastard is delectable, while wading through the murky swamps of convoluted plot developments and hereditary gameplay roughness is only marginally positive.

If that sounds familiar, then it’s because it describes both the best and worst parts of all past Assassin’s Creed titles. They are intrinsically composed of bad parts being covered up by good parts—the best gaming as to offer standing alongside the worst conventions of the medium—dressed up in varying period garb. The dressing, however, makes a world of difference as pointed out by a saucy Italian running across Renaissance rooftops and a dower stick in the mud getting lost in the endless basements of the American Revolution. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may not be the best of them all, but it tends to get a lot more right than it does wrong.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

+ Sounds fantastic and looks even better
+ The characters are salty and charming and lends import to the story
+ Ship and land combat, sneaking, and climbing is all improved across the board
– The plot in the past and in the present is mostly middling
– Tailing and eavesdropping missions still exist

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Release: October 29, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/‎

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