Necromunda: Hired Gun Is An Eastern European Game From France

Eastern European video games are so famous for producing brilliant but unpolished gems that the term “Eurojank” was invented to refer to them. Pathologic is a Eurojank survival horror game, STALKER is a Eurojank shooter, Gothic is a Eurojank RPG, and so on. The Witcher series was never Eurojank, but it’s got a lot of the hallmarks of one, and especially its third entry did the impossible – delivered on Eurojank ambition without the actual jank. Clearly this was some kind of Faustian bargain, because Cyberpunk 2077 failed to deliver the ambition but had all of the jank.

As that first paragraph hints, the core of Eurojank is manic ambition married to janky execution. Eurojank games are carving out a whole new sub-genre for themselves, one which usually never gets any entries outside of that one game or series, and they have the bugs and lack of polish that you’d expect from a mid-size company trying to invent an entire genre with one video game. Each Eurojank game is an experience that no other video game will give you, something new and visionary, but also they have a bunch of jank you have to get used to.

The “Euro” in Eurojank stereotypically refers to eastern Europe specifically, although that stereotype doesn’t quite hold even with the three Ur-Eurojank examples I gave in the first paragraph: Gothic was developed in central European Germany (not even on the east side of the old border). Necromunda: Hired Gun continues that trend of being technically in Europe, albeit far to the west of the stereotypical Eurojank game.

Necromunda is a loving recreation of the grim darkness of the 41st millennium’s most infamous underhive. The maps are half-functional steel plants built with the pointless enormity of the Imperium of Man, deep trenches carved into Wall-E style mountains of trash cubes that lead upwards to bunkers to storm, and mineshafts dug miles deep for raw materials. There are side missions to retrieve human corpses because that’s a valuable food supply, to destroy the ventillation fans in an enemy gang’s hideout so they’ll asphyxiate on the industrial fumes that permeate the hive, and to both rescue, kidnap, and execute unregistered psykers. It’s a game that understands what a 40k video game is supposed to be: A playable death metal album that takes place in a galaxy ruled by an evil empire that’s just past the height of its power and entered into decline, crushing its hapless subjects between its merciless, failing machinery, but still too powerful to be meaningfully opposed from within (logically speaking, there must be certain frontier sectors where Imperial power has receded to the point where local powers could successfully break away and create democracy or whatever, but if you want democratic rebels breaking away from a fascistic empire, why are you not playing a Star Wars game?).

But dear god, the jank. The game has an atrocious reverse-difficulty curve. By the time you’ve finished the second level (maybe even the first, I was still getting to grips with the game and wasn’t great at distinguishing enemy types yet), it’s already throwing ogryns and enemy lieutenants with powerful refractor fields at you. Psykers and ambots get introduced in the third level, but while they have different powers than other enemies, they’re actually much easier to fight than the lieutenants with the refractor fields. Genestealers show up in level 7, but they’re some of the easiest enemies in the game, melee-only foes who you can just kite while unloading a heavy bolter at them. If there’s been any new enemies in levels 4-6, I didn’t notice them. There’s only 13 levels in this game, and while I definitely expect there to be some new mini-bosses, boss fights, and maybe a new elite enemy type like the psyker and genestealer, it’s pretty clear at this point that the basic mooks you clear through are the same at the end as they were in the beginning. The Escher, Orlocks, and Goliaths are all visually distinct and fantastically well-represented, but none of them are meaningfully harder than the others.

This would be a flat difficulty curve, but you also have upgrades. Buying new bionics and a better arsenal of weapons makes the game noticeably easier as you progress. Bionics give you new powers like slowing down time or a pulse that both stuns enemies and deactivates refractor fields within a certain radius (when fully upgraded, a very wide radius), and while I find that the autogun you get in the first five minutes remains a pretty reliable all-rounder weapon even after I’ve unlocked the entire arsenal, the heavy bolter’s insane damage reduces even the tankiest of (non-boss) enemies to red mist in just a few shots, often chewing through a refractor field before I even notice the golden glow intercepting my shots, and while the bolter’s recoil is too intense to be used at anything but very close range, the plasma gun is great for sniping because of its even higher damage-per-shot. It’s not extremely accurate by default, but the right upgrades can give it fantastic range in exchange for a terrible reload speed, which is perfect for sniping.

Between the enemies having variety but not escalation and the bionics and weapons becoming steadily more versatile and in some ways even directly more powerful, the game gets easier as you go. I was seriously considering tossing this game on the Regrets pile early on because its difficulty was so intense even when taking B-ranked side missions (supposed to be the easiest type) on the lowest difficulty option and it was still really difficult, but once I managed to scrape some credits together and buy some upgrades, easy difficulty started living up to its name and I switched back to normal. Now only S-ranked side missions give me trouble, and even then, it depends on the exact objective (objectives that require killing mini-bosses or capturing territory are much harder than objectives that require destroying stockpiles of ammo or drugs or stealing food – the latter feature infinitely spawning enemies, so ignoring them to hit the objectives is not just viable, but to some degree required). I’m sure this is partly because I got better at the game as I played, but also I have way better gear.

Some basic quality of life features are absent as well. This is a looter shooter, except the advantage of a +2 bolter over the standard are tiny enough that you can ignore them, and the process of getting loot is clunky enough that you probably will. You can’t open your inventory screen in regular gameplay, instead exclusively opening it when at the weapon upgrade shop or when choosing your mission loadout, so you never do the looter shooter thing where you swap out new weapons mid-mission because you found something better, and once you’ve found your first heavy bolter, you’ll probably never find one that’s better by enough to be worth the trouble of customizing it to max out whatever features you’re using heavy bolters for (probably close range damage, but maybe there’s other uses for that gun that just aren’t obvious to me).

There’s no mini-map and the objective markers aren’t nearly sufficient to tell you where to go. Since you’re in an underhive, knowing which direction your target is in doesn’t always help because the door leading to the other side of the wall between you and the target might be far to the side or maybe even in the opposite direction. There are occasional wide, open spaces when you’re out on the ash wastes or in a particularly cavernous storage chamber or whatever, but these are the exception, which means a lot of missions, especially side missions, are spent screaming “where the fuck do I go next?!”

Side missions take place in the same maps as the main missions, but in small, cordoned off chunks of them, repurposed for the sake of the side mission. That’s a great way to recycle content (like all games, Necromunda would be better if it was a Metroidvania where all maps connected to one another in a massive interconnected hive, but that would require significant time and money and it’s not super insightful to say “this game would’ve been better with an extra six months and $2,000,000 poured into it”), but it means that you’re often going backwards from the direction the main mission took you, which means all the level design that drew your eye and made the way forward intuitive in the main missions is now useless or sometimes counterproductive. An elevator in the third stage, for example, is very obvious at the bottom but gets lost in the clutter a bit on the top. No problem if you’re starting on the bottom, but if you’re in a side mission that starts you on top, it can take a bit to find. If it’s a side mission that’s constantly spawning enemies, that makes things much worse, because you can’t just carefully sweep the area for the way forward (the elevator’s not hard to notice if you walk right past it), but instead bounce around the arena trying to dodge gunfire while looking for a way out while not even sure if what you’re looking for is a door or a ladder or an elevator or what.

This does lead to a cool thing where over time you build up familiarity with the hive and eventually memorize the connectors between different rooms, but that would’ve happened with a map, too, and with a map the progression would’ve been from a tourist checking the map every two minutes to a native who’s got the routes memorized. In the map-less game that we have, the progression is from a frustrating experience where you can’t find where the fuck to go next while being chased by infinitely respawning Orlocks to actually being able to navigate the level and complete missions.

I do recommend Necromunda: Hired Gun to anyone who likes 40k, but I have to give the massive caveat that you should start out on the lowest difficulty even if you’re very experienced with shooters, and that you should grind some side missions to improve your bionics and customize your weapons as soon as that option is available. You’ll usually profit from even a failed side mission because of loot you picked up along the way canceling out consumables spent (there’s a low cap on how many medkits you can buy going into a mission, and they’re cheap), so expect to make money getting shot to pieces at least four or five times before you build up enough wealth to fight on a level playing field. Tweak the difficulty back upwards once you feel your upgrades are surpassing the level of challenge the game can throw at you (or don’t – I could probably manage hard difficulty at this point, but I’m not gonna).

Every Video Game Should Be A Metroidvania

The title is an exaggeration, of course, but “way more video games should be Metroidvanias than are” isn’t as pithy.

Now I’m not saying that most games should have the Metroidvania style action-platforming gameplay. It’s good that lots of different genres exist covering lots of different gameplay. What I am saying is that most genres of video game could stand to have a Metroidvania-style interconnected explorable world (and I’m using a lenient definition here that includes 3D games with interconnected worlds like Dark Souls). The game that’s brought this on is Yoku’s Island Express, a game which asks “what if pinball was a Metroidvania?” and the answer is “it would be way better, obviously.”

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Invincible Bears

Banners of Ruin is a deckbuilding RPG in the kind-of-like-Redwall genre of slightly anthropomorphized animals in a medieval society. So, you assemble a deck of cards by choosing one from a random selection of three every time you win a combat, with cards representing different fighting techniques, weapons, shields, and so forth. In my current playthrough, I happen to have been able to recruit several additional bear party members, and I also happen to have run into a lot of heavy armor that I’ve used to further augment their tankiness. The end result is that in a game where enemies who deal 20-25 damage are supposed to be especially lethal, I have a party full of bears who each individually have 50+ armor on top of their 50+ HP. Armor is restored to maximum after each fight (but HP is not), and non-boss enemies have almost no hope of getting through my armor to hit my HP, which means I don’t even really have to worry about healing because of how incredibly resilient I am.

I have dubbed this build “Invincible Bears” and although all of the bears died, a single stray mouse was able to stagger to victory. This was only, like, my third run, but I guess I’m putting this on the Completed list. God knows I’m not going to sink in like 50 hours or whatever to unlock whatever secret ending I’m sure is buried under challenge modes or grinding for ultra-rare encounters or whatever.

Mirror Matches Are Hard (To Make)

I try to only have so many games installed at once, as part of my efforts to actually finish games and cut the list of ones I’d like to play/finish someday maybe down to a double digit number, instead of doing what I’ve done for years now, which is pick at games five or ten minutes at a time and inevitably end up going back to the same handful of familiar titles. It’s working, but the time estimates on How Long To Beat aren’t always particularly accurate. Sometimes it’s a disconnect between how I play versus how the average person plays. Sometimes what I view as “Main Story +” is closer to what the crowd thinks of as “100%.” And sometimes, as is the case of Going Under, the devs tell me that the game should be played without the handicaps and I take them at their word, which is apparently not what most people do. That, or everyone’s so much better at video games for me that the average completion time is half of mine. I could’ve called it quits on Going Under early, shuffled it off into my Regrets category on Steam, but I’m glad I didn’t. It has a good ending.

Not a mirror match, though, which is why its final boss was way harder than Transistor’s, the game I blasted through in one day. This time How Long To Beat was wrong in my favor. Seven hours? This game barely lasted five. I thought I’d play for two or three hours tonight, and by that point I was so close to the finish I decided I wanted to bring it home.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Almost Had A Good Opening

When I was discussing Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s four prologues, I mentioned that the first game was the only one with a good opening, and even that one was debatable. Since then, I have replayed the opening to Syndicate and also remembered that there is more prologue in the first AC than I remembered. Tackling that second one because it’s faster, I totally forgot how much heavier handed the modern day segments were in the first Assassin’s Creed, and that part of the prologue involved one of these modern day sections where they just dump conspiracy exposition on you before letting you get to the part where you parkour around Damascus. I was thinking that the only setup was the botched assassination against the head Templar, the return to Masyaf, and then the Masyaf tutorial, which is still getting a bit long in the tooth by the time you reach that tutorial, but nope, there’s more that I had completely forgotten about.

But I’d also been remembering Syndicate’s opening as being worse than it was, or maybe better, because it’s so damn close to finally getting it right. The game opens up and says “you are an Assassin, that guy is a Templar, stab his eyes out!” And the first mission is a tutorial-y setpiece that probably could’ve been a bit less heavy-handed, but it’s a set piece in which you are an Assassin and that guy is a Templar, which makes it way better than the usual bullshit that feels the need to explain how our protagonist learned about and joined the Assassins at all.

But then after that they feel the need for a “welcome to London” mission that’s the usual interminable Assassin’s Creed intro mission, where it forces you to go talk to Jayadeep Mir nee Henry Green and you have to chase an orphan and do a carriage battle and sync up one very specific viewpoint and otherwise have all the game’s systems explained to you before you’re allowed to just explore the open world. After they already had a big setpiece opening that explains most of the game’s systems to you! Does someone at Ubisoft really like their boring prologue tutorials? While they were planning out the opening, did some executive raise his hand at the end and ask “wait, but where’s the boring prologue tutorial in all this?” and then demand they add one in when it was explained that they didn’t have one? Everything the meeting with Jayadeep Mir accomplishes (including the introduction of the character Jayadeep Mir) could’ve been done just as well by sticking the players in a London openworld fresh out of the opening, stamping a story mission down on Jayadeep’s shop, and possibly locking some content behind completion of that mission (for example, depending on how the plotline with the street gang the Frye twins are using for muscle needs to be written, you might want to lock the gang war missions until after you’ve hit up Jayadeep and he’s explained how the Templars control the city).

The Syndicate opening was nearly good, and then they tripped at the finish line. And this has certainly impacted how I remember the game. Four years after having played the first hour-ish, once the story had devolved (as stories in my memory tend to once I’m four or five years past when I first consumed them) into a soup of vignettes, my brain had rearranged the very first opening scene of the game to the climax of the first proper chapter, and the horrible intro with Jayadeep Mir had taken over my recollection of the game’s introduction.

Probably I’m on the wrong end of this bell curve’s peak in terms of remembering Assassin’s Creed stories properly, because Assassin’s Creed games are games I play so I can listen to a podcast and I’m never more than half-paying attention to what’s actually going on, but other games I play in this way manage to stick with me better than AC games do. The Half-Life games have reached the vignette soup stage, but my brain isn’t editing Ravenholm into the game’s opening as a terrible gravity gun tutorial, and even the Half-Life 2 episodes are mostly just gone from my memory, but not much interfering with Half-Life 2 itself the way the Syndicate vignettes actually rearranged themselves in my mind. Undertale is well past the point where it should be vignette soup, but I still have a solid and reliable memory of how that game’s plot went.

You’re Playing Going Under Wrong

Going Under is hard. It’s got options to do things like give yourself extra HP, lower the health of enemies, or increase the durability of weapons, but they’re labeled “accessibility options” which makes me worry that if I, a perfectly able-bodied person, take too many extra heart containers, there might not be enough left over for someone who’s actually disabled. I’m finally closing in on the endgame, though. There’s three dungeons in the game, then a crossover dungeon, then hardmode versions of the first three dungeons, which I assume is followed by a finale in a hardmode version of the crossover dungeon. I’ve been two of the three hardmode dungeons, so I’ll probably have this game finished soon (maybe even by the time this post goes live – I’m writing it like a week in advance).

There’s an achievement for each of the hardmode dungeons, and after getting the second one, I decided to check what percentage of other players had gotten that achievement. Only 10.9%. Nice! You know you’re getting into an elite group of people who play this one obscure indie game a lot when your achievements are nearing sub-10%.

Except it turns out I’ve already got a bunch of sub-10% achievements. There’s a collection of NPCs who hand out side quests, you see, seven or eight each. Each of them can be your “mentor,” and you can have one mentor equipped at a time, who give out bonuses. Each mentor’s bonuses are unique, and get better the more of their side quests you’ve beaten. So, obviously, if beating the main quests is getting difficult, you focus on mentor quests for a bit to power those up. I had all the mentor quests maxed out by the time I took on the co-working space dungeon at the game’s midpoint.

Each mentor questline has a separate achievement for maxing it out, and the one with the most completion was 9.2%. The least completed mentor was 7.1%. You guys are playing Going Under wrong! Why would you try and tackle the hardmode dungeons before getting the bonuses from the much easier mentor quests? Some of the mentor quests are definitely very tricky, but they’re easier than the hardmode dungeons in the game’s second half. If I’m guessing the meaning of some of these achievements correctly, completing some of the mentorships – including the one for Swomp, who is probably the strongest mentor in the game – is less common than beating the whole game!

Makes me wonder how many people are beating the game by just turning all the accessibility options to maximum and facerolling. You damn kids! Those extra heart containers are for people with Parkinson’s!

Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos Post-Mortem

The Kickstarter for the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos ran from July 1st to July 16th. It had 326 backers and raised $5,900 on the dot.

Of course, I’m not out of the woods yet. For starters, I’m setting myself up for the third beat in a panik-kalm-panik meme, which I probably should’ve realized ahead of time when I used the panik face in the last one. Oh, well, too late now.

It’s possible that my guess from last time was correct: Darkwood benefitted from being the first book in the new series and getting pitched in updates directly to the entire Chamomile’s Guide to Everything audience. Drachzee picked up some momentum, but updates for it were only pushed to Darkwood backers rather than all thirteen Chamomile’s Guide books, resulting in a massive contraction. Now Elemental Chaos is picking up momentum again, with a 20% increase in backer count comparable to the 30% increase I saw fairly regularly during the ramp-up period of the early books of the first series. Comparing Elemental Chaos (the third book of the new series) to Bianca’s Guide to Golems (the third book of the old), Elemental Chaos is doing a lot better. It’s possible that the new series got a stronger start due to the success of the old, and is now rising up towards the old 400-450 plateau, with the rate of the rise being slightly slower only because the starting point was higher.

However, it’s also possbile that Elemental Chaos was a much stronger topic (the name, to begin with, is immediately familiar, as opposed to “the Darkwood” or “the rogue city of Drachzee,” which are designed to be evocative but which are not existing generic D&D locations). The old series stabilized at 400-450 for most topics, and it’s possible that the new series is going to stabilize at 275-325. That’s an average of 300 which is exactly sustainable (assuming other variables also stay consistent), which is probably not actually sustainable in practice. It’s much more likely that an unexpected event costs money than saves money, and without any extra profits to tuck away each month to absorb those expenses, my savings will dwindle away with each unexpected obstacle until there’s none left and the whole house comes down.

The good news is that it looks like I’ve found a replacement for the $25 tier that’s actually going to work. The first series used signed copies, which worked well until I hit the cap of 100 copies for the first book in the series, which I’d established to make sure I never had a project bottlenecked on a massive signing and shipping process. This proved to be wise, because addressing the signed copies proved to be extremely time consuming, but also popularity of the signed copies noticeably declined (and completely collapsed for back copies) after the complete set was no longer available. I tried to replace it with low-tier vanity content, a mention of a character in a vignette, but these have been very unpopular.

But serendipity struck when I realized that if I reprinted everything from Caspar’s Guide to Elementals that’s relevant to the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos – what I usually do to make sure new backers get a complete experience – I would be reprinting nearly the entire book. So instead, I offered both books for $10 in .pdf and $25 in print. It was a very popular option, and the average pledge increased from about $14.50 in the first two books to $18.10, slightly higher than the $17.50 that the first series usually got. So I’m definitely using future books to spotlight a specific earlier book from Chamomile’s Guide to Everything in the future, to hopefully keep that average back high.

Ongoing advertising adventures are pretty inconclusive this time. I reached out to several people on Twitter in hopes of commissioning work from them, which they could then drop a tweet or two about. One of them was too busy, three of them never responded at all, and one of them was too busy to have anything ready in July, although they will be contributing to a stretch goal in August, so we’ll be hearing more about them in the next post-mortem (hopefully in a good way). I guess this month the advertising takeaway is that if you do not spend $200 on advertising, you will have an extra $200 at the end of your campaign. Also, possibly people were seeing the ad campaigns I was paying for in the first two books and actively deciding not to support me, but that seems unlikely.

It remains unclear whether this series can sustain itself, but I have a roadmap out to book six and should be able to get at least that far, and cap things off on a reasonably satisfying note if I do have to shut down there. Plus, the latest campaign is only weak evidence in favor of a sustainable series, but it is evidence in favor of a sustainable series.

Where Do You Start Your Video Game?

One of the problems with Yes, Your Grace’s beginning has been percolating in my head for a while. The game starts in media res with a decision concerning a major battle that you fight at the end, then flashes back to show how you got there. You’re able to re-do the decision when you catch up with the climax, which is good, because you don’t really have enough information to make a good decision there, but the opening still feels like you’re totally unprepared for the decision.

I have three suspicions about why this opening was added. First, it might’ve just been that the developer thought that it was cool. With games made by small teams or one guy, it’s always possible that a specific decision boiled down to “I thought it was neat.” It’s also possible that the creator was worried that the first major battle in the game would come across as climactic enough that the game would feel like it should be over now, when in fact there is an entire second half of the game preparing for a second battle to get to. The in media res opening of the game is explicitly one full year after the game’s true start, and the current week is tracked as part of the game mechanics, so you know when the first major battle is coming up about six months after the beginning that this is only the midpoint.

The third possibility is the one I want to talk about in detail, though: The opening of the game might have been intended to give the game some energy and momentum to hopefully get players over the slow beginning. Because the beginning is slow, and if the opening was supposed to fix this, it failed. The only reason I got as deep into Yes, Your Grace as I did is because I’ve recently assembled a huge list of games I’d like to play more thoroughly than I have, and now all new games (like Yes, Your Grace, which was part of a Humble Choice) go on that list unless I have no intention of playing them (for example, if they’re packaged with a Humble Bundle that I bought only for other games). Then all games go from that list to either the “Complete” list when I’ve beaten (or, in some cases, 100%’d) them, or they go onto the “Regrets” list if I decide that actually they are bad. This means that Yes, Your Grace didn’t have to convince me to play it instead of any of the other ~180 games on my Incomplete list, because that kind of aimless nibbling is exactly the kind of gameplaying I’ve decided I’m not satisfied with and want to do less of. Yes, Your Grace only had to convince me it wasn’t bad enough to go into Regrets.

Most people, of course, aren’t playing games like this, so I expect a lot of people bounced off the slow start of Yes, Your Grace, and I probably would’ve been one of them if not for the way I’m now playing games. The opening didn’t help with this. The problem with the start isn’t that it wasn’t explosive enough. The problem with the start is that I want to answer some goddamn petitions, and instead I keep getting dragged off to talk to my oldest daughter about how she doesn’t like having been betrothed to a neighboring prince. This plotline ends up being really compelling, but at the beginning I just want to play the game, and instead I am constantly having tons of plot dumped on me.

Which leads me to the answer to the question in the post title: When do you start your video game? Because the answer is very different from when you start your book or movie! Yes, Your Grace’s problem is that it starts where a book or movie would want to start, on the cusp of the marriage that serves as the inciting incident to the game’s events.

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What Is Assassin’s Creed: Unity Bad At?

Everything. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is bad at everything.

I exaggerate. If you can get it for $5 and you want to parkour around revolutionary Paris, there’s no better option than Assassin’s Creed: Unity. But that’s because no one else is really trying. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a major step back in basically everything the series is trying to be compared to both Syndicate afterwards and especially Black Flag before.

Unity’s first sin is either its greatest or one of its more forgivable, depending on how you view it: It’s worse at presenting the atmosphere of its setting than other Assassin’s Creed games, but only a little. On the one hand, nothing is more important to an Assassin’s Creed game than its historical tourism. There is nothing else these games do that other games aren’t doing better. On the other hand, Unity is mostly keeping up with other games in the series in this regard. Persistent bugs with things like draw distance, terrible optimization, and NPCs adopting bizarre poses or having jarringly unrealistic reactions all weaken the atmosphere despite the series meeting its usual standards for accuracy in things like architecture (as far as I can tell – maybe someone interested in specifically architectural history would notice similar small flaws that I’ve missed). Example: Occasionally you’ll see two people dragging a third person down the street, just standard French Revolution stuff, but if you bump into them all three of them get jostled and then start walking in random directions, the two having apparently lost interest in dragging the third to whatever fate they’d had planned for him. These things aren’t common, but they’re pretty noticeable when they happen and they impact the series’ major selling point.

Of its three core systems of combat, parkour, and stealth, the first two are noticeably worse compared to earlier games. The varying length of the finisher moves, the fact that you perform such a finisher automatically when striking a dying foe, and the fact that you can be hit from behind while performing a finisher all combine to demand a lot of awareness of exactly how much health is remaining on an enemy bar so you don’t lock yourself into a finisher while his mates line up an attack, something made possible by pushing the attack button one more time than you’d meant to. It’s hard to tell how much of this was intentional and how much is input lag from the game’s terrible optimization, but the combat is annoying either way (lowering resolution helps with the input lag, so particularly if you’re stuck on the button-mashing bit of the midpoint boss fight, it can help to turn the resolution down to 4:3 and play the 8-bit version of Assassin’s Creed).

Health runs out faster (although with enough upgrades piled on you can still be extremely tanky), further discouraging fights against crowds. Enemies have little star ratings, so even common mooks can be health sponges if you happen to be in a five-diamond neighborhood of the city. Your gear can always get ahead of the mooks if you can buy sufficiently advanced stuff, but that means choosing between struggling through the sub-par combat or putting in a ton of grind to get the weapons and armor needed to crush enemies with relatively little effort.

Probably the idea here is that you’re an assassin, and if you’re fighitng more than two or three guys, you shouldn’t be stabbing your way straight through them all, you should be sneaking around, picking them off one by one if necessary and preferably avoiding them all. The game’s stealth system retains its usual acceptable-but-not-great quality, so this is perfectly doable and entertaining, but Assassin’s Creed was never and still isn’t a game about challenge. The crowd combats are significantly harder, yes, but that doesn’t demand greater mastery of the combat. It just demands you skip certain combats altogether (particularly since, while it’s hard to tell for sure without investing more time in getting good at AC:U’s combat than it deserves, it seems like once a crowd reaches a certain size it becomes basically impossible to stay on top of all their attacks no matter how well you fight). But, y’know, sometimes I want to “assassinate” someone by kicking their front door down and sword fighting their thirty guards, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t actually a stealth game and shouldn’t let its delusions to the contrary get in the way of letting me Errol Flynn my way through Notre Dame and the Bastille.

I might be more forgiving of this turn towards harder combat to incentivize stealth if they hadn’t also fucked up the parkour, which not only makes it less fun to free run around the city (the highlight of the game for many people!), it also makes it far more unreliable and annoying to escape from combat. Previous Asssasin’s Creed games were very good at figuring out where you wanted to go next and going there. The new system in Unity is very bad at gluing me to railings I wanted to hop over, refusing to climb into windows unless I tilt the stick in exactly the right direction (you’re supposed to be able to climb into windows with the left trigger, but as far as I can tell the only part of that feature to get implemented was the pop-up box explaining how it was supposed to work), and occasionally perching on a step in a staircase as though it were a ledge instead of running up them, which is particularly annoying when there’s seven baddies directly behind me. The Bastille is almost innavigable because the windows in and out of the interior (the only way in, since the gate’s locked up tight) are glitchfests that cause Arno to hover a foot away from the wall, from whence the dynamic parkour system is unable to find any new ledges for him to grab above or below, all the while his fingers are smashed at odd angles and one of his arms has grown an extra foot long but no thicker.

Stealth still works, though, except to the extent that the buggy parkour sometimes tears you out of it when you didn’t mean to. Air assassinations, ledge assassinations, cover assassinations, the gang’s all here, and the NPCs retain their thirty degree field of vision and inability to distinguish the official Assassin uniform from 18th century Parisians without a full five seconds of squinting.

In terms of exploring history, Assassin’s Creed: Unity represents massive missed opportunities. I’m not the first one to point out how weird it is that the Assassins favored the Ancien Regime, one of Europe’s most totalitarian regimes of the era, while the Templars backed the French Revolution. And it’s not just that the Assassins backed the Ancien Regime as an alternative to the Jacobins, since we see them aligned with the French as early as 1752 in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, a game that Unity was developed alongside (to the degree that this game’s prologue is playable as an actually fun level in that game’s epilogue). If you wanted to portray the Assassins as villains, the French Revolution was the perfect place to do it: They overthrow the Ancien Regime to try and install a new order, and it results in a Reign of Terror. With the perspective of history we know that while the First Republic got taken over by Napoleon and the Second Republic burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp, the Third Republic stayed up and the modern people of France are much better off than if we decided to just keep the Ancien Regime around forever, but it’s easy to make a story about how the Assassins tried to murder their way into good governance, lost control of their revolution, and the Templars are backing Napoleon to come in and clean up the Assassins’ mess and push Enlightenment ideals with an iron-fisted dictatorship run by a gifted narcissist, which is, like, peak Templar.

Instead, national heroes like Napoleon are sided with the Assassins, national mistakes like the Reign of Terror are cast as the fault of the Templars, and our hero Arno has a paint-by-numbers personal stake in the plot. Arno’s personal plot arc is even that his crush from before everything went to Hell and he became an Assassin is herself a Templar, that he got taken in by her family after the Templars killed his Assassin father and the inciting incident of the plot is that the Assassins killed her Templar father, except I lied, her Templar father was killed by rival Templars who didn’t approve of a truce the Parisian Templars had with the Assassins. God forbid we use one of our four prologues to establish the cyclically destructive nature of the conflict and the human cost of the Assassin/Templar war. The tale of lovers on opposite sides of a war usually works better when one of the lovers doesn’t have a personal grievance against her own team.

The gameplay innovation – following the same trend as Black Flag’s sailing and ship combat or Revelations’ tower defense – is partly the mysteries, which are actually very good. You use your detective vision to gather a bunch of clues, and while the culprit is usually pretty straightforward, that’s good. That’s Unity focusing on what an Assassin’s Creed game should be good at, which is not challenge. The mysteries take you to a couple of locations around Revolutionary Paris, ask you to examine those locations carefully, and tell a little story of infidelity, business rivalry, and/or inheritance dispute.

But the main gameplay innovation is the PvE multiplayer, which could’ve been good, but isn’t. You might’ve heard that a bunch of Assassin’s Creed multiplayer bits are being shut down, but Unity has escaped that, at least for now. If you’re lucky, you might even occasionally get matched with another player. Unfortunately, I found the system for doing so to be pretty interminable. The way the mission badges on the map work makes it hard to distinguish which ones you’ve completed from which ones you haven’t, you have to totally stop doing singleplayer content while you wait for a multiplayer team to be gathered because the game can’t handle yanking you out of an ongoing singleplayer mission (not even a sidequest that takes place in the open world without bookending cut scenes or anything) and then dumping you back in where you left off when you’re done. This means that if you’re queuing for a multiplayer mission, you can’t do anything else but queue. This is fine when assembling a team only takes thirty seconds, but if the population is too thin to assemble a team quickly, you can’t leave the teamfinder running in the background while you do other things – which means you stop looking for a team, thus reducing the population of people searching.

The multiplayer missions themselves are okay, but given that they’re just regular old Assassin’s Creed missions but with more people, I don’t know why they bothered having dedicated multiplayer missions at all. Why not just make it possible to call on reinforcements in any of the non-story missions? Or even the story missions, the multiplayer missions the game has already come with cut scenes, so clearly asking people to wait unless everyone unanimously agrees to skip cut scenes isn’t a bridge too far. Obviously the missions designed for a party will be very hard to do alone, but you can already try it anyway if you like, and the missions designed for a single player will be very easy with a party, but this isn’t Dark Souls and even if it was bringing a friend to help is the kind of easy mode that even FromSoftware endorses. Just make sure to label the missions intended for a party as such, maybe with a pop up saying “hey, chief, this mission’s meant for 4 people, would you like us to find you a team?” when you accept the mission.

Instead, the multiplayer feels like an entirely separate game mode, just like the PvP multiplayer of every game since ACII, to the point where I totally ignore the multiplayer mission badges unless I specifically want to play multiplayer, in which case I trigger the missions from the menu rather than walking up to the quest ATMs in the game world. They may as well not be in the game world at all.

Plus, it turns out the game wasn’t even made in the Unity engine, so, false advertising.

What Is Assassin’s Creed Good At?

Having spent a bunch of time complaining about Assassin’s Creed: Unity (an infamously weak title of the series), it kind of raises the question: Why bother playing these games at all? It’s not like I’m trying to finish every game in my Steam library. I’ve left a lot of games off the list of incomplete games I’m trying to get through right now. So why didn’t I leave Unity or Syndicate off, especially since I’ve played both of them in the past (just never to completion)?

The answer is because they’re really good for historical tourism and making me feel like I’m in a place. The Far Cry games are also good at this. Really, it seems like it’s the only thing Ubisoft still knows how to do anymore. They made Renaissance Florence and Venice in Assassin’s Creed II and then Far Cry 3 had the whole “murder vacation in a tropical paradise” thing and then they made those two games but in new locations for ten years. And, honestly, I think the biggest problem with their method is that they kept listening to people who wished they were making different video games and making feeble, half-hearted attempts to do that. People complained that the Assassin’s Creed series was too easy, so they made it noticeably harder in Unity, but they didn’t spontaneously transform into FromSoftware or Rocksteady, so it’s really just the same old shallow combat they’ve always had but less forgiving. It’s not super creatively fulfilling to stumble across a formula that can work with minimal alteration across a massive variety of different settings, but it works, and I really don’t think there’s anything noble about turning your nose up to the sure thing.

Pokemon had the same gig going, and the bloom did finally come off that rose in Sword and Shield, but I would argue that a major reason for this is precisely because they weren’t willing to remain a 2D sprite-based game, one which could keep making use of all the assets they’d created for extant Pokemon in gens III-V. Instead, not only did they go 3D, they escalated to consoles, and their ever-expanding monster roster has now gotten ahead of their ability to design new sprites from scratch. Since their graphical arms race prevents them from using any of their old work, more and more of their focus is put into updating mons instead of making the new games good, and it shows. Not only that, but their ability to update the mons has finally been exceeded by the number of mons and scale of graphics, and now I can’t have Houndoom in Galar.

(It doesn’t help that Pokemon is unwilling to hold onto improvements like Z-evolutions, swarm battles, or contests, but that’s a different issue)

There are some game franchises which really do work just fine by just plunking the existing game mechanics down into a new setting, and the main focus for those game franchises should be a combination of making sure the new setting is properly evoked (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’ Istanbul felt almost identical to Brotherhood’s Rome, and that was a problem) and in not fucking up the core gameplay the way Assassin’s Creed games are constantly, fruitlessly being harmed by tweaks to the combat and parkour systems that already worked fine in Assassin’s Creed II and didn’t need to be meddled with or burdened with dumb gimmicks that were obviously not going to be worthwhile additions even at the concept stage, like the hooked blade from Revelations that lets you grab ledges one foot higher than before or the zipline thing from Syndicate (major additional gameplay elements like the tower defense game from Revelations get to stay, because even though that one didn’t work, sometimes it results in things like the naval travel/combat in Black Flag).