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AC: Brotherhood’s Confidence Issues

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer remains one of the simultaneously most frustrating and rewarding experiences that I find myself crawling back to.

Engaging in tense firefights as gunships scream overhead is one thing; the heart-pounding anticipation of casually stalking and gradually approaching an unsuspecting player as he tries in vain to hide from an unseen assailant by failing to disappear into a crowd? That’s another sensation entirely.

Ubisoft has hit on something that I’m excited to see more of as hardcore multiplayer games make a segmented migration towards more nuanced modes of competitive play. In Brotherhood, it’s not so much the quantity of the kills one makes as it is the quality of the kill. All of the sprinting controls and free-running abilities demonstrated by Altair and Ezio in the two previous single-player iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series are possible in multiplayer, but the game doesn’t recommend using these maneuvers. In fact, it downright discourages it.

 

 

Using the story conceit of the Animus and the millenia-old ongoing struggle between the heroic Assassins and the tyrannical Templars, the multiplayer mode is explained away as a training simulation for Templars to utilize so as to better understand their Assassin enemies in fully realized cutscene that plays the first time players jump into multiplayer. The player assumes the role of one of many different character skins, the match then populates the map with multiple copies of identical chosen character skins, and their goal is to then pick out actual players from crowds of copies and eliminate them.

At any given time, the player will be assigned a “contract”, or an image of the skin that the player’s target is wearing. And it’s not that easy to pick out the intended target from copies. Copies will speed up their step, walk one direction only to turn 180 degrees and backtrack, and they’ll travel in packs, too. Killing copies willy-nilly until the intended player is hit isn’t possible: as soon as the player kills one wrong target, he is immediately assigned a new contract.

In order to pick the correct target out from the clones, the player is given a detection meter in the form of a radial compass. At maximum distance, the compass points out the location of the target player. As the player approaches his target, the compass fills in more and more until the player is within killing distance of his target, at which point the compass fills up completely and emits a light ringing sound.

When stalking targets, the player needs to keep his target’s “awareness”, or a passive defensive meter, into account. Running at full speed at the target immediately puts the target in “high alert” status, which is signaled on the other end by war drums and the words ‘ESCAPE YOUR PURSUER’ flashing in red on the screen. Should the target break from his pursuer’s line of sight and hide for a set amount of time, the pursuer’s contract is lost automatically and the target is in the clear.

 

 

This is where some of that aforementioned frustration sets in and things begin to fall apart. Single kills are awarded a base 100 points each, but then different bonuses are stacked on top of the base value. Eliminating a target with an increased step will either net a 50 point ‘Discreet’ or 100 point ‘Silent’ bonus, depending on the target’s awareness at time of death. Managing to flank a target without running or giving any hint as to the player’s true identity nets a whopping 300 point ‘Incognito’ bonus. In theory, the kill ranking logic is a system founded on the concept of  diminishing returns: in the time it takes one player to dart around the map and land 4 no-bonus kills, another more skilled player could easily earn the first player’s point value and more simply through patient, clean kills.

There’s a lot about the multiplayer and stealth design to admire. Ubisoft Montreal has created a very elegant system that makes sense in performing a series of checks and balances against reckless game play. However, the multiplayer system does nothing to check and balance player attitudes and eventual escalation.

What I mean by ‘escalation’ is this: more often than not, many of the players do not employ the bonuses attributed to quality kills. They’ll clamber up and perch on rooftops and earn 100 point-only kills using the hidden gun perk and perform 150 point aerial kills, and then immediately dart off. In order to pursue these targets, players will have to employ the same “tactic” of running at full speed and using long-range weapons with equally long cooldowns in order to successfully hit their target. More often than not, this will expose the player to their target, meaning that upon successful capture, the player will earn a paltry 100 points only. Escalation is when these players set the tactics and strategies (or lack thereof) that will determine the rest of the match’s tempo and speed.

This issue is compounded by an otherwise excellent tension-building mechanic in place, which sics more and more lower-ranking players on players ranked at the top of the list.  The player sitting in first place will have as many as four simultaneous lower-ranked players pursuing him at once, which means players at the bottom of list have to compete for the same target. 9 times out of 10, it will be the jackrabbit player that reaches him first, and here’s where it falls apart: the total 100 points the conspicuous player receives is not enough to bridge the point deficiency between low and high ranked players, meaning that once a match gains its tempo, it’s difficult to create any kinds of shifts in power, no matter how careful lower-ranked players are.

Each time I’ve played the Wanted game mode, I’ve always ranked in the top three slots without break in consistency. At the end-match tallies, the surface of the point total I’ve gathered from my 6 kills and 8 deaths can’t even be scratched by a player who has 12 kills and 4 deaths. A few times when I was ahead, I would mess around with the rankings and experiment. If I managed to hit over 1000 points in the first two minutes of play, chances are I’d be ranked on top. With at least a 400 point lead on the 2nd-ranked player, I started to sprint wherever I went. This caused two things; the four people chasing after me had to expose themselves every time, which meant minimal points if they managed to catch me. 50% of the time, someone did, but the rest of the time I’d use chase breakers to lock three of them out and then hide from the last pursuer in the bushes. Not only did that reset their contracts, but it earned me points for successful evasion. This gave me time to go after my contract, which was a nice breather. Because I’m at the top of the list, I’m not competing with other people for my kill. My position at the top is more or less secured. It’s things like this which make the multiplayer both exhilirating and frustrating.

 

 

My frustration is two-fold. The designers at Ubisoft Montreal have created what might be one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of all time, so I can’t quite fault them for what might be construed as poor design. However, while the multiplayer fully condones stealthy, observant gameplay, it does nothing to penalize those who set a standard of play that is incongruent with the design. I say incongruent because while it’s possible for twitchy, KDR-obsessed players to raise the bar in terms of rhythm, there’s no way for deliberate, cautious players to pull the proverbial bar back down. True, I did mention that there’s a deterrent in the form of incognito versus non-discreet kills, but it’s not a strong enough deterrent. The throwing knives perk unlocked at level 19 prevent quick-footed players from scaling up walls, but using it feels more like a concession that the designers fully anticipated this type of multiplayer environment than anything useful like the smoke bomb or disguise.

What the multiplayer is effectively doing is not outright penalizing or punishing stealthy players, but rather forcing them to adopt the sloppy methodology of their opponents. I can’t say enough good things about what Ubisoft Montreal has created, but consistent design isn’t one of those things. The multiplayer design is a mildly schizophrenic, self-conscious affair: the designers want players to play one way and promote this through mechanics and rewards, but it won’t risk turning off players who want to play an entirely different way. Something as simple as a 100 point reduction for every three to five non-stealthy kills  a reckless player makes would force players to re-evaluate their strategies without turning them off from the entire experience.

Before a game can provide something for every type of player out there, it first needs to have confident design that rewards players for utilizing the systems in place and recognizing and harnessing the patterns around them. On the same note, I wouldn’t dare to accuse Brotherhood‘s multiplayer for being wishy-washy. It’s not that. It just has a self-confidence issue it needs to overcome.

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There’s no “Me” in “Kill Streaks”, but there should be

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

For a multiplayer game that offers so many game modes centered around the conceit of teams battling teams, some of Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards  since the first Modern Warfare are very odd beasts in regards to what they’re meant to accomplish and what they incentivize. One could argue that Call of Duty‘s kill streak rewards were never meant to incentivize anything but player performance. In theory, these rewards are ultimately a useful motivator because veteran players attain that quick moment of satisfaction, and newer and more unexperienced players use the frequency of kill streaks they rack up as both a short-term goal to achieve and as moment-to-moment skill gauge.

 

 

I’m not saying all of Black Ops’ rewards are odd. I’ve always liked the UAV (Spy Plane in this one) reward because it provided a beneficial effect to the player’s team that was never felt too overpowered. Also, the latest addition of the SR-71 reward is great, in my opinion. The potentially destructive power bestowed by the SR-71 in locating all enemies at all times is still bottlenecked by the skill of the team exploiting the SR-71 to actually hunt down and eliminate their targets. These rewards don’t just generously affect the player’s entire team, they also emphasize and promote teamwork, providing cover fire, and mitigation of attrition.

The Tactical Nuke of Modern Warfare 2 is long gone (the total elasped time of one year feels like an entire generation when measured against the timeframe of the series’ prolific output), but the specter of what it entailed is still apparent in streak rewards like Chopper Gunner, Attack Dogs, and Gunship. Namely, the three kill streak rewards that rest at the top of reward list. It stands to reason that the only players who are able to hit the 9, 11, and 11 kill streaks, respectively, in order to unlock the reward’s effect are the most skilled in the match, and they attain these streaks by eliminating lesser skilled players.

Whenever I’ve racked up the 8 kills required (Hardline, thanks) to pilot a Chopper Gunner, my initial giddiness will always sour as I realize what I’m doing requires zero skill; enemies are painted in helpful red on the map, and it helps that the mounted machine gun never overheats, spits out insane rounds per second, and can shoot through just about any non-brick surface on the map. What I’m essentially doing is creating an un-level playing field, that, judging by the relative ease with which I obtained such a power, was never level to begin with. I’m in effect punishing the other team for not being as good of a player as I am. The last time I checked, something like this doesn’t fall under good sportsmanship; in real-life terms, this is akin to bullying.

 

 

While these rewards don’t exactly compare with the Tactical Nuke’s ridiculously arbitrary power, they still serve to promote that atmosphere of mean-spiritedness that I feel games like Call of Duty and its inevitable clones have co-opted and relied on more and more with each iteration. As a fan of most first-person shooters, including Call of Duty, I’m not sure I like the overall tone and identity competitive games such as Black Ops are assuming. More worrisome to me is the  selfish, insular psychology that kill streak rewards such as the ones I’ve listed encourages in players. For all the myriad team-based game modes Black Ops offers, there’s very little incentive for players to actually function as a team and coordinate tactics. The “Avenger” experience bonus is awarded only when you kill an enemy after he’s slain one of your teammates and minimal points are given for providing assists. True, there are point boosts for saving a wounded teammate, but that’s the extent of how deep these boosts get; there’s nothing that simultaneously rewards me for blinding an enemy with a flashbang and my teammate for then scoring a kill on him. It gets to a point that I’m not just locked in competition with the enemy team, but also with my teammates. I can safely say that I’m not a bad person for using the Chopper Gunner kill streak, and I’m also not petty for yelling at the teammate who just “stole” my kill, thus reducing my chance to unlock my reward. I use the Chopper Gunner because everyone’s using it, and while I may get additional points for damage inflicted, that stolen kill is one less notch on my KDR belt. And I can justify all of this because team-based game modes are ultimately about attrition, and by dealing out the amount of death I’ve thus created, I’m ultimately helping my team. Or at least, that’s one potential justification.

Please keep in mind that I’m not proposing some kind of egalitarian multiplayer system that rubber-bands the competition and handicaps accurate and strategic players for being “too good”, or however the game might define that within it’s parameters. While writing this, I’m aware of the fact that there will always be a rift between good and bad players, talented and less talented individuals. This is an unavoidable truth affixed to the societal and biological glue that holds our society together. I’m not discounting that. Rather, I’m in favor of more good ideas like the SR-71 that feel rewarding, promote a healthier playing field, and rely on skill to make full effect of. Without getting too political, I think games such as Call of Duty and its ilk have huge educational potential in not so much hard data and facts, but addressing the burgeoning social skills and interactions in younger players and cementing as well as affirming these skills in older, more mature players. Call of Duty and games like it do not need to tone or dumb down its violent subject matter; in the hands of a responsible parent, a first-person shooter has much an averse affect on a child’s development as any R-rated or TV-MA designated show the child will inevitably come across. All I’m saying is that this subject matter needs to be presented with a higher degree of responsibility and good taste. War may tap into some of mankind’s darker aspects, but games, even those based on war, shouldn’t have to.

Modern Warfare 2 already left a bad taste in my mouth by offering the player the “No Russian” stage, which promised thoughtful controversy but only mustered half-postured hand-wringing in the single player campaign, and then allowing the player to have clever tags such as “Joint Operations” and “Blunt Force Trauma” in the multiplayer. Not exactly the apex of the series’ finest moments. Black Ops‘ multiplayer is not so much an improvement over Modern Warfare 2‘s as it is a step backward and then two more steps in a separate direction (almost forgot to mention the Commando perk, which turned even the mousiest of players into Chow Yun-Fat). I like Black Ops, and I’ll continue playing with the Chopper Gunner and “Me versus them” attitude in tow. I just wish there was some way for me to get that lingering bad taste out of my mouth.