Wednesday, December 10, 2014

XBox One and Assassin's Creed Unity Bundle: A Review

The holidays are upon us and with it, toys, gadgets and new technology that speaks to the kid in all of us. From a pricing standpoint, the time around Black Friday is one of the best times to buy a gaming console. Often you'll find prices that are unmatched during the rest of the year. Last year, with the launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 consoles, it was another round of the console wars. And while the media plays it as a simple "which platform to choose" queestion, like switching cell phones or operating systems, the decision isn't as simple as this one or that one, with the entrenched user base and established locks playing a factor in the overall decision. In short, if you were already playing on one platform, upgrading was one consideration; but, switching across platforms, that requires a different level of consideration.

For people who have gamed on the Xbox console, Microsoft didn't make it easy with the Xbox One. When announced, the Xbox one had lower graphic performance specs that the PS4, forced you to use a Kinect, and forced an online presence and licensing terms that would limit the viability of the used game market. When the introduction of the XBone was met with a collective, "really?", Microsoft began a PR war, backpedaling from some of these features, bumping the processor speed, and enabling a "software disable" for the Kinect. Still, it wasn't enough and the sales of XBone lagged behind the "you can't find one" PS4 during the 2013 holiday season.

In 2014, you also saw game makers rolling out their new games on the Xbox 360, possibly offering an XBone version, but not forcing a migration. The Xbox 360 hadn't been EOLed, it was just quietly continuing to be good enough for most users. For many Xbox platform users, XBone was a "perhaps sometime in the future" upgrade, worth considering once Microsoft stopped acting so much like the Microsoft that rules the world and more like the Microsoft that made "the gamer's" platform.

For the holiday season in 2014, Microsoft began offering a Kinect-less Xbone, priced lower than the PS4. Theoretically, with a year of manufacturing them, they've worked out some of the hardware issues, but you never know -- Xbox has a long history of things like RROD. But hey, now with the XBone, they've completely eliminated one of their historical hardware problems, there is no more red ring.

And with the holidays comes game bundles. There are a couple of options for 2014, but Costco was offering a semi-black-Friday deal on the Assassin's Creed bundle, with the new Assassin's Creed Unity and Assassin's Creed IV/Black Flag. Black Flag came out last year and was available on the Xbox 360, but Unity is only available on the one (or PS4). After a bit of debate and some comparison of the upcoming pricing options, we decided to buy the bundle at Costco, reassured by Costco's awesome return practices that if anything went wrong, we could bring it back.

Of course, wrong doesn't begin to address the software train wreck that currently resides inside that plastic.

First, the XBox One
With some excitement and pics texted to gaming friends, we completed the ceremonial unboxing. Then, it was time to plug it up. After some basic configuration, the first thing that the "I Must Have Broadband" XBone wanted to do was a system update -- a nearly 1GB download. Having completed it's system update, it then walked you through a series of privacy agreements and basic interface settings before dropping you into the chaotic mess that is the basic OS, sort of a Windows 8 inspired assortment of tiles.

When you're dealing with a touchscreen like a tablet or a phone, you can it's easy to jump from one area of the screen to another. Not so with a mouse. It's even worse with the joystick on a game controller. I'm not a fan.

Perhaps the worst feature of the interface is this "Snap" feature. If you pop the power button on the controller, up pops this snap sidebar. This sidebar will stay with you regardless of the what's going on on the other screen. At one point in the midst of game play and trying to adjust settings, the snap bar popped open and it took fifteen minutes of back and forth between the main interface and the game just to get the snap sidebar to close -- because multi-tasking is so important when you're playing a game on a console.

Another thing that set off the horrific Snap experience was the search to try and change the brightness output on the XBone. The search for settings adjustment in the XBone was another 30 minute affair, punctuated by landing in a "calibrate your display for Xbox", that basically informed you to change the settings on your TV. The XBone isn't too dark, it's your TV that doesn't work correctly.

Multi-tasking and Retained States
The XBone has some features that seem like they'd be handy if you're a gamer and you have a one-to-one relationship with your console. When you restart the XBone, if you are logged in as the same person playing the same game as your last session, it remembers where you stopped and it restores your session -- no more re-watching the launch screen, you're back in the action at the same place that you left. Unfortunately, if that place was an interface bug (a common event in AC Unity), simply closing out of the game will not remedy it.

Again, if the purpose of this device is to be your entertainment center controller, then you may find this level of retained states and multi-tasking support helpful, but if you think your game console something that you want to play games on, then you may find this to be yet another feature that you curse about on the system.

Assassin's Creed Unity - The Crashiest AC EVAH!
After updating the XBone and sifting through the OS to find where to enter the game download code, next it was time to download the new AC Unity. I queued it up and began the download. In reading the paper disclaimer, it notes that AC Unity can take up to 50GB of space on your XBox hard disk. This was going to be a massive download, so I decided to make dinner while it downloaded. As I started to make dinner, I thought that it might be handy to put something on the TV while making food. On the Xbox 360, we have the Amazon Prime app installed, and we'll sometimes use it. As I went to fire up Amazon on the XBone (one of the tiles), it told me that I needed to download the updated app -- which it happily queued behind my AC Unity download. No multi-threaded downloads on this system.

What did surprise me though was, partway through making dinner, the console informed me that AC Unity was ready to play. Surprising, but it seemed like it would let me start with 'enough' downloaded -- sort of like a cached streaming video. What it seemed to do though, was let me play through an extended opening sequence before gearing itself up for a much longer complete download with no additional opportunities to play before the download was complete.

So let's talk about the game play
My first experiences with the game were... dark. Really dark. This is what sent me on the hunt to adjust the settings on the XBone, within the AC game, somewhere. There is a line between dramatic and playable, Assassin's Creed Unity seems to cross that threshold repeatedly. Several "night time" sequences were so dark, they were virtually unplayable. As with many aspects, it's difficult to measure whether this is the XBone or the AC Unity game.

By the time I did get to a daylight portion of the game, I was excited by the high resolution graphics. However, as I started playing through one of the 'chase' segments, I initially found the graphics to be a bit frustrating as it made it more difficult to identify and separate the important details from the unessential random graphic details.

There are other things that become more immediately apparent that you have probably read in other reviews. Probably my favorite in the Assassin's Creed series is AC 2. There are aspects that make the game like a tour of historic Italy. There's an immersive level of Italian language, including a fun level of Italian swear words. AC 2 is why "merda" and "requiescat in pace" entered my lexicon. But with Unity, while we have the French Revolution and all of it's immersive graphics, we get a comprehensive British accent overdub of everything. Despite Ubisoft's links to Montreal and, one would expect, the ability to turn out a product with some level of French feel, instead we are left with an environment that seems far less immersive that the version of the game that's five generations older. Devolution.

The other thing that has been an ongoing devolution in the series has been this increasing emphasis on cool action "parkour"moves. Sure it makes for cool video sequences to see your character make running, sliding hops over tables and under gates, but it seems as though many of these are added while sacrificing overall playability. And, while it's mildly amusing the first time your Arno character does a little cartwheel-like spin at the top of the building, it becomes rather tiring rather quickly. Similarly, the parkour emphasis means that sometimes your free run along the outcroppings of buildings will be supplemented by grabbing the building wall and doing a blind spin -- visually interesting the first time you do it, but equally as likely to interrupt your run and send you off in a direction that you didn't intend to go.

Simpler is Not Always Better
Free running has been evolving over the course of the series. At one time, you needed to use a combination of buttons to free run, but with Unity, you free run by pulling the trigger and use the A or B button as a modifier for "up" or "down". On the one hand, down makes a handy way to down-climb from a building, regardless of what the side looks. It also reduces the number of times that you find yourself accidentally leaping off a building and desyncing. At the same time, it's taken some of the challenge away. You hardly need to control your direction as the software will land you on the right place most of the time.

This same "make it simpler" has changed several other aspects of the climbing interface. While AC2 featured climbing puzzles that could frequently frustrating in their "you must be facing in exactly this direction and execute the correct key combination to make a side-leap off a wall in order to reach the ledge" kind of challenges, AC Unity has virtually removed things like jumping backwards from a hanging position on one wall to grasp at a ledge or handhold behind you. Now the interface features "Wall Eject" as an option, but more often than not, it doesn't even work. Even "Drop" sometimes doesn't work. This leads to numerous game hangs if you find yourself in a buggy location. I've gotten hung on a wall inside a building, two feet above the floor, in a corner next to a plant -- and the interface wouldn't accept any inputs. I would rather accidentally leap to my death than have the safety on the interface say, "nope".

Which brings me to another problem with the interface on this. Often, the engine finds itself switching back and forth between views as you jump between buildings. It's related to the not being able to do the back leap and the engine's seeming desire to give you a straight-ahead view. With several rapid changes in perspective, it becomes easy to lose any sense of real location. Sometimes during a fast down-climb, you'll find yourself facing the wrong direction and, correspondingly, interrupting your descent.

At the same time, one of the cool features is the number of "inside building" spaces that you have. Now, buildings are no longer solid objects, instead having floors and complete inside environments. For the most part, the inside buildings are a nice addition, but it's often frustrating trying to go through a window, even when the tip suggests "use left trigger to enter a window". In all, I would say that windows are still buggy.

Speaking of Bugs
You've probably heard and read a lot about the bugs. The AC series has always been kind of buggy, but Unity takes it to new levels. Playing on a recent Sunday, I think that the game went through eight or nine crashes that forced it to reboot. Essentially, it was play for 45 minutes or so, then crash. Repeat. Finally, midway through a memory mission, when I got hung up on the wall, I quit for the day. Gave up.

It's so buggy that, around Thanksgiving weekend Ubisoft pushed out a large update with something like 3000 bug fixes -- and it's still super buggy. They also sent an email providing the Dead Kings DLC to everyone for free. Another frustrating bug is this "Initiates" feature. Within the game, they've created this Initiates ranking that should link a registered user to their gaming history and provide them with access to things like additional clothing sets. It's the thing that remembers whether you finished the other Assassin's Creed games and things like that. The problem is that, for me and a number of users like me, whenever you try to connect to the Initiates function, it spits out an error and won't connect. That also means that a whole collection of yellow chests (and other in-game items) are essentially unavailable to you. Not a great experience for long term, theoretically loyal customers.

Multiplayer is Amusing
One nice thing about Unity is the multiplayer missions. Select a multiplayer mission and the software searches the cloud for others that are interested in collaboratively playing through a mission. Upon completion, everyone gets some skill upgrade points (only the first run through) and an armor item. While it may sound strange seeing another 1-3 people driving similarly enabled assassins through a collaborative mission, it's actually pretty cool. The missions with three or four tend to play better because they are less dependent on the coordination and collaboration between individuals. And yet, it's kind of interesting to see similar styles of game play and even, essentially uncoordinated collaboration towards a common goal. This is another nice addition.

XBox One and Assassin's Creed Unity: A Bundle Made in Error
Ultimately, there's a level of irony to the XBone / AC Unity bundle. The odds are pretty high that, if that wasn't a bundled option, we probably wouldn't have taken the XBox One console home this holiday season. Currently, there are still enough new titles -- like Dragon Age or Borderlands -- that are also available on XBox 360, that the change isn't quite mandatory. And while the graphics are nice, it's not so compelling an update that migration is a must.

At the same time, between the XBone interface and the bugs in the Assassin's Creed game, I must say that I don't love this console. Considering that, between sequences or fast travel transitions in Unity, it generates a load screen that takes a minute or more (which I believe may be related to the streaming loading of data) to resolve, it becomes a tiresome journey working your way through the game. As noted, the game has also generated more lock-ups and crashes than any console game that I've played, ever. As someone who's just stepped into this platform, it can be so bad that it might make you want to go back to the Xbox 360. We've been told by friends of ours that their experience with Halo not as bad -- like no crashes bad -- so it may be the software and not the platform. But still. I would have thought that somebody and Microsoft or Ubisoft would have said, it's not ready, you can't serve this to customers.

As for Ubisoft, I wish that they didn't seem compelled to crank out a new title each year and would instead focus on improving the depth and flow of the story and the gameplay. While we've been amused at how smoothly the graphics flow from cut scene to action with little degradation, couldn't we take advantage of that to reduce the number of cut scenes? Ultimately, I feel like Ubisoft has targeted a lowest common denominator demographic with the game play and the voicing where they could have done better bringing in closer to the AC 2 environment. I get the sense that they were drawn that way -- sort of the "let's get away from sailing" thing -- but still tried to keep it "safe".

No comments: