Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

One of the nicer things from the past few years in big box games is both Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed edging away from many of their less savoury elements and, as a result, making me pull fewer faces in their direction, becoming games I want to play and look forward to more of. Saints Row Syndrome, if you will.

In the case of Far Cry it’s been the slow but sure erosion of some of its nastier elements, culminating in the much less obnoxious than 5 (and very colourful) New Dawn and in Assassin’s Creed it’s the shift towards much breezier, less aggressively policed, adventuring in quasi-historical settings.

Also, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey lets you climb Zeus’s titty. This is important.

Because I’m nothing if not the videogame equivalent of a trainspotter (a gamespotter?), there’s a certain pleasure in watching how the people making these things move closer and closer to their ideals of what they want the game to be. Something made possible by the iterative approach Ubi afford to their game series.

Where a lot of games zig and zag from one entry to the next, there’s a clear line of progress found in Ubi titles (especially since the whole furore about Assassin’s Creed: Unity).

I take a ridiculous amount of joy from seeing if I can spot the stuff that’ll be kept and the stuff that’ll be discarded, seeing what will be cross pollinated to other series and how that emerges. It’s a fascinatingly public (and long term as games take ages to make) insight into how games move forward mainly through variations on a theme, rather than huge innovations.

And oh, the craft. There’s some incredibly impressive (and sometimes frankly showy offy) stuff found in these things. Yes, the success, money and team size of a big box game lends itself to more bombastic videogames, the real beauty for me is in how it affords teams the ability to include the little moments too time consuming or expensive for smaller outfits.

It’s the person in the background doing something, it’s the way the boat drifts seamlessly into dock and it somehow feels like a boat being moored, it’s the least videogamey stuff in videogames. It’s the stuff that lets folk really show off the skills they bring into videogames, the marriage of so many disciplines that go into making things shine.

From QA to art to sound to toolmakers and everyone else. It’s adding a more human element to a bunch of zeroes and ones and it’s literally all in the details.

It’s not something I value over and above the magic smaller teams can achieve, the tangents they can go on, avenues they can take us down, it’s just one more thing I enjoy in videogames. One more “Wait, we can do that? Woah” to a list of many.

Assassin’s Creed:Odyssey is chock full of this stuff. It is videogame excess in craft and in length, in art, sound and in an absurd amount of human effort spent on making it exist. It’s almost the poster child for it, a big showy “look what we can do” built on a familiar formula tuned to very much allow for this sort of thing.

I’m enjoying it hugely and like I said, it lets you climb Zeus’s titty and more videogames should do that. It’d get points for that alone.

Watching: Chinnyvision on SmashTV

I’m a few weeks behind on my regular Chinny watching but for those new to it, it’s a show (mainly) dedicated to comparing ports of 8 bit games, running on the original hardware wherever possible.

Whilst I absolutely understand the need to get as much parity between versions of modern games, there’s a joy to be had in how games used to be almost like “here’s the first one and here’s five cover versions of it”, or whatever. It led to some often fascinating diversions, not always for the best either but them’s the breaks.

SmashTV isn’t really the greatest example of that really but it’s a game I have a fairly complicated relationship with. It should, by rights, be a game that I adore. Kitsch gameshow, bit of action movie silliness in a Robotron pudding and yet, I find it almost unbearable to play because of how rigidly designed around extracting money from the player the game is. In its arcade form, it’s pretty bloody brutal and not in my preferred way. It’s a game of endurance primarily and that’s very not my bag.

As if to compound things, having ports handled by Probe was never going to ease that any. At the time they were rather notorious for putting an awful lot of effort into enormous showy graphics when that rather literally would have to come at the cost of the game. The huge sprites of Trantor made it as close to unplayable a game as can be without being obtuse, the elegance of Dan Dare 1 & 2 entirely lost in Probe’s own sequel. I can’t say I was a fan.

And as Chinny’s video here shows, SmashTV is very much the archetypal Probe port in a couple of its iterations. The cut to the C64 version is jarring as the game loses the excessive and needless Probe-isms in favour of a starker, more traditional arcade style and it’s so, so much better.

Anyway, Chinny wades into the ports with the usual gusto so that’s enough from me.

Chinny’s Patreon is here. Subscribe to their YouTube here.

Reading: Get equipped with righteous violence…

Reminding myself that I have a copy of Treachery In Beatdown City that I really need to get round to playing this week, Dia is as on the ball as ever over on Paste.

It’s not trying for some vision of a perfect fantasy of leftist politics. Its sense of civility stops at “please stop fucking with me or I’ll beat your ass.”

It’s 2020 and being told to be nice towards people who’d gladly off you got old a long while back. I suspect me and Treachery In Beatdown City will get on just fine.

Watching: Beyond The Scanlines 31

I’ll admit that these days I find most things flight-simulatory require a bit more effort than I’m willing to put in but I’m still fascinated by older ones. (I am still me, after all)

Mind you, due to a) being skint and b) being drunk at the time, I have a huge gap when it comes to console stuff. Luckily, there’s good folks to fill in the gaps. Here’s (an entirely different) Rob on F16 Fighter.

Support Rob via their Patreon and/or give their YouTube a fabled like and subscribe here.

Christopher Lee And Shrubbery

If you ever want to shut me up for an hour and a half (a totally understandable goal) then the easiest way to do it would be to sit me down with a pulpy adventure novel, an old comic or a black and white film, TV series, or whatever. Not just any old stuff, mind. I do like my tat. A bit of the old what ho pip pip with space zombies or a rogue mummy or something, no budget too small, and I’m an incredibly happy Bob.

I’m not embarrassed to confess that a few years back, I realised that even if I never ventured past stuff made before 1960, there would still be so much stuff to keep me content until the day I climb the curtain rail and join the choir invisible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t stick to stuff before 1960 (I’d struggle to write about videogames for one thing) but that I could was a wonderfully comforting thought.

The joy of these things for me is best summed up by Christopher Lee (for my money, the best film Dracula) describing his time in Hammer Horror films: “You’re treading such a very, very narrow line between credibility and absurdity”.

Credibility and absurdity! That’s absolutely it. You can tell me a shrubbery is a deadly weapon providing everybody around it can convince me they really believe it (or, alternately, have enough fun with it that the enjoyment becomes rather infectious). As long as it can be made to seem credible within the fiction, we’re good. And bonus! One of the many pleasures of a good B movie, pulp story or comic or whatever is that you can’t really rule out someone trying to convince you that the deadly weapon is a shrubbery.

Thinking a bit more on this whilst I sat waiting for the kettle to boil, I realised that this is precisely the thing that I look for in a lot of my favourite videogames. Not necessarily a shrubbery (though I am a huge fan) but that conviction in walking that very fine line between credibility and absurdity.

How much of this I take for granted too! Even the most ordinary of videogames can’t resist the allure of a pair of trousers that make you cast even better magic spells, a first aid box that gives your heavily armed hedgehog super strength. Credibility and absurdity! Though perhaps a little less Christopher Lee and maybe more Wile E Coyote’s shopping list. Not that I mind, they’re both titans of the big screen.

Oh, and with some of their finest work before 1960. Perfect.

No Man’s Sky in 2020

It’s been nearly four years now and I’m still enamoured with No Man’s Sky. You’d think I’d be bored really but nope, I’m not bored of it in the slightest.

I’m sure it helps that like a lot of games these days, it’s an evolving experience. Originally a curious mix of (the also excellent) Out There and a stranger, much much older approach to the open world game, it was a game out of time and out of step with trends. A larger debt owed to the original Elite, to Mercenary, to Tau Ceti and the likes than to the Ubisoft template employed by so many games.

Whilst No Man’s Sky never really transitioned to that template it has, over time, become a more gentle experience. No longer a universe filled with glorious nothing, it’s now inhabited by other people, a shared universe in a literal sense. There’s a hub where strangers and friends can meet, visit each other’s building works, share treasures and goods amongst fellow travellers as they’re passing through.

You can still happily ignore all that for the most part because the universe is enormous, because there’s enough room for huge amounts of people to continue to discover the undiscovered. Without accessing the hub you can go days, weeks, months without encountering anyone else. Or just flat out turn the multiplayer component off and never see another soul ever.

It’s a largely generous game with the exception of the tightly regulated availability of the Quicksilver currency, used for grabbing cosmetic extras. Elsewhere pain points are fewer, the recent missions to acquire a living spacecraft making for a notable agonising exception.

Sure, that’s all (bad stuff aside!) helped me want to stick with the game. I’m glad I got to play and enjoy the curio that the game launched as but I’m far more content to noodle within its spaces today. It’s generally just kinda nicer, you know?

And oh, it looks so much better too. Each major update has brought upheavals to the art style. It’s not *always* quite as coherent as it should be but it has become more and more something really quite remarkable over the years. Colours, props, the way the worlds are generated have been vastly improved over time. In 2020, it looks much more beautiful than it ever promised to be.

Again, again, I’m not entirely without complaints. The washed out colours of the creatures the player encounters on their travels has been a bugbear since the earliest versions. At least now they’re largely not just an awful shade of yellow more often than not but they’re still not great. The same often applies to the props too. I find myself perpetually longing for the flora and fauna to be more vibrant. (And we don’t speak about the atrocious rain texture either because dear me).

But mainly, it’s beautiful. Beautiful enough that I’ve racked up thousands of screenshots and still find taking pictures a joy. Beautiful enough that it can still leave me in awe, when I’ve surely peeked into every nook and cranny the game has.

That’s really something, thousands of hours spent inside its universe and almost four years since launch. It’s still impressing me.

The most enjoyable thing for me though (and I do appreciate this would also be the stuff that confounds some) is that many additions to the game exist with no grand purpose inside the main game. All terrain vehicles, futuristic motorbikes, submarines, living spaceships and most recently, mechs have little great utility beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and yes, yes, it would. If you want to accumulate a freighter, a bunch of spacecraft you can pilot, frigates you can send off to explore the stars you can. There’s even a bytebeat device that you can program to play tunes because why not.

That’s the thing I love in a lot of games and especially adore in No Man’s Sky. Popping things in there because why not? Because it seemed like a good idea, because it might be fun, because it might just look fine, because it might give someone (player or developer) a giggle for five seconds. All valid. All exciting prospects to me.

And I guess when it comes to the crunch, that’s the reason I’m still there, still tootling away in the vast universe that Hello have conjured into being. After 4 years, No Man’s Sky doesn’t feel any less of a dream game for me. Over time, it’s become more so. And so much of that more so can be traced to some folk sitting there in a room and going “I could put a mech in…?” and then putting a mech in because they can. And, of course, for the game being the eternal 70’s sci fi book cover generator I fell in love with to begin with.

Always that, yeah.

Dead End Job

Honestly, I think Ant Workshop, makers of Dead End Job, should be in touch with the Guinness Book Of Records because if they’re not the frontrunners, they’re definitely in with a shake for the Most Puns In A Videogame world record. In all my years (which are many), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes. It’s practically obscene.

Luckily, some truly rotten puns are a fairly good way to crack a smile out of me! The more of a leap, the better. Which pretty much means I spent way, way more time laughing at Dead End Job than is probably healthy.

Such a relief too because as much as I adore videogames, what passes off as humour in videogames is fairly often lost on me. For every game that manages to sneak a memorable joke under the radar, there’s a thousand where the joke is “I just said that thing off the internet” and oh, oh dear. Please, no.

So yeah, Dead End Job got more than its fair quota of laughs out of me. It’s also a really grand looking and sounding game. Styling itself around the idea of what if Ghostbusters arrived freshly formed as a nineties MTV-era cartoon, it doesn’t exactly pick itself an easy look to pull off. It does pull it off though, incredibly well.

Everything bops and squidges nicely, characters land somewhere between cute and grotesque in that oh so very nineties fashion, it even has title cards for the start of each mission! And it’s a small touch but one I loved, Dead End Job does that sort of “meanwhile, back at the house…” interstitial scene cartoons lifted from a myriad of sitcoms over the years complete with guitar break. Oh, and it has a theme song too because of course it does. If you’re going to do this stuff then might as well go all in and then some, eh?

It’s a pleasingly tough but not too tough twin stick shooter. You’re tasked with clearing an area out to earn money, each area is (as is oh so in vogue at the moment) made up of a shuffled around selection of rooms. Clear all the rooms, rescue a couple of folk on the way, get out and cash up then head onto the next bunch of rooms.

It’s a fairly routine set up made more interesting by having to work around incredibly cluttered rooms where things often have a tendency to explode, managing some (thankfully far, far from obnoxious) weapon cooldown timers and having to catch the ghosts with your ghost vacuum in fairly short order after hitting them with your definitely not a proton pack (honest guv) laser beam.

Everything is so big and chunky that there isn’t quite as much room to muck around in as you need so making space (by blowing things up) becomes a priority very quickly. Ghosts also have a tendency to leave slime trails behind them which should you try and wade through them, slow you down. There’s always plenty to be taking into account in order to make the space less cramped and more amenable to a bit of busting.

There’s a reasonably sized bestiary of ghouls and ghosts to catch, certainly far more than many games would bother with, and best of all the game allows you to rename each and every one of them. Not since Fable 2 have so many things found themselves mysteriously called Bernard by my hand. Look, I know it’s a problem I have, I’m trying to be better but gnnnnng BERNARD.

I really, really enjoyed myself with Dead End Job and it’s one I can see myself coming back to for a good few years. Helped, in no small amount, by it making me smile so much with its awful, awful puns.

Dead End Job is on Windows, PS4, Switch, Xbox One and Apple Arcade. It’s (wait for it) dead good.

Assault Android Cactus

Look, I’m not sure how I managed to make it through to 2020 and have nothing on here about Assault Android Cactus before now but it’s clearly incredibly slack of me because Assault Android Cactus is wonderful.

It’s been pretty wonderful for the near five years it’s been out there now too. I’ve been enjoying it on and off for most of those five years as well.

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been slacking here. Five bloody years! Molyneux save me. It’d be excusable if it wasn’t one of my favourite things.

To be honest, I kind of know why I’ve been putting it off. It’s an easy game to do a mammoth injustice to because when you write it all down it’s easy to go “so, err, what?”. It’s an intimately familiar looking, familiar feeling videogame. It’s born of purest Dreamcast, not the Sega Blue Skies of a thousand UK Resistance dreams but the final gasp of the arcade at home before digital downloads changed so much. It *looks* like a Dreamcast game too, though obviously more as my memory would like to convince me of what the games looked like than what they really did. It’s got a vibe. It’s good. It’s committed. It deserves the right words.

There’s so much game there too. It’s positively abundant. Ridiculously so! Full on call the cops and arrest these people for making the rest of us look like we don’t put enough game in a videogame stuff. I’m not sure I’ve played a twin stick shooter that crams quite so much in and where so little of it feels superfluous.

Some of it is unsurprising – multiple characters with different weaponry, ridiculous cosmetic tweaks (normal head mode! JJ mode for when you need so much lens flare you can’t see the screen! More!) – it’s a lot but it’s kinda an expected lot.

What isn’t quite so expected is the amount of videogame scenes the game runs through. At times it feels like an A-Z of arcade videogame levels. Never pastiche, never a nod and a wink, videogame levels because there’s something the game can do with them. It reminds me of Mutant Storm Empire in that regard though much, much, much more focused.

Early on you find yourself riding a very videogame lift, you know the kind – it’s in a hundred or so FPS, a multitude of top down shooters, it’s in Valve’s Alien Swarm, even Destiny couldn’t resist the lure of riding a lift whilst aliens hem you in from all sides. Then before you know it, it’s a stage where robots are pouring out of the floor, there’s lasers everywhere, flames, bullets, pick ups and there’s a stage where the room is built around you and then and then and then.

It’s like the team responsible wanted to cram every idea they had for games into one game. It’s astounding. More so when you realise how normal this sort of thing used to be, how arcade games at home would let themselves spiral outwards rather than just retain a really narrow focus, done well. I didn’t even realise how much I missed that but I do. I really do. It makes me feel spoilt, ruined, like you can’t possibly be giving me all this? Seriously, you are? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Oh, there’s local co-op too because of course there is. Why leave any stone unturned?

It’d all be for nothing if it didn’t play so well, obviously. Which it does! It plays wonderfully, always pushing you into the swarms of killer drones rather than running backwards, rather than the circling of Geometry Wars. Wade in, knee deep in roboguts, needing to grab batteries to make it to the end of a stage alive. It takes no time to find the rhythm the game wants you to fall into, alternating between primary and secondary weapons, rushing for power ups, aiming for that ever enticing higher score.

Gosh. I love Assault Android Cactus so much, you know? There’s few games I’d use the term masterpiece for but in this case, Team Witch Beam have worked for it and earned it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the right and proper good stuff. It’s an arcade game, a not Dreamcast really but totally Dreamcast videogame that the best part of five years on still excites me.

Which, let’s face it that’s what you want from an arcade game. Okay, okay, it’s what I want anyway. I genuinely couldn’t ask for more. Well, except maybe for some fish but that’s just me. Maybe the next one, eh?