Ubisoft winter line-up preview

Assassin's Creed 2? Splinter Cell Conviction? Avatar: The Game? Red Steel 2? We've been trying them all out...

Pull out the warm coats, winter is almost upon us. But, as you turn up your collar, brace against the wind, and trundle through the sludgy paste of what was once fallen leaves, you can find some comfort in the highly impressive delights coming to home consoles over the next few months. Recently, French gaming behemoths Ubisoft were proudly displaying their tantalising wares in London, and we got to check them out. You can find out impressions of the big titles below.

Assassin’s Creed II (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) Out: November 20th 2009 Anticipation Level:

4 stars

A big, surprise hit when released back in late 2007, Assassin’s Creed became quite a sensation due to a snazzy promotional campaign and a nice air of mystique and exoticism. That it was quite flawed and a bit repetitive was only revealed after the first few hours of play, so attention is firmly on this soon-to-be-released sequel to perfect the stealthy, rooftop-traversing concept. The quick preview didn’t give much away about the game’s story, but it is already widely known that Assassin’s Creed II features a deeper story in both the ‘past’ and ‘future’ timelines, with the main plot following the life of Ezio, an Italian nobleman who pursues life as an assassin in the Renaissance period. While we didn’t get much of the story side of things (mostly, it was drowned out by New Kids On The Block’s Step By Step, being blurted out by the Just Dance demo station), we had a good look at the changes to the general gameplay made in the transition from the Holy Land to Italy. The segment took place in Venice, and was concerned with taking out various rooftop archer guards as part of an elaborate assassination plot. We chose to run around, instead.

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One immediate, yet subtle difference regards the architecture. Sure, Venice looks stupendous, and the addition of canals, gondolas, and the looming presence of St. Mark’s Basilica gives the game an identity of its own from the get-go. This segment took place at night (the game has a full day-night cycle), and showed off the beautiful colours and shades of a cityscape in the twilight, making it clear that the Renaissance has a distinct feel to it.

However, one thing we learned, as we went for our first rooftop jump, and tumbled to the ground, was that the streets and paths, narrow and warren-like in Damascus or Jerusalem, are slightly wider in Italy. This makes you rethink your tactics, as opposed to simply, blindly free-running around the city; crucially, also, the B button now has the character grab onto ledges mid-fall. Likewise, Ezio can disarm enemies, a move executed by a well-timed button press, which gives an extra dimension to the hack-and-slash of the combat.

Possibly the biggest addition that we checked out was the new economic system that is part of the game, with money being given for assassination jobs, and nearby pedestrians providing plenty of pockets to be picked.

Money can be spent on items, such as health vials, and upgrades for Ezio’s equipment (something we didn’t see). One nifty use of money, however, is as a distraction. If it is necessary to create a scene, or to draw attention away from Ezio, the player can chuck a handful of coins into the street, resulting in the local Venetians scrambling for the discarded change.

These little bits of polish and refinement show that Ubisoft Montreal mean business with Assassin’s Creed II, and there’s little doubt that the gaming public will be throwing their own cash at the title when it comes out in late November.

Splinter Cell Conviction (Xbox 360, PC) Out: February 26th 2010 Anticipation Level:

4 stars

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Splinter Cell is a tricky series to get a hold on. Some of us here at Geek Towers think it’s a little too pedantic in its stealth gameplay; punishing too much, and entertaining too little. However, with Conviction, Ubisoft Montreal seems to be moving in a good, more flexible direction with the series. We got to play a short, but continuous segment, originally mocked up for the Tokyo Game Show back in September, which left us pining for more.

Again, story was drowned out (this time by Gorillaz’ DARE), but the segment involved grizzly, stubbly Sam Fisher – now split from the Third Echelon organisation – infiltrating a large industrial warehouse, in order to rescue a scientist from some goons. While not giving too much away in terms of narrative depth, it nonetheless showed off some of the game’s nice little touches.

For starters, as has been evident from the various gameplay trailers that have leaked out since Conviction was shown at E3 earlier this year, the developers have come up with some great ideas in terms of in-game UI presentation. Most immediately, objectives are projected in huge letters on the environment – in this case, on the side of the warehouse, as you approach. Already, in this contrived preview context, the design flourish is impressive. Likewise, when crouched in the game’s cover system (which is intuitively sticky, as opposed to controlled by button-press), small arrows dot on adjacent cover opportunities, highlighting where Fisher can quickly roll without being seen.

If you are seen, however, and either dart back into cover or dispose of the enemies in question, a white, ghost-like outline of the character is left on screen, revealing your last known location. Subtle, but useful.

It also reveals the more action-heavy bent of Conviction, expanding on the developments of previous instalment Double Agent, as Splinter Cell moves much more towards a ‘stealth action’ feel.

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The warehouse’s entrance was guarded by three guards and an officer. While a silent, clinical approach is still applicable, it is just as easy, and encouraged, to be more hands-on – meaning that creeping up to one guard, grabbing him, and using him as a meat shield while you pop off the others with some well-placed headshots is a suitable plan. This is especially so, considering the violent expressionism seen when you have to interrogate the officer-type goon. Here, the camera subtly shifts, and Fisher can use his surroundings to ‘persuade’ the guy to talk. This includes extreme examples, such as whacking his head into trees and car bonnets, or stabbing his hand into a tabletop with his own knife.

Sequences like these are pushing the ‘grim and gritty’ meter far into the red, and might obscure the smart presentation with excessive brutality (as the interrogated chap spills his beans, cutscenes are rejected in favour of projected scenes on the environment), but there’s no doubt that they shake up the gameplay a little.

It had a light, flexible, practical feel – far from the heaviness and sluggishness that put us off in the beginning. By the end, we were confidently sneaking through sewers, aggressively stealthing from guard to guard, finishing with a deft use of Fisher’s new, Fistful Of Dollars-style ‘quick-fire’ ability, where a certain number of crooks can be marked for precise, speedy kills.

There’s a long time between now and February 2010, but this short playthrough gave us enough to be excited about.

Avatar: The Game (multi-platform) Out: December 2009 Anticipation Level:

4 stars

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Quite a nice surprise, Ubisoft were showing off their tie-in game for James Cameron’s highly-anticipated 3D-eco-sci-fi flick Avatar. Reportedly in development since 2006, and in close collaboration with Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment, Avatar: The Game is shaping up to be a polished, accessible mainstream over-the-shoulder shooter. Story-wise, this is a prequel to the film, and tells of the humans first discovery, and colonisation, of Pandora, the planet central to the film’s narrative. The game also covers the first meeting between the human space marines and the indigenous Na’vi species.

The player chooses to play as one of the two sides through the story, with the two species having different abilities and attributes – although we only got the chance to play as the marines.

Avatar: The Game manages to be quite accessible and streamlined, while still cherry-picking a nice few elements from other games at the same time. It controls like Gears Of War, albeit a little lighter, but the Pandora setting is lush and beautiful – full of greens and, at night, luminescent blues. It runs on the Dunia graphics engine, last seen in Far Cry 2, so the locations are given a nice sense of vibrancy (and messing with the flamethrower has similarly drastic consequences).

One other notable aspect of the game is its utilisation of 3D technology, providing a similar experience to the film. It is a nice, ground-breaking touch, but it is unlikely that the majority will be able to try this setting, as 3D-ready televisions are still on the horizons of consumer technology, and cost several thousands of your English pounds (and, besides, the 3D made us feel a little queasy).

The game plays out over a region-based world map, with story missions trading places with area-specific challenges and side quests (such as setting up outposts, or culling certain hostile wildlife). These objectives, as well as exploration, and a Metroid Prime-style scanner mechanic that fills up a ‘Pandoropedia’ of the planet’s flora-and-fauna, give out experience points; they go towards some light RPG gameplay, where the player levels up their character and upgrades their weapons and abilities (which will be taken over to the game’s online component, of which we know comparatively little).

The streamlined nature of Avatar: The Game is easily seen in its control system, which eschews a couple of shooter staples like melee attacks and left trigger precise aiming, with a Resident Evil-reminiscent 180 degree turn being mapped to the right stick button (that also locks onto the nearest enemy).

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Likewise, the marine character has space for four primary abilities (a cloak, a defensive knockback pulse, an offensive airstrike and a health boost) and four selected weapons (dual pistols, assault rifle, grenade launcher and flamethrower) that are selected using the directional pad and face buttons.

It was surprisingly easy to pick up, although genre veterans might feel a little exposed without a melee attack, especially considering the enemies (both wildlife and Na’Vi) are very fast, and very up-close in their attacks. Nevertheless, there was a simple, kick-ass joy to be found when faced with huge hammerhead aliens, or when driving around in buggies, army walkers or rocket-ready tanks.

Avatar: The Game is due out a couple of weeks before the film, and this short, shallow playthrough shows that Ubisoft have put a sincere amount of effort into this tie-in. Hopefully, the finished, full game will be just as intriguing and entertaining.

Red Steel 2 (Wii) Out: Early 2010 Anticipation Level:

2 stars

Red Steel had the privilege of being one of the launch titles for the Nintendo Wii back in 2006, garnering a lot of attention and sales in the process. But, despite a few nice touches in the game, it was severely lacking in the gameplay area, especially where the Wiimote was concerned.

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The mixture of sword- and gunplay is back in this sequel and, with the addition of the new Wii MotionPlus add-on (which will be bundled with the game), is hoping to deliver more intuitive and responsive controls.

The preview build at the event didn’t give too much away, as it was a short tutorial segment. It kicked off with an opening cinematic, featuring the main protagonist being dragged through desert sand by a chap on a motorbike – which handily showed how the game’s setting and story seem to be completely unrelated to the previous title.

First of all, the art style is significantly different, instead going for a more cell-shaded, cartoon-y approach that looks like previous Ubisoft game XIII. Second, and more jarringly, the title seems to be going for a more ‘Weird West’ vibe – instead of the shiny, real-world approach of its predecessor – with the preview level taking place in a dusty town populated by samurai-cowboys.

The press release says the story takes place in a ‘desert-bound, high-tech metropolis’, but this stage took the player through very Western-themed areas, albeit areas filled with ultra-Japanese vending machines and other techno-paraphernalia.

The main character, reportedly called The Swordsman, could also be accurately called The Gunslinger (he even looks a bit like the Stephen King character of that name), and the controls reflect that. They are much better implemented this time around, with sword-swinging and shooting being mixed together in a more elegant fashion – as opposed to the jarring context-sensitive aspects of before.

As is expected, the Wiimote is pointed at the screen to aim, and the trigger pops off a round from the trusty six-shooter. Swinging the Wiimote, however, whips out the katana, with broader swipes resulting in more powerful slashes. Thanks to the MotionPlus, it is surprisingly accurate at recreating the directions of your swipes, especially when holding the A button to block, and rotating the Wiimote to angle the sword.

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It can still be flummoxed, though, and there were plenty of moments where waggling the Wiimote – which controls both your weapon and your perspective – upsets the viewpoint on the screen, causing a few seconds of major disorientation.

In comparison with the other games on display, Red Steel 2 seemed quite a shallow, under-developed game. It is nice to see Ubisoft approaching their initial ambitions for the Red Steel series (too bad it’s taken over 3 years!), but there was little in the preview that got our juices flowing.

Rating:

4 out of 5