And so we begin anew…

Right.  So my 2011 hasn’t quite got off to the best possible start.  After a particularly busy week leading to a particularly busy Hogmanay (usual craic, three deep at the bar, bashing out drinks, shooting tequila and then spending ’til 6am clearing up), I found myself completely shattered and in much need of some downtime, which quickly became squandered by the onset of a rather grumpy (one might even say upset) stomach.   If I had needed any further excuse to mope, I was delivered one by e-mail: a job I had interviewed for with a company I really wanted (and still do want) to work for was, alas, not to be mine.  All in all, the first five days of the year have been somewhat disappointing.

Feeling generally quite crap has left me with plenty time to do things that don’t require me to move very far from my room.  Chiefly, to read a few books and catch up with my tempestuous and occasional lover – my Xbox 360.

On the books front, I powered through Joe Abercrombie’s tale of revenge “Best Served Cold.”  Abercrombie has a way with his characters, one of absolute brutality.  No one is spared, no hero survives unscarred, and often ends up maimed (if not physically then mentally), or more than likely, dead.  Irreverent, witty, visceral and sharp, it makes a welcome break to the shining heroes of honour and integrity we have come to expect.  In fact, I wouldn’t call any of them heroes – and I do believe that’s the point.  It’s a refreshing change of pace which made the book almost impossible to put down.  To call the plot Machiavellian would be trite, but apt.  It is, in short, a cracking read and I thoroughly recommend it.

When I finally finished tearing my way through the blood, broken bones and maimed corpses – for the portrait of war Abercrombie paints is as uncaring as war itself, a sword cares not for the youth and potential it obliterates as it strikes – I was very much in the mood for meeting out some vengeance of my own.  My 360 was ready and waiting.  Having bought Assassin’s Creed 2 and never *quite* found the time to play it (in between Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2, Fable 2 and 3, not to mention work and socialising), I was really looking forward to free-running through Firenze, leaping from rooftops and assassinating my unsuspecting (or perhaps very suspecting) targets.

I played part way through the first Assassin’s Creed, but at the time I found the combat system to be rather irksome.  I could never quite get the knack of it, so never played all the way through.  Fortunately, a quick look on wikipedia brought me up to date on the plot, and I was pleased to find that the mechanics had been improved for the sequel.   The buzzword for AC2 is intuitive.  The story-led tutorial brings you up on the basics, and once those are grasped, everything else flows logically from there.  The best part of it is that the plot really pulls you along.  It’s not simply ‘go here, kill him’, instead what begins as a simple quest for revenge grows deeper and more complex as young Ezio realises that there is far more to the murder of his family than he first believed.  For those who haven’t played the Assassin’s Creed series, you are in fact playing the role of Desmond, who is reliving the memories of his ancestors through a device called the Animus, and this isn’t just for giggles, it’s part of unearthing a greater conspiracy and conflict between the ancient orders of Templars and Assassins.  More than that, though, it is about the very creation of humanity.   The second game goes way further than what was hinted at in the first, and the finale – which I won’t spoil – is thoroughly enjoyable and leaves you matching the words that slip from Desmond’s lips as he relives that moment of his ancestor’s life.

AC2 does one thing exceptionally well – the combat system.  It’s geared around sneaking up and killing by stealth, but it allows for rooftop chases and streetside brawls, which are sometimes just as necessary.  Different types of enemy take different techniques to kill – guards wielding a polearm will block attacks with a longer weapon such as your sword, so you need to get in close with your fists or a dagger.  A brute with an axe will smash through your parries and therefore cannot be countered, instead sheathe your sword and disarm him, using his axe against your now defenseless foe.  Agile guards can run as fast as you, and can catch you if you try to flee, so beat down their defences or counter them for a quick kill.  If facing several, you can take them on one by one or kill the biggest, most heavily armed and the weaker opponents may well flee.  Or hire some mercenaries to help you out.

Above all, so long as you’re paying attention and use the right techniques – most of which require only a bit of timing and usually simple button combinations – and you’ll do just fine.  I like that.  It’s elegant and simple, intuitive and enjoyable.

Which cannot be said for one of the other games I took a swing at – Darksiders.  While the Gothic  ‘heaven and hell wage war on earth’ plot is very appealing, the gameplay is a bit… well it just felt like button mashing.  It’s like the look and feel of Soul Reaver without any of the finesse.  It relies a lot on “Hold X, Pull LS in opposite direction to target, Tap X, Y” sort of play and I find that very awkward in the heat of battle.  You end up button mashing and I really don’t enjoy that.  I’m hoping that with a bit of perseverance the game will pick up a bit and the combat will feel less clunky.

In the meantime I have Red Dead Redemption to try.  Let’s hope it doesn’t rely on silly controls where you have to hold one button, push another and use the thumbsticks at the same time.  Because I really suck at that…

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