By Travis Trombley
But is it fun? Recently, games grew a bit too passive when it comes to climbing. In too many instances, the nearly impossible task of traversing the side of a mountain (during an avalanche) could be accomplished by simply pressing the joystick in one direction or another. Maybe hitting the occasional button prompt. Thankfully, many of the aforementioned games introduced elements like climbing spikes, ropes, slides, and limited stamina, all of which diversify the experience and force players to approach climbing with a bit of strategy, or least some varied input.
Unfortunately, there’s one game franchise that went the opposite direction in regards to its climbing mechanics: Assassin’s Creed. Over time, as a dedicated player, I felt that the franchise's staple parkour got more and more...boring. It wasn't until I played an entirely different type of game - Techland's first-person Dyling Light - that I realized where AC's approach to free-running went wrong: an effective game mechanic must challenge me as an active participant, not simply entertain me as a passive observer.
When it first came out for Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2007, the absolute best part about Ubisoft’s Assassin's Creed was the free-running. It’s open world parkour mechanics earned the game - from many critics - the label of first “truly next generation game,” as such mechanics required technical wherewithal not possible on the PS2 or XBox. Players could run up walls, vault across rooftops, shimmy up columns, swing along street signs, and so much more. It was awesome, and with the next Ezio installments (AC2 through Revelations), the free-running got even better. While not always precise in execution, the climbing mechanics gave players choices. You could run up a wall, then jump laterally or vault away from the wall to reach another ledge. You had to press a button to catch yourself when underestimating a jump and finding yourself falling down the side of a building. At all times, players had to be aware of the environment in order to make the best gameplay choices for efficient navigation, which took practice. But apparently that was too hard for some players...
As the Assassin’s Creed games progressed, the developers privileged more complex stealth and combat mechanics over the free-running. The result was a simplification of the parkour system that leaves players feeling more like observers than participants. In the most recent installment, AC Origins, Ubisoft reduced free running to a single button: R2. It’s the “go” button, one developer said. Holding that “go” button while pushing the left stick forward would send the characters running up and over anything in his way: walls, buildings, trees, pyramids. Whatever. I could just “go” over it (or under it, thanks to the occasional slide animation - I had no control over this, but it was cool when it happened, I guess). Gone are the lateral jumps, the choice between jumping down vs jumping outward, the steep climbs which required careful planning and tactical leaps. Everything that made me feel like a player who could practice and be “good” at the game was sacrificed for a sense of simplicity; now anyone could pick up a controller and be just as good as a seasoned player. It all looks cool, sure, but if I wanted to watch cool parkour, I’d go to YouTube - games are about playing, and playing with skill, not watching. In other words, the game made free running boring!
And that’s what I want from a game: to feel engaged. I don’t want the passive experience of holding a button so that an avatar on a screen does cool stuff. I want to feel like I - the player - am doing the cool stuff myself, and that comes from me being given the tools to make my own decisions about approaching a variety of problems, and providing a sense of game economy that will punish poor execution and reward skillful execution. If I was worried about anything in regards to the forthcoming Spider-Man game by Insomniac, it was that web-swinging will be too simple to be fun for any extended period of play. In order to really "feel like Spider-Man," I want to have to do more than press a button to swing through the streets of New York - I want to dive for speed, to rebound off walls with precise timing, and have to actively avoid obstacles in my way with various vaults, slides, general Spidey-styled shenanigans.
To Ubisoft's credit, they seem to be applying 'options and economy' apprach to the AC franchise’s combat, now, which was once labeled as too simple to be fun. But why did they have to do so at the cost of the game's parkour? We shall see what Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does this fall, but - as of right now - I’ll be saving that $60 for Dying Light 2.