Sports games let us make unique connections with real people

Mario isn’t real.

Lara Croft isn’t real, either, neither the triangle-breasted adventurer of yore or the gritty explorer of today. Star Fox has no equivalency in reality. Rivia isn’t a thing, and Geralt of said Rivia isn’t, too. Luke Skywalker is vaguely real, in that a real life person played him in a movie, but there are too many degrees of separation there for Luke Skywalker to be real. Likewise with Mass Effect’s Miranda, whose shared visage with Yvonne Strahovski is purposeful–but it doesn’t make Miranda the character any more real in our world, the one in which we move and breathe.

Our connection to video game characters is well-documented and real, but the characters themselves aren’t. Making a character feel real is one of the great achievements of a developer.

Dragan Bender, however, exists both virtually and not. Bender was born in Croatia and grew to be a giant of a man, a 7′ 1″ behemoth who plays in the National Basketball Association for the Phoenix Suns, ostensibly because he can touch the sun if he gets a running jump.

I have never met this man, who would tower 15 inches over me. But Bender is just the best. I love the guy. I acquired him to play for my basketball team in multiple alternate realities.

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Of course, I’m referring to a sports game; in this case, the game to which I am referring is NBA2K17. The game, which I bought on a whim during the Summer Steam Sale, has a mode where you take over as the General Manager for any of the 30 NBA teams or for one of a handful of hypothetical expansion teams.

The great thing about sports games is that, through interaction with an intermediary medium, sports games can forge a connection between the player and a real life person. It’s the transitive property at work: the player likes an athlete in the game, which translates to enjoying that athlete in real life. No other medium allows for this.

I’m incredibly fond of Bender, a spindly man from eastern Europe who can dunk a basketball by barely hopping off the ground. That fondness is a direct result of my virtual time with his likeness. The actual Bender didn’t play for my team (at least I hope not), but rather an avatar in his image.

And that bizarre connection can have very real consequences. Bo Jackson’s legacy is influenced in part due to his godlike status in the game Tecmo Bowl. Troy Aikman and Ken Griffey Jr.’s stardom was solidified by having legit video games named after them.

That video games can in some capacity forge a real fondness for real human beings through a digital avatar of that person is nothing short of amazing. It’s weird, too; don’t get me wrong. But it’s a great insight into the relationship between real people and a fictional world in which they exist, at least in part.

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How I made peace with my gaming backlog, and how you can too

There’s one word that strikes fear into the heart of every gamer. No, it’s not ‘microtransactions,’ though that is a scary one. It’s not ‘delayed game,’ because that is, in fact, two words. That is not a fun thing to hear, either.

No; the one word that truly strikes fear into the heart of every gamer is ‘backlog.’ Did you shudder? I wouldn’t blame you if you did.

For those of you unaware, a backlog is a game or games that a player has in his or her queue to play. That seems like a relatively simple concept, and it really is. You can only play so many games at one time, so if you ever buy more games than you have time to play then some of them will have to sit unplayed until you get to them.

This is all well and good, and plenty logical, but there’s a huge catch when it comes to games. You can listen to a music album in 45 minutes. A film will take about two hours to watch. Reading a novel will usually take between three and seven hours. Watching an entire 20-episode, hour-long TV series will take a little over 14 hours if you’re not viewing any commercials.

But games? Well, they are a different animal entirely. The website HowLongToBeat polls gamers by asking how long it took them to beat a game, and then lists the averages of the polls. The Legend of Zelda: the Breath of the Wild won Game of the Year at this year’s Game Awards. According to HowLongToBeat, the core story of Breath of the Wild takes a whopping 44 hours or so. Extras can take dozens more hours, and a full completionist runthrough could climb to almost 200 hours. Many modern games will last about 20-30 hours, but some may last even longer than Breath of the Wild because they are open-ended.

Add the longer time it takes to experience games to the fact that there are dozens of great games that come out every year and, well, that’s how you get your backlog.

Every gamer has a backlog. It’s just a fact of life. But here are three steps that you can take to make peace with that backlog.

STEP ONE: Don’t buy a game that you’re not going to play now

bastion supergiant games

Look: video games go on sale all the time. All the time. Digital sales, physical sales–games rarely stay at full price for very long, and even after they drop you can often find a great deal on a title that you covet. There are at least two major Steam Sales every year, during summer and winter. If you prefer your games in Xbox or Playstation flavors, though, they often have digital sales of their own. And with consoles, you get the benefit of choosing used games, which are cheaper anyway and offer an additional avenue for gamers.

While seeing that hot indie title in the Steam sale at just $4 might be tempting, and seeing that Xbox Live sale of that newish game for only $20 might also be tempting, keep in mind that you’ll see those games at that price again. Yeah, it’s a great deal! But great deals happen in video game land constantly.

So, unless you are going to buy that game to play now or play next, don’t get it. Even if you think you’ll love it. Even if your friends are telling you to play it. Don’t buy games that you’re not going to play now.

If you’re a big fan of that game’s franchise and you know you’ll play it at some point, sure, that’s an exception. But a big source of most gamers’ backlog problems is that they knowingly add to it. Cut out the initial purchase until you’re ready to buy it, and you’ve cut away at the core of the issue: you don’t have a backlog if you don’t have games sitting around in the first place.

STEP TWO: Utilize let’s plays and Twitch

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Nowadays, Youtube and Twitch are huge for gaming. You can look up and watch pretty much any game that has ever existed. Just the other day, I looked up a Lego Racer let’s play (for Nintendo 64, of course) because I wanted to see the game again. Lego Racer is not exactly a thunderous title that everyone remembers, but it’s there. Of course it’s there. The internet is infinite.

Part of my problem with my backlog is that I don’t want to spend a few hours learning and mastering a game’s mechanics. Games are a lot more complicated nowadays, and the learning period for many big titles or RPGs can be huge. But watching somebody else play it gets around that issue, and it might help you learn faster if you watch somebody else use the varying systems first.

Look: you will not be able to play every single game that comes out, let alone spend a lot of time in them. Twitch and Youtube allow you to explore games that you’re lukewarm on, experience games you know you won’t get to, or expand your palette into games you wouldn’t necessarily play yourself. There are a lot of ways to use let’s plays and streams, so if you want to use that to attack your backlog, you can, and if you want to use that to prevent games from getting there in the first place, you can. You have a lot of freedom, so use it.

STEP THREE: play what you want

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Every gamer has uttered the sentence our thunk the thought “I should really be playing Game X right now” before popping a different disc into the console or clicking a different game in your Steam library. I certainly have. This will give you a feeling of inadequacy, like you’re failing yourself in some way. Like you have a responsibility to play that other game.

But I’ve got a news flash for you: life is too short. Play what you want.

Yes, it is important to expand your comfort zone and play games you wouldn’t otherwise play, because that’s how you find new experiences. As much as possible, you should try to do that. However, you should never feel bad about not playing something. If you want to play another few rounds of PUBG rather than starting up Hellblade, because you’re in the mood for the former, go for it.

Games are entertainment and we work hard to have downtime in which to partake in said entertainment. So why on earth should you feel bad for playing a game that you like?

It is this mental shift which will truly help you with your backlog. No gamer will complete their backlog. That’s just life. There will always be games to play, games we’ve bought but never completed, that darn backlog. If you want to play some games on the backlog, do it. That’s great. You’ve bought the game, after all. And if you don’t? Who cares.

Sometimes a sunk cost is a sunk cost. Don’t stop it from letting you enjoy the game you’re playing now.

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All screenshots are from games on my own backlog. I may never play them. So it goes.

My favorite game of 2017

It’ll be February this week. February! Of 2018!

Not too long ago, I shared my favorite movies of 2017. And about a year ago, I shared my favorite games of 2016. In a normal year, I’d be sharing my favorite games of 2017 right about now.

But, well, that’s not gonna happen. Sorry. Sorry! I’m sorry, sorry.

There are multiple reasons for this. The first one is that I really haven’t played that many games that came out in 2017.

The second reason is that I’ve put a lot of playtime into a few games. I’ve played almost 160 hours of Destiny 2. I put in 50 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda. Ditto that amount for my favorite game this year. Now that I’m married, I don’t play as many games as I used to. That’s ok. But when three games take up over 260 hours of playtime, that’s a lot of time that could be put into multiple separate games.

The third reason is that I played a lot of games that weren’t released in 2017. I’m not a game journalist, which means that I don’t have an obligation to constantly experience the cutting edge. So if I want to play Rocket League, God bless its beautiful calculated soul, I am going to play Rocket League, or Overwatch Furthermore, I finished the tremendous DLC for Witcher 3 last year, which sunk about 30 hours of my time, and I played another 30 hours of Cities: Skylines, a neat game that I missed when it initially came out. Oh yeah: I’ve also put in another 160 hours into NBA 2k17, which just sort of happened. Sports games are inherently rewarding and easy to return to, and I think are a little underrated in the modern game pantheon.

The fourth reason is that one game I played just blew the rest of them totally out of the water, making a ranking somewhat anticlimactic. At some point in the future, I’ll probably write about my full 2017 list – I have yet to finish Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’ve got a few PS4 games like Hellblade and Uncharted: Lost Legacy to play as well. But for now, let’s cut to the chase.

GOLD MEDAL – Horizon Zero Dawn

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My own screenshot, wandering the lands as Aloy

AWWWW YISS.

To begin: Horizon Zero Dawn has no business existing.

First, it’s a single player game. Games nowadays are extraordinarily expensive to make; a standard estimate for a studio’s expense is at $10,000 per head per month. So a team of 100 people working on a game for two years results in a $24 million expense, with no income for the studio until the game is released.  The industry has instead moved towards ‘games as a service.’ These are games that contain an open-ended gameplay loop and an opportunity to utilize microtransactions. Horizon Zero Dawn has an expansive world but nothing beyond replaying it in a new game to keep customers around, its only downloadable content a standard issue expansion pack.

Second, Horizon Zero Dawn features a female protagonist. Yeah, it’s a game in 2017, but that truly matters, and it’s still rare. Look around at the other big releases of the year–Zelda, Mario, Cuphead, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: WWII–none of them feature you, the player, as a female protagonist and character.

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Third, and most importantly, Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new intellectual property. Media, as a whole, has relied more and more on franchises. New franchises are awfully risky, let alone new franchises from somewhat unknown developers. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, games are expensive. To do something new and fresh, something that could fail, and take as many risks as Guerrilla Games did with Horizon is brave.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a video game overflowing with effervescent creativity; it fuses impeccable world-building, satisfying combat, and strong emotional weight to offer an experience that has stuck with me for months. That, I think, is its greatest quality. It is so boldly itself that you can’t help but be gripped by it. Like Aloy, the game is determined and confident in every facet. It is not perfect, but it does not need to be. There are other games which bear facsimiles to this one–open world games with endearing characters, good combat, and interesting narrative hooks. But none of them are Horizon Zero Dawn.

It is a wonder. It should not exist. And yet it does, and its wild success is appropriate and deserved. I love it.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said.

“Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

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There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

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Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.

Let’s all admit that the story of Overwatch just doesn’t work

Overwatch, the colorful cross between a standard first person shooter and the hip multiplayer online battle arena (better known as MOBA), has a story and lore. It’s very lovingly-crafted, mostly told through gorgeous pre-rendered videos distributed outside the game by the developer, Blizzard.

Most of these shorts center around one or more of the characters in the game. The characters, or heroes, are the core of the game, and the intricate and varied play of each of the heroes is what gives Overwatch its fun and depth. Each hero is designed wonderfully, with fantastic voice actors and visual styles that make each hero feel individual and unique.

My favorite short that Blizzard has released was about Bastion, the robot turret/tank/salt factory with a cute bird friend. Bastion has no voice actor, instead beeping and whirring like a deranged R2-D2 as it unleashes relentless terror. Their wordless animated short about Bastion is a simply beautiful seven minutes, and it channels Pixar at its most transcendent.

It’s just too bad it doesn’t matter at all.

See, none of this painstaking characterization and storytelling is done in the game itself. It’s done through lore and video disseminated through other means–including both videos and comic books–and it gives the illusion of presenting a deep world while crippling the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Overwatch has no single player story mode. It has no in-game cutscenes that happen before you play a game. There is no readable history or lore a la the codex in Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect series. You get a few sentences of description for each of the characters and that’s pretty much it.

Don’t get me wrong: Overwatch does a ton of things right, and it is a phenomena for good reason. It’s a great game. But what it is not is a good narrative game. It has no narrative.

Somebody will likely argue whilst reading this that Overwatch does have a narrative. Overwatch is a group of heroes who defended the world in the Omnic crisis and then disbanded, only to be blah blah blah (cont’d).

Overwatch, the game, has no story. Period. There is a story that is vaguely told elsewhere, but even that isn’t cohesive at all. Ultimately, the franchise’s story and lore is not necessary and does not deepen the experience of the game itself. The matches of Overwatch are nonsensical in regards to the story, too.

Zenyatta from Overwatch

Zenyatta…and his balls (orbs, whatever)

It might sound that I’m hating on Overwatch for no reason, or that I’m being unnecessarily hipster about all this. I’m really not; I promise. While Rocket League is my one true multiplayer love, Overwatch is a secondary love, and it’s resulted in some truly spectacular evenings and moments. I don’t hate it at all (well, not until somebody insta-locks Hanzo on attack and then complains about team comp in the chat).

My point is this: Blizzard has done a tremendous job of crafting great pieces of narrative content but a terrible job of making that content relevant in relation to its core piece of media. That’s partially due to how Overwatch is constructed, but that was Blizzard’s idea, too. There’s nothing stopping them from creating some more expansive single player that, you know, actually works through some of the story.

I only have a vague idea of what’s going on in the universe, and when I sit down at my keyboard and mouse to select Bastion and apologetically destroy things, what story there is does not matter at all. Furthermore, just playing the game does not make me want to go out an learn more about what’s going on.

Ultimately, I care because the story elements of Overwatch are simply empty calories to the gameplay experience. The game deserves so much more.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

The wind sweeps past your hair as the sun shines down on you, the subtle crash of the royal blue surf lapping against the sides of your softly creaking ship. The sun shines as you lick some salty water from your lips. The ocean extends to the horizon all around you. Another ship floats lazily in the distance. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted. The world is ripe for your adventure.

There’s a reason why pirates are so popular in pop culture, and why every kid wants to grow up to be one (if they don’t want to be an astronaut, of course). Pirates convey freedom, adventure, and the promise for riches, wonder, and excitement. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise of dichotomy—Assassin’s/Templars, Past/Future, Stealth/Combat. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag leans on its existence as a pirate game, it soars to some of the series’ highest heights. Unfortunately, when the game emulates past Assassin’s Creed titles, the recurring errors and frustrations of the series hamper what could have been a truly special title.

Black Flag’s setting is a fantastic choice. Your character, Edward Kenway, is a mere privateer whose main goal is becoming filthy rich to build a better life for him and his estranged wife. As the game is titled ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and not ‘Pirates Creed, Matey!”, Kenway gets caught up in standard-issue Assassin v. Templars shenanigans.

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SWASHBUCKLE, MATEYS

Kenway’s approach to the epic conflict is not standard-issue, though, and is a fresh take: he just does not care in the slightest. Pillaging and booty (both kinds) are his goals, and his role in the conflict is mostly accidental. He happens to fight with the Assassins, though more due to ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ circumstances than actual philosophical alignment.

Yet as so often happens in Assassin’s Creed games, this strength is accompanied by a related weakness. Kenway’s plight and character development remain stinted for a long, long time; though developer Ubisoft tries to make Kenway a multi-faceted character, his single-minded search for riches doesn’t make for a very captivating narrative. Piecemeal flashbacks to Kenway and his wife mostly fail to form a grounding for character building or plot development, though it could have and is probably the biggest missed narrative opportunity.

But, lest you forget that Kenway is a pirate, let me repeat: he’s a pirate. And Black Flag nails the Being A Pirate thing so extraordinarily well. In the course of the story, Kenway gets access to his own personal cove that you can upgrade to build structures, shops, and services. Kenway meets pirates along the way, including Edward Thatch—more famously known as Blackbeard.

You can’t be a pirate without your own ship, though, and ship combat and traversal is what truly makes being a pirate fun. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, very quickly becomes a favorite place in the game (and arguably its own character). Black Flag’s locations are spread out in the Caribbean, and you must traverse to these locations with the Jackdaw before establishing fast travel points. Roaming the high sea is a blast, as your shipmates sing shanties, it’s never far to an interesting location, and enemy ships are plentiful.

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At sea on the Jackdaw

Ship combat is every bit as exciting, jarring, and terrifying as you might think. The ocean is filled with all kinds of vessels; some are teeny-weeny gunships you can destroy in one or two volleys, and others will eat you alive by themselves. Unlike in hand-to-hand combat, where a quick finger on the counter button can almost lend invincibility, choosing what battles in which to engage is a part of ship combat that is refreshing and challenging. At first, I found myself charging into a small group of ships, valiantly attempting (and failing) to strong-arm a trio of larger frigates into submission before the game forced me to take a more holistic approach: ship combat encourages using your entire arsenal and to heavily prioritize targets.

Importantly, defeating ships gives very real benefits. Defeated ships can either be captured or destroyed, and each ship contains varying supplies that can be sold or used in upgrading your own ship. Upgrades are varied, and each upgrade changes you how play in meaningful ways. In addition to your own ship, you can add captured ships to your fleet, which you can use to send on battles and trade routes of their own. Battles for your captured ships are bare-bones turn based strategy minigames, requiring minimal input but some forethought.

Since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the majority of it is spent on foot. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; the core parts of traversing, exploring, and assassinating are as fun as ever, and the beautiful setting makes it feel quite different from the sprawling cities of earlier games in the franchise. But frustratingly, the same kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing the series for years are still here. When going quickly, Kenway has a propensity for leaping to random areas, which can be fatal. Tailing missions are still boring and feel like attempts to game-ify plot. The stealth system is spotty and the AI ranges from idiotic to genius. Curiously, Black Flag doesn’t even explain the stealth system at all, assuming you know what a yellow sign over an enemy means as opposed to a red one and how to escape and become incognito. Thankfully, the graphics, music, and sound effect are all very good and help with immersion. You can’t help but be joyful and invested when your crew sings your favorite shanty on the high seas in preparation for an epic battle with a Man O’ War.

Black Flag truly shines when it melds its two main gameplay elements. In order to capture a ship, you need to swing over to the opposing vessel and accomplish a set of objectives on foot. In order to take down a fort, you must destroy its various battlements with your ship and then dock to assassinate the fort’s captain. There’s a brilliant mission halfway through the game that involves tailing an enemy ship through a river, making stops every so often to leave the Jackdaw and take out the watchmen, culminating in an Uncharted-esque setpiece to make an assassination.

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Climbing Away

The 18th century story, unfortunately, is framed by a 21st century story. After Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft could have taken a different path, framing the story better or making the overall story more minimalist. Not so. Though you are given free reign for a significant portion of the early game, you are soon (and often) yanked out to present day, your character a voiceless and nameless protagonist in a world full of voiced and named people. Whereas the Desmond Miles story at its best helped to give your explorations of the past additional weight as well as a reason to enjoy when you’re pulled out of the animus, the modern-day story here doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and I spent my time in present day just wanting to be left alone as a pirate.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes meaningful strides in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It fills a grand open sea with places to explore, from a treasure island to underwater excursions to bustling towns like Havana or Kingston. It successfully uses the Assassin’s Creed action as a fantastic base to make a great pirate game. The converse though, is not true: a great pirate game doesn’t fix the Assassin’s Creed series’ problems. Still, it’s a fantastic example of a game taking a core idea, making it a blast, and giving you the freedom to do with it what you will. It’s a pirate’s life for me.

The eight best women in gaming

 

Today is March 8, which for some of you just means ‘Wednesday.’ That’s ok though, because it can mean something new for you: it’s International Women’s Day today!*

*If you’re hunched over your screen and sneering, “BUT WHERE IS THE INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY?”, I would like to shoo you away to read a list of American Presidents and another list of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and you may return as soon as you find a woman in either list.

Games have traditionally been about dudes doing dude things, which generally include dude violence and man strength. One of my favorite pictures is this collage of the standard middle-age, gruff, brown-haired white guys who are the heroes of their game.

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I like the one with the short hair

Some of those characters are really well-written characters! I even love some of them. But there sure are a lot of similar looking ones.

So today, let’s highlight some women in games. These women are awesome in a collection of ways, but they are all awesome. They are listed below by an extraordinarily scientific ranking system (read: MAH BRAIN) from #8 to #1. Eight characters for the eighth of March. Let’s do this.

#8: Elena Fisher / Uncharted series

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Uncharted is a series about Nathan Drake doing the most ridiculous things possible, repeatedly, and living through it. Drake is, basically, modern day Indiana Jones, replete with desert adventures and supernatural forces. Uncharted is tied to Drake and his adventures.

But that’s Drake’s thing. It’s not Elena’s thing. And yet…Elena perseveres, and she selflessly assists Drake in his adventures, which involve a lot of dirt, climbing and killing of bad guys. Unlike Drake, Elena thinks before she leaps, and is worried about what the type of work Drake is into does to him when he doesn’t. Still, she’s always there for Drake. Always. There is no Nathan without Elena, and their relationship helps drive the poignant final chapter of the series, Uncharted 4.

#7: Zelda / Legend of Zelda series

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There are a lot of versions of Zelda, coinciding with the many Legend of Zelda games. Let’s start there, actually. The playable character in those games is a green-clad elven man-child named ‘Link.’ Notice: Link is a different name than Zelda (citation needed). It is not the Legend of Link. Rather, it is Zelda’s legend. It’s about her.

So which Zelda do you prefer? Do you prefer the one in Ocarina of Time, who disguises herself as a literal ninja? Do you prefer the one in Wind Waker, who is a legit pirate captain before learning her royal lineage? What about Twilight Princess, where an archer Zelda helps take down the evil villain hand in hand with Link?

Pick your poison. Zelda will always be a legend.

#6: Liara / Mass Effect series

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For those of you who are particularly astute scholars of Mass Effect lore, you may disagree that Liara is specifically a woman. The Asari race, after all, is a single-gendered race, and ‘woman’ is not a term that can be used to specify one Asari (though they usually do adhere to female pronouns). I would offer a counter-argument that you are missing the spirit of the ranking, and would also like to give you a five yard penalty and a loss of down.

Liara’s journey from the first Mass Effect to the third is one that is rarely seen in gaming women. That journey is one of extended and multi-faceted character development.

In the first Mass Effect, Liara is a talented and brilliant scientist whose view of the world is narrow, her steps tepid. As the series progresses, Liara begins to aggressively pursue what needs to be done in any given moment, expertly leveraging her mind and skillset in order to achieve her goal. But she does so in a way that never feels contrived, and she stays true to herself even as she changes.

She’s also an excellent soldier and can cause mini black holes with her mind, so. There’s that.

#5 Ellie / The Last of Us

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Let’s say you are born in a post apocalyptic world. What would you be like if your entire life was devoid of a greater hope that your parents and elders grew up with?

You’d probably be cynical. That’s Ellie. You’d probably be deeply troubled. That’s Ellie. You’d probably do whatever you needed to do to survive, even if you didn’t or couldn’t think you could do it. That’s Ellie, too.

In the third quarter of The Last of Us, you play as Ellie for the first time. It’s a sobering, fascinating deeper look into her character as she cares for Joel like he cared for her for the months prior. Ellie is probably the most raw, real character on this list. That’s no small feat.

#4 Samus Aran / Metroid series

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Also known as the OG Space Badass, Samus has been kicking butt and taking names since ‘bush’ was known more as a type of shrubbery than a duo of Presidents. Character development for Samus is light, but that’s no biggie. She does what she needs to, and then goes home and ostensibly takes a nice long shower, just like any number of male game heroes.

When it was initially shown that Samus was a girl, it wasn’t a huge revelation. It was like Nintendo said, “Yeah, she’s a girl. What of it? Go shoot some more Space Pirates and explore some crap. Those Metroids aren’t blowing up themselves. Find another missile upgrade before your mom gets home and you have to eat dinner.” The gaming landscape wouldn’t quite be the same without her.

#3 Commander Shepard / Mass Effect series

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Commander Shepard can be either male or female, and is totally customizable. But, honestly, was there ever any doubt? The female Shepard, or ‘Femshep’ if you have a fetish for portmanteaus, is the best one. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is superb, and Shepard’s gravitas works seamlessly as a woman.

Mass Effect is all about choice (well, that, shooting robots, and banging aliens). Letting players play as someone they relate to as they save the galaxy through Shepard’s skill, poor dancing, and grim determination to defeat the Reapers at all cost is essential. Far too few big games from big developers give you a female lead with the amount of rope to play with that Bioware does with Shepard.

#2: Ciri / Witcher 3

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Ciri seems pretty high up in this list despite appearing in only one game, but you and I need to get one thing straight: Ciri’s existence not only drives the entirety of Witcher 3, which is no small feat in a game that sprawls almost grotesquely, but the entire Witcher franchise.

I’m not going to spoil the Witcher storyline, but let me tell you a few cool things about Ciri. She can use magic. She is the heir to a powerful empire. She befriended a herd of unicorns. She can move at will through time and space. She’s an expert, nay, a master at swordplay. She’s been the center of political power struggles since before she was even a teenager.

The brilliant thing about the Witcher is that Ciri is the Hero around which everything orbits. You, as Geralt, are merely witness to it, the Hero’s friend and father figure. For this to work, Ciri has to work both as a hero and as a believable character, an emotional anchor. She does it brilliantly.

#1: Lara Croft / Tomb Raider series

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Croft has been through a lot. She began her character life as a bit of a cheesy gimmick, but she has slowly gained realism and respectability. Tomb Raider is one of the few game franchises to gain popularity and fame in the non-gaming world, with an assistance from Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Croft in two Tomb Raider films in the early 2000s. Indeed, there is a reboot in the works, with Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander set to play the titular role in 2018 based off the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by developer Crystal Dynamics.

That 2013 reboot was, simply, an amazing game, and out-uncharts Uncharted. Its sequel, the 2015 Rise of the Tomb Raider, continued to do that on top of doing its best Metroid impression and wildly succeeding. The franchise is once again one of the biggest franchises in gaming. It does so through a realistic depiction of Lara Croft as a simple adventurer, hunter, and archeologist, with flaws and humanity.

There is simply no other female lead with as much history as Croft or as much industry weight. In a world where we still see so many more male names than female ones, especially as main characters in games, it’s heartening to see Croft’s success.