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Red tackles AC Valhalla and Black Ops Cold War

Red Thomas Posted:
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It's been an interesting week for me.  One of my nephews asked me to buy him a game for his birthday, and that’s something that always makes me excited.  I love checking out new games with the kids in my family, even if it’s just a short conversation about a game we played at the same time and not one we actually played together.  I enjoy hearing what they like and don’t like about the games that we’re playing, and it’s cool to see what they notice that I didn’t.

In this case, when he then informed me that he wanted to play it on one of his console systems…  well, I dropped the phone.  I did tear up a little, but I think I managed to fake my way through it without letting my disappoint me show (Update: his mother has just informed me that I was not successful and that it was apparently blatantly obvious that my feelings had been injured by the request).  I attempted to sway him towards PC, but he was set on playing the game on console.

I have to point this out because I’m going to comparing Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla today and it’s only fair to note that my nephew’s crushing desire to play CoD on his console of choice may have biased me to a small degree.   I feel I’ve set that aside for now, but in the interests of transparency I think that it’s important I disclose my state of mind to the reader.

The key element to the article today is that both the Call of Duty and the Assassin’s Creed franchises have a great deal of similarities between them.  Both are games with strong followings on both PC and console platforms, have a very long run of subsequent releases with minimal changes to the baseline game systems, and both have mostly sold that same base game framed inside alternative historical contexts.  In effect, each IP has managed to hit dead center on style of gameplay and then made a tremendous amount of capital over the years through simple cosmetic changes to the existing system.  It’s brilliant.  It’s also done better by some than by others.

Next Level Stuff

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is a game that I’m far more impressed with than I’d expected to be.  I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it appears to be on track to be the wrap-up in a storyline spanning what I expect will end up being a trilogy of definitive games.  Each game set in the larger IP but combining to define a very specific story arc within that larger intellectual property.

No major changes have been made to the core AC gameplay over the years, which boils down to sneaking around and stabbing people.  Ubisoft simply selects a new time period and a story to fit, sculps new terrain, and implements a few new enemy types and they have a new game.  Not that all of this is trivial, but the hard part of finding a central system of game mechanics that feels good, is fun, and that captures an audience is already done.

Ac ValhallaAC:V has some fantastic visual elements.  A nighttime trek across snowy slopes under a lunar-lit sky…  That’s a moment that was nearly worth the purchase of the game to me.

Story-writing and creating a new world isn’t just slapping lipstick on the pig, but it is a hell of a lot easier to do all of that in an existing engine with internal support and experience.  Most games are having to spend money developing the engine, or at least modifying it to meet the current need, rather than content.  AC saves on a huge amount of those costs and more importantly, the associated risks that come with them.

Ubi has been incredibly successful with that process.  It’s extremely hard to iterate on even a proven formula and do it successfully.  It’s especially difficult to do with games that are as story-driven as the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but Ubisoft does it by spending money where it counts.  Each time the game releases, it consistently runs well and the new content is incredibly deep and well-constructed.

Ubisoft perfectly balances the expense of hiring storywriters and artists to bring new worlds to life, with the need to generate revenue.  That they over-deliver with each new product tells customers that quality is important to the AC team and that ensures minimal marketing is needed for each new game.  The previous games promote subsequent games, bringing an already charged audience to the store.  Even when I wasn’t super interested in buying the new AC because it’s not really my preferred type of game, it was an easy sell because every single one of them to this point has been executed to a high level of skill and quality.

Getting Nasty

I’m about to do something I rarely do, so buckle your seatbelts!  If you wanted to see me pull out the angry stick, this is your day.

Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War is no where nearly as successful as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.  It could be the obnoxiously long name, but I suspect that instead it’s the errors I received getting the game running that’s holding it back for me.

I’m not a fan of Ubi trying to lock players into their store either, but at least it’s a system that works well.  My first experience with CoD:BO-CW (even the acronym is irritating) was trying to purchase the game for myself.  Part of that is on Blizzard, but I had a lot of trouble finding the pre-download link for the game the day before launch.  I hadn’t realized that you needed to have the Blizzard launcher to get it.  It’s obvious now, but I don’t really use the Battle.net launcher and there was nothing in my list of games and subscriptions to get me started in that direction.  Ubi on the other hand, I get a link to either launch or download the launcher if I go to the item I own in the store.  I’m very quickly directed under their system to where I need to be in order to download and play the game no matter how I try to access it, and that’s where the first CoD failure occurred.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold WarI’m certain the ridiculous connection time is due to some sort of DRM, but since we’re here anyway, why not go ahead and do those pre-renders or whatever you need?

The second issue is that once I did download the game and attempted to run it, I then had to create an Activision account, which didn’t go well either.  Initially, it just errored out on me every time Blizzard tried to create the account for me, a process that should have been a pretty seamless.  It's not like this is the first time anyone’s had to coordinate accounts between 3rd parties.  Plenty of systems link accounts between providers and offer something like a single sign-on experience.  Somehow this is a process that got right past the folks at Blizzard and Activision, though.

The solution ended up being that I had to go to Activision’s website and register by hand.  I didn’t think to record it at the time out of raw frustration, but it was about as clunky of a process as you might expect.  I tried logging in on the Activision website using my Battle.net account (as there is a link there for it), which of course failed and the following screen didn’t really help point me in any effective direction.  Eventually, I just created a new Activision account and then fumbled the linking of the two a couple times before I got everything set.  After that, I was able to launch the game and actually get past the account verification screen.

CoD:BO-CW is basically the same CoD game that we’ve had for a decade, how do you hose up something as basic as launching the game?  I’m not sure why you’d even invest enough development resources in that part of the game to mess it up in the first place when you already have a successful product.  Either way, this was failure number two for me and I was quickly becoming irritated.

That’s when I noticed the little meter crawling across the top of my screen slowly.  Apparently, CoD:BO-CW has to spend time rendering textures or something, and it wasn’t a fast process.  It wasn’t enough time that I got really angry, but I’ve downloaded and installed a game, sat through an already overly lengthy “connection” process, and now I have to wait for textures to render?  I have no idea how long this process would take on a lower end system, but I’ve spent a fair amount of cash building mine and it still took a perceptible amount of time.  I’ve never had a fully-downloaded game stop at the main menu and warn me that it’d be slow if I didn’t let it take a breather and sort out the graphics first.

…and if you think I was irritated by that, just wait, because I didn’t think the graphics looked that special.  I went into the menu to make sure they were all turned up and that was when I found this lovely little download button.  It seems like there are better graphics (no idea why we needed to take a time out and let CoD:BO-CW catch it’s breath, in that case), but you have to download them separately.    Oh!  Oh!  You’re going to love this, try clicking on the button.

CoD BOCW SettingsBeing redirected to Blizzard to download textures for an Activision product went over about as well with me as Blizzard’s last Diablo announcement.

It does nothing except tell you that your files are managed by Blizzard and you’ll have to use their launcher to download those files.  So, I exited the game and looked to see if I could figure out where those files were.  I was curious to see how long it’d take to download, if I’d have to give the game another chance to catch its digital breath, and how big a difference the download made.  I spent about 30-60 seconds looking through the settings and around the Battle.net launcher.  Know where you go to download those files?  Neither do I, but I did manage to find the uninstall button.

Red’s Read

When I first started thinking about this article, I was really excited.  I wanted to talk a little about how two games in different genres found a similar development and business model that allowed them to quickly and relatively easily and successfully churn out serial products.  I don’t think it’s greedy or a cash grab in any way.  I was excited to talk about what I see as an exceptionally smart game design idea that allowed two different companies to make a lot of cash.

I even went into this expecting to talk about how Activision was the real success story in this situation because it takes far less development effort to create these relatively small maps with little in the way of story and virtually no serious effort towards AI development.  These guys are printing money because their genre is so particularly well suited to the product they’ve developed.

That story didn’t develop, though.  Instead I was consistently frustrated by problems with simple processes that have been around for a decade or more and those failures are just too ridiculous to ignore.  I’ll admit that while I enjoy the occasional foray into fast-paced spray and pray combat, the twitch-fest type of combat game just doesn’t have the level of sim to keep me interested for very long.  It’s like entertainment ice cream.  It’s good and I get a craving for it every so often, but not enough to keep it on hand in my freezer.

AC:V added raiding and village management to the game.  You could easily take it completely out and not miss it.  You’d still have a fantastic game, and that’s two examples of how Ubisoft adds to the successful recipe rather than trying to rework it.

Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War didn’t really have that far to fall, but they stuck that crash like they were trying to get on Daniel Tosh’s next series.  The face plant was particularly noticeable because the incredibly athletic Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was pulling a reverse two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists from a pike position in the background.

People will play CoD and Activision will make money.  Most of the problems sort themselves out quickly and players soon forget they had issues after playing for a while.  That’s how the market works, but for my money, Assassin’s Creed is the far better buy.  Normally, I’d recommend the replayability of a game where content is created almost entirely by players, but Ubisoft has outdone themselves with AC:V.

The sound and visual design are both stellar examples of the art form, the story telling is in the top of their class, but most importantly everything the developers added just enhanced the existing formula and didn’t take away from it.  In the end, one company will likely make more revenue, but the other company most definitely created more value.  I obviously appreciate the latter a bit more.

…if anyone asks me to buy them a copy of AC:V on a console and you’re going to get hurt, though.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.