A Flag in the Sand, Thoughts on “E”

After two years of stagnating in my Steam library I am finally playing Assassin’s Creed. I blame it on a friend who Tweets some awesome thing about the series every now and then. I admit I had no idea what the game was about except I would perch like a bird in high places and assassinate people that needed killing.  Having got past the initial tutorial places, finally seeing the meat of the game was a revelation. It was well worth the $5 I paid for it at the time, and I will likely get the sequel as soon as I am done with the first.

I didn’t realize how much of an “explorer’s” dream the game was. The cities are sprawling and lively. There are plenty of nooks to find and crannies to stuff bodies in. A lot of time and love was spent on each area to constantly feed moments of ‘neat!’ It’s so free-spirited that when I get bogged down in a sword-fight, I am just hoping it will be over all the sooner. I want to keep exploring, and to keep the explorer heart busy, there are two distinct modes of exploration in Assassin’s Creed: guided and hidden. 

Guided so far has been very objective based, and it severely blurs the line between achiever’s fodder and explorer’s map. There are towers that eagle’s like to use as perches. This tells me that I also want to go up there and use my supernatural eagle’s vision to scout the area below. In the city, I am like Batman searching for citizens being molested by the establishment, fellow assassins, and tidbits of information to find chinks in my target’s armor. These locations pop up on my map in a tiered order: find the perch, find the waylays. Usually I only need a few checkmarks before I can head to the assassination phase, but I am finding that I want to do them all.

Hidden, on the other hand, are found as flags in Assassin’s Creed. They are not on the map. They are usually hidden in a ruined building or alleyway out of the general flow of movement. Some flags are even placed as a type of platform puzzle that can only be reached through a specific route of building jumping and window climbing. When I finally lay my hands on one of the filthy pieces of cloth, I get to know how many flags of the set I’ve found out of the total. There can be up to 100 flags in an entire city.

I did manage to boggle through getting the 20 flags in the safe, tutorial city of Masyaf with the help of a map I found online. Carefully checking off each flag on the map, I thought I had managed to get them all, but the game told me I had only found 19 out of 20. Argh! I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out which I had missed. At that time I realized that this was the only flag set I would complete. There was no way I was going to take the time to find the 100 flags in Damascus.

I realized that I loved the exploration of Assassin’s Creed, but that I really needed direction. I know that I simply could not have fun trying to comb the city for flags. I needed more direction. I needed tools up for the task. I needed guided exploration. Did people really have fun trying to find all the flags on their own?

Or, perhaps it is the achiever’s soul in me abrading the happiness of “E.” I find a flag; awesome, I am a semi-hidden, off-the-beaten-path area. Pat on back, self. Except… except! The ruthless game is telling me that I’ve only found a smidgen of these infernal flags! There are dozens left to be found, which apparently I have been overlooking like a blind cow. I don’t even know where to begin to look.

I realize how much I love a guided tour, and I really enjoy just random wanderings to find neat places and things. Yet, I truly hate the middle ground of unguided exploration objectives. Any reasonable guidance or hints would turn flags into a great little mechanic. For now, I hate hoping that I will find more flags, all the while knowing that each flag I find in Assassin’s Creed makes finding another flag less likely.

Developers keep adding tasks like these in so many games and genres, and I truly wonder who they are for. Achievers are going to use guides to add… well, guidance. Explorers will only care so much as the task aligns with whatever they are exploring. Getting all the “flags” is an tertiary task. Do the developers really think that anybody is going to take the time for a near-Sisyphean task of combing and re-combing gigantic explorable areas for these small unguided objectives? In my mind, this gameplay is worse than grinding. At least with grinding I can see progress.

Since I’ve made the conscience decision to ignore the task of flag set completions in Assassin’s Creed, I am black to an “oh, neat” moment for getting the flags. I figure that at the end of the game, I’ll look at the few flags I have found and congratulate myself. It would be nice to get the majority of them, but honestly I am not even hopeful for that. I do want to get enough to feel that maybe I did take some time to explore. Then I can draw my own line in the sand.


10 thoughts on “A Flag in the Sand, Thoughts on “E””

  1. I have only played any AC game briefly, but when I started reading this post, I thought of — of course — Skyrim. While AC games may offer you some level of open exploration, I can’t believe that it’s anywhere on par with the Skyrim offers.

    The reason I bring this up (not to troll, honestly) is that the exploration in Skyrim seems based (for many people) on the “Oh! A path into the mountains! Let’s see where that goes” as opposed to a “Oh! A path in the mountains! I bet there’s a contrived and standardized reward if I go up there to collect it!” It’s a difference between exploring for exploring’s sake, and exploring because you’re expecting something very specific.

    While you CAN use guides in Skyrim to find what is where, the reasons why you’d go there aren’t as pat as simply to visit, or to collect. It’s the experience of having been in that location, along with a whole bunch of what you might find there.

    Setting up exploration using “bribes” like completing an anachronistic collection is the “easy” way to get people to go everywhere, while getting people go somewhere because they’re innately curious is probably a lot harder, but far more rewarding, IMO.

    1. Ha, how could you troll, Scopique?

      I totally agree, and there are some minor places like that in AC. It’s more of an architectural moment than anything, but I do appreciate the love the landscape designers put in to it. So I am along with you there.

      I would almost say the flags are anti-bribe in a sense. They are too hard found to simply believe that this nook should be explored because it might have one.

  2. I explore (or Explore) simply because there are places to go. Making an Achiever’s sport out of it doesn’t do much for me. When I stop having fun seeing new things and seeing if I can get to arbitrary locations I pick, I’m done.

    But I’m weird.

  3. I’ve never played any of the AC games either, but I’ve been meaning to try them.

    Maybe its time… plus, all those commercials for the new one are keeping it fresh in my mind.

  4. I played the game for the first time about a week ago. I was blown away by the scenery and the rooftop running for the first few hours and then I came down with a bang when I realised that the actual game play is very shallow and repetitive. If you decide to ignore the explorer aspect of looking in every nook and cranny for flags you may find that there isn’t much else to do.

  5. For those who were put off by Asassins Creed: the second game and its sequels, Brotherhood and Revelations are massive improvements on the formula. Honestly, people were surprised when AC1 got a sequel at all, yet now it’s a huge franchise.

    The one problem I usually have with AC games now is that they’re very long – doing everything in Brotherhood took ~30 hours,if I recall right.

  6. Assassin’s Creed is interesting in that I’m not sure which game (ignoring Brotherhood and presumably Revelations as working essentially the same as ACII, gross generalisation I know) – which game is more restrictive and repetitive.

    The first game has about three preparation tasks which you repeat for each major assassination, so the small stuff is very repetitive. The major assassinations, on the other hand, leave things largely in your hands, allowing you to strategise about how to complete the task, and also allowing you to botch it completely and have to try and save yourself by improvising.

    The second game has a HUGE variety of side quests and set piece compared to the first. The missions are more varied and you get a bunch of new gadgets to change the mechanics a little… but there’s so much hand-holding. You’re told exactly how to do a mission, and straying from the instructions leads to desynchronisation as often as not (I’ve seen extreme cases in Brotherhood – you didn’t walk where we told you to, desync). Half the gadgets are only really relevant in the assassination specifically designed to introduce them.

    There’s something good about the simplicity of ACI, and something annoying about the way ACII handles quests, despite the many huge improvements made in Ezio’s games. When it’s all said and done, though, I am also an explorer: getting to the top of that cathedral and looking out at the meticulously designed view? That’s reward enough for me.

  7. Curiniel, it’s true that Brotherhood had a more rigid structure to its missions, but Revelations improves on it immensely. Almost every mission encourages creative thinking, and the various tools can all be used in a myriad of ways. There’s tons more replayability value than Brotherhood, expecially since the full sync objectives are more “do this interesting thing” than they are “Don’t screw up once or you’ll fail”.

    I don’t really think there are too many gadgets, or that they’re limited to one use. Sure, you have poison darts, the hidden gun, the crossbow, knives, bomb crafting, and parachutes and such, but having all of those things simply means that you can approach a situations literally however you want. Standing on a tall building while your target is on the ground? Parachute assassinate him, or parachute to a lower roof and poison a guard to draw him over, then assassinate him, or even just stride in confidently, drop a smoke bomb on him, stab him, and make your escape. Revelations does a far better job of making total domination more difficult, despite the increased lethality. You have lethal bombs? They’ve got more guards than previous games, and your explosions will bring them running, champ.

    AC1 was less structured in many ways, but in a lot of ways it felt more claustrophobic. There were only four weapons, and the cities had nothing of substance to do in them once the allure of simply jumping around and looking at everything wore off.

    Since AC2, that has been more and more fixed. There are tons of optional missions not really relevant to the main story, and even just things that you can do without physically accepting a mission.

    Assassin’s Creed 3 is coming out next year. I think they need to make major updates to the various systems of the game. Freerunning is still patchy, regardless of how many minor glitches have been removed, and sometimes the targeting simply doesn’t work. Combat in Revelations is the greatest it’s been, but it needs to feel more fresh. I’m excited to get to a completely different era, although Ezio was so amazing as a character in Revelations that it made me forgive his boringness in Brotherhood.

  8. I had all the flags from the cities, and I had only to get the 100 flags in the large Kingdom area. At 99/100 I thought I should have them all. Damn.

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