The Retromancer Blog

Summary: An in-character blog post from an Internet celebrity reporting from the near future.

Assassin Nation Review

By Mike "The Retromancer" Wolfe

Soundtrack: "Shadows in the Moonlight" by Miracle of Sound

You buggers are persistent, you know that? No sooner than I post my New Babylon review than I get a torrent of fucking emails pleading for me to review "Assassin Nation." I barely review newer stuff for a reason. I've got a life outside games, and I can't devote as much time as you 14 year olds can to keeping up with every new franchise. That said, though, I've been curious about Assassin Nation myself. I've seen this developer team, and their blogs show they like a lot of the same video game franchises, elements, and styles that I do. So, what's the holdup?

Aside from time, there's a few others. A lot of the game-play is oriented around parkour and free-running, essentially a game of "tag" with light gun styled wearables. I'm slower and fatter than the kids who mostly play around my crappy neighborhood. But, rest assured, I was told, there's more to this game than tag. Even if I did desire to play hands-free tag, I think it would look at little weird for an older guy like me to be playing with teenagers. If I wanted to do that, I'd be a Catholic priest.

One thing I like about augmented reality games is actually meeting local people face to face to play, something I haven't done for years. At least it's getting kids to play outside, instead of sitting inside like my generation did. I noticed a lot of the kids were thinner and less flabby than many of their parents and people of my generation were.

Now, despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by the crew I found at the game. There were some people my age (and a bit older) as well as younger players. The game is pretty simple in concept: we meet once (or more) times a week, and solve conspiracies relating to a meta-plot while battling rival groups. The actual battle between conspiracies takes several forms. A lot of it is a glorified game of tag. Everyone wears wrist mounted "light gun" style wearables, which allow you to "assassinate" another player if you get within a certain range of them, sending them back to a team safe zone to "respawn."

For in-game lore, each "wrist gun" is a paintball-like device tags a target with a chemical tracer dye that draws automated security systems towards them. The act of "respawning" is essentially justified as operatives going offline, returning to their safe house, and cleaning the stain out. I've read some idiot players used actual paintball guns or electronically fired paintball filled firearms, only to get a few lawsuit threats from unlucky bystanders.

The light gun has a fairly simple operating system. The closer you are to someone and the more time you spend aiming a shot, the less likely you are to miss. You get the most points from hitting an enemy from "stealth." What I love doing is blending into the background, sitting on a bench near the enemy "safe house" and reading a newspaper. I kept one-shotting the rival players as they leave, making for plenty of swearing teenagers. Agility wasn't required, save occasionally shifting benches.

There are generally a few separate positions on a team. There's the offense team, which hunts enemy players. These range from "masters of disguise" to fast traceurs and free-runners that like working in packs. I've participated (and fell victim) to some pretty good ambushes combining both. The younger ones are typically the parkour "chasers" while we old bastards typically sit around waiting to strike. Some cheaters try to turn off their wearables to leave the game (temporarily) to avoid taking hits, but we out them pretty fast. We essentially play a game that's a glorified version of laser tag and capture the flag.

Less physically demanding roles are the "guildmaster" ones. These are the leaders and brains for each conspiracy, who solve mysteries and plan strategies for the others. Sometimes, the physical and strategic planners are the same people, but the team I played on had separate officers for each. They worked pretty well together, on account of being friends. Each game, teams are given a series of riddles and puzzles that the "smart guys" are meant to solve while their operatives scour the playing field for clues to help. The "smart guys" help for what's essentially an online scavenger hunt.

This is all done via augmented reality, so regions with clues are lit up, as well as other players. Some people can "cloak themselves" by remaining stationary for a prolonged period (that's how I racked up my kill ratio, good old spawn camping). We played in a park, so it was funny watching the other team aiming their wrists at every person sitting on a bench, thinking it was me (hyperlink: Youtube: Assassin Nation Fail).

The franchise's lore is pretty in depth. The players actually manage their own "conspiracies," groups and factions ranging from local ones to chapters of international ones. The meta-plot involves finding artifacts and clues left by a civilization that predated Homo sapiens, having technologies beyond our comprehension before a strange cataclysm (hyperlink: Toba) wiped them out. All that's left are some artifacts, jealously hoarded and used by powerbrokers and conspiracies across history.

It's essentially the premise of Assassin's Creed, but with more factions and stranger tech. If a conspiracy manages to "win" an artifact, they get some bonuses (like better stealth, longer weapons range, and so on), but they also have more foes trying to capture it. Moving up in the rankings means you're a bigger target, fitting with the game's themes of conspiracy and stealth. A shady conspiracy loses most of its advantages in the open, after all.

The team I played on was the "Sons of Huitzilopochtli." Their gimmick was they were former Aztec warriors and priests who waged a guerrilla war against the Spaniards, eventually covertly leading the Spanish colonies in the New World to revolt. Their pseudo-historical membership includes Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Bernardo O'Higgins, and other revolutionaries, past and present.

While most of us like editing the team's wiki "in character," there's always people who take it too seriously. I'm sure you've heard about those Assassin Nation cosplayers, who using home-fabbed prop weapons, managed to scare off a group of muggers. Since there's plenty of nerdy youth and crime, I guess wannabe superheroes is all too predictable. Still, there's great potential for that to backfire, only for these teen vigilantes to inadvertently become comic book reject supervillains themselves.

Remember the creatures that inhabited the malls and department stores before the crisis (hyperlink: People of Walmart)? Those look normal compared to these weirdoes. Some of the obsessive fanboys and girls are probably the downside to this game, since some of them are constantly trying to recruit other players to join their vigilante activities. At least Mormon missionaries and Jehovah's Witnesses are easier to spot and typically don't loiter around where gamers gather. (Some of those types are a story for another day.)

This game isn't quite history, but it certainly shows its roots pretty fucking blatantly: Assassin's Creed, Deus Ex, laser tag, scavenger hunts, and capture the flag. Luckily for me, those are all things I love. The pseudohistory and conspiracy lore is fairly well done, and the fan created material is certainly a decent addition (and encouraged by the devs). Aside from some weird players (which any game has), I enjoyed Assassin Nation. It's fairly well balanced, and lets you actually meet other people in person to play. That's one thing I liked more than New Babylon, at least. However, they're really too different beasts. One's a community parkour and tag game, while the other is a classic MMORPG in augmented reality form with lots of user generated content. Remember, once I've reviewed it, it's history. (Fuck I'm getting old.)