Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 4

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies

Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

 

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed.

Read part 1 here

 

Part 4 – A Short Window

 

Her seafarers scarf pulled over her head into a hood and cowl with the same ease as if she had tied it herself. She marveled at how quickly her clothes dried out of the water, even the gash in her side was barely more than a discoloration. The wound looked clean for what was surely a jagged slash, but she worried to herself how easily it could get infected. Pirates killed for medicine in this century, and died for otherwise simple wounds. This was her new priority unless this would turn into a story about how her ancestor died on a tiny stretch of island.

As the sun set a million stars came out, filling the sky even before the last glint of twilight. Farah sat in the foreign broad-leaf foliage between a thick of unfamiliar trees. She was certainly not near home or anywhere she had traveled before, which she considered fair as she had rarely been further than the University even for vacation. A few others had survived to swim to the same location, each had overlooked her in the failing light where she hid. A few soldiers who had made it to shore were quickly executed. She was thankful she could only hear it from her vantage, the sound of the men dying was graphic enough. She did not have desire to question her calm nerves. She remained hidden without flinch or second thought.

Who was she? Her ancestor, Farah wondered. She could feel the cold but felt warm as if by anger alone. Nearby three desperate survivors made hushed commotion over something they had stolen from the wreckage, she did not understand a word but could hear they were freezing, beginning to argue, had eaten what was too little to share between them. There was a sound like glass, a bottle of liquid, liquor probably. She could see it as clearly as if she stood there, but by sound alone. She had yet to lay eyes on them at all, minus the seconds she saw them as they crawled up the sandy approach earlier. Unless they had found weapons with whatever crate they salvaged, only one was armed.

She closed her eyes for a half second and remembered that as she swam, she kept her eyes open. Was that not supposed to sting? She had no memory of her eyes hurting; only that the vigor of swimming made her feel more alive than ever in her life. Now she remembered what else she saw without considering it, that weapons had fallen well before the rest of the wreckage. No wooden swords suspended, only battered metal, now all lost to the deep with all but one small ship now adrift on a shallow at the tip of the island. The damage to the ship was otherwise minor, more fortunate that the cannon studded galleon that had nearly killed them all. It was a vessel with name and designation marking.

A galleon that belonged to The Trading Company.

The galleon was not a cargo vessel, but a fast attack ship with one purpose: pirate killer. It would have been an armed escort for a ship that was not among those sinking. Was this what she had been sent to find? She looked to the stars and her mind went completely blank.

An otherwise random childhood memory surfaced. How old had she been, maybe nine? What was her name, the woman who taught me the names of the stars? If only she could see this. Farah was a thousand miles away as the milky way shone above her brighter than any moonlight she had ever known. She looked ahead, across the water towards a thin strip of dark land at the horizon. Above it shone the North Star. Right where it should be, Farah smiled. Moments passed and Farah’s mind became as still as the water. “What was her name?” Farah repeated to herself, but this time accidentally aloud. The men who had at some point became quiet made a sound.

A sound followed by the dead silence of ones who had just realized they were not alone and no longer safe.

Fool! She scolded herself. The empty loop in her belt taunted her, her face twisting into a scowl. No weapon to speak of, three against one. This wasn’t a story about how she died from infection or starvation, but in a too swift fight? Not today. They stalked directly past where she hid.

Farah could barely contain a gasp of disbelief, and nearly did not as the sound was already formed on her lips. They turned their heads sharply to listen, but towards trees in the opposite direction. She fought simultaneously an inappropriately timed laugh and the roar of her beating heart. Then she felt something she did not expect. Pity.

These men were barely alive. They looked as if seconds ago they would have killed each other for the bottle of liquor or for the want of food, and hours before had just survived a naval battle and drowning. Still they outnumbered her, and the deadly calm of her nerves was testament to how dangerous desperate men are. Then without warning everything went black.

 

She was standing in a room, wires taught behind her to the machine she was tethered to. Why did she know this room? Computers? Naomi was rushing to her, arms raised to catch her as they both fell. Farah’s pulse raced as it had over the heart monitor that was screaming behind her. She looked to her hands; in her grip she could almost feel the wooden handle of a cutlass. Her cutlass.

(continued in pt 5)

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All Day Spiced Apple Cider

spiced cider in croc pot

  • Apple Cider, enough to fill the croc pot (I get a gallon if available). If you can get local pressed it is the best. Avoid plain apple juice unless no alternative
  • ~Tbsp Whole Allspice
  • ~Tbsp Whole Cloves
  • Whole Cinnamon sticks, 3-6 or as to taste.
  • 1 Orange with rind, cut in slices. Alternately, add just the rind.

Cook on low for at least six hours. I usually prepare it in the morning and it is perfect before bed.

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Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 3

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies

Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

 

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed.

Read part 1 here

Part 3 – Identity Injection

 

The four stood around a laptop viewing a reddit post by Farah from over a year ago when she was working on a family history project. The evidence was right at the top of the post, a photo of the plain ships wheel that had sat aging in Nana’s home for as long as anyone knew. Farah had set out to debunk family myth that the wheel had once belonged to one of the most feared pirates in the South Asian Sea hundreds of years prior. There was nothing visually interesting about the wheel to indicate it was valuable, only family stories of how they came to possess it. Stories she was sure had been exaggerated as they were retold as her grandfather once had.

“We thought it was treasure hunters at first,” Ray was explaining. “They have to operate in the same anonymous spaces we do or risk having their finds confiscated by respective territories or estates. And there is a lot of treasure still in that stretch of ocean, and it was obvious they had something specific they were searching for”

“Do you think these men are with Abstergo?” Farah asked.

“This is where the trail gets tricky,” Nadji interjected. “We know Abstergo is actively looking into this, but this second individual or individuals may be the ones who initiated the first hack. They both seem invested and neither are playing nice. We need to know what they are looking for, or whatever it is they have lost.”

Naomi tilted a nearby monitor towards the group. “Further correlation into their activity as it related to a ‘security incident’ in London at an Abstergo licensed entertainment venue had us wonder if we were asking the wrong questions.

“It isn’t what they had lost, but when they had lost it.” Naomi stood up straight. “We think the men who are after you believe you are a descendant of someone who knows where their ‘treasure’ is.”

As clear as it was to Farah that her mother must have known something about this, to pour so many hours of her time into covertly researching the technology of the animus, building profiles on key engineers at Abstergo and closely following conspiracies about the fates of researchers working East Africa, Farah could not bring herself to mention her mother. The words would not form.

Ray stood up and pulled the shroud back from the illuminated bed-like device; the key to accessing the animus. Surgical style trays with various vials and IV bags and carefully arranged body sensors were lined up neatly.

Farah had only seen sketches of one, but any remaining doubt of the authenticity of her mother’s research disappeared. She was apprehensive of how well prepared the device was. They intended for her to plug in.

To enter the animus.

Farah fought her nerves. “What would I be looking for? How will I know if what I see is of any use?”

Ray chimed in. “We have a short window, a timed payload to get us access before we could be traced. We won’t be able to keep you in there for long, nor will we be able to get a second chance or at least not right away”

“We also don’t have much information on where you will land,” Naomi added. “We have an idea of when, but that is about it. Anything you see could help us narrow down and get a better gauge on how we proceed after that.”

Nadji pressed his hands together. “I have a contact who is working on secure access accommodations once we are ready to try again, and with luck we can do it without moving the whole operation again.”

Farah looked back to the bed-like device. A memory of her suitcases tumbling behind her as she ran crying from an aggressive van flashed before her eyes. Was her Nana safe? Would they try her apartment? What might her roommates say if they were questioned? She wished she were home. Or had a change of clothes. Then another memory resurfaced. Her mother surrounded by books and post-it notes and a pair of busy monitors at three in the morning. The image on one of the monitors she remembered was a Brigantine, and not just any ship. This was a ship of legend.

“Alright,” Farah’s voice held steady. “I’ll do it”

 

Moments felt like hours as she began to shiver laying in the protected recess of the device as they carefully connected each sensor and began the first of her injections to protect her from going into shock as soon as she was plugged in. She felt a strange sense of kinship to these strangers she had just met, and something else inside her urged calm, even excitement, as she started to peel back the years of quiet unhappiness between her and her mother.

As the last of the preparations were complete, one of the monitors Farah could still see flickered from whatever script it was running to pages of rapid bright red text. Ray’s turned head did not make it look like good news. “It is now or never,” he breathed with some gravity. “Fire it up.”

“You’ll do fine,” Nadji encouraged her as everything went dark.

There was an explosion of shadowless light, then lines like bright points surrounding her, shifting. She was standing upright. Something was amiss in her composure, but not in a bad way. She looked down and saw she was definitely not dressed as usual, but a seafarers lightweight fabric and binding clearly of another era. The next second she felt a sudden shock of pain.

She opened her eyes to a billowing mist filled sky above her. The strong scent of the ocean, and something burning. The wave of new senses as they reached her was overwhelming. She was lying on her back on something solid. A deep, disconcerting groan of stressed and snapping wood beneath her startled her to her feet. Spilled oil just feet from where she had laid was burning, inching closer. Instinct took over as she realized the danger she was in. She quickly looked around.

She was at sea, but the water was still and without a hint of wind; oppressive low clouds swallowed everything more than a few meters out. The ship she was on was sinking fast, bodies of its crew strewn about were dressed not unlike her. Her hand acted on reflex of its own reaching to an empty spot on her belt a weapon may have once been. She tasted blood in her mouth and soon found the cause of her unexpected pain. She was badly injured and bleeding freely through her clothes.

A large, dark shape in the water adjacent to where this ship was sinking emerged from the mist as a much larger vessel. Rows of cannons stuck out of the battered hull. She could see more bodies on its deck, then a flicker of movement. There was a heavy set man in a uniform with a manner of helmet that appeared cast from what might have been brass. He was supporting himself to stay standing from injury as he struggled to load what she was sure was a musket. Then he pointed it at her.

At that second, she felt a burst of strength and leapt aside, looking for any means of escape. She caught herself gazing upwards at what remained of her ships mast and the rigging of the larger ship. Without effort or regard to the searing pain of her own wounds she sprung up the mast, climbing with confidence well beyond her own. Memories, she thought to herself. This is my ancestor. She allowed her mind to relax and take in the hyper aware senses she was bombarded with, letting go of her fear as she ran with cat’s grace along an uneven narrow support towards the rigging of the enemy ship. Her heart skipped a beat as she raced to the edge. Was she going to leap the gap to the other mast?

She did.

The crack of the musket echoed, and she heard the crisp whir of the projectile sail well away from where she landed. The injured soldier uttered what she was sure was a curse and dropped his musket and leapt into the ocean as if he was being chased. She looked down, seeing a better view of just how bad the damage to both ships was. Bodies and barrels and wreckage were in each direction as far as the mist allowed her to see. She needed to get a better view. Again, she found herself looking upwards. The crows nest teetered high above. Without another thought she was climbing again. She marveled at the strength of her hands, she needed nary more than a finger grip on rope binding to propel herself higher until she ascended the nest, just above the line of the mist. There were no other ships as tall in sight. A distance off to starboard she saw another tendril of smoke, and the tips of trees. Land.

Suddenly, she heard an eagle cry.

(continued in pt 4)

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Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 2

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies

Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

 

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed.

Read part 1 here

 

Part 2 – Capture the Flag

 

“How did you find me?” Farah gasped, color returning to her face as she tried to catch her breath, “I still can’t believe the utility lift did not crush us? How did the break fail at that moment?” Her voice was nearly shaking.

The young man from the subway cracked a wry smile unbefitting the circumstances. “Those things are so unreliable, all outdated embedded hardware. Hard hat definitely required if you know what I mean”

It had nearly struck the van pursuing her seconds after she caught sight of him, rendering the narrow alleyway exchange impassable. The timing was impossible to be coincidence.

They had arrived near the address, behind a boarded single level business. There was no one else in sight, and nearly all sound was drown out by a freeway overhead.

“Reddit,” he answered her first question to a raised eyebrow. “But let’s get you something to drink and a place to sit down first” They disappeared into an unremarkable door to the boarded-up building.

Barren at first, as her eyes adjusted to just narrow beams of light coming between gaps in the plywood over the windows. Trash, broken wooden pallets, a primitive steel drum fire pit abandoned for years. Deeper into the building he led Farah down a set of stairs into darkness where lights flickered to light as they approached. A small cluster of old telecommunications equipment hummed as they passed, moving down another flight of stairs and into a maintenance access corridor. Decades of redundant pipes and layers of cable rotted in masses along the walls and ceiling. Somewhere far above she could hear they had passed under a large street. A subway car shook the metal catwalk as they navigated.

“The name is Nadji by the way,” he broke the silence as he unlocked a mid-passage steel door. They passed through a narrow electrical closet and through into a dimly lit room that buzzed with the noise of high flow ventilation. Tall rows of computer equipment filled the middle of the spotless, dust free room. Soft clicks of storage devices sang a quiet song beneath the roar of fans. Opposite them and up two steps a woman and another man waited. The man was older, shorts and island tourist shirt as out of place as his greying last century roadie goatee. The dark-haired woman was in an expensive business skirt and blazer that suggested professional hostile acquisitions, but with a boldly shaved undercut and numerous piercings. A neck tattoo peaked out of her tight collar. They were waiting near monitors that appeared to show street camera footage.

Nadji opened a small fridge and began running off names of various energy drinks, sodas and beer. Farah hesitated; skies how good a cold soda would taste. She spotted bottled water and nodded as he retrieved it for her. She collapsed into a rolling chair, suddenly aware of how disheveled she must appear as she unstuck her scarf from her neck. Finishing a long quaff of her water, her idle gaze came to rest on a long cloth-shrouded piece of equipment nearby about the size of a table, a faint glow emitting from under. There was a new spark of recognition. She knew what this was.

Following her gaze to the shrouded device, the older man spoke. His rich American accent filled the space between them like the strike of a piano chord. “You made it, kid” he began. He introduced himself as Ray and appeared to have been busy at several of the systems as they arrived. Many of the active terminals ran programs Farah was familiar with from tech coursework, including one security research tool she had seen demonstrated at a webinar on reverse engineering. Hackers.

The woman was Naomi. She had the confidence and tact of someone who was probably in charge, and a demeanor that was sharp in contrast to “weird white uncle” Ray and warm expression Nadji.

Naomi shifted as she began explaining. “I am old friends with your CS advisor,” she said. “He told me you were doing very well in your classwork and were interested in a career in Infosec.

“You are familiar with bug bounties corporations occasionally pay out?” Naomi continued. “We spotted an unusual one for an older piece of Abstergo equipment that was not commonplace, and as far as we could tell not in use anywhere as they were replaced by newer, safer models. Even possessing one was to risk unwanted attention, you’d have better luck buying an American voting machine.

“The defect was linked to at least one lawsuit, and presumably the quick release of the next revision. Why the bug bounty now, by an account we think is a throw-away used by an Abstergo insider?”

Ray cleared his throat. “Because they were hacked, that’s why. Someone got their hands on this model and managed to break into their network”

“We don’t have proof they have been hacked,” Nadji reigned Ray back a bit. “It’s speculation but it would make sense”

Farah stood up. “You’re talking about the animus?” she concluded in a whisper, walking to the shrouded equipment. Her mother’s obsession. She didn’t think it existed. Stories about DNA memories and unusual patents for advanced medical technology. The room grew closer around her as she turned back to face the others. The question sat on her lip longer than she wanted, until she swallowed as she spoke.

“Why me?”

(continued in pt 3)

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Speculative Assassin’s Creed Short Story, part 1

pirate woman on ship looks to the skies

Art commission by AyshaArt ig @k.ayshaart

 

This is an untitled speculative short fiction set in the world of Assassin’s Creed

 

Part 1 – The Warning

“Have you finished packing?”

The loud chop of a cleaver on cutting table snapped her out of a daydream. Nana was preparing the morning catch for market. Content to live as her family had a century before, Farah’s grandmother had never wished for more than their modest brick and stone home hewn into the rugged hills near the coast. The cobblestone paths and numerous uneven stairs were too small for most modern cars; those who lived here still got to town by bicycle or with handcart in tow. When Farah had first moved here, she was amazed at how different living was compared to just kilometers in any direction. Nana still woke well before dawn to take the boat out, returning around the time Farah should be leaving for Uni. Every morning she rode her bicycle to the ferry to cross the channel and catch a bus to the city, standing out in her modern clothes like a glowing sign amid the fishermen. It had been home when she needed one, but she could not remain.

Packing, right. A year ago, she would have been relieved to move back into the city. Her prior room in the high-rise apartments had a window that looked out over the business district. Living with her mother had been contentious at times but was mostly just lonely due to her frequent long hours. Well, up until the tech giant unexpectedly divested assets and her mother’s job moved overseas. Farah’s Visa, even expedited, was more than a year delayed. Thank skies for Nana.

Nana was strict, serious but not unkind. She was a shrewd negotiator and had known the volatile fishing markets and family business dynamics longer than most of the merchants had been alive. Her profits were slight, but with no debt to speak of she enjoyed a comfortable, simple life. She reminded Farah often how far back generations of her family had lived here.

CHOP. Farah struggled to bring her mind back to the present. The events of the previous nights at the Tech Institute were too bizarre for her to dismiss as incidental. The job faire began with about as much disappointment as she expected, required experience she didn’t have, unpaid opportunities, corporations with dubious social standing and a stack of pamphlets she would not look at a second time. But later, hot street cart kebab in hand, an unexpected exotic car pulled up and stopped directly by her on the walk. The suits inside were British and seemed to have been following her. How did they know her? Their generous offer was obviously suspect. Did her mother arrange this? There is no way every island-locked teen who searched for “abstergo” got a visit from business guys in Italian cars.

Farah finished packing the last of her things, which amounted to two well stuffed suitcases and a backpack. She did not look forward to the stares she would get hauling all this on and off the bus. She could not say louder I’m moving if she yelled. Her grandmother was waiting at the door. She handed Farah a warm cloth wrapped scone with some preserves. This was it; it was goodbye again. The interruption in the morning routine was ceremony enough. Today Nana would ride the ferry to the bus stop with her to wish her a good trip.

Brief rain showers set the mood for the bus ride, mercifully ceasing just long enough for her to lug the suitcases into the subway. As she identified the stop she should wait at, she wondered how she would get along with her new roommates. They all were attending Uni as she was, although some had gone home for the summer. An odd tone from her phone startled her from her thoughts. It was on silent. The notice was from a random Bluetooth device that had attached to her phone with a strange name. She quickly went into settings to disable the Bluetooth and saw in the connection details the device was named “DO NOT TAKE THE CAR”.

It was mid-morning, before the lunch rush so not many people waiting or unboarding at this stop. Farah looked around fearful, no one suspicious – wait. Taller kid maybe her age, hoodie, shoulder bag, track pants and brightly colored sneakers just disappearing up a flight of stairs as he pocketed a phone. Was it her imagination or did he glance at her as he rounded the next stairs up? She looked back to the train, door open waiting for her to board. The car was almost empty. What was she doing? she scolded herself, but her feet would not move to the car. The door closed, and the train left. She looked back to her phone and the device connection was gone.

Exasperated at herself, she lugged the suitcases up both flights of stairs and looked around. There were not many more people at this level, storefront lights saturated the tile floors and low concrete ceiling. At a nearby newsstand an uninterested clerk stared at her phone. On the small sales counter a newspaper was folded in half. The clerk made eye contact with Farah briefly, popping bubblegum. Wary, she picked up the newspaper and left a few coins on the counter. Incredulous, Farah opened it to find a street address written on it.

The sound of expensive shoes tapping on tile warned Farah of a man in a suit approaching, hand descending from what she thought might be an ear-piece, looking her way. The clerk was still staring at her phone. Farah left, suitcase wheels making a chorus of noise as she moved quickly to the street level. The address was someplace she knew only in relation to other buildings it was near but she knew how to get there and that it wasn’t very far. She felt panic setting in as she made it out of the subway into the humid midday streets. What a sight she must make, she winced, the only woman hauling two large suitcases into downtown like she was late for something. She felt eyes on her even if no one was looking. Was it obvious how afraid she looked, or that she was running from a random guy? Or following the directions of a kid to a location she was unfamiliar with like a complete fool? She shook her head to focus, sweat was starting to form on her brow.

She reached a busy intersection, checking her composure as she alternated between wanting to cry and acute self-awareness. Her phone chimed again, startling her. She looked down, it was the Bluetooth again. “NOT THAT WAY”, the device read. She scanned the shoulder to shoulder crowd, cars and eyed straight in the direction she was about to cross a grey van. She worried she was imagining all of this, cracked from the stress of moving. Still, she changed course and began on the walk to her left against the flow of walking traffic. The tires on the van squealed as it turned suddenly to adjust to her new direction. That was Farah’s last straw. Tears welling as she broke into a run, she pushed through people knowing she had to get with the flow of traffic or risk them catching up. She darted into traffic to the blare of horns as she narrowly evaded the Van and cut into an alley that connected closer to where she needed to go. The honks of traffic behind her faded, but the rev of an engine sounding off the narrow brick passage told her all she needed to know; the van had followed into the alley. With a cry she abandoned her suitcases and broke into a sprint.

(continued in pt 2)

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Three things I hope to see in Watch Dogs Legion

credit: newsweek

Keep Calm and Resist. Watch Dogs Legion follows one of my favorite games of all time, Watch Dogs 2. The third installment of this story driven stealth sandbox by Ubisoft continues the exploits of the hacktivist group Dedsec first told in Chicago, San Francisco and now in the near future of the UK. With a narrative that frequently feels torn straight from actual headlines, Watch Dogs has skirted closer to current events and issues than most games dare tread. Still, the success of Legion is not guaranteed and I would not envy the writers tasked with releasing a “Post Brexit” story in the ongoing real world political climate. With that said, I can’t wait to see how well they have done. Here are three things I hope to see in the upcoming release.

A memorable, well written cast

The Watch Dogs franchise has been told from the perspective of exceptionally well written characters to date, from Aiden in the original to Marcus, Sitara, Wrench and Josh in Watch Dogs 2. Their individual backstories were of no small consequence in how the world was built. Watch Dogs Legion treads into new territory with a breakthrough concept of potentially millions of complex but otherwise randomly generated characters living and going about their lives in London that are potential protagonists – a next gen sandbox for storytelling. Transitioning from a fixed cast in Watch Dogs 2, perhaps one of the best in a game in the last decade to loosely random characters with plot seeds must be an incredibly daunting task for their team of writers and world builders. I applaud them for their pioneering spirit in this effort, but I remain cautious to see it succeed. I hope to feel the same kind of attachment to the characters in my story that I did in 2. Tall Order? You bet, but I wont count this team out until I see it myself.

Deep Stealth

Probably one of my favorite aspects of Watch Dogs 2 was how many of the complex puzzles could be solved by only non-lethal means, many by stealth and good situational awareness alone – including one of the hardest missions late in the game. With all respect to the folks who work on the combat systems, hacktivism and gun culture have marginal overlap at best and with the saturation of technical survival shooters on the market today Watch Dogs Legion has nothing to bring to the RPG-lite shooter genre.

Post Launch Content

Of my three wishes, after what we saw in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Origins this seems like the easiest (?) ask – compelling ongoing seasonal content. The DLC for the prior Watch Dogs felt very late however well done. Origins and Odyssey were each blessed with substantial support for further story and timed events that drove player engagement long after the story was finished.

To conclude with a fourth wish, I hope we catch a glimpse of the stateside Dedsec crew at some point in the story as it evolves, it was too good to leave behind. I hope to see an official release date announced soon.

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Bless Unleashed – Tips for dealing with the mid-level advancement wall

If there was an award for “Not the Worst MMO”, Bless Unleashed would certainly qualify. A nice mix of first generation MMO RPG shared world experience and current gen graphics, it has fun combat and a good challenge later in the game. As I mentioned in a previous post, it also has a mountain of bugs and tuning issues that cast shadows on the better parts of the game. Here are a few tips I would give to friends who were considering the game, or who had played previously and quit due to frustration.

Invest in a B Grade Weapon early

The gear that drops from activities falls way short of the advancement curve by the mid-teen levels, until leveling becomes prohibitively difficult due to gear score penalties. Eventually, a red penalty foe has a whopping 66% damage reduction buff that makes facing them almost certain folly. Even in a group you would be a liability to keep alive. B grade weapons and armor with “OK” stats are saturated on the player driven Market Place, and can be found pretty cheap at pretty much any hour of the day. The items may not be keeper gear for end game, but will make the teen and early level twenty content fly by.

When to use Common Enhancement vs Master Enhancement

This same B grade gear can carry you to the “end” of the first major story with some care and upgrades, but herein lies the most immovable part of the advancement wall. Budgeting Gold, Artifact Cores, Star Seeds and Repair tools will challenge even the most resourceful player. It helps to understand the built in risk and cost of each type of enhancement vendor. The Common Enhancement vendor takes Gold and Artifact Cores, the Master Enhancement vendor takes Star Seeds and Cores but does not have a risk of damaging or downgrading your equipment – which happens startlingly often. By that I mean, you will absolutely trash your gear and lose progress. The failure rate is much higher than 50%, so approach with caution.

For gear that is unenhanced for it’s rarity (blue, purple, etc), the first upgrade cannot damage the equipment so should always be done at the Common Enhancement vendor. If you have a repair tool, the second upgrade should also be done at the Common vendor as a failure can be recovered from without risk of further damage, at least to the first bar. The third bar is a gamble, as it will cost a lot less gold than seeds but cannot be recovered without risking a second failure. Remember what I said about failure rate being higher than 50%? Failing twice or more in a row at the common vendor is a regular occurrence. Anticipate disappointment.

Star Seeds are throttled to a daily maximum per character exchange rate from gold, and obtained from limited other activities or season pass rewards. When you first start you may find yourself a surplus of these before you needed them, but eventually you will be bound by the daily cap to get new ones aside from good luck selling loot and resources on the market place. This makes the Master Enhancement vendor very expensive, although safe from risk of damaging and downgrading gear. For any gear I care about, I use the Master vendor for the third through fifth bars and the upgrade to the next tier. Once you are through the surplus of seeds you started with and fixed to the daily allowance of seeds, you will be able to afford to try and upgrade maybe one or twice a day per character. You might have a few days without any success at all. Naturally, if you have a knack for making a profit on selling loot and resources on the market place, you will have a lot less problems budgeting seeds for upgrades.

Eventually your gear score will creep out of the penalty for content in the late twenty range, where you will start seeing better loot to swap out your leveling gear and fine tuning your build for harder content, which will in turn net the gear to keep progressing. You will need approximately 860-900 gear score to complete the last steps of the main story, with end game bosses starting around 1100 gear score and up. It’s a bear, but the dungeons and challenges later are worth the climb. PvP after level 28 introduces several new ways to upgrade gear and is fun, and is a great way to meet competent dungeon mates as well. PvP will also teach you a LOT about which character build you may care to focus on and your overall survivability.

Do Regional Quests

Long before side quest availability tapers off in the late twenty range, you will have always available regional quests that award both XP, trash gear for artifact cores, and a fixed percent of skill experience points. The latter, SXP, is vital to upgrading your blessings to make sure you are doing the most damage you can in dungeons and other challenging content. There is no time too soon to start banking skill points for blessings you have yet to unlock, the later ones need 25 or more points to complete and aren’t viable when acquired (Crescent Moon, etc) without 5-10 points for unlocks upfront. As the number of SXP is fixed per activity and the SXP advancement rate is flat, running all of the available Regional Quests is the fastest way to get skill points by far.

Do the Repeatable Quests

When you first find each region’s repeatable quest NPC, it isn’t clear right away that these activities will eventually be required for one of the stronger blessing unlocks and late game advancement. If you wait until level 25 to start working on the repeatable quests for reputation, you will be days or a week or more off the minimum rep for the prestige quests, which are a fixed block for quest advancement after a certain point in the story. It is a deliberately built in advancement wall to prolong the time it takes to reach the last dungeons and boss encounters. I don’t like this design decision but Elder Scrolls Online had a similar veteran rank advancement wall when it first shipped that was far worse in my opinion, and not even in the same category as the World of Warcraft barriers to end game raiding.

Yes, it’s a grind.

Like pretty much every live-content ongoing game online today, after a point in the story you repeat content to continue advancing. Honestly I don’t think Bless Unleashed is worse than Destiny 2 for “the grind”, nor any other hybrid RPG shooter with character advancement beyond the story. There is a reason this type of post launch content is ubiquitous on consoles today and that is a lot of people enjoy it. Bless Unleashed isn’t a terrible grind and with additional content presumably in the pipes may be worth the time investment.

If you found this article I hope these tips help, or are at least somewhat cathartic to see someone else dealing with the same issues in an otherwise salvageable game. Now to get back to the game and Queue Red Basin 🙂

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Bless Unleashed – Unrequited Love of a Damaged MMO

image credit majornelson.com article

It would be a MMO RPG that spurred me to write again, and Bandai Namco’s “Bless Unleashed” was just the mix of three generations of gaming to make it happen. Equal parts first gen EverQuest, early World of Warcraft and current gen free to play titles like Black Desert or Elder Scrolls Online, Bless Unleashed hits all of the high and low notes at once. The combat combo system is attractive and the map is sprawling with locales that can be familiar and new at the same time. It also boasts one of the better character customization systems in the genre, both in comical and heroic proportions. The main story is long and characters are interesting. In many ways it looks like a valiant effort to create an new world that was the best of classic MMO RPG with substantially less load times and modern graphics. In some ways it succeeds, but the survival of the game is at risk from a mountain of bugs and progression tuning problems that eventually break the game completely. It’s down and needs a revive.

I’ve never been overly critical of games that ship with bugs, so issues like inconsistent line of sight and how AI or combat targeting react to it that are common in other titles I can deal with. Spells can hit objects that don’t seem to be in the way or just detach from the active target completely for no effect. Occasionally, the character will not start a new attack without warning until you roll to evade, which can be fatal. You get used to it, but it happens often enough that even well planned fights against multiple opponents can turn due to a glitch that does not reflect the skill of the player. You adapt, but it is a tough learning curve for players and very frustrating in challenging content.

Unfortunately, one of the better features of the game – crafting and upgrading gear – has one of the worst problems in the game. By design, gear upgrades require one of several currencies and various resources that can be limited per day if you do not have a surplus, and mid-to-late game demands you push your equipment to the limit. The problem itself is in the built-in failure rate of upgrade attempts along with the penalty of the failure, can not only downgrade your gear but cost one or more days of work. The rate of failure is definitely higher than 50%, with comments in chat about “six failures in a row” being a normal occurrence. With no way to reduce or eliminate this risk the equipment enhancement and crafting system is a model of unsustainability. There is no way to improve the chance of failure, only ways to shift how much of which currency your next attempt will cost. At current, each of my sessions ends with “can’t try again until tomorrow, no reason to keep playing” in which I will cross my fingers that I can get my gear back to where it was days ago and not worse.

There is no justification, no programmatic resource economy drain or gear advancement curve that could not be better solved by making the upgrade cost the actual expected number of resources, or at least off set by a way to negate the chance of failure (which itself is still a sum of resources).

Third, the problem with gear enhancement is blown into catastrophic proportions by the odd mid-twenties story advancement difficulty scaling relative to available rewards. Players may expect that if they complete all available main story and side quests that they will have at least the minimum gear to continue playing the story as they reach new areas, but in Bless Unleashed this is wildly far from the case. By 22, with plenty of time revisiting older areas, repeating existing dungeons and bosses, and pouring resources into crafting until I have no more on hand than I gather the same day and my hero is killed nearly instantly by common monsters in the area the main story has progressed to. It is possible beta was too short for this to be explored by a wide audience, and is certainly fixable, but currently it will be a hard progression blocker for the majority of players who would try this game.

By that I mean you literally cannot finish the story in this game, at all. Not without unnatural piles of resources like “star seeds” that are bought with gold and available from limited sources in a normal play through. Only the highest level characters can afford to amass them and market imbalance makes the items they sell available only to other players with similar resources. This would be a much different situation if the gear advancement wall was at the last phase of end game content, but as it stands this is a wall fifteen levels too soon and every one of my usual play group, including the person who recruited me to the game, had already given up by level 20.

It would be incomplete to discuss how this being “free to play” contributes to the problem, and how it doesn’t. Aside from “resource gathering boosts”, which can be purchased with real money, there is no tie between the fun cosmetics and and quality of life services available with lumena and the crafting system or progression curve. Most of the mounts or costumes or season pass boosts available for purchase together still do not approach the usual shelf cost of a 60 dollar game. Heck, for that matter most of players I know of Bungie’s “Destiny” spent the shelf cost, full price for each DLC and probably that much again for cosmetics, so Bless Unleashed by comparison is hardly a cash-pit. Still, I’d rather have spent a little on a cool warg mount because I was feeling great about the game, rather than as a conciliatory purchase for hoping an extra alt and more grinding would fix my main character’s broken gear.

It is still a new game. World of Warcraft had issues of its own for the first half year, perhaps a bit later into the progression curve. It would take years before the end game content was available for more than a few percent of the active playerbase, so in that manner Bless Unleashed is in good company.

I just hope that Bandai Namco can come through with that clutch resurrect.

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The Outlaw – Anthem Speculative Fan Fiction Short

In my dreams, I can fly forever. The night sky became as endless stars shuddering under an omnipresent groan like stressed ice.

Against the towering cliffs that shrouded the ancient ruins, the Elementalist was but barely a speck of light shrouded in the dark, curtained by waterfalls and overgrowth. She watched from her trance-like state as a pack of Wolven prowled far below, much like the ones that had killed her squad just weeks before, but her blood ran cool. They had been destroyed. These, unaware she hovered far above them, were of insignificant existence.

She felt nothing. Her form long twisted by an echo of rage, her mind was wholly bent on something she could sense but not see. There is something in these ruins; the same draw that called the storm-touched chimera to wander its halls, and now, the Scar.

Cunning scavengers, the Scar were drawn like flies to a carcass wherever shaper tech remained. These were heavily armed, far from the pathetic scouts usually found in this sector. She would find their quarry first but could not risk an open fight.

Already one of their hardened sharpshooters was perched on an outcropping of the ruins surveying the cliff shadows she hid in suspiciously. She would have to be patient. Her shields shimmered around her as she hovered beneath a crumbling arched bridge, just out of view of the Scar lookout as she evaluated the safest approach to the darkened corner of the ruins the Scar seemed to be congregating at. She had nothing but mundane scraps on scans of this location previously but expected a group this well reinforced had better intel. Furthermore, by their manner they were still searching for whatever they came for. Her attention turned to the glassy pools below.

That sound.. a pulse nearly inaudible that grappled her like a phantom pain rippled from below the surface of the pool. She darted from her cover, locking gaze with the Scar sharpshooter for an instant before disappearing into the water, where she spotted a subterranean entrance to the ruins eroded by a hidden water channel. Above, the Scar searched for her.

She emerged on the other end of the channel in complete darkness, lit only by the optics on her blackened javelin. Crumbling sarcophagi lay at the center of the walled-in chamber, most appeared to have long since been looted but something faint had registered on scanners. Outside the stone walls, a sudden commotion erupted into gunfire. Over the din of Scar scrambling she could make out the distinct sound of Sentinel issue assault rifles. These ruins were out of range of standard patrol but the gathering of Scar must have attracted them.

She had been prepared to fight the Scar if she must but tangling with Sentinels without preparation was a risk too great. As she contemplated her retreat, she spotted a freshly crumbled section of wall leading into a smaller chamber where a stone chest rest undisturbed. She slowly lifted the top, a soft glow reached out towards her and a feeling of wonder filled her heart as the memory of accomplishment; and then bitter resentment as a will beyond her own flexed its control over her as she retrieved the precious contents of the stone box. A single scrap of dark stained cloth nearby shone a sunburst insignia. Somewhere in her, a flicker of recognition. Then came a deafening crash.

An explosion of rocks and dust shattered the largest of the chamber walls as Sentinel vs. Scar combat shredded through steel and stone alike, revealing the once hidden chamber to a burst of daylight. She immediately took to flight, speeding out of the disadvantageous cover while she had an element of surprise on her side to assist in her escape. Unlucky for her however, the Scar sharpshooter had been waiting to reacquire her and pierced her shields in a single shot, sending her plummeting to the ground. Shaken but unharmed, she took low cover, un-shouldering her long rifle as her shields began to replenish. Sentinel chatter indicated they may have been flanked by Scar reinforcements, including the detachment’s elite.

Bolting skyward with the throttle open wide, she outpaced the waiting laser sight of the sharpshooter scope, as it attempted to reacquire her. The crack of the Sharpshooters rifle pierced the air as it fired off a round, it zipped past her narrowly missing her left arm. She stopped to hover on an impulse. Swiftly spinning around she took aim and returned a single high caliber round to devastate its primitive shields before unleashing her javelin’s unstable potential energy. With its shield depleted the twisted snarl of lightning reached out and struck the Sharpshooter. As the smoke cleared it was clear that only cinders remained where the sharpshooter once stood. However, she had now drawn the attention of both the Sentinels and the Scar Elite.

A rapid series of pops and bursts of smoke was the only warning she would get as an incoming missile barrage from the Scar Heavy, concussed the air around her as she scrambled to dodge the incoming attack. She plunged towards the ground, dodging and weaving the incoming fire while her shields tried to compensate. Critical system warnings lit her expressionless face as she skimmed the pool surface, rapidly approaching the blind side of the slow but heavily armored and dangerous Scar. Memory of the hulk’s known armor flaws haunted her aim as she pierced its ammo reserves with explosive result. Opposing Sentinel fire cut the brute down where it stood. The surviving Scar began to scatter.

There was a still moment where neither she nor the Sentinels acted as tendrils of muzzle smoke dissipated into the chill evening air. In the distance a lone grabbit’s ear cocked to one side. One of the Sentinel had sustained substantial armor damage and clung to what was left of the rocky cover they had fought from. The other pair of Sentinel had fresh magazines loaded and studied intently the harried Elementalist for her next move. Ripples of charged potential roiled on her suit’s armaments.

Before either side could make a move, a thunderous boom shook the sky above as a Colossus class javelin entered the fray from the cliffs above, guns blazing. The air around the Elementalist vibrated ahead of the shelling as she blinked to narrowly escape incineration. Spent brass casings sang across the rocks from the heavy main cannon of the Tarsis-forged embodiment of might, quickly draining what remained of her shields as she fled deeper into the ruins. The Colossus stopped its pursuit once it had positioned itself between her and the injured Sentinel. She turned quickly mid-flight to look back at the Colossus as she rounded a corner to safety.

The Colossus had now loaded a fresh drum of ammunition, sights steady on the hallway she had disappeared into. On any other day this would have made for a sporting fight, but she carried with her a treasure she must deliver.

She turned, descending again into the hidden water passage and through to the other side. She glided to a stop just outside before taking a flight path that could expose her position, checking her shields and ammunition.   That is when she heard a familiar growl, followed by several more. Her respite was short lived, as the pack of Wolven she had previously tracked lay waiting to ambush her.

(Update: additional edits by Anthem Insider community member kyu2130 , thank you)

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Eight Things Fallout 76 Gets Right

Despite the emergence of a hate click economy, some people are still enjoying their video games. Fallout 76 is the latest to weather the manufactured rage of an increasingly toxic online community, and will be a new measure of a publishers resilience to criticism. While Bethesda games have earned a certain infamy for shipping with a lot of bugs, and Fallout 76 certainly did, I believe most of the criticism leveled against the game is undeserved. There are quite a few innovative ideas pushed in the latest title in the franchise, ideas I hope are not drowned out by malcontent noise. Here are just eight of the reasons I am enjoying Fallout 76 as much as, and in some ways more than Fallout 4.

Everything is a side story. For every player that has ever put off the “main story” in a Bethesda title for as long as possible, or rushed through it, Fallout 76 is a natural leap forward. There is absolutely no camera-stealing main quest or cut scene heavy narrative – only audio tape and written notes hinting at things you can optionally pursue. It errs on the side of next to no direction at all, making every snippit of lore hinting at something to find a bit more interesting. Some of it is just flavor, but most of the time it is very effective at creating a storytelling device in a world in which everyone is dead except for you and the other players. There are a lot of different opinions on how this was executed, but I felt it is a near-perfect survival horror RPG atmosphere; one that is frequently dark, occasionally funny and often sad.

Puzzles you have to read to solve. Some quests are more forgiving than others for auto suggesting the next step hints (or marking an exact location for you), but in a lot of the find-it-yourself exploration puzzles key clues require actually listening to the content of the audio tapes or reading computer files and paper notes.. It has been a while since any RPG game outside the indie circle tasked players with basic deduction or light reading to solve dungeons, which I am thrilled to see in a full release of Fallout. I hope the next Elder Scrolls carries the torch.

The “Dragonborn” trope no more. Not to pick on Skyrim specifically, which I still rate as one of my ten favorite games of all time, but the “savior” trope in so many single player RPG and Action Shooters is so common that the story devices to explain them in later sequels are even tropes themselves. From Halo to Mass Effect and earlier Elder Scrolls titles, the “avatar” essentially becomes legend – occasionally even a literal deity. Some series (looking at you, 343) have yet to resolve this and it begins to drag the character down. You save the world NN times and eventually you are a parody of yourself.. but I digress. Fallout 76 avoids this with grace with their tiptoe into multiplayer, making everyone a survivor of one of the earliest vaults to open after the bombs drop – and each left to their own motivations create a narrative highly resistant to predictability.

Character build feels meaningful. The fresh face of the series S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat advancement lends itself to diverse builds and a proper sense of character ownership. Being able to collect and eventually switch out different sets of ability cards for different play styles takes this further, making the deep spec system of Fallout 4 seem primitive in comparison. In a December update, an additional feature will be added to allow players to respec these points (perhaps at a higher level, when it would make the most sense) to better fit their card collections.

Power Armor is useful again. This was actually one of my biggest complaints about Fallout 4, which was that Power Armor was relatively fragile even with upgrades and a properly outfitted hero with advanced light armor upgrades could match or outperform a suit of Power Armor wearing upgraded civilian attire. Too many times I would collect fusion core fuel for my suit to tackle a difficult area only to carry broken pieces of the armor out with the loot I did get. Worse yet, these sets weren’t all that easy to collect, which means that my top tier set with fancy paint job was more or less just a display piece unless I wanted to ruin it by wearing it once. Fallout 76 is almost the opposite case – I feel safe in my armor, and the wear is slow enough that with care I can collect everything I would need to fix it before it actually breaks. Fusion core fuel is still rare enough to make it feel valuable, but otherwise obtainable enough I can wear my Power Armor all the time.

Crafting. Like a good RPG, crafting evolves with level, and finding new plans and recipes makes for a natural reward system for doing otherwise optional side quests. There are also some plans you can only get by capturing workshops, which dips into potential player vs. player engagement. By blending gear, C.A.M.P., food and water upgrades into your crafting progression makes the time spent working on crafting worth while.

Multiplayer-light is strangely effective. I had more apprehension on how this would work than any other feature ahead of trying the game, and have been pleasantly surprised that it feels exactly like I expect Skyrim might have as a multiplayer title, not worse or better. Interactions are far from mandatory, outside of proximity chat being on by default. If someone attacks you, you can opt to ignore them and they will do next to no damage until you attack back – which you can manage somewhat by using V.A.T.S. to target to help avoid accidentally striking another player unless you mean to. Individual mileage may vary here, and it is open to some troll-ish behavior, but by comparison I would say trolling in Fallout 76 is very mild compared to troll playgrounds like Sea of Thieves (which to be fair, is part of their pitch, after all). Dying in PvP feels well balanced, and cooperative play seems intuitive enough. I’ve probably played 80% solo, but each time I do team up with a few friends we have had a lot of fun no matter what we were working on. Many of the quests or location specific events work best with multiple people, which is a welcome change to puzzles in Fallout.

Playing without saves changes how I play. Every Elder Scrolls and previous Fallout title to date shared in common the need to save frequently and sometimes in multiple save slots in the event of sudden death (or progression-breaking glitch), which intentionally or not lends to a certain sense of safety that you can quickly rewind time if something goes wrong. Moving to a persistent online world trades off this ability, making for a greater sense of caution and thinking ahead, and combined with the added requirement to manage your own food water and general health sets a completely different tone; one more fitting of a survival horror. This feature was actually key to how survival mode in Fallout 4 worked, but was probably only experienced by a small subset of players who saw it as a enticing challenge. Now in Fallout 76, when you get surprised by a pack of Super Mutants and the first sound you hear is “CATCH!” followed by a grenade-close warning, you get the full experience of the ambush rather than just reaching for the quick-load hotkey. Forget to check a sketchy area doorway floor once for a trap wire and you’ll visually check every room you walk into after that – guaranteed. (well, until you don’t and die anyway, but I digress again). This change alone evolves the title into something a lot more engaging in ways previous Fallout weren’t – at least out of the box.

To conclude, I do concede that there are a lot of bugs still to fix in Fallout 76 that should have been fixed before it shipped, but I do not subscribe to the toxicity that thrives in the online gaming community at the release of practically every other game these days. Fallout 76 is a great game and a worthy addition to the franchise, and I hope the same creative minds that made it possible are not discouraged from pushing the envelope in the future by a narrow subset of noisy gaming fans.

Now, back to West Virginia to see what other new friends Rose has for me to meet.

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