Gaming experiences can change dramatically when the heads-up display disappears from the equation.
(I apologise for the title)
I love Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. The game has been out for less than two years, and already I’ve finished it at least five times. I know the structure of every sequence, the best way to assassinate each target, the right times to check Desmond’s emails. It is my favourite entry in the series, but that’s a story for another day.
I’m attempting to marathon the whole series before the release of Assassin’s Creed III at the end of the month, because evidently I have too much free time. When I hit Brotherhood the other night, I discovered that at some point I’d turned off the entire HUD, the heads-up display of elements such as health and equipped weapons, for the game. No mini-map, no health bar, nothing. I can’t remember why.
But it got me thinking. I decided that I could do this, that it would provide some variety to a game I’ve played far too many times already. A self imposed challenge. I would play the entire game with the HUD turned off.
The HUD is something we take for granted, I think. We expect these displays to be there, in whatever layout the game may choose. There’s a sort of subconscious reliance on them. But when they’re gone completely, we have to adapt, and that can be quite a challenge.
The first sequence went great, but there isn’t much there that relies on the HUD. Monteriggioni is a small location, and the whole sequence flows quite well. Then I got to Rome. Within five minutes I’d switched the SSI back on, the function that shows when a guard is alerted to you.
I’d love to say I played with everything turned off, but this was one obstacle I found I couldn’t overcome. I knew there were several missions coming where detection meant immediate failure. Not knowing when a guard was watching would make those experiences horrible, and with a (self-imposed) deadline looming over me, I simply didn’t have the time to fail like that.
So it’s an almost complete experience, but I’m a slacker, and almost complete has always been good enough for me.
Playing without the HUD frees up a lot of screen space. There is only Ezio and Rome. It’s difficult to describe, but it simply looks better. There’s no clutter. There’s an emptiness to it, but that emptiness is freeing. In a way, at least outside of missions, it feels more immersive. In those moments I feel more focused, because my attention is not being drawn to the sides of the screen.
There are really only three elements of the HUD that I struggle without.
The mini-map: The worst thing about the absence of the mini-map is the lack of mission markers. Not knowing exactly where I need to go is incredibly jarring, and means I’ve spent a bit of time wandering around, trying to remember where to go next. I could go into the menus and look at the map there, but I’m imposing a ban on that to make up for the SSI being turned on. I remember a lot from the early sequences of the game, though, so searching for mission markers hasn’t been too much of a problem yet. The worst will come at the beginning of later sequences, where there’s no dialogue or prompt telling you where Ezio needs to go. I think I’ll be spending some time scaling view points and looking for anything familiar to jog my memory. Not having markers within missions will also be a challenge. Some missions require you to travel to several locations, often across wide areas. Again, it comes down to memory, but Rome is a large city, so I’m bound to hit trouble eventually.
The health metre: The Animus starts to glitch out when Ezio’s health has lowered dramatically, but beyond that there’s no way for me to know what my health is at. This brings up a fair few questions. When should I use medicine? Can I survive this fight? If I jump here, will I die? It requires a lot of guessing, and actually brings a bit of stress to combat, where I know I’ve taken hits but don’t know just how badly I’m damaged. Further, I don’t see how my health has improved from armour upgrades, meaning at any given time I simply don’t know what my health statistics even are.
Notoriety: Not knowing my notoriety is problematic for several reasons. It means I have to watch my actions more carefully, and pay attention to the brief text boxes that will tell me when I’ve hit full notoriety. But it’s also incredibly difficult to reduce, and this again falls to the absence of the mini-map, which provides markers for wanted posters and other ways of lowering notoriety. Finding heralds isn’t too much of a problem, but wanted posters are sometimes hidden, and require a bit of climbing to reach. It means being more alert and aware of my surroundings, and I’m finding myself ripping down every last poster I come across now, just to be safe.
I thought the experience would be quite daunting, but at the time of writing I’m halfway through sequence 4 and, bar the problems listed above, I haven’t hit anything that has seemed impossible. I’m treating it as an added difficulty setting. Assassin’s Creed has never really been all too difficult, so this is a welcome challenge.
But would I ever do this again? Probably not. Not even with another Assassin’s Creed game. Brotherhood is a special case in that I’m so obsessed with it I know the layout of the world and remember the majority of the places I need to be. And it’s also a world that I don’t mind spending time pointlessly wandering around in.
Give me any other open world game with the HUD turned off, and I doubt I’d last more than one mission.
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