I’m not usually one for AAA-franchises, Halo notwithstanding; I usually perceive their popularity as symptomatic of the compromise necessary to garner mass appeal. And so, when Ubisoft released the first Assassin’s Creed game way back in 2007 amid a torrent of refined media releases (mostly accompanied by then-producer Jade Raymond), I maintained my distance. The first mutterings around the webosphere were overwhelmingly positive, but they were tempered somewhat with comments about the repetitive nature of the gameplay.
Assassin’s Creed II came and went without piquing my curiosity, as did Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; some of my online cliques raved about the later games, but I remained largely uninterested. One friend, however, was so ebullient towards the Assassin’s Creed universe that her enthusiasm started rubbing off on me; I secretly added the series to my “Must Try” list. Of course, once I vocalised that I’d done so, I was constantly hounded (in a good-natured way!) until I took the plunge: Assassin’s Creed was grabbed (for a damn good price, I might add) off Xbox Live Marketplace.
Now, it must be stated that I knew a little bit about what I was getting into when I elected to start at the beginning of the series: I was fully aware of the grind required by the first game, of the tedious collectible quests, and of the potential for glitchy achievements. But the start of the story is important to me – and I figured that it would be a pretty good introduction into the mechanics of the games. Besides, if the series grabbed my attention in spite of the original game’s foibles, it might be interesting to see how the mechanics of the later instalments develop over time.
And the opening is absolutely engrossing: you’re tossed headlong into a world that twitches with unknowns, and is unafraid to let you wallow and grasp for a moment before pulling you out and explaining the premise. And there, in the cleanliness of an Abstergo lab, the gorgeous desaturated graphics are offset by some perfunctory voice acting and animation; Nolan North’s efforts aside, the rest of the voice work is workmanlike at best, and suffers from some terrible pacing. But then, thrust back into the world of the alter-protagonist Altaïr, you get to experience thirty glorious minutes of gameplay that combines all the fluid movement of Prince of Persia (understandable, given they run on the same game engine) with combat options that – at that early stage – appear to allow you to be as elegant or button-mashy as you’d like.
But then you pay for that glorious opening by having all your weapons and skills taken from you, like a stabby Metroid episode; reclamation of the fun stuff drives the rest of the game, albeit accompanied by the need to assassinate pivotal characters in the historically-influenced storyline. And some of the writing around these characters and events is really quite clever; certainly, the dialogue between Altaïr and his victims – which takes place in a clinical white space afforded by the Animus – is full of bite and intrigue. When Altaïr returns to his Master, however, the writing becomes almost unbearable: there’s a disassociation between the action and the storyline, with the driving force behind the action limited to cutscenes that – for some reason – absolutely failed to grab my attention. Seriously, this is the first time I can remember being so completely annoyed that a cutscene was playing; even when removed from the Animus, protagonist Desmond Miles engages with even more stilted conversations with his Abstergo captors. Whilst atmosphere is (somehow) generated from these exchanges (as opposed to the drudgery of the Al Mualim lectures), it’s not necessarily an atmosphere that encourages me to keep playing.
And, whilst I was expecting a grind, I was not prepared for the extent of it. There’s comparatively few types of mission to be played, and they’re all plagued by horrid voice-work. The civilian-rescuing missions were the worst, with an awfully over-enunciated “another minute and they’d have made off with me” making me cringe every single time, and that made it feel like it was far harder work than it actually was… because it’s a blessedly short game.
Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed never really quite lives up to the strong opening; the fun of those opening thirty minutes is simply replicated (and, in the process, somewhat diluted). But despite its failings – the lack of variety, the poor audio work, and the charmless collection-fests – the storyline was intriguing enough for me to continue on to the next chapter of the series.
By the time I purchased Assassin’s Creed II it had dropped in price (again, in the Games On Demand section of XBLM) to equal that of it’s predecessor. Once the unnerving swagger of the intro movie was over, it soon becomes evident that the gameplay has only slightly evolved from the original game – but what really makes AC2 work is the polish.
Most overt is the much-improved voice acting, married with improved character models (though there’s still a bit of mannequin in the faces). But it’s only after sinking into the game that you realise that Ubisoft quite deftly took care of the biggest complaints of the original game; there’s much more variety in the missions, and far fewer voice hooks that noticeably repeat and annoy. And the gameplay itself… well, AC2 improves on the original’s glorious half-an-hour by adding in reams of extra content, and streamlines some of the processes (hurrah for fast travel!).
There’s still some quality collection-fests there for me, my magic RT+X magic-win bump combo still works, and the rough edges of the original’s conflicts have been smoothed away; there’s nothing quite like dashing over rooftops, throwing money at a group of thieves in your path to encourage them to intercept the enemies in pursuit. And there’s some gorgeous little touches in there, too: the animation of poisoned victims as they flail towards death, or approaching a woman who is going to request the beating of her philandering husband as she hides behind a tree, sobbing, wiping tears from her eyes.
For all the improvements Assassin’s Creed 2 makes over the original game, it also takes steps backwards. The saving grace of the original game – clever and well-weighted writing – veers into self indulgence. For every tongue-in-cheek bit of writing (“Its-a me, Mario!” or the horrible “succour” dialogue), AC2‘s head often disappears up its own arse with suggestions of the Templar & Assassin interferences in history (and the entanglement of Da Vinci, the blunt side-quest references to Michelangelo, and the garish references to coffee all stand out as garish inclusions, too). And my favourite dialogue mechanism – the assassination exchanges in the Animus – lose their erudite edge, becoming a boorish way of reminding the player that their new protagonist is a noble man. And that’s a massive shame; the great thing about the first game was that the dialogue encouraged the player to think in shades of grey, no matter how obvious the outcome was going to be. There’s no grey whatsoever in the sequel… killing innocent civilians is even tolerated to a greater degree, because Ezio is clearly Fighting The Good Fight. And the denouement of the game, in what is clearly intended to garner a “WTF?” response from the player… well, it’s a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? You know there’s more sequels coming, and the ending cheats the story of the game you have been playing a bit… though the idea of breaking the fourth wall for your third-person memory protagonist is the smallest hint of cleverness in an otherwise staid storytelling effort.
My grievances don’t end there. Despite a smoother play experience overall, there were some disconcerting moments where the game would mystifyingly switch into Twitchy Control Mode, causing you to leap inexplicably to your
death desynchronisation. The “puzzle” elements in the game (thankfully restricted to the Tombs) don’t even match Uncharted‘s “quality”, veering from the too-easy to too-obscure on a whim. And, in what’s fast becoming my pet hate, the world doesn’t work.
Sure, Assassin’s Creed II does a better job with the consistency of it’s world than the first game; but the problem is that the world – an admittedly visually lush and detailed world – of AC2 is set up with realism as a goal, using history as a guide. But the language of the architecture and its inhabitants feels forced – and the world fails to feel real. Worse still, it occasionally falls into what I call the Just Cause dichotomy – a big world with nothing to do in it (the walled harbour at Venice is a particularly egregious example of this). And then there’s the little things: visual cues for the Leap Of Faith that are inconsistently used (especially late-game), and the barely disguised efforts on Nolan North’s role as Subject 16.
And then there’s the bugs. The main game isn’t too bad, with the odd actionable door allowing me to inadvertently glitch through it and remain confused as to why my mission wouldn’t start. The side-mission system should be labelled buggy, too: Venice has four places you can start an assassination mission from, but it makes the same missions available from each point… so my initial inclination of a challenging mission was rendered moot by restarting from a geographically friendly position. And in one assassination mission, I paid for the help of some friendly rooftop criminals; they promptly killed my accompanying guide, suggesting there is no honour among thieves (though that very premise supports chunks of the game itself). Ironically enough, the mission was called “Honorable Thief”.
And then there’s the DLC.
After discovering that it was only possible to get a “game completion” score of 96.8%, I grabbed the downloadable content associated with AC2 – and what a load of crap it is. The first of the downloadable chapters, Sequence 12, announces its presence with a clumsy “reminder” when you fire it up for the first time; clumsy writing (“I have the instrument to make more” screams Caterina as she flashes her knickers) is only eclipsed by clumsier gameplay, which reduces the flow of Assassin’s Creed‘s usual gameplay to a barely-capable button-mashing hack’n'slash.
Where Sequence 12 felt bereft of ideas, Sequence 13 just seemed full of nonsensical design: secret doors in one area that lead to public spaces? Hardly “secret”, is it? And with this Sequence being little more than a series of simple assassination missions – with the only differentiation from the regular assassination missions being the scenes of the people of Florence reclaiming their city (which are reminiscent of “storytelling” in the previous generation of consoles) – it just feels… well, impotent. Ham-fisted.
The clumsy integration of this DLC is evident everywhere; the new fast-travel locations label themselves in a manner different to the in-game locations, and entire lines of dialogue are either dropped or missing. It all feels… unpolished. Lazy and unfinished, even. Maybe that’s why it was DLC, rather than a delivered part of the game. But it’s still a rip-off… especially when the last 0.79% of the game lies locked on Ubisoft servers which appear to be inaccessible at the moment.
Even worse is the fact that it takes the shine off the main game. And that’s a massive shame, because – despite my complaints above – I actually quite enjoyed the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed II… but favoured the storyline of the of the first in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Between the two games, there’s a single great game struggling to get out… but I’m unlikely to give the series another chance.
After all, I’m still running around and killing people by knifing them through the face… and, with my ongoing years, I’m starting to find that a little distasteful. Give me an emotional excuse to do so, and I can calm the ickiness a little… but in Assassin’s Creed, the emotional support is abstracted behind Desmond via the Animus. There’s a level of removal that, on one hand, could be seen to justify the killing: “it’s all memories,” one might argue. But there’s a little niggle inside my head that reckons that the abstraction is even worse… that the justification actually cheapens the act even further. And that’s something that I’m finding harder to deal with these days.
But that’s very much my problem.