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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Game Review: Assassin's Creed 2

One would think with all the misgivings and complaints I had about the first game, I wouldn’t have given Assassin’s Creed 2 a ghost of a chance. Many of my friends thought I would just skip over it in favor of playing something completely different than came out at the same time, like, say, Dragon Age: Origins. While I did play BioWare’s newest RPG almost as soon as it was released, I didn’t hesitate to pick up Assassin’s Creed 2 two weeks later.


Typically, I avoid the hype machine for games as much as possible, which is no mean feat given that I work for one of America’s largest video game retailers. The reasons for my behavior are many, but the biggest one is. . .I’ve been burned before. Call me jaded, but I’ve been deceived by the marketing machine of many a company too many times to remain more than cautiously optimistic when a new game is announced. (*cough*TOMB RAIDER*cough*)

That said, from the moment it was confirmed the sequel to one of the most celebrated (and simultaneously maligned) games of this console generation was to take place in Italy during the Renaissance, my interest was piqued. For the first time in many, many years, I followed the news for a video game like a sports fan follows his favorite team. By the time November 17th, 2009 rolled around, I could barely sleep the night before, and bemoaned the fact that my local game store wasn’t holding a midnight launch event, so excited was I to get my hands on this game.

And for once, I wasn’t disappointed.

This time around, you play not as Altair, but as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young Florentine gentleman who. . .

Okay, okay, wait. Hold it. I can’t type another word before I clear something up. If you’ve not played any of the AC titles, and wish to avoid spoilers of any kind, you need to speed scroll to the Verdict section at the end of this review this. very. instant.

…..

…..

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All ashore who’s going ashore? Good. Now we can continue.

Remember in my review of the original game I mentioned a story-framing device that, while not altogether believable, was somewhat different and interesting? Roughly five minutes into the game, the plot-bomb that you’re not actually Altair ibn-La’Ahad from Medieval Palestine, but a modern-day assassin-turned-bartender named Desmond Miles is dropped on your head with the force of a falling stone gargoyle. As it turns out, the Templars have not been defeated, as the end of Assassin’s Creed would have you believe, but gone into hiding. Their near-future cover, a corporation called Abstergo Industries, is funding their fervent search for the Apple, which has gone missing since they last had their hands on it. With no clue as to where it could be, they’ve created a device called the Animus to search the genetic memories of Altair’s descendants.


"Look, we're supposed to be searching Ezio's memories. Why are you rooting through my time at band camp?"

As I said before, it’s not a completely believable bit of sci-fi, but as far as plot devices go, they could have done worse. (Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you, but we’ll have our parent-teacher conference later.)

Anyway, in the first game, Desmond has been captured by two scientists, Doctors Lucy Stillman and Warren Vidic, and is forced into the Animus to help them find out what his ancestors did with this shiny bauble that could allow them to control the world. All is not as it seems, however, and at the beginning of the sequel, Lucy helps Desmond escape the Abstergo facility, and spirits him away to an Assassin safehouse. There, it is revealed that the higher ups in the Brotherhood wish for Desmond to enter their version of the Animus so that he may learn all the awesome parkour and blade-wielding ways of those who came before, but in an extremely abbreviated amount of time. The risks to his psyche are many, since prolonged use of the machine makes it harder and harder to discern reality from (genetic) memory, and many of the previous subjects (most notably, Subject 16, who drained his own blood to leave messages on the floor and walls of his cell for whomever was unfortunate enough to occupy it next) went nuts or died. Or both. Despite personal danger, Desmond agrees, and we are plunged into 1459 Florence to be introduced to another of his bloodline, Ezio Auditore de Firenze.

Ezio (right) speaking with his older brother, Federico.

One cannot talk about the rest of the game without first considering the new protagonist. Ezio is a charming, intelligent, lovable rogue who is fiercely loyal to his friends and family. When compared to his ancestor Altair, he’s practically a teddy bear. (Well, a stylishly-dressed teddy bear carrying an arsenal of deadly weapons and a grudge the size of Vatican City, but still.) The glimpses of his younger, carefree days, which serve to mask the initial tutorial system enough to keep the player from feeling ‘babied’, showcase his naivete and optimism, and goes a long way toward making the player give a damn about what happens to him.

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when we (and Ezio) are forced to simply watch as half his family is executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

In the aftermath of the wrongful deaths of his father and brothers (and the off-screen. . .mistreatment of his mother and sister), the young Auditore we’ve come to know and love vanishes, to be replaced by a man bent on revenge. We can’t help but mourn the loss of the innocent boy we’d only just gotten to know, even as we cheer for the man who will avenge those lost to both of them.


The Good

There is a saying that states, “God is in the details,” and in some ways, the success of Assassin’s Creed 2 can be accredited to this idea. The design team (which grew to nearly 140 individual designers, artists, coders, testers, and historical consultants over the course of development) fixed a lot of things players had issues with in the first game. For that, Ubisoft currently has my loyalty and respect. Unlike many other franchises, they actually gave a damn about what the fans had to say, and that makes them aces in my book.

First and foremost, the open world consisting of the city-states of 15th century Italy is mind-boggling huge and breathtakingly beautiful, much like Ubi’s depiction of the Medieval-era Holy Land. The difference is, this time around, there are things one can do outside the main storyline other than collect flags and scale Viewpoints. From treasure hunting and chasing down pickpockets, to taking on assassination contracts, to raiding ancient tombs to recover lost Brotherhood antiquities, you’ll not lack for things to do if you need a break from the primary plot.


"We're following the leader, the leader, the leader. . ."

Getting from one end of the map to the other has also become more enjoyable, as the horseback riding has been drastically overhauled, and there is now a fast-travel system (thanks to the invention of carriages) that is available to players almost from the outset of the game. It comes at a price, of course, but when you’ve got limited time in your busy schedule to play games, not wasting time walking ever-so-slowly past a patrol every three seconds makes life much, much better.

The musical score, voice-acting, and wardrobe design are all top-notch, and, combined with the addition of a day/night cycle and an in-game economy, all come together to make Ubisoft’s (mostly accurate) vision of historical Venice, Florence, and Tuscany more vibrant and engaging than the setting of its precursor. Thanks to said economy, the player can now upgrade Ezio’s weapons and armor, too, as well as purchase medicine to cure what ails him after a bad fight. With the revamped combat system, these three things are essential, as the size of your health meter is now directly tied to what kind of armor you’re wearing.

Speaking of controls, the Puppeteering System as a whole has received an upgrade, making scaling buildings much faster and outrunning enemies somewhat easier to manage. Lining up jumps can still be a major pain in the neck, but given that you now have a means of healing yourself quickly, falling from a height less than seven stories is less likely to kill you. The addition of Smoke Bombs and the ability to toss money on the ground (thus using the surrounding crowds as a mean of distraction) allows for disengaging targets to give you a chance to run away, which is a welcome change to the “you’ll fight, and you’ll like it” way of doing things the previous game seemed to employ.

The number and type of places to hide has changed, too, and for the better. Besides the old standbys of hay piles, gardens, and benches, you can now blend in with any crowd of civilians, rather than having to wait around for a passing group of Scholars, who are conspicuously absent in this tale. As you gain allies throughout the region, you can also hire thieves, mercenaries and courtesans to either distract or fight your enemies so that you may sneak past them to your intended destination undetected. This adds a much-needed shot in the arm to the promised-but-poorly-delivered stealth gameplay we’ve seen up until now.

Oh, and unlike Altair, Ezio can swim. Not only can you roam Venice without fear of dying in a mud puddle, you can dive from buildings into canals and swim beneath the surface, escaping detection from those on the docks and rooftops. It is especially satisfying to reach up from beneath the water to grab a guard by the belt and drag him down to a watery death. Well done, Ubi. Bonus points for creativity, there.


Thankfully, we are not required to visit an old-world dry cleaner after every high dive.

Many of the non-player characters from the original game were somewhat interesting, but still more of them were bland and static. As an amateur history buff, this made me very sad, as the term “stranger than fiction” applies to no better tale than the history of the ancient world. Thankfully, AC2 is not lacking for colorful and spellbinding characters. From a nun who runs a bordello to a mercenary with a peculiar relationship with his sword of choice to a stranded countess abandoned by her gondola pilot, you’ll be checking the database at every turn just to see if these people are “for real.” The most noteworthy of these NPCs is Leonardo da Vinci. In this game, Leonardo is to Ezio what “Q” is to James Bond.

Leonardo da Vinci: Intellectual Badass

Let me say that again for those in the back of the class: Leonardo friggin’ da Vinci is your quartermaster. The weapons that can’t be purchased from the shops, such as a duplicate of your signature hidden blade (which makes stabbing two dudes in the throat at one time possible) and a wrist-mounted single-shot pistol, are all Leonardo’s doing. He also pulls together some prototype toys for you to play with, like his famous Flying Machine, and while we don’t get to see (or use) often enough for my liking, they’re still pretty damn cool.

Ezio is nothing if not efficient.

The Bad

Even with all the improvements made to the game as a whole, there are still bits that feel strange or downright irritating. The controls, while much improved, still offer moments where you want to hunt down the designers and ask them why the hell they hate us so much. I mean, there’s an entire sequence that should have been short and sweet and to the point, yet it took me a good 40 minutes because I had to remember how to jump from a ledge to a horizontal beam directly over my head from a standing position. Nothing in the game prior to that moment required such a move, and it had been at least twelve months since I had rage-quit the previous title in the series. This, I suppose, is one of the draw backs of open-world gameplay: Since you can play in any order you choose, you may miss out on key experiences that will further fill out your repertoire of moves for certain missions, and you’ll find yourself saying, ‘Well, THAT would have come in handy a few hours ago.”

Another drawback, albeit a somewhat minor one, is the jagged difficulty curve that results from this sort of setup. In some places, things are unnecessarily difficult; in others, things are so easy you have to wonder if you’re being punk’d. Now, I understand that not everything a wetworks guy does to prepare for a hit is action-packed dynamite. That’s not what I’m talking about. It seems the training regimen for city security forces didn’t change much between the 12th and 15th centuries, if the behavior of the AI is any indication. While they seem to be slightly more intelligent than their AC1 brethren, there are still times where you have to wonder if some of these jerks are clairvoyant, as they really shouldn’t be able to see you when you’re hanging off a ledge behind them.

On a completely different subject, it feels like the designers crammed too much stuff into the game. It feels like an attempt to overcompensate for making the world in AC1 so bloody empty, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker, it does make one wonder if they thought everything through. The biggest example of this is the oft-debated purpose of your home base, a Renaissance version of Masayaf called Villa Auditore.

I go back and forth frequently on how I feel about the aspect of the game, but in the end, I filed it under this heading because I can’t really decide one way or another if it is good or just plain silly. After the assassination of Ezio’s father and brothers, our fledgling hero whisks the female members of his family to Monteriggioni, in hopes of keeping them safe while he hunts down those responsible for ruining their lives. Once there, Mario Auditore, an uncle, hands over the running of the family fortress to Ezio’s baby sister, Claudia, as Ezio will be too busy with his training and quest for revenge to deal with the bookkeeping. In turn, she asks Ezio (that is to say, you) to determine which renovations to the villa and the surrounding town must be done in what order.

On the one hand, this is pretty neat, as with each improvement you make to the town, travelers and townspeople begin showing up when you wander the streets as a sort of living visual indicator of how Monteriggioni is seen in the eyes of the surrounding towns and cities. The better you make the town, the more attractive it looks to others as a tourist spot, and the more tourists show up, the more money you make.

On the other hand, while this seems pretty straight-forward, many will soon realize the in-game economy is rendered unbalanced by how much money you make from your real estate investments. Between the money made from missions, side quests, and treasure hunting (and the occasional romp as a pickpocket, which is a lot more amusing than it was the last go around), you’re already living the easy life. You’ll want for nothing, as you’ll be able to replenish your supplies or buy new armor on a whim before you’re halfway through the story. Add the income from Villa Auditore, and you’re not just swimming in florins, you’re practically drowning. Even if you buy up every weapon, set of armor, and painting available, and never let your supply of poisons and medicine drop below three-quarters full at any given time, you’ll still have more money than you know what to do with.



For this, I blame Claudia. Isn’t this what younger siblings are for, after all?


The WTF

As I alluded earlier, the tutorial system is much better than it used to be, which makes things easier to grasp for players new to the franchise. However, the “previously on Assassin’s Creed” style introduction to the overarching storyline was very weak, and left people like my husband (who had never played the previous installment) scratching their heads with a look on their faces that clearly said, “What the hell was that all about?”

Also in the realm of “what the fu--” plot-points is a set of side quests that leads you to something labeled “The Truth.” Subject 16, apparently not satisfied with leaving clues for you in truly sanguine ink upon his death, saw fit to encrypt certain memories recorded during his Animus sessions, obscuring their data to anyone other than another descendant. This in and of itself is pretty cool as far as gameplay mechanics go, since you can only find the twenty files by looking for strange glyphs on buildings within your genetic memories. (Though, how this is remotely possible, since he was dead before you even showed up at Abstergo, is anyone’s guess.) What makes this so weird is the freakish plot twist this throws into the mix. If you finish this series of mini-memories before completing the main mission line, it completely spoils the ending for you.

Which brings us to the wholly-unexpected ending of this beautiful opus. Ubisoft seems to have a penchant for mind-bending endings as of late, because the ending to the last game? It has nothing on the world-shattering information dropped in your lap this time. Again, won’t spoil it for you, but the running theme of “everything is not as it seems,” definitely holds true.

Verdict

It has often been said that one should not judge a sequel purely on the performance of its predecessor, and Assassin’s Creed 2 is a perfect example. Had I judged it unworthy of my time based solely on the merits (and pitfalls) of its ancestor, I would have missed out on a really great game. While my declarations on the previous title still stand, I would absolutely pay full price for this episode again if I had to do things over again. A new copy goes for $29.98 (with a used copy coming in at ten bucks less), and with improved, free-roaming gameplay, a compelling story, and dazzling visuals, I’d consider it money well spent.

1 comments:

mitisvenatrix said...

So, you've sent some of these comments my way below (and for the record, I skipped to the verdict cause once ME has released me this game is one of the top ones on my list), but the fully detailed description made me even more eager to take your advice and go play.

Dang you, Amanda. I'm on a limited time schedule as it is. Thank you for taking the time to make me want to add to it!

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