Having spent most of last week in the throes of a flu, I had excellent opportunity to catch up on some things. I plowed through the entire fifth season of Lost. (Had a great time with that, thanks for asking, and let me just take this opportunity to say that the people who still insist that they’re making it up as they go along and pulling stuff out of their asses at random, you’re either trolling or completely oblivious to the obvious amount fo care that has gone into that thing. That said, I can see how you might think that if you watch it one episode at a time. I can’t see how anyone could enjoy it like that, it’s just way too goddamn dense.)
I also took care of another thing I’d left hanging: Assassin’s Creed II. You may or may not recall that I wasn’t a huge fan of the first game. It wasn’t horrible, and there were parts of it I thought were fantastic, but when it wasn’t working, it just wasn’t a lot of fun. They fixed a lot of stuff in the sequel.
This is a great example of why sequels really are a good idea in games, at least under certain circumstances. (And I’m not talking about churning out one soulless installment after another in an annual franchise here, you understand.) You spend so much time developing the technology and working out the design that you’ll always have to compromise in the end. The need to compromise is universal, of course, but with a sequel, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done. Ideally, at that point you don’t have to invent the wheel all over again — you can just concentrate on making the content and gameplay better and smoother.
We’ve seen a bunch of games prove this point during the past year or so: Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, even Bioshock 2, from what I hear, though I haven’t had the chance to play that yet. And Assassin’s Creed II is definitely another such success.
A few very minor spoilers ahead.
Bigger and Better
Assassin’s Creed II plays much like the first game did — in many respects, it’s essentially identical; you’re in a fairly distinctive historical period and setting, you run around stabbing people, you can climb on just about everything you can see in the environment, and you do a lot of hiding in plain sight. And yet they’ve improved on just about every single aspect of the game.
First of all: Altaïr in the first game had a few moments, but he was a block of wood, just about devoid of personality. So were almost all other characters. Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the protagonist of the sequel, is actually a pretty interesting dude. He’s foolhardy, impulsive and passionate, and while it doesn’t always ring true, at least you’re interested in what happens to him and his friends, who also have personalities. On this front alone, the improvement over the previous game is monumental: it just feels like a completely different game.
It doesn’t hurt that the setting — Italy during the Renaissance period — works a lot better than the Jerusalem of the Crusades. I’m not saying that the Renaissance is an inherently more interesting period, because I don’t think it is, but clearly the team got a lot more out of that. Everything looks more colorful and richer (admittedly, on that front Italy probably has the Holy Land beat), but they also get a lot more mileage out of the setting: the costumes are more flamboyant, the architecture is more elaborate, and when you’re running around Venice during the Carnevale with revelers milling about and fireworks popping off on a regular basis, it’s not hard to get swept away by the atmosphere.
That may actually be one of the coolest things about the series: they really take this historical stuff seriously. I’m not sure how authentic it really is, but clearly a lot of research and care has gone into reproducing these environments. The possibilities here are almost endless: I can think of so many historical places they could use in the sequels. As long as it’s a big urban area where people can climb on buildings and jump from one rooftop to another, we’re good to go. Beijing during the Ming Dynasty? Czarist St. Petersburg? Bombay being transformed by the British East India Trading Company? San Francisco in the last days of the Wild West? Hong Kong in the early 20th century? There’s no shortage of cool shit they can pull off here, and they have very cleverly chosen a format that doesn’t tie them down to any one time or place. That’s great design.
More Complex, More Engaging
I’m not sure what I think about the story. In the previous game, I just didn’t give a shit until the very end, when I suddenly got interested, and the sequel certainly has a lot more of that scifi stuff. Do I really like it? Honestly, I don’t know, I’ll need to digest it for a bit. But I definitely wasn’t bored by it, and I wanted to know what happens next, so I’d probably have to say they did pretty well on that front. Certainly, regardless of what I think about the whole, there were numerous individual moments in there that were very entertaining.
You spent a lot of the first game in the dark, never really learning anything worthwhile until the end, but they’re not doing that to the player now: you’re constantly learning something new about the Templars and their evil plans, about the weird relics everybody’s hunting, about how this all relates to the present day… The storytelling could be smoother, but there’s a lot of storyline here, and it spans several decades. I like that they’re ambitious about it.
To my surprise, I also found myself enjoying Altaïr, who is not the main character here, but whose presence and legacy can be felt throughout the game. Clearly, he became a much more interesting character once he killed the Old Man of the Mountain and came into his own. Good for him, I guess.
The list of improvements doesn’t stop there. For example, there are now quite a few puzzles in the game, and while they are optional content, I was of course drawn to them, because they unlock story content. And some of them are hard. I know I made fun of the laughable “secret code” in an e-mail message in the first game, but I wasn’t laughing now — it took a lot of effort, and I admit I had to cheat on the last one to get it right. I’m really glad they didn’t wimp out here.
Even things like bystander reactions when you do something awesome are improved. That was another thing I picked on when I wrote about the first game; I found it annoying that my character does something absolutely amazing, and everyone thinks he’s nuts or drunk. Nobody thinks it’s cool that this guy just jumped from one roof to another.
Now you still get those reactions at times, but you also get cries of amazement and appreciation. It’s a little thing, but it’s nice, and it feels like something I would do if I suddenly saw someone do some insane Jackie Chan shit right in front of my eyes.
Gettin’ Stabby With It
You do, of course, spend a lot of time assassinating people. That’s another part that shines: the assassination missions themselves don’t really feel much more complex than before, but now the targets are actually distinctive individuals that, more often than not, have some sort of a significance to Ezio.
The gameplay is just much richer than it used to be. In the original game, there was the concept of “social stealth”, which essentially meant that in a few very specific instances, you could blend in with the crowd — typically, a bunch of guys who wandered around the game world, with whom you could merge by hitting a button. Now this is accomplished by simply walking into any crowd of people in the game world. It feels much more natural and gives you a lot more opportunities.
Being able to hire a prostitutes to walk with you and provide that very crowd for you is a great improvement on the social stealth mechanic of the first game, because now the player is in control and can use the ability to meld into a crowd to their tactical advantage. It seems like a minor change, and yet its impact on gameplay is tremendous. (I’m sure that making it actually work in the game was a big challenge — it’s one of those things you don’t pay a lot of attention to when you’re playing the game unless it doesn’t work. I didn’t really appreciate how difficult a lot of this stuff is until I actually started working on the developer side myself.)
There are still things that bugged me. Ezio, like Altaïr, occasionally leaps into nothingness instead of landing on the spot where I obviously wanted him to go for reasons that are still kind of unclear to me. This is especially annoying when you’re in a situation where you need to move very quickly. (But at least Ezio can swim, so the chances of getting instakilled are much lower). In general, the controls can be a little wonky. I wouldn’t mind if you could take more advantage of the environment in combat — the player character is so amazingly agile during the rest of the game, and yet in a stand-up fight he pretty much just stands there. There are things like that. But this is nitpicking.
So, yeah, I had a great time with it, and while it may not be a perfect game, it’s amazing how much of an improvement over the original it is while still retaining everything that was cool about it. The first one was a flawed game with various cool things about it, whereas this is a cool game with some flaws. I’m very impressed with the level of polish they managed here; they’re recognizably the same game, but you might as well compare a toy car to a Ferrari. It really is on a whole another level.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a game where you fistfight the Pope. I headbutted the shit out of that dude. That alone is worth the price of admission.
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