Assassin’s Creed II: The Superior Execution (of an Inferior Story)
Let me start off by giving mad props to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II team. The game, which I’m currently playing just after having finished the original, is leaps and bounds (don’t even…) better than the original game in pretty much every way. The predictable, tedious repetition lamented by pretty much everyone who played the original is all but gone, and pretty much everything has been refined and changed for the better. Furthermore, Assassin’s Creed II features loads of stuff that simply had no equivalent in the original game, and it’s all the better for it. The game is very close to being the perfect realization of the aesthetics and dynamics that I want from it. The only design-related niggles I can think of off the top of my head are:
- Treasure chests contain money, which is abundant just through the income from the Villa, making extended treasure hunts pointless. I don’t think I’ll grab all of them, even though it’s pretty fun. Maybe they should’ve contained pieces of art or something else that kept on giving by adding to the value of the Villa.
- Some of the mechanics are a bit strange. Sometimes I’ll try to block but can’t because selecting my sword in open combat is not enough, I need to press the attack button once to draw it also.
- If I Free Run-jump towards something that is out of my reach and go into freefall, I need to move my thumb over to the “Grab” button to latch on to the next best thing on my way down. Why doesn’t keeping the “Free Run” button pressed do this? Would that overlap with something?
- Why are thieves introduced more than halfway though the game as if I hadn’t already been using their services for 10 hours of play time already?
- Why are hookers the only group of hirable characters that seem have any sort of drawback to them (the fact that they’re pathological SLUTS that will stop for any guy in uniform while you’re escorting them through the street – very emasculating and no way to triet a client, bitchiz!).
- Why would one use a dagger? Why doesn’t the game tell me what, if any, advantages there are to this type of weapon?
- As years (!) pass inside the Animus, couldn’t this be better illustrated somehow? I mean, the game just shows you a new year every once in a while, which requires you to know what year it was previous to understand how much time has passed. Instead, why not show us the current year on a counter, and then have the number increase in real-time as you watch… perhaps with some sort of cool transitionary effect on the landscape or something? And the environments and people seem to remain pretty much the same from one year to the next (though I think the heralds in town relay other events… maybe), so the whole passing of time was pointless really. It would’ve been better if it had been implicit than explicit. That way, players could’ve applied whatever time-frame they felt appropriate to the events that transpired. For all I care, the whole game could’ve taken place over the course of a few weeks. Which may say something about the character development – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
There’s probably more to complain about, but I struggle to think of anything right now. The design is tight, no doubt. The story/narrative however, is a different matter altogether. (Spoiler warning.)
Let’s start at the end of the beginning. Assassin’s Creed II starts off pretty much exactly where the first game left off, with Desmond using his ancestral Eagle Vision to discern notes written in blood on the wall of his prison cell bedroom. As the player exits the room he is introduced to a semi-familiar person. Lucy, the female lab assistant that Desmond befriended in the first game, appears with blood stains on her tight top. Her whole demeanor has changed from when we last saw her. She is now Lucy, Assassin Princess. And Desmond doesn’t bat an eye at the transformation.
This is a bit too early for a game to start reeking of letdown. Were it not for the fact that everyone and their aunt assured me that the game was vastly better than its predecessor I would probably have paused it right there to regain my composure and consider not playing it at all. For all its faults, Assassin’s Creed didn’t miss many beats in its story delivery, and not five minutes into the sequel we are robbed of:
A.) Getting to witness Lucy’s no doubt very stark transformation from scared lab rat to awesome kung-fu lady.
B.) The feeling of everything making as much sense as the first game did.
Seriously, it’s that jarring. And Desmond’s relative lack of surprise at the whole thing just serves to compound that feeling that this wasn’t a concious decision on behalf of the dev team, but rather just crap.
It continues from there, and doesn’t get that much better. The exposition that follows is lengthier than that of the previous game, and answers far too few important questions. Here’s the premise in a nutshell:
Desmond is being freed by the Assassin group that Lucy is part of in order to become a trained killer himself. In order to do this, he must acquaint himself with a new ancestor of his named Ezio, who lived in medieval Italy. Desmond agrees to this. And the game then proceeds to wait for a very, very long time before even attempting to answer the questions that one would’ve expected Desmond to require answers to IMMEDIATELY. Like, for example:
- Why didn’t I learn anything from ‘channeling’ Altaïr last time around?
- How do the skills of a 15th-century assassin apply to the world of today, with its helicopters and firearms and very, very steep and tall metal and glass buildings that are way beyond jumping distance from each other?
- What’s one Assassin going to do that the rest of y’all can’t? Even if he is the absolute shit, there seems to be very little chance for people in this profession to beat the Templars these days. Indeed, both Altaïr and Ezio seemed to kill Templars by the truckload, but now you tell me the rest of y’all are getting picked off very, very quickly. Could it be that maybe the Templars have evolved or something? In which case, isn’t it all the more relevant to maybe try to learn the skills of some more recent ancestor, better-versed in modern tactics?
- How come Lucy just busted both of us out of here single-handedly but couldn’t be arsed to do so before we did that whole Holy Land shindig and showed the Templars where the PE’s were? And why didn’t you bust subject 16 out if you were that awesome? You know… so he didn’t have to die and stuff.
- What is wrong with your FAAAAACE!?
Again, this is just at the beginning of the game. It gets worse once Ezio shows up.
The initial introduction to this new character isn’t half-bad. The player gets to do the whole interactive tutorial thing, which also helps to establish Ezio’s personality as well as his relationship to his family. The whole thing works really well, both as an exposition and as an introduction to the game’s mechanics. The problems appear when Ezio goes from being just some cocky, parkour-loving Italian kid to becoming the New Assassin.
Basically, Ezio becomes an assassin to avenge the death of his father and his two brothers. But that’s as far as the character transformation goes. He has like… ONE outburst of sorrow/anger in the whole game, and then goes back to being this strange Antonio Banderas-alike that charms ladies and quips at random. This is just heart-stoppingly crap. If the pivotal event, the betrayal and execution of his beloved family members, would prompt him to go on some sort of revenge-quest and kill lots and lots of people, you’d at least expect the guy’s character to change… at all. But I don’t really see much of character development in him, and that’s beyond sad.
Had Ezio gone from pretty-boy without any care in the world to the true, brooding Heir of Altaïr, that would’ve said something about the weight of his profession and his internal misery and conflict. Imagine if the guy would pull his hood back when he was just being plain ol’ Ezio, showing his face to his friends and remaining familiy, trying soooo hard to put on a facade of being just fine for the sake of his suffering mother and sister. But then when the cloak came on (say, whenever he’s not in the Villa), he would become his true self. His whole demeanor would change. How awesome wouldn’t that be?
Instead you get the Spider Man version of an assassin who, after he kills his enemies, tries to show respect to them and to the gravity of death, much like Altaïr did in the first game. But because of the non-existent character development the whole thing just feels hollow, like he’s reading from a script:
“How’d you like that, faggot, I stabbed your ass to DEATH!
… … Solemnly rest in peace… I could see no other way… forgive me…”
(This is only slight hyperbole on my behalf – it actually feels like he could’ve said exactly that to more than one of his victims.)
For fuck’s SAKE. How could you do absolutely everything else better than in the first game and mess this one very, very important bit up?
And that’s not even going into the actual plot of the game, which probably had “JUMP THE SHARK” as its focus statement. How does one improve on the very nicely portrayed conspiracies and philosophical conundrums present in the first game? Easy: space aliens.
Yup. Space aliens. I guess that’s as good a place as any to wrap this rant up. I think you get the picture by now. But, by all means, do get the game too. It’s really good. It even has an expertly placed “It’s-a me, Mario” in there. +1.
Edit: Oh, I totally forgot, because it was late and I was getting tired… Cutscenes and their direction are much better this time around as well. It’s just that the characters and events are much less interesting and believable, and the narrative is less consistent, so it counts for very little. Yes, it can be argued that a lesser plot can be made much more interesting if told with superior means… but unless you’re Pixar and can tell a MEAN Hero’s Journey, you should probably go for the inclusive approach and try to both do good production/directing AND interesting core material.