Review by DDJ
Reviewed: 10/08/10 | Updated: 05/11/11
Satisfying on its own, but deeply disloyal and disappointing as a sequel.
Review in Brief
Game: A stealth action game (with platformer elements) centered around assassinations in the 15th century, and their connections to a broader story line over thousands of years.
Good: Same look and feel as the original; improved old mechanics and lots of flexible new gameplay elements; a much-improved combat engine; brilliant high-level plots; lots of optional but still plot-related content.
Bad: Completely misses the gameplay-plot fusion that made the original game so unique; far too game-y, with far too frequent immersion-breaking elements; severely disappointing character-level plots; uninspired level design that doesn't leverage the engine; overmapped controls; annoying display.
Verdict: A deeply fun and entertaining game, but it misses what made the original so groundbreaking. Where the original was innovative and unpolished, Assassin's Creed 2 is polished but uninnovative.
Recommendation: Still one of the most fun games this console generation, and still a must-play for console owners. Still, it could have been perfect.
"Satisfying on its own, but deeply disloyal and disappointing as a sequel."
I must open with an apology. This may be the longest game review I've ever written. If you intend to read it in its entirety, I suggest going and grabbing a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
It's not that I'm aiming to write a tome about Assassin's Creed 2: in fact, I'd love to say less without losing content; but I've never seen a game that had so much begging to be said about it, both good and bad. I've never seen a game that contains so much content, and yet lacks such content as well. I've never seen a game that retains such different identifies when considered from different angles. Or, dare I say, I've never seen a game that suffers from such a profound lack of identity, while simultaneously being a wonderfully entertaining, immersive and engaging game.
That's because, for various reasons, there are numerous different angles one can take in analyzing Assassin's Creed 2. It has three (or even four) distinct plot lines moving along at various scopes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. As a sequel, the game can also be analyzed for its connection to the original (an analysis that yields disappointing results), but can also be analyzed for its own merits (which leads to much more positive conclusions).
In most games, one or two of these angles would stand out; but with Assassin's Creed 2, they all present interesting perspectives. The game simultaneously has a wonderfully intriguing plot line, and a very mundane and meandering story. Its gameplay is fun and intuitive, yet simultaneously frustrating and foreign. And although it's one of this generation's best games, it's still somehow a disappointing sequel.
Taking place mostly in the late 1400s, Assassin's Creed 2 focuses on the life of the playable character, assassin Ezio Auditore.
The plot of the game actually tells four different stories. At the highest level, it focuses on a long-running war throughout history between two secretive factions. It then zooms into the story of one particular modern-day assassin, Desmond. From there, it zooms further into the memories of one of Desmond's ancestors, the assassin Ezio Auditore, whose life he re-lives through the 'animus', an advanced technology. Through Ezio, the game tells two more stories: the story of Ezio himself at a personal level, and the story of the conspiracies at work in renaissance Italy.
The main story is that of Ezio, as he seeks out several prominent figures in Italy to assassinate for their association with an ongoing conspiracy. Along the way, he journeys through several prominent places in Italy, recreated fairly faithfully to match the actual historical districts. A historical focus is very prominent in the game: characters include actual members of the Medici family, future Popes, and famous thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli.
The gameplay takes places in a fairly open-world environment; the storyline is told through missions, and between the missions the player is free to explore the city, take on optional objectives, and complete sidequests.
A major part of the gameplay is how you actually get around the territory. Nearly every surface can be climbed, with Ezio jumping across window sills and balconies to traverse the city over the rooftops. Climbing becomes a large part of the game, allowing you to reach high points and get additional information about the area.
But as an assassin, as you might expect a large portion of the game is killing. Assassinations (or more generally, stealth kills -- it's hard to assassinate an unimportant nameless guard) play a major role, though real combat comes into place, too. In combat, blocking, dodging and strategic countering dominate, although the game provides plenty of affordance for turning heel and running if you feel outnumbered.
The game also introduces its share of RPG elements. Different weapons have different ratings for attack strength, speed and defense. The player wears four different armor types at a time, each adding more health points. Money is used to purchase these things, and is found in chests and from felled enemies, as well as from income gained by the player's own little city, which in turn the player can invest in to gain more recurring income.
The original Assassin's Creed was one of the most popular games of the current generation, but for a different reason than many popular games. Many popular games take an existing genre and execute it better than any game has in the past; but that wasn't what Assassin's Creed did. The game wasn't flawless by any stretch, but it presented a unique and innovative plot, battle system, atmosphere, location, you name it. It's hard to draw any direct comparison with any element of Assassin's Creed.
But Assassin's Creed 2 and thus it cannot rely on simply being innovative. It has to be inherently strong as well. The original, while great for its innovation, was a mess in many respects, and the sequel would not be able to hang its hat on its innovation the way the original did. But fortunately for the game, it succeeds in this in many ways: it preserves several of the innovations of the original game while fixing many of the problems.
Superficial Loyalty to the Original
The first thing that should be noted along this line of thought is that the game does an excellent job of feeling like the original, which draws an inherent connection that goes beyond any plot significance. With many sequels, the only connection is in the title and in a character telling you at the beginning, "Hey, this is a sequel to that game!" by summarizing the plot; but in Assassin's Creed 2, you feel the connection the moment the game boots up.
It begins with the control scheme: the control scheme matches the original game almost perfectly. Some slight fixes have been applied, but the overall feel remains the same: free-running through cities, climbing walls, blending with crowds, all probably were built atop the same engine that was created for the original. The same applies to the battle system: it remains a slow, strategic, defense-based battle system that prevents the game from becoming a stereotypical hack-and-slash.
The game does tweak the overall mood a bit with some slightly more adult content. Bad language plays a much larger role, and there's significantly more blood than in the original, as well as plenty of sexual innuendo. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; in a weird way, it's almost more fitting to the original environment than the original game itself was. It could be said that the original had a particular environment, and did a fair job of expressing it, and that Assassin's Creed 2 actually expresses that environment better, through more fitting content and an added focus on cinematography.
The word 'superficial' in this section title isn't meant as a negative thing; it's meant to describe the palpable, tangible characteristics of the game. As we'll see, while the game has superficial loyalty to the original, it lacks deep loyalty.
Tweaked Old Mechanics
As I just said, the game retains a superficial loyalty to the original; but that presents a possible problem: the original was a mess. Don't get me wrong, the original was one of the most popular games of this generation and with good reason, but it had several gameplay flaws that were quite simply crippling.
Like Assassin's Creed, the sequel tries to emphasize stealth, but far more information is given to the player to help maintain anonymity. Rather than an ambiguous marker of when you're being seen by someone somewhere, each potential snitch is marked with an arrow that designates that individual's level of suspicion; these markers also give feedback even when the enemies aren't on screen. That gives the player loads of information to use while plotting routes and actions.
Along that same vein, the entire notion of being detected has been tweaked as well. While in the original, it was sometimes very hard to tell why soldiers were suspicious, Assassin's Creed 2 makes it lots clearer. Basically, you'll be picked out by enemies if you're in a restricted area, or if you're notorious in your area (or, of course, if you attack someone else first). From there, running is similar as the original, requiring you to break the sight line and then become anonymous: but now there's a particular radiys of suspicion that allows you to simply get far enough away from the enemies to become anonymous automatically.
The game has also heavily tweaked the blending system. In the original, blending was largely done to resume anonymity: it was rarely an active process. Assassin's Creed 2 makes the system more robust: for example, you blend with crowds by actually walking amongst them. It can get a little annoying sometimes as the crowds are clearly not making room for you, but it's a system that feels more dynamic. But when blending with crowds gets annoying, you can hire your own wandering crowd: the courtesans in the area will follow you around, drawing attention away from you, for a modest sum.
Hiring courtesans is only one of the new tricks up your sleeve in Assassin's Creed 2. You can hire courtesans and thieves to distract guards to allow you to slip into restricted areas. You can hire soldiers to fight on your side and attack guards. Similarly, you can throw smoke bombs to distract, or money. ...wait, money you say? Yes, Assassin's Creed 2 introduces money to the fray. As Ezio, you can steal money from passerbys, loot money from diseased soldiers, gain money from your villa, receive money from completed missions and subquests, and spend money on upgrades to weapons, armor, your villa, your health, etc. I'm not going to say as much about the money here, only because I plan to talk about it until your ears (or my fingers) bleed later in this review.
Improved Fighting Engine
This could probably be filed under the above category as well, but fighting and assassinating play a sufficiently large role in the game that I feel like it deserves its own section. The fighting system has been heavily improved in Assassin's Creed 2, while still staying fundamentally faithful to the original. We can break the system down into two relatively distinct portions: assassinating and combat.
Assassinating would be killing a person without them suspecting you, and oftentimes without alerting others. The original game, despite its name and claim, had relatively little assassinating. The big missions were assassinations, and there'd be the occasional sidequest assassination, but all in all the game was far more about the hand-to-hand combat. Assassin's Creed 2 changes that: the majority of killings in the game come from assassinations.
The increased focus on the game's supposed cornerstone comes from a combination of a more flexible engine and improved level design. On the engine side, there are simply more ways to assassinate someone. You can still come up behind them and get them with your hidden blade: but you can also hang below them on ledges and pull them off, hide in barrels of hay and pull them in, and fall from higher levels on top of them. Throwing knives are still available, as well as other projectiles you'll discover later. The increased flexibility of assassinations is coupled brilliantly with superior level design: not only do you have more ways to assassinate, you have more reasons to do so. Many levels conveniently position you on ledges below patrolling guards, or place barrels of hay near potential targets.
But once you're discovered, you still have to whip out your blade and fight... or do you? The combat system has been heavily improved. For starters, you can fight with several different weapons: a long sword (same as the original game), a short sword, the hidden blades or just your fists. All of them have different advantages and disadvantages: a long sword makes it easy to block attacks, while the hidden blades provide much more powerful counterattacks (one-hit kills, in fact -- but they require much better timing); short swords fall in between on both stats. Fist-to-fist combat makes another appearance, but is viable in real combat as well: disarming opponents is actually one of the best ways to take down some later enemies, but can only be done with your fists. You can also grab and throw enemies, but that's ridiculously overpowered. The game also incorporates some loose RPG elements into the battle system. The different weapons have different stats, corresponding to how much time you have to counter or how much damage is down when you use it. Both Ezio and your enemies have visible health meters, and the armors you buy add health to your overall meter. I'd talk about that more, but... as I said about the money, I'll get into why I hate this feature later. But it's a new feature nonetheless, so maybe you're interested in hearing about it.
The key takeaway from these expanded features is this: there is a lot more flexibility to the play style. Two different players can have dramatically different ways of accomplishing similar goals, and the game actually lets the player choose their own way to do it rather than having a single "correct" way that the player just has to figure out.
I mentioned in the description of the game that there are four plots going on. At the top level, the game paints the picture of a long struggle between two powerful factions, the Templars and the Assassins, working in the shadows to manipulate world events. This portion of the plot is painted as taking place over thousands of years, dating back to the very start of mankind and continuing into the future (not just the game's future, but our actual future).
Just to emphasize what the developers are accomplishing here, let me put it in blunt terms. The developers are proposing (fictionally, I should emphasize) that there have been two extremely powerful factions at work over thousands of years that mainstream society had no idea even existed. That would appear to be a hard plot to sell. It would seem that the best way to propose that is to suggest the schemers have always failed, felled by some appealing protagonist, and thus world history has proceeded as normal.
But that would be awfully convenient, and so the developers do the exact opposite: the interactions of the two factions are claimed to be responsible for dozens of historical events. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the game: the game consistently includes historical figures within its narrative (even more so when we get to the next question). I wouldn't call them all "characters" as the majority don't appear in the actual game, but they're certainly referenced as playing some role with respect to the game's two factions.
The laundry list of historical events the game claims are related to the conflict is enormous: World Wars I and II. The invention of electricity. The moon landing. The creation of man. The elections of two Popes. The nuclear bombs in Japan. Presidential speeches and assassinations. Numerous major religious events. The game does not shy away from implying the conflict between these two factions is responsible for nearly every major event in human history, and it does it in very bold ways.
Now of course, to sell this the developers must avoid giving too much information: but they walk that line deftly, telling the story via leaked letters, news clippings and other proverbial tips of the iceberg. The player is left to fill in the blanks of a growingly interesting narrative that does not create its own world, but rewrites ours.
Zooming in a few layers, the game does not only explain in high terms how these two factions have battled over several centuries; it also tells the story in great detail of how the two factions specifically influenced known events in a smaller time frame. The game covers the latter part of the 15th century (1400's), the height of the Renaissance in Italy. And just as the developers did not shy away from fictionalizing enormous segments of actual history, they similarly do not shy away from weaving the actual events of Renaissance Italy into the plot.
It is difficult to describe this section without getting into spoilers, but suffice to say the story writers weave in enormous amounts of actual Italian history into the plot. They take some leeway in attributing motives to certain actual historical players, and in inserting their own characters into the real historical narrative. But the crucial element is that the foundation and terminology lies in real historical events, and the story at least stays close enough for the events to be recognizable. Without spoiling anything, the game touches on some of the following pieces of Renaissance history: Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions; the Medici family and the Pazzi conspiracy; Popes Alexander VI, Leo X and Clement VII; and the bonfire of vanities, an actual book-burning that took place in 1497 under the watch of priest Savonarola.
What's remarkable about these events, though, is two-fold: first of all, the events are woven so seamlessly into the game's plot that they don't seem to be historically founded at all. I'm not sure about others, but for me, it's always felt a bit contrived when a game tries to fictionalize actual history: as if they're too afraid to extend the known facts to help it blend with the story. Assassin's Creed 2 does not suffer from such a problem, as I myself was surprised to learn of the depth of the historical accuracy. The events just didn't seem historical: they were too interesting.
The subtle flip side of that is the depth of history actually contained within the game: not only does the game weave history in smoothly, but it also communicates a lot of accurate history as well. Contained within the game is a database mode that allows the player to look up information about the various people and places they encounter: but because this database is (as far as the plot is concerned) written by people in the modern day, plenty of additional information is available. For example, in one of the DLC packs, the player encounters the two children of another character. Through the database, the player is able to read the reasonably-accurate history of those children as they grew up, far outside the scope of the visible plot.
In many cases, these database entries bare remarkable resemblance to the actual known facts: I would go so far as to say that they're written strictly from history. For example, one character in the game is Giulio di Guiliano De'Medici, who historically (and this is outside the scope of the game, so don't fear this is a spoiler) went on to become Pope Clement VII. The opening paragraph of the database entry on the character mirrors almost perfectly the Wikipedia and encyclopedia articles on the same man.
It's important to focus on why the history is actually important: it makes the player feel like they're actually a part of something greater than themselves. Most plots have to work to make the player feel like the world is large, cohesive and real, and that their actions actually impact it; but by weaving the plot in with real history, the game's work is easy, and more effective than any other purely-fictional game could hope to be.
The game has a lot of great features: the plot is as innovative as any video game plot I've ever seen, the mechanics are much improved, the combat system is much deeper, and the game is still a simple joy to play. In fact, I'd still call it a great game.
But the game is still far from perfect. There are numerous faults with the plot and several problems with the control and interface. But by far the most crucial fault of Assassin's Creed 2 is its lack of faithfulness to the fundamentals that made the original game so unique.
Deep Disloyalty to the Original Game
Part of what made the original game so great is the way every element of the game seamlessly fit together: and I mean seamlessly. The original game as the first game I ever encountered that gave an actual plot justification for a visible, discrete health meter. It was the first game I've seen to pay active attention to making sure the gameplay contributed to the tone and setting. And it was the first game I've played that intentionally, actively avoided many stereotypically game-y elements that just don't make realistic sense.
Just to make sure I give adequate information for what I'm talking about, let me dwell on the quality of the original a bit longer. For example, in most games the fact that you have a certain number of health "points" or "bars" is just something you accept: even though you know realistically, a stab to the gut is going to kill you, you ignore it. But the sync system in the original game got past this: suddenly, it made sense for there to be a visual, discrete representation of "health". Plus, the game also took its stealth aspects to heart. It actively encouraged you to attempt to stay anonymous. One subtle way it accomplished this was by giving no reward for fighting: combat was almost always an inconvenience. Overall, the original game wasn't just a game: it was a cohesive narrative experience. Sure, it was formulaic (see my review for that game): but the formula was explained by the plot. Everything worked together toward one realistic, believable story and setting.
Playing Assassin's Creed 2, I couldn't shake the feeling that the developers were completely separate from the original game's team. It's like Ubisoft gave the original game to a new team and said, "Hey, make a sequel!" Then the new team, without talking to the old at all, said, "Hey, this is pretty fun -- but why didn't they include this long list of stereotypical video game features? Let's put them in!" As a result, Assassin's Creed 2, while being a fun game, is most certainly a game. The same suspension of disbelief you take when playing any other game comes into play here: yes, people don't have health meters, chests aren't lying everywhere, etc., but we ignore these to enjoy the game.
And the game is still enjoyable, and it's hard to hold it up to a standard that most other games in the industry aren't trying to meet. With few exceptions, even the most serious games don't go too far out of their way to hide that they're games, like BioShock's ammo vending machines. But that's just it: the original did try to meet this standard, and it nearly succeeded. To see the sequel so blatantly disregard one of the original game's crowning features is... disappointing, to say the least.
I find this to be such an enormous fault in Assassin's Creed 2 that I'm actually going to break this section into sub-sections to fully detail it. Heck, this section alone could stand as a review: it's just that important. It just doesn't seem like the game can resist the urge to grab the player by the cheeks every five minutes and say, "HEY. I'M JUST A GAME."
Animus Frame Story Now Meaningless
Part of the frame story's contribution to the original game was the gameplay aspects that it added. That's an important distinction to draw: in most games, the gameplay and plot are essentially separate; that's why we see in every RPG the sweet innocent girl you just met somehow be able to wield a shuriken and hold her own in a battle against rabid wolves. But the original Assassin's Creed saw the frame story actually justify the gameplay.
In Assassin's Creed 2, the frame story has become utterly and completely meaningless, from both a story and a gameplay perspective. The gameplay is what I'm interested in here, and let's just look what happened to the animus frame story: instead of sync, you now have health. A regular health bar, same thing used since The Legend of Zelda came out. When you're hit in battle, it diminishes. It's increased by buying new armors and finding codex pages (why in the world should finding a page of a book make Ezio able to withstand more hits?!). It's restored by visiting a doctor or drinking a -- you guessed it -- potion. Or medicine. It's the same thing we've seen for 20 years, which would be fine, if Assassin's Creed hadn't proposed such an excellent alternative.
Not only does that completely lose the 'synchronization' tie-in that justifies the entire gameplay, but it's also a step backwards: for reasons well-enumerated in Big Bob's Top 10 list on 10/04/10, gaming has trended toward regenerating health in recent years. So why did Assassin's Creed 2 go away from it? I have no idea. In a game that seems to put a priority on fun, you'd think they'd realize that jumping off a tall building without having to go find a doctor is more fun. But it seems again, the developers defaulted to the stereotypical gaming feature, not the innovative one put forward by Assassin's Creed.
The notion of desynchronization isn't totally gone: it's just belittled down to being a convenient plot element. Failed a mission? Desynchronized. Killed too many innocents? Desychronized. Detected when you're supposed to be anonymous? Desynchronized. It's nothing more than a non-health-based 'death', and since regular death isn't based on synchronization, it comes across as plainly a stupidly convenient gameplay mechanic to make you play by the game's rules. It's like the game occasionally jumps up and down and screams, "I'M A GAME, SO YOU HAVE TO PLAY BY MY RULES!!" and then makes you start over. For example, there are missions where you're required to stay anonymous. If a guard detects you a tenth of a second before you stick a blade into his temporal lobe, it still counts as being detected and you have to start the mission over. That makes no narrative sense: that's just the game insisting on imposing unrealistic constraints on you.
Aside from health and sync, there are broader changes that make the entire 'playing through Ezio's memories' thing make little or no sense. The attention to detail is gone, too; not overall, but in terms of the story-gameplay link. The original made sure to tie every gameplay element to a plot element, but Assassin's Creed 2 just gets sloppy from this perspective. For example, all the shop screens are run through the animus's graphical interface. What in the world should the animus have to do with shopping in the 15th century? Absolutely nothing; but it looked cooler, so hey!
That's exactly the overall perspective I feel was taken toward these parts of the game: make it look cool, at the expense of the narrative. And again, this isn't unusual: most games do this. But Assassin's Creed didn't, so why does Assassin's Creed 2? Overall, the diminished significance of the animus seems like the developers just didn't pay any attention to the true symbiosis between the frame story and the main story at all; and that's a shame because it was one of the original's greatest features.
Loss of Stealth Aspect
As I mentioned in the introduction to this section, part of Assassin's Creed's strength was that it put a simultaneous gameplay and plot focus on stealth. Sure, the plot told you that anonymity and blending were good, but the gameplay emphasized it, too. That's part of the reason battles in the original presented no reward: based on the plot, you weren't supposed to want to fight it out every time.
But Assassin's Creed 2 totally loses that. First of all, there are actually benefits to fighting: you can loot felled guards for extra cash, knives and medicine. Need some cash? Go fight off some baddies (among other ways). The entire idea of rewarding fighting is fundamentally against the fabric of the original. There are also many missions or objectives where you're required to reveal yourself: for example, throughout the game there are codex pages guarded by four guards. There is no way to kill all four guards anonymously: you're forced to fight them head-to-head.
The game also includes a new "notoriety" system that I'll thoroughly trash in a few paragraphs: but the important thing to note here is that it makes maintaining anonymity completely trivial. A couple quick side-tracks now and then and you're guaranteed to remain anonymous unless you do something extremely public: so not only does the game give you too many reasons not to be anonymous, it makes it too easy to do so when you actually feel like it.
One could also make an argument that the 'suspicion radius' and easier fleeing contribute to this as well, although those I don't buy: those could be incorporated into a stealth-focused game. But Assassin's Creed 2 loses that stealth focus. Just as Assassin's Creed did not focus on the 'assassin' part enough, Assassin's Creed 2 does not focus on the 'creed' part enough.
Nothing illustrates this overall point quite as well as money. Most games have money, even when it's completely stupid: unless you're playing a Harvest Moon game or another game where making money is a first-class objective, I find money to be nothing but a completely contrived way to limit your gameplay options. Sure, it inspires strategy and planning, but at the cost of breaking the gameplay immersion. Do we really believe that the shopkeeper for the characters destined to save the world really cares if they can pay? Do we really believe that monsters drop random amounts of gold? Do we really believe that random stores just happen to carry the exact weapons your characters use? Of course not; these are contrived gameplay elements, and we suspend our disbelief and get on with it. But Assassin's Creed never required a suspension of disbelief to account for money, so why does Assassin's Creed 2?
Assassin's Creed 2 incorporates money and all the usual annoying trappings that go with it. There are random treasure chests hidden everywhere. Who just leaves random treasure chests in back alleys or sitting on ledges? You can loot felled soldiers for money. You can pickpocket money from innocent bystanders, even though Ezio's character is clearly not the type of character who would do something like that. And you randomly get money after missions. Yes, you have a mission to go check on your sister (early in the game). You complete it, and randomly get thousands of Florins or whatever the game's currency is called. Who's giving you this money? Where did they come from? And why do they care that you checked on your sister or killed a man that you had a personal vendetta against or whatever else you do to earn random amounts of money?
Money becomes absolutely worthless shortly after the game starts as well. It serves multiple purposes, each stupider than the last. You can use it to buy new weapons, but the upgraded weapons don't become available until you achieve certain plot points anyway, so why not just offer them as rewards for those plot points? You can use them to buy medicine, but the notion of medicine is still stupid to me, and the medicine is so cheap that you're limited more by the number you can carry than by anything related to the price. You can use them to upgrade your villa, but the only purpose that serves is to help you (a) make more money, and (b) save money when shopping. And you can use money to buy random in-game collectible items. What's the point? The sole purpose of the money is to take it from one place to another to spend it?
Money can also be used in more context-sensitive ways: you can throw it to distract guards and NPCs, you can pay to hire thieves, courtesans or soldiers, and you can pay off heralds to quit telling everyone what a bloodthirsty vicious murderer you are. But with the exception of the heralds, the other tasks are so inexpensive that the money isn't even a real factor: throughout the game you'll have thousands of Florins, and hiring anything costs only 150 Florins, so you may as well get them for free. And throwing money? 10 Florins. Seriously, you get more than that holding down A and bumping into someone (to pickpocket them).
It's hard to write this section without ranting, but to me, it's just stupid. The game didn't need a money system. If it really wanted these RPG-esque upgradeable weapons, it could have just offered them as rewards for in-game missions; heck, that's the practical impact of it anyway, since better weapons don't become available until you almost have the money to buy them anyway. But instead, they add this utterly useless and completely contrived money system, for... what exactly? What purpose does it serve? None. None at all, except to pop up every few minutes and scream at the player, "HEY, REMEMBER YOU'RE PLAYING A GAME. THIS IS NOT REAL. DON'T GO GETTING IMMERSED OR ANYTHING."
In the original Assassin's Creed, you had to stay anonymous. But, this was often hard to do because it was not always clear what set off the guards. You'd know when they were looking at you that you needed to lay low, but it wasn't completely clear what made them shift from "What's that guy doing?" to "ZOMG KILL HIM."
That needed fixing, I'll agree. But the fix that Assassin's Creed 2 applies is just, well, stupid. It's called the notoriety system. Basically, every time you kill or rob someone, you gain more notoriety in the area where you are. If your notoriety gets too high, you become notorious and guards will start attacking you on sight, so you have to lower it to be able to remain 'incognito'.
The idea itself isn't a bad idea; in fact, I kind of like it. It partially gets rid of that odd fallacy where a guard will chase you down, lose sight of you, then completely ignore you ten seconds later just because you sat down on a bench for a few seconds. The problem, though, is in the implementation: mainly, the implementation for lowering your notoriety. There are three ways to do so: you can pay off the people that are talking about what a bloodthirsty murderer you are; you can kill the people that are sending their guards after you; or you can rip down wanted posters. I'll even acknowledge that the first one isn't a terribly bad idea, but the latter two suffer. The second one, while fun, is illogical: "Gee, there was a bloodthirsty assassin on the loose for a while, but now that three government officials are dead, too, I guess he's gone!"
The third, though, is the most common and the most stupid. To lower your notoriety, you can rip down wanted posters. That alone is stupid: "Gee, there was an assassin around, but now that there are 45 wanted posters for him in Venice instead of 50, he must be gone!" What makes it even stupider is the locations of the posters: no kidding, there are some above window ledges, in back alleys, and on the sides of tall buildings. It's as if the wanted poster-maker said, "I bet he's going to try to rip these down to get people to forget about him, so I should put them in places where NO ONE'S GOING TO SEE THEM ANYWAY."
The entire system, like the health system, just breaks the flow of the game. Oh gee, I was running around completing plot objectives and chasing templars like crazy, but now I need to stop for five minutes and find four random posters to rip down. It's like those Wii reminders to get up and go outside every once in a while: "HEY, THIS IS A GAME. GOT IT? OK, CARRY ON."
Part of the reason it just feels like it gets in the way, though, is that it's far too easy to manage. The game builds in a pretty complex engine of ways to get by when you're notorious, but it's so easy to stay incognito that that entire portion of the game goes completely underutilized. It's annoying to have to rip down these posters, yes, but it's also way too easy: there's almost no excuse to ever be notorious. This also contributes to my earlier issue about the loss of the stealth focus: it's so easy to stay stealthy that the player doesn't need to put in any real effort; just be ready to rip down some posters if you get too visible.
A better system would have been one with fewer (or no) ways to lower your notoriety; it ought to just diminish on its own over time. That's more realistic, and encourages stealth by imposing an absolute limit on how brash the player can be. Now that I think about it, it would also be cool if the health system were tied into that as well: if you do anything unbefitting of an assassin, your assassinliness diminishes, and replenishes itself over time. Kill too many innocent, commit too many thefts, be too public with your fights against guards, or take too many hits, and your assassinliness runs out. But assassinliness is a silly word, so let's call it something else instead. How about... 'sync'? ...oh, right. We tried that. It worked great, so clearly we shouldn't do it again. Gah.
Too Many Game-y Elements
Everything in this section so far has qualified as something that makes the game too "game-y", but there are numerous elements that don't fit into one of the above umbrellas that still contribute to this overall impression.
For starters, like a Grand Theft Auto game, the game gives opportunities for you to complete random little quests. Deliver a letter. Beat up a cheating husband. Run a race. Now, I've admittedly never lived in Renaissance Italy, but I'd be surprised if there were helpless housewives and messenger boys sitting on street corners asking random passerbys to deliver letters or beat up estranged lovers. Where's the plot justification for these meaningless filler sidequests? How does that guy know that this random dude he met not ten seconds ago is going to deliver his letter instead of, say, eating it for sustenance because he must be homeless if he's offering to do random favors for people crying on street corners?
A big part of the game revolves around collecting codex pages, and while some of them are acquired naturally through the plot, others are hidden in large chests in abandoned buildings in cities, always guarded by four guards. Let's think about this a second. Why do these guards know the pages are valuable? If they know they're valuable, why don't they, oh I don't know, move them to a centralized and more secure location, like the Vatican? Why do they have to stay in random abandon buildings? And why do they add health points when you find them?!
In Assassin's Creed 2, enemies have health points, too. I guess technically they always did: you don't see them in the original, but if you pay attention you notice that certain types of enemies take a certain number of strikes before they stop blocking and go down. But that's just it: you didn't see their health points, so at least the game felt smoother. Now you've got hovering health point bubbles above their heads that just scream, "HEY. HIT ME X MORE TIMES AND I'LL DIE. BUT NOT BEFORE THAT. ALSO, REMEMBER NOT TO GET IMMERSED."
The game also doesn't have any reservations about taking Ezio's super-elite ninja assassin skills and giving them to every Joe Blow in the area. At one point, you're following an old guy around, and he literally jumps from rooftop to rooftop, swinging on poles just as well as you do. Same with guards: I don't care that to get where you are, you had to jump up a dozen ledges, swing across two hanging plants and scale a 30-foot wall: they'll get to you. And all the while, they'll scream, "HEY, YOU THINK YOU'RE A SPECIAL ASSASSIN? I CAN DO THIS, TOO. KNOW WHY? 'CAUSE THIS IS A GAME. DON'T GET IMMERSED."
The game did preserve one key feature from the original game: death scenes after prominent assassinations. Just as every named victim of yours in the original would impart some dying wisdom to Altair, every felled for in Assassin's Creed 2 will have something to say to Ezio. But as with other elements of the game, the developers missed the point: the entire purpose of the death scenes in the original was to show Altair that there are alternate viewpoints to every issue, to make him doubt his path. In Assassin's Creed 2, they don't have a purpose. They're just Ezio saying, "Hey, sorry about that knife in your gut" and the victim saying, "WTF dude?" Oh, and don't forget that Ezio can somehow hit someone with a knife from 30 feet away, then magically be there to catch them as they fall down.
As referenced earlier, the game has a frame story that takes place in the future, that justifies the real main character living the memories of one of his ancestors. I don't want to spoil much, but you learn in the opening scenes that he's part of one side in that long-running faction war, and that he's reliving these memories to train for battle. If that sounds kind of silly, it's because it is. Literally, the motivation for him to relive his ancestor's memories is to, well, relive his ancestor's memories. In the original, you were looking for something; here, you're reliving them for the sake of reliving them. There's no real objective.
Right there is where I knew the frame story plot was in trouble. To return to my analogy about the game being passed to a new team, it's like the developers said, "Renaissance Italy would be awesome! But what's this crap about a modern-day plot? Can we just ignore that? No? Fine, we'll start and end with it, but that's all." And really, that's about all the frame story is. The game starts with it, just long enough to give Desmond a reason to get back in the animus. Then, once, pulls back to Desmond, very briefly before jumping back to Italy. Then, we don't come back until the end of the game. Really, that's all. Maybe 15 minutes of the entire game happens in the modern-day sequence, with little of significance.
Desmond's story does have its positive features; they do take the time to explain the animus interface changes in context of the plot, and that one mid-game sequence is absolutely excellent. But really, the frame story is nothing but an excuse to play, with no real significant developments happening at all.
George Lucas must've written this game, I'm convinced. The high-level concepts and factions are simply beautiful, but whenever the game zooms into the level of individual characters, it all falls apart. Desmond's story is as shallow as it possibly could be, and Ezio's story just doesn't seem to go anywhere.
First let's get problems with the character himself. If you thought Desmond was boring, wait until you see Ezio. Ezio is entirely plain and one-dimensional. Through tragedies and triumphs, Ezio exhibits approximately the emotional range of a typical housecat. The game sets up for some impressive character growth, but it simply doesn't happen. With good character development, it would be possible to jump into a random point of the game and figure out approximately where you are chronologically: but Ezio just never changes.
That's exacerbated even more by the stark mismatch between Ezio's character and his gameplay options. In the earlier section, I mentioned how Assassin's Creed perfectly matched gameplay with story, and Altair was evidence of that: the game painted Altair as the type of person who might randomly kill someone on the street for annoying him. You could see him lying, cheating and stealing to accomplish his mission. Ezio, on the other hand, has lots more gameplay options; but the game actually doesn't make Ezio an annoying jackass. He's actually a pretty jovial, friendly guy. Thus, it's very hard to believe when he's walking around stealing from all the random passerbys, or when you get fed up and kill that obnoxious traveling musician that's always in your way.
Ezio's story also suffers from an absolutely profound lack of direction; the game simply sweeps the player along, telling them where to go next. The player never has any real idea about the overall direction of the plot; the most knowledge is just, "I'm killing people involved with that tragedy." That's all. That's in stark contrast to how a good story is written: a good story consistently has open problems that the viewer wants to see solved, tension that needs to be resolved, etc. Assassin's Creed 2 completely lacks that. The game could literally stop at almost any point and there wouldn't be any loose story ends to tie up on the Ezio level. The game just sticks the player in the passenger seat, says, "Don't worry, we know where we're going so you don't need to", and pulls away. The player takes the missions that are given to them, but never really feels the overall narrative.
The distinction to be made here, though, is that the story isn't inherently bad. The actual story, of Ezio's journey and quest for revenge, is pretty good. But the game does an absolutely terrible job of expressing it. The player never knows what's coming next, never knows why they have to pursue certain plot developments, and never really knows what the main character is thinking. Expressed differently, the game could've preserved the main plot points without much change, simply by providing more evidence and information on the overall story arc.
This is never more evident than in an early scene in Tuscany. In the early part of the game, Ezio goes through 'assassin training' to learn the skills (and teach you the skills) of the game. During this, his uncle is in the background shouting history about the assassins and templars, his family, and various other elements of the back story; but this back story is extremely interesting, yet completely underrepresented. It's as if the game said, "Oh shoot, Ezio needs to know this crap. Just have it playing in the background during the tutorial." It never considers that that information is interesting to the player as well.
The weakness of the plot means that the game has to go out of its way in several places to express progress to the player. At one point, Ezio states, "I need to find a way to fix this mess I've made." Until he says this, though, the player's not really aware that a mess has been made at all. At another point, Ezio says, "I'm so close to the end now." It's as if the game sits up and realizes, "OH CRAP. I SHOULD TELL YOU WE'RE ALMOST DONE SO YOU FEEL TENSION OR SOMETHING." And nothing expresses this narrative failure more than the effort the game has to make to tell you how much time has passed: apparently the game takes place over the course of several decades, but if the game didn't tell you that, you might think it was as short as a few months.
And while I alluded previously to a great twist at the end, the ending is overall very contrived, and actually doesn't make a whole lot of narrative sense. But on the bright side, the game does take some steps to connect back to Altair, so at least that's kind of cool.
Inspired Engine Design Meets Uninspired Level Design
This was one of my criticisms of the original Assassin's Creed, and it's back here in an even larger way. The gist of it is this: the game provides dozens of extremely interesting, flexible ways to accomplish certain goals; but, these ways are all complex and strategic, and the level design rarely actually demands that you use them. As a result, they just become a distraction.
As I mentioned, the game presents a host of new and interesting game mechanics to use. Blending, for example, has been enormously expanded, allowing you to blend with crowds, hire groups to disguise you, and other things. But for how expansive the blending system is, it comes up maybe... three times in the entire game. It's almost never relevant. Theoretically, it was meant to be used when you're notorious, but as I mentioned earlier it's so easy to avoid 'notorious' status that you really never need to do it. From there, it's just a matter of the handful of missions that use it.
Similarly, you can hire other types of groups: thieves to distract and soldiers to fight by your side. But... why? Sure, it saves a few seconds, but it's really no harder just to fight it out real quick. There are a few places it becomes useful, but overall it's just a distraction. Distraction is perhaps the best word to describe all of these things: there consistently seems like there are dozens of ways you could be doing things, but why bother? It's easy enough just to go with the default way, so why would you switch it up and put extra thought in where it's not needed? Blending in crowds, for example: whenever you're in a crowd, the animation pops up that indicates you've blended, but it's almost never relevant. It's just distracting.
The game also takes the time to tell you there are certain things you should strategize from. For example, dead bodies can be used as distractions. There's a day/night cycle (and apparently Ezio doesn't sleep), and guards supposedly change posts at dawn and dusk. There are different types of enemies. You get smoke bombs, a new projectile weapons, poison, and both short and long swords. The system has many options, they just don't matter. You're still just going to fight them the same way: why think about the rest if you don't need to?
I'm not suggesting that the engine should not have these features: I'm suggesting that the level design should actually utilize these features. But it doesn't. Nearly the entire game can be carried out with the same basic set of assassination styles and free-running, so why would we bother hiring groups, using alternate weapons, etc.? The level design simply does a terrible job utilizing the engine, and thus the game feels tiny compared to its capabilities.
The term 'mapping' refers generally to the connection between two unrelated things. In gaming, it refers to how button presses map to on-screen actions. "Overmapping" means that there are too few buttons for too many actions. When controls are overmapped, it becomes very difficult to actually impose your mental plan onto the character through the controller; command selection becomes more challenging. All that theoretical stuff is to say that in Assassin's Creed 2, there are too few buttons for too many commands, and the mapping is very poor. That's a challenge for any game, as games are becoming more and more complex and difficult to control, but Assassin's Creed 2 still does a pretty bad job.
For example, the A button has nearly a dozen uses, but two in particular are clash severely. When hanging on a ledge, the player can press A to jump away from the ledge, or press A while holding Up to jump up to a higher ledge. That's a pretty subtle change, and thus it's easy to do one (jump away) when you're trying to do the other (jump up). That's an unavoidable problem, so the usual way to get around this is to ensure that choosing the wrong command doesn't have terrible ramifications. However, hanging off the ledge of a 500-foot building, it's a pretty bad mistake to make. You'll die, and it's not your fault: it's a stupid mapping of the controls.
As in the original, the L trigger turns on and off targeting. However, the visible difference between 'targeting' and 'untargetting' is extremely subtle; it's nothing but a camera movement and a slight alteration to Ezio's stance. But this shift has huge ramifications for what you can and can't do: without turning on targeting you can't defend. What that means is that quite often in battle, you'll find yourself getting slashed at, any the first instinct is to defend and fight back: it takes a few hits to realize, "oh wait, I didn't turn on targeting mode." There should be a more clear visual indicator.
The game makes liberal use of context-sensitive commands, usually for shopping, talking to people or completing events; in these cases, the context-sensitive command steps on one of the usual commands, and thus, you lose the option for the original command. That's not always annoying, but oftentimes the context-sensitive command won't trigger immediately, leaving the player to wonder if they're just not in the right place or if there's a reason they can't do what they're trying to do right now. Assassinations themselves are always context-specific commands as well. If you're behind someone, above someone, hanging below someone, etc., you get the assassination option. However, sometimes the assassination option just won't appear, and it's completely unclear why. For example, when an archer on a roof has spotted you, have the time you can run up and assassinate him; the other half, Ezio will randomly stop, drop into a defense stance, and you'll have to fight. It's not clear why one happens sometimes and not the other.
Holding down A allows the player to 'free-run', but there's a major problem with free-running. While free-running, Ezio will automatically interact with pieces of terrain: if he's near a barrel, he'll climb on the barrel even if you were only barely running into it. If you try to run through a door, nine times out of ten he'll randomly scale the door frame. That's fine -- that's what free-running is for, easily jumping from ledge to ledge. But that free-running is faster than regular sprinting: if you're trying to chase down someone running through the streets, free-running is the only way to keep up: yet, because it's free-running instead of just sprinting, you'll get lost interacting with random pieces of the environment. Sprinting and free-running should've been different buttons.
But the major time the control overmapping becomes an issue is in the game's platform-y sections. In these sections, you face some very annoying problems: for example, to traverse a certain part of terrain, you have to hold down the 'A' button for 'free-running'. However, oftentimes if you hold it down a moment too long, you take an extra jump and end up falling from a tall ledge and dying at worse, starting over at best. Slight alterations in the control stick direction can make Ezio completely miss the next ledge, but it's certainly not always clear which way the control stick needs to be pointed to get the right result.
This control overmapping and lack of specificity has a broader impact: it makes the player unnecessarily doubt their plan. For example, let's say you need to hop across five consecutive pillars and then grab a horizontal bar. You try it, and on the last one, instead of hopping forward and grabbing the bar, Ezio misses and falls. You try again; he misses and falls again. A third time; he misses again. You assume that there must be a different way to do it. You scout it out. You can't find anything. You keep trying. Finally, you try the original way again, only to find that you needed to tilt the control stick a couple millimeters further to the left. You thought it was your plan that was flawed, but it was the act of carrying out a correct plan that was flawed: but the game's control scheme makes it hard to differentiate the two.
Display Interface Annoyances
Subtly contrasted from the control scheme, the display interface is the view that actually displays information to the player. It consists of basically anything that wouldn't exist in the real world: from the menu screens to the head's-up display to the annotations placed on places in the real world.
The display interface has numerous annoyances to it, but one big one stands out. As you walk around the game world, frequently you'll pass people or places that have a database entry about them. You'll get a little square on the right side of the screen saying, "Hey, there's something to read about this." That will stay there for about ten seconds, and you access it by pressing the Select button. But the Select button is, at other times, the Map button -- and you call up the map fairly frequently in this game. So, at least three dozen times I tried to bring up the map screen only to find myself on the database entry for some random building instead.
The comments on the right have another problem to them, too. Some buildings in the game have some hidden secret about them, and the first time you stroll over the building, the right inset will have an icon designating, "Hey, there's something interesting here!" From there, the building's added to the database and you can check later to see which buildings have interesting things that you didn't explore yet. But, when you're looking up in the database what buildings' interesting stuff you've missed, it doesn't tell you anything abut where the building was. You have to go find it again completely on your own. In a world this big where the buildings largely blend together, that's an extremely hard task. As a result the player ends up breaking whatever they're doing when an interesting building is found and finding its secret right then -- because coming back later to do it is a huge pain. It breaks the rhythm of the game.
The weapon-swapping interface is also absolutely terrible. When you buy a new weapon, it automatically replaces your old one in your hands. That's fine. The old one is placed back in your inventory at home, and to switch back you have to go all the way home to switch them out. On the one hand, I applaud the developers for avoiding the unfeasible "I carry all my weapons around at all times" idea that plagues 99% of all games. But at the same time, how did the weapon you were originally holding teleport back to the villa? If you're going to make one thing realistic, make them all realistic. But that's not the truly bad part: the bad part is that the game never tells you that you can switch at your inventory, so if you're like me, you go through half the game wondering where all your weapons are.
But that's not even as annoying as another aspect of weapon switching, which comes when enemies disarm you. The game does have an interesting feature where you can pick up enemies' weapons that they dropped when they died or disarm an enemy who's attacking you. But, you can only 'keep' one main weapon at a time, so if you pick up a sword and already have a sword, you have to drop it rather than keep it. But, enemies can disarm you as well. At one point late in the game, I had the game's best sword, but was disarmed by an enemy. I picked up a different sword to finish the fight, but when the fight ended, I couldn't find my original sword. Also, the mission's narrative dictated I had to hurry so I couldn't stay around and find it again. I never saw the sword in a shop again, so as far as I can tell it was lost forever -- that just shouldn't happen so trivially.
Plus, while it makes sense to only be able to keep one weapon at a time (one holster), you'd think there'd be a way to drop your current one to pick up and keep a new one. Nope: earlier in the game, a similar problem happened as above. I was disarmed, picked up a different weapon and finished the fight: but at the end of the fight, I by habit pressed the button to holster my weapon. Then, I picked up my original (better) weapon off the ground, but there was no way to switch it permanently for the one I'd picked up mid-fight. That's just dumb.
There are a few other miscellaneous issues with the interface -- for example, at times you'll randomly be able to use a skill you haven't learned yet. When you get to new places, you'll be alerted that things you thought you'd unlocked already have been unlocked again (they mean that they're unlocked for this new area, but it's very unclear). You'll receive notifications about receiving items long after your character actually received them because the game apparently processes inventory updates at the end of each memory. And really, the interface updates on your progress through memories are often distracting as well. They also play a part in killing the immersion: it's like the animus pops up and says, "Hey, this person just offered you a mission in this game. Want it?" rather than you saying 'yes' through your character.
At a surface level, Assassin's Creed 2 is an improvement in every way over the flawed-but-groundbreaking original. It retains the gritty visual appeal and the immersive world environment, and it expands on the high-level plot by leaps and bounds. The old mechanics are still around for the most part, and have been tweaked, balanced and expanded. The game has lost a large level of its formulaic, repetitive combat, and has made an active effort to give the player more options than ever before. And as I said, the high-level plot as it moves through centuries and decades is beautiful.
But a closer inspection reveals that while the game looks and feels like the original, it loses a huge amount of the original's charm, polish and cohesiveness. Part of what made the original Assassin's Creed so great is that the gameplay and plot fused together seamlessly: the plot provided justification for almost every gameplay element, and the entire world fit together in a pleasant, realistic way. It was much more an interactive narrative than a game.
Assassin's Creed 2 loses that. The game is a game, through and through. It employs stereotypical game-y elements that don't make any real sense, but that gamers are used to seeing past. "Of course there's random chests everywhere, why wouldn't there be? Ripping down posters makes people not recognize me as much? Sure, that makes sense. And I don't really need to know why I'm killing people, just give me someone to assassinate!" It's a game, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It's a fun game, don't get me wrong, but it loses what made the original so unique. It loses that fusion between gameplay and story. It loses its cohesiveness. And thus, while the original was an innovative, groundbreaking, fundamentally-flawed experience, Assassin's Creed 2 is a fun game: no innovation, no new ground, and a large step backwards from its predecessor.
Assassin's Creed 2 is one of the most fun games I've played. Its gameplay elements are very entertaining, it has many sequences of unabated flow-y fun, and the high-level plot is extremely immersive. It actually inspires a different kind of thought in the real world, which is a remarkable feat for any game. I've criticized the hell out of the game here, but if you're just looking for fun, Assassin's Creed 2 is still a wild ride. And even if you're looking for depth, Assassin's Creed 2 is still among the deepest games this generation.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Assassin's Creed II (US, 11/17/09)
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