Assassin’s Creed 2: 0 out of 5 stars
Assassin’s Creed 2 teaches its player one thing: there is no problem that can’t be solved by throwing hookers at it. Spoilers follow.
Assassin’s Creed had some problems with repetition; however, it remained a fairly competent system for the purposes of climbing and assassinating. In contrast, Assassin’s Creed 2 has a problem with heaviness. The climbing and hidden-blading remain, but they’re weighed down by the choices of a design team who brainstormed for their sequel and literally threw none of their half-formed ideas out.
This heaviness is reflected in the character design differences between Altair and Ezio. The former was lithe and competent, and we bought it when he bowed his head to disguise himself as a passing monk; the latter is a bulky, slovenly mess. One killed swiftly and silently, while the other employs brute force as his primary modus operandi.
There are two things people mention when they need to explain what’s “better” about this game after noting that the problem of repetition remains: Leonardo’s Flying Machine and the Assassin’s Tomb explorations. We’ll get to the tombs later. There are two missions involving new vehicles in this game, both tied to Leonardo. These are the ludic equivalent of McBay explosion scenes: labor wasted on short set pieces rather than on balancing and playtesting core mechanics.
The first is a carriage chase through the Appenines, which I have to admit was the most fun I had with the game. You’ve got three obstacles: soldiers pursuing you on horseback, roadblocks, and archers shooting flaming arrows. The physics on the cart are quite complex, and you’ll spend most of your time sending it careening from side to side in an effort to emulate Andre the Giant’s strategy against Wesley in the Princess Bride: you’ve got to crush these fools against rocks. If the carriage had less health, then the roadblocks and archer flames would be more of a challenge; as it stands, you’ve got to dodge roughly half of them. Still, the experience is thrilling while it lasts.
The flying machine sequence, on the other hand, is patently ridiculous. This takes place in the context of needing to rush into San Marco to save the Doge from being poisoned. Time is of the essence, so, naturally, you waste the entire day climbing towers with your friend Antonio the thief. He shows you how to ascend to the top of the structure via a construction site, which you already knew how to do if you were thorough about clearing the Assassin’s Tombs.
Then… oh no! There’s a fence! Only a flying machine could get over that! You waste even more time killing pockets of guards so your thief friends can build pyres to keep Leonardo’s flying machine in the air. Finally, as night falls, you’re allowed to partake of the set piece that was advertised so heavily in AC2 promotional material. It lasts all of 45 seconds. You hit one hot air pocket, kick a few guards in the face (by double-clicking the left trigger instead of hitting X, which is a breathtaking usability failure), and fly toward San Marco for a cutscene. This raises two new points: cutscenes and the fact that Batman can fly.
I can’t remember whether or not Assassin’s Creed was cutscene-heavy. AC2, on the other hand, is. A new addition to the formula is everybody’s favorite ludic abortion: the quicktime event. Ubisoft’s Anvil engine presumably can’t handle subtle physical expressions, so things like hugging need to take place in cutscenes. Near the beginning of the game, the player pointlessly presses a few buttons to allow Ezio to have casual sex with… drum roll… Amerigo Vespucci’s sister. Amerigo was a pornographer, get it? We never see her again; nor do we see Caterina Sforza, whose family was later tied to the Borgias through marriage, after “saving” her from being somehow stranded on an island and engaging in some extramarital flirting. More about the women in this game later.
Other QTEs cover such things as shaking hands, double-hidden-blading captors in the throat, and the choice to hug Leonardo or not. What’s the idea there? This hug is the only QTE that the player can actually “miss” in the game, and the window of opportunity is quite small. Is this some kind of knock against Leonardo for being a homosexual? You’re in an involved conversation about either the Codex or a new gadget, and all of a sudden the game prompts you to hit the B button. My controller was on the floor, so I missed the opportunity. Leonardo pretends he wasn’t really trying to hug you and says, “Ah well.” Explain this for me, please, because I love Leonardo more than I do Amerigo Vespucci’s sister.
Moving onto combat and Batman now: this game shows how quickly a combat system becomes outdated when competition enters your niche. Freeflow in Arkham Asylum is both fluid and brutal. If you’re good you can rack up combos of over one hundred hits, all the while flinging yourself through the air and pummeling heads into the floor. Batman doesn’t need a QTE to execute a beautiful beatdown. Contrast this with AC2, where there’s always one solution to felling each enemy archetype.
In the first Ninja Gaiden reboot, countering was somewhat overpowered. You could make it through three quarters of the game doing nothing but blocking and counter-killing. Team Ninja fixed this problem with Ninja Gaiden 2, adding enemies fairly early on that can break your blocks, punishing you for sticking to dominant strategies.
In AC2, there’s never a reason not to turtle into a defensive stance: no matter how rapidly you upgrade to the best weapons currently available, direct attacks do nothing. Lightly-armored enemies will always fall to a single counter. Heavy guards can be dispatched with a single disarm move, and their larger weapons can then be used to one-shot counter any other enemy archetype. Oddly, medium soldiers are the most difficult to crack: you’ve got to dodge them and take cheap shots at their sides in order to whittle their health away for a killing blow. The final gambit is a “special move” for each weapon type that you’ve got to pay an arm and a leg for just to learn that their animations take too long to be useful. This is boring, tedious stuff that, once you’ve got the money for it, you’ll probably avoid completely by spamming escape gas.
You know what was fun in Assassin’s Creed? Running along rooftops and dispatching archers with throwing knives. Now I’ve a limited amount of knives on hand and three times the archers shouting at me to get off the roof before I hurt myself. Is everybody in Italy rich enough to hire an archer to stand on top of their goddamn houses? I’m not into immersion, but you can consider it broken at this point. If I do kill the louts, it’s only going to increase my notoriety level. That would mean wasting roughly one minute out of ten tearing posters off the wall. So, parkour is ruined for me.
All of the preceding were minor complaints; on to the fatal flaws.
The Assassin’s Tombs are not “a breath of fresh air.” They’re environmental “puzzles” with poor camera scripting and a single solution. Whenever you pull a lever to start a timed segment, the game refuses to return to your prior camera angle while disengaging your right trigger button (which I hold down almost constantly). So you begin each of these segments spinning around in slow motion, like a drunkard. When you approach key jumps and see what you have to do, the camera will swing to the right or left at the last minute to screw up your aim. I suppose this was designed to help people who were tip-toeing toward the jumps. If that were the case, then they should have added a line of code to disable the camera movement if the player were moving at a given speed when she passed the triggering zone.
If a tomb puzzle is triggered by a pressure plate, then you can reset it in the event of fumbling over the first jump and wasting precious seconds. But if the trigger is a lever, you’ve got to wait for the allotted time to run out before you can restart it. They already had the code and the animations in place to create this allowance, but they ignored it.
The tomb chase sequences, on the other hand, are symptomatic of the core problem with Assassin’s Creed 2: they’re fake. Your prey is designed to always run fast enough to remain within sight yet out of reach. The only way to actually kill him is to gain higher ground through parkour and execute an aerial assassination. What they’ve done here is forced a cathartic climax, the one solution they’ve allowed. Janet Murray calls it “scripting the interactor.” This isn’t ludic; it’s cinematic.
This general fakery adds to the heaviness problem I mentioned earlier. You get a bunch of new weapons, including poison and a gun. You never need to use the gun unless you’re bored, and the poison can only be used in situations where your hidden blade would accomplish the same thing: once you’re spotted by a guard, you can’t even select it for use. The double blade is nice, because you can now kill two oblivious AI at once, but it’s clearly just there to look bad-ass. It actually got me into trouble quite a few times, when I was trying to kill a Borgia courier who was right in front of me and it triggered double kills against innocent bystanders instead.
Platforming also has two new additions: fling jumps and pivots. The fling jump is only useful for reaching the tops of three map synchronization towers and two pointless little parapets in the game’s final chapter. It looks great to grab a pivot and swing around the side of a building, but none of them are in key segments of the map. There’s also never a guard on the other side of the pivot to kick in the face.
One thing Assassin’s Creed had down pat were the main assassination missions. The Assassin’s Guild was scattered throughout the city, and I had to scope everything out in order to earn the right to take the Templar scum out. You didn’t know where they were hiding, because nobody can be everywhere at the same time. There was a nice little ritual involving dipping a feather in some blood. Most of all, the targets had personality. There was a doctor who-may-or-may-not be experimenting on his patients, and a gluttonous merchant who-may-or-may-not be a repressed homosexual. The player was rewarded for killing these men with tact.
In Assassin’s Creed 2, the target is almost always either running from you or waiting in one specific location surrounded by guards. You run up to him and stick a blade in him, then you kill the remaining guards and go home. I know who some of these men are, because I studied European history eight years ago. The player sees history pass by, but she’s unable to engage with it. The Borgias were a brutal family, the Medicis patrons of the arts… and all they could dig from this was some stabbing and poisoning?
I haven’t mentioned how bad the meta-narrative is, because it’s too easy to nitpick. I actually enjoyed the change of pace the Desmond and Lucy story provided in the first game, because it gave me an opportunity to learn about this world Ubisoft was crafting. Here we just get an annoying, mean British guy and some inane rambling about how every major catastrophe in human history was caused by the Templars and the pieces of Eden. Oh, and a bunch of spinning tile puzzles.
If you read reviews and check forums, only children find this stuff compelling: “Dont u get it? The Roman gods knew that 1 day ppl would invent memory machines, so tey left hidden msgs for Desmond!” The only question remaining is, “How much money did they pay Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh to churn out such tripe?” That’s right, Ubisoft has been employing the crack team responsible for Terminator Salvation: The Game for more than five years now.
Generally, I don’t care about a game’s narrative—especially if it’s about Illuminati and the Bible post-Da Vinci Code. All I want it to do is stay the hell out of my way, but Assassin’s Creed 2 insists on rubbing its poor narrative design in my face. There are a number of times when I have the chance to assassinate three or four of my main targets at a time. I’m literally standing ten feet from them. Instead, the game enters a cutscene and the targets inexplicably disappear. There are also pacing problems here, like a bad season of Battlestar Galactica stuffed with filler episodes. I’m approaching a climactic battle, but I’ve got to spend ten minutes dispatching a random thug guilty of cuttin’ up, or otherwise harming, a whore (that’s a Clint Eastwood line).
Now we return to my opening line. It doesn’t take an expert feminist analysis to see that there’s something deeply wrong about how this game treats women. You can flirt with a Sforza and couple with a Vespucci, but they’re never heard from again. Two of the strong female characters are brothel-owners, one with the ridiculous notion that prostitution is a form of religious worship. The third is a thief who Ezio must carry like a baby through the city after she gets wounded by an arrow.
And I repeat: every problem can be solved by throwing hookers at it. Is there a room containing a Codex entry surrounded by guards? Send the courtesans to distract them. How about a festival party filled with guards searching for you? Hire some courtesans and “blend in” with them to hide. Do you need to progress through a heavily-guarded sequence of bridges? Flit from one group of courtesans to another to ensure success. You can also hire thieves and mercenaries, but why would you?
What do you like about this game? Building up your estate? Why don’t you play a Sim game instead? Why should I have to return to my estate constantly to collect my 20-minute tithe? The Borgias have couriers for that sort of thing, don’t they? If Our Creators couldn’t stop a solar flare with the pieces of Eden, why would Desmond be able to? Why would they care about the fate of humans, their traitorous enemies? Why design 22+ weapons when they never provide an advantage, only a way to keep your attacks from being constantly deflected? Why do I need a flashback telling me that Altair made a baby on top of a tower that one time? I’m his ancestor, aren’t I? Why are there only two types of vantage point towers for each city? Why would I ever complete a side mission? Why does the game come to a complete standstill so I can try to win an invitation to the Doge’s Carnivale party? If all the people I help throughout the game are Assassins, why are they all such ineffectual morons? Why do these idiots keep coming outside when they know I’m trying to kill them?
What the hell, Niccolo Machiavelli? Really?
How does a game about killing people, the Old Testament, and the Borgias completely bore an Italian Jew?