Assassin’s Creed 2

This post contains spoilers.

Alan Tew wrote up his thoughts about Assassin’s Creed 2 on his Little Bot Studios blog in four parts. I was going to reply with my own rambling thoughts, but Blogger keeps telling me it can’t process my request, so I decided to edit them up all fancy-like and post them here. Probably for the best; this blog is too neglected.

First, I loved Assassin’s Creed. The genetic memory thing was a little wonky but I didn’t mind it as much as most of the ridiculous crap in movies and TV shows, and I really enjoyed its originality and most of the design decisions they made. I realize this may put me in a minority but that’s why I’m saying it up front. Dying instantly if Altair got a foot wet was extremely annoying, but I loved the counter-based combat, did all the optional missions (though I didn’t bother trying to find Assassin Flags I didn’t notice as I was going through the game), enjoyed getting all the viewpoints and assassinating the Templars, and enjoyed the story of Altair as well as that of Desmond. It wasn’t flawless, but to me it was great. Assassin’s Creed 2 is in almost every way exactly what I wanted in the sequel.

My wife, Keisha, has been enjoying watching me play all the way through Assassin’s Creed 2 (she didn’t watch the first one much, but she got into watching the story of this one). Because of that and how much I like the game, I picked up both extra downloadable story sequences, which it should be noted is quite extraordinary for me.

The Battle of Forli one is crap, by the way. It had several lines of spoken dialogue that just didn’t play (seemed like they were missing). One instance was a couple lines from one character and another was an entire conversation. If I hadn’t had the subtitles turned on (they default to off) I wouldn’t have known what was being said. I was quite disappointed with the story parts of it also. The Bonfire of the Vanities one is much better so far (haven’t finished it yet), but I’ll gripe more about the DLC later in this post. And I’ll provide a theory on the events that led up to its release.

Alan’s thoughts are more focused on looking at the game’s design and plot decisions, though, so for a proper response I should be a bit more critical.

Core Gameplay

At least half of a game is what the player brings to it. Many of the things Alan mentioned didn’t really affect or bother me, because of the way I enjoy playing the game. For instance, I noticed the cost difference and extra effort involved in hiring a faction to distract guards so Ezio can walk in and steal Codex pages or loot high-value treasure chests versus just killing the guards, but it didn’t really affect me because I enjoy being able to do it without killing them. In the first game as well I avoided killing guards unless my mission was to do so.1 In this one, now that I’ve discovered it as an option I usually prefer to disarm and beat up the archers, leaving them writhing in pain but still alive (with the added benefit that they don’t slide off the slanted roofs, making them easier to loot and preventing commotion in the street).

As a designer, though, I would agree that the disincentive to taking advantage of the distraction mechanisms is a problem. Perhaps making notoriety more difficult to remove would be sufficient. I tried throwing coins, which is cheaper, but found that tactic too unreliable.

There were many times in this game when I was able to assassinate a target and escape undetected, though mostly only in the side missions. I really enjoy the assassin as the master of combat, who can take on all comers, but when possible I prefer to sneak in and do it quietly. It is a bit disappointing that in this game as in the last, that is in many cases not possible for the main story missions, but I don’t mind that much.

Story

I enjoy the Desmond/Altair and Desmond/Ezio setup. I was actually a little disappointed that I couldn’t get out of the Animus and talk to the characters around Desmond whenever I wanted to and progress Desmond’s story in this game (though in the previous game it was annoying that you had to go through two menus to quit).

Alan sees a lot of problems with the story, some of which I don’t really agree with but that’s probably again because of what I bring to the game rather than what it explicitly brings to the audience. About the characters being revealed as Assassins, I didn’t have as big of a problem with it because I didn’t assume they were as good as Ezio at the stuff he does. Mario is implied to be amazing when he is introduced in a very cartoonish intro for a game like this.2 But for all the rest (including Ezio’s father) I assumed the Assassins as a group to be more like a spy network/secret society, in that different Assassins have different specialties, and they are positioned in society to influence without going on Altair/Ezio-style assassination missions. This assumption is reinforced by the Codex pages in which Altair talks about adapting the organization to operate in secret, and by the Assassins around Desmond who are obviously not field agents. Sure they can perform a Leap of Faith, but that doesn’t mean they are as fit for the kind of work Ezio does as Ezio himself. I also assumed that Ezio is a prodigy, as Altair was explicitly made out to be, since he is the playable character.

The story does have flaws, of course. (What story doesn’t?) Given the secret-society model of the Assassins, a few things still nag: why would the late-game reveal be the first time Ezio was introduced to the knowledge that these characters were Assassins? Shouldn’t he have learned about and maybe met a few of them in his 4- or 5- year (I forget which) training montage? And why do they wait until then to actually initiate him as an Assassin? I thought he was part of the group once the training montage was over (when he outclassed the abilities of most of the other members); the obvious (and I’m sure correct) answer is that the writers wanted to set Ezio up as “the prophet” by having him show up on his own while the others don’t expect him to be there.

Altair was a deeper character than Ezio; he at least had qualms about killing innocent people and doubts about whether he was doing what was right, which each successive enemy compounded with his final words. Ezio has no such feelings, just the standard vengeance motivation. He’s much more bloodthirsty than Altair, often considering killing as the first and best solution to his problems. He does seem to become a little less cavalier about killing when he assassinates people (after the first few), and has a moment of introspection about his ten years hunting down the conspirators behind his father and brothers’ deaths, but only a moment. Ironically Altair is one of the most interesting characters in this game (based on reading what he wrote in the Codex, which does a great job of bridging many elements from the first game into this one), and he’s not really even in this game.

As Alan pointed out, Ezio doesn’t grow much. Here we have more story about the characters surrounding Ezio than about Ezio himself, and I agree with Alan that too many characters are introduced and then ignored. None of them seemed to be on the same trajectory as Ezio through any of the story, and we get hints of relationships that are just forgotten. It seems like different writers took care of different sections of the game, and each created and used his or her own characters, leaving a disconnect from one section to the next with no character arcs crossing these boundaries.

In the next one it would be great to get a better sense that the rest of the Assassins are out there doing something, through indirect news coming back of their actions (similar to the emails Desmond could look at on the computers in the first game), and through evidence of their actions in the world. And it would be nice if Ezio and Desmond crossed paths repeatedly with other Assassins or teams of Assassins so that relationships could be built.

Desmond, also, was deeper in the first game. Then he was a “Mr. Anderson,” an everyman yanked from his normal life and caught between two warring secret societies, neither of which seemed completely black or white. In this game all doubts and quandaries3 are banished in the first few minutes as Desmond falls over himself to sign up to help the Assassins. The story around him is also not quite as interesting; it turns out there are messages for the Assassins in the memory Desmond visits, but that isn’t why he’s doing it. It’s just for training, which isn’t as engaging as the way it was handled in the first game. Some of the abilities he is gaining are relevant to his near-future world: Eagle Vision which, ok, really only exists as an aid to gameplay, as well as the parkour, throwing daggers and the ability to blend with crowds and hide. So I will buy that the training is useful to him.

I did enjoy the bits where we returned to Desmond in this game. The parts where he is gaining abilities from the Animus, the moments where his brain can’t separate Altair and Ezio’s lives from his own, the spontaneous jump back to when Altair’s child was conceived. Of course it was silly for none of the Abstergo guards to carry guns. I assume the developers were saving the effort of putting in new animations and the differences in playstyle that will be required for Assassin’s-Creed-with-guns until the next installment, and I mostly let it slide because those segments were short, but it will be disappointing if the next one doesn’t have more Desmond, with guns. I’m sure Desmond will turn out to be the uber-prodigy Assassin, the first who will be able to go into genetic memories without an Animus, and control it, without losing his sanity. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much any other way.

I was surprised that given how conscious they were about ancestry in this game (the aforementioned conception of Altair’s child, starting with Ezio as a baby, and the little bits of sex Ezio gets4), Ezio didn’t have a romantic arc. They left room for him to have descendants unbeknownst to him without ever having an actual heir, but I kept expecting the romantic subplot, considering the tryst in the first few moments of the game as well as his flirting with other female characters.

Collecting and Economy

As for the collecting, I have somewhat mixed feelings. The financial aspect of the game has the same problem as many which have similar mechanisms (such as Fable 2), in that money becomes irrelevant by the end of the game because you have so much of it. Treasure chests become worthless, and I only get them for completeness and to get them off my map. There’s only so much to buy, and once you have all of it, the money just keeps piling up (the chest at the villa in my game has been full for a while now and I haven’t bothered to go empty it).

I like the idea of treasure chests except for how little sense they make in the world, and they were fun in the beginning: they show up on the map (if you buy the treasure map for the district from an art dealer) but you still have to do some searching to find them because the map doesn’t show you their elevation. By the end they are somewhat of an annoyance. I also enjoyed collecting the Codex pages and the treasures which were guarded; it would be nice if in the next game there were fewer treasures with more money in each, and they were all guarded. It would make more sense and the treasures would potentially be more useful later in the game, and provide a fun and interesting experience in obtaining each one.

Feathers (the new Assassin Flags) I don’t really care much about because scouring the game for them doesn’t seem worth my time.5 I tend to just pick them up if I notice them while doing other things. The glyphs were more fun to find for me, because the search was limited to a smaller area. And I enjoyed the crazy sci-fi Adam & Eve conspiracy stuff.

Downloadable Content

The downloadable content doesn’t feel finished like the rest of the game does. They probably did plan to release downloadable content from the beginning. But when reaching the end of the project it seems Ubisoft said it they wanted the DLC on day one, like EA was doing, and so they scrambled to get something ready, skipping many of the quality passes the rest of the game’s content received. They may have split the DLC into two separate packs so that they would have more time to work on the second one, or because Ubisoft wanted to be able to charge for two. Regardless, the result is probably not worth the price of entry. If you really want to get some DLC, go for the Bonfire of the Vanities one.

The Battle of Forli provides maybe 30 minutes to an hour’s worth of story missions at the most, and while Caterina Sforza (the noblewoman who somehow managed to get stuck on a little island so that Ezio could learn to row a gondola) is given some more screen time, which is one of the only redeeming qualities of this pack, it’s basically the bad first half of an arc which Bonfire of the Vanities concludes. I don’t really feel like going into all the problems with its story and execution. It does let you use the hang-glider over Forli, though, which let me get the achievement for kicking a guard off a roof. Bonfire of the Vanities is so far much better than Battle of Forli, but still not quite up to the standard of the rest of the game.6

Overall I think they did a great job on this game, though, and I’m looking forward to the next one every bit as much as I was at the end of the first.

Update: finished Bonfire of the Vanities. It had some of the same problems with dialogue (and crowd noises) not playing… this could be a bug throughout the game caused by a DLC pack, and/or could be related to the fact that I don’t have surround sound…?

Also, I have to mention: to perform an extra-hilarious Leap of Faith, climb down so that Ezio is hanging from the side of a building right under an indicator that you can do a Leap of Faith (one of the wooden projections from a Viewpoint, or some doves and the stuff they leave on the edges of rooftops). Press B to let go, and hilarity ensues. : )

  1. Until later in the game when more archers appeared on rooftops; I declared rooftops my territory and killed most of them. Throwing daggers are awesome.
  2. The “It’s a-me” was awesome; what I didn’t like was the guards falling down dead by unknown means as if in an anime where characters can move faster than the eye can see.
  3. I just learned there’s a second a in “quandary.” Something new every day, and all that.
  4. Do the horse race around Forli, if you havent. ; )
  5. I recently discovered that in the menu I can see how many I’m missing from which districts, and Keisha really wants to see what happens with Ezio’s mom when I get them all, so I will probably end up getting them all anyway.
  6. Aside: when you enter Florence with Bonfire of the Vanities installed (but before you’ve started it), some text pops up saying “What you missed:” and a little summary of what happened in Battle of Forli. It seems to say “what you missed” even if you actually completed Battle of Forli. Maybe they should have made it say “what you wish you had missed.”

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