I was originally going to be very, very positive about Assassin’s Creed 2. I skipped the first game after hearing horror stories about how unrefined it was, but AC 2 is the real deal; a free-running game set in fifteenth century Italy with a heavy emphasis on open world gameplay and lots and lots of stabbing1. To begin with I was wowed by the sumptuous environments (more on that later) and the seeming ease of movement allowed by the free-running system. But AC 2 is one of those rare beasts; it’s a game that’s actually far too long for what it is. It’s not like they’ve stooped to the depths of Far Cry 2 in terms of recycling content – there’s four very meaty maps to explore plus a personal hideout town – yet if you stare at even the finest artwork for long enough you’ll start to notice the cracks in the paint. So it is with Assassin’s Creed 2.
I have two major bugbears with the game. The first is – or are – the assassination targets, the majority of whom are given almost no buildup before I skewered their brains on my retractable wrist daggers. Case in point: there was one guy at the start of the game who personally betrayed Ezio’s family and got half of them killed. Ten minutes after this happened I was dropping down off a roof to punch six inches of steel through his eye socket. It seemed like that was the sort of villain who needed to be presented with some gravity, yet the game treated him as little more than a mobile target dummy. Most of the members of the conspiracy suffer the same fate: Ezio slaughters them so quickly they might as well spend what little time they have in the game wearing red robes and talking about their impending retirement. There’s no weight to these guys, and so advancing the plot this way is tremendously unsatisfying.
This isn’t a fatal problem in and of itself, since the conspiracy members are only part of this overarching Templars vs. Assassins plotline and that at least isn’t completely terrible. But the second issue is far more insidious, and it is this: Ezio is the dumbest, clumsiest Assassin in the history of mankind.
This is an artefact of the methodology they’ve used for the free-running: you hold down one button and the game does everything else depending on the context. If you’re on flat ground, Ezio will sprint. Hit a wall and Ezio will start to climb. Run to an edge and he’ll launch himself into space. This sounds fine on paper, and indeed is probably the only way to realistically cram this many different free-running actions into the game without terminally overwhelming the player. Unfortunately the game developers forgot something rather fundamental, which is that if you’re going to have that level of automation going on with the player’s actions you’d better make that automation really, really intelligent. AC 2’s isn’t. AC 2’s is dumber than a whole sack of rocks.
Here’s how the problem manifests itself. Say I’m in the middle of one of the race challenges. I have to get through a series of checkpoints within a given time limit, which means moving as fast as possible, which means sprinting. The free-running button is duly held down. Ezio scampers through the first few checkpoints with no problems. The fifth checkpoint is on a ledge two storeys up with a set of conveniently stacked crates leading up to it; Ezio clambers up these without me even having to change direction. So far so good.
But then I see checkpoint six. Hitting checkpoint six requires me to run and jump along a series of ledges and then turn at a right angle when I get to a wall at the end so that I can make another jump to hit the checkpoint. This sounds easy enough, except Ezio turns like a brick. So what actually happens is that Ezio runs and jumps along the series of ledges, doesn’t turn fast enough, hits the wall at the end and then – since the free-running system interprets this as a command to start climbing – promptly glues himself to the wall. This causes me to shout “FOR FUCK’S SAKE EZIO” into Teamspeak very very loudly.
After I get Ezio disentangled from the wall I work my way through a few more checkpoints. Checkpoint ten is on a rooftop across from the one I’m currently on. It’s a bit too far to jump across but there’s a rope bridge connecting the two; Ezio is pelting towards it right now. But as it turns out, he’s heading at it at a slight angle; in order to get onto the rope he’s going to have to hit the edge of the rooftop early and make the tiniest of jumps in order to compensate. Should be easy enough for the free-running system to interpret, right?
Wrong. When Ezio gets to the edge of the roof he instead decides to throw himself bodily off of it, leaping far, far over the rope bridge and plummeting six storeys to the street below. Cue one dead Ezio and another scream of “EZIO YOU FUCKING MORON” on Teamspeak.
This is the primary problem with the game; for far too much of it I felt like I was struggling against the free-running controls rather than making them work for me. Getting Ezio to do what I wanted him to do was a real chore most of the time because any time he brushed up against a chimney he insisted on clambering on top of it. When he encountered waist-high wooden railings he just had to perch on top. It was like dealing with a really really OCD Batman impersonator. And of course any time Ezio was facing even fractionally in the wrong direction when he made a jump he’d end up breaking both his legs. Thank god that in the world of AC 2 there’s a doctor on every street corner, is all I’m saying.
(Also the developers commit the number one no-no of 3D platforming games in several spots, which is to wrest camera control away from the player and force them to view the action from a fixed position. Not only does this make it very hard to gauge the direction of whatever stunt you have to pull with WSAD, but the game often does itin the middle of a jump. I haven’t wanted to put my fist through my monitor this badly since the Tower of Reversing Camera Angles in Sands of Time.)
It’s a shame they got something so fundamental so very, very wrong, because AC 2 has a lot going for it. Or, well, one thing, but from where I’m standing it’s a pretty big one: it features an absolutely flawless implementation of Renaissance architecture and decoration. I mean just look at this goddamn cathedral. That’s actually the best interior environment I have ever seen in a game. It’s amazing. The exteriors are nearly as good. I’d have hated the free-running system a hell of a lot more if I hadn’t been having such a good time just drinking in the stunning visuals of the various cities. Tuscany was the only one that let the side down a bit; Florence and Venice are both incredible. Toss in gratuitous use of contemporary characters like Borgia, Lorenzo de Medici, da Vinci and Machiavelli and it’s enough to send a Renaissance junkie like myself to hog heaven.
So I’m willing to forgive AC 2 a lot because of the setting. I’d be willing to forgive even more if the developers had known when to pack it in, but I’m 26 hours in and even accounting for the time I spent doing races and side assassinations that’s about 10 hours too long. Bioware RPGs don’t take me much longer than 10 hours these days, and they manage to fit in far more in terms of plot than AC 2’s lengthy list of conspiracy robots. It’s a game that could definitely benefit from having much of the flab removed by, say, halving the number of people you have to assassinate and putting the freed-up development time into making the remaining half much more detailed than they currently are. Having things wind up at around the 12-15 hour mark would have had the added bonus of me not having to deal with the free-running system for anywhere near long enough for it to seriously get on my nerves.
Still. It’s not often I have to castigate a game for not knowing when to stop. AC 2 has no shortage of ambition, and it’s only because it’s set such lofty targets for itself that it falls short at all. It’s certainly a more respectable way to fail than a triple-A title that plays it completely safe and which doesn’t push the boundaries even a little. And so – unlike its main protagonist – Assassin’s Creed 2 just about manages to make the leap from “Failed Curio” to “Flawed Gem”.
- Although it was a very long time until I got to the stabbing part. The AC games have this weird overplot where you’re not actually playing assassins in various time periods, you’re playing a guy from the present reliving genetic memories of his assassin ancestors using magic pseudo-tech. I didn’t mind it too much since while the whole thing is preposterous conspiracy bollocks it’s entertaining preposterous conspiracy bollocks, but it was a little bit obnoxious at the start when I had to escape from a facility (no stabbing), meet some present-day assassins who would be acting as my support team (no stabbing), get plumbed into another “Animus” so that I could go play as Ezio (no stabbing), and then endure the world’s longest tutorial where Ezio does a million fetch quests for his family (some punching, no stabbing). It must have been a good hour into the game before I got to stab anyone. ↩