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Review – Assassin’s Creed 2


Assassin’s Creed 2

Since completing Assassin’s Creed II (AC2) I now understand the root of Ubisoft’s recent backlash.    It’s not because Ubisoft games are bad; in fact, their developers create intriguing, beautiful and engaging worlds.  Their publishers just ruin these worlds for everyone, inside and out.

From the outside;  the installation was dragged out by the AC launch requiring two updates.  This was further extended by the requirement to download, patch and log into Uplay, even though I launched the game through Steam.  Uplay continuously crashed until I found a fix on the Steam forums .  40 minutes had passed from the moment I clicked ‘launch’ to when I was able to play – caused by software that in no way improves the game.

Ubisoft continued to intrude within the game.  A section of the world is blocked until it is unlocked via Uplay.   Cartoonish blue and white Uplay achievements popup during play (completely ruining the mood of some of the darker moments) and advertisements for other games appear on the main menu.

Ultimately the game itself isn’t ruined by this interference, but I’ll be damned if Ubisoft didn’t try their best.

Go Pretty…

AC2 is still very easy on the eyes, even six years after its release.  I snapped about 350 screenshots during my play through, anyone of which could have sold the game.  Both large and small cities, buildings, roads and fields are crafted with passion  They would have had to be, they would not be so beautifully detailed otherwise.  There are moments where you climb buildings and towers to survey the area, causing the camera to pull back and pan 360 degrees around the main character, rewarding you with a jaw dropping panoramic view of the city.  I never tired of these moments regardless of how many towers I had climbed, and diving down into a hay stack evokes a wonderful feeling of vertigo and dread.

The main character models are beautifully rendered detailed.  Movement animations are impressively natural looking  and though the facial details are beginning to look dated, they are still adequately expressive and human.

Stationary Shot

Getting Around

The main character Ezio is controlled through 2 ‘modes’.  High profile and low profile.  High profile is for more action orientation motions such as jumping, running, climbing and attacking.  Low profile relates to more subtle or non-treating motions, such as stealing, interacting, talking and so on.

This takes some time to get use to, and confusing ‘high profile’ and ‘low profile’ actions can result in unintended actions such as Ezio leaping to his death, or pathetically tossing coins at a group of charging enemies.  If attempting to use the ‘Gentle Push’ command you accidentally use the ‘Assassinate’ command (same button, different ‘profile’) Ezio may end up slicing open the lungs of an innocent street performer, or leaping from a roof and impaling an old woman.  Though few and far between, these moments are never deliberate, though always hilarious.

Travelling involves parkouring over buildings, jumping between rooftops, windows, ledges and so on through 15th Century Italy.  Using the ‘High profile’ button, Ezio will grab the nearest attachable object and climb.  Most surfaces have climbable sections – so as long as you direct yourself with a small amount of mindfulness, you can reliably plough ahead to your destination without much interruption.

It can be easy to tunnel vision, especially when under pressure (time limitations, or fleeing guards).   This can result in running into walls, diving of buildings or accidentally stomping on an innocent bystander.  The need for self control increases with the intensity of the situation, tempting the most panic.

Boat Ledge Kill

Fight

Hostile situations can be dealt with by either fighting or fleeing.  Strangely, it’s easier to fight as there isn’t much depth to the combat.  Fights mainly involved holding the block button and countering the enemy’s attack, usually killing the enemy via death animation.  Enemies stupidly attack one at a time, allowing them to be dispatched easily even as they yell ‘Together lads!’ and ‘We need to attack at the same time!’
This can become tedious, especially when it devolves into a back and forward swash buckle of attrition as you and the enemy bang on each other’s swords until the game decides your next blow is fatal.

Fleeing is the more challenging, satisfying option.  First you need to escape the enemy’s sight and enter cautious mode.  Enemies continue to search and if you use the environment to hide, (in crowds, hay stacks, balconies etc…) they halt the pursuit.  The escape feels earned and the intensity makes fleeing more exciting than fighting.

Guards can become hostile unreasonably quickly at times.   For example, I was sussing out a method to bypass 3 guards protecting a doorway.  I gently brushed by a pedestrian carrying a crate – causing it to fall to the ground, prompting the guards to spring from their post and attempt to remove my skin.

This is most frustrating during the tailing missions.  A pedestrian may walk directly into you, or a musician will sing into your face – and touching them may cause another psychotic trigger on the guards , alerting the target and failing the mission.

The main missions commonly involve sneaking into heavily guarded areas, closing in on the target undetected and performing the kill.  The final blow can be very gratifying.  The challenge is in getting close.  It is particularly satisfying to kill the target when they don’t even know they are under attack.

Double Kill
There are many surprise ‘I can’t believe I pulled that off’ moments.  In one mission I was hiding behind a pillar waiting to take out a guard when two additional guards entered the area, patrolling in my direction.  I figured I could take at least kill one before they spotted me.  As they arrived I stepped from behind the pillar and hit attack in low profile – at which point Ezio extended both arms and double-shivved  both guards in the neck.
Both dropped to the ground while the original guard remained oblivious.  Ezio casually retracted his wrist blades, whereas I made two embarrassing fist pumps into the air.

Similar moments can happen when jumping from a ledge, flattening a guard and impaling them through the chest.  You can hang from a rooftop ledge, quietly waiting for a patrolling guard to pass overhead and pull them to their death.  You can use poisons, smoke bombs, daggers and throwing knives for different ways to kill an enemy.

Side missions are abundant.  Though non-essential to the main story, some reward increases to Ezios health pool.  You can hunt treasure chests, statues, feathers, upgrade your Villa, and participate in races and brawl missions.

The ‘Assassins Tombs’ side missions are platforming intensive levels reminiscent of 2003’s Prince of Persia, requiring you to figure out the best way to jump between platforms, swing from ledges, leap from pole to rope and to switch  and are very satisfying to complete.

Most side missions reward money, which quickly becomes unnecessary.  You can generate money by investing in your Villa and by the time you have made half of the investments available you will be earning more money than you can spend.  The game is slightly bloated with side quests, as if fulfilling a minimum playtime length by exploiting the human compulsion to not leave something unfinished.  Eventually I began to ignore the icons littered across the map and focus on the main story.

Assassin's Tomb

Story

AC2 begins in the near future, where a corporation is attempting to access the genetic memories of Desmond that relate to his Assassin ancestors, to learn the secrets of a powerful artefact.  The first Assassin’s Creed ended with Desmond escaping the facility with a member of the assassins order.  AC2 Picks up from this point as Desmond is taken to the assassin’s hideout to continue reliving his ancestor’s memories.

Very little of the game is spent in this near future setting.  Half way through the game you return to Desmond, undergoing training by your rescuer Lucy.  From what I understood, the central conflict is between the ideologies of the Templars and Assassin’s, whereby the Templars want complete order and obedience, whereas the Assassin’s strive for total freedom.  The key for victory lies with the artefact, which both sides wish to obtain.  The group of Assassins are portrayed as an eccentric bunch, but are generally one note personalities.  There isn’t much to write home about in the future setting, so I won’t.

Ezio’s life in 15th century Italy  makes up most of the game’s playtime and is considerably more interesting.  Ezio is an upper-class young Italian born into a wealthy family.  He experiences a personal tragedy and as he delves deeper into its cause, a conspiracy involving the Templars is revealed.
Ezio becomes involved in the conflict between the Templars and Assassins and encounters famous historical figures that either help or hinder his attempts to take down the conspirators.

Viewpoint 2

The world is a beautiful recreation of Venice, Florence, Tuscani and Roma.  Passing famous buildings will prompt a log entry about its construction and history .  The historical figures you encounter also have mini-biographies which are interesting to discover.  The strive for authenticity is obvious and genuinely made me want to learn more about the people, place and time in which the game is set.

There are dips into alternate history, portrayed with an eerie, haunting realism.  Scattered throughout the cities are hidden journal entries from previous memory subjects like Desmond.  Creepy historical videos, pictures, paintings, and sounds ranging from ancient times, to modern war and science are presented.   The purpose of these entries is to decode a video file portraying what appears to be a futuristic Adam and Eve being pursued.  Ultimately this doesn’t go anywhere interesting, but each entry is worth experiencing for the sheer disturbing mood they can invoke.  These entries are accompanied by puzzles to be solved.  These puzzles become illogically difficult towards the end, so much so I resorted to looking up the answer.

Criticism

My primary criticism is that Ezio appears to have no distinct story arch.  He begins as a very rich, cocky, and spoiled ladies man and never seems to change.  Even after the initial personal tragedy he shows little emotion other than annoyance.  A considerable portion of his family is murdered and he pursues revenge in the same way a person pursues milk after they have pour their cereal.

He doesn’t appear to be gain any humility after the tragedy or experience any depression or discomfort other than getting mad a one fairly unimportant assassination target .  He apathetically fights, murders and sex’s his way through the story in an apparent pandering to the power fantasies of a male audience.

This is quite incongruous to the darker tones of the game. There is an awful implied rape moment at the beginning whereby Ezio returns home to find his mother unable to speak.  His sister explains that ‘when she resisted, the guards…..’ and trails off.  Ezio’s emotionless response kills the weight of the moment, which should be pretty hard considering the subject matter.

Ezio Mission

The supporting cast are far more interesting.  The many antagonists and allies display distinct personalities, noticeable presence and more authentic motivations.
The conspiracy is more interesting than Ezio, and is intriguing enough to make you want to see what happens next.

Recommendation

Though there’s plenty to complain about, nothing is a deal breaker.  A lot of the side missions can simply be ignored.   Ezio is not likable and has lackluster motivations, but this is made up by the rest of the historical cast.  The world is beautiful and fun to discover via the medium of window and rooftop acrobatics.  Platforming is challenging and there are moments of true feelings of skill.  The campaign is lengthy and if you decide to delve into the optional content then there is a potentially 40+ hours of game play to experience.