Let’s Get Cynical About: Assassin’s Creed II

In lieu of having anything I want to talk about musically right now, I thought I’d focus on another interest of mine – video games. Having just finished Assassin’s Creed II, here are my thoughts.

The fact that I cared almost infinitely more about the release of Assassin’s Creed II than the much-hyped Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does perhaps indicate something about the nature of my own personal appreciation of games (or, as Alex would say, how big a geek I am). Not for me the game that many people were buying purely for the multiplayer aspect, no, instead I care more for the expansive single-player experience offered by the Assassin’s Creed series – if that makes me a hopeless introvert, so be it.

Story-wise, Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up directly where the first game left off – though the game begins with a short recap just in case your memory is rusty or you didn’t actually play the first game. You are Desmond Miles, a seemingly ordinary man caught up in a centuries-old war between the Assassins and the Templars – the latter being represented in the modern world by a typically sinister corporation called Abstergo. In case you weren’t aware, the first game’s big ‘plot twist’ was that the whole assassin thing was in fact just an alternate reality accessed through Desmond’s memories (sorry if I spoiled that for you, but the original gave it away within the first 5 minutes anyway). Naturally, the premise of the second game follows on from this – except this time you get busted out of Abstergo to help the Assassins more directly, by training to become an assassin via the memories of Desmond’s Italian ancestor, Ezio Auditore. But what starts out as a glorified crash course in assassination soon turns out to be much more, and so you run, jump, climb, sneak, stab and battle your way through Renaissance Italy in a story of betrayal, intrigue, revenge and much more.

I enjoyed the first game, but certainly recognise that it was flawed – and thankfully, the sequel has done a lot to address that. No more trekking around a largely pointless overworld – not only does every area of the world have a purpose, but you can travel back and forth between cities for a small fee. No more running around doing investigation errands before you get to the good stuff – the story flows from one key event to another, and while it’s not all non-stop action, there’s more of a sense of purpose in what you’re doing, whether it be stalking a target, learning a new skill to help with an upcoming mission, or undertaking one of the thrilling assassination sequences. However, some of the things that would have fallen under the investigation category in the first game are still present in a slightly modified form as side-quests. For example, there are optional assassination missions galore, you can challenge certain characters to a timed race, and instead of beating up enemies to gain information, you can now beat some sense into cheating husbands. Not only do these provide a nice distraction from the main quest, there’s also a more tangible reward that’s tied into another of the game’s new features – money. Pickpocketing also returns, but thankfully it’s also entirely optional and nowhere near as frustrating – instead of having to pickpocket a specific target, you can now steal from anyone you see to get a little bit of cash. It’s not the most efficient way, for sure – but if you’re short of just a few florins at a crucial moment, you’ll be thankful that the option exists.

The reason you’ll want money, of course, is the game’s new ‘economic system’ – although to be honest, such a term seems a little bit grand given the ultimately limited nature of the purchases you can make. Basically, you’ll need cash to buy weapons, armour upgrades, health vials, ammunition, and various other things. If you wanted, you could leave it at that – but fairly early on in the game, you’ll gain access to a villa-cum-stronghold, which you can use your cash to upgrade. In a nutshell, the more you spend on it, the more cash it’ll earn for you – but upgrades can also convey other benefits, such as discounts in the stronghold’s shops. It’s entirely up to you whether you choose to spend your money directly on weapons and armour upgrades now, or plough it into your villa and cash in later. Admittedly, if you focus on the stronghold you’ll eventually end up earning more money than you can spend, but it’s nice to have the option of building up a regular income – and then blowing it all on fancy weapons and paintings. Oh yeah, in another of the game’s nice little diversions, you have the opportunity to decorate your villa with a number of art pieces from the period, as well as being able to dye your clothes to suit your taste or mood. Ultimately, though, the potential to select different weapons is nice in theory but ultimately ends up feeling uninspired – you’ll probably just buy the best sword available and then forget about it until you have the cash to buy everything else at once.

You can also use cash to create a distraction – either directly by tossing coins on the ground, or indirectly by hiring groups of mercenaries, thieves or, er… ‘courtesans’ (as the game tactfully puts it). They all basically serve the same purpose – point them at a group of guards to distract them while you sneak past or otherwise go about your dirty work – but they do all have their own perks. Mercenaries are good fighters, thieves can free-run, and courtesans act as a mobile blending spot. Oh yeah, that’s another improvement right there – you can now blend with any small group of people rather than just the roving bands of monks from the first game. Yeah, suspend your disbelief about how the guards are too stupid to spot your outlandish garb, ultra-realism isn’t the name of the game here (see also: the ‘sit on a bench to hide’ mechanic and the physics-defying leaps of faith into bales of hay).

That’s not to say that the game isn’t somewhat rooted in reality – the cities of Florence and Venice in particular are beautifully realised. Standing on one of the many viewpoints in either city, you can get a very real sense of what it they might have looked like in the 15th century – sure, one look at an actual map of Venice will show you that the game isn’t aiming for 100% accuracy, but that’s not the point. To simply convey the sprawling expanse of a Renaissance city is an achievement in itself, never mind the lovingly re-created historical landmarks present throughout the game world. But rather than be slavishly tied down to reality, the game merely uses it as it sees fit – realistic when it needs to be, and unrealistic when it makes for a better gaming experience. Equally notable is the extent to which the game has gone to tie its fiction in with real-world history – the main story is full of notable characters from the period, and even the game’s overarching conspiracy theory is interwoven with important historical events.

So what works, and what doesn’t? By and large, the new equipment and combat features are a success. The time-honoured ‘counter-attack everything’ strategy from the first game still works to some degree, but as the enemy types are more varied now you’ll want to use different tactics against different opponents. For example, I couldn’t get the hang of countering the spear-wielding ‘Seeker’ guards, but they seemed more vulnerable to being grabbed than the others. The nimble ‘Agile’ guards are not only better at chasing you down, they seem better at dodging and countering in combat as well – I found I had more success using my short blade against them. Of course, combat is generally something you can avoid in most situations – either by just legging it and finding somewhere to hide, or by using items such as smoke bombs to cause a distraction. The smoke bombs seem almost too effective actually – after using one you can pretty much just butcher the guards as they stand and choke on the smoke.

The other way to avoid combat, of course, is to be sneaky – you are an assassin, after all. The new dual hidden-blades certain help here, as does the addition of a poison blade. There’s even a somewhat less-subtle pistol attachment which gets a memorable use during the story – it’s not as overpowered as it could be, but neither is it useless. Sneakiness is also aided by the fact that the enemies can be a bit thick at times, but to be honest if they were ultra-alert it would make the game less fun.

One much talked-about aspect of the new game are the Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time style platforming sections. Again, all but one of these are entirely optional – but there’s a tasty reward if you complete all of them. The problem is that such gameplay isn’t exactly a perfect fit for Assassin’s Creed’s mechanics. The free-running mechanics, while solid, don’t feel designed for precision platforming in the mould of Prince Of Persia – and as such, when I went plummeting to the ground or dived off a platform at the wrong angle, I felt like it was at least partially the fault of the control scheme. Of course, in the Prince Of Persia series you could rewind time to correct such mistakes, but no such luck for Ezio. Indeed, given our hero’s surprising resistance to fall damage, it’s difficult to kill yourself – even if you want to do so intentionally to get back to a higher checkpoint. And so, after most falls you’re left with no option but to trudge back up to where you were before. This is compounded by the fact that it’s sometimes not completely clear where you should be going – and unlike in Prince Of Persia there’s no fail-safe for experimentation. Ultimately, most of these sections are optional – you can decide for yourself whether the reward is worth it (as it’s waved right in front of your nose), but I couldn’t help but feel like they were more frustrating than fun.

Another problem with the first game was the ultimately pointless (unless, like me, you’re a bit of an OCD achievement-whore) flag-based collect-a-thon. Assassin’s Creed II goes at least some way to addressing this by adding some incentives to search its collectables out. There are 100 feathers scattered throughout the world, but this time round there’s actually a reward for collecting them all. Admittedly, it’s still only going to really interest the completionists, but it’s nice that it’s not just collecting for the sake of collecting. There are also hundreds of treasure chests to be found, each containing the more instantly gratifying reward of cash to spend.

Graphically, the game looks stunning for the most part, particularly when you consider how much is often being displayed on screen at one time. There are a few quibbles perhaps – the odd texture glitch, a tiny bit of pop-in (the game particularly seems to struggle with gondolas for some reason), and the fact that the character’s faces can look a little odd during cutscenes. But the game looks so good in motion and the landscapes are so spectacularly created that it’s impossible to hold a few minor things against it. The music is also great, suitably stirring when it needs to be without overpowering the action. Voice-acting is good too, including a particularly amusing turn from humourist Danny Wallace as Shaun, a sarcastic historian who’s part of the modern-day Assassins. And if-a you get a bit-a fed up-a with everyone-a talking like-a this, you can always choose to have all the characters speak in Italian – and it’s worth turning the sub-titles on even if you don’t, as some Italian still slips through regardless.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed II isn’t without its faults, but it does a good job of fixing the problems that the first game had. It’s also worth experiencing purely for the spectacle of it all – the world Ubisoft have created is a marvel in itself, and it’s filled with colourful characters and inspired scenarios. Oh, and as it happens the game’s pretty fun too, and full of satisfying moments – leaping from a building to nail two guards at once with your hidden blades, stealing a Brute’s axe and beating him down with it, or surveying the city after painstakingly climbing the highest tower. Not to mention the thrill of finally hunting down the bastards who’ve caused you so much pain and trouble and giving them their just rewards. Yeah, it’s a game you can get involved in alright.

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