Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tapping that Assassin

Above: All the action you'll see in an hour of Assassin's Creed II.

My review of Assassin's Creed II is up now at thephoenix.com. If I seem to hold contradictory opinions of the game, it's because it has contradictory opinions about itself. Unlike, say, Uncharted 2, which was so good because of what it left out, Assassin's Creed II leaves everything in, and the result is a little too weighty and ponderous. There's great stuff in here, but it feels a little like panning for gold: you have to wade through a lot of muck to find those little shiny flecks you're looking for.

The setting is so good that it would be nice if you could simply explore it, without having to fend with rooftop archers and pickpockets who target you, and only you. These things feel less like gameplay obstacles and more like annoyances. Often you wish the game would get out of the way and just let you play.

Yet part of the problem is also a lack of focus, and not enough game. In numerous repetitive side missions, you really aren't doing much at all. One side mission type is to find what are called codex pages, which are always heavily guarded. Once you realize that you can always acquire them using exactly the same methods, by hiring a faction to distract the guards, it ends up feeling like you're doing no more than purchasing the pages. But you go through the dance every single time, hiring a group and leading them to the guards.

I struggled with the platforming for the first few hours of play, because I didn't realize how much the game was doing for me. I kept hitting the A button to jump, when that action actually happens automatically whenever a jump is possible. Like inFamous and Prototype earlier this year, the control system of Assassin's Creed II works very well in some respects, and falls way short in others.

For one thing, the number of inputs is just silly. Ezio can walk (left analog stick), walk quickly (left analog stick and A), run (left analog stick and right trigger), and sprint/free-run (left analog stick, right trigger, and A). All of these except free-run could be accomplished with only the left analog stick. That is, in fact, the very purpose of an analog stick.

The "puppet" control system is also a little hard to get used to. Ostensibly, it maps the four face buttons to Ezio's head, arms, and legs, but the logic isn't always there. The B button on the Xbox 360 pad is responsible both for making you grab onto ledges and drop off of them, and though it makes sense since you'd be using your hands in both cases, it doesn't make sense according to industry standards. In the same way, it's not a huge problem that you use a different button to talk to NPCs than to interact with objects like doors and treasure chests, but it's unexpected and doesn't seem to confer any particular advantages.

Last thing I'll mention -- and it's a sign of how much there is to discuss in this game that, between the review and this post, I still haven't covered it all -- is an unfortunate byproduct of such a painstakingly realistic setting. Walk the streets of Florence and Venice and you may think, as I did, that this is one of the best and most fully realized game environments around. But when some things are so convincing, it raises the bar for everything else. When Ezio gains notoriety, authorities respond by putting up wanted posters. Ezio can reduce his notoriety by ripping them down. Makes sense. So why do the guards put them in high, out-of-the-way places, where Ezio is the only person who could even see them? And another mechanic, "blending," by which you can walk with a group of citizens to elude the guards' gaze, is pretty fun from a gameplay standpoint, but I always wondered why the people I was walking with didn't notice me, either.

All this being said, I have found myself going back to Assassin's Creed II even after somebody was paying me to do it, and that's got to count for something. At times, it can be spectacular.

4 comments:

Lyndon said...

Thank God finally someone who agrees with me on AC's ass backwards controls. In fact that puppet style control scheme is pretty much the reason I can't be bothered with AC2.

Petty? Maybe but for some reason it just gets my goat.

Sean Beanland said...

I was frustrated by the game not being able to decide if it was a stealth or action game. You can run and hide from guards, but there's no penalty for just killing all of them as eventually they'll either run away or no more reinforcements will come to fight you. You can hire courtesans to help you blend into a crowd, or distract a group of guards, but if a patrol of guards wanders by before you're ready, the courtesans will leave on their own. The assassinations are all frontal assaults, for the most part. You get an insanely loud and powerful gun.

My favorite parts of the game are the assassination contracts, because they fit with what I think of an assassin being: a stealthy, clever demon of death that can disappear the moment the deed is done. It's more satisfying to me to track down the target, and then complete the mission within the constraints given. My favorite one was to kill a merchant without being spotted. I found him in the market, poisoned his guard, then poisoned the merchant and calmly walked away. Watching the crowd and guards watch these men in bewilderment as they spontaneously get sick, go berserk, and then die was immensely satisfying. The main story didn't offer opportunities like that. I only used the gun or smoke bombs when the story required them. Sitting on benches to avoid detection seemed like an utterly useless ability. The game gives you options for both stealth and attack, but it's generally easier and more efficient to attack. I had the same issue with the first game.

My other issue was how I thought the game did a fairly good job of establishing Ezio's family and how important they are to him, but once he, his mother, and sister get to the villa, the game suffers from the GTA4 syndrome of bouncing from quest giver to quest giver to the point where you lose sight of the main plot and are just killing guys because you're told to. Ezio's mother and sister end up locked away in the villa to be turned into human shaped menus and nothing more. The driving force of the plot faded rather quickly, and Ezio didn't seem to be as driven after a while.

Having said ALL that, I still enjoyed the game quite a bit. The assassin's tombs were generally great, and the set pieces for the main story assassinations were generally excellent. Leonardo was a great character, and upgrading the villa and your abilities was satisfying. I just hope that they beef up the stealth side of things for the next game.

teeyai said...

Assassins Creed II is excellent graphics a little difficulot to understand how to control the character, but is a encellent game

L.B. Jeffries said...

The best moments in the game are like Beanland said, when a stiff restriction is imposed on you to not be spotted or to not kill someone. If the game pushed that harder, it would force players to keep being creative instead of getting bored by killing guards then tearing down posters. It's just an issue of finding a way to get players to vary the gameplay up naturally. *drum roll* If it were me, I'd let players pick the difficulty of the notoriety at the start of the game. Easy means you can always undo it, Normal means you will have to change outfits, flee city for X amount of hours, Hard means permanent infamy if caught.

I plowed through the whole game and was impressed that I couldn't really think of one interesting thing to say except "Moar Hitman: Blood Money".