Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tapping that Assassin
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.