Game Description: Get ready to plunge into the lush and deadly world of the Italian Renaissance, an era of arts, riches and murderous conspiracy. Assassin's Creed II introduces you to Ezio, a new assassin carrying on the deadly lineage of his forebears. Confront an epic tale of power and corruption as you hone your assassin's art, wielding weapons and instruments designed by the legendary Leonardo da Vinci himself in this gripping and deadly sequel.
HIGH Feeling my stomach pitch climbing the heights of a towering church.
LOW The poorly-planned, hours-long, painfully slow beginning.
WTF Is finding feathers supposed to be fun?
Back in 2007, my estimation of the original Assassin's Creed was that it was little more than a tech demo, rich in style but deficient in substance. However, the potential was clear to see. The premise of being a nimble intruder dancing across rooftops to deliver justice to unsuspecting enemies was an extremely attractive one. Despite my disappointment, I held out hope that Ubisoft would listen to player feedback and get things right in the inevitable sequel.
That sequel is now here. Although it's definitely a better experience, "better" is a relative term.
While many in critical circles were quick to proclaim that all was well with this new installment, I find my issues with third-person actioner Assassin's Creed II are much the same as they were the first time around; the tasks presented to the player are too repetitive, too much time is spent simply climbing or traveling from place to place, and the core controls never feel as tuned as they should.
Looking first to the controls, Assassin's Creed II employs the same system that allowed players to make impossible jumps and scale high buildings last time. By holding a button and pressing a direction, main character Ezio Auditore can ascend practically any wall and make breathtaking leaps from one precipice to another. It's a great trick and terribly impressive-looking in motion, but lacks precision.
It's a very common occurrence to leap in a direction that was not intended, especially in timed sections, or while fleeing. Additionally, since the player does little more than hold down a button and aim towards the desired destination, so much automation lends the sense that the player is only vaguely in control. There's little thrill in nailing a landing or correctly judging distance. That same sort of imprecision extends to the combat—although the developers try to maximize the available inputs on a controller by employing context-sensitive inputs, I can't help but feel that they've tried to cram too much in. It's quite annoying to try to grab a ledge and instead "push away" a person that isn't there, or to have to hold down both triggers, aim in a direction and then hit a face button to counter an oncoming attacker. At no point does the interface ever feel natural or effortless.
Although the controls were a bother, the more serious issue to address is the fact that a player's enjoyment of Assassin's Creed II is directly linked to how much pleasure is derived from climbing walls and leaping rooftops to get from point A to point B.
Rather than craft composed levels that present directed situations the player must navigate with Ezio's skillset, the bulk of the game instead relies on the auto-climb system in nearly all missions and gives the player large expanses of urban environment to traverse. Although I do feel that the parkour-styled locomotion at the heart of the game is interesting and attractive, positioning it as anything more than supplementary is a mistake. By placing it at the core of the Assassin's Creed experience and expecting it to provide the lions' share of engaging content on its own is a grievous error in judgment.
By the time I reached the game's halfway point, I had become thoroughly disenchanted with jumping and climbing tall things just for the sake of climbing them. There are only so many ways to implement such a system without providing a wider variety of scripted situations, and the biggest problem of the last game, repetition, remains a problem still.
For example, upon entering each new area, the player must obtain map data by climbing a series of towers simply to get to the top. Although it's fine to do the first few times, it quickly becomes a chore that has to be endured rather than savored. The new optional missions (ostensibly added to provide variety) are all variations on the same basic types—assassination, racing, delivering messages, and so on. Once these have been experienced, there is little to separate one from another. The same goes for finding important Codex pages, or how the game requires players to tear down posters or eliminate officials as a way of reducing the notoriety Ezio accumulates. It all basically boils down to asking the player to engage in low-complexity activities hinging on navigating the environment.
Interestingly, the most enjoyable segments of Assassin's Creed II for me were when it broke away from its free-running identity. Throughout the adventure there are six crypts (seven, if the extra from Ubisoft's Uplay system is downloaded) and a quick visit to the Vatican. These segments are all deliberately made to have one correct path through, and include discrete challenges that must be overcome by taking advantage of Ezio's agility and assassination skills. Feeling more like Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, the level of focused intent from the development team felt more rewarding than the hours of wide-open mediocrity I had to wade through between them. More than anything, these sections are what convinced me that the franchise still has potential, but continuing to rely on an open-world design to provide the bulk of what passes for "gameplay" is the true Achilles' heel here.
Built on such a shallow foundation, the rest of the experience suffers. The adventure as a whole feels samey, sluggish and bloated, and in my opinion would benefit from being half as long as it is. Although I do appreciate the return of the high-concept sci-fi elements first posited in the original, most time spent in Assassin's Creed II's deals with an overly-complicated tangle of Italian political intrigue that fails to engage or interest, just as it fails to deliver any showstopping, must-tell-friends moments. It's clear to see that the development team spent quite a bit of time and effort in developing this mythology, but to be honest, it's so boring and verbose that I can't help but feel their efforts would've been better spent elsewhere.
Although it's possible to rattle off a list of bullet-point features that imply Assassin's Creed II is head and shoulders above the first game—more missions, more story, more collectibles and extras—I simply didn't find them to amount to much. As I stated in the opening, it's certainly better, but remains too tiresome and unsatisfying to celebrate. Rather than writing a book's worth of Renaissance dialogue and tossing in more carbon-copy roof-crossing filler, I'd much prefer that Ubisoft Montreal focus future attention on expanding and enriching the core gameplay itself. As much as it pains me to say it, Assassin's Creed II is yet another promise, and not yet a promise fulfilled.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, sexual content and strong language, and those descriptors are accurate. Most definitely not a game appropriate for young ones, the violence is redly graphic, salty language litters nearly every cut-scene, and although the sexual content isn't prolific or gratuitous, it's definitely there. This one is labeled "M" for a reason, moms and dads.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have much difficulty playing the game proper, but even with the subtitles turned on I noticed that the opening scenes did not have text. It was a little disappointing to start the adventure out that way, but everything else in the game is accessible. Although sounds of enemies do occasionally play a role, their importance is also communicated through on-screen displays, so there's nothing being missed by those with hearing impairment.
HIGH "The Truth" is out there. Waaay out there.
LOW "Don't jump that way again!! Gah—this is a timed segment!"
WTF The soldiers of the near-future will baton your ass.
How much does production value define a video game?
I have asked myself this question too many times to even begin to make list of all the games that have inspired it. A modern game should be many things in this oversaturated world of ours, but mostly it should engender a palpable level of enjoyment. The large video game companies are well aware of this, but they are also aware that to lure the reticent, to engross the interested, and to divert the critical, they should strive to dazzle their players with visual effects and ephemera that hide all of the digital seams.
Ubisoft knows this all too well, and the cinematic pacing, beautiful graphics, and cosmetically convincing world of 2007's Assassin's Creed are becoming trademarks in the canon of this publisher. From game to game, they seem to make it their quest to punch up all of the dressings of their products, while sometimes leaving the core mechanics unrefined. Like the gorgeous pageant-winner who collapses from anorexia the moment she leaves the stage, Assassin's Creed became for me a prime example of this sort of "big-time" Ubisoft production. Halfway through the game's bone-dry narrative, I did something that I hate to do: I pulled the game out of its tray without seeing its closing credits. While much less than a sin in most casual gamers' lives, for someone as invested as me in the entire video game experience, quitting the game felt like hacking off a limb.
So it was with great surprise that I found Assassin's Creed II a fully satisfying game through to its conclusion. While I certainly agree with most of Brad's take on the game's controls, I was mesmerized. Yes, the mostly intuitive climbing sometimes includes an occasional leap in the wrong direction. The combat is too easy and repetitive. And yes, climbing does constitute a large portion of the game's action. So, what's the hook? For me, it was in the story and the rich production value. Read that again: production value. I know that this statement should not hold water. A game is a game, damn it. It's there to entertain and inspire. I don't go to games for their menus and unlockable cut-scenes… And yet, Assassin's Creed II felt to me a case of the sum being greater than its parts.
Let's start with the game's story—a definite improvement. While there's plenty of intrigue in Assassin's Creed II, the intrigue as the basis for the story as it was in the former game is gone this time around. In its place is what starts an essentially simpler story of a man whose family is taken away from him by forces he cannot control. The idea to initially simplify the protagonist's throughline was the first indication that the sequel's team was on the right track—and due to the fact that I identified with Ezio Auditore's desire for revenge, I was much more easily pulled in. Unfortunately, while the story does of course get more complicated, Brad is absolutely right that most of the interpersonal intrigue bits result in little more than a general wash. Where the story really succeeded for me was in the overarching conspiracy elements that come through in the storyline of the main-main character, Desmond. The deepening narrative involving him as a lynchpin in a stew of cosmic intrigue excited. The tiny, fragmented, and hyper-stylized unlockable cut-scenes referred to as The Truth also had me going. The search for the glyphs that revealed The Truth's hallucinatory video bits is the only recommendable "side-mission" in the game really, and it was great to see how they all added up. All told, it was hard to deny the pulpy sci-fi conspiracies that progressively linked more and more of the centuries-old escapades of an Italian with those of a man in the recent future piecing together the clues that will reveal humanity's true past and destiny. The game's climax, too, which billows out into some crazy sci-fi territory felt satisfying, and not ridiculously cheesy, as I had predicted.
I also, yes, fell in love with the game's clean, starkly designed in-game menus. While not something I'd usually commend, every time I opened up one to access some new color options for my robes, or to purchase a new artwork for my virtual villa, I would audibly exclaim over the flashy shapes and clean lines. And, aside from the presentations of all of the extras, the extras themselves were quite compelling. Assassin's Creed II hit a gaming sweet spot of mine, where I was actually compelled to seek out optional content and loot. I searched for dozens of hidden treasure chests to earn monies for weapons, armor, and the refurbishment of my family's villa. The tangible beautifications of your home and character are largely cosmetic, yet compelling, due to the team's hard work at the streamlining of the menus and all of the rich detail in the environments and equipment.
Finally, the game's supposed core, the assassinations, felt a little better this time around due to some of the game's new equipment and new character abilities. It seemed much easier to pull off the intended kills while keeping well-hidden—instead of the clumsy swordfights that always seemed to erupt in the first one. Still, there were a few times when my cover would be blown without much reason, but the times when I was able to pull off the desired kill (or simultaneous kills!) satisfactorily outshone the bungled attempts.
In the art world, and especially in gaming, pizzazz and glitziness are instant signs to any slightly critical eye that one needs to look twice; that what's at the core could very well be flawed. While this holds true for Assassin's Creed II, its wispy, sugary center was made delicious by the fine, fine chocolate shell. I'd have another.
Disclosures: This game was obtained from retail and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player campaign.
I sent out a message via Twitter earlier, but in case you missed it, here's a link to my appearance on the most recent Big Red Potion podcast. The topic was Modern Warfare 2 and the connection between games and their portrayal of wartime politics.
Many thanks to Joe DeLia and Sinan Kubba for having me on. Also, props to my co-podcaster Steve Haske from Play. It was certainly an honor, and I hope to do it again sometime.
I've got a few fairly cool features that are being cooked up as we speak, but at the moment I'm spending some time with Assassin's Creed 2. If you caught my review of the first game, then you'll know that I saw it as a huge disappointment. If there was ever a poster child for missed potential, Assassin’s Creed would be it.
In spite of my dismay, I held out hope that Ubisoft would take the copious amounts of player feedback and apply it towards the sequel, finally crafting a title that lived up to the promise. The early word was good, and practically everyone I spoke to said that the developers had seen the error of their ways and had delivered a game that "kept all the good stuff and got rid of all the bad".
I wanted to believe. Oh, how I wanted to believe.
I'm not done with the game, but I've put somewhere in the neighborhood of six or so hours into it so far. Initial impressions were extremely poor… the first four hours or thereabouts were extremely slow and dull, taking entirely too much time to establish a story that's not nearly as interesting as the developers want you to think it is. It also doesn't help that this giant block of time serves as an overly-extended tutorial, dragging out what could have really been condensed into a fraction of what it takes.
Getting through that part was fairly painful, and once I was done with it and got into the game proper, I can't really say that things got much better. Although I'm still reserving final judgment, what I've seen so far amounts to an exact copy of the first game with a lot of stuff I don't care about crammed into it—things like a money system, a notoriety system, managing items, and being caretaker for a property owned by your family. I suppose this is an attempt to emulate Grand Theft Auto, but I just keep asking myself why I'm supposed to care. The game is called Assassin’s Creed, and yet (just like the first installment) I'd have to say that the assassinating is probably the weakest part of the experience.
The controls feel kludgey, the stealth mechanics don't include using shadows (or even ducking), and I'm just not getting any kind of satisfaction with the tasks I'm completing. There may be a bullet-point list of new features that make this game “better” than the last, but from where I'm standing, it seems as though the developers basically left the core experience unchanged—and that's the part that needed the most work.
(Incidentally, Jim Sterling over at Destructoid seems to like it about as much as I do so far… maybe even less. He's written a pretty brutal review which I actually like a lot, if for no other reason than it's rare to see a high-profile reviewer really lay into a "top-tier" game like this one. Jim Sterling, I salute you.)
Read more on the Drinking Coffeecola blog.
Finished Assassin's Creed II last night, and polished off a few quickie Achievements this morning. It will come as little surprise to anyone reading this blog that I was less than impressed with Ubisoft's second attempt at what I see as a superbly awesome idea.
Sadly, the adventures of both Altair and Ezio fall far short of what I would expect from such a rich, promising premise. My review is complete, but I'm going to sit on it for another day to make sure that I'm not letting it go too soon—with such a high-profile title, I'm really making every effort to ensure that the piece says what I'm trying to say. Readers can disagree with me all they like, but I want them to disagree because they actually disagree, not because they misunderstand what I'm saying. (Inevitably, both will happen.)
In a case such as this, I think the challenge is to be clear, yet concise… I rarely feel comfortable writing a review that goes longer than 1200 words, but I found myself trimming the piece back heavily. I don't like reading long reviews that blather on without making much of a point, so I can't in good conscience ask people to do that for me. With all that said, I expect to take major heat for it anyway, so I guess it's kind of academic.
In the meantime, I decided to go back to Mirror's Edge and put that to bed before starting on Uncharted 2. I was three levels away from the end when my 360 conked out on me a few months ago, and by the time I got it back, I had a to-review pile at least five or six games high.
Naturally, it got put on the back burner until I had a little breathing room, but coming back to it after all this time has passed has been a lot more difficult than I would have guessed.
The controls are fairly unorthodox and things like the walljump feel overcomplicated, but more than that, I really have to say that DICE did a fairly terrible job of level design in several instances. Certain areas seem to have no leeway for player error whatsoever, and I'm having a hard time imagining why someone on the design team felt the need to make things so stringent at times.
Besides my irritation at ledge-grabbing, I have to say that the story is pretty worthless and the cut-scenes are cringe-worthy. Going to what looks like a third-rate flash animation between levels after the devs spent so much time crafting an immersive first-person experience makes absolutely no sense to me, and I really can't imagine why they did it.
In any event, I'm doing it to say it's been done and with only one more level to go (going for the no guns Achievement, to boot) I will be glad to put it aside for something more deserving of attention.
Read more on the Drinking Coffeecola blog.