Sunday, February 16, 2014

GOT 'IM - Assassin's Creed II

That's three target games on the year, and my first target for 4 in February.  The other three shouldn't take as long, so I think I'm setting a fair pace.  Let's talk about Assassin's Creed II. 

The first few paragraphs is usually where I talk about a game's background and my personal history with the game or series of games.  Well, that's pretty easy for Assassin's Creed II - I don't have any!  Assassin's Creed II (henceforth called "AC2") is the second game ('doy) in the Ubisoft series of third-person, open-world, character-action, now-annual, historical-fiction super-series.  I skipped the first one because I was told by essentially everyone that AC1 isn't very good, AC2 is very good, and I wouldn't be missing much by jumping right to the good stuff. Sounds dandy.

So, Assassin's Creed.  The larger story here is that AC2 is another log in the great struggle between Assassins and Templars.  Templars began as an order of knights in the Crusades, but eventually evolved into an Illuminati-esque organization seeking power, wealth, and control.  Assassins are a shadow organization that work outside the public eye in order to guide human progress.  AC2's writers are pretty black and white about it: Templars are bad, Assassins are good, but they both kill a lot.

So Templars vs. Assassins has been going on for centuries, and in the present-day (2012, even though AC2 was made in 2009) there's a guy named Desmond who is the scion of a long line of assassins.  A group of Templars in a research lab are using technology called The Animus to access the memories of Desmond's ancestors for reasons unknown.  In AC1 they observed the exploits of the Syrian assassin Altair, and in AC2 it's the Italian assassin Ezio Auditore.  Well, technically Desmond escaped and is accessing the Animus on the lam, but whatever.  Desmond is in the present, and AC2 is mostly about him entering the memory of his acestor, Ezio.

Now, Ezio's story is a bit traditional, but certainly more interesting than the series-making framework that is Desmond's tale.  Ezio is a fun-loving son of a Florentine aristocrat in the middle 1400s, right in the heart of Renaissance Italy.  His father is embroiled in some shady business, and said business results in Ezio's father and two brothers being executed in public.  Ezio, responding to his father's final request, searches a hidden room in his family's estate to find an assassin's cloak and equipment, and escapes Florence with his mother and sister.  Equally in service to the assassin order and out of vengeance against his father's killers, Ezio sets out to murder a large number of greedy politicians and Templars scattered all over Italy.

The first thing I want to mention about AC2 is its beautiful, detailed recreation of Renaissance Italy. I can't speak towards the accuracy of the specific cities (Florence, Venice, Forli, and a few smaller settlements in Tuscany), but they are busy and rife with information.  Whenever you walk by a historical building (of which there are dozens) an info window pops up providing historical background on the building.  The same is true for most of AC2's real-life historical characters, which are so numerous that I have no idea which ones are real and which are fake.  Ezio and his family is fictional, but several of these NPCs definitely aren't.  Lorenzo de Medici, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, and Giorlamo Savonarola all play significant roles, and that's just a few out of many.

So it's cool exploring an open-world version of these historical cities in the late 1400s, but what can you do there?  Well, Ezio is exacting revenge on his father's enemies and learning how to be an assassin, so his activities can get a little crazy.  There are a dozen-plus ways to kill in AC2 (it's mostly guards, mercenaries, and corrupt merchants that you'll be killing), but killing civilians gets you a Game Over fast.  You can pickpocket, blend into crowds, hire prostitutes or thieves to distract guards, bribe officials like town criers to make guards less aggressive in their chasing you, or throw some money into a crowd to get people a little unruly.  And that's not even going into Ezio's OUTRAGEOUS climbing ability (something he shares with Nathan Drake, Cole MacGrath, and a slew of others following in the Prince of Persia's footsteps).

That climbing ability is the next chapter of Ubisoft's predisposition for free-running, or parkour.  LOTS of sections of AC2's cities have obvious "pathways" made of stacked boxes, hanging posts, and rooftops where it's pretty easy to just hold down X and R1 (or A and the right bumper) and just dart over walls and obstacles very stylishly.  Or, well, it would be most of the time.  Ezio can't wall run like the Prince of Persia, and the only buttons manipulating the free run are X, O, and R1 - the difference between jumping off a ledge and stopping in your tracks (when being chased by guards) is a question of angle and whether you're holding down sprint or not.  There's no dedicated jump button, the buttons for hanging on and letting go of ledges are the same (usually O), and things like angle of approach and camera perspective are... finnicky.  The running/jumping/parkour controls were REALLY fun when they worked, but occasionally I was frustrated by control issues that didn't seem to be my fault.

So right, there's also combat.  Ezio can collect and equip about two dozen weapons, plus his trusty Assassin's hidden blade (a knife that pops out of his wrist).  That hidden blade is perfect for unexpected KOs, but it's not very effective when Ezio is surrounded by guards and has to throw it down.  For that he has an array of maces, swords, and daggers, plus he can pick up weapons from fallen soldiers like spears and axes.  The crowd combat is pretty good, with the higher-level stuff consisting of different types of dodges and counters.  I never got very good at it, but it's WAY better from the disaster that was Prince of Persia's early-2000s combat, and it has a few additional layers of complexity compared to the combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Not as intense as a DMC or as graceful as a God of War, but better than serviceable.

The general plot, well, it's nothing special.  Ezio is increasingly angry at these Templars over a period of about 15 in-game years, and every kill leads him to more conspirators.  Each set of investigations and targets plays out predictably - Ezio needs to eavesdrop on or intercept some Templars for information, locate the target, and kill him by sneaking into a protected area.  Each one of these "chapters" is three to five misisons like this, with a few exceptions.  AC2 is comprised of 14 chapters, with chapters 12 and 13 downloadable-only if you're playing on an early AC2 disc (mine had those two chapters included).

And that brings me to my single biggest complaint about AC2: it's too fucking long. The basics to AC2 missions are fun: you sneak around, scope a joint out, then kill a bunch of guardsmen and whatever before you hit your target.  It's an entertaining balance of action and stealth for the most part.  But AC2 is a twenty-five-hour game that should have been closer to fifteen.  When I did the Savonarola chapter, I think I audibly groaned when I discovered that there were NINE assassination missions that I needed to pull to move on.  I was more than ready for the game to end by then.

However, I guess that long-ish playtime is my fault in part.  AC2 has a wealth of optional content that I indulged in quite a bit - at least a dozen optional assassination missions, nine entertaining "secret location" missions, and several smaller things like courier, domestic dispute, and thief missions.  On top of that, there are an ass-load of collectible items, with thirty-plus purchasable paintings, a hundred eagle feathers, thirty Codex pages, around eighty vantage points (found by climbing watch towers and high ledges), and countless treasure chests.  Of all those, the only mandatory parts are one of the secret locations and all thirty Codex pages (you eventually get a map with all thirty, even if you haven't scouted out vantage points).  Of these, I collected everything except for the feathers (fuuuuck that; I think I got around 20 total.) and about half of the vantage points.

But I should talk about the secret locations some more - those nine missions (one mandatory, eight optional) were my favorite parts of the game.  In these combat takes a backseat and Ezio needs to run, jump, and climb through catacombs, large buildings, and puzzle rooms to find tombs of six ancient Assassins and treasure troves of three modern Templar lairs.  You get the best armor in the game if you find all six tombs.  There are a few chase sequences and clusters of soldiers in the secret location missions, but really it's a dose of platforming that was welcome.  It's as Prince of Persia as AC2 ever got.

One thing that *every* part of AC2 has in spades is scale.  Ezio can climb almost anything in the game (even though certain areas are locked for large stretches...) and take in INCREDIBLE vistas of the major cities.  Just walking around rooftops ( much stucco...) observing the size of Florence and Venice is impressive indeed.  Again, I sort of wish everything was a little smaller so the game was shorter, but that's a pretty good problem to have.

So yeah, the game's five major areas (six if you count the final chapter, which is a linear sequence in Rome) are all big, huge maps full of icons of collectibles and mission markers.  You can lose your damn mind if you decide to visit each and every one, but the checklist of missions and items is well-organized, making this an obsessive-compulsive gamer's dream.  I got sick of all the item hunting after awhile (as I tend to do in open world checklist games), but it's there if you want it.  

Visually, AC2 looks great.  Not exact an Uncharted-level of beautiful water or great-looking character models, but there was little (but not zero) in the way of visual tears and walking through walls.  The audio is quite excellent - the soundtrack is essentially background, but when it's there it brings textrue and drama to the action quite nicely.  The voice work is a lot of Italian and English mixed chatter, but it all sounds nifty.  I had subtitles on and over the course of the game probably quintupled my Italian vocabulary knowledge. 

A few closing words: I played AC2 on the Assassin's Creed II trilogy disc that also includes the next two games, Brotherhood and Revelations.  Might play those two one day down the line, but not anytime soon.  I enjoyed my time with AC2, but eventually it dragged and I was playing to finish it and not because I loved it.  It lacks the narrative hooks and excellent writing of Red Dead Redemption or the superior action of inFamous 2 (my favorite open-world games), but it's far from bad or disappointing.  Assassin's Creed II is a great overall package with lots of good sequences and ideas, but I think I've had more than enough for the time being. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II

Targets: 3/14


Logic dictates that I have three 4 in February games remaining, except that I finished Dust: An Elysian Tail last night.  Welp!  I'm in Episode 2 of The Walking Dead now, but I'm honestly not sure if I'll finish that one next or move on to Mark of the Ninja.  I'm actually on schedule!

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