Monday, September 5, 2011

Assassin's Creed 2 Doesn't Completely Suck

I did not like the first Assassin's Creed. It was flawed in nearly every way possible, but it had a rich, organic soul that still made it worth playing, at least in a strange, masochistic sort of way. Assassin's Creed 2 fixes nearly every single aspect that sucked from the first game, while introducing several new mechanics that make the gameplay far more compelling. But despite all of these improvements on the gameplay and presentation, it eventually starts to feel even more artificial than the first game. And that makes it really hard for me to appreciate this game. Continue reading for the rest of the break-down.

In my article on the first AC, I listed nine problems that basically ruined the game, and literally every single one of those problems had been addressed in AC2. They're not always completely fixed, but they've at least become more bearable.

One of the biggest problems was the repetition. Every single mission followed the same procedure and required you to perform the same tedious chores on the way to your assassination. Well, AC2 makes those chores completely optional in most cases. They occasionally show up in the main missions, but they're actually integrated with the narrative flow of the everything, so they don't feel out-of-place. The whole experience is streamlined better to make it less annoying and less repetitive.

They also improved the mechanics for the stealth and hiding system. In AC1, you'd arouse suspicion if you walked faster than a snail, forcing you to slowly dredge around to avoid detection. Once you were detected, a GPS homing beacon would have every guard chasing you forever, unless you could break the line of sight and hide. Well, AC2 introduced a notoriety system that lets you control your reputation, allowing you to avoid excessive scrutiny. Guards don't care if you run around town any more. If you run long enough, they simply lose track of you and start searching within a confined area for you. Blending in with the crowd no longer takes your hands off the controls.

The story of the first game was told through long, boring dialogue sequences where characters flapped their jaws for up to five minutes at a time. You had no control during these moments, and the camera angles and animations made everything really flat and uninteresting to look at. Well, AC2 streamlines the dialogue so that characters get to the point quicker and actually say things of significance. The camera shifts around and gives us interesting close-ups and perspective shifts, while the characters move around and interact in a more engaging way. They also personify the playable character (the assassin Ezio), giving us more of a reason to care about his mission.

We follow Ezio's story from birth, performing quick-time events as part of a tutorial.

Combat was pretty tedious affair in the first game, consisting of mindless button-tapping and fighting way too many enemies at once. Well, the combat in AC2 is still basically the same, but they've added enough new features to make it a little more functional. Now, for instance, you can use the assassin blades as active weapons and even block with them. There's a better window for performing one-shot assassinations, you can do jumping assassinations. And there are a few new item types to use in combat, like poison, smoke bombs, even a small pistol.

Besides these responses to specific problems from the first game, AC2 also adds an economy system. Completing missions and doing odd jobs now pays you money, which you spend buying new weapons and armor, as well as on consumables like ammunition and health stims. You acquire a small villa which you use your funds to renovate, which itself becomes a money supply from tourists and citizens spending money in your little town. Exploring maps, you can find little treasure chests which grant you extra money. You can also spend the money to hire thieves, warriors, and courtesans to distract guards while you infiltrate undetected.

The whole "story-within-a-story" thing was a novel idea in the first game, but in practice it mostly served to disrupt the pacing by pulling you out-of-character. After completing every "memory sequence" they shifted you back to Desmond's perspective and made you mill about for a while before going to sleep. Well, AC2 leaves you in the animus for longer periods of time, and the animus system doesn't distract you from the gameplay like it did in AC1. They've also finally given some kind of a plot significance to what's happening with Desmond, to give us some reason to care what's happening with him.

There's a little more going with these two characters.

The effect of all of these improvements is that AC2 is a lot more engaging to play. Earning extra money gives you incentive to do people's tasks and to explore the map. There's a better sense of continuity between missions, due to the expanded nature of the free-roaming maps and the more prominent story. Killing your targets does away with the unnecessary frustrations of the first game. In AC1 I plowed through the missions trying to beat the game as quickly as possible; in AC2 I spent extra time trying to maximize the experience by completing everything I could.

That is, until I realized how deceptively shallow the game really is. Assassin's Creed 2 suffers from a mild case of Oblivion Syndrome--there's a lot to keep you occupied with, but after a while you realize that little of it actually matters and that your're basically just doing the same stuff over and over and over again. Even though the structure of the main missions doesn't seem as repetitive, you start noticing that they're all just a bunch of fetch quests. "Go here, kill target, report back. Go here, watch cutscene, report back. Go here, follow target, watch cutscene, kill target." After so many hours, it starts to feel as boring and repetitive as the first game.

The assassinations themselves generally aren't as fun as they were in the first game. Assassinating a random, nameless guard used to be a brutally cathartic occasion, between the camera panning out for a cinematic angle, and the accented, loud sound effect of your hidden blade springing into action. But now the assassinations lose both of those effects in most circumstances, making the kills feel mundane.

Even killing your main mission targets isn't as fun as in the first game. They used to give an isolated area to navigate, avoiding the gaze of suspicious guards, avoiding drunks schizos and beggars, slinking your way up to your target. It was a pretty tense, and required a certain level of strategy and planning, which made the kill a rewarding pay-off. In AC2, most of the main mission assassinations just have you walking across town and killing the target in the middle of a street. There's rarely any strategy or challenge involved, which makes these assassinations equally mundane.

But at least you can finally do aerial assassinations.

The money system is fun at first, but you quickly run out of uses for it. The most expensive single item costs like 30,000 monies; by the end of the game I had hundreds of thousands (half-a-million's worth) of spare monies with nothing to spend it on. Renovating your villa brings in citizens and tourists who spend money in your shops, and then you earn taxes or something on it, so the game just literally GIVES you money. You don't have to do anything to earn it, (and there's no major imperative to spend it) so it just keeps piling up until it becomes worthless.

The "story-within-a-story" concept starts out feeling more significant, by having you (as Desmond) escape from Abstergo with Lucy and meeting up with fellow "Assassins" who tell you about the Apple of Eden and how you have to get to it before the Templars do. But then you're in the animus for so long that you basically forget all about Desmond and lose all interest in whatever's happening in the real world. It might have been interesting to play out some more missions as Desmond, but they missed this potential as well.

I'm also not really sold on the notoriety system. It's definitely nice to not have to worry about guards as much when you're just walking around (since this game has you going back and forth so damn much), but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Executing a quiet assassination on a lone guard on the rooftops with no witnesses causes the meter to go up slightly, but brazenly attacking and murdering a platoon of guards in a crowded street doesn't budge it an inch. And picking three people's purses off their belts raises the meter more than killing one guard.

The combat still suffers from lameness. It's become even more of a mindless click-fest, apparently no longer even requiring the rhythmic clicks to perform combos. Rather than play out battles with a sword, deftly blocking, evading, counter-attacking, throwing, grabbing, and disarming foes, I just drop a smoke bomb and assassinate everyone with a single click while they're distracted. It's so much faster, and less annoying just to do that, which I think defeats the purpose of their combat system.

And not die instantly when you get a little wet.

And then, for inexplicable reasons, you can't kill certain targets with certain weapons. I had a main mission target who was fighting another NPC, but I couldn't shoot him in the back or stab him in the back, I had to pound him in the face with my sword several times first. In certain situations (presumably to make the combat harder and actually tense) enemies become completely immune to the smoke bombs and pistols, forcing you to slug it out the long, hard, boring way.

The controls are still too highly automated, and ultimately make simple tasks overly frustrating. You're supposed to be frantically chasing an enemy through town, but then instead of jumping onto the ledge you had the camera aimed at, you'll end up jumping somewhere else, causing you to lose ground on your target while also alerting more guards to your presence. Just running around inevitably has you running up random walls that you never wanted to go up, just because the run/sprint controls are the same as the jump/climb commands. At other times you'll be running in to assassinate your target and instead you'll end up killing two random civilians. I basically just spend more time battling the controls in this game than actually fighting the NPCs.

Probably the best parts of AC2 are the crypts, where you go through a series of platforming puzzles to reach a treasure trove. These are fun and engaging, but even these are ruined by obnoxious flaws. There are times when the camera just locks up and doesn't let you move it sufficiently to figure out where you need to go, and you end up jumping blindly, falling a great distance, and starting the whole thing over again. At other times, the camera pans to look to the ledge you're aiming for, but then you can't move it around to get any sense of depth perception and you end up missing your target. Or the automation makes Ezio jump once more than you wanted, sending him off a high ledge. 

I also don't care as much for the atmosphere of renaissance Italy, as compared to the 12th century Holy Land from the first game. At first I thought renaissance Italy was nice because there was a greater sense of society, but it ultimately ruined the atmosphere. Most of the NPCs from the first game were in poverty, and so it made sense for them to be crowding the streets idling with nothing to do, but it feels really weird when you see hundreds and hundreds of well-dressed, working-class citizens and noblemen wandering around the streets at all times of day. It just makes the atmosphere feel stale and artificial to me.

And take out rooftop archers without having to walk right up to their faces.

But hey, at least the climactic build-up and ending of AC2 is actually halfway decent, unlike the steaming pile of turds at the end of the first game. Whereas AC1 thought it was totally cool and badass to make us tediously fight well over a hundred enemies in a row, with nothing else in-between, AC2 gives us fun stealth, platforming, and assassinations. You have more options about getting to the Vatican, by sneaking your way through, by stealth killing everyone, or by going all-out fighting everything at once. At that ending sequence fighting as Desmond while the credits roll was also very nice. 

Basically, Assassin's Creed 2 fixes all of the technical problems from the first game, but it's all in vain when, half-way through the game, I've gotten bored and start pressing through the main missions to get through to the end. Which is exactly what I did with the first game, except it didn't drag itself out as long as AC2. (I finished AC1 in 17 hours, AC2 in 35 hours. That half-way point when things got boring was way longer in AC2.) The setting and the "improved" mechanics ended up making AC2 feel stale and artificial, so it's hard for me to really praise the game. It's still leaps and bounds above the first game, but it seems like another case of an expensive, well-polished game getting by on sheer polish, and not as much on substance.

Oh well. May it rest in peace.


  1. Really? I disagree wholeheartedly. I thought AC2 was just as terrible as AC1, for precisely the same reasons AC1 was terrible.

    Obviously, AC2 improved over AC1 mechanically (the combat slightly more refined), but other than that, EZIO AUDITORE DA FIRENZE FON ROSENBURN OF DALMASCA was still an emotionless and undeveloped faceless assassin who could powerhouse his way through 20 guards simultaneously without breaking a sweat. I'm attributing how easy this game was (like AC1) to it being too "modernized", but there is no excuse for how shallow the plot and characters were, for a game that clearly shows that its atmosphere is well-made. Had the developers payed as much attention to everything else... hm. Oh well.

    1. Well, I still didn't like AC2, but at least it didn't piss me off like the first game did. In a way, it actually is worse (or at least just as bad) as the first because this one tries to be so much "bigger" and "better," which works in the beginning but eventually makes the game feel even more shallow and bloated than the first one.

  2. My 15-y.o. daughter is hooked on this franchise, having come to it quite late (she only started playing AC1 last year); she's recently finished AC3, having previously finished the first four games in the series.

    I played AC1, but I had a similar experience to yours, insofar as the repetition gave me the shits after a while. I gave up being stealthy and just fought with everyone, including the women/loonies/beggars who badgered me on the streets.

    I started AC2 last weekend; I thought I might need to pay courtesans/etc to distract guards, as that's what my daughter had done, but I was happy to find that I could just blend with the general population, and I can still get out of jams by simply fighting all the guards en masse, in one-at-a-time counter-attack combat charades. I have taken money from everyone I have fought thus far, and I quite like the immorality/notoriety attached with doing that.

    I refuse to pay for anything, and I was quite looking forward to accumulating mass coinage through my fights, not spending any, and ending up with a fortune. I'm now somewhat disheartened to learn that there's not much point to getting all the monies... Now what's my motivation?

    I guess I'll go through the motions of completing the game, because it's still a mechanism for me and my daughter to bond on lazy weekends. Hmm.