Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Assassin's Creed II - Review

When you start Assassin’s Creed II (AC2), one of the messages that flashes by, goes something like this: “we, the developers, have based this game on real-world events and histories and would like to tell you that we belong to, and subscribe to, a varied mix of faiths and beliefs” – the implied subtext being: “so don’t hurt us please”.

Rarely does one play a game that crosses so many lines brazenly and with aplomb: AC2 questions morality, authority, religion, science, our history, our place in the universe, and expertly weaves a tapestry of conspiracy so vast, intricate and complex – connecting everyone from Eve to Jesus, Hitler to Gandhi – that by the time the game is done, only three words come to mind: What. The. F*ck.

WTF did I just play? And: OMG, mind blown.

But that’s not new territory. Games of past have played with gamer’s minds before – Xenogears, Deus Ex, even the better Metal Gear Solid entries – to name a few. What makes AC2 so unique is that it never shoves a point down your throat (*cough* MGS4 *cough*). The game gives you as much as you put in. You can play it as an action romp, you can approach it as an adventure, you can revel in its GTA-like open-world mayhem, you can unlock its many mind-bending puzzles, or enjoy some of the best platforming moments this side of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. You can do all, or you can do naught but jump from rooftops onto victims’ throats. AC2 succeeds in creating a play-as-you-like experience and should you choose to poke around and nose through the vast tapestry it lays before you -- it constantly rewards you with cool upgrades and nuggets of information.

Nothing is true

I did not think I would recommend this game when I started playing it. AC2 stumbles at the starting point -- falls almost flat on its face even before it begins -- through some awkward 30-odd minutes of uninspired dialogues, characters and setup. The game has something of a curve which is not just relegated to learning the ins and outs of its controls. It starts slow and almost creeps to a point before it hooks you. When the game starts, if you are like me, you will be snorting in derision over the game’s Matrix-like setup (complete with a female version of Tank), or will be laughing at the terrible and almost-stereotypical Italian accent of the characters (the game is set in Renaissance Italy). When the protagonist’s uncle goes “it’s a-me, Mario” (yes, really), one can’t help but laugh out loud at the ridiculous moment of self-depreciation. AC2 even looks pretty bland for a next-generation game. On the whole, it’s a bad first date but stick with her and the game grows on you. Over time you will tend to look past her average looking cut-scenes and bland environments – not to mention the texture pop-outs and screen tears – and come to appreciate her awe-inspiring, meticulous architecture and the ridiculous amount of detail lovingly poured into each of her cities.

Assassin's Creed 2: Architecture

While AC2 can look a bit bland at times, there is no denying the splendid architecture and level design

AC2, perhaps, has the liveliest city-life ever virtualized for a game. Inhabitants perform an orgy of tasks (and given the density of people milling about in an average AC2 city, orgy is just the right word): tilling fields, walking, carrying boxes, performing acrobatics, flirting, talking, pickpocketing, pushing, shoving, sitting on top of boxes and staring out to the sea... The cities are dense and claustrophobic, encouraging you to climb a nearby building and take to the rooftops; to escape. And once you do, you’ll rarely want to climb back down.

Leap of faith

Rooftops are AC2’s soul food. You will be ever-yearning to get on top, excuse the pun, not only to get away from the crowd but also to take in the vista and to explore. Rooftops also offer the game’s core platforming hook. Going from ground-zero to the top of the tallest church is as exhilarating as it is ultimately breath-taking. The controls for platforming are simple – press two buttons, or just one if you don’t want to sprint, and move the analog stick in the direction you want to go. Ezio – the game’s protagonist will automagically climb boxes, jump across poles, run across balconies, leap across roofs, swing across buildings, and so on... as long as your analog stick is true, everything goes almost according to plan. Almost.

Assassin's Creed 2: Leap of faith and platforming

Jumping across rooftops is where AC2 really shines; bar the occasional control hiccups

Here lies the most damning aspect of the game: its controls are not very reliable. They work most of the time but just when you need them the most, Ezio will do something stupid and spoil your run. I’ve experienced Ezio squatting between two elements of a roof instead of pulling himself over and running across; many a times (at least three!) has Ezio leaped to his death instead of to the nearest bundle of hay (when performing the signature- and ironically-named, Leap of Faith move). The controls work 99 times out a hundred. But the hundredth time is invariably when you needed them to continue working, and not spectacularly fail. It’s a case of Murphy’s Law working against you and is the only reason why this game falls short of perfection.

Everything is permitted

If platforming be the soul of AC2, then a sandbox presentation forms its heart. Like a Grand Theft Auto title, AC2 throws several cities at your mercy. Each city is unlocked as the game progresses, and within a city, you are typically restricted to one or more districts; others unlocked yet again over time.

Each city offers a variety of missions – assassinations, chases, stealth, tailing, eavesdropping, smuggling, racing across rooftops, delivering letters, stealing codex pages, hunting for treasures, raiding secret tombs, collecting feathers.

Typically, each successfully completed mission rewards you with money, some unlock new moves and abilities, while a few offer new weapons and tools. Money plays an important part until halfway through the game – after which you have so much, you will literally find yourself throwing money at passing people. Through money you can buy items such as health potions, poison, smoke bombs, throwing knifes; you can upgrade your armour and thus lengthen your health bar; you can also hire courtesans/thieves/fighters to distract or fight alongside yourself. The most important use of money is to upgrade your hometown / villa. As you improve your villa and its surroundings – either, for example, by upgrading the doctor’s or by adding a brothel – your town’s standing grows; more people come to visit, bringing in more money. It’s a positive loop and the first thing you should invest in. Pretty soon, the town will be earning you upwards of 14,000 in virtual cash every 20 real-time minutes.

Assassin's Creed 2: Flying across the city

You can also fly across Venice, oh-so-briefly

The game also borrows a notoriety system from GTA: When you perform tasks which are either too aggressive (like throwing a guard down a building), or too flamboyant (like jumping down a roof to kill a guard), your notoriety increases; pretty soon making you Notorious with a capital N – comparable to the Wanted status in GTA. This is when the authority has it in for you and every guard is after a piece of your hide. Well-meaning though it might be, the system feels a little broken as it’s a small task to bring the notoriety level back down – either via bribes, assassinations of key government officials (ironic!) or the easiest and cheapest means of all – through tearing down your “Wanted” posters. As such it never adds to any tension, as was the probable intent behind the notoriety system. In fact, a lack of tension is a common complaint in AC2.

Where’s the challenge?

Combat in AC2 is a simple affair: a target is selected through the L1 button (note: all keys correspond to the PS3 controller). Once marked, pressing X on the controller performs an attack. You can block attacks by pressing the R1 button. When blocking, X allows you to dodge, the square button starts a counter. While attacking the circle button grabs the enemy after which you can headbutt using the triangle button, or kick in the groins using the X button. It might seem confusing (and there is a very real chance that I made a mistake in laying down the control options) but once you have the controller in your hand and understand that L1 is an attack modifier and R1 the defence modifier – it all falls into place. Promise.

Combat boils down to a lot of blocking and countering. You can also go unarmed, in which case R1 and countering will disarm the opponent giving you a chance to one-hit kill them using their own weapon. Broadly speaking there are four types of melee weapons – small weapons (the knife variety), small swords, spears and its ilk, and hammers and blunt weapons. Ranged weapons are throwing knifes, a gun of sorts (worst gun ever in a game!), and the all-too powerful smoke bomb which can render a large group of enemy helpless and victim to your sword. You can also buy/unlock some special moves such as throwing knifes at multiple enemies or throwing sand to blind your foes.

Assassin's Creed 2: Disarming an opponent

Disarming an opponent and then stabbing him through the heart using his own sword is more enjoyable than it should be

The system is such that you never feel threatened by an encounter. Sure, a combat situation might be a tough one to crack, especially when surrounded by a group consisting of axe-wielding brutes and spear wielding, err dudes. But you know you will make it through, if not through skill then through chugging down potions. You never feel challenged or threatened during a fight.

Outside of combat, the platforming is key. Here you will feel threatened but only because of the aforementioned “Enzio could do something stupid any moment now” phenomenon thanks to the none-too-reliable controls. There are some incredible levels though – the secret tombs you need to traverse and defeat offer plenty of challenge and of the right type. You will look forward to these but alas there are only a handful of them in the game. Moreover, these tombs are entirely optional (it would be a shame if you skip them though). Another optional element, but one which requires a fair degree of mental acumen is glyph-hunting. All throughout the cities, glyphs tag some key structures.

Assassin's Creed 2: Weapon type blunt

AC2 offers a variety of weapons. It’s hammer time here; you can’t touch this

These glyphs must first be found (plaftorming) and then be solved (brain-teasers). Each glyph offers puzzles ranging from jigsaw-like complete the picture, to cracking a code.
On the whole then – unless you adamant on completing every aspect of the game, you will find little challenge in AC2, outside of a few moments of frustration.

The verdict?

AC2 does away with the mission structure of the first game. For the most part, it’s for the good but where the first entry ended an assassination with a long “confession” from the murdered party, AC2 leaves Ezio to do all the talking. It’s a small detail but you do miss the back story of your target and the reasons why he did the things he did which led to his assassination... Similarly, the pace at which an assassination takes place is less than ideal. In the first game the crescendo built up to an assassination and then the game played you out as you sought cover and refuge from the now-on-high-alert-guards. AC2, for the most part, ends a mission after you kill your target. There are a few missions which call on you to escape after an assassination, and kill a multitude in your wake. And frankly, these are the most fun. So while AC2 adds a whole lot to the first game’s formula – yes there is a lot to do – it also takes away some aspects that made the first outing enjoyable. Another small niggle: that “whole lot to do”, is rewarding for the most part. AC2 should have offered better rewards for two of the most mind-numbing hunts though: (1) hunting all the feathers, (2) opening all the chests. The reward for the former is a pathetic cape, while you won’t even care to complete the latter since frankly you have so much money half-way through the game that yet more money is not incentive enough.

These issues, a lack of persistent challenge, and the occasional control problem mar an otherwise excellent experience.

Bottom line: We strongly recommend playing this game. It’s one you must experience in the year 2009. If you don’t have a console, pick it up for the PC next year. But play it, you must.

Play it to experience the awesome architecture, play it to leap four storeys down and to kill two guards at once, play it to mow down a group of people under your horse, play it to hide bodies in bundles of hay, play it to poison a guard and watch him flail to his death, play it for the stupid Italian-English accent (it grows on you), for the amazing conspiracy theory the games weaves around you... if for nothing else, play it to experience the most satisfying 30-final minutes a game has to offer. It will blow your mind.

Assassin's Creed 2: Dual kill using dual blade

Can you say no to this?

Rating: 8/10

Genre: Action Adventure
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC (2010)
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Distributor: e-Xpress

1 comment:

  1. i like this game and the graphics are awesome.