|Posted on March 2, 2010 at 12:34 PM|
It was dusk. The shadows of the buildings stretched to their ultimate length from the setting sun. I had just finished scaling the steeple of a church overlooking the canals of Venice, perched myself high atop the cross at its pinnacle, and enjoyed the view of the beautiful, vibrant city as the sun slowly dipped in the west. It was a sight, so much that you would think God Himself reached down and drew it; the next best thing to actually being there with the horizon all around me and the soft sounds of the gentle breeze drowning out the clamor and commotion of the crowd of people below. Many in the crowd were amazed to see me up there, claiming I might be drunk and it was far too dangerous. To them I scoffed from my perch, a master of my domain.
Intermingled between the shopkeeps and the minstrels, the bandits and the whores, were armored guards who fumbled about the walls and rooftops in a vein effort to reach me. I mocked them and laughed at their inability to match my climbing prowess and their complete ineptitude to avenge the death of their slain comrade, now laying dead in a conveniently placed wagon of hay.
Yet, as I sat there waiting for them to finally give up and turn away, which they eventually would once they couldn't see me, it occurred to me: I had done this exact same thing at least forty or fifty times before. If not a high steeple, then it was running and ducking into a coup or haystack, hanging off the inside wall of a well or simply sitting on a bench as guards rushed by and never thought to look twice at the suspicious cloaked figure flanked by two posh Italians in fancy hats. It’s fun to do for a while, doing bad if not immoral things is enjoyable, but eventually it becomes more a nuance and, instead, you find yourself looking at the pretty sights rather than really getting involved in whatever it is you’re supposed to be getting involved with in the first place.
How many times is too many times? How man dives from rooftops into haystacks and ducking into pigeon coups can one man do? Why should I be counting it to fulfill my desire to get satisfaction out of the experience when the satisfaction should come naturally and freely rather than me seeking it out?
I took in the beauty of Venice one more time, stood and did a swan dive that plummeted me hundreds of feet into a waiting haystack. Those haystacks are always nicely placed, (though it’s odd they’re everywhere when horses aren’t allowed inside the city proper). I get out, smirk at the glares and shocked expressions of the Venician people and stroll down the street as though nothing happened.
Then I turned the game off because it occurred to me, having done this so many times now, that it had little else to offer.
Allow me to get a few things out of the way: the things that Assassin’s Creed II does well. One really needs no introduction to me, that being the artistic style of the game and aesthetic splendor that is absolutly beautiful. It recreates its time flawlessly from the costume and dress to the show-stealing architecture with attention to detail that few games can match. It truly transports you to late 1400s Italy and will absolutely wow you with its presentation and locations from the fields of Tuscany (my personal favorite) to the canals of Venice. These places truly do feel alive with hundreds of people on the streets, all well-animated and all truly feeling a part of the city rather than just background fodder. You can become a part of them, interact with them by stealing or shoving, knock them over, punch them when they get annoying (such as the minstrels who deserve it) or even kill them should you so desire.
The killing portion you should avoid, however. The game will remind you that you aren’t supped to kill civilians and it’s not as though there’s some moral judgement system that will determine story or ending scenarios. The game doesn’t think that far ahead.
Those scenarios are pretty much set in stone beforehand, which makes sense considering that you’re pretty much reliving memories of the person, not changing the past or altering the timeline ala Doc Brown’s alternate history diagram from Back to the Future II. This is also a nifty way to give you unlimited re-dos should you mess up. Most games do this nowadays, which makes healing your injured character kind of pointless, but at least it makes sense in terms of story and a smart way to implement it all. Luckily, the main story scenarios are pretty varied which makes up for the certainty of your success and you have a lot of different things that will be asked upon you, such as basic stalking and killing to freeing prisoners or starting riots. On top of this you have the option missions, which include those things as well along with some extra diversions such as delivering letters and racing. If you play the story without going into any of these, it still comes across as a diverse experience.
The biggest attribute to the gameplay, though, is your personal villa which you can upgrade and renovate as you invest more money into it. What the villa does is give you the incentive to explore the world, look for treasures to put into it, buy artwork and collect weapons and armor to display as well as upgrade the town surrounding it to allow discounts when you purchase items or heal. While this is a nice addition, you’ll be finished with it in a matter of hours because once you renovate and upgrade everything, there’s really not much else to do it in it other than buy paintings to display. You are given money automatically from the townspeople every twenty minutes, so it’s only a matter of time before you’re rolling in dough with more than you know what to do with.
The entire villa mechanic is rather shallow as well. There’s a great Japanese RPG series called Suikoden and one of its major gameplay mechanics is your headquarters system. What made is so great is that you would go out into the world and find people to add to your army, thus becoming residents of your headquarters (which is usually a castle or tower). To recruit these people, you often had to meet certain requirements or complete their quests – a majority are optional so it’s up to you, not the story, to go out and get them. Once you have them at your HQ, they work to upgrade your place and add in whatever their specialty might be, such as restaurants, medical area, docks or stores just as some examples. On top of this, you could upgrade their shops and, more importantly, actually spend time in them and do mini games or open up new quests in the process.
I compare this to Assassin's Creed II’s because both are integral, yet ultimately optional. In ACII’s villa system, all you pretty much do is throw money at it for a couple of hours then hunt down treasures the rest of the way. That’s about it. In both games, the HQ system isn’t required but a good addition, but only in one does it feel as though it actually means something and that you’re really influencing the building of your homestead. Not only that, that one also makes returning and getting involved, exploring and upgrading it more rewarding and, thus, more enjoyable.
Yet, that could just be a matter of taste and, still, at least the villa works even if it is on a shallow level. More pressing concerns should be addressed towards the major faults the game does have: the controls.
Assassin’s Creed II has a series of ideas it wants to bring us, and I’ll say it does them all better than the first yet ultimately still fails at them in the process still. Almost all of these can be attributed to the controls. While the game entices you to free run across rooftops, you soon find that it’s difficult to determine any sort of path and by your tenth accidental leap to your death you realize that free-running is pointless and just jogging through the streets far easier, even if you have to punch a minstrel or two. When free running, the controls are more or less out of your control as your character runs head-on and leaps wherever he pleases to other rooftops. Sometimes, meaning usually, he’ll jump onto areas where he will and may or may not grab on to ledges when you ask him to. It’s a gamble and roll of the dice when trying to free run, and that’s when it hits you that free running is pretty much useless. Strange, considering the game bases it as one of its selling points.
All this lack of precision of controls is even more noticeable when the game slows down and asks you to perform platforming tasks. During the game, there are seals you are to collect that are all hidden away. When you uncover their locations, you find that you’ve moved from the free-roaming city to what are essentially hidden “stages” from the rest of the game. These areas are linear paths with various ledges and platforms you must climb and jump around on to reach the end area and collect your treasure.
Simply put, these stages are awful, and again due entirely to the controls. The stages themselves are well designed, interesting and offer up a lot for you to do and use your head in doing them, but when you have this control scheme, it’s all completely wasted. Assassin’s Creed II does not lend itself well to you taking your time and jump with accuracy. In fact, jumping at all feels as natural as trying to ride an elephant on a hamster-size treadmill. As many times as you miss jumps in free-running, or accidentally jump to your doom in the open city areas, you will do it ten-fold here. Not because the stage is designed to challenge you, all are straightforward and simple, but because Ezio has a tendency to kind of do whatever he wants much of the time and when you tell him to jump towards a ledge, he may decide to jump towards the wall because he was kinda-sorta facing that way already. Simply put, it’s not a platformer yet tries to be.
This problem with the controls leads me to a story of an odd experience I had whilst playing the title. Let me also remind you that despite my numerous problems, I still played the game through and, somehow (don’t ask me how) still enjoyed it. I guess I like pretty Italian things.
I digress. During the game, you are thrust into a flashback of Altier, the hero of the first game. From the get go, you see you’re chasing a person and you must take off after them. Easy enough, I’d done it in the game already and chasing a person around rooftops was easier than trying to figure out your own path, that’s for sure. However, you soon realize you can’t tackle the person or do anything at all once you’ve caught up with them.
“Ok, so it’s like a race,” I thought to myself. Eventually we both make it to a tower with an open door on the far side of this little desert city. The figure enters, the door closes, and I’m stuck outside. Apparently, I’m supposed to climb it. It wasn’t a race at all.
“Ok, so now I climb,” I thought again. Fair enough, and I climb to the mid-point of the tower where there’s a small balcony with a door and over the door sits a ledge with a lantern.
It was at this point I became completely stuck. I could see, using the Eagle Vision (which points everything out to you), that I can stand on the ledge, but for the life of me Altier wouldn’t grab it. I jumped towards it. I stood at various areas on the balcony. I tried scaling the wall yet he simply wouldn’t grab it.
Incidentally, what did happen is I knocked the lanterns so many times that it wildly spun out of control and got stuck in a wall...but I’ll get to glitches in a moment.
I looked down from the balcony and saw there was a haystack. “Ah, idiot...you’re supposed to go down not up.”
“No, sir.” The game tells me as I land on the ground and, still, with nothing to do and no hint in how to do it.
“Ah, so maybe it was a race...and I was supposed to win it,” I thought to myself again. So I restarted the game and loaded the sequence from the beginning. Now I knew exactly where to go and what to do.
It starts. The figure takes off. I give chase and pass it in a matter of a seconds and run rough-shot to the open door on the tower and...
...it won’t let me in. The door is open, I cannot go inside. Then I spun the camera around and realized that the figure is nowhere to be seen. I backtrack and lo-and-behold the guy is standing at the bottom of a ladder. Just standing there, not doing anything. A glitch, and a bad one at that because, as it turns out, you’re not supposed to run ahead of him. So I jump down, the figure is then triggered to continue and it scaled the ladder. I let him (which you find out is a her) enter the tower and I’m right back where I started.
So eventually I’m back up on the balcony, because it’s pretty obvious that’s where you’re supposed to go, and look to the wonderful internet for help. I type in “Altier Flashback glitch” in google and realize I’m certainly not the only person with the problem. As it turns out, the game isn’t so good with small platforming and tight-quarters (as I noted earlier) and what you’re supposed to do is not push the directional button at all when you’re on the balcony. Just hold the right trigger and hit “A.”
Now you have to understand, that throughout the rest of the game, you always hit the directional button. Always. Yet here, it changes the rule completely. Usually when you hold the trigger and hit “A” to jump, your guy will just jump off an edge and kill himself. Why would I even assume that’s what you do here? It’s an atrocity of programming and game design, and then it hits me: this little flashback surmises the entirety of game. The controls are out of whack, you have no idea what you’re doing half the time and glitches are as common as mirrors and razorblades at Charlie Sheen’s house. In a way, Assassin’s Creed II is a game you “play” but never really “take in.” Other than the pretty buildings at dusk, at least.
I started making note of even more glitches. Events you trigger, for example, often have to be done one certain way. In the city of Venice, there’s a large point where you’re supposed to trigger an event. It doesn’t really detail where this is, but you get the general idea of where you’re supposed to go by your map. I soon find myself blocked off from guards as I headed toward the large “!” shown in the mini map, so I hire some local thieves to go and distract them so I can get by. Well, apparently you’re not supposed to do that because once I got past them, more and more guards showed up and a massive riot broke out because the area was restricted.
Yet, I could see the location I was supposed to get to, glowing white, and I’m to go there and start the event. So avoided the fighting, best I could at least because fighting is even more cumbersome than precise jumping, and headed into the light. The event is then triggered, or a cutscene rather, and all that I just did...the hiring of thieves, the fighting with guards, the taking the hits and murdering with my sword, all of it was completely negated. It was like it never happened because all those guards that were chasing me and fighting thieves were...now back at their posts. This type of thing happens quite a bit in the game, but this one was a far more glaring one and shows that the planners of the event triggers probably could have used some extra time in planning how to get their events to start. I would say it’s a problem of open world game design, but Grand Theft Auto IV seemed to get it pretty right, with triggers not nearly as glitchy. Even the underwhelming Infamous dealt with them all pretty well.
The AI of the characters and guards were already questionable, losing them as easy as jumping into a haystack or turning a corner out of sight, but this was something on a completely different level and a complete oversight of the developer.
The developer seemed like they had a bunch of great ideas that never really comes to fruition. The game is not polished yet ambitious. Take, for example, their desire to have numerous options for you in terms of what you can do. With this comes the need to not only have every button do something, but have them do something different given the situation. Take, for instance, the fighting. The controls for fighting make the controls for platforming seem like a streamlined Mario game. They’re clunky, have you fumbling around in sub-menus while the action is going on and are boring, repetitive and worthless. Your battles consist of two types:
1. Regular soldiers where all you do is wait for them to attack then hit X.
2. Armored soldiers where all you do is wait for them attack, hit dodge then hit X.
That’s it, and it’s as boring and tedious as my tone makes it sound. Throw in the inability to really lock on to one enemy (Ezio tends to lock on to whomever he feels like) messy control schemes and slow weapon switching and you have something that you just want to avoid completely.
Well...I suppose it gives you an incentive to free-run on rooftops to avoid them: a pick your poison scenario.
Neither of these, the fighting or free-running (the basics of the game, mind you) feels fluid or natural and both do nothing more than become a test of your patience and an outlet to circumvent your dissapointment and anger. You then become so upset over it, you wonder why you bother to play it at all. It’s not as though the story is hugely compelling or well told, although the characters are kind of fun if anything for their cheesy voiceacting and dialogue. Then again, I haven’t touched on the story for the sole purpose that it’s more a means to an end in a game like this. So don’t expect anything beyond the “this happened, now go do this” rinse and repeat format. When a game puts up a point that you “can’t leave without a pass” on a boat, a woman screams at you and when you help her five seconds later she gives you a pass, storytelling is shown to not be at the top of the agenda.
With the story such a footnote, there’s no excuse for the basic gameplay to feel so broken and unintuitive.
Assassin’s Creed is not a great game. It’s an above-average experience, certainly beautiful to look at (other than some cutscenes which look choppy) but feels patched together as something with some solid ideas but, perhaps, more than it could handle. It’s not polished, it’s a little tedious and certainly very frustrating, obstructive and uncompromising where its challenge lies more with the non-intentional challenge of cumbersome controls than it does with any intentional game design or difficulty itself. The truth is, the game is incredibly easy until you’re asked to do more than one thing at once or react quickly...or plan slowly...or fight more than two people....or run freely on rooftops...or do just about anything where rapid response and good controls are a must.
It’s too bad most of the game asks for just that from you, yet doesn’t offer any of it on its end. I forced myself to complete it, did all the little side quests and the secret puzzles, but really stayed off of the item collecting because, truthfully, you don’t get much else out of it. I usually like these things, as I noted with Suikoden (or Fable II, which does it better) yet here I found it insulting because that’s the only actual joy I got out of it and even then it doesn’t quite put it all together.
Is the game worth playing? Sure, but not for its gameplay which makes you wonder why it’s a “game” at all because, in all honesty, it’s more an experience to travel back in time and enjoy the splendor of the era and you get to walk around and take in the sights. After a few dozen free falls into haystacks, though, even those sights begin to wear thin.