Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gaming First Impressions: Assassin’s Creed II

I promised that I’d talk about Assassin’s Creed II in relationship to Assassin’s Creed the First when I got into it some.  And there’s plenty to talk about.

A brief note to start: the graphics are improved.  That’s notable right off the bat.  The whole thing looks more smooth and polished and it’s also less gritty.  That’s all I need to say about them.

But the graphics aren’t what I’m here to talk about, because graphics don’t automatically make a game good or bad.  What issues did Assassin’s Creed have that the sequel fixed?

First of all, we’ve got the protagonist, Ezio Auditore.  Whereas Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, the first game’s protagonist, was a surly, overly serious unlikable character who thought himself above the organization he was part of, Ezio is improved in nearly every way.  He is a charming rogue and while he can be brash and hotheaded, it’s because of his youth and because of his motivation.  You see, while Altair’s motivation basically boiled down to “do what my boss says to regain my rank so that I can do what my boss says from a better position,” Ezio’s tale is one of revenge.  He becomes an assassin to get back at the people who had his father and brothers killed.  Now, while I as a person am really not big on revenge, I as a writer find it to be a far more compelling motivator than promotion.  Well, okay, Altair’s motivation was regaining his lost honor, but it was handled in such a way that it’s basically getting promoted back to his old position.

There’s a new HUD, but I could really take it or leave it.  Really, I don’t have much of an opinion on which is better.  It’s just a little different, and it works.  I’m not going to complain about it, but it’s not like the old HUD needed a lot of changing anyway.  Of course, part of this change is because of a change in the metaplot.

Desmond (the protagonist of the series as a whole) has been broken out of the Abstergo building he was being held hostage in, and made a few new assassin friends.  They decide that they need to train him, and rather than have him play (er, simulate) a more experienced character (er, ancestor), they’d set him up with Ezio, who started off inexperienced like Desmond is. Basically, they’re using it to Matrix the information into his head and give him a lifetime of experience in just a few days.  Interesting metaplot, but I’ve only seen two bits of it: the beginning where he first meets the team, and the bit where he finishes his first session.  I’m waiting for the inevitable twists before I make any final judgments, but so far I’m finding the metaplot less interesting than in the first game—largely because the plot sessions are so much longer.  Rather than being in and out of the animus fairly regularly, I’ve only been out of it twice.  That’s something I don’t like—that it’s not as easily broken up into different sections.

So.  Overall I like the characters and plot more, even if I haven’t seen enough of the metaplot to like it as much.  But what about the gameplay itself?  Well, it is vastly improved.  Assassin’s Creed liked to pretend it was a sandbox game, but Assassin’s Creed II actually is one.  There are the missions that advance the story, of course, but I spend a lot of time hunting down glyphs that reveal some metaplot information, walking through the crowds to casually pick every pocket that I can, hunting down codex pages to use them to create…some vague map of some sort, shopping for upgrades, searching for assassin tombs in challenging platform puzzle segments…overall, the whole thing manages to be fun where its predecessor failed.

The missions also lead into each other much better because there’s more variety.  It’s not “do these tasks and then you are ready to watch a cutscene, assassinate a dude, and then run back to the bureau.”  Instead, you hunt down a few targets across town that you get to in different ways until you get to the climax of that particular arc.  The missions are less formulaic and consequently flow into each other much better.

The battle controls are, for the most part, better.  It’s actually viable to use the hidden blade in combat now since you can actually defend and attack without countering, and combat as a whole just feels vastly improved.  The only difference would be the weapon selection, which requires you to hold a button and select instead of just switching weapons.  While you can select three weapons (hidden blades, sword, unarmed) quickly with the number keys like you could in the original, you’re given a lot of options that you can’t select nearly as quickly.  While you’re unlikely to use the poison much (it’s exactly like the hidden blade, only enemies die more slowly), being unable to quickly select your throwing knives is a bit frustrating.

Basically, Assassin’s Creed was a decent game that could have been really good but had a lot of flaws holding it back.  Assassin’s Creed II took a lot of those flaws out, making it a game that is actually genuinely good.  It’s fun!  I like it when games are fun!  So thank you, Assassin’s Creed II.  Thank you for listening to my complaints about the first game (made five and a half years after the game’s release) and implemented them for me by the time I played the second game (three and a half years after the game’s release).

It’s just also unfortunate that the game still seems pretty long.

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