Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gaming Reflections: Assassin’s Creed: the Ezio Trilogy

I’ve given my first impressions and reflections on Assassin’s Creed, as well as my first impressions on the sequel, appropriately named Assassin’s Creed II (you’d think that the “appropriately” would be implied if it weren’t for the fact that Brotherhood and Revelations means Assassin’s Creed III is the 5th game in the series). However, I haven’t written anything on the franchise since, even though I’ve already finished ACII’s two sequels, Brotherhood and Revelations.

I feel pretty justified in this decision since the “Ezio Trilogy” as it’s called is all pretty similar. They run on the same game engine, the mechanics and HUD are pretty much the same, they feature the same character, and they were apparently originally going to be one game.  This last point kind of shows.

ACII was a huge improvement over the original. See my above-linked first impressions post for why. It stayed pretty strong throughout the story. There were a few sidequests to complete, the new weapons were implemented pretty well, and the implementation of money worked pretty well. Sometimes you had enough money, sometimes cash was tight, but overall, it worked. By the time I finished the game, I had done pretty much all there was to be done. Then there was a twist, Abstergo attacked the Assassin group chilling in the present time, and they took off for a different location. Overall, a satisfying game.

The next two games, unfortunately, felt like a step down.  Brotherhood threw more mechanics into the mix, such as recruiting assassins into the titular brotherhood, as well as buying and upgrading shops (something that was only done in one place in ACII, and only to obtain money) and a few tweaks to the mechanics. However, instead of adding to the game, I only felt like they slowed it down. Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II are stealth games, the second of which has a few sidequests. Brotherhood ended up taking those sidequests and expanding it into a full-out sandbox game. In addition to the main plot, you’re fixing up shops, searching for pieces of “The Truth,” trying to get the fancy awesome armor, managing three allied factions and the assassins, uncovering suppressed memories, and hunting down and destroying Leonardo DaVinci’s weapons. This is a game that, quite frankly, has too much shit in it, which simply bogs down everything. I play the games to discover the Templar/Assassin conspiracy and to assassinate some poor schmucks.

The other problem with Brotherhood is the plot—or rather, lack thereof. The story focuses on three aspects: Cesare (the primary antagonist) attempting to obtain the Apple of Eden, the reforming of the assassin brotherhood and gathering of allied factions, and what’s best described as “the brotherhood suspects Machiavelli betrayed them but in the end it turns out it was just some random dude instead.” The metaplot pretty much only shows what happens after the attack on their old hideout, and then has absolutely no more bearing on anything until the way end, when they obtain the Apple of Eden and Juno forces Desmond to kill Lucy. It’s a pretty big plot revelation, but I’ve boiled the entire thing down to one sentence.  So that bit of metaplot is pretty important, and the formation of the brotherhood is kind of a prominent thing, but everything else about Brotherhood felt like nothing more than filler.

Revalations started off on a more promising note, with an intense and absolutely epic opening sequence, a change of scenery, and the ability to upgrade to approximately the state you were in at the end of Brotherhood fairly quickly (Brotherhood blatantly took away your stuff from II and made you jump through hoops to get it back). They also cut back on sidequests, and the main one (i.e., the Caterina one) tied pretty heavily into the plot. This cutting helped streamline the game a bit more. They did, however, add bombs, which I ultimately thought were too difficult to use practically and given too much prominence. Still, that’s one flaw added and multiple flaws dropped.

The plot was also a bit more compelling: you had to find keys to unlock Altair’s library, getting to observe fragments of his life in the process. It brought closure to both Ezio and Altair’s stories, and while the main plot was about as compelling as the one in Brotherhood, so while it wasn’t that great, it wasn’t too bad.  The metaplot was great though, giving some more insight into the mysterious Subject 16, as well as Desmond’s past (as a South Dakota native, I was thrilled to learn he grew up in the Black Hills). It didn’t really advance the actual metaplot, but it provided some much-needed backstory. Overall, it was a pretty good game that was better than Brotherhood, though I still think it was inferior to ACII.

In ACII, we got to see Ezio grow from a brash and cocky boy to a confident man who has enough skills to become a leader. That’s why the assassins chose his memories to train Desmond.  It was a revenge story that was also a coming-of-age story, and it was great.  On the other hand, Brotherhood and Revelations was Ezio being a mentor and doing mentory things for two full games. It’s 30-some hours of, as Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee put it, “faffing about.” A lot of it was redundant, and the pacing was slow. There were less compelling plots, and they filled their stealth game with too many sidequests. In my opinion, a sidequest should not sidetrack. It should divert, not distract, which Brotherhood and Revelations are unfortunately guilty of. Perhaps, if each bit of the main plot had been absolutely stunning, there would have been more incentive to sit back and mess about in order to take a breather, but the plot was so lackluster that by the time I got back to it, I had already mostly forgotten what had come before.

I don’t think that the three games should have been one, because that would have resulted in a lot of erratic pacing and jumping around. But I definitely think that the three games should have been condensed into two.  Take some things out of ACII and rearrange it so that it focuses on the revenge/coming-of-age story a bit more, only hinting at the conspiracy without immersing Ezio in it. Have the full revenge be the climax, and have the fallout of that drop the conspiracy on Ezio completely. Start the second game there. Cut a lot from Brotherhood and Revelations so they’re less redundant, and combine them both with parts of ACII.

Assassin’s Creed II is, at the point I’m at, the game in the series that I think is probably best. It expanded on the gameplay and ideas that were laid out by the first game, and wasn’t bogged down by all the unnecessary gameplay experimentation.  For every step Brotherhood and Revelations took forward, they took another back. That’s what really irritates me: that a series that should be intriguing me is becoming a chore.

I can only hope that, now that we’ve put Ezio and Altair behind us, Assassin’s Creed III and IV will be better.

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