December 28, 2009
Spoiler Alert: The following article discusses plot points in Assassin's Creed II. In fact, the first sentence includes information about the ending. So if you want the story portion of Assassin's Creed II to remain a mystery, stop reading now.
The Contrarian doesn't seek to discredit the original review, but to expand the spectrum of discussion on some of the most important games of each year. If you're interested in joining that discussion, keep reading.
Assassin's Creed 2 ends in a fistfight with the Pope. I almost want to type that again for effect. After defeating his holiness, a holographic version of Minerva materializes to tell players the MacGuffin we've been chasing across rooftops for the last two games is part of a conspiracy to bring back the Roman gods that once shared the earth with the plebes. This is also connected to 2012 when a disruption in the earth's magnetic field is going to serve as catalyst for the divine revival, a millennium's culmination of acrobatic conspiracy. In other words, the game is total humbug
. That didn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, but Ubisoft Montreal's particular spin on the artfully dishonest yarn is impossible to believe at almost every step.
Like the first game, Assassin's Creed 2 is about running freeform through an open world. Buildings are turned into pummel horses and rooftops become springboards for young bravery. The game isn't about assassination anymore than Grand Theft Auto IV is about stealing cars. Like most open world games, it's about navigation and the particular joys of the vessel that carries players from point A to point B. When the game is at its best, I feel a vicarious joy watching Ezio sprint through the cobbled streets of the 15th Century. I can't do what he does but I can imagine what it must feel like.
Suspension of disbelief in games is awfully hard to maintain. In movies, the editor has complete autonomy to whisk you this way and that, never giving you longer than you need to dwell on a cardboard backdrop. In games players are their own editors and can opt out at any moment to go jump in a corner over and over again. With Assassin's Creed 2, I wanted to be swept away on the wings of a hidden history and the fluttering thrill of leaping over buildings, but I kept finding myself hopping in the proverbial corner.
As with the first game, movement is both automated and strangely convoluted. There are four different movement speeds, the fastest of which requires the trigger button and a face button to be held while the left analog steers and the right analog stick manages the camera. Scaling buildings is also a finicky process, both lushly animated and frustratingly disconnected. Like running, you'll have to hold a shoulder button, navigate with the left stick and, from time to time, hit a face button to jump to a higher ledge or to a parallel grip. And the system breaks down incessantly.
When I guide Ezio, he simply stops mid-climb with grip points all around him and me holding down all the right buttons. The game handles all of Ezio's movements contextually, but the controls remain identical whether he's jumping from roof to railing, strafing and blocking in combat, or stretching from windowsill wooden overhang two hundred feet above street level. When it works, I'm not sure exactly why it's working, and when it comes to a screeching halt I'm not entirely sure what went wrong.
Animations have been sped up from the first game, but the system is still a numb abstraction. Ezio moves with realistic grace, but he looks correspondingly absurd when he runs in place in front of a post mid-chase, or grabs onto a box ledge suspended two inches above ground. It's during these moments when I wonder why I'm playing the game at all. The sped-up animations make it easier to gloss past these moments, but it doesn't diminish their frequency. It's like watching a movie in which the music and the audio constantly fall out of synch.
Parkour holds among its core values nimbleness, skillfulness, and flexibility. In Assassin's Creed 2 these ideals are communicated through controls that ask you to hold down the same buttons in a number of different contexts, aim forward, and hope Ezio does the right thing. When I die in Mario or Mirror's Edge it's my fault. I hit the button at the wrong time or thoughtlessly steered myself into death fall. My fingers failed me. The de-synch is a product of my own wrongdoing.
A big part of the issue comes from the choice to make an open world game. Linear design would have allowed for cinematic choke points, anxiety-inducing forks in the road, and long stretches of celebratory hurdling. As an open world game, the movement system has to be workable in every conceivable direction, and so the world is crammed with grip points wherever you turn.
You're still tasked with getting from point A to B, whether you're in an assassination mission or playing fetch-it for Leonardo Da Vinci (humbug), but you're given freedom to choose any path you like in between the two points. Everything is possible, so nothing really matters. You'll never have made a wrong turn or run yourself into a corner. There's a convenient foothold absolutely everywhere.
Creating a game mechanic is a job only half done. Designers become artists when they design a scalable set of consequences for their mechanics. It's in the tactical economy real communication between a creator and her audience can take place. Making Assassin's Creed 2 in an open world necessarily strips the game of all but the most basic consequence (notoriety level) and leaves us with eighteen hours of vague navigation.