Monday, 19 April 2010
Assassin's Creed 2 Was Never Good
It's as if nobody considered that the creators of older games with one-page plot scrawls and brief instructions might have actually known what they were doing when they brought the player to the fun part of the game as fast as they could. It's weird that "sink or swim" is now considered retro design. Do you remember when you first get a gun in that diner in the original Silent Hill, the radio starts buzzing, and then a winged monstrosity crashes through the window and comes straight at you? And nobody had even told you how to use the gun? (R2 + X, as anyone who's covered wars before can tell you.) Now that was some scary shit.
I mention this because AC2 has an awful beginning.
AC2 greets you with the gap-toothed grin shared by all careless ports: an intro screen asking you to "Press Enter." After starting a new game, you watch a recap video about the first game (unskippable). You're reintroduced to Desmond and Lucy, both dull as ever -- if anything, Desmond whines even more than I remember. He could be the wimpiest character ever to speak with Nathan Drake's voice. On the 360, something appeared to have gone very wrong with the surface of Lucy's face in the time between AC1 and AC2, but on the PC she does look like a human being again. Score one for the port!
Desmond and Lucy escape from Abstergo after a few minutes of running around. They keep stopping and talking. I've heard that console games sometimes insert these "walking and talking" sections in order to hide load times for the next area; that's why your squad in Gears of War will stop, hands glued to ears, and chatter as they inch forward like turtles. (Seeing any member of the Gears squad take off their armor would be as disturbing as watching a tortoise leave its shell.) So I'm always suspicious when games suddenly slow things down and the characters keep talking but take forever to get to the point. I don't know whether these scenes are an artifact of console loading problems or boring script problems, but the effect is the same.
After an un-loseable fistfight with some guards, you're introduced to two Assassin-nerds who provide support for Desmond's trip. One of them is in charge of working the new Animus, the other is in charge of making catty remarks and hating Desmond for no special reason. Watching a prissy dork insult a toothless clone of Nathan Drake is really not a core part of the Assassin's Creed experience, yet the game not only makes you sit through a cinematic of this, it then forces you to walk over and talk to him again before you can progress. Again, this is the start of the game, the most significant part there is. Desmond mutters about what a dick his new co-worker is, but why doesn't he, you know, punch him in the face or something? (These Assassins are screwed without Desmond's help, so what are they gonna do?) After spending an entire previous game getting to know him, Desmond remains a total blank whose life is all reaction; God forbid he show initiative or pride or malice of his own.
I would appreciate it if writers observed an informal rule about not putting two very annoying characters in the same place at the same time. And if you have to do that, try to avoid creating tedious verbal slap-fights between them. If you don't keep an eye on these things, you might wind up making Final Fantasy XIII by accident.
After this protracted getting-to-know-you session with characters who barely show up for most of the game, you pop into the Animus 2.0. Then the tutorial begins.
The first section of the tutorial is another easy-street fistfight, the player now stepping into ancestor Ezio's shoes. But the game actually just made you play through a different fistfight, as Desmond, where you flailed around without any on-screen instructions. What was that, a warm-up before the real fistfight tutorial? As in the original Assassin's Creed, the brawling is lousy, and you're left waiting for some time before learning the counter technique that brings sense to the X-button-mashing combat.
AC2 claims that Desmond needs to relive Ezio's training so that a bleeding effect from the Animus will grant Desmond Renaissance-era fighting skills in real life. (This does come in handy at the end of the game, when the Templars attacking Desmond obligingly neglect to bring any guns.) But didn't he already learn this shit by living Altair's life? Apparently Desmond is such a moron that in a few days he forgot all the things that I still remember how to do from playing as Altair a couple years ago.
Desmond absorbing assassin skills and then escaping from Abstergo would have been a fitting conclusion to the first game, which was structured to contrast Desmond's helplessness in the present with his ancestor's prime badassery in the past. However, someone at Ubisoft must have realized that providing any kind of satisfying ending would make it hard to drag the AC series out for a decade, and they ended the game with Desmond staring at his wall instead.
This fear of narrative progress defines AC2: Ubisoft wanted to drag a story out rather than tell a good one. It's a short game stretched out. Even the tutorial assignments make you spend far too long performing simple techniques (how to walk in a crowd, for example) that you've long since mastered. AC2 often repeats the same familiar tasks over multiple missions: you're first told to free one guy from a cage, then given a second mission to free three groups of guys from three cages located around the city. And this itself follows a group of cage-freeing missions a few memories earlier.
These tasks could have been fun if they were challenging, but the game's simple counter system and armor upgrades turn everything into a cakewalk. Once you're clanking around in metal armor, you become Renaissance Terminator; you can barge in through the front door of a hostile area, killing everything between you and the target. Surprisingly, there are virtually no challenges to be found in the game's sandbox. Unlike GTA-style law enforcement, Italy's guards don't put together any form of escalating response. If you beat one group of guards, backup is not on its way. AC2's cities are never varied or threatening enough to play around in for long.
Restrictive, ham-fisted scripting cripples any sense of "open world" immersion. You're given tedious surveillance assignments where Ezio follows his major enemies around at a distance in order to eavesdrop on them. Why not just drop down from the rooftops and insta-kill them (as you've done to so many others) after hearing their evil plan to poison the Doge, or whatever? Murdering the poisoner is a common-sense method to prevent a poisoning, but the designers won't allow it; after all, they need to string this assassination out over several more missions.
The designers betray their lack of faith in the world they made. They cordon it off and push you to act only one way, applying nonsensical conditions to a supposedly open environment. Hilariously, the Assassin mantra repeated so often in cutscenes is "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." The centuries of secret war between Templars and Assassins (a plot resembling but never approaching the greatness of The Invisibles) pits nasty control against heroic freedom. Did the designers not realize what enormous hypocrites they were, by restricting the player's options so radically?
In Memory 13 you get multiple assassination missions that insist you finish the job without being seen. You instantly fail if a guard becomes suspicious. These aren't optional missions or special challenges, they're required sections of the story mode. Naturally, there should be a narrative reason to impose this extra rule, but none exists. There's certainly no reason for Ezio to remain anonymous, as everyone in Italy seems to know about the famous assassin stabbing people left and right; the mission conditions don't care if you're seen standing over the victim's dead body, either. You know that Ezio can storm in, shrugging off guards, and jump on the target's throat. You know this works because you've done it before. Yet now some whim of the gods -- not an element in the world itself -- prevents you from doing this. It's lazy, disjointed design.
The hardest mandatory stealth mission asks you to attack an crazed merchant holed up on a boat that's swarming with bodyguards. At first this seemed like a tough nut to crack, as the guards inevitably saw me climbing the rigging or trying to pick them off one by one. Eventually, I realized I could just stand outside the boat shooting guards with my gun (a device the moronic AI apparently doesn't understand) until the curious target walked over to the railing, and then I shot him too. Yes, Renaissance Terminator does have a gun: that's part of what makes him Renaissance Terminator.
Sometimes when you get your hands on VIP targets, the game arbitrarily prevents you from killing them. The original AC was a mess, but there was one rule it rarely broke: every enemy was vulnerable. The assassination missions were about using every means available to break through a tough shell of troops and fortifications to touch the soft target in their center. No matter how important that person was, they fell to a blade in the neck as easily as everyone else. The challenge of reaching them (harder than anything in AC2) was all; once you got in range, you only had to execute. The game was really about assassination, as the title would suggest.
AC2 is a game about convoluted scripted bullshit. Several targets play by their own, supernatural rules. When the game wants Francesco de Pazzi alive for a future sequence, it won't let you target him as he runs away; when it makes you fight Dante or Rodrigo Borgia, it won't let you backstab them or perform killing counters with the hidden blade. The hidden blade (my usual weapon) is useless in those fights, though the game did nothing to warn me or explain why. It's jarringly inconsistent for the AC series, where even heavily armored, large enemies can die instantly to your finesse counters. The best idea the Assassin's Creed series ever had was villains that were weak when isolated, their frailty making them something more human than a video game "boss." AC2 either doesn't understand or doesn't care for that concept.
The worst moment comes in Memory 11, where Rodrigo knocks Ezio down in a cinematic and starts running away. One of your friends (who has been standing around, doing nothing) immediately says something like "Well, he got away." Are you shitting me? A grossly fat man who is constantly illuminated by a mysterious red light is going to outrun Ezio Auditore, just because he has a few seconds' head start? Hasn't the game already made me chase people down a dozen times in situations like this?
I'd have been more enthusiastic about working my way through the game if I liked the story. AC1 is an idiosyncratic story told in awkward, bizarre ways; AC2 is a boring story that plays out smoothly. The (really uneven) biopic parody Walk Hard has a running gag where the hero keeps stumbling into nearly every famous musician of his day, and they all shamelessly remind the audience what musical celebrity they're supposed to be, in case anyone forgets. AC2's plot works like that, scrambling to get cameos from virtually every 16th century Italian you learned about in high school. It mostly plays things straight, even while asking you to accept Leonardo da Vinci as a Renaissance Q to Ezio's Bond, or interesting figures like the Borgias as hateful cartoons. Characters like Machiavelli are neither explored in-depth nor used as hilarious parts of a whopping yarn. They appear just for name recognition. I don't know why Machiavelli is in AC2 at all, as his character is never really defined, and he even gets rather easily outsmarted in Memory 12.
The overarching conspiracy you read about after solving the game's optional puzzles is even harder to take seriously; it's one of those stories that only seems to involve the most famous people who ever lived. I liked Shaun's theory about how Altair's Codex traveled from the Middle East to Italy: "Marco Polo, by way of Dante Alighieri!" After loading all the baggage he had to carry for 2009's inane plots, it's a miracle Polo had room on board for his fucking journal.
(Also, really? Dante didn't even bother learning Greek to read Homer, despite writing about him all the time; why would he want a coded book based in foreign languages? Was he going to decode it while hanging out with his good friends Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Gower, William of Ockham, Ibn Battuta, Langland, and the Pearl poet? Assassin's Creed 3, amirite?)
I should mention that, to pad out its playing time even further, the game makes you complete an extensive treasure hunt, which had earlier been presented as optional, before you can play the final mission. For the last 5-10 hours of the game, I fought a mounting compulsion to quit playing and never finish it. I realized I had a hundred better games on hand I should play -- Policenauts, DAO:A, Persona 2, Metro 2033, etc. -- in place of the naked waste of my time that was AC2. And then it sent me retracing my steps to find some goddamn Codex pages that any of my many Assassin friends could have collected using the map I had acquired. What a perfectly bullshit note to end on, AC2.
I guess nobody can say "Ubisoft" in good conscience without also saying "DRM," so here's my DRM mention. I have no idea why Ubisoft think people will pay $50 for a year-old game that performed below expectations and now has corrosive DRM acid for blood. The game's appeal was thin even before it became a monument to corporate spite.