Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Assassin's Creed 2

It’s been a while since I played a video game. The last one I talked about was a Fallout 3 expansion back in July of 2011. Assassin’s Creed 2’s Renaissance setting and fluid gameplay had what it took to draw me back to the medium. Despite growing plot problems and a few flaws in gameplay, the game didn’t make me regret my return.

The game begins with a youthful Ezio, and a surprising amount of time is spent in its introductory sections. It’s not time wasted. Though Ezio is not the deepest character, he exceeds the previous game’s protagonist, Altair, by far, and the mounting disaster aimed at Ezio’s family gives the player time to get immersed in Ezio, the setting, and the gameplay. Still, I was looking forward to the game’s opening up from the word go, and, once Ezio’s family has not-so-surprisingly been defeated, the heart of the game begins: Ezio, the assassin, is loose in Italy and out for the blood of those that have destroyed those he loves.

The game’s evocation of Renaissance Italy is breathtaking. Cities and landmarks are rendered in loving detail, with reams of historical data that can be accessed by the curious and ignored by those less interested. Historical events weave in and out of gameplay, including the fantastically badass Caterina Sforza. Crowds react to Ezio as he moves, and the sentences of Italian peppered through the dialogue work wonders, although I do wonder how annoying they would be for any player who dislikes subtitles and the handy translations that come with them.

Moving through the environment is a joy. Ezio free-runs up walls and across rooftops, and the sensation of freedom and acrobatics is free and flawless, even if most of my deaths did come from foolishly hurtling myself off a building after miscalculating a jump. Guardsmen fill the streets, and so Ezio has a wide variety of assassination techniques. Creeping up on foes, leaping upon them from the rooftops, and grabbing them from below ledges are all sheer pleasure. Accordingly, I spent the vast majority of my playtime sprinting across the heights of Venice (my favorite of the game’s cities), hunting down its oppressive soldiery, and concocting elaborate quests for myself, such as silently infiltrating a particular bank from the starting position of the tall tower opposite.

Once stealth has been disposed of, the game’s combat succeeds – save for counters, the game’s key fighting element and massive stumbling block.  An enemy attacks, and so Ezio counters, stylishly dispatching them. In the early portions of the game, this makes combat graceful and visually spectacular, as Ezio weaves in and out of his enemy’s blows and deals death. Even then, the problem is clear, for, once the player learns the counter, they are effectively invulnerable. You block; they strike; you kill them. They have no recourse against this tactic, and you can simply sit in your blocked position if you desire until one of them strikes. Later, hardier enemies come, but, though one counter does not kill them, it still deals damage and halts their attacks. This means that, though a battle against fifty-five enemies may take quite a while, with each foe soaking up a counter or seven, the battles are still utterly toothless.

The developer’s ultimate answer to this, the counter-proof enemies with either battle axes or pole arms, are a mixed bag. They do successfully break up the standard grind that blocks and counters can settle into, but they are rare enough that they don’t change the key mechanic. Moreover, the surest way to kill them is an unarmed counter (in which Ezio steals their weapon), meaning that we have not only left the problem of countering behind but have changed the game’s mood from adrenaline-charged to silly, as Ezio, when confronted by the gravest odds, puts away his sword and prepares to fight like a boxer.

It’s up to the player, then, to step aside from the unbeatable counters and strive for a more versatile combat style. Though you’ll still spend a lot of your time countering when pressed to a wall, I would advise incorporating the different techniques that Ezio acquires. Most are not the most efficient way to get the job done, but experimenting with smoke bombs, poisoned blades, and throwing knives allows for far more ways for an encounter to unfold. Fighting with Ezio’s hidden blades, rather than his sword, also allows for some tenser encounters, as counters are significantly more difficult with them.

All of this killing is in service of first Ezio’s personal revenge and then the Assassin order’s greater aims against the Templars. The story for most of the game is not particularly noteworthy but is adequate and serves its purpose of sending Ezio in and out of moments of historic upheaval all across Italy. Story sections usually end in set piece assassinations, which allow the player to mix planning, daring, stealth, and combat as they desire on a far grander scale than can be reached by simply wandering on or above the streets.

Alas, by its last quarter or so, the plot goes mad. I suppose I should have expected it from playing the first Assassin’s Creed, but, as the time nears for a big climax, the developer’s decide that history doesn’t have nearly enough cool stuff to suit them. Prophecies enter the mix, and magical objects soon follow. Things get silly and then sillier still. The feel of the Renaissance setting, masterfully built up over hours and hours, is tarnished and then utterly trashed. Minor positions like the Pope are brought into the quest and are treated as little more than stepping stones on the path to a (literally) Edenic bauble. Machiavelli is revealed to be an assassin and spends his free time leaping into piles of hay. The game’s final mission has Ezio beating the Pope in a fistfight (because weapons are for losers) before speaking to what seem to be Gods but are really the survivors of a First Civilization that have stuck around to give man some great warning.

It’s become clear to me that the Assassin’s Creed series is one of two halves. On the one hand, it has set out to bring to life a number of interesting historical eras. On the other, it wants to tie them all together with a plot that is half mystical and half Science Fictional. Though I do not object to plots of the latter sort on principle, and though I do not think they are unmixable with history, I think that Assassin’s Creed does a very poor job of melding them, something evidenced by how the game’s incorporation of the pope serves only to squash the grandeur of that office rather than to raise the grandeur of Ezio’s quest. Seeing as the modern, Desmond-focused frame story of the games is silly as can be, and as, with each movement forward in time, the games are heading away from what the ancient historian in me finds interesting, I suspect that the Assassin’s Creed series’ trajectory is taking it out of my area of interest.

Still, it has not yet left that area. Assassin’s Creed 2 strikes me as a kind of giant, Renaissance playground. It gives the player a beautiful setting and lets them run loose. Eventually, I followed the path it wanted, and I have my problems with that path. But that’s not to diminish the sheer fun of climbing famous landmarks and then leaping off them to assassinate an unlucky foe.  

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