Late to the party: Assassin’s Creed 2

2011-06-29 by . 0 comments

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I’d never touched upon the Assassin’s Creed series, but luckily for me Steam came to the rescue with some stupidly cheap prices during an offer week, so I managed to pick up the first two games nice and cheap. I’ve already played through the original and posted my take on that a few weeks ago, and if you don’t want to read all of that review, here was my final thought:

The environments and animations are top notch; the gameplay is essentially fun, but progression gets a little repetitive by the end; and the narrative would be much more interesting if the delivery wasn’t so disjoint from the gameplay. But overall, Assassin’s Creed is a good enough game, and one that I’ve enjoyed playing through – but it’s a good job it ended when it did; if it was much longer I suspect I’d have got bored before reaching the end.

Lets see what the second game of the series has to offer.

The Second Game

PC problems

Before we start, let me address a few platform-specific problem with the game on PC.

First, the control scheme has managed to get worse since the original game. They just don’t seem to have made any effort to localise is for the platform, and that is frankly disappointing. The four interaction types – head, weapon hand, off hand and legs – are the same as the original and still assume you’re using an Xbox controller. However, now some of the game’s menus (for your inventory, etc) also do the same. This is very bad if you’re using a mouse…

You want to click on a menu item to open it? Nope, because when you move your mouse over an item near the bottom of the list, the list scrolls towards it. Want to open an item? You should press Green (feet), which on the 5-button mouse config I use is the left side button (the one normally used for “back” in every other bit of software). And if you actually want to go back or maybe cancel a selection? That’s Red (off hand), or the right side button (you know, the “forward” button in everything else). The original game was a little irritating in this regard, but you can get used to the controls and then the issue can be forgotten, however the menus in this version are consistently aggravating because they just don’t follow any of the expected standard responses that I’ve been trained for years to expect from these buttons.

Second, is the game’s much derided DRM system on the PC. I’m not going to rant about it here (there’s more than enough of that over the internet, and it’s even used as a case study of bad DRM on Skeptics.SE), but lets just say it’s very bad for the consumer and that you need to be aware that you need a constant and reliable internet connection to play the game at all, because you have to remain connected to the Ubisoft servers while playing. And, even if you pick the game up on Steam, like I did, you’ll still be stuck with this daft system.

Anyway, on with the review

The game is partially a direct sequel to the original game. You’re still playing Desmond; his story picks up effectively at the end of the first game, and he’s still using a machine called an Animus, which allows him to access his “genetic memories” and relive the life of one of his ancestors. There’s still two parallel narratives running side by side, however, you’re no longer following the assassin Altair in the 12th century Middle East, he has been replaced by a new ancestor – Ezio – in 15th century Renaissance Italy. And in this entry of the series, the breaks where you return to the real world narrative are much less frequent, but are longer and do a little bit more than just deliver a bit of exposition. The overall delivery is aided further by the Animus’s controller speaking to Desmond directly while he’s using the Animus, and although even this is fairly infrequent it does mean his narrative line is delivered across the game rather than in disjoint chunks.

The assassin’s path is also much better delivered than in the first game, with the repetitive nature and lack of direct guidance being replaced with a mostly linear and narrative-driven set of story missions. Now, people often hear the word “linear” in relation to games and think this is always bad thing (it’s not), there’s lots of interesting and varied, side missions, exploration and collections to keep you occupied, all spread across the plentiful areas to explore. Ultimately, the game’s narrative delivery makes it much more engaging that the original game.

Again, the game is aesthetically beautiful. While there’s a little bit of duplication for some common landmarks such as churches, time has clearly been spend ensuring that the major landmarks of these cities are quite realistic (with some expected tweaks for gameplay purposes) to their real-world counterparts – such as the Florence Cathedral and St Mark’s Basilica & Campanile (among others, but these ones I happened to have screenshots of!). I imagine the same was true of the first game, but they’ve added a “database” in to the game, which includes various histories and information, making it a little bit more obvious.

Riding a horse in to Florence

Standing across the square from St Mark’s Basilica & Campanile

The side of Florence Cathedral seen from a nearby terrace of houses

Now, some of the cities are smaller than the others, and so feature the surrounding landscape as part of that area. Here, the countryside areas are really just extensions to the cities they surround. And again, these areas are quite varied and well crafted. Thankfully, the game also features a fast travel network that you gain access to as soon as you visit your second city, meaning you don’t have to repeatedly visit the countryside, which prevents it from ever really becoming dull (which was a major failing of the Kingdom area of the previous game).

Climbing and root-top exploration again play a large role in the game, and both have been tweaked positively. Climbing feels faster, with less stop/start than before, and the root-tops have become more varied than there were in the original, making them harder and more enjoyable to navigate. The game also features a number of tombs, catacombs and churches, that you can enter to attempt to recover treasures from, and these segments are essentially extended platforming puzzles and an enjoyable break from the main game. They do have a Prince of Persia feel about them, but this is both a good thing, and not really surprising; it’s the same development studio for both series. Unfortunately, on the downside, these segments do have a habit of controlling the camera in an abnormal way compared to the rest of the game – to try an signpost the way forward – this is a little bit jarring, but not a serious hindrance once you stop trying to fight with it.

The combat of the original game is back mostly unchanged. There’s been a few tweaks to the mechanics, mostly to do with disarming, grabbing and throwing of opponents, and a much wider arsenal this time – both in terms of weapon types, and the ability to buy and switch weapons – but again the difficulty isn’t very high. However, the animations, both in the general flow of combat and the finishing moves, are still very well polished and overall the combat usually remains very fluid and fun.

Guards have had an intelligence upgrade. If you perform suspicious actions in front of them, they will become increasingly suspicious, with a yellow marker filling for each of them. Once full, they will come over to you and bully you a little (push you over, tell you to get lost, threaten you a bit, etc), assuming you then leave they’ll leave you alone, it’s only when you continue misbehaving you get in a fight. Of course, if your first suspicious action they see is “entering an off-limits building”, “murder” or “legging it across the rooftops being chased by 10 other guards” then you can expect them to jump straight to the fight stage. Along with the new notoriety mechanic, this means that misbehaving too much will make the guards always suspicious of you until you take corrective action so you have to sometimes choose to move and behave carefully.

Luckily, to go along with this, the assassin’s stealth abilities have changed as well. No longer are there only a few limited groups of people you can hide in, now you can literally hide in any crowd. By just walking in to a group of people you’ll receive a visual indicator that you’ve “blended” with the crowd, and at that point guards won’t see you. It’s quite a clever mechanic and it works quite well. And if there isn’t a crowd handy you can always hire a group of courtesans or thieves to blend with or distract the guards for you.

Exploring one of the Cathedrals, looking for treasure

Blending in with the crowd to avoid detection

Throwing a guard off a roof, this is alarming fun :D

Which brings me on to another sizeable change from the original, money. Money is earnt by finding chests, robbing banks, finishing missions or just bumping in to people on the street (and thus picking their pockets) and is used to purchase weapons, armour, healing etc. In addition, a short way in to the game (warning: minor spoiler!) you are given control of the restoration of a villa – by sinking money in to it to repair shops, etc – which then provides a steady stream of money in return.

Unfortunately, all this only provides a brief distraction, as it doesn’t take long to fully repair the villa and there are no real choices to be made while doing so, nor when purchasing weapons and armour, as there’s almost always a clear “best” to select at each point of the game. Money therefore quickly becomes quite worthless, so hunting down chests and the like also quickly become dull. To fully stock the villa with everything (art works, weapons, armour, etc) does take a bit longer, but really this is only because you have to wait for new cities to unlock on the story because you gain access to the next set in each collection. Still, these form an amusing distraction while they last, and don’t cause any hindrance once you’re bored of them.

Final Thoughts

The environments and animations are again top notch; the gameplay is fun, with plenty of variety in the main storyline and numerous varied side missions; and the narrative and character development is engaging and mostly interesting. Assassin’s Creed 2 is a brilliant game, and one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing end to end.

As such, I’d definitely recommend picking this one up if you’ve not already done so. However, if Ubisoft’s DRM puts you off, or you don’t have a gamepad, you might want to consider getting the game on a console. That said, the PC version has been perfectly manageable for me, at least, so assuming you have a reliable internet connection (for the DRM) it could be fine for you too.

As for the original game, you won’t miss much if you skip straight to the sequel, but while it’s not as great as this entry to the series it’s still good. I think kip’s comment on my original post makes an excellent point, which I will now completely paraphrase: if you’re only going to play an hour an day, then it’s probably worth starting with the original, but if you’ll probably be dropping several hours a day on the game, then you might want to give the original a miss, lest you get bored with it before it ends. And, of course, if you’ve only the money for one of these two games, then you’re probably best to just skip the original; you won’t miss much in terms of the story, and Assassin’s Creed 2 is the better choice to spend your money on.

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