Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: Assassin's Creed 2

Assassin's Creed, while not exactly a good game by any sense of the word, was pretty fucking successful. It sold plenty of copies and managed to keep Ubisoft afloat (long story short, they were about to be bought by EA, but then came Assassin's Creed to give Ubisoft a financial backbone). Add in the mid game plot twist-esque ending, and Ubisoft would be pretty fucking stupid to not make a sequel, and you know what? Assassin's Creed 2 is a huuuuuge improvement! While some would disagree due to not liking the story as much or not liking Ezio period, you have to admit, the gameplay is a lot better, and that's what a sequel is meant to do – take the first game, and work on what didn't work to make it work. Assassin's Creed 2 is a fine, fine example of that.

Taking place right after the twist ending of the first game, Desmond is broken out of Abstergo with the aid of Lucy, who had worked with the doctor from the first game to get closer to Desmond and use him in the ongoing war between the templars and assassins. She gets him to a safehouse and along with her buddies, she hooks Desmond up to the Animus 2.0, which will allow him to relive the life of another one of his ancestors – this time, Ezio Auditore. Although Desmond is actually given a reason for existing in this game, you don't see quite as much of Desmond as you did in the first game. Then again, anything to build up the next game in the seires...

So for the time being, here's Ezio's story. Ezio lives a carefree existence of seducing women and getting into trouble. But one day, his family gets involved in a conspiracy and his dad and brothers are hanged for “treason”. Out of anger, he causes a ruckus by trying to kill who he reckoned was the conspirator, but from there, he becomes the most wanted person in Florence, so he flees with his mother and sister. They stop at his uncle Mario's villa (or mansion, if you will), and Mario tells Ezio that he must take on his father's role... as an assassin. With a newfound lust for vengeance, he travels around Italy to assassinate political figures that are linked with the conspiracy.

I definitely find this game's story to be a lot better for many reasons. For one thing, it uses the theme of revenge as a means of developing Ezio's character. He starts off with red in his eyes, wanting to kill those who have wronged him and his family, and when he kills his first major target, he loses control of his emotions and Mario has to calm him down. Eventually, Ezio learns to control his temper, and further along the line, he stops doing it for the sake of vengeance and does it to help mankind. Another thing is Ezio himself – he's just a more captivating character than Altair was. Altair may have had a decent amount of depth to his character, but his cold personality and his lack of development made it hard to care for him, while Ezio's more carefree and... well, I've already explained his development, and with both in mind, he becomes a likeable character. The final reason I feel like giving is that you get more immersed into Ezio's story as you're not constantly jumping back to Desmond. Oh, you'll jump back in the middle somewhere, but besides that, once you enter the Animus up until the end, you'll be in Ezio's world, and with the added length, there's more time to bask in its glory.

The issue with the story is the pacing. Like the first game, it gives you plot and then it just fucks about. There's less of the latter this time around, but that doesn't mean I should excuse it, because when they don't work on advancing or developing the plot, it's just boring. Yeah, Ezio's a good character, but that doesn't stop the filler from feeling like it was there to pad the game – and this time around, it's about 20 hours long, which is twice as long as the first game. At 20 hours long, I felt that it was a few hours too long, and while the non filler stuff did keep my interest, the filler managed to numb my attention span, and the 2 DLC sequences (which come with the Game Of The Year edition) were mostly useless from a storytelling perspective, as you could (and do if you have the original copy with no DLC) skip them and the final sequence will work on the same level that it'd work on if you had played the DLC sequences.

And holy shit, again with the mid game plot twist-esque ending? I'll give this one props for making sense and being told in a way that'll hype us up for the next game instead of just making me go what the fuck is this, but it loses points simply because it feels like something that'd be put in the middle or at the last third of any other game! I won't spoil it, but let's just say that you'll probably feel gypped again.

The basic gameplay formula is similar to that of the first game's – in that you'll be in big, open cities, you'll do missions and you'll have to assassinate someone. However, there are plenty of improvements that will make this experience a lot better. For one thing, it's easier for Ezio to keep a low profile thanks to a notoriety system. Simply put, stealing and killing will fill up the octagonal bar, and once it's full, you'll be notorious and guards will attack you on sight. You can lower this by removing posters, bribing heralds or killing officials... while they sound silly (oh yeah, removing a poster will surely drop ones' notoriety), the notoriety system is one that works out quite well. In the first game, it was a matter of dodging the guards and that's it. Here, you have to make yourself anonymous, which means sneaking past or around guards, or killing them, just to lower your notoriety. I've also found that the guards are more lenient – in the first game, running through town will result in a cavalry chasing you, while here, you just kill the wrong person or run on a roof and maybe they'll chase you. I could bitch about this, but for reasons I'll explain later on, I'll say that this is an improvement.

Oh, and the missions actually feel like missions, like there's some importance behind them. That's the big thing that makes this game so much better than the first. There isn't a huge variety – most of them involving killing this guy, following that guy and running to that place, but each of them have significance to the story, and not only that, but they are actually surprisingly engaging. Maybe it's because of the reasoning, maybe it's because it's actually possible to give a shit about what you're doing – I'd say it has to do with the fact that each mission has its own identity. While their basic formulas are very similar, the actual missions do change things up like how you go about it, and due to this, it never really feels like you're doing the same mission every five minutes. Because of that, I actually found myself looking forward to every mission, even if the story wasn't really awake at that moment.

But hey, in case you don't feel like doing story missions at the moment, you can do different side missions, and even these feel like they have more variety than the ones found in the first game. You can beat people up, deliver items to people, go through a series of checkpoints, and of course, kill people. Okay, I will admit, beating people up gets pretty fucking old because fist fights are... just that, but that's about it. Playing delivery boy isn't much better, although they do at least require basic knowledge of the city you're in to get from Point A to Point B in as little time as possible, while running through checkpoints requires you to be able to figure out the best routes on the fly in as little time as possible.

But come on, who wants to do those when you can do assassination missions? Like in the first game, you have a target to kill, and you have to find them using Eagle Vision, which highlights people. If you find a yellow person, that's your target. It was in the first game, but it wasn't really useful... I don't think I ever used it actually, yet here, when I'm given a mission like this and need to find the target, there I am, using it. At times, you'll be given a condition, like don't get seen by the guards, or don't get seen by anybody pursuing your target. These conditions really give these missions more backbone because that's what assassination is all about – killing without anybody else knowing! But it's not all about sneaking around – in cities, you can find factions that'll distract the guards. Whether it's through combat or wooing them, you'll be able to use certain groups of citizens to aid you in kicking ass without anybody knowing it was you.

That leads to money. Throughout the game, you'll collect money, which can be used to hire distractors or buy stuff. Usually, it's equipment like swords and armor, but there's also ammo for your sidearms (like throwing knives and a pistol that you'll unlock later in the game), needles to restore your health and pouches to increase the amount of whatever has a quantitive limit. At first, you'll find yourself looting incapacitated or dead bodies and stealing from citizens, but once you're able to profit from rebuilding Monteriggioni from the ground up, so long as you build enough up, you can profit from it enough to not need to steal and just rely on what you get at the end of missions. But hey, if you rebuild certain buildings in Monteriggioni, you'll get discounts from those buildings all across Italy, so that's a pretty good incentive to rebuild it, eh?

Sadly, the combat is still not good. I will acknowledge improvements such as enemy variety which will require different tactics besides button mashing. For instance, bigger knights require you to disarm them as trying to counter them with your sword will not help. For that matter, your hidden blade can now function as a weapon, and you can use daggers like swords, which result in quicker attacks than you get with your sword. You also have items like poison (which you add to your hidden blades), smoke bombs (to escape or kill with ease) and medikits (to heal), and while it can make combat good, it doesn't, because you can pretty much use the same strategy as you would in the first game – either molest the square button or hold R1 and press square at the right time, which makes combat something to dread due to it just being this tedious repetition of... well, that, and trying different tactics isn't much more fun.

Like Assassin's Creed 1, this game has great buildings and environments, but lackluster character models. Now, the character models here are better designed, no longer looking like unfinished or underendered, but they still feel behind the times, especially compared to the rest of the visuals. Not so much the main models – Desmond, Lucy and Ezio look fine, but everyone else just look a bit muddy, and as if they need one more texture to look complete. Seems like a nitpick, but everything else looks so good that it stands out. But yeah, the buildings look pretty damn detailed and everything else looks fucken neat, like it almost jumps out at you... until you notice some framerate stuttering and screen tearing because it's probably too fucking good for the PS3 to handle. In that case, it looks damn pretty in screenshots, but in motion... just try not to have too many people in view or move the camera around heaps and you'll be fine...

Once again, the sound department does little for me. I mean, it does more for me than the first game's did, but it still doesn't really get much of a response. The soundtrack has little precense during the game. It felt like it was just there because it never really made any scene particularly powerful, nor did it ever make any fight feel intense. It was just... there, and none of the tunes were memorable, save for like one, which was used during the checkpoint missions... and in Soul Calibur 5. Beyond that, nothing. The voice acting is a lot better this time, though. I can't really name any performance that was bad... in fact, I'd say that it was good across the board. It all felt clean and natural, sort of like watching a good movie!

Assassin's Creed 2 is what a sequel ought to be – it addresses the problems the first game had and fixes most of them. It carries on the same good ideas the first game had, and capitalizes on them. As a result, you have a game that's actually well worth going through. It just does everything in its power to draw you in, from having missions that relate to the story to having the story itself really draw you in... more often than not. Sub-par story pacing and combat aside, it's an excellent game that should be in your collection.

8/10 (great)

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