Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 2) - Assassin's Creed 2

Picking up from where the last post on Assassin's Creed left off, Assassin's Creed 2 steps in right after the end of the first game. With a brief bit of exposition, the game throws you into the role of Desmond Miles, and you're witness to the birth of the new "protagonist" for the game, one Ezio Auditore. Then you're thrust back into the modern world, and forced to escape the building of your captors. This would likely be a little bit jarring for people new to the series, but it serves as a quick entry point into the series for those who missed the first game. Tossing them into the deep end, but at the same time meaning that they don't actually need to backstory of the first game in order for this one to make sense. It's a not a bad trick, and straddles a nice line between continuity for old players and introduction for newcomers.

What it does significantly better than its predecessor is the way that it introduces gameplay elements to the player. While Assassin's Creed (AC1) made players go through a series of tutorials to learn the mechanics, AC2 integrates those tutorials with the story in order to gradually add to the player's repertoire and push the narrative at the same time. While this could be annoying if the player were forced to run around as a brash youth delivering letters and beating up miscreants, it doesn't take too long before Ezio starts to become a real assassin and get down to the business of stalking and killing his targets.

Ezio goes from apprentice to master assassin

This is where things start to get interesting. The concept of stealth and getting close to a target have been reworked significantly. Whereas previously stealth involved joining a specific group of white robed scholars by pressing a button, the player is now able to actively and organically blend with a group of people by walking into the middle of the group and keeping pace with them. This subtle change makes a huge difference to the flow of the game, and makes the player participate in the act of hiding within a group of people rather than simply pushing a button and watching it happen. It is possible to fall out of step with the group, which can be annoying, but again this actually makes the player feel like they're actively being engaged by the gameplay mechanic rather than simply pushing a button and then waiting. The similar improvements to escaping from guards (which includes making it a more challenging task) make the player feel more like an assassin who is actively working to fly under the radar.

The game is also fairly keen to give you new assassination techniques: killing someone from a ledge by leaping on top of them, hanging onto the edge of the building and pulling your unsuspecting prey off, or killing someone from the safety of a hay bale. A second blade to assassinate two people at once is also a welcome addition, especially when combined with the aforementioned leap. These were a massive step forward for the series as well. These really add to the stealth aspects of the game, and are wonderful for those players who love to spend a lot of time doing parkour along rooftops. No longer do you have to get down on the ground and potentially lose the element of surprise, but you simply leap down and kill your target in a single move. The addition of poison and a pistol felt less useful and interesting for the most part, but were a nice touch to have something different at your disposal.

Going down...

Timed race missions are a fairly mundane addition to the gameplay, as the scope for varied paths to succeed are limited, so it's basically just learning the correct route to succeed. Courier missions are much the same. The assassination missions are where things get more interesting, and there is a bit of variance in how these play out, requiring the player to use different skills in order to find, track and kill their target.

Timed platforming in the assassin tombs is a distinct lowlight, as are the chase scenes present in these, as catching your prey is a fairly counterintuitive process, and is poorly done to boot. It's impossible to catch a fleeing templar except at a specific point, so even if you're ahead of the game and theoretically have gotten ahead of the person you are chasing, they magically jump forward in the chase sequence to make it "fair". The same applies if you fall a long way behind. The templar will obediently wait for you at the next checkpoint until you figure out the alternate route needed to reach him. It feels cheap, contrived and unnecessary.

Chasing these guys was less fun

While some of these side options for gameplay aren't the highlight of fun within the whole experience, when combined with the main missions of the game, they supply a lengthy and varied experience for players. The game isn't just a visual sandbox like AC1, but is a truly flexible and free flowing sandbox where you get to play out many different scenarios, and you can even attempt many of them using different approaches. Want to stalk your target and kill them in secret? Sure. Want to draw your sword and charge in the front gate, killing everyone in your path? Sure, that's allowable in many cases as well. With an increased number of tools and gameplay mechanics at your disposal, AC2 allows freedom in a way that AC1 never managed.

Another positive I have to mention are the improvements in the presentation. Gone are the length expositional dying cutscenes. While these were okay in AC1, the fact that they were really the only way to push forward the story made the storytelling a bit forced. Also, the fact that every victim would give you a long winded speech felt somewhat ridiculous. The storytelling is much more frequent and you also get some information delivered through conversations you hear while preparing for an assassination rather than direct exposition to Ezio or the player. The experience feels much more realistic and believable, and as a result is a far more engaging tale. The music also deserves a special mention, as there are some truly excellent tracks from Jesper Kyd that play during the game. The track "Heart" that is featured when the title of the game is finally displayed (which takes a little while) is one of the many standouts.

While the ending of the game feels a little bit lacklustre, the journey throughout is superb and provides a great deal of breadth and depth in experiences. It's also quite a long game - you can expect to rack up many hours exploring and completing missions. AC2 delivers on the promise of the first game. It expands the gameplay and mechanics to let the player not only let the player travel and free run through expansive and wonderfully created cityscapes, but to truly adopt the mantle of a master assassin.

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