Having given up on Dragon Age I jumped into arguably the second epic production of the Fall Season: Assasin’s Creed 2. You might remember that Assassin’s Creed was a fantastic running, jumping, climbing, stabbing engine wrapped up in a overall game that sucked your very will to live. In a lot of ways, AC2 is better. But in a lot of ways, it’s just more of the same.
1. The Tutorial that Never Ends
In AC1, there was an opening mission where you unleash an unholy ass-kicking in the form of a flurry of acrobatics and whirling weapons. Then they take it all away from you with some trumped up narrative device and you spend the rest of the game getting it all back. Except you never really get it back because halfway through the game you can’t stand the beggars anymore and you keep killing them.
In AC2, they skipped the kick-ass opening, and just go right to the part where you have to play for hours and hours and hours and hours to “learn” the “skills” that you already know from the first game. Much of this time is spent fetching or delivering small goods to various people in the city. You do this by climbing over buildings, leaping between rooftops and performing other crazy acts of derring-do. Then the game gives you a tutorial on how to climb buildings, or leap between the rooftops, and so on.
Here is an example of the exciting tasks you will perform:
1. Talk to your sister and run clear across town and beat up some clown while the game gives you tips on how to use its combat system. This combat system, as I have already said, is pretty much the same as in the first game, so you already know how to use it.
2. Run back across town to tell your sister you are done.
3. Talk to your brother and find out that you must climb the tallest tower in the city and get some fool feather for him.
4. Climb the tower, which requires you iteratively spiral up each side of it, following the hand holds that some ancient architect has so conveniently placed on the brick face so that you can make your way up. The question in your head at this point is always: why is the path so crooked? Why not just let me go to the top in the straight line?
5. Run back to your brother and give him the feather.
What is your reward for all this toil? You get to deliver three letters for your dad. And then you get to help your mom pick up some stuff from a studio.
This sort of torture will wear down all but the strongest souls. They’d be giving up in droves and putting the game on Ebay. But I fought through it. I wanted to get my blades back.
2. The Story Gets in the Way of the Game
Most of the pacing problems in the first part of AC2 stem from Ubisoft’s indulgence of their overwrought narrative. The game tries mightily to make the opening tutorial seem like an organic outgrowth of the environment and the story. Unfortunately, the whole thing is self-concious at best and comical at worst. Who can forget the 25 minutes devoted to the glorious full daylight “stealth” system. This is the one where you can completely blend into the fabric of the city by hiring a group of hookers to follow you around. Because, as we all know, hooded figures in robes and armor fit right in with hookers. Why hookers? Why, to introduce you to the Street Smart Madam with a Heart of Gold character of course. But why is she there? Do we ever see her again after the tutorial?
Over and over when the game could just get on with the business of being a game, it instead shuttles you to useless little pieces of narrative exposition. AC1 suffered more badly from this issue, what with the ten minute speeches that spewed forth from your every victim. But AC2 is still weighed down by the ambition of the developer to present the player with long form narrative. The result is that the game wastes three hours of your life introducing you to your family before giving you the tools you need to jump off a tall building and put a poisoned knife through someone’s eyeball. I claim that people are buying the game to do the knife in the eyeball thing. We could care less about Ezio’s family.
3. The Game Gets in the Way of the Story
As if the plot in AC2 didn’t have enough problems, it also has to spend half of its time fighting with the “open world to explore” requirement on the side of the game box. Every big plot point and can be indefinitely postponed by just running around on the tops of the buildings some more. Quick! You must save your compatriot from certain death! But first, you can go and climb up 20 different eagle-eye viewpoints while your friend suffers. The character in the game will stop at nothing to exact revenge on his enemies. Well, unless there are feathers to be collected, or strange computerized codes to be found on the sides of building, or contract killing, or races, or beat up missions, or climbing around inside ancient tombs. There is no distraction small or trivial enough not to have gotten the attention of the content people at Ubisoft. Why try to make something coherent and well-paced when you can just throw raw “variety” at the player instead?
This fall season of games has presented the conflict between narrative and gameplay in stark relief. Both AC2 and Dragon Age take competent gameplay and weigh it down with clichéd plot and endless exposition. I think they also teach a core lesson about narrative in video games: the implicit, or indirect narrative is always more interesting. That is to say, it’s always problematic to tie the story of the game directly to the actions of the player. Inevitably you end up with weird contradictions and stupidity. It’s much better to allow the game to play itself out and layer in the narrative from the environment, the world building, or various delivery devices for backstory like the ever-present Bioshock audio tapes.
Compare the dozen or so Assassination missions in AC2 to the similar number in Shadow of the Colossus. I claim the payoff in the latter game was a much stronger emotional moment precisely because the game said nothing about it while you played it. The game set up the world, and the situation, and then told you the final truth about it after you were done.
Oh well, at least AC2 doesn’t have the infinite forest of dialog trees.
4. Get Your NOTORIOUS On
As part of the stealth system, the game has a little meter to tell you how NOTORIOUS you are. If you are a red angel of death, you are NOTORIOUS and guards will attack you on sight. If your symbol is pure and white, you are INCOGNITO, and guards leave you alone. It turns out that if you find yourself in an enemy city and have become NOTORIOUS, there is a simple way to get rid of that red stigma:
1. Find a high official of the city minding his own business going about his day.
2. Walk up behind him in the street. In broad daylight if you wish.
3. Stab him through the heart with your hidden blade.
4. Kill the guards that see you do this.
Presto, you are now 75% less NOTORIOUS.
I guess this made sense in the feature meetings.
5. The Beggar Problem
AC1 had the beggars. They followed you around and asked for money. They came in packs. The only solution was to stab them dead.
AC2 has bards. They follow you around and sing and ask for money. They come in packs. The only solution is to stab them dead. But you have to be careful not to kill too many in a row or the game will punish you for it. I think the game must have a pretty high horse. After all, it looks the other way as you off hundreds of poor guards and archers who, after all, are only doing their jobs. But offing a few too many of these instruments of pure evil, in self defense gets you a smack down.
OK. That’s everything I don’t like about this game. Except the map problems. The rest is great. Italy never looked so good in a game. Oh, and the people talk funny. Some kind of bizarre accent. I’m done.