Thursday, December 3, 2009

Assassin's Creed II

A lot of people had issues with the first game, though I liked it quite a lot. Still, it had its flaws. Running around, climbing up buildings, and sticking dudes with your hidden blade was a lot of fun. But the amount of variety in the missions was extremely limited - none of the tasks were by themselves terribly boring, but when there's only a handful that repeat constantly, it can become a drag. This is where the sequel sees its biggest improvement - the main progression through the game is much more involved and story-based, with the more mundane tasks set aside as option side missions. The limit to what you can do hasn't expanded greatly - you're still stealthily taking out Templars, visiting various hard to reach locations, trailing people and eavesdropping to gather information. Some annoyances are still there, like the beggars being replaced with minstrels. You're just more invested in what you're doing because you believe in Ezio's personal cause more than you did in Altair's sense of duty.

And there are improvements to be seen everywhere. Your arsenal of weapons and acrobatic moves is expanded. There's more visual variety as missions can take place at different times of the day and events like festivals can change the atmosphere. There's a whole economy added now to buy items and improved equipment, although it's a little broken. The reward for almost everything you do is money, though once you've fully upgraded your home you basically never run out of it, limiting how useful more of it becomes. I didn't notice a big difference in the quality of the weapons, even between the best and the worst, and regardless of how much health/armor you have it didn't seem to have a big influence on how long you can stay alive. But you can pay for transit quickly between distant places, and there's a bunch of optional content that's some of the most interesting I've seen in a game. Tracking down seals in hidden tombs is an actual test of your platforming skill that eventually rewards you with some nice gear, and finding hidden glyphs on buildings throughout Italy unlocks interesting little puzzles that expand on the game's ridiculous yet entertaining story.

Not everything's better though. People complained about the first game constantly kicking you back into the real world where the series' true protagonist Desmond is being experimented on, but I thought it was an intriguing element to the story and enjoyed the drip-feed of new information, while there's only a couple of those sort of segments in this game. They're fairly revealing, but it made it easier to forget what the game's really about. The aforementioned glyphs helped, but I still missed it. And I thought the first game's setting was more interesting than Renaissance Italy. The game does interesting stuff with art and history there, but I enjoyed the aesthetic less, and things like Venice's canals made it harder to get around. Also, one thing that's not much improved is the combat. The new variety of weapons is cool, but it's still a lot of waiting for the opportunity to counter your enemy's attacks, with some of the complexity and danger actually taken out - you never have to worry about getting grabbed, and it seems overall a lot easier to bolt and avoid danger altogether. And the facial animation actually seems way worse - especially on Kristen Bell's character. The game's environments look nice, but not so much the conversations.

The story is worth mentioning, mostly because it's totally insane. You get a taste of the vast, millennia-long secret war between Assassins and Templars in the first game, but the sequel really dives into the crazy conspiracy aspect of it, and it's almost too over-the-top. As you can tell from the hidden messages in the glyphs, there's hardly a significant event in the last two thousand years of history that these groups and the "pieces of Eden" they found haven't had a hand in, and the number of famous people involved is astounding. I totally enjoyed this aspect of the plot - if you're gonna imply something this big, go ahead and go crazy with it. It's all dwarfed by the ending though, which reveals more about the conflict's origins than anyone could possibly comprehend. It's - it's just nuts. And it's all wrapped in Ezio's story, which is pretty solid on its own in places. If I was looking forward to what happened next after the first game, I'm positively foaming over it now. Creed II is one of the most fun open-world games I've ever played, and I'm extremely curious when and where the next one will take place.

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