Believe In The Assassins
Widely hailed as one of the best games of 2007, Assassin’s Creed never quite made it onto my own list of that year’s top games: it was fun, pretty to look at and with an assassin as the main character, the entertainment should have been assured. But this was a game with far too much exposition, simple controls and not enough killing, with the end result being a game that was far more watchable than it was playable and didn’t encourage future gaming sessions. It’s an interesting dilemma as the lines between traditional and interactive media blur, but one that doesn’t necessarily bode well as long as traditional expectations of video games remain.
But this is a conversation that can be held off for another time with the release of the much-improved Assassin’s Creed II, available now on PS3 and XBox 360. Like many recent sequels, this is a game which has improved upon its predecessor and earned itself a place amongst one of this year’s best games.
If you’re unfamiliar with the storyline of the first game, the opening moments of Assassin’s Creed II (and this review) are laden with spoilers: although the first game followed Medieval assassin Altair, the game was actually set in the present, with Altair’s descendent Desmond subject to a genetic experiment and re-living Altair’s memories as if they were his own, thanks to them being stored in his own genes. But Desmond was being manipulated by the secret organisation known as the Templars, long-time rivals to the guild of assassins, in order to find some relics that would grant them ultimate power. Now, in Assassin’s Creed II, Desmond teams up with other assassins in order to combat the Templars, but to learn their skills, Desmond must enter a new model of the Animus and relive the memories of another ancestor, namely Ezio Auditore da Firenze as he becomes an assassin in 15th Century Florence.
Although told in two different times, the story of Assassin’s Creed II is fairly easy to follow, and the control system is one of the keys to understanding the gameplay: mere moments after Ezio’s birth, we are shown the face buttons providing context-sensitive controls to Ezio’s head, arms (one for attacking, and a free hand) and legs (allowing him to run or climb.) Trigger buttons are for locking on to enemies and blocking, as well as pushing Ezio’s movements to their limit: unusually for such a game, there is no jumping, but rather another context-sensitive control that allows Ezio to climb or free-run, navigating the balconies and rooftops of Renaissance Italy as he seeks out his prey.
As an assassin, Ezio needs to remain out of sight, one of the main complications of the game and of the real aspect of gameplay: with an assassin in their midst, some enemies will attack on sight, others will wait until you enter a restricted area or do something suitable assassin-like, but it’s something that the player needs to be constantly aware of in order to negotiate their other missions. If pursued by the authorities, Ezio can defend himself, but not without consequences. While assassination is clearly the key goal of the game, there are many other side-quests, including races, courier missions, collecting artefacts and glyphs: some missions are unlocked in Ezio’s time, but other side missions will be fed to Desmond from the present, where Lucy, Shaun and Rebecca follow Desmond’s gradually revealed memories.
There’s a real sense of character to this game, brought in no small part by the voice acting: Kristen Bell returns from the first game as Lucy, while British writer/humorist Danny Wallace provides the voice of Shaun Hastings. It’s also one of the game’s failings, however, with Desmond’s voice provided by Nolan North, the same actor (and the same voice) as provides the voice for Nathan Drake (in the Uncharted series) and the Prince in the most recent Prince Of Persia, doing little to set the game apart from its peers.
The sense of character is carried into the design of the game, with many aspects influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who features in the game as a sort of Q to Ezio’s Bond. The rich storyline makes da Vinci’s inclusion a natural part of the plot. Graphically, depth and textures abound, faces and clothing are immaculately rendered and the bustling streets, labyrinthine alleys and open piazzas of Florence are a perfect location for Ezio’s murdering and blood-letting.
If Assassin’s Creed II has a negative, it’s that the game slightly favours its aesthetic over the gameplay: while it will encourage many new gamers to pick up a controller and have a go, the free-running element to Ezio’s venturing over the rooftops is just a little bit too simplistic, and never quite works effectively enough to draw players into that element of the gameplay, relying a little bit too heavily on the story to encourage players to return to Ezio’s world. It’s a small criticism of a game that is otherwise enjoyable to play and simply watch, and really just depends on what type of gamer you are. Or maybe even better, what type of gamer you live with.
Zombie Rating: A-
Assassin’s Creed II is available now on Sony PlayStation 3 and XBox 360.