Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This Is the Assassin’s Creed We Wanted Two Years Ago

I would have loved to be at the pitch for Assassin’s Creed. Just imagine: a conference room in Ubisoft’s headquarters in Montreuil-sur-Boix, France. Several men seated around a table. One earnestly tells the other about a game he wants to make: the player is an assassin in crusader-era Jerusalem, tasked with eliminating the leadership corps of the Templars, a secret society of fanatics bent on controlling the holy land – and, you know ,the world at large. But wait – the player is actually Desmond Miles, some guy hooked up to a machine that lets him spelunk through the memories of his assassin ancestors. There is no death, per se – only desynchronization from the memory.


Convoluted metagame notwithstanding, Assassin’s Creed was sold, developed and released in 2007. Defying cynics who predicted the game would confuse the gaming public, the title sold well, easily reaching platinum status. The critical reception, however, was more lukewarm: For all its splendor and promise, Assassin’s Creed was often tedious and mundane, more filler than anything. It felt like a tech demo, a proposal for a more fully-realized concept. Critics wanted to play that game.

Last November, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed II. It is, beyond a doubt, the game we wanted to play two years ago.

Different game, different venue: instead of gallivanting around the crusader Levantine, we’re roof-hopping through Italia. And instead of playing as sulky Altair, the gamer slides into the frills and robes of Ezio Auditore, a rakish loudmouth who, at the game’s beginning, is sleeping with Cristina Vespucci (you may remember her brother, Amerigo).

Where Altair was shadowy to a fault, Ezio is brash, colorful and endearing. And unlike his predecessor, Ezio isn’t part of a brotherhood of sneaks – not at first, and not for most of the game. His motivations are personal (and for the sake of spoilers, omitted).

Assassin’s Creed II responds to its predecessor’s faults point-by-point. The optional side-missions are more varied this time: courier missions are sometimes in the service of paramours, or brides-to-be; optional assassinations come as missives from Lorenzo de’ Medici, sent via courier pigeons. And if you’re tired of sprinting through the streets of Florence or dispatching crooked officials, the game provides a few platforming options: you could always scale one of the city’s “viewpoints,” a climbing puzzle that rewards players by revealing the map; or you could go spelunking through one of six assassin’s tombs, running-and-jumping segments reminiscent of 2008’s Prince of Persia.

And few games do running and jumping better. The left thumbstick moves Ezio forward; holding the right trigger (on the Xbox 360) not only him run, but turns Ezio into a monkey. When running, Ezio will treat a brick wall not as an obstacle, but as a ladder, grabbing for the nearest ledge and hoisting himself up. He will automatically jump over gaps, scuttle across cables and climb grates. It’s a simplified system, and it definitely fatigued my right trigger finger more than once. But when you’re chasing a pickpocket across Florentine rooftops, you’ll be thankful for the no-bullshit control scheme.

It's a ninja simulator. Dropping from ledges and impaling guards with your wrist-blade will never get old. Neither will ambushing them from a bench, placing their corpse in your spot and serenely walking away.

The story is competent throughout. At no point will you be struck by an original twist – I take that back, an unexpected flashback sequence was quite a treat – and the Dan Brown-esque ending will leave you puzzled at best, and facepalmed otherwise.

I’ve always been bothered by the Assassin’s Creed series’ metagame. It didn’t seem necessary in the first, other to needlessly digress to explain player death and mission progression (I’ve been doing this for a while, dudes. I’m used to “dying” and “missions”). If Creed 2 doesn’t vindicate the metagame, it at least makes it more bearable. You spend considerably less time in present-day, which is a godsend – AC1’s penchant for ripping you out of Acre and into some lab that looked a little too much like an Apple Store got old quickly.

Also a godsend: Ezio’s brevity. When the player assassinates an important target, they share a few words with the newly deceased as they cross over. In AC1, these could stretch minutes, leaving players to wonder if the poor shmuck would just bleed out, already. In AC2, they last only sentences.

AC2’s few faults are the easiest to fix, lamentably. Clipping errors abound, along with myriad other glitches. How many times have I assassinated an archer, only to see my wrist-blade clipping awkwardly out of his neck? About half the time, actually. You stop seeing it after a while, but that makes it no less forgivable. It’s the kind of junior-varsity shit that signifies a rushed title. AC2 deserved more polish.

Also, while the vestments and environments are beautiful, the character models are creepy and prosthetic. Long hair – there was much of this in the Renaissance – is stiff as a board, a practice I thought designers abandoned in, oh, the early-aughts. Seriously, Ubisoft, my monkey-pet in Black and White (2001) had wavy, dynamic hair. It looked goofy, but that shit moved. Nine years later, what’s AC2’s excuse?

Back to why I like this game. I spent four months studying art in Italy, one in Florence. I was able to navigate the city by its basic landmarks, and while you can’t cross the Ponte Vecchio (i.e., Ubisoft Montreal didn’t want to render the other half of the city), Florence is recreated in spectacular detail. From the street conversation (in Italian) to the view of the city from a bell tower, I can faithfully say that Ubisoft Montreal has made their version of Renaissance Italy authentic, gorgeous and a pleasure to inhabit. Take away the setting, and you have a bland (and potentially subpar) open-world city game in the vein of inFAMOUS or Prototype. With it, however, you have an experience that is, more often than not, transcendent.

And for the game’s length, that’s a lot of transcendence. At 20-plus hours, AC2 shames 2009’s release calendar of whimpy six-hour campaigns (Halo: ODST; Micheal Bayfare 2). For once, I can honestly say the $60 price tag is justified.

With Assassin’s Creed 2, Ubosoft Montreal has shown the industry how to properly make a sequel – identify the flaws of the first game, address them, and make a better game. Those turned off by AC1 but intrigued by the concept should pick up AC2, if they haven’t already. Everyone else – ever been to Toscana? Want to go?