Warning: Possible Spoilers. It’s been several years since I posted a computer game review on the Hollow, mainly because I so rarely finish an entire game. Either I have a short attention span, or I demand more from my precious entertainment hours that endless repetitive button-mashing—probably a bit of both. However I always find that games—and I’m talking exclusively Xbox and Xbox 360 games, as they’re the only ones I have access to—tend to start off new and interesting, quickly establish their mode of play, and then set themselves on a cycle of rinse-and-repeat. Occasionally I find myself somewhat involved at the start, but then come up against some ridiculous bit of production team decision-making that completely stuffs up the experience. I’m looking at you, Dead Space, which was vaguely entertaining until I got to a stupid shoot-the-asteroids-out-of-space sequence that was as boring as it was hard, and made me throw the controller down in disgust and walk away.
The original Assassin’s Creed was a rare exception, and despite some repetition, and a truly atrocious ending, I enjoyed it all the way to the end of the ride. The stunningly recreated medieval cities, the freedom of movement, and the various side missions made it an entertaining way to pass a few hours now and then.
Assassin’s Creed II however, blows it out of the water. This is quite an amazing piece of gaming entertainment, and while it still has some strong flaws, I enjoyed virtually every moment I spent directing the assassin Ezio around the streets and rooftops of the cities of Renaissance Italy.
So let’s have a quick look at what I think are some of the things that make up a good video game, and how Assassin’s Creed II measures up:
For some bizarre reason, most games place a good story last on the list after graphics, gameplay and just about everything else. How many times have the same old sci-fi and fantasy storylines been rehashed? How many character stereotypes have been recycled over and over? AC II comes out of the gate strongly in this department, but rapidly loses steam. The contemporary story, where your character Desmond enters through an ‘Animus machine’ into the world of the Renaissance Italian assassin Ezio, is an ingenious framework on which to hang all the technical processes of the game, and it works well in that capacity. As a story itself however, it falls flat and goes nowhere. Every return to the modern setting just makes us realise how much more interesting is Renaissance Italy.
The journey of Ezio is far better, but there is still something missing, something that a really good writer would have added: an emotional engagement with the storyline. And that kind of engagement doesn’t come through ye olde ‘you killed my parents’ plot hooks and twists, it comes through creating characters we really care about. Bringing me to …
Closely tied to the success of the story, of course, are the characters you meet in a video game, and how engaging and ‘real’ they are. AC II tries hard in this department, but only gets it right a few times. Ezio himself is kind of interesting, but he rarely goes past his ‘searching for vengeance for the death of my family’ schtick. The best of the lot is a young Leonardo da Vinci, who despite having the most repeated scene in the game (“ahhh, Ezio, you’ve brought me another Codex page to translate”) somehow comes across as the most interesting person in the game, probably because of his endless quirky cheerfulness. Unfortunately, the parade of bad guys all tend to blend into one another, and despite hours of portentious dialogue as they discuss their evil schemes and treacheries, you never quite know or care what they all want.
In this department, AC II is a triumph. It’s as though the entire production team were determined to avoid the accusations of repetitive gameplay they received for the first game. There is so much to do here that it’s almost ridiculous. Some of the tasks between the main storyline feel like afterthoughts—I can’t imagine anyone, for example, feeling the need to find and collect all 100 feathers scattered throughout the game—but others provide much needed variety and excitement. There’s something for everyone to enjoy here—interesting combat moves, puzzle solving, set collection, Tomb-Raideresque platform jumping and timed puzzles, races, side missions, and of course, the pure enjoyment of running and jumping over Venician rooftops, or watching the sunset from the highest point of the Duomo in Florence. Which brings me to…
Surely, this is where AC II trumps them all. How the programmers manage to squeeze in so much graphic detail and complexity is a complete wonder to me. There has obviously been a lot of thought put into historical accuracy as well. There’s nothing to compare in gaming with experiences like strolling into the main square of San Gimignano and actually recognising it from my real life visit there, or having the freedom to swim, punt a gondola, or leap over the canals of Venice, or climb the Campanile di San Marco. Throughout, AC II is an astoundingly beautiful game. And its use of real world artworks and photographs is excellent as well—younger players might even learn something. (Gasp!)
Gauging the difficulty level must be one of the hardest tasks when creating a game, and this one, for the most part, gets it right. I find nothing more frustrating than suddenly coming up against a brick wall of difficulty in a game; this often happens near the end, where I imagine some programmers think that a suddenly impossible task will stretch out the gameplay a bit longer. Thankfully, AC II doesn’t have to rely on these tricks, and while veteran gamers might find it all a bit too easy—I never felt that I was going to run out of funds, or, armed with a good supply of health potions, encounter an enemy I couldn’t beat—I never got bogged down, or came up against anything I couldn’t get through after a reasonable number of attempts.
In fact, it’s interesting that my last computer game review was for Thief: Deadly Shadows, because in many ways this game series is the spiritual successor to the Thief games. I’m excitedly awaiting what they come up with next in the Assassin’s Creed series. I just hope that all little more attention is given to professional storywriting, dialogue and memorable character development.
Four and a half leaps of faith out of five.