The first Terminator movie is a lean little sci-fi action thriller about a killer robot. It has some cool special effects but it’s really a character driven film about two people on the run from an unstoppable enemy.
The second Terminator film is a better movie in many ways, but is also more of just a big action extravaganza driven by explosions and catch phrases and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie star charisma (Arnold has like 16 lines in the first film.) It’s an all time classic, but it also set the stage for a series of disappointing sequels that lost track of what made both films special and substituted other things for them; sometimes Christian Bale’s angry scowl, sometimes just a cool poster. T2 is amazing, but it also set the table for the franchise’s subsequent problems.
You could say something very similar about Alien and Aliens; and Assassin’s Creed 1 and Assassin’s Creed 2.
My first impression of Assassin’s Creed 2, which I played and beat for the first time over the last few days, was that it seemed on answering every criticism levied against the first game.
Was AC1/Altair too serious for you?
Assassin’s Creed 2 does not take itself seriously. One of the first major NPCs announces himself with “It’s-a me, Mario!” Desmond comments about how nice it is that the animus has subtitles now. The world is bright and colorful and the beggar women who used to whine “You don’t understand, I have nothing” have been replaced by bards who prance around strumming a lute and singing about your exploits. Altair’s replacement, Ezio, is one of the brashest and most fun-loving video game protagonists every written. At one point he kicks people in the face while riding a flying machine created by his best friend, Leonardo Di Vinci. There’s a QTE to hug Leonardo and if you miss the button press he frowns because you left him hanging.
Did you want Desmond to actually do something other than talk to Lucy and skulk around reading email?
AC2 starts with an action packed jail break where it turns out Lucy was an assassin this whole time and she’s going to whisk you away from Vidic to hang out with her band of misfit friends in a sweet cyber loft. There’s very little Desmond in the game overall and the player never, ever, has to make him go to bed (something you did a number of times in AC1, and that is maybe not the most thrilling gameplay objective.) Lucy has blood on her shirt the whole game to show that she’s a cool woman of action and not just some nerdy scientist who is torn between her loyalty to a mentor who saved her and her empathy for her human test subject.
Did you not understand Altair’s background or motivation?
You literally get to see Ezio get born, and his quest is an intensely personal revenge story, with a clear emotional through line.
Were there not enough NPCs in AC1?
Assassin’s Creed 2 is chock full of characters, and they talk, a lot. They’re memorable and fun. While Altair was isolated and hated by most of the people around him, except for a few allies, Ezio is constantly surrounded by friends and liked by basically anyone he is not actively trying to kill. Playing as Altair (and Desmond in AC1) made you feel like a lone assassin whose only allies were his blades (or in Desmond’s case his typing fingers.) Playing as Ezio and Desmond in AC2 makes you feel like part of a team of loyal rebels. It’s a huge change in tone.
Did you dislike the stiff controls/combat?
They’re changed! The game is now much more a standard open world control scheme and the combat, once stiff and demanding, is forgiving and free-flowing. Ezio fights with allies (and can even hire some to assist him) and can stab anyone but a boss in the back for a one hit kill while they’re occupied with his friends. The tense and exciting system of healing from killing bad guys (one of AC1’s best implemented ideas) is replaced with health items and you’ll have lots of them. It’s all a lot smoother but also a lot more like a hundred other games you’ve probably played.
Did you find AC1 too simple and want more systems to play around with?
You get cash every time you finish a mission in AC2 (even if it’s unclear who would be paying you) and if you invest in your uncle’s villa you will have more money than you could need by midgame. You can use the money to upgrade your equipment and buy art work to decorate the villa and change the color of your clothes and partake in all kinds of sidequests and activities. You can hire people to fight alongside you or to distract guards, and you have smoke bombs and poison that makes enemies go insane and even a primitive single-shot gun. After I finished the main game and was cleaning up achievements I learned that the trainer at your villa will teach you new combat moves. There was a whole additional layer to the combat system I never even explored because I didn’t need it and I don’t remember the game even mentioning it. While Altair had simple tools and options, Ezio has a dozen choices for every encounter, all of them viable.
Did you not like the fact that AC1 was an ostensible stealth game where you were constantly under assault by legions of guards who attacked without reason or warning?
AC2 has much improved stealth mechanics that show you when you’re about to be spotted and allow you to blend in with crowds and hide, not just hit A to blend with scholars. Ezio also has more assassination options than Altair and while he can sometimes be found even if he’s blending (if he’s in the stealth area on the minimap) he can also just outrun his pursuers, or leap into the water where it’s comically easy to evade them. The stealth in AC2 is much looser and more forgiving, but also very similar to a lot of other games such as The Saboteur, which came out the same month and is a very similar game in many ways, though both jankier and with more of an independent identity. I would argue that The Saboteur is in some ways more like AC1 than AC2 is.
Did you not like that the collectible flags and templars in AC1 made no sense and had no impact on game or story?
Here are innumerable chests bursting with spendable money scattered over every map, side quests like assassinations and beat up missions that sort of tie into what Ezio is doing, Codex pages to find, glyphs to unravel from a previous user of the animus, and, of course, feathers to bring to your heartbroken and mute mother.
Did you find AC1 too slow and repetitive?
Assassin’s Creed 2 plays like a game on fast forward. Sometimes literally, with lots of time skips over the boring parts in missions and cut scenes. AC1 did this fast forwarding too, but much less frequently. AC2 gleefully cuts between Ezio getting out of a chair to look at something and him standing there examining. No time to watch him walk over to it, gotta go fast!
My more detailed thoughts:
Even a decade later and through the lens of the Ezio collection and its unfortunate faces (overall my experience was fine, though I had some audio bugs and a couple crashes trying to come back from suspend on my Xbox) the game looks great. Florence and Venice are colorful and pretty, the NPCs are charming in attire and animation, and the camera is mostly functional. It can’t be overstated how much better games look when they contain the full spectrum of color, and Assassin’s Creed 2 has opulent gowns and gorgeous murals that really make its world pop. That goes double for the various landmark buildings, all lovingly rendered and very nice to look at. I liked the cities in Assassin’s Creed 1, but AC2 is on a whole different level artistically. The setting was a joy in a totally different way than AC1. While AC1 made me feel immersed in this dangerous version of the holy land, AC2 gives me a cartoon version of renaissance Italy to explore. The boulevards are wider, the guards less aware, but the local color is joyous and there are so many gorgeous details to enjoy. I wouldn’t say it’s immersive in the same way, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
The controls feel intuitive, though a little loose. There were moments where I got frustrated with them (more on that later) but overall they were much easier to use than AC1s, sometimes to the point where the game felt too easy, though I prefer too easy to too hard. Ezio will plummet to his death if you’re not careful, and sometimes even if you are, but with less frequency than Altair and more options to correct course by grabbing something while you fall. He can also survive longer drops and is less picky about his handholds or the distance to them.
AC2s stealth system is very user friendly (except when it’s in an instant kill condition), and it’s pretty easy to get away from the guards as long as you’ve upgraded your health a bit and know how to parkour in the game. The system splits the difference between true stealth game and action fest, and I think it does a decent job considering that it’s trying to please two audiences with different preferences.
AC2’s story is a lot of fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but the writing is light and entertaining and Ezio is an enjoyable cartoon character to spend time with. The Desmond stuff is much more limited and much of it happens in the animus itself, which is a good choice. The story isn’t perfect, but the moment to moment writing is very impressive for 2009. While it’s a fun and frothy tale, I will say that it lacks the tension or atmosphere of doomed menace that AC1 had, and just like the first game it ends on a set of confusing cliffhangers, only even more preposterous.
Assassin’s Creed 2 also has some pretty clear ‘game from 2009’ type problems.
There was a mission about a third of the way through the game where you need to assassinate a target who is high on top of a tower surrounded by other towers and archers. I hated this mission with a passion. Trying to move in between the towers was an incredible pain, mostly because of the controls and not the archers, and Ezio kept jumping off to his death or taking a leap of faith to a hay pile below when I just wanted him to jump down to a rope between two towers. I also fell off the main tower multiple times when fighting on the small catwalk there, once when I took a swing at a guard and Ezio just stepped off the catwalk to his death, and another time after I had actually assassinated the target and I was trying to get away a guard attacked me and I countered…only to have Ezio step off to his death during the counter animation. Most of the time the game was good about not having you step off rooftops during combat, but not always, and I probably had to attempt this mission 8-10 times, angry and cursing the whole way. It was a bizarre difficulty spike in a game that is generally pretty easy. There’s also a particular climbing segment that stymied me for about 30 minutes until I looked up the solution on Youtube, which was to do exactly what I was trying to do but with a slightly different set of control inputs than the game usually requires. These are all 2009-ass game problems, but for a game that has generally aged spectacularly well they were notable for sure.
Assassin’s Creed 2 also has some of the problems that would plague the franchise later in terms of cut and paste content and repetition. Though there’s a lot more variety than Assassin’s Creed 1 had, there’s also just a lot more...stuff. The cities are bigger, the viewpoints take longer to climb, there is equipment to manage, a fortress to upgrade, just a ton to do as you wind your way through a plot that, for all its charm and good writing, repeats both its story beats and activities. Following a bunch of old men while they talk about some random conspiracy against a character you may or may not have seen a couple times five hours ago sounds like fun but...wait no it doesn’t. The game nevertheless has you do it a number of times. Collecting pages of the Assassin’s codex seems like a cool side activity until you learn that it always involves paying courtesans or thieves to distract the guards and just walking in and picking up the page from the middle of a single room. It’s the original pay to win activity (albeit with in-game currency.) Other activities like assassination contracts and collecting glyphs involve a bit more variety and thought, but despite how much I enjoyed my time with AC2 I was starting to run out of steam by the time I hit the middle of the game, and there’s still a ton more to do after that, much of it pretty similar to what has come before. AC1’s repeated rhythms at least had a design/story reason behind them (you are prepping for an assasination, gathering intel etc..) AC2 is much happier to just tell you “collect archer uniforms from these 3 chests. Now go free your comrades from these 3 prison cells.” It’s busy work and while the game isn’t super long for an open world game (about 25-30 hours) it definitely feels padded at times. AC2 keeps introducing new conspirators who are very similar to the old ones. There’s a big bad guy calling the shots the whole time, but you don’t spend a lot of time with him until the end. Also Ezio spends a lot less time talking to the bad guys he kills than Altair does. They’re established through cut scenes, an in-game database, and lots of conversations so it’s not that you don’t know why you’re killing them, but you don’t get to know them as people or hear their perspective in the same way. I kind of missed Altair’s long chats with the deceased.
The Desmond stuff is also still not very compelling. Yes you actually get to do stuff as him this time, as opposed to slouch around and read email, and yes they try to spice things up with sassy sidekick characters, but whenever it pulls you out of the animus the game just drags for the 20 or so minutes it takes for them to get you back in. It’s a small complaint, except that they built this framing device for some reason and they don’t know what to do with it.
Another issue I had with the Ezio collection version is that it makes the DLC unskippable. There are two “restored” chapters between chapter 11 and the end of the game and they are…a very mixed bag and probably should have been left permanently cut. The first one is an attempt at a large-scale battle scene and just does not work as currently implemented, at least in the Ezio collection. There’s no independent AI for soldiers vs guards, so after every battle the guards you were fighting alongside start ‘investigating’ the bodies on the ground from the battle they were just themselves a part of. It’s very very silly. Also it shows the limits of the fighting in AC2. It’s just not a ton of fun. None of it is challenging or interesting, and in fact I ended the final mission of the DLC in about two minutes by approaching from a different angle than the game expected and stealth killing the last bad guy as he started talking to me, which was kind of fun but anti-climactic, but the DLC also feels half-finished in terms of scripting and plotting and it’s an overall mess.
The second piece of DLC involves going back to a new area of Florence (which is very bare bones and uninteresting compared with the rest of the game) to assassinate a few people in pursuit of a dude who appears totally unrelated to the main plot of the game. The missions themselves are better and more interesting. They’re some of the most open-ended assassinations the game has to offer, and my very best moment with the game was during one mission where I had to kill a farmer surrounded by guards without being seen first. I hired some thieves to create a distraction so I could go wait in a pile of hay for the farmer to pass. Then, during a gap in the guard coverage, I jumped out and shot him in the back with my pistol. It was challenging and offered a lot of approaches and I felt smart and skilled for pulling my plan off, which is how an assassination game should make you feel. Figuring out to get on a boat and kill its owner without being seen by the half-dozen guards on the deck was another highlight and actually gave me a reason to use the ledge assassination technique. This DLC also feels pretty bare bones in terms of story and design, but its bigger flaw is that along with the Battle of Forli it totally sidetracks the game and introduces a bunch of new ideas and themes right before the end. If chapter 13 had happened before chapter 8 or something it might even have been a highlight of the game due to the fun assassinations, but placed where it was it completely wrecks the flow of things, and should also have been cut for that reason. It is, however, the closest AC2 gets to showing us what it would have looked like as a true successor to AC1, and for that reason I’m glad I played it. That style of encounter but more fleshed out and better written would have been a fun and interesting game!
In the comments to my blog on AC1 a few people noted that it was their favorite game in the series and they were disappointed that Ubisoft got away from that design philosophy in the subsequent games. I can’t say I agree because I think AC2 is a better, much more accessible, game, and because, to be honest, I’m kind of conventional in my tastes and prefer the open world action of AC2 to the more plodding stealth/assassination simulator that AC1 tried and failed to be. But I understand their perspective, and I do think something unique was lost when the Assassin’s Creed games changed directions, especially so soon after the release of the first one. Characters yell at Ezio when he climbs buildings (though it doesn’t cause guards to attack, unlike the first game, and there’s a repeated bit of ambient dialog about how it’s not illegal) and one of the things someone shouts is that he’s another “capering crusader.” It’s a mildly clever line, but it gets at something true. Ezio feels a lot more like Batman than Altair ever did. Not just the Batman from the Arkham games (Arkham Asylum came out a few months before AC2 so could not have affected development too much) but like a superhero.
And yet…and yet…when playing through it I did feel like there was something lost, and not just because of its constant references to the Eden myth. Assassin’s Creed 1 felt like a mid-budget game with a very clear vision that it did not quite pull off. Assassin’s Creed 2 feels like a well-made blockbuster. It’s fun and exciting while it lasts, but it’s also not that new (especially 11 years after its release) and it compromises its vision repeatedly in order to be more fun. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it sows the seeds of the franchise’s destruction, and I was left wondering what it would have been like if the second game had followed the blueprint created by the first one instead. But while Assassin’s Creed 2 was ambitious in terms of storytelling, setting, characterization, and aesthetics, it’s much less ambitious when it comes to gameplay. It’s content to just be another, very good, open world game.
I played until 2 AM one night because I just did not want to stop, and I did all the optional assassin tombs and some other activities after I finished the main story, while I normally drop games immediately after I roll credits, so I can easily endorse this one if you’re into open game action. A part of me wishes they had stuck with the original design and tried to polish that up into something special. The other, bigger, part of me just really likes Ezio and his crazy adventures with Leonardo Di Vinci.