Assassin's Creed is one of the most polarizing series in all of gaming. But it doesn't always boil down to you love it or you hate it. It seems like the majority of people recognize the flaws of the original, but loved the concept enough that they gave the sequel a pass on many of the lingering issues. For both games I nodded along with positive reviews glowing with praise, and nodded along with negative reviews overflowing with vitriol. I recognized that I loved what I had played, but couldn't turn a blind eye to the glaring faults. Like an adorable puppy that just pissed on my PS3, I would just smile and say "that's my Assassin's Creed."
Let's get the love stuff out of the way first, because frankly, that's always less interesting. (We're gamers, we criticize. Praise is not our forte):
Here's the thing: I'm never going to have the opportunity to visit the city of Acre circa 1191. Or Renaissance Era Venice. Ever. Thankfully, Ubisoft recognized how much the stunning architecture and culture these times and locales had to offer gamers, and have not only created an entertaining gaming experience but also provided a slice of (albeit embellished) history to explore and enjoy. It may not be History channel to the letter accurate, but that's not what I'm asking for. I won't ever get to dive into the canals of Venice from 2 stories up, so I'm damned appreciative for the chance to do so as Ezio.
And the draw distances...well, just holy shit.
Mirror's Edge may have refined the formula, but Assassin's Creed was the first game to give us true free-running joy. Bounding over beams and store fronts until reaching a jumping off point to tackle/stab your mark is an experience that Assassin's Creed has perfected, and I can't get enough of it. AC2 ups the ante by pitting your parkour skills against those of fleeing pickpockets, and good lord, bear tackling one of those bastards is rewarding.
Few games rival the visceral, intimate bloodiness of Assassin's Creed. AC2 kicked it up even more in the cathartic violence department. The combat is fluid, natural, and a joy to watch. Perfectly timing a counterattack and watching Altair impale a foe on his blade, then thrust it further for good measure before kicking him loose...well, that's just good old fashioned entertainment.
And if you can honestly say you don't find the combat that great after watching Ezio leap down from a beam and slam two guards heads into the ground, his blades piercing their skulls with satisfying puffs of red mist....well then I don't even know you anymore.
I admit that the combat got repetitive in the first given the limited weapon list, but AC2 did an excellent job remedying that by giving you a lot of tools to play around with. I fell in love with throwing sand in the faces of my opponents, smacking them around a bit, then performing a disarm and killing them with their own swords. And you just can't beat going berserk on some peons after stealing a giant ax from one of those armored fuckers.
Now that we got that gushy garbage out of the way, let's move onto the hate:
Parkour - Yes, I may love the parkour mechanic, but honestly: it sucks. Consider for a moment that to simply determine whether altair walks, jogs, or sprints there are THREE (3) different buttons required. Pushing the analog stick full tilt makes Altair/Ezio walk. Pressing the X button allows him to...Walk fast? Am I reading that correctly? Then pressing R1 allows him to jog, while holding R1 and X at the same time makes him sprint.
Hold two buttons and push forward to sprint? Maybe this wouldn't be needlessly complicated if you didn't have to sprint/freerun that often, but it's what 90% of the fucking gameplay is based on. I'll fix this for you right now: full tilt on analog = jog, then just hold X to sprint/freerun. We don't need to hold a seperate button to fucking jog. That's called a bad design decision that should have hit the cutting room floor by round 2.
And while we're fixing, why don't we go ahead and snazz up our parkour animations, shall we? Ezio and Altair are very agile, no doubt, but why are they limited to such utilitarian moves? I want to have more fun getting from A to B, seeing as how getting from A to B is huge part of every mission in the game. Take the following video for example:
Note the fancy flips and spins. These are purely thrown in for aesthetics, but they are entertaining nonetheless. Consider the brilliant style system implemented in Spiderman 2 - pulling off tricks while web slinging didn't affect the gameplay in any major way but made for a fun little mini game while in transit through the city. If you're worried that including such flashy moves might impinge on our suspension of disbelief, I wouldn't lose sleep over it. You've already taken a sledgehammer to it with this whole "the sun is the enemy" business.
Combat - Simply too easy, especially in the first one. The counterattack in AC1 is so overpowered that it nullifies all other moves in the game. The second only exacerbates the issue by giving you health packs that can be used mid battle. I never died once from combat while playing AC2.
The relative ease of combat plays into my next complaint, which is much more salient to the series as a whole...
So, you're supposed to be an assassin in this game...right? Not a barbarian fighter warlord? Ok, if you say so.
Stealth (lack thereof) -
I got news for you: Ezio and Altair are awful assassins. Truly the worst possible men for the job. Oh sure, they always kill their marks, but if you want it done quietly you're better off doing it yourself. With a lawnmower.
These two "assassins" subscribe to the mindset that the best way to kill someone is to kick their door down, run straight at them while brandishing a weapon, and then chase them through crowded city streets while their soon-to-be victim screams for guards. Real subtle, fellas. Nimble Assassins? Not so much. Hired Guns? That's more like it.
Pictured: Ezio and Altair
Let me crouch Ubisoft. For the love of god, I just want to crouch. As a trained assassin, I don't think this should be out of the question. Uncharted 2 has an infinitely superior stealth system to your game, and, well, that's just unacceptable. You see, Naughty Dog's game is about a treasure hunter and it's like an action movie with a ton of gunfights and explosions and car chases. Your game is about Assassin's who stalk their marks from the shadows, waiting for the perfect time to strike. Just to reiterate: It's about Assassin's, not action heroes. And there is no stealth system to speak of. Oh, you knew? Oh, alright I just wanted to make sure somebody had mentioned that to you.
I just don't get it. We're meant to be playing guys who lurk in the shadows and strike when the moment is right, yet 90% of the time they wind up surrounded by guards and have absolutely no issues fighting their way out. Does this not strike anyone else as odd? It's called cognitive dissonance. My brain is saying Assassin's should behave this way, Ubisoft says they behave that way. I wish Ubisoft would put a bigger emphasis on fleeing from battle and hiding. I suppose a historical Splinter Cell is what I'm looking for, and what I kind of assumed the series was about prior to playing. No, It may not be as "badass" to flee from a battle with 20 guards, but it's what an effective assassin would do, and could potentially be just as fun.
Courtesans/Thieves/Mercs - While cool sounding in theory, the hired help mechanic was really just thrown in to add a bullet point to the back of the box. All 3 groups perform the exact same function, they cost the same (incredibly cheap) price, and are essentially just a way to skip a fight if you're lazy. Spend the measly $150 to hire them, point them at the guards, and wait for the area to be clear. *yawn*. If I wanted a game that played itself I'd buy Wii Music. Fix this, Ubisoft. Differentiate the groups at least a little. For instance, why couldn't the thieves actually steal from the guards and cut your character in on the loot? Bottom line: a broken mechanic that is far too effective for how inexpensive it is. And speaking of broken mechanics...
The Money system - Money systems are notoriously tricky to pull off, so I appreciate that Ubisoft at least gave it a shot. On one hand I'm glad that acquiring cash in AC2 isn't the Sisyphean task that it is in Fable 2. The problems begin with upgrading the Villa. As soon as renovations became available I became so psyched by the prospect that I did nothing but run side missions until I could afford to max the thing out. Assassination contract here, beat up mission there, and bam. Done. Renovations complete. I still had about 3/4 of the actual game to go through at this point, and money was NEVER a problem after maxing out the Villa. Any new weapons, armor, or paintings I came across I could instantly purchase. This killed the fun of the system for me. All it took was running a few side missions and I'm set for money for the rest of the game? That doesn't seem right. Either make the renovations cost way more (as the benefit for renovating early on outweighs any other expenditure in the game), or simply make money harder to come by.
Also, shortly after it's introduced, the concept of looting bodies and pickpocketing becomes useless. And by shortly after it's introduced, I mean before it's introduced. Sure, you can grab some throwing knives off of dead bodies, but again, not really necessary when your pulling down Scrooge McDuck money.
Storyline - True story: there was a point during my playthrough of AC2 when Erin (my lady) came and sat on the couch next to me. Ezio was talking to someone about something.
Erin: So what's going on in the game, plot wise?
Lindy: I...well, this guy...umm............yeah, honestly I don't know 'cause I don't really give a shit.
Erin: Hmm...then why are you playing it?
Lindy: Because I really enjoy the gameplay, I just couldn't care less about the story.
While I don't want to diminish the effort put into the story of either game, the bottom line is that I just don't care. I'm not playing these games for the Rubik's cube of intrigue and conspiracy they inevitably present, I usually just want to stab something. Or jump off a building. Preferably both at the same time. While I appreciate that someone toiled away for hours building this complex tree of characters and dialogue, it really is just white noise between gameplay segments.
And don't get me started on the Desmond bits. I'm sad that Ubisoft didn't have the confidence to create a purely historical adventure game, that they relied on the crutch of sci-fi epic garbage permeating all of gaming lately. I just shook my head at the "twist" ending of AC2 and reminded myself that I was correct in disregarding the story from the beginning. It just proved that the narrative in these games is hackneyed, stilted fluff that isn't worth my attention.
In summary There's so much double think going on when I play these games. Part of me loves running across the rooftops of Florence, deftly dodging an archers arrows and, when he draws his sword and attacks, kicking his weapon away before double-blading him in the face. These are experiences unique to Assassin's Creed, and I cherish them.
The other part simply cannot stop seeing the flaws. There is a better game buried beneath the clutter of flawed systems, loose controls, and filler missions, and until that game is unearthed I'll continue to have a love/hate relationship with Assassin's Creed. Here's hoping the third entry is something we can all agree is great.