Monday, April 30, 2012

Old Guy Game Guide: Assassin's Creed II

I get it now.

What “it” entails is most of the elements of third person, open world video gaming.

The Godfather was most definitely my introduction to the addictiveness of this type of game. However, I was in no way prepared for how much MORE engrossing a higher end version of that genre could be until I started playing Assassin’s Creed II.
 Ready for Action

As could probably be guessed from my over the top review, I really loved The Don’s Edition.  I had no real interest in exploring other non New York cities in that world, or figuring out squad combat, reducing any temptation to get the sequel.

(Not to mention that I am nowhere near as big a fan of the “modern” sections of The Godfather: Part II as I am of the original film.  Mind you, if they ever make a game of the flashback “Rise of Vito” part of the movie, I’ll be on line for the midnight release.)

Based on an impressive looking review seen on TV, and a desire to try another Italian based game (to continue the requirement of a glass of red wine during play sessions), I chose Assassin’s Creed II.  The two games combined to provide a detailed understanding of the appeal of this type of title; both when compared to the First Person Shooter genre, which I formerly preferred, and in general as a vastly addictive pastime.  In fact the level of addiction was to the point that the first thing I would do when I pulled into a new parking lot was try to assess the best route to climb the nearest building.

I get it now: High Res Graphics
 Just look at this thing!

My original preference for first person games stemmed from the immersiveness I perceived the character viewpoint provided.  First person isn’t completely true to real life vision, however, due to the enforced blinders the edges of the screen creates.  The view in a third person game with fully three dimensional camera controls actually gives a much more lifelike ability to survey an area.

What the high definition, overly detailed world of Assassin’s Creed II slammed home is that with graphics of the quality they are now, the game play and cut scenes have reached a level of near parity.  This causes the adventure to feel much more like a movie that can be directly influenced  Even though the world isn’t experienced through the character’s eyes, the element of control and high quality visuals create a much greater immersion in the story line itself.

The giant problem with this is how distractingly beautiful the scenery is.  With one button free running, a slight veer is all that was required to change carefully measured bounding from one structural element to another into a bone shattering death leap from the rooftops. There's also the problem that no matter how good the graphics are, it is nearly impossible to tell a twenty foot deep canal from a six inch deep flood plain when running at full speed several stories above them.  I’ve fallen or jumped off of all of the major cathedrals and landmarks of Italy.
 That's gonna sting.

I get it now: Original Storyline

I have been partial to games based on other properties in order to let me play in worlds I was familiar with.  Admittedly, this comes from my head being overfilled with fictional universes.  However, I felt this game was a combination of the real world (which I have been known to visit occasionally) and the world of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy (which I still have some brain damage from encountering).  The interactions with gangs of famous people tied into the giant conspiracy theories of the plot, either directly (The Medici Family, Caterina Sforza, Machiavelli, Savonarola, Da Vinci, and the fun filled Borgias) or through puzzle references (Ford, Edison, Tesla, the Apollo 11 crew, and all the leaders of World War II), added immensely to the realism of the experience.

The truth of Ezio’s story is that it is far more than either of those worlds.  The benefit of an original tale, especially when as well done as in this game, is that it provides a desire to continue play, above and beyond the general enjoyment of the adventures.  Working through to the end of the game made as much sense as finishing a well written novel, and was for the same reasons.

I found myself making decisions more to enhance the story, than strictly for easier game play reasons.  Dyeing Ezio’s outfit with colors from whatever city was being explored has no effect on game mechanics at all, but in my rather bizarre head, added to the reason behind his ability to blend in with crowds.  Also, despite other weapons being available that had greater in game benefits, I found myself partial to using the Scimitar as a sword of choice, because it looked the flashiest. (Oooooh, shiny thing!)

By the end of the adventures, Ezio’s combat skills, armor, and recovery guaranteed victory in almost any fight, despite ridiculous odds.  Free running over and through streets, courtyards and rooftops while trying to dodge, and eventually ditch, the entire Venetian Militia added a great deal more drama to the narrative, however. 
"Seriously, there is an outrageous amount of running involved."- D. Noble

Finally, instead of dirt cheap instant travel, I would often take a horse from city to city, for the joy of the ride. Even in timed missions, I’d slow down enough to look for MY gray and white steed before galloping off, always rearing up first, despite it having ZERO effect on anything in-game, other than delaying my exit.

I get it now: Open World

This is the key reason these games are addictive.  I was born and bred on linear path games, where, including when a story line is involved, each task or location directly follows the previous one. This almost always led to me being stuck at a challenge I couldn’t accomplish, or in some cases figure out, requiring constant repetition of the task until there was enough frustration and boredom to cause a switch to another title entirely.

By providing an open world to explore, and countless side missions, the annoying repetition virtually vanishes in this type of game.  The Godfather included take overs, hits, and favors, in addition to the standard story tasks.  They were welcome distractions, despite many of them relying on the same mechanics to succeed.   The more modern Assassins Creed 2 is filled with multiple challenges featuring different types of game play.  Any time I’d get stuck, instead of boring repeats, I’d try out one of the other challenges until I thought of, or advanced to, a better way to approach the stickler.

Along with standard missions, which varied between stealth, exploration and all out attack for methods required, there were extra assassination contracts (always against nasty, unsavory types, of course).  Chasing down the cheating husbands of distressed women was similar, but required non lethal combat methods to teach the scallywag a lesson.

“Accidentally” bumping them into a canal afterwards was allowable, but not tossing them in.  (It may be the largest breach with reality in the game; no one else in all of Venice knows how to swim.)  Oddly though, it's perfectly all right to pummel an innocent into unconsciousness, then pick them up and hurl them into the depths to presumably drown.  Disclaimer:  No animals were harmed in the testing of these conditions...merely a dozen or so street mimes.

There were items to collect, (ranging from the practical – treasure chests, weapons and armor, to the educational – art produced in various Italian cities from the period) encouraging exploration for its own sake.  Timed message deliveries required figuring out clever ways to cross large distances as quickly as possible.  The hidden tombs and lairs needed old fashioned platforming skills to complete, and each Glyph revealed a straight mental puzzle to solve. (These were very annoying to accidentally fall into at about 2:30AM when I wanted to turn in, because I refused to go to sleep until I unlocked the latest riddle.)  Ezio even inherits the family villa to use as a base of operation, providing some “Sim City” like exercises in town construction and management to generate money needed for the game.

Then there were the races…

I hated the races...

They were the only part that was overwhelmingly repetitious.

Any other timed task started Ezio at Point A, and wasn’t particular about the path taken to get to Point B as long as the timer didn’t run out.  Races had a great many checkpoints along the way, dictating a specific path.  I learned that as part of the in game free running I am excellent at what we used to call in Juggling Club – “Advanced Recovery”. 

In juggling, that meant salvaging a pattern gone to hell by using entertaining looking, if awkward, throws and catches that eventually restored order.  In this game, it meant grabbing any small edge of a building, or diving into a canal, or falling onto a horse - in a direction I originally wasn’t going in - to save myself from yet another death plummet and rapidly improvising a new path to make it to Point B.  The checkpoints in the races reduced the ability of that trick to work,

and reduced the game to running the same scenario over and over,

and reduced me to angry, whispered profanities to allow venting without waking up my family.

I get it now: Immortality

In a stroke of genius, the developers of the original Assassin’s Creed came up with a “dream within a dream” scenario for these games that prevents “death” from removing suspension of disbelief.  Far more powerful that the Godfather’s waking up at the doctor, death in Assassin’s Creed II doesn’t take the player out of the game, because it doesn’t happen to the character the player is primarily controlling.  The main character is Desmond Miles, who is plugged, Matrix like, into a machine that lets him basically play a video game reliving the actions of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze in fifteenth century Italy. 
Who's playing who?

(And one of the lab technicians is awesomely performed by voice acting queen Eliza Schneider - Liza from Beakman’s World.) When the player’s second level control of Ezio causes him to “die”, the game continues, because Desmond is still unharmed, and his game resets because the memories are now out of synch with reality.

Unsurprisingly, Ezio’s memories did not include falling or jumping off of all of the major cathedrals and landmarks of Italy. 
You'd think he'd remember bouncing like that. 

They also did not include killing innocents, which caused me a bit of a problem as I tended to forget to hit the “target” button on the controller to highlight an enemy before hitting the “assassinate” button from my hiding place in a crowd…

I’d like to apologize to the multiple crowds I inadvertently dispersed through accidentally violent means.   

I get it now: Control Complexity

There have been some days, on some games, where I have been convinced that the PlayStation controller has more buttons than I have fingers and toes.  However, in this highly complex title, that was never the case.  From the early missions before the Assassin’s robes were acquired (when, according to my daughter, Ezio bears an uncanny resemblance to Flynn Rider from Tangled), to the final skills taught by various masters; the in story tutorial is near constant.  Added to these lessons was control operations listed in the upper corner of the screen for available actions.  Combining the training and references with enforced, story driven practice sessions made even the most complex combinations of moves become second nature by the time they were required for normal operations.

Minus the occasional Advanced Recovery or Accidental Assassination, of course…
I really am sorry virtual, digital, Renaissance Italians.

I get it now:  Trophies

I didn’t initially understand trophies.  They seemed to be an arbitrary list of events that acknowledged certain happenings in the games.  In Assassin’s Creed II I started to see them as interesting challenges.  I wouldn’t have considered a fair number of the accomplishments possible without seeing them on the list. They became an entertaining evening’s quest, adding more fun to a game that had considerable hours of fun already built in.

The only trophies I didn’t get are the one’s related to the feathers.  I can never find all the hidden mini McGuffins in any game. In The Godfather, the film reels only provided clips of a movie I’d seen a jillion times, and I didn’t care.  However, the feathers have key story developments tied to them.  I’ve even tried finding all the treasure chests (long after the villa provided more money than I could actually spend) as a way to mark locations I’ve looked, and still never found a bunch. I may have to use an on-line map to find them, if only to see what happens with Ezio’s Mama. 

This brings up another thing I get now: Spoilers

For every video game I’ve tackled since becoming an adult I have augmented my questionable abilities with hints and walkthroughs.  My practice time is limited, and my reflexes are slowing down. Therefore I felt completely justified in losing some of the surprises in the story to reduce needed repetition and dead ends.  That all changed when I ruined some of the really cool twists in The Godfather game and at the beginning of this one.  With the amazing, complex and multi leveled story built into Assassin’s Creed II, I took my chances with screwing things up in order to experience the rest of the full adventure as it happened. In a game this good and fun, playing it over again to see missed items would be no burden at all.

Oh yeah, I guess I should apologize for spoilers here, but since my opinion of a new game is about two years behind the curve, I’m not going to.

I get it now: Comic books are going away

I complained loudly about rotten kids and their flashy newfangled computers ignoring the purity of comics…then I played this thing.

I picked up Assassins Creed II used for fifteen bucks.  That’s about the cost of a Trade Paperback containing a five to six issue comic book series.  If those comics were really dense and well written, they’d provide, at the absolute most, a half to three quarters of an hour of reading time. 

I played this game at least two to five hours a weekend (not counting extra time during holidays) starting in the early fall and finishing sometime in spring.  I got interactive, immersive storytelling that let me be a part of the action, education about Renaissance Italy, and a more engaging compelling plot than ninety percent of the comic books I read in the same time period. (Which anyone who knows me can attest, was quite a few comic books.)

By the time I reached the end of the game I was totally immersed in the events unfolding to the point that it didn’t occur to me that I had been using completely second nature skills to:

sneak into the Vatican

and have a weird magicy battly that ended in a fist fight with the Pope –

until I was getting my mind blown by the weird space lady ending.

Relax, It was the evil Pope.

The story involved me to a level that I refused to miss any of it, buying downloaded content for the first time.  That purchase was definitely worthwhile as well. Again, the price of a couple of single issue comic books yielded a couple of hours of entertaining extra game time. 
Angering an Italian woman has NEVER been safe...
They perfected "the look" well before the fifteenth century.

It also included Caterina Sforza blasting out a tirade, in mixed English and Italian, at the captors of her children, filled with creatively impressive, nonstop profanity, which seemingly went on for hours. Instead of using it as the distraction it was intended to be in order to sneak into the keep where her kids were held, I found myself standing there dumbfounded, enjoying the show.

 I couldn’t help it, once again story and characters made it feel less like playing a video game and more like attending a family reunion.

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