"Nothing is true... everything is permitted"
This year was definitely the Year of the Assassin in my house. Thanks to the Good Game Top 100 list (where Assassin's Creed II came in at number 19), and a random conversation with one of the girls at work about the fact she'd picked up the first two games, the combination of which led me to do the same.
And it all snowballed from there.
I was going to wait since I'm getting Assassin's Creed: Black Flag for Christmas, but these five games are all part of the "Desmond" story arc, so it makes sense to keep these thoughts all together and deal with the later games one at a time.
Also, these aren't necessarily "reviews" as such, they're more my associated thoughts around the games.
Technically the first game in the Assassin's Creed series is sitting on my Pile of Shame.
I finished Brotherhood last year (the third game in the series but my first foray into the world of AC), and then earlier this year bought both AC1 and AC2 at the same time. I started playing AC2 and then thought that I would just try out the first game before I got too deep into AC2.
I played a few hours of it and haven't gone back... at least not yet. And, if I'm being honest, it probably won't happen at all (and the more games in the series I play, the less I want to go all the way back to the beginning).
Part of the issue is that by comparison with both AC2 and Brotherhood, the controls feel SO DAMN CLUNKY. Add to that the fact that the guards all seem to be ridiculously sensitive compared with AC2, and I really didn't like the way the game felt as a whole.
I'm sure there is some basic rule of the universe that says that you should never go backwards in a gaming series!
Everybody with an internet connection already knows that AC2 is the best of the AC games... pretty much just full stop, end of story.
I do have a tendency to lump this and Brotherhood together in my head as Part 1 and Part 2 of the same game. I very much feel like they were most of the way through developing AC2, looked at the amount of content they had, the scope of story they wanted to tell, knew that the multiplayer wasn't going to be finished in time and went "well, if we take these things and the multiplayer and cut the story here and then develop these other things that were on our original wish-list, we can make two full games".
Maybe at some point in the future they will re-release AC2 and Brotherhood as one giant game (and remastered, naturally... damn that would be awesome).
So, given all that, it's a little hard for me to talk about AC2 on it's own.
Because I'd played Brotherhood first, I dove in at the deep end. In fact I rage quit Brotherhood for several months because I couldn't follow Uncle Mario through the streets of Rome without losing him or running up walls I didn't intend to. But AC2 has a brilliant, gentle introduction to all the skills, both things new to AC2 and things that carried over from the first game.
And unlike AC1 and AC3, the hero of the AC2 trilogy, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, is a likeable character with an actual sense of humour, even if everything around him is turning upside down. From what little of AC1 that I've played, I didn't actually like Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad all that much. He comes off, at least at the beginning of the game, as a complete arrogant douchebag (he was better in Revelations, but that takes place after the events of AC1). And Ratonhnhaké:ton aka Connor from AC3 was, for the most part, entirely too busy being serious and lacked a sense of humour or lightness (there were a couple of very rare moments, such as some of his interactions with the folks at the homestead, and he grew on me as time went on, but overall, he's a much more dour hero).
It's also not just Ezio that has a sense of humour... the game in general has a lightness in certain parts... like the fact that they introduce Ezio's uncle by having him say "It'sa me, Mario" literally had me laughing out loud.
AC2 just gets it all right... the combat, the difficulty, the missions and all of the additional content. There were some spots that were challenging and missions I had to do a few times before I got things right (and I did end up hitting the internet for some of the solutions to the Subject 16 quests that didn't make any sense), but I never felt like I was out of my depth like it did at certain points in later games of the series.
As I've already said, this really does feel like the natural sequel to AC2, especially given that you literally start the Ezio part of the game in Brotherhood in the exact same location that you left it in AC2.
And, for me anyway, I feel like they took everything in AC2 that I loved and just +1'd it. The tower missions being more of a puzzle than a straight climb, having the whole of Rome to conquer and free rather than the multiple locations of AC2, the additional missions and tasks you could undertake... all of it just worked for me. True, it was the first AC game I played, and that probably factors in rather heavily, but other than the aforementioned steep learning curve and rage quit at the beginning of the game, it really did hit all the right notes for me.
Also, because it was the only AC game I owned at the time, I was a bit of a completionist freak... I think the only things I didn't finish were a couple of the racing challenges, since the one thing I hate in AC games more than almost anything else is having to do timed runs... I completely suck at it.
Brotherhood is also the only AC game I've played where I've dabbled in the multiplayer mode. To be honest it was what got me past my initial rage quit... I taught myself how to climb, how to assassinate, how to find a target, how to just exist in the world, all from a handful of multiplayer sessions. But it gave me enough confidence and desire to eventually go back and restart the single player campaign.
Once I finally got into it, one of the things I did love about it was the assassin recruits (and it's something I really missed when I went back to play AC2). In fact I've loved it in all the games since Brotherhood, and it's been interesting to watch the development of how you recruit the assassins from the initial idea of random people on the street in Brotherhood, to the mixture of random citizens and specific missions in Revelations to the story based missions of AC3.
I can totally understand why people found the story and the story missions as "more of the same" in Brotherhood after playing AC2, but because I really enjoyed both games (and the aforementioned thought that they're essentially one big game) I never had that issue.
Rounding out the Ezio Trilogy is AC Revelations.
I do have a confession to make... when I started this game I was just so damn happy to be out of Italy and into somewhere that looked different and felt different. Sure, after a while of running around the city I realised that it's all essentially the exact same people and building models, just with different skins on them, but it was a welcome change after two games worth of the same "Italian-ness".
I also found myself surprisingly fond of the whole new bomb mechanic. Usually with things like that I tend to forget about them or else use them only when absolutely required. But in this game I used them all the time, granted not always well, but I definitely gave it a red hot go. And, once I moved on to AC3, I actually really missed them... especially given the limited bomb capacity (both in terms of choice and number that could be carried) in that game.
And, secondary confession, I much preferred Ezio's relationship with Sophia Sartor in this game to the flashback memories of Cristina Vespucci from Brotherhood (and to be honest all I really remember of those is that Cristina comes across as a bit of a bitch for the most part). But he and Sophia are just sweet together.
Maybe it's the change of city/country, maybe it's an updated game engine, I don't know, but I did find Revelations to often be a more attractive game than either of it's predecessors. Not that AC2 and Brotherhood were ugly games, far from it, but I found myself more likely to stop and just take in a sunrise or sunset vista in this game than I was in either of the previous two games.
As with Brotherhood, there aren't really that many major changes to the gameplay from the Brotherhood game. You do get a new hidden blade weapon, the hook blade, and there are some new take down moves for the blade that you can use on guards. But like the two previous games, I'm essentially a button masher at heart and essentially just mashed my way through all of the combat, with the occasional use of the kick to break things up (which is something else I miss in AC3).
One of the things that I hated in Revelations was the decision to "force" players into a "tower defence" section if they spend too much time being wanted by the guards. Other than the introductory sequence that showed you how to play (which I had to play twice before I got it right), I didn't succeed once. Fortunately all that meant was recapturing the tower again, which was the much less painful option. I'm very glad it's a mechanic they abandoned in AC3 though since it was pretty damn annoying, at least until you get your assassin recruits up to the required level and they held the towers for you.
Overall, Revelations had the weakest story, there's no real reason why Ezio needs to get that worked up about the plot in this game, and to be honest, he kind of doesn't... it's more of a "really, I've already done all of these things and now I have to stop them from finding these discs?" kind of vibe. The stakes are generally pretty damn low.
It's also the game with the most annoying "Desmond" storyline/gameplay. The switch from third to first person gameplay in those sequences and the difficulty spike of the Desmond story missions made me abandon them about halfway through since they weren't vital to the overall game.
Just as an aside, one of my favourite moments from the main game comes from when you visit Cappadocia. At the end of the sequence you confront the main villain for that location and he has a big soliloquy about why he's doing what he's doing before the game gives you back control of Ezio. When you get control back, the bad guy keeps talking and you're supposed to have a big fight with him while he, presumably, talks the whole time. I'd forgotten that I'd equipped the crossbow earlier on and once the cut scene was over the first thing I did was pressed the attack button and shot him straight in the face, fight over. You had to be there, but I was amused.
AC3 was definitely a mixed bag for me. There were things about it I liked quite a lot... a new protagonist, a completely new time period and location completely unlike any of the previous games, plus the overall look of the game... but the things that I didn't think worked as well as previous games tipped the scale a little more that the things I loved.
I get what they were trying to do with making you play the opening sequences as Haytham Kenway before switching to the real main character several hours in... it sets the whole landscape, introduces a large number of the characters quite quickly, sets up conflict and gives motivation for the main story (well, kind of). But all it really serves to do is clog up the first several hours of gameplay with a character who isn't the lead. And it's not even like the "revelation" that comes at the end of the Haytham chapters is in any way surprising.
*Here there be spoilers*
Having played all the previous games in quick succession, the one thing I know about Assassins as a group (at least as they've been presented to me thus far) is that they can't seem to shut the hell up about BEING Assassins... it's all Brotherhood this and Assassins that. Haytham never says it once... everything he talks about is cloaked in an extra layer of subterfuge and even if I hadn't known he was a Templar when I started (thanks to damn internet spoilers), I'm pretty sure I would have been damn suspicious after the first couple of hours.
I think overall, my main complaint is that AC3 doesn't actually feel like an Assassin's Creed game. Or at least not like the Assassin's Creed games that I'd become used to. It's a decent enough game for what it is, but it's changed enough of the core mechanics and game-play that the things that made the Ezio trilogy feel properly "assassin-y" are nowhere to be seen.
On the positive side, I love the ability to free-run through the trees, and not randomly jumping off in the wrong direction (well, unless you really screw up) once you're in one of those "branch corridors", but the free-running in the cities just doesn't feel the same. The buildings are all the wrong shape, it feels like there are no flat open roofs, there are far too many soldiers with rifles who can just snipe at you from what seems like miles away without you knowing they're even there and on the whole the buildings are just too damn far apart.
A lot of the time in previous games I have just run through the streets, shoving people aside as I go, but I pretty much did that ALL the time in this one. That is when I wasn't using the Fast Travel system, which was a godsend.
And I absolutely hate the regenerating health bar. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it.
That, combined with the lack of health potions in this game as well as the fact that the guards are much more difficult to take down (plus their lack of floating overhead health bars and their annoying combo breakers and Connor's fighting controls), means that any large amount of combat and I was desync'ed before I knew it (and don't even get me started on the number of times I've been killed and eaten by bears, bobcats, wolves and cougars due to the stupid "push this, now this, now this" mechanic for repelling them... I did get a better handle on it towards the end of the game, but overall, hated it). I worked out over halfway through the game that the best way to cope with large groups of guards is to use the smoke bombs, but since you're restricted to carrying three bombs for a lot of the game and you can't craft them yourself like in Revelations, that tactic isn't always a viable option.
Another contributing factor is that there's no armour and no progression, stats and equipment-wise, that I really noticed anyway, to the amount of health you have. In previous games I've tended to start the story missions, then at a certain point go off, do a ton of the side quests and extra things until I either unlock or can afford the best armour available, and then I can take on all of the enemy types with much less trouble. And the fact that you have to craft the upgrades to your belt pouches (after having found or purchased the items to do that) rather than just spending cash on them is just frustrating beyond measure.
Overall, I really didn't have any use for the cash I collected. Sure, I used it to buy all the maps, and I bought all the different dye jobs for the outfit, but there was no other real incentive to spend cash. I didn't feel the need to buy additional weapons beyond the sword I bought fairly early in the game with what appeared to have the highest overall stats, as every new thing that I unlocked seemed to be in some way less effective than the weapons I started the game with. Once I'd finished the game I immediately went back and bought them all, just to appease the completionist in me, but it didn't seem to be required for the game.
Also, there's no shops to buy, no paintings or books to collect (the pirate treasure tinkets and the incredibly annoying floating pages... which I don't think they ever properly explained the purpose of, although I did mostly work it out towards the end of the game... but all of that stuff just wasn't the same)... and to be honest, while I could've wasted cash on the boat (and did on a couple of occasions), I didn't really feel a need there either.
Weirdly, all of the things that made the combat harder also made me more likely to do sneaky assassin-y things. And yes, I'm aware of the inherent contradiction in that given what I said before. But there was lots of sneaking around and hiding and whatnot. But even there the game felt much messier. More often than not there was no real obvious "path" from one hiding spot to another, and there were multiple occasions where I got to an area, jumped into the first patch of straw or brush or whatnot and looked around and looked around and looked around, and there was no obvious way to progress without being seen.
And don't even get me started on the entire end mission and the following end sequence...
*Here there be more spoileriness*
Not only was the final mission/task almost impossible to do without desyncronising, but once I managed to get to a certain stage, there was no clear path of where I was supposed to go, yet again. I literally only made it through because I accidentally flailed my way onto the right place at the right time and was able to run after the villain.
But the thing that REALLY irked me was the fact that ALL control is taken off you. You don't even get a "Press X to stab", it's all cut scenes. Then you're forced to lumber very slowly up a path and into a tavern, you trigger another cut scene, but once again, aren't given any agency or ability to DO anything, other than watch it all play out. The thing that really shocked me though was the very last foe you kill, there's no "pre-death conversation/send off" moment... maybe it was an intentional thing, Connor has nothing he wants to say to the villain, he isn't going to offer him forgiveness or even send him on his way with the traditional prayer of his people like he's done with every other foe, bear, deer and bunny he's killed along the way.
*Here endeth the spoileriness*
And then there's the 900 hours of credits you can't skip through before they throw you into a new, incredibly badly explained sequence. Don't get me wrong, once I worked out what the hell I was supposed to be doing, I kind of enjoyed it, but like a lot of the game I just felt that it was badly explained.
There were two main things that really, really bugged me throughout the game... firstly was the fact that more often than seemed usual in Assassin's Creed games, control was taken away from you and turned into a QuickTime event... and secondly, but more importantly, the total and complete lack of appropriate information before you go on a mission, and even worse when it's any of the additional content... for example, I had absolutely no idea what to do with the "find these things around the place" missions (aka Delivery Missions) without having to look it up online.
The same with the assassination contracts and the like... without knowing that you needed to go and look at the map for additional markers, the game doesn't do a very good job of signposting things, or just flat out telling you what the hell you're supposed to be doing.
The other issue I have is the appalling menu design. Previous games haven't had the BEST menus, but this one is next to useless. There are three icons devoted to returning to the mission, restarting the mission from the last checkpoint and quitting the mission entirely, but no ability to go straight from the menu to the map via the menu, and the things that are there are hidden inside a layer of badly described user interface that doesn't help.
Maybe it's just that I'm not great at the game, I certainly don't consider myself any kind of kick-ass guru, and 98% of the really, really cool things I've done in all of the games, but especially this one, have often been done completely by accident. It just felt like the difficulty curve really, really spiked between Revelations and AC3.
Having said all of that, there are a lot of things I do love about the game. Firstly it's a really, really good looking game. Even with the occasional visual glitch (and that's more about the AI putting characters in places they shouldn't be than about how the game actually looks... I had more than a few instances of seeing characters appear a foot off the ground and then drop into place, once humorously, straight into the ocean for some reason) and the slightly weird way that foliage just seems to instantly sprout out of the ground or unfold as you run forward... it's still very pretty. Especially with all the new weather effects, there's nothing quite like stalking a target in the middle of the night while a thunderstorm rages around you.
And even though it was often trying to bite, claw, stab, maul or eat me, having the world be alive with all manner of animals was fantastic too.
In addition to the new story based missions to recruit the small group of assassins (which were problematic only because of the combat mechanics), which I did enjoy once I got my head around them, the addition of Connor's homestead and the tradespeople he finds and assists is a great dynamic, and one that I really enjoy (well, maybe not the bit where you have to round up the very stubborn pigs and get them back into their pen... although Conner's mutterings while he ran around did amuse me). I kind of wish that there were more of those to be honest, and I also wish they had been released more gradually between other missions as they make less sense when you did them all in one giant hit like I did... but that's the way they're given to you... and so that's the way I played them.
I also enjoyed the idea in this game that the Templars aren't this band of evil, moustache twirling villains only out to cause trouble and mess things up. There's a great ambivalence to this particular set of Templar villains where they tell Connor exactly why he's screwed up and why him trying to stop them has instead caused him to make things worse than they were before, at least from their perspective. I was never completely sure how truthful they were being, or whether the game was trying to set up the idea of this being how you turn an Assassin to the Templar cause... slowly, seductively, by convincing them little by little that your goals aren't so different. But either way I did enjoy that element of ambiguity (and I'm wondering how it will play out in later games if at all).
I think this was also the game where I enjoyed the Desmond missions and storyline (except, again, for the way it ended) more so than any of the others. The little I played in AC1 was fairly straight forward story set up, AC2 was better and did have a couple of sequences where you were allowed to run around as Desmond. Brotherhood ramped that up with the modern day Monteriggioni setting where you could run around like a madman and climb all over everything as well as the final sequence through the Colosseum. Revelations was the worst of the bunch, although some of the Desmond backstory was interesting, it wasn't enough to actually make me struggle on through the gameplay. But in AC3, they really give you the chance to go on missions as Desmond, and while the lack of the "Animus" HUD information kinda bugged me (as it did in all the other Desmond portions of the games really), this really felt like the first time I really got to get out there as Desmond (beyond the Brotherhood sequence). And I liked it.
I am very much looking to see what they've done with Black Flag... and while I don't know that I'm ready to upgrade to the PS4 any time soon, I wouldn't mind checking out Rogue.