Pressing Start: Assassin’s Creed 2

Like the whole world and his dog I ended up pretty much hating Assassin’s Creed when it came out. It had a great central idea behind it – you play as an assassin who roams around open cities and murders some important people for presumably some reason. But it just never got even close to making good on that promise. It was acceptable at first, but then it collapsed into a game where you look at a guy, follow a guy, pickpocket a guy, look at another guy, and then run bumbling into a roomful of people before punching your mark to death. You were, in fact, the worst assassin.

I held off on the apparently brilliant sequel for years because why would I spend a good deal of money on the sequel to something I hated – it’d be like buying the box set of The Big Bang Theory after watching a few episodes from the first season. I seriously have no idea why anyone would do that.

But with the game on sale for just over three pounds on Steam, and since everyone said it was good, I decided it was worth a go. The following is a record of my experience with the terrible, terrible first couple of hours of the game:

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I launched the game for the first time and found that the menu screen was lagging. Not the best first impression. If your game’s menu screen is moving at about five frames a second that’s probably good evidence that it’s not optimised very well for the PC. Then I plugged in my xbox controller and found the game didn’t support it. I alt-tabbed out to find a web page telling me that I’d have to download a fan-made fix to enable controller support, and since I have a finite number of hours on this earth I decided to stick with the mouse and keyboard.

After an introductory cutscene in which the main character tells you what happened in the first game – there’s a secret society known as the Templars, and another called the Assassins, who have been fighting each other for centuries for literally no reason – you’re given control. Someone from the first game who wasn’t on your side but actually was is here to help you escape. But first she straps you into the Animus, a machine used to look into the genetic history of the person using it, allowing you to learn from it. More importantly, allowing you to be an assassin from the past.

The scene switches to the birth of one of your ancestors – a wealthy 15th Century Florentine named Ezio Auditore da Firenze, which I’ll admit is a name so cool it stopped me from complaining for a bit. The game then tries to teach you how to move your little baby arms and legs, except none of the prompts on the screen correlate to any keyboard key known to man. The game told me to move my character’s legs, and proceeded to show me a picture of a leg on a blue background. Then it told me to move my right hand and showed me a picture of a hand on a red background. “Of course”, I thought, “press the red hand key”. Later I was told I could lock-on to enemies, after many fights where this information would have been appreciated, and the game showed me a picture of a grey silhouette of an arrow pointing away from a face. Obviously, that meant that I had to press the F key.

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This carries on throughout the first few hours of the game. Every time I was taught a new move that required its own individual key, I felt like Howard Carter stumbling into the tomb of Tutankhamun and trying to decipher the fucking hieroglyphics etched into the walls. Every new move that was introduced was followed by a trip to the options menu where I got to look at the game’s Rosetta Stone that translated the game’s pictograms into information I could understand.

So after you’re done being born you get out of the machine. The lady who’s helping you escape leads you into an elevator and down into a big square room with lots of cubicles and guards. The cubicles are set out to form a little maze, and your companion tells you to shut the hell up and sneak your way through to avoid the guards, who, despite working in a top secret base for a secret society that manages to control the world, don’t carry guns.

Here’s what happens when you attempt to sneak through the maze: you go in a big loop around the room, following your companion. She tells you when to move and when to stop to wait for a guard to conveniently turn around. For some reason the character you control doesn’t shut the hell up at all, and instead keeps talking in something approaching his outside voice the whole time. Eventually we got to the end of the room

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I don’t think I can explain how tired, how exhausted with the prospect of being alive this sequence made me. There was no reason for it to be there – it didn’t give the narrative time to develop, and it definitely didn’t teach me anything about the game’s mechanics, except about how the enemies in this game are particularly prone to turning around and wandering off at opportune moments. I just directed my mouse round in a little squiggle for a minute or two as I became slowly but irrevocably. It made me ask a lot of questions. Like, ‘why is the game making me walk through this room?’, or ‘why are the cubicles in this office arranged to make a crap maze?’, and last of all ‘when am I going to get to be a crap assassin again, like in the first game?’

After all this we get away and go somewhere. I don’t know, I can’t really remember the details. But this all took about forty five minutes. Or something like that. Again – hazy on the details. But eventually the nice lady with relatively good voice acting convinced the character I was playing to help the Assassins fight the Templars. And after she did that something horrible happened.

She gave my character a hug. I didn’t expect it, and so I wasn’t prepared. But just as her face broke into a smile and she put her arms happily around my character it felt like the game had just run off a cliff and base jumped into the uncanny valley. And I was tandem jumping with it, all the while watching these two twitchy, dead-bodied marionettes bumping against one another while a smile contorted itself across her face. It really kind of made me feel weird inside, like all the best uncanny valley moments do.

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To be fair to the game, I’ve played it for a good few hours more now and it really does get  a lot better. After about two hours of tedious walking around (both in and out of the Animus), fetch quests, and fighting with the controls, it opens up a bunch and becomes O.K. And after about four hours it gets genuinely quite good, even if I do feel the controls are still fighting amongst themselves. So, game developers: I suppose the take away is this: sometimes games can take a while to get into, and that’s fine, but if it takes longer than the running time of most films for a game to become tolerable then someone, somewhere, is not doing their job.

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