Upon booting up Ubisoft’s renaissance stab ‘em up, I was taken aback – the last thing I was expecting was science fiction.
As it turns out, the story is set in the near future and follows the experiences of Desmond Miles, who finds himself at the business end of some spurious experiments regarding his ‘genetic memory’, or in other words, the events of his ancestor’s lives. It turns out that Desmond’s ancestor’s memories can unlock the secret location of several artefacts that will help the modern day Templars continue their behind-the-scenes-conspiracy brand of world domination. So far, so Dan Brown (only without the comedically bad writing).
The first game followed the genetic memories of Altair, an assassin plying his trade during the time of the third crusade, whereas the sequel centres around Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a renaissance would-be playboy whose silver spoon is yanked from his jaws when his father and brothers are hanged for treason. This injustice pushes him into the family trade of assassination and begins a whirlwind plot that involves many famous figures of renaissance Italy.
Though the science fiction elements serve as an interesting frame in which the events of the game proper (ie. Ezio’s exploits) take place, the opening scenes of the game almost put me off playing the game at all. The upset of unexpected science fiction was one thing (soothed by a quick visit to Wikipedia to read up on the original game’s plot) but starting a game famed for the explorative free-running agility of its protagonist with scenes involving neutered control of a clumsy civilian in linear environments, limited interaction and dull button-mashing fights left me reeling and questioning whether there was any point making this section of the game playable at all.
The following scenes do little to soothe my consternation. After Desmond’s escape, he is introduced to the irksome members of some kind of resistance cell that are so irritating it begs questioning whether Desmond is on the right side of this conflict after all. Once again strapped into the Animus (imagine the kind of thing Neo used to jack in to the matrix) Desmond is ready to experience his first genetic memory of Ezio’s life: his birth, bizarrely enough. No human brain retains the memory of its entry into the world, but apparently the DNA does. Hmm. OK, best not start picking apart the science of this particular fiction, or we won’t get very far into the review. Onward.
The birth scene is pretty stirring: Ezio’s grand entrance is met with anxiety by his mother as he lies motionless and silent in the doctors hands. On screen prompts implore you to press buttons that relate to movements of Ezio’s newborn arms, legs and head, introducing you to the games ‘puppeteer’ control system. The problem is that this whole scene seems completely contrived as a novel way to introduce the player to this ‘revolutionary’ control system, a control system which upon further inspection is almost identical to all third person action adventure games, and the scene itself has no story telling or character building merit to justify its inclusion, feeling utterly out of place.
Ezio’s second memory is of a street brawl – more button mashing – and his third is an annoying trial and error, instant fail-festival of restart task were you must beat your sibling in a foot race to the roof of a building. OK, so I only had to restart three times, but it was still tedious and at odds with the fun that was to follow. It was, shockingly, a good ten minutes before the game really opened up and showed me its charms.
And charming it most certainly is. Ezio’s Florence is beautiful, both aesthetically and practically so. It looks superficially accurate, but closer inspection reveals it’s artifice: everything; every rooftop, window sill, pile of leaves, wooden beam or crate is purposefully placed to ensure that the whole of Florence amounts to a grand playground for Ezio to explore at full tilt, and the control mechanisms are perfectly tuned to take advantage of this: the ‘free running’ control aspect does not require a button press to circumnavigate every piece of street furniture, just holding two buttons and a direction on the thumb stick will direct Ezio to leap over obstacles or up onto buildings as he encounters them, freeing up the player to scan the environment ahead and plot the swiftest course to the next objective. The result is a sense of flowing, fluid movement that plays with the open world of Florence to provide an unforgettable feeling of freedom. If you’ve ever seen a gibbon as it swoops, almost flying, through the canopy, you have an impression of how Assassin’s Creed II looks when a player is on song.
Maybe those stilted first ten minutes were deliberately crafted to enhance this feeling once the leash is off. Regardless, the game is ridiculously fun despite those hiccuping opening moments, and I will certainly be playing this more in the coming weeks.
One Game Closer to Death is a feature wherein Marc plays a randomly selected game (thank you random.org – atmospheric noise for the win!) from Octopus Books’ 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die. There are strict rules to follow and a back burner for games not currently accessible. If you own a Playstation 3 or any of the games on the back burner and would like to contribute then drop us a line.