Monday, November 23, 2009

There Has Been an Assassination Attempt…

…on free thought.

It should come as no surprise that I’m holding off on Assassin’s Creed 2 now. This isn’t because the game looks like something I won’t enjoy (it actually looks like something I’m gonna waste a lot of time with), but because of what my typical reaction is to design of conformity [let’s call that ‘DoC’ for short]. The consensus that the first game’s problems were somehow ‘fixed’ dips the title in a temporary coating of ‘ew’ for me, so now I just have to wait until it melts off. In just the past week alone, the rarity I’ve seen in people who enjoyed both this game and its predecessor is kind of disheartening (hell, I’d even welcome those who hate both games). In fact, the divisiveness of the first game has somehow spread into the reception of the sequel as well. Some are all on board with the changes that have been made to the first game’s structure, while others have antagonized it due to some miniscule and ultimately irrelevant presence they sensed the first time around. Not only that, but the latter group has also distorted what the first game does to such an extreme extent, that they can’t even recognize the successor doing the exact same thing in different garbs. This isn’t surprising, considering how easily swayed people are when it comes to demonizing and idealizing anything, especially when it’s done amidst the opinions of their peers.

Whether or not the title is truly a step above the first game is not something I am really invested in exploring to begin with. It was obvious after those sharp lashings Ubisoft took the first time that this title would be ‘corrected’ to reflect it. Instead, what interested me was how they’d alter the vision of what the first game presented; instead of masking the commonly-cited repetition from the first game for instance, they could address its actual utilization within the game’s fundamental design. This is something I can’t even speak on yet myself, as I’ve yet to play the game. From what I’m deducing however, the game [AC2] exercised a muscle that I think gets ‘stroked’ way too much in current games in order to hide shortcomings, freedom. Sandbox play is not something I’ll ever let slide by gracefully, no matter how much I enjoy it. Gamers get so wrapped up in digital freedom, they lose their ability to criticize it, which was fine for something like Grand Theft Auto 3, but it’s time to raise the bar now. Emergent play and attention to detail are not aspects of a game the player should be allowed to fawn over, not anymore. The former is a thinly shared layer of design that the player generates outside of the developer’s intent and the latter is a mandatory expectancy of anything that would profess itself to be high-profile.

Something I personally key in on is to what lengths certain people will go to in order to separate the first title and this one. Not only does it convey the degree to which they’ll cast off necessary context, but also how desperately they’re willing to cling to flimsy truths. For example, Ubisoft seems to have a tendency for fumbling with sullen characters. Be it the changes the prince went through over the Prince of Persia trilogy or Desmond Miles’s descendants, every time they create a vicious character, they overreact to the player’s inability to relate to the them, leaving the poor bastards to be marginalized somehow. Granted Altair wasn’t exactly the exemplar of characterization, but Ezio’s cavalier attitude is not something I prefer to the former’s arrogance. This is almost a requirement of many stealth or assassination games I enjoy, yet every time potential is presented, the developer proves to be a slave to the above mentioned DoC. Some type of rich sociopath has to be crafted in order to reflect the world they’re dealing with, yet Ubisoft's more broody characters always tend come off simply stunted and shallow (when in fact they’re supposed to be the more complex archetypes). Sam Fisher is probably the only one with his head even remotely above the water and I think Splinter Cell: Conviction will make or break my opinion on that matter.

The point of this is not to rail on Ezio either. Personally, I expect to find him annoying, but if the character moves through his world enjoyably enough, then that’s enough for me. What I will be sad to lose is something I’ve heard alluded to in countless impressions on the game. The game trades a significant stock of its preceding coldness in exchange for humor. Both of those tones seem to emanate from the protagonists themselves. Since Altair was mostly aloof and arrogant, he played right into game’s reception being remote from its ‘potential’. Where Ubisoft dropped the ball there however, was coloring who he was. Much like characters such as Garrett, Altair was fueled by skill, overconfidence, and impetuousness. Every time he killed one of his targets, the cryptic death rattles of his victims were meant to humble him. There were no threads to indicate this though; hell, even ambient commentary (which is pretty much what carries Garrett’s appeal by the way) from the character was limited mainly to the exchanges between him and Al Mualim. It seems in the second game that Ezio is ironically granted a luxury in this category, but in the cliché notions of humanistic ideals. Am I to simply accept that these kinds of characters are more warmly received since more people relate to them and those same people design them? Yeah, it’s a bit of a cheap shot, but --- where am I wrong?

So the separation of the games by the player is so ingrained, that the design compensates for it. More time could have been spent threading Ezio to Altair (and by association Desmond as well). The repetition in the first game could have been shifted in perception entirely if Altair offered dry commentary on doing the same actions over and over. Simple solutions are often disregarded in lieu of DoC iteration. Regarding Assassin’s Creed 2, hearing people wave around statements such is this has become like nails on a chalkboard for me:

“Oh, you don’t have to play the first game at all! This game is so much better and fixed that all is forgiven! Play it! Pointlessly indulge! Forget the first title ever existed on some misshaped design ground that this title is beyond the same severity the first game embraced!”

Okay, so I embellished, but you get the picture. Something Assassin’s Creed has never become is what it kind of takes credit for anyway; a thriving world in which an assassin must navigate a complicated situation. I’m iffy on Thi4f right now and I will probably pitch a fit if another console Metal Gear game is announced in the next five years (that isn’t a remake of the first two MSX games anyway), so Assassin’s Creed is one of the few ‘stealth’ games I’ve got left. It seems that the second game uses its narrative as more of a vehicle, which is a good thing in my book; more writers getting power is a sign of the artistic growth this industry so desperately needs. However, the fact that the reconstructed era of the Renaissance seems to tank most the assault this game should have taken on its sandbox arena annoys me. I’m assuming the overall feel of the game hasn’t changed from what both the first game and the latest Prince of Persia showcased, large areas that the main character was more functionally ‘steered’ through than anything else. I didn’t find anything wrong with that in PoP, in fact I rather enjoyed it. What AC & AC2 present however, is a distinct tendency to trick the player into becoming more invested than they actually will be. The means of combat, free-running, and actually assassinating targets are all navigated on simplistic and accessible premises. The rhythmic combat certainly isn’t bad, it’s just kept on a level which doesn’t aspire to be anything else. People will forget this in Assassin’s Creed 2 because there’s some seductively presented distractions to correct the balance.

Things like the sidequests, tangible goals, and items like dye to change attire are all carrying the weight of Assassin’s Creed’s gargantuan concept when they don’t have to. I don’t care how big or accurate the setting is, if it was cut in half, the chances are I would probably love it much more. Such manpower can be devoted to making the AI more sophisticated, mechanics more complex (but still accessible to the layman), and the overall composition of the game more dynamic.

The real worth is this post will be what I come away feeling after I actually play through the game for myself.