Re-visiting recent history with Assassin's Creed 2.
Every time I take time off work, I seem to gravitate towards Assassin's Creed. I have no idea when this tradition started, or even how it became a thing. It's never planned, but yet it still seems to happen almost every time. I've been off work for the last week taking my first real break since Christmas - partly because I could feel burnout looking over my shoulder like a petulant colleague, and partly because with the rest of the world pretty much at a standstill due to COVID 19 it seemed like a sensible time to take a break. Maybe it was this combination of feeling generally worn out and the pervasive stress of the lockdown that caused me to reach for the gaming equivalent of a comfort blanket, I'm not sure - but either way last weekend we ended up installing Assassin's Creed: The Ezio Collection onto the Xbox and starting at the beginning. And within 2 hours of running into a charming young rogue named Ezio Auditore da Firenze, we were having a blast.
I played Assassin's Creed 2 when it first came out, all the way back in 2009. My daughter (now a teenager) was a toddler, while my son was still in utero. Lachesis wasn't into pad-passing so much back then, but this might have been the first game that we played together, with her completing some of the glyph puzzles while I did the running around and climbing and fighting. I was a game played late at night after the smallest person was asleep, with discussion taking place in hushed tones. It was the game that pushed me to finally replace my old CRT TV with a full HD flat screen, and it's fair to say that I fell head over heels in love with it. It's one of those games that I just look back on extremely fondly, in an era when I was falling back in love with video games after a couple of years of playing them less.
Going back to it now 11 years later (via a remaster, admittedly) is like stepping into a time capsule. Gaming in general - and the Assassin's Creed franchise specifically - has changed a great deal in the time that has passed. Some of the changes made to the franchise feel like they've been made for the better. Some of them though, feel as though they've taken something away - watered down the formula that made AC2 the classic that it is.
The first thing I'd forgotten was how sprawling the first and second games were in comparison to the comparatively narrow region design of some of the later ones (specifically Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and Assassin's Creed: Unity - both of which take place within single cities; London and Paris, respectively). I had it in my head that the first game took place in Jerusalem (it does, but only partially) and the second in Florence (which it does... but again, only partially). The reality though is that each of these games take place across multiple cities, separated by areas of countryside. The urban areas of the game are packed with narrow streets, crowds of people and tall buildings - as soon as you step beyond the city walls though, the game is... empty. The number of people understandably drops, but with it so does the graphical fidelity. Where the city landscapes are filled with lavish textures and endless attention to the tiniest detail, the surrounding paths and fields are simply flat areas. They don't look good, and precious little actually happens in them - to the point where this feels like what I like to think of as an "Ian Malcolm" area. Remember him? He was the character in Jurassic Park who spoke a line along the lines of "the scientists were so busy wondering whether or not they could that they didn't bother to stop and ask whether or not they should." This line applies to lots of things in games, I reckon - the devs sometimes so focussed on having something "in the game" that it stayed in when it probably would have served the game better to have removed it. That said though, it was the presence of these areas that set the precedent that later games (notably ACIV: Black Flag, AC: Origins, and AC: Odyssey) later took and expanded upon along the way to turning the game into the RPG that it's become - so maybe this early iteration did bear fruit in the later games. It was the first big thing I noticed though that seemed to act as a hint, all the way back then, to what Assassin's Creed has become today.
The other two areas that really stick out are the combat and the exploration. Starting with the combat feels like a good idea - as it feels like this is the area of the game that has really changed the most for the better. I remember thinking that the combat in AC2 was a step up on that of the original game - playing it again now though and looking at it through the lens of what it has become, I'm less convinced that was actually the case. The combat in AC2 is quite hilarious to watch - as Ezio becomes surrounded by a group of sword and hammer wielding goons... who then line up and take it in turns to swing at him very slowly. The whole thing can be overcome by holding the right trigger - which means Ezio will deflect pretty much everything that comes at him - and then strategically tapping X as a blow is about to connect. Doing this turns the deflection into a counter move that generally becomes a one-hit kill. Enemies can also be grabbed and their throats slit, or punched and crotch-kneed into submission. It boils down to a process that looks exciting in the moment, but actually simply isn't that much fun to play. When compared to the combat in later games, where enemies can (and often do) attack simultaneously and mix up close up and distance combat in a single encounter, it becomes clear just how much this element of the game has improved. What I'm not sure about is exactly when that happened - and without taking the time to go back and play ALL of the games between now and then, it'll probably be impossible to put a finger on it.
Exploring is a key pillar of the Assassin's Creed games. Every game since the first has given you the chance to climb up massive historical monuments and reach a point a the top that you can use to "synchronise" - which effectively reveals more of the map to you. Exploring (and more specifically climbing) in Assassin's Creed 2 after all these years brought me two surprises - the first was how much that synchronisation animation hasn't changed. The camera pulls out from your assassin, stooped on a perch atop a high building and then pans out revealing the surrounding area. An eagle soars past, screeching, as a swell of music plays. It's perfect and, it turns out, was almost identical back in AC2 to how it's presented in the most recent AC: Odyssey. The adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is at work here.
The process of reaching those synchronisation points though? That's changed - quite a lot. And not, to my mind, for the better. It's a little-remembered fact that climbing in the Assassin's Creed games used to take the form of far more of an environmental puzzle than it does now. The current versions of the game have streamlined the parkour (and the climbing) to the point where moving vertically is as simple as holding down a button and pushing the stick forward; your assassin runs up a wall as far as he/she can then miraculously finds handhold after handhold to allow that pace to be maintained. Back in the earlier days of the franchise though, climbing was a deliberate process. The next handhold did not magically appear where it needed to. Climbing large buildings was an undertaking - requiring you to actually find a place to start and then work cautiously upward. Sometimes moving further up requires you to move sideways along a building or around a corner. Several even require you to climb part of the span outside the building, then move inside, and then move outside again. I even came across a couple that required you to climb down a level or two to work around to find the next spot to let you ascend. The overall effect though is that climbing this way is slower but far more rewarding. I don't think I'd complain if later games actually went back to a system more like this one. It's used to great effect in some of the Assassin Tomb puzzles as well (with the one inside the Basilica Santa Maria del Fiori being a personal favourite).
While we're talking about climbing, we should probably talk about movement generally. From about Assassin's Creed 3 onward, the parkour system in the game got an overhaul that allowed a player to move horizontally far more easily - and damn, if I'm not missing that in AC2. So often I'll misjudge a jump or just run to a halt simply because I'm so familiar with the more forgiving free-running mechanics of the later games. We'll file that under another feature of the series that's improved for the better.
The story is told more tightly than the ones in the later games, with the lack of side quests keeping that narrative laser focussed on the main tale that pushes the game along. There are cut scenes, but no dialogue options. This story is going one way, with one outcome and a set of non-negotiable beats to hit - and in doing so this is probably where the game shows its age the most; not because this linearity is bad, but simply because so few games today seem happy to allow a player to participate in a narrative without shaping it. This linearity is probably the thing that feels oldest about the game - we just don't seem to get many games like this any more... and I'll be honest. I kinda miss 'em.
Playing through this again, there are far more hints as to which directions the franchise would end up going than I thought I'd find. So many of the features in the more recent games got their proper trial runs here. It's a game that's obviously from a different era, but it still plays well and it still tells a cool tale. I was worried starting it again, concerned that the rose tints in my spectacles might be a little too dark for me to be able to really see flaws - it turns out though that there wasn't really much to worry about in that regard. It stands up to my memory of it, and while some of its system have been superceded by the more recent games, it still does a lot of things right even after all these years. If you've not played through this one before, or you're looking for a good blast from the past, you could do far worse than check out Ezio's first adventure. I've had more fun with it than I've had with a lot of current games lately.