Time Logged before Full Steam Ahead: 48 Hours
Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of only fourteen games in my Steam library that I’ve favourited. As you can see from the amount of time I’ve logged before Full Steam Ahead, I played the heck out of this game. However, the last time I played it was back in 2011. How will it feel to return feel after over five years away?
For those who aren’t familiar with the Assassin’s Creed Games, I’ll give you the basic plot synopsis. Set in the near future (2012, in the original games), a company called Abstergo has developed a machine called the Animus, a way of reading someone’s DNA to unlock the memories of their ancestors. You play Desmond Miles, an involuntary test subject. However, most of the game takes place within the memories unlocked by the Animus, revealing an aged conflict between two groups: the Templars (who control Abstergo, among other powerful organizations) and the Assassin Order, a group of rebels fighting to secure the freedom of the common people.
This conflict in and of itself is nothing too daring; there have been scores of games which pit you as a freedom loving rebel fighting against some vague, upper class authority. What opens up these game to intriguing possibilities is the historical setting. The first game, Assassin’s Creed, is set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. You climb cathedrals and minarets as Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, fighting a daring covert war against the Crusaders, and specifically, the Knights Templar.
This was a great introduction to the series. I was not especially familiar with the crusades (except the disastrous Fourth Crusade), so it showed me a world I was not familiar with, albeit a fictionalized one. However, it left something to be desired. The game was released in 2008, and I found it hard to believe that the world of 2012 was going to be as advanced as all that.
Furthermore, while the world of the past was interesting, it quickly lost it’s appeal. The Holy Land was a dry, dull place, populated by dry, dull people. Even the main characters, Desmond Miles in the future and Altaïr in the past, felt bland and uninteresting. The series showed promise, but they were going to need to change things up significantly to keep me interested. Then Ubisoft announced the follow-up would be set in Italy during the renaissance. While I have never been to the Holy Land, I have been to Italy. Perhaps I’ve not travelled Italy extensively, but I’ve been fortunate enough to see Venice and Rome with my family. That in and of itself excited me.
The setting’s time period also opens up some interesting possibilities; Italy during the Renaissance features some truly fascinating historical figures including Machiavelli, the Medici family, and Leonardo Da Vinci. I’m personally a little sad that they didn’t set it a little earlier and do something featuring Dante Aligheri, but I recognize that one can’t always get what they want.
I love this game every bit as much as I used to. Everything in Florence oozes panache and character. When Florentine citizens see me climbing up walls, there’s the usual rabble of people telling me I’ll break my neck, or calling me a drunkard, but occasionally there’s the old man in the background, saying, “He must be late… and she must be beautiful”. Just as the renaissance represented a rebirth in Italian culture, this game represented a rebirth for the series, replacing the stoic, if sometimes stale demeanour of Altaïr with Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a sly, passionate, emotional person who we get to see grow throughout the game. Speaking of birth, this game begins with the birth of Ezio.
You see the disparity of the poorer parts of town with wealthy nobles. You hear people excitedly talking about the upcoming festivals. You are followed about by scores of obnoxious minstrels, singing lusty, out-of-tune ballads about daring assassins.
Granted, this game presents a highly romanticized version of Italy, where the men are daring rogues, the women are feisty, and the primary plot hook is a vendetta against those who have wronged your famillia, but this doesn’t annoy me as much as I thought it would. Similarly, I thought I would be annoyed by how fast and loose Assassin’s Creed II plays with history. However, these are the times that I tell myself it’s a game, not a documentary, it’s not doing anything worse than any other work of historical fiction, and most importantly, that I’m allowed to have fun with it.
It’s good to have fun with my games. I know I spent a lot of last post talking about how much the massacres in Shogun 2 got to me, but this game, which makes the player directly responsible for the killing of scores of people, doesn’t bother me as much. Maybe it’s because the character of Ezio lets me place distance between myself and the killings. Maybe it’s because the act of killing in this game requires more forethought than sending someone else to do it for. Maybe it’s because the poison causes victims to flail convulsively before collapsing in a heap.
I think a big part of the reason I can separate myself from the violence inherent in Assassin’s Creed II is because the game makes efforts to separate you from the violence. Unlike Total War: Shogun 2, where even finite details are designed to add an element of realism to the game, Assassin’s Creed II is clearly designed as historical fiction. Make no mistake, the game has its basis in reality; there was a Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family, Rodrigo Borgia was a villain. Hell, whenever you stumble upon an interesting building or historical person, the game pops up with a little database about them. However, since the main conflict of the game is the fictional ongoing conflict between Templars and Assassins, all of these historical interactions are filtered through that narrative. You’re not an assassin, you’re merely living through memories unlocked by the Animus, It’s not even your memories you’re playing through, it’s those of bland everyman Desmond Miles.
Furthermore, there are little minigames scattered throughout the world of Ezio’s memories, explained as a former test subject hacking the program. These minigames consist of little puzzles, inspired by Dan Brown or perhaps the National Treasure movies, presenting new pieces of “the truth” about the Templar-Assassin conflict. They’re fun, they serve the narrative, but they also reinforce that this is a game.
Assassin’s Creed II occupies an interesting position in Full Steam Ahead. I played this game extensively, I like it just as much as I used to, and unlike some games, I know precisely why I stopped playing; it had nothing to do with boredom or some strong objection to the game itself. I stopped playing because I was finished. I’d completed every mission, collected all the collectables, climbed everything I could (as well as many things I should not).
I brought Ezio Auditore de Firenze to the end of his first journey. I brought Desmond Miles one step closer to stopping the Templars of the future. I enjoyed my time with this game, but life is not without its limits. I finished and moved on. Sadly, that must be the case this time as well. As much as I’d like to finish my new playthrough, seeing it all the way through to its bloody end, I have other games in my library to spend time with, and other gems to rediscover. There is one experience with this game that keeps me coming back. Every now and then, I will go back to Assassin’s Creed II, just to walk the streets of Venice once again. Whenever I do this, the game is playing though the memories of of Ezio, but it’s also playing with my memories. It’s one of my favourite moments in gaming, and one which I will always value.
Next Episode: Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
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