The First Twelve Hours of Assassin’s Creed 2:The Leavening

The First Half of Assassin’s Creed 2 (2010)
Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Interactive Movie/Climbing Tech Demo

Pretty soon every big action game will have a tutorial that lasts the whole game. You’ll be on the last boss and a helpful fairy, a codec beep, or your AI controlled partner will start bleating your name, demanding your attention. To make it stop, you’ll press the Select button (which by then will be called the Help button) and the action will pause, some character illustrations will pop-up and the Helper illustration will say something like, “Link! You’ve got to bop Gannon off of his horse first!” or “Snake! Revolver Ocelot is only skilled at fighting with his revolver…! You should use a weapon that is not a gun. Maybe close quarters combat doesn’t use guns?” or “Kane! He’s wearing a full-body kevlar suit, but he’s standing on a pyramid of explosive barrels! Aim at the barrels with your right control stick and use the right trigger to fire!”

Two years after this has become standard practice, one revolutionary game will drop the character portraits and render the helper’s dialogue in-engine. People will be amazed when this happens.

A year after that, there will be a game that sells ten million copies because instead of having to pause the game to let it tell you what to do, your helper will simply dispense his advice in real-time, giving you specific and detailed instructions on what button to press next as you fight. You might not even have to press a button for it to happen. There is a slim chance that it might even offer an auto-pilot option.

And in this future time line, there will be some budding young video games historian who will trace the roots of the entire trend to Assassin’s Creed 2, and that person will basically be right. This game is the tutorial zeitgeist. This game is the one where its developers threw caution to the wind, turned it up to eleven, pushed the pedal to the metal and headed straight for the cliff, screaming “we will never stop loving you” even as the car explodes on impact and confetti shoots everywhere.

At first Assassin Creed 2′s tutorial bonanza seemed like the game just thought I was stupid and was being pedantic about the whole thing. “Oh yes,” it would have said, were it sentient. “A player. Playing a video game. Indeed. Tell me, have you ever held a controller? Don’t answer that. I already know you’re doing it wrong. You do it like this. Don’t tell me you’re already holding it. No, you do it like this. Like this. No, like on the infographic. I don’t see you doing it.”

Which is to say that it took the game 3 hours to finish reminding me what the basic controls were and deigning it possible to start getting into what was new. Some of these first few hours were simply redundant, like the fake rooftop race with The Fox that was meant to serve as a tutorial on how to manage running across rooftops. In a game that is almost entirely about climbing up buildings and running across their roofs, putting the player through this tutorial two hours into the game is… well, it’s puzzling.

I couldn’t begin to imagine why it happened, since it is neither fun nor informative, and is so far past when it would’ve been reasonable to test my skills that I found it completely impossible to stop wondering about, my brain threatening to overload as it cycled faster and faster through the cognitive loop of,“They can’t possibly expect this to be helpful or fun. Then why are they making me do it? Maybe they think it’s helpful or fun. They can’t possibly expect this to be helpful or fun.” Suffice to say that I paused the game for a few minutes and looked out the window blankly, letting the game’s design paradox wear itself out while I watched a tree shake in the wind.

Some of the other tutorials come suspiciously late, like the one at 3 hours in that reminds you that you don’t have to pummel people to death; all you need to do is the counter attack. The counter attack, for those who’ve had the good fortune to forget, is a game-breaking move from the first game that reduces all combat to a single, simple button-press. No muss, no fuss, just hit it and your opponent dies, and the game breaks.

One suspects — that is to say, I suspect – that creative director Patrice Desilets waited three hours to refresh the player’s memory because he didn’t want people to immediately remember that the game was broken, and then to doubly realize that it was still broken.

About an hour later we’re made aware that Ubisoft R&D has developed an ingenious solution to the whole game’s-broken thing, which comes in two parts.

Part 1
Some enemies can counter your counter, and then they punch you.

Part 2
You can foil these anti-counter counterers by using a brand new counter, hot off the assembly-counter. It’s called the grab-counter. You perform it by doing the exact same thing for a regular counter, except you press the grab button instead of the attack button. These enemies, these people who can counter a counter, they don’t see it coming. They’ll never see it coming. You could play this game for a million years and they would never, ever understand what was happening to them, that their skill at countering counters did not carry over into countering grab-counters, that they were born to die stupidly in a universe too cruel to give them even a rudimentary sense of reason.

At this point, I imagined Ubisoft Montreal smirking at the pained look on my face and saying, “you just don’t get it.” And you know, they were right. I didn’t get it. The more I played, the more I saw these half-compromises and quasi-improvements on the first game, things that only served to point out how hollow and empty the core design was.

  • Things like the inane minor quests having been relegated to being optional, with the outcome of their completion being money, money which allows you to invest in a system that generates more money, which can then be used to either buy stuff or further invest into the money machine. The stuff you can buy is extraneous and borderline useless. Weapons change combat statistics that have already proven moot in the face of having two (two!) perfectly suitable instant-kill counter attacks. Armor gives you more health bubbles, but you wouldn’t need those if you didn’t insist on not using counters or jumping off of tall buildings all the time.
  • The ostensible reason for these upgrades, for any upgrade in any game, is to either create the illusion of escalating power and difficulty, or to open up the mechanics to increasing complexity. There is no increasing difficulty in this game and there is no depth. Once you learn how to time your button press correctly and not fall off of buildings every ten seconds, you’ve mastered it. You win. You might as well run it back to Gamestop and try to return it.
  • The original sin of 3D action-platformers, collectibles, now have the twin curse of being both more numerous and quasi-important. Instead of just collecting flags, there are now feathers, codex pages, secret puzzles, crests, statues, weapons, armors and paintings. All of this stuff has some direct value to the game, either in boosting the money machine’s income or is tied to some aspect of the plot or characters. There’s a kind of inverse proportion that the game has attributed to tasks, where the more menial and tedious it is, the more of an asshole you are if you don’t do it. The feathers, for example, are to give to your character’s mom so that she’ll stop spending all day sitting in bed and crying. Do I want to explore the game’s cities in search of 100 feathers? Hell no. What, don’t I want my mom to stop feeling miserable?

And then comes the game’s halfway point, where it pulls Tyler out of the VR simulation of Renaissance Italy and has one of the characters say, “show me your moves!” You then have Tyler show his moves by doing the exact same thing you’ve been doing for the last 12 hours: climbing stuff. The game gives you some crates and rafters to climb around in, except this time you’re using Tyler’s real body instead of the magical VR body, and then it struck me: this game has a plot.

I’d been playing it all wrong! I’d been living a lie! Like so many filmic epiphanies had by celluloid amnesiacs, my mind reeled back through time to the moment after I pressed start and began a new game.

A recap of the first game, where it is revealed that the Templars are definitely up to no good.

Our suspiciously handsome everyman, Tyler or Craig or something, escapes the Templars’ ultra-futuristic office building with the aid of an undercover Assassin.

Craig is standing in the Assassin’s secret hide-out, a New York-esque exposed-brick studio apartment that has an adjoining futuristic warehouse, and is being told that he needs to be trained to become an Assassin— now. A laconic Englishman who sits at a computer says, “that is, if you don’t bollocks it up like last time.” Craig is about to say something like, “hey buddy, I’m an American,” when a spunky young female tech whiz with a pixie-haircut says, “Don’t mind Nigel, he’s just British.”

“But how are you going to train me in three days, before the Templars find us?”
“I’m not, you are.”

“Do you remember the Animus, from the last game?”
“Yeah, but I thought only the Templars—-”
“The Templars can suck a nubber. They might be the only ones that have an Animus, but I’m the only one that has a Manimus.”
“But how will the Manimus teach me how to be a—-”
“Muscle memory, Mikey. If you use the Manimus to go back into the history that has been encoded in your DNA, and if you stab people and climb things in that history, your muscles will learn. They will learn, Mikey, because it was in you all along…”

“But what if I don’t want to be an Assassin?”
“Then the Templars will still kill you. And they won’t just kill you in the Manimus’ historical DNA VR simulation, they’ll also do it in real life.”
“Then I have no choice…!”

As the waves of memory passed, I was left with a singular understanding: if the entire game felt like a tutorial to me, it’s because it was one.

I was playing another man’s tutorial.

Regardless of how well I did in the first game, neither George nor his muscles were paying attention, and now he’s landed the both of us in remedial assassin training. This is like the complete opposite of what happens in video games: instead of me leading around some guy like a jerk, I have some guy leading me around like a jerk. And what’s worse is that this guy is going to inevitably gain something tangible from playing his Manimus video game while all I’ll have gotten is 20+ hours of being led around by the implied potential of maybe-fun.

In other words, I’m some guy playing a video game that’s about some guy who is more attractive than I am and who gets to play an infinitely cooler video game that, in the end, will give him real-life skills that he can use in his own real-life.

In other words, Ubisoft Montreal thinks its players are idiots who deserve to play a game that’s about someone whose life is just like theirs, except better and more fulfilling.

I don’t know if this an artistic coup for the medium or Ubisoft Montreal thumbing its nose at its market. On the one hand, it exists as such a complete role reversal between player and player-character that I feel bad condemning the thing outright. The basic feat of turning the player into a puppet for someone who doesn’t even exist is both clever and something that could become incredibly potent if used in the right way.

On the other hand, the game is a terrible, terrible thing to play, something that is bent on crushing its player’s soul, filling the husk with rocks, and then dumping it into the ocean. It’s such a complete and fully-formed middle finger to anyone who’s ever even dreamed of wanting to have fun being someone that they aren’t and doing things that they can’t, that I have to wonder if this is the studio seeing how willing its audience is to have their private fantasies turn around and mock them.

As of this writing, the game has sold 10 million copies and seen almost unanimously positive reviews. It was followed by two sub-sequels, with a full sequel scheduled for 2012.