History and Assassin’s Creed II

I wrote this “Game Theory” column for the March issue of Maximum PC, but with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood on the slate for November, I thought it was worth re-printing here. I’m really not sure what I think about the multiplayer emphasis in Brotherhood, since I haven’t had hands-on with it yet. It wasn’t the stories (which were nonsense) or even the combat that made the first games stand out, but the environments, total immersion in history, and blending of disparate gameplay elements. It will be interesting how that translates into pure multiplayer action.

It’s wonderful that even after 30-odd years as a gamer, there are still gaming moments that can surprise and delight me. Assassin’s Creed II (finally available for PC this month) absolutely knocked me cold within the first few minutes of the Florentine sequences.

It wasn’t the gameplay. Although the movement and combat are certainly strong (and a clear improvement over the original), we should expect that. It’s 2010: We’ve had so many quality exemplars of stealth and fighting systems that a developer has no excuse not to do it right.

It wasn’t the premise, which is dumber than a contestant on Conveyer Belt of Love. All the memories of all my ancestors are encoded in my DNA? Really? Right there between eye color and height is a base pair of nucleotides recording my 24th great-granduncle’s encounter with a hooker on January 24, 1472? And Veronica Mars is capable of extracting that memory and feeding it back into my brain as a simulation? That’s your premise?

No, the real treasure of Assassin’s Creed II, the real magic that takes the breath away, is Florence itself, and later, Venice. This is why I still game, and why the art of simulation is so utterly unique to gaming. Film and prose are, frankly, better media for narrative storytelling. “Gameplay” can be found in sports, puzzles, and conventional games.

But only interactive entertainment can truly simulate an environment, and then draw the narrative and gameplay elements into that simulation. The Florence and Venice of AC2 are masterpieces of design. It’s not just the architecture and open-city design, but also the living environment down on the ground, as people go about their lives. Merchants sweep the street in front of their stores, courtesans beckon from corners, pickpockets work the crowd, and threaded throughout all of it is the tension, plotting, and power-politics of Renaissance Italy.

I spent a semester in college (and a great deal of time since) studying many of these places and the history surrounding them, and Ubisoft Montreal nails it. Viewing 15th century Florence from atop Brunelleschi’s gravity-defying dome, and then being able to drop down to ground level to explore the city is one of the most thrilling things I’ve experienced in a lifetime of gaming. Thanks, Ubisoft.

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