There aren't many ways that the multimillion-selling Assassin's Creed II can be seen as an underdog, but in a discussion of 2009's Game of the Year, it's the dark horse.
It's not the interactive-movie-with-heart that is Uncharted 2. Nor is it the likeable rough-edged innovative experiment Demon's Souls. It is a sequel that atones for the design sins of its hot-selling predecessor, which maybe obligates it for some praise but also some karmic punishment on behalf of the gamers who felt the first game let them down.
Assassin's Creed II is nevertheless my 2009 Game of The Year (beating out Art Style: Box Life). The exploits of Ezio de Auditore in Renaissance Italy and Desmond Miles, the man living vicariously through Ezio, gave me everything I want in a video game, much of which I didn't know I wanted: Good action, beautiful sights, interesting movement through its world, a story I cared about, conspiracy theories, surprises, and an adventure that felt fresh from beginning to end - doing that rare thing for a video game of not getting repetitive or dull in its second half.
The game's novelty is its maturity. Like Uncharted 2, it treats its players with respect, as if gamers were old enough to expect some emotion and wit from the experiences through which games pull them. It surpasses Uncharted 2 for me due to some unexpected joys, such as its intersection with interesting historical figures and the marvellously distinct brain-teaser and platforming sequences that branch from the game's main adventure.
The best of all the game's surprise delights is its redundancy of options, its offering the player so many fun ways to do the same thing. Make money, for example, by pickpocketing, investing in a villa or assassinating messengers you chase to the rooftops. Get from A to B by walking the alleys among thieves or running up and over the Duomo.
That this game can be so grand, so varied and so captivating for so long makes it, for me, the year's best.
Historical fiction is my favourite literary genre, so Assassin's Creed II perhaps had an unfair advantage with me. But it delivers. Even though crossing paths with famous names at times seems gratuitous - Vespucci, Dante Alighieri, Catherine Sforza are A-list figures getting cameo mentions - I can't tell you how delighted, if not personally honoured, I was to join the Medici and foil history's first mob hit. The addition of the villa as an economic weapon, and the need to raise money to improve it (and your own power) gives a purpose to the side missions, which you blend with core missions to create a unique personal story at your own pace.
The first Assassin's Creed was a fascinating concept, but the repetition broke me down about two-thirds of the way through, and I left the game feeling a powerful regret at what it could have been. The improvements made in Assassin's Creed II are nothing short of wish fulfilment. It is my game of the year.
I didn't expect to enjoy Assassin's Creed II as much as I did. I had such great hopes for the original title, only to be let down by a game that contained interesting ideas but wound up boring me to the point of dozing off, once the joy of free running wore off and the repetitive missions kicked in. I fully expected the sequel to be more of the same. I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.
Like the first game, Assassin's Creed II puts me behind the wheel of one of Desmond Miles' ancestors, tasking me with learning the ways of the assassin, leading me down a path punctuated by the bodies of my enemies. What II does differently, however, is set up a story in which I care about the main character, feeling his early joy at the freedom afforded him as a young noble living in Renaissance Italy, and then the pain of his loss, setting events in motion that made each subsequent assassination more personal and, consequently, much more satisfying.
So the story caught me, but if story was the sole motivator for choosing my game of the year, my vote would have gone to Uncharted 2. The plot is a compelling one, and the Renaissance Italy setting is simply breathtaking in scope and detail, but the deciding factor for me is the little gameplay elements Ubisoft added to the second title, saving it from being an assassinate, flee, repeat experience. Whether tracking down pieces of data hidden in the game environments, maintaining and upgrading my villa, or taking on challenging dungeons for a chance at rare, powerful equipment, I was always completely entertained, and that's what a good video game is all about.
It's strange to say this about the sequel to a game I openly despise, but Assasssin's Creed II is my game of the year.
On this I think we can all agree: Assassin's Creed II was a much better game than its predecessor. But finally delivering on the promises of an interesting concept isn't enough to make it my game of the year.
I found the way the game progresses, unfurling as you work your way through the story, to be subtle and satisfying. And the world created by Ubisoft is astounding both in its depth and beauty. But in the end the game felt almost bloated to me.
There are so many things to do, so many ways to do them, and so little direction for the player that Assassin's Creed II felt like it was missing a crucial voice: The guiding hand of a lead producer or director. Someone who could step in and clear a path for gamers.
I often rail against overly simple titles, but making a game complex and deep doesn't mean you have to sacrifice direction. When I played Assassin's Creed II it felt as if the heart of the game was lost in all of those options and as a player, so was I.
Hrm. The game had a clear path, as clear as any Grand Theft Auto title. There are core missions you can follow, and following those will see you progress through the story. I should know, it's how I tore through the game on my first playthrough. Then, the second time through, I took a little more time, wandered off the path. I'm on my third time through now...
For me, the joy of Assassin's Creed II came from its polish. There's not a single aspect of Assassin's Creed II that really grabbed me; more a sense that this was the kind of game only a development team numbering in the hundreds could pull off: the little flourishes of the Italian language, the breath-taking depictions of the game's cities and inhabitants, a hero who moves and fights exactly as you'd want (and expect) him to.
What let the game down in my eyes, though, is the fact it still felt so artificial. That everything in the game's world existed only to serve the purposes of Ezio's quest. The worlds of other open games like this are so compelling because they have a life of their own; you get the feeling in ACII that once Ezio moves on, the gangs of whores and street thugs would simply go home for the day.
Because of this (as well as issues with the combat, enemy AI and need for subtitles to truly get a handle on things), it's not my favourite game of the year. It's my second-favourite game of the year.
If these were the awards for "best ending sequence of 2009", however...
The sense of scale, the wealth of options, the intricately woven story: These are the facets of Assassin's Creed II that impressed me most during my time with the game. That Ubisoft Montreal could create such a modern-feeling period action game, one with platforming that flows so masterfully, was what inspired me to purchase and play the game of the year contender.
But it was my apathy toward Ezio (and Desmond) and the familiar feeling of repetition that lead me to set aside Assassin's Creed II just a handful of memory sequences into the game. For as thrilling as a rooftop bounding adventure peppered with assassinations and chase sequence initially seemed, in practice Assassin's Creed II simply bored me.
Eventually, I revisited the game, but found my interest had not been re-ignited, despite the colourful cast, open world and Ubisoft Montreal's best effort, the platforming thrill rides known as Secret Locations.
While I was genuinely impressed with the thrill of Ezio's better-than-his-ancestor's ability to traverse Renaissance Italy's architecture, the sometimes comical AI, dull combat and meandering plot prevented me from building much interest beyond the agile rooftop movement.
I can appreciate the praise heaped upon Assassin's Creed II for all the things it attempted to do, but my ultimate indifference to its events and much of its gameplay keeps it off my game of the year shortlist.
Totilo's Final Response
Well, less drama here than I expected. McWhertor's a Demon's Souls man. I can't change that, not even if he clearly does not care about the centuries-spanning conspiracy that goes back to, well, Adam and Eve, I think, and probably even involves Crecente in some way. If a game's plot can't grab a gamer, I can't argue with that. Gameplay is king anyway and I'm sympathetic to McWhertor's dismissal of "dull combat". That is a fair knock on the game.
I'm intrigued by Luke's critique of the game world seemingly not existing when Ezio isn't there. I'm less certain that the game's prostitutes lack a life when Ezio is gone than I'm worried that, for the decade during which the game takes place, Ezio's mum hasn't stopped praying next to her bed. And his sister, enough with that book. Go flirt with the architect who has been hanging out in the same room as you, for years! Take a hint. These non-player-characters need a few hobbies or, hey, at least the notion to stand up once a year. As fluid as Ezio is, Assassin's Creed II's world is indeed too stiff in places.
Still, while I'm more and more of a small-games person, a champion of games that do just a few things and do them very well (Box Life, people), my favourite game of 2009 is unshakably a game that tried to do a lot, and, I believe, did just about all of it superbly.