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10 Feb 2010

Note: This game design analysis of Assassin's Creed 2 contains significant spoilers for much of the game.

Assassin's Creed 2 is one of the most satisfying AAA games I've played in recent memory. It's a vast and romantic adventure through Renaissance-era Italy, one of the most fascinating settings in the history of civilization, and is on a deeper level a meditation on the relationship between power and religion, a topic of personal interest and timeless relevance. While the game got off to a slow start, taking a couple of hours to even arm you with a weapon, once it hit its stride I was impressed by the depth and coherence of its game design, and the expert way in which its ludic and narrative elements weaved together and fed off one another. The game is built on a strong ludic foundation of fluid traversal and visceral combat, and complemented by a tight, thoughtful fiction saturated in mystery and historical intrigue.

Like all games, however, Assassin's Creed 2 also has its flaws. Its economy falls apart through the back half of the game. The otherwise-satisfying combat is occasionally marred by muddiness and ambiguity, leading to sometimes-frustrating situations. Some of the secondary missions completely ignored vast areas of possibility space, rendering them forgettable. And unfortunately, after many hours of expertly-crafted, fully-absorbing fiction, the game completely jumps the shark in its final minutes, presenting a franchise-level plot twist that undoes much of what made both this title and its predecessor so special, and makes me nervous about the direction of the inevitable conclusion to the trilogy.

So Much To Do!

The game is stuffed full of interesting things to do, and while I did from time to time have the distinct impression of playing "Grand Theft Auto in the Renaissance" (this is a quintessentially "open-world" game, much moreso than its predecessor), I never found myself wandering aimlessly as often happens to me in every one of Rockstar's satirical mega-blockbusters. Several factors contribute to this feeling of density and focus:

  • A wide variety of goals are available: critical-path story missions, assassination contracts, tomb raiding, devious logic puzzles, climbing viewpoints, races, chases, several different collections, money-making (at least until the economy falls apart later in the game), unlocking and ugprading of equipment... and the list goes on.
  • The majority of goals are well-contextualized in the setting and the story. Feathers are collected as mementos of your murdered younger brother (an event which was itself a key plot driver). Viewpoints are climbed for a good vantage point from which to reveal broad areas of your map: any good Assassin needs intel and situational awareness. Logic puzzles are presented as encryption mechanisms protecting Abstergo data files, accessible only through Ezio's memories and critical to the plot in the modern-day portions of the story.
  • Many of the goals feed back into each other, largely through the game's economy. Unlike the first game, Assassin's Creed 2 features a simple economy of money and shops. You can collect hidden treasures, chase down thieves and Borgia couriers, complete assassination contracts, and even pick pockets to earn money. You can spend money to advance other goals: structural upgrades and an art collection for Monteriggioni, or collecting better weapons and armor. And better equipment feeds back into combat-heavy goals like assassination contracts and some of the Assassin tomb sequences, while almost everything you do increases Monteriggioni's value and thereby the amount of income it generates for you automatically.
  • Goals are layered in terms of the commitment they demand. Story missions and Assassin's tombs are typically on the order of 10 minutes long; assassination contracts, glyph puzzles, and other secondary mission types are more like five. And many goals, especially viewpoints and collections, can be completed in one- to two-minute increments. There's always a wealth of meaningful options for forward progress no matter how much time you're in the mood to commit.

A key point to note is that the critical-path story missions are, by and large, quite easy. On the other hand, some of the secondary goals -- certain assassination contracts in particular, a few of the Assassin tombs, and a handful of particularly devious glyph puzzles -- are very challenging. This is a very good approach to difficulty: players who are just in it for the story and nothing else won't get held up, and players who are in it for the gameplay still have plenty of really meaningful and compelling challenges to tackle.

Snappy Interface

With all these goals to keep track of, it was critical for Assassin's Creed 2 to present all that information to players in an appropriate way. While a smoothly-designed interface isn't exactly a back-of-the-box bullet point, it is in practice a make-or-break feature for this kind of game. Happily, this game pulls it off with flying colors.

The interface is slick, fast, and responsive. It's easy to navigate and well-organized. The map has a dedicated button, which is useful since you're in and out of it constantly throughout the game, especially if you're pursuing a lot of the secondary goals. The database keeps track of all pertinent fiction information: documents, character dossiers, location info, and so on. It even marks locations with icons indicating whether they host an Assassin tomb entrance or a glyph puzzle.

Of course, the presentation of information is almost for naught if your interaction with that information is clunky and frustrating, and it's here that Assassin's Creed 2 does something very important that more game designers need to pay attention to. Every interface screen you enter, every menu or dialog that appears, can be interacted with immediately, even if it's not yet finished animating. After a while, you start to memorize the sequence of inputs that drills you down to a particular screen; not having to wait for screens to animate open and closed lest the system ignore your inputs is the biggest difference between a pleasant UI and an exercise in frustration.

Fluid Traversal

One of the features that made the first Assassin's Creed famous was its free-run, free-climb mechanics. While the control paradigm (billed as the "puppeteering" concept) was a little unusual, it quickly became second-nature and made the joys of death-defying acrobatics easily accessible and incredibly satisfying.

Assassin's Creed 2 doesn't really mess with this formula: it sticks to what works. The difference this time around is that the possibility space of free-running is explored much more thoroughly. Well-designed free-run sequences -- arranged lines of ledges, poles, balconies, and even hanging potted plants -- are scattered all throughout the game's various settings, giving you quick and stylish shortcuts to or from the rooftops, or just across town. Viewpoints are still in, of course, but some of the towers you have to climb are trickier this time around, with some even requiring a special maneuver unlocked at a certain point in the main story. But the most prominent improvement in the use of free-running is the presence of thieves and Borgia couriers, both of whom run from you and are worth a pretty penny if you can chase them down. The thieves and couriers are very good at climbing and navigating the rooftops, and in fact that's their preferred method of escape, leading to many an impromptu, dramatic free-running chase.

I have to reserve special honors, however, for what is easily the best application of free-running in the entire game, perhaps even in the entire universe: the occasional chase sequences in certain Assassin tombs. These are heavily scripted sequences in which you must chase down a guard who's running to alert reinforcements of your presence. As you chase the guard, who is perpetually just a few steps ahead of you, he slams shut doors, closes gates, and overturns debris in your path. You're forced to react quickly, taking brief acrobatic detours around the dynamic obstacles. The sequences aren't particularly difficult -- provided you're paying attention -- and to be fair, they will play out the same way every time, but they sure got my adrenalin pumping. These were some of the most fun I had in the entire game.

And of course, finally catching up to and murdering the sissy bastard that's led you along on this wild goose chase for the last five minutes is, as you might expect, uniquely and viscerally satisfying.

Visceral Combat

The combat animations in Assassin's Creed 2 are amazing. Every kill is powerful and satisfying, effectively selling the assassin fantasy. The player's interaction with the system is smooth and streamlined: most fights can be won with a combination of the X button (attacks and counters) and the right trigger (to block). Other moves, like quick steps, taunts, and even throwing sand in enemies' faces are available, but less generally useful.

What I like about the combat interaction is that it has all the cinematic elegance of a QTE, but none of the obvious contrivances. Fundamentally, you're still going to spend most of a battle executing well-timed counter kills, but the game's refusal to flash a giant X button icon on the screen at the appropriate time is a nod to its trust in your ability as a player to learn game mechanics. Enemy attacks are well-telegraphed by their animations, and the window for an effective counter is reasonably forgiving.

And while it's purely a presentation thing, I do have to tip my hat to the brilliance of the hidden blade double air kill. Swooping down from a rooftop to put two guards' faces into the dirt before you've even landed, then standing up and calmly double-killing their flabbergasted buddies, is a purely magical video game moment.

Immersive Mystery

Mystery is a key theme throughout the game. At its highest level, the plot is built around unmasking, one-by-one, a group of conspirators. You have a screen that charts the relationships among the conspirators, with those whose identities remain secret appearing as shadows. When you first open this screen near the beginning of the game, you see a relatively small number of conspirators, appropriate to Ezio's understanding (at that time) of the scope of the conspiracy. But as you progress through the story, new shadows appear as you learn in bits and pieces how much larger the conspiracy really is. Being a game designer, I was using the conspirators screen as a way to track my progress through the game; the first time it pulled this trick, I realized I had no idea how much game was left, and that was a really immersive moment. Neither I nor Ezio could be sure how much farther this journey would take us.

While you're solving the historical mystery of the Renaissance, you're also, in parallel, finding and unlocking a number of secret Abstergo data files, the contents of which present an entirely different mystery regarding the present-day conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. The secret files are represented as glyphs hidden on various buildings throughout the game world. It's no small bit of gameplay to find and climb up to them in the first place -- another example of the game's fantastic integration among many design systems -- but once you touch them, you're thrown into the wholly-unexpected experience of solving various logic puzzles.

This could easily have been a misstep, but the glyph puzzles are kept tightly within theme. Many involve the examination of various pieces of fine art. Others involve a thematic analysis of same. Since the puzzles are associated with Abstergo data files relating to the history of the Assassin/Templar conflict, many of them present actual pieces of world history as puzzle elements, even going so far as to posit the involvement of the Templars in such events as the development of the atomic bomb. One particularly devious puzzle even whips out Sumerian numerology. (I won't lie: I had to resort to a FAQ for that one. But it was the only one!)

When you solve a glyph puzzle, you unlock a little snippet of video, just a couple seconds long. The video snippets are maddeningly mysterious: they come out-of-order, the set is incomplete, and you never really get a good look at the characters involved. Only once you've solved all 20 puzzles is the video spliced together and played back in its entirety. It seems to suggest that Abstergo was up to a lot more nefarious deeds than digitally digging around in people's memories... but alas, the true answer must wait until Assassin's Creed 3.

Economic Collapse

Switching gears to the negatives: while I appreciated the addition of a simple economy, it's unfortunate that that economy so completely collapsed late in the game. This is just a balancing issue: Monteriggioni's income curve simply accelerates too fast as you purchase upgrades and flesh out collections. The whole economic system fades from relevance; after all, what interest is there in the decision whether or not to purchase that new weapon for 20,000 florins when you're carting around half a million?

I wish the income curve had been flattened significantly, so that my purchasing decisions still carried some weight all the way through the game.

Ambiguous Combat

Earlier I discussed the game's visceral combat, but there is a certain ambiguity associated with it as well. Not so much in the presentation of combat itself, but in the underlying systems that define the effectiveness of weapons, armor, and various combat moves relative to each other.

Weapons have simple stats, rated on a five-point scale. But switching, for example, from a power 4 sword to a power 5 sword didn't seem to make much of a difference. I imagine these numbers are used as inputs to some under-the-hood dice-rolling each time you attempt and attack or counter-kill, but where the modifiers to those dice rolls aren't apparent, the decision between weapons becomes muddy. Of course I'm going to pick the weapon with the better stats, I'm just not really going to understand why.

Similarly, some guards -- even of the same type -- seemed far more able to block my attacks than others. Some went so far as to appear completely invulnerable to attacks, forcing me to take them down with counter kills. Some could not be grabbed, at least not until I had severely reduced their health. It was never clear to me why these discrepancies existed. Are they tied to the relationship between my weapon stats and the guard's? It's unclear.

Missed Opportunities

Some of the game's secondary mission types were clear examples of missed opportunities. I won't judge too harshly, because it's easy to imagine these being the result of a limited budget and a fast-approaching final delivery date, but I do want to make note of them.

The first beat-up event I played was amusing: beat up the cheating husband and show him the error of his ways. I had a good chuckle, went and found the guy, punched him a bit and reduced him to a pathetic, groveling heap, and left the world with one less divorce to worry about. Unfortunately, every single beat-up mission played out in the exact same way. They were all the same story and the same gameplay, just with different actors and locations swapped in.

What would've been better? I would've liked if some of the beat-up targets were better a hand-to-hand combat. Beating up a city guard should be harder than beating up a civilian, because the former is trained. What if I had to beat up a huge, muscular brawler? What if my beat-up target was in a public place, and I had to lure him away before initiating combat lest we both get taken down by the guards? What if he had friends nearby and could call for help, forcing me into a 1-on-6 fight?

Courier missions suffered from this same problem. They were marginally more interesting in that the notes and letters you're asked to deliver had amusing contents (although you had to manually look them up in the Documents screen, and the game never prompted you to do this), but they still all boiled down to the same gameplay: traverse from point A to point B, sometimes with a time limit.

What would've made these more interesting? How about putting the destination in a hard-to-reach or restricted area, requiring me to sneak or blend through the last stretch, or make use of the amply available thieves, courtesans, and mercenaries to distract guards away from the target? Alternatively, what if opposing agents attempted to steal the package from me en route? There was a whole CTF mission during the carnival sequence that was pretty much exactly this gameplay; it's surprising not to see it employed elsewhere.

Hunting for Feathers

I was happy to see I could buy treasure maps to find all the hidden treasures. Honestly, the fun in collecting them -- at least in this game -- doesn't come from searching every square inch of the vast game world, it comes from the traversal mechanics that get me from where I am, to the target. The treasure maps kept me doing fun things more often.

Why, then, is the feather collection objective stuck in the game design techniques of 10 years ago? I'll never find all 100 feathers, because I frankly have better things to do with my life than systematically dredge every one of those enormous environments.

Jumping the Shark

The final story beats in Assassin's Creed 2 went so far off the deep end that it almost left me with a bitter taste. Battle Pope? Alien wizards? What?

The first game did this too, when Al Mualim went all supervillain on you with his piece of Eden, but it wasn't nearly as bad as Battle Pope. And for context, I say this as the proud owner of the following, which is in fact quite awesome:

The chief appeal of the Assassin's Creed franchise has always been, at least for me, that it's historical fiction. It takes some liberties, sure, and there are undercurrents of conspiracy theories and supernatural pseudoscience (Templars! Pieces of Eden!) but the whole Battle Pope thing just made me bust out laughing at what was supposed to be the game's dramatic climax. This -- this?! -- is what Ezio has been struggling against all this time?

By the time we got to the alien wizards speaking directly to Desmond through Ezio, through the Animus from 600 years ago, I had pretty much resigned myself to imagining that the last 20 minutes of this game simply didn't happen.


I may be really down on the ending, but the rest of this game is great. And more to the point, the deep integration of its many game systems makes for a fascinating design study. There's a plethora of interesting things to do and a snappy interface with which to keep them all straight. There's effortless free-running and visceral, satisfying combat. And it's all tied together with a well-realized plot steeped in enticing mystery.

Victorian England for Assassin's Creed 3 now, please. ;)

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