This weekend, I finally got the last trophy in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy. I promptly deleted the collection off of my PS4, and sincerely hope to never play them again; it was my second time through the three games, having played them on the PS3 before.
As the above paragraph might imply, I have very mixed feelings about the games. Not so mixed that I didn’t sink the ~100 hours into playing them all over again, mind–although some non-trivial part of that was platinum chasing, given that the second and third games were basically impossible to plat by the time I played them, thanks to online-only trophies–but they are deeply, deeply flawed games, and playing them again on the PS4 only heightened those issues for me.
So let’s talk about the good stuff first. For those of you not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed games, they’re third-person open-world adventure games, with the core content set at some time period in the past; you’re experiencing that past through some hokey “DNA memory” machine that we’ll talk about in the “bad stuff” section, but basically it’s an excuse to run around in Ye Olde Times and do cool stuff.
The Ezio Trilogy consists of three games: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. All three games star Ezio Auditore de Firenze, a Florentine from a wealthy family who gets pushed into the stealth-stabby lifestyle due to a series of unfortunate events that occur to his family. One thing this trilogy does that is, I think, unique: you play Ezio over a long period of time, from his late teens until his fifties. During that time, he grows as a person (and an Assassin) in ways that are interesting and genuine. The voice acting is uniformly excellent across all three games, and it’s hard as hell not to empathize–and sympathize–with Ezio as three kinds of hell break out around him and he struggles to do the best with the situation. In terms of game protagonists, he ranks in the highest of tiers, fascinating and nuanced.
The settings of the three games are also fantastic. ACII mostly takes place in Florence and Venice, with a couple of smaller towns as well, and they all look and feel fantastic. AC:B ups the stakes by shrinking the core locations down to a single one… but making it Rome, and doing a really, really good job of making you feel like you’re in Rome, with crumbling monuments and creepy crypts everywhere. AC:B‘s Rome is one of the few videogame worlds I’ve spent hours just running around in, looking at stuff (and I look forward to doing the same eventually in Origins’ Egypt and Odyssey‘s Greece). AC:R is also (mostly) singly-homed, and that home–Istanbul–is almost as fascinating as Rome, and a welcome change from the aggressively Italian locations of the previous two games. There’s nothing like perching on top of the Hagia Sophia and looking out across all of Konstantiniyye in terms of feeling the scope of what almost feels like a living, breathing city.
And, when the action works, Ezio really does feel like an amazing bad-ass. He leaps across roofs, jumps down from high perches to stab the evil Templars in the back with his hidden blades, and disappears in a cloud of smoke to live to fight another day. It’s easy to see how the AC games set the tenor for Rocksteady’s Batman games, because in many ways you feel like a Renaissance Dark Avenger: hiding in the shadows (or amongst groups of civilians), waiting for the perfect moment to strike unsuspecting foes.
All three of these games’ controls could politely be described as “cantankerous” and impolitely described as “intermittently controller-throwing terrible.” Ezio will take flying leaps off of buildings in the wrong direction in the middle of long chase scenes, he’ll fail to assassinate people even when the text is RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN OH GOD, and your right thumb will be just as sore as your left over the course of a long play session thanks to having to adjust the camera all the time. Many failures in the game will not feel like your fault at all, but just the game randomly deciding, “nope, you’re not gonna make that jump this time; sorry, bub.” And that feels bad.
The designers also got the terrible idea for the second and third games for each mission to have an “optional” (read: required, if you want the trophies) additional goal. Sometimes they’re trivial, but both games have several levels where those “full synchronization” goals are basically going to force you to replay the mission ten to twenty times until a combination of luck and skill let you succeed. That’s not good design; that’s torture.
Also torture: the hot mess that is the framing story. You’re not actually Ezio Auditore in these games; you’re Desmond Miles, a dude in the modern day (well, 2012) who is experiencing Ezio’s life thanks to a machine called the Animus and, uh, DNA race memory? Also there are ancient aliens, everything major that ever happened in history is part of a secret war between the Templars and the Assassins (yes, even that), and the Apple of Eden is an actual artifact in the game. It’s all awful pseudoscience claptrap, impossible to take even the least bit seriously, even in the context of “it’s just a videogame.” (Thankfully the Desmond stuff is closed out with the next game, Assassin’s Creed III, although the secret-war and ancient-alien crap is too baked into the series for them to ever remove it.)
(As a side note, apparently someone looked at the janky mess that is the engine these games use and went “you know, we should make a puzzle-platformer out of this.” That shows up as an extensive set of side-content in Revelations, and it is awful to the max.)
Lastly, other than the setting and story, these three games are essentially the same game, all using the same engine. I ha-ha-only-seriously refer to them as Assassin’s Creed 2, 2.1, and 2.2, because they really do feel like nothing more than expansion packs to the original game. Huge expansion packs, mind you, but mere iterations rather than anything seriously new.
(I could also rant about some terrible trophies that all three games have–particularly Revelations–but I think I’ve said enough about why trophies are bad here in the past.)
Looking back up, it sure seems like I have a lot more to say on the negative side than the positive. That’s a bit of a shame, because I really did enjoy playing through the games again… about 70% of the time, and not counting the last N hours of stupid trophy hunting. If you play them completely casually, ignoring all of the dumb things you have to do to get 100% synchronization, I think they’re solid, charming experiences with janky controls; in particular, I think just about everyone should give Assassin’s Creed II a spin, as it’s both the easiest and the most plot-driven of the three, and Ezio really is one of the best characters in videogame history.
But I’m glad I’m done.
Now to replay Assassin’s Creed III next month… sigh.