*Originally posted 11/25/09 on Black Elixir Neat*
Unfettered information shrieks through the mind at a terrible pace when stimulated and given little chance to absorb. The focus of the mind narrows to increase the velocity of the information's processing, yet more often than not a bottleneck occurs for those who tend toward a visual-simultaneous information processing method to their mind. The proverbial log jam thus creates anxiety, since the perspective views all of this information building on itself from all angles instead of a single line. Of course, non-physically-oriented anxiety leads to abstract sources for solutions; imaginary cobra problems require imaginary mongooses.
So anyhow, Assassin's Creed II can share some blame for the length of time it's taken between posts, yet it can take a lot of credit for inspiring this Town Madman to rattle his box full of thingamajigs and scream to high heaven once more. The first Assassin's Creed dropped us into the Crusades of the 13th Century CE, highlighting the effect that dogmatic organized religion has had on civilization, primarily for the worse but without being uncouth about it. While the player operates the Assassin Altair (pronounced all tahyEER), the main character of the game is a fellow from 20 minutes into the future, Desmond Miles. The premise comes from a corporation interacting with his memories to find a particular maguffin artifact, the Apple of Eden, presented as a gold sphere that contains all human knowledge (but of course, not all human wisdom). So, Desmond gets into a machine which allows him to operate within his own memories, synchronizing with the actions of his ancestor, Altair. This ancestor in question had, as far as the first game went, very little in the way of personality, and was a bit like Mr. Spock with a hard-on for libertarianism. You had only so much you could do in the first game, and the gameplay eventually became something you had to do to get on with the story... until you beat the game and have the development of a) Desmond developing similar ESP to Altair and b) the entire lab in which Desmond was imprisoned covered in strange glyphs and symbols, most (if not all) of which come from real sources. (Nazca plains animals, Hebrew phrases, Quran scripture, Newgrange spirals, etc).
The second game comes right after the weirdness of the first, and shoves us immediately into a game whose scale goes absolutely berserk in both macrocosm and microcosm. Desmond escapes the corporation to a hideout of others who belong to the Assassin bloodline (or cause or whatever). Their machine's better, of course (cuz it's made by a cute girl! Haw!) and the premise of the current game is Desmond learning through the memories he accesses with this machine the ins and outs of Assassin training.
Now, let's clarify: "Assassin" in this game comes from a hypothesis of a radical, rational humanist sect coming off of the Ismaili sect of Islam, rather than the mercenary. It doesn't overtly recognize the notion that "assassin" was a pejorative epithet of the Ismaili made by opposing sects and picked up by Christian scholars. While the games use history as incredible window dressings for the game, it does digress wildly.
This round, the Assassins cue him up for the career of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio begins as a pugnacious rich kid who isn't quite used to consequence. In contrast to the angular, cold features of Altair, Ezio has rounded, earthy features. The only real mark that possibly sets him as worth mentioning is a from a split lip he received from a rock to the face during a very demonstrative brawl with a rival family. Once the story requires he accept his role as Assassin, he goes through various stages of helplessness. Where he had been used to punching and yelling, he must now work in secret, skulking in crowds and ducking into alleyways to avoid detection. The designers put a lot of work in the subtlety of his emotional shift from extroverted snarls and barks to cautious speech and chilled stares at odd corners of the room.
One of my favorite things on this game is the introduction of money. Not only does Ezio have numerous ways to gain income (completing side quests, treasure hunting, looting bodies, pickpocketing, maintaining his villa) and utilize income (artwork, weapons, throwing money to distract minstrels and guards, hiring courtesans, thieves and mercenaries, bribing town criers), the power money has becomes more emphasized in this game. Most of the targets in this game have more of an economic influence than religious, although the Church still plays a large part of the story. Lorenzo de Medici has a strong connection with the character, and yet he challenges the player's perceptions of their actions. Aside from the assassinations that move the story forward, Lorenzo sends contracts through carrier pigeons to different cities for you to collect and act on. After about five, I began to wonder about these contracts myself, and exactly how many people Lorenzo wanted me to kill for good reason, how many he wanted me to kill for his own purposes, and how many out of pure paranoia. I've stopped doing those missions altogether, and with the amount of things to do, I don't feel that bad about it.
For me, one of the most important features in the game comes from the glyphs hidden throughout the world on important landmarks in Italy, and the Codex pages penned by Altair after the events of the previous game. These unlock computer code written by the previous person to enter the Animus, which opens into puzzles that bring into question contentious moments in human history (Oppenheimer, Gandhi, JFK, Nikola Tesla, Atilla the Hun, etc) This is where we get into the meat of what the game wants to express ideologically. How does a person fight a war against ideas? What will a person find himself willing to do when rational humanism devolves into atheism and nihilism? What is the responsible use of knowledge? How does a person fight a battle against ideas? How do we outgrow civilization and how can we initiate this next stage in our species' evolution?
I feel like Assassin's Creed will be the next Metal Gear series, and I hope that we'll be able to see this kind of sophistication in subject in future games.