I think it’s fair to say that one of the things Assassin’s Creed II is about is immersion. The fiction of the game concerns a completely immersive virtual world reconstructed from one character’s DNA, which allows him to inhabit the bodies of his ancestors. The game world itself is constructed to resemble, with startling fidelity, famous locations in Italy. The game also adopts a 3rd-person open-world approach that produces at least a competent illusion of player agency in the game world. Genuine player immersion is, at least with present technology, an unreachable goal, and so of course Assassin’s Creed II never manages to achieve it. What struck me during the course of play, however, was how many times the game simply gave up on the pursuit, falling back on old game tropes that betray the illusion, despite how easily this could have been avoided.
The usual suspect for destroying immersion is the cutscene, the moment where the developer wrests control from the player in order to make something happen. To its credit, Assassin’s Creed II tries, albeit infrequently and with uneven success, to make the player an agent in cutscenes. As for the cutscenes where the player doesn’t have control, the Ubisoft team generally avoids the world-breaking excesses that were characteristic of Grand Theft Auto IV. The one major exception, to my mind, concerns an event during the Pazzi conspiracy, where the player walks up to Santa Maria del Fiore and a long scene ensues depicting the murder of Giuliano de’Medici and the wounding of Lorenzo. A great deal happens in this little display, and it feels like it goes on for five minutes, which naturally led me to wonder what the deadly assassin I was playing was doing during that time. Had the cutscene activated from further away (outside the piazza, perhaps) and shown Ezio running onto the scene a moment too late, I’d have had no problem. Knowing that he was mere feet away and getting the impression he was doing nothing, however, started making me think about how irritating it was that the game wasn’t letting me do anything. The moment a player starts thinking about “the game”, immersion is gone. Inexplicable passivity of this kind absolutely kills player immersion and enjoyment, and in this case it’s trivial to avoid.
But cutscenes in Assassin’s Creed II are sparsely employed and don’t hurt the world too much. The moment that really broke the game world for me actually came in my first visit to an assassin tomb. Although I have seen these tombs praised in some quarters, I personally thought they showed up the weaknesses of the platforming approach. The reason for this is that the free-running platforming works best when a high density of interactive surfaces can compensate for the approximate nature of the controls. Missions that require a precise route (the tombs and races) or have only sparse interactions (the tombs) became fairly frustrating. That, however, was not my problem.
My problem came when I approached a man who had lingered behind a doorway as his friends had marched into my deadly reach. I dispatched his buddies without incident, but realized I couldn’t approach this final guard without alerting him. It’s a situation that calls for a ranged weapon, so I went to select my throwing knives and found they were grayed out. Unselectable. I was going to have to walk up to this guy in order to take him out, because the developer had reached his godlike hand into the game and taken away one of my tools for no apparent reason. Of course when I did approach the guard, the reason became evident: somebody had scripted an “exciting” chase through the crumbling tomb.
Only it couldn’t be exciting, because I was now thinking about the game I was playing rather than the fiction it conveyed. When I fell behind and the guard paused for a moment, I didn’t think, “Oh, he’s out of breath.” Rather, I thought, “That’s a pretty artless bit of scripting.” The chase wasn’t an experience I was having, it was a test being inflicted on me, no more immersive than an average shmup. I had been knocked right out of the world, by something as small and stupid as a grayed-out weapon, totally unnecessarily. Simply placing the guy farther back behind the door, or putting the trigger point for the chase further from him, would have accomplished exactly the same thing. One could also give the guard extra health—the guards in Venice can survive two knife strikes, why not this guy? And why have the chase at all? What did it add to the game, except forcing the developers to repeat the trick later on to justify the scripting capacity they’d created?
Forcing me to chase the guard (as opposed to letting me kill from a distance) also stank of another bugbear of mine in these games: process-oriented objectives. Here again, Assassin’s Creed II was generally quite good, although it too often required me to tail people I should have just assassinated outright. The only other time I got seriously annoyed by a process-oriented objective was when Ezio needed to scout out a way into the Doge’s palace in Venice. Since I needed to get on top of the Basilica San Marco, I simply hopped across the canal from Castello via some suspended platforms. Unfortunately, the developers wanted Ezio to see some scaffolding that would let him climb up (much less conveniently) from the Piazza, so I had to climb down and then back up again so I could follow the game’s particular route to someplace I had already been. Why not place the destination point atop the Basilica and let the player find his own way? Why knock the player out of the world for such an irrelevant scene?
That scouting mission also featured some wonky ally AI, also a perennial trouble zone for the open-world genre. Getting an ally to follow a player, particularly given the difficult routes dictated by the free-running aspect of Assassin’s Creed II, is a difficult challenge. A more notable failure occurs when the allies are just following Ezio around on the ground: the stutter-step. This is an obvious and ridiculous behavior where the AI walks a bit slower than the player, runs to catch up, then hits minimum follow distance and stops (with quite a lurch, in this case). I noticed it most prominently in an early mission where Ezio escorts his mother and sister out of Florence. With everybody else walking relatively normally, watching these two women follow me by repeatedly running six steps and then jerking to a halt, no matter what speed I was walking, was unintentionally hilarious, and instantly deflated the tension the mission was trying to build. Because I’ve seen it, I know that this can be done right; even if you lack the talent for it, you could just link the ally speed to the left stick.
Of course Assassin’s Creed II has other problems, an inevitability given how difficult it is to create immersion, but the one thing that unites all of the issues I mention here is that they have absurdly simple fixes. It’s amazing, given the game’s core philosophy of immersion, that the obvious steps weren’t taken to make the experience more seamless and involving. How must it feel for someone who dedicated days or weeks of her life to virtually reproducing a climbable Santa Maria del Fiore to have some idiot mission scripter piss all over that effort by producing the world-breaking tomb chase? It’s a curious juxtaposition in that so much care seems to have been taken to make these environments convincing and immersive, while the game suffers from easily-fixed immersion problems. Overall, I quite liked Assassin’s Creed II, despite its shortcomings, but I wonder if I might have liked it more, if it might have been transformed from an interesting experience into an immortal one, had more care been taken to preserve the illusion of its world.