Wednesday, July 4, 2012

#28: Why People Were Getting Sick of Ezio

Throughout this console generation, many companies have tried to create new IPs that successfully stick with audiences, feel fresh and unique, and generate income for other projects they wish to work on. While many of them failed due to a number of reasons, one of them stuck in a big way: Assassin's Creed. Thought the original game had its flaws, it was a unique type of game that innovated on several fronts and was more successful than Ubisoft imagined it could be. One common complaint, among the tedious investigation missions and seemingly psychic guards, was that Altair Ibn La-Ahad was a rather bland and boring protagonist that did not have much in the way of personality. When moving from third Crusade-era Syria into Renaissance-era Italy for the sequel, Ubisoft took steps in order to avoid making the same mistake again. The result was the very well-received Ezio Auditore da Firenze. While many people loved the Florentine murder-machine at first, the longer his contribution to the series went on (in both Brotherhood and Revelations), the less people took kindly to him. I wondered to myself why that was, which inspired this week's article.

One of the most obvious reasons for this is that as Ezio's contribution to the story went on, the gameplay became less and less fun. Assassin's Creed 2 gave Ezio plenty of ways to go through a mission and a variety of equipment types to use. The player could blend in with crowds in order to hide from guards on the way to a target. He/she could use parkour-style platforming to sneak across rooftops and alleyways in order to reach the target. Ezio was able to just storm in and fight his enemies head-on through swordplay, throwing knives, a gun, and/or a very offensive use of smoke bombs. The player could use any of these tactics and even combine them or switch them out on the fly thanks to Assassin's Creed 2's systems. While this was true in the original game, the sequel expanded on it with new moves like pulling someone over a ledge, pieces of equipment like smoke bombs and poison, and systems like notoriety. Many people would complain that the new additions made the game too easy, which was justified to a degree, but overall they were very well received.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood added even more to the game. Though Ezio was in his mid-forties at the time the game took place, he gained many new skill that made combat an even more viable option. He could now do chain executions. After killing an enemy he could immediately attack another one, killing the foe instantly regardless of health. This could go on until either Ezio got hit out of it or there were no more enemies left to kill. Another new addition which was well publicized before the games release was the Brotherhood system that allowed Ezio to recruit commoners to his cause, train them to become Assassins, and call on them for help during missions. His experience even gives him the ability to wield the gun at the same time as his sword and throwing knives at the same time as his shortblade. Lastly, he could purchase and use a crossbow that functioned like the gun, but was completely silent and did less damage when Ezio was detected and, if the player completes an optional quest chain, parachutes to move greater horizontal distances and descend slowly from tall buildings. While they tried to balance these new additions with more and stronger enemies, the result was still a game that was even easier than Assassin's Creed 2. It was still interesting, but it was noticeably less fun.

And then they released Assassin's Creed: Revelations. In addition to the thing from the second game and from Brotherhood, Revelations brought even more stuff to the table. The biggest things added to the game in Revelations were the addition of the hook-blade, which allowed Ezio to scale buildings even easier, use zip-lines throughout the city, and run past guards, using the hook to maintain momentum, and bomb crafting, which allowed Ezio to make up to three different bomb types (Lethal, Distraction, and Tactical) with different ranges, shell types, and effects. Ubisoft Montreal even changed the inventory into primary and secondary weapons to compensate for the vast quantities of armaments Ezio could have on his person at any given time. While they tried once again to compensate by making new, tougher enemies and again, the game was easier despite their best attempts. In fact, the game was so easy that it became almost boring. The new additions felt superfluous because Ezio was already on the verge of being overpowered in Brotherhood. There was never a need to go out and craft bombs because Ezio could shoot people with poison darts, bullets, or a crossbow, stab somebody with a hidden blade, a sword, or a dagger, blend in with crowds, parkour through the world, call Assassins to bail him out of tough situations, and chain executions together into a string of murder, despite the fact that he was in his sixties. The hook-blade seems worthless when Ezio was already a parkour god. There was no difficulty to the game no matter how skilled the player might or might not be. With each game, Ezio became stronger and stronger thus the game became easier and easier. Without a sufficient challenge, it is nearly impossible to get real enjoyment out of a video game's gameplay.

The other reason people were getting sick of Ezio was that it seemed like the series was wasting its potential on him. This is because of the main plot device of the series: The Animus. The Animus is a device that allows people to relive the memories of their ancestors in a video game simulation. Using this device, the writers literally have the potential to set Assassin's Creed games and stories in any period of history they desire. All they have to do is plausibly explain the ancestry of the person in the Animus. Up to the point in time I wrote this article, the series has always used historical setting that are criminally underused in video games. In the first game, we explored Syria during the Third Crusade through the eyes of Altair. At the time, this was an incredibly unique setting which drew the interest of countless people. The second game was equally unique in that it was set during the Italian Renaissance and told from the perspective of Ezio, again drawing in interested eyes.

The fans were hooked by this point, wondering where and when the next Assassin's Creed game was going to be set and what would the new Assassin be like. Speculation was rampant when Ubisoft announced... the Italian Renaissance again starring... Ezio... again. While the fans were mostly disappointed with that announcement because they had expected to play as someone new in a new location in space/time, they were content to play as Ezio again because he was an interesting character that they had grown to love in Assassin's Creed 2. Then Revelations came and people were getting a little tired of Ezio. Not because he was a bad protagonist, but because they were eager to see a new face. Even though they moved to Istanbul and left Italy, Revelations still took place around the time of Renaissance. (It had to since Ezio was the protagonist.) While it was a setting that is not often used in video games, it was also eerily reminiscent of Syria from the first game. While the fans wanted a new Assassin in a new setting, we received the same old and tired (literally) Ezio in a seemingly even older setting.

Both of the above reasons are why Assassin's Creed fans are eagerly looking forward to the upcoming third main installment in the series. On one hand, we are hoping that with a new game, the developers trim the fat, reduce the amount of equipment the player has at his disposal and make the game slightly more difficult so that it becomes fun again. We also expect that the new Assassin will have his own style and his own skill set similar to how Ezio felt fundamentally different to Altair. On the other hand, we are eager to see the story move past the Renaissance so that we see a new take on Templars vs. Assassins from a new point of view in a new setting. And the American Revolution is indeed a new setting for video games. The protagonist is even more unique because he is half-Native American, a demographic rarely represented in video games, let alone as a protagonist character. Being able to reinvent itself while maintaining its core principals is the biggest strength of this series. The last few titles have not been utilizing this strength and thus felt weaker as a result. It is a lesson that is hopefully well learned.


Doc Watson said...

Very good points. I've been thinking about the same as you on Ezio after a while. Compared to the (shaky) plausibility of the original, AS2 always seemed a little silly to me. I was always a little surprised/disappointed each time they announced a new sequel featuring the Renaissance assassin. Might write up my own thoughts on this soon.

newdarkcloud said...

Please do. I'd be eager to read them.

I agree that Assassin's Creed 2 became pretty silly. I was mad that Ezio didn't kill Rodrigo Borgia at the end after slaughtering all those guards. It didn't make sense to me.