Assassin’s Creed II
(PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Of all the things in life that ought to have been good but weren’t – tree houses, Transformers, our visit to Egypt the other year when we ate a pigeon and spent one day thinking we were going to die and two wishing we had – Assassin’s Creed was one of the most befuddling. A combination of parkour roof-running action and stealthy throat-cutting, the Crusades-era, Middle East-based actioner ought to have been brilliant. But repetitive gameplay, an unconvincing sci-fi element (the player is controlling Desmond in the year 2012, who is himself controlling his ancestors via their memories that have been encoded in his DNA) and dodgy AI pretty much put paid to that. It was like playing an early, incomplete demo of a much better game.
Thankfully, two years have made all the difference to Assassin’s Creed II, which not only sports a sexy new location – Renaissance Italy, complete with velvet caps and swarthy rogues – but also a complete overhaul of pretty much everything. The AI, for example: guards are no longer foxed by your clever technique of just jumping in hay bales right in front of their eyes, nor do they now get stuck behind walls or run off down the wrong alleys like confused geriatrics.
The missions, too, have been improved, with more varied objectives tied together by a stronger storyline of familial vengeance and political intrigue. Desmond’s historical avatar this time around is Ezio, the playboy son of a Florentine politician who quickly becomes a Ren-faire Batman after failing to stop a family tragedy. His induction into the underground war between the good-guy Assassins and the evil Templars simultaneously acts as a game tutorial, an introduction to Renaissance Italy (yes, there’s genuine educational value here) and an entertaining depiction of Ezio’s moral descent.
The game even manages to successfully weave the Michael Crichton-esque sci-fi gubbins with the historical elements, as Desmond discovers digital data files that have been imprinted on the past by a prior time-traveller, hinting at a huge, centuries-spanning global conspiracy and a threat to planet Earth itself. It’s all ludicrously OTT but works brilliantly, and does a better job of making us excited about the larger, game-spanning arc story than its predecessor did.
Frankly, the only bad thing about Assassin’s Creed II (aside from an inexplicable – and awful – acting job by comedic writer Danny Wallace) is that to fully appreciate the more complex elements of the story you’ll need to have a working knowledge of the first, deeply inferior game. We’d recommend skim-reading the plot summary on Wikipedia then picking up this little gem.
Available in stores.
(PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
We’re surprised nobody thought of it before now, really. Shooting stuff has, after all, been an instrumental part of videogame design ever since Space Invaders began their two-dimensional descent to Earth. But until now developers have always focused their creative efforts on what the players are shooting at – whether it’s slimy monsters in Half Life or destructible environments in Black – than what they are shooting with.
But that’s changed thanks to Gearbox, whose new game, Borderlands, promises 17 million randomly generated guns to play around with. How does a pistol that fires flaming, spiralling bullets sound? Or an electric sniper rifle? Or a shotgun that fires rockets?
Before you get too excited, it’s probably worth pointing out that a great deal of those 17 million guns are probably pretty much the same, save for a slightly different stat. A shotgun that fires 26 pellets instead of 25, say. Sure, there are some incredibly goofy surprises out there (grenade-launching pistol!), but it’s not quite the all-the-lead-you-can-eat smorgasbord that the marketing division might lead you to believe.
Then again, ‘a game with 17 million guns’ is a nice little soundbite: a nugget of information to pique the player’s appetite. The real meal here is the gameplay: great, hefty chunks of run-and-gun action that are so satisfying and yet so simple you’ll wonder why everyone else always seems to cock it up. The guns have heft and feel suitably percussive – no piddly pea-shooters here – and the AI on the baddies is solid enough to pose a challenge.
For a solo player it’s entertaining, but throw in up to three pals in for a co-operative game and it becomes an absolute blast. If you want a party game but are sick of Raving Rabbids-style minigames and Guitar Hero spinoffs, then this is the one for you, in all its chaotic, explosive, cartoonily violent glory. It’s not quite perfect – the RPG-style levelling up means that a newcomer playing alongside an old hand will be obliterated – but it’s still tremendous fun, and blessed with some gorgeous design work.
This is, however, a game where the journey is far more important than the destination, and all players should be aware that the ending is an absolute travesty, almost – but not quite – dreadful enough to cast a pall on the preceding hours of gameplay. But hey, it’s hard to hold a grudge against a game this fun, especially one with rocket-firing shotguns.
Available in stores.