I apologize in advance for the repetition - all I can think about today is Assassin's Creed 2. Minor spoilers ahead.
I'm... let's say, 12 hours in. I'm a few missions into Venice - my most recent story-related Achievement indicated that I am in the middle of DNA Sequence 7, and so if the Achievements are a reliable measure of game progress I am just around halfway through the story.
I Was Wrong:
I wasn't really all that negative, but the the thing that bothered me the most in Friday's initial impressions was the disconcerting nature of how utterly meta the game is. Which is to say, the game never stops reminding you that you're playing a game, which seems fundamentally at odds with the level of detail that went into designing these Italian Renaissance-era cities.
And yet, now that I'm fully invested in it, this design makes absolute perfect sense. As you probably know by now, you are not actually playing as Ezio, your long-dead Assassin ancestor; you are actually playing as present-day Desmond, and you are looking through Ezio's memories through the Animus, a sort-of computer-controlled Matrix-esque brain scrambler machine. You have a HUD; you have a map; you have shimmery graphical cues and clues as to points and persons of interest; and you have all these things because you, as Desmond, need to search through Ezio's life to discover the answers to a mystery/conspiracy that is still ongoing.
I didn't really figure this out until Desmond finally got to take a break from the Animus. In the first game, Desmond got out of the Animus after almost every significant mission; in this sequel, I've only seen him at the very beginning and at this particular junction, upon arriving in Venice, which was after around 10 hours of playtime. In the first game, Desmond was put into the Animus because the evil organization that kidnapped him was trying to figure something out; in this sequel, it seems that Desmond's primary goal is to absorb Ezio's assassination skills (via osmosis, transference, etc.) so that he can be a fully-trained Assassin in addition to figuring out whatever it is that Ezio was up to.
And so, during this little break, Desmond is taken from the Animus room to a warehouse area and is asked to turn on the security system, which happens to have power switches right up near the roof. Desmond needs to jump and climb and leap just like Ezio in order to do so, which are skills that he didn't necessarily have before - if the Animus is to be believed, Assassins would absolutely murder the Ninja Warrior obstacle course.
And it was during this particular break in the action, while I was taking in how the same graphics engine that was powering these remarkably detailed Italian cities was also taking in this quasi-futuristic warehouse, that I suddenly noticed that there was no HUD, no map, no on-screen indicators of any kind. And right after I noticed that I was no longer "playing a game," Desmond suddenly fell into a hallucination which: (1) also didn't have any on-screen indicators, because (2) Desmond wasn't actually plugged into anything at the time.
This is all a long, not-terribly-interesting way of saying that the meta-game construction that so confused me at first is not confusing me any more. It's a contrivance, sure, but it's absolutely justified and makes the game's larger fiction that much more effective.
Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine:
And while we're speaking of gameplay mechanics that disturb the reality of the Italian 17th century experience, let us also talk about the glyphs. This is maybe my favorite part of the sequel, and it gets me absolutely giddy when I think about the next game. It's really just another collection mini-game, but there's a lot more to it than that:
I forget exactly how it plays out, but the basic idea is that there was a previous person in Desmond's position - Subject 16 - who was a casualty of the evil corporation's Animus experiments. Subject 16 managed to smuggle out, at great cost, a certain "truth" that has been chopped up into 20 different sections.
The first layer of this mini-game is that as Ezio explores each city, he may happen upon a famous landmark; a picture will pop up with some relevant historical information, along with a little red eye notation which indicates that there's a hidden glyph in the area. At which point, if you're so inclined, you'll scamper onto the rooftops and switch on your Eagle Vision, looking for anything that seems out of place. And then you'll see it: a line of Hebrew, a bar code, an Egyptian hieroglyph. You'll press Y, again, to scan it.
Once you've scanned it, you're taken out of Italy and into Subject 16's program. He'll warble something enigmatic, and then you're given a series of increasingly odd puzzles involving assorted historical figures. The first few are easy enough, as in: what do 5 of these 10 classical paintings have in common? (Answer: the prominent character is holding an apple.) But I'm now into my 10th (or so) glyph sequence and instead of find-the-missing-thing, I'm getting into these decoder-ring puzzles that involve base3 number systems, and these align-the-circular-disc puzzles governed by a maddening, impenetrable logic; and these puzzles are presented alongside photos of the Moon landing, correspondence (fictional(?)) between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, footage of nuclear bomb tests as well as the electrocution of an elephant... it gets very bizarre and spans across all eras of recorded history, implying that the powers that be have always been seeking these "Pieces of Eden", which is also what the Templars/Assassins have been seeking in the game itself.
And so once you've solved a short series of these puzzles, you then unlock about one second's worth of film footage. I've collected roughly 10 of these snippets thus far, and it appears to me that they're out of sequence; they are CG and appear to be a nearly-naked man and woman (Adam/Eve?) either being chased or running towards something.
I'm at a loss to explain what any of this stuff means; it's just that it's so friggin' cool.
Less Is More, Except When More is More:
In my earlier write-up I said that I felt overwhelmed with things to do, which was in direct opposition to how I felt about the first game, where there wasn't enough. I no longer feel that way. There's certain side missions that I'll admit I don't really care about; the races are fine, except when the auto-parkour controls get a bit wonky, at which point they get endlessly frustrating; this is also true of the courier missions. The assassination missions simply give you more opportunities to formally assassinate people, instead of just killing random patrol guards or important historical figures. I haven't felt the need to pursue these just yet; at this particular point I'm not really hurting for cash, which appears to the the main tangible benefit for completing them. I am, however, looting as much treasure as I can. I'm also finding the Codex pages - those are easy enough to do, and aside from the cash/health benefits for finding them there's yet another meta-level puzzle that goes along with finding all of them.
The best side-mission to go for, though, is the Assassin's Tombs. These are 20-minute long, self-contained areas which feel just like levels out of Prince of Persia, and they are show-stoppers. And unlike the rest of the side-missions (including the glyphs and the codex...es), you know right off the bat what the reward is - it's a bad-ass suit of armor that (I think) belonged to Altair, the hero of the first game.
I have to cut this short, unfortunately. But I'm sure I'll have more to say once I'm done with it.