The first 15 minutes of Assassin's Creed II are spent hastily tracking Lucy through several locations and carefully following her instructions. Throughout this sequence the player alternates between full control of Desmond and passive reception of backstory shards and expositional cutscenes.
Sadly, this opening sequence foreshadows what's to come: 3+ hours of hand-holding and game-issued directives the player must endure to progress through the game. If you can persevere, AC2 has some very interesting tricks up its puffy sleeves. But are they worth waiting for?
AC2 is a terrific game in many respects. Its Prince of Persia-esque platforming can be exhilarating - vertically navigating Santa Maria del Fiore makes my stomach queasy (in a good way), and the Leap of Faith takes my breath away every time I execute it. Mushy facial animations aside, it's a gorgeous, deeply atmospheric game that draws you into its story by making you care about its primary thematic concern: family.
But we often measure narrative games by their ability to successfully disguise their mechanics, and this is where AC2 stumbles badly, particularly through its first 4 chapters. NPC-led tutorials arrive hours after the player has already learned to master what's being taught, and fetch quests lead to other fetch quests, which open opportunities for more fetch quests. It's difficult to reconcile the inspired design one finds elsewhere in this game with the muddled mess of its first few hours.
Narrative games rely on assigned quests for 'gameplay,' and we accept this often ridiculous convention because we enjoy completing fun-to-do tasks with useful rewards attached to them. But, decades in, narrative game designers find themselves charged with a nearly impossible task: find new ways to make these hunter-gatherer missions feel like they're vitally integrated into the story. AC2 fails miserably on this score until it finally drops the effort altogether and blossoms into the game it seems to want to be. But, oh those first few hours.
Consider the game's first memory sequence. Ezio's father Giovanni gives him a letter to deliver. Once delivered, Ezio returns home, unlocking several more Courier fetch/deliver missions. Ezio's sister tells him to beat up her no-good boyfriend, so Ezio locates him, beats him up, and returns home (all missions indicated on the map with markers).
Next, Ezio accompanies his mother to meet Leonardo Da Vinci, who needs Ezio to carry his stuff from point A to point B. Then Ezio's brother wants some feathers; three appear on the map, and Ezio retrieves them and returns home. Next, it's time to deliver some more letters and retrieve one from a chicken coop. Once complete, Ezio returns home. Giovanni has been taken prisoner, so another marker appears and Ezio must go to the prison and speak to his father. Giovanni tells Ezio to return home and fetch secret items from a secret chest behind a secret passage. Then he instructs Ezio to deliver another letter.
This sort of thing continues for the next three chapters.
These missions have an in-game narrative purpose and often serve a tutorial function, but they mostly feel like painting by numbers: go here, do this, talk to this person, find the bad guy, kill him. Mission complete. We've come to expect side missions to function as hunt/collect quests, and AC2 has its share of these in the form of glyphs, codex pages, etc. It's a shame that the game's primary storyline is delivered for so long in just the same way.
The game tells us these early missions matter because they're in service of plot advancement, but that's a tough sell in this case because the designers have done so little to elevate them above a strung-together series of game-directed tasks. They feel like 'gameplay,' and AC2's insistence that they're actually 'story' becomes increasingly absurd as the opening chapters unfold.
Happily, by chapter 5 the game shifts into a different and altogether more inspired and cohesive mode. I'm still playing, and I'm glad I am. But I gotta tell ya, it's hard to overlook those first few hours.