His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Get on with it

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood promotional artWhen Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was first announced, my reaction was one of suspicion. It’s not that the AC series hadn’t produced spinoffs before: there were two for the first game and one for the second already. And it’s not that I didn’t fully expect Ezio’s decision at the end of ACII to come back and bite him–or at least someone–in the rear end. However, ACB wasn’t a spinoff: it was a fully-fledged game giving Ezio more limelight than I thought he deserved. The fact that it also looked like a poorly-disguised vehicle for multiplayer didn’t help. All in all, it felt like an unnecessary filler episode.

KillchainJust to get this out of the way: I am not a multiplayer person. With some very rare exceptions, you’ll never see me advocating it. Blame it on my completionism, my non-competitiveness or my extensively exploratory gaming style, but there you have it. So all I know about ACB multiplayer is that you can play as a variety of Assassin types.

Back to the matter at hand. Despite my first impression, I did give single-player ACB its due. And well…it is a filler episode, there’s no way around that. But if you like Ezio, you’ll probably be glad that he gets more screentime. And if you don’t, there are other things that Friendly faceACB could reel you in with. For instance, it confirms a trend of memorable secondary characters. Our good old pal Leo is still there, even though his relevance to the main plot is greatly reduced; he’s only there to provide Ezio with gadgets (including parachutes) and some sidequests to destroy his war machines, which he doesn’t want used by the Templars. Additionally, the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC provides him with a lengthier side-story.

Other recurring faces include Caterina Sforza, whom Ezio gets to know a lot better, if you catch my drift, and the garrulous, yet sympathetic mercenary captain Bartolomeo d’Alviano, thanks to whom Ezio finds himself involved in a rather hilarious linguistic Nemesisepisode. But the main highlight of the cast is the main villain: Cesare Borgia, son of Rodrigo, ACII’s big bad. As Ezio, for some obscure reason, spared Rodrigo at the end of ACII, it’s only fair that his son should want payback. Let’s not mince words: Cesare is a colossal jerk. But he’s precisely one of those you love to hate. Flamboyant, petulant, arrogant and infinitely ambitious, he provides enough theatrics and cruelty to make you want to kick his butt. I may also rather like his dark looks…Anyway, no story about the Borgia would be complete without Lucrezia, Cesare’s infamous sister, and sure enough, she’s there, even though her role is less prominent than her sibling’s. And if you’re wondering whether the game upholds the historical rumours concerning the two, the answer is clearly ‘yes’.

When in RomeThe storyline I found to be distinctly weaker this time around. Ezio finds himself in Rome, trying to sap Cesare’s influence and put an end to the Borgias. And…that’s about it. You’ll spend 95% of the game in Rome; the rest is comprised of Desmond’s sequences, which are set in modern-day Monteriggioni, and some short secondary missions, which briefly take you back to Florence, Venice and other, hitherto unknown locations. I find this to be a distinct flaw: part of the appeal of the AC series so far, for me, has been the exploration of different cityscapes, so to be effectively limited to one city, no matter how large and varied, feels restrictive. Moreover, the plot casts Ezio in a rather poor light: he made a big mistake, and now he has to fix it, but considering the amount of faffing he gets up to once again, he doesn’t seem to be in too much hurry to do so. Then again, what are seven more years when you’ve already spent twenty doing who knows what, right?

ParatrooperCombat is virtually identical to ACII with some additional gadgets. Parachutes have already been mentioned, thus allowing Ezio to survive potentially lethal falls. Moreover, he now has poison darts, which spare him the trouble of walking up to guards to poison them, but also a crossbow, which has the advantage of a longer range over throwing knives and silence over the gun. What’s more, Ezio is now able to dual-wield, usually the gun alongside a sword. The most significant change, however, is the introduction of execution Learn it, love itstreaks. To wit: if you select a different enemy than the one Ezio is currently killing (it has to be in the middle of the killing animation), he’ll immediately kill him in one hit straight afterwards, and you can keep going until everyone’s dead. That is, provided you don’t get interrupted, as other enemies can attack you while you’re doing this. The key is pre-empting attacks by keeping an eye on their health bars. If one starts flashing, that enemy is about to attack, meaning that Ezio should target him next. It’s not always easy, but if you manage it, combat becomes a cakewalk. I’m not sure that’s an advantage, but there you have it. If you need practice, you have the Virtual Training Program, an upgrade to the Animus which allows Desmond to participate in a variety of simulations–both combat- and agility-related–as Ezio.

Gameplay also receives several noteworthy brushups. First of all, while Desmond simply had to perform a set goal during each of Altaïr’s and ACII Ezio’s memories, the new and The way you do the things you doupgraded Animus spices things up. Now, simply achieving the mission goal will only grant you 50% sync. If you want the full 100%, you’ll have to fulfil an additional requirement, such as completing the mission within a certain time, killing the target in a specific way or not falling into water (or some other equally arbitrary condition), presumably to do things exactly like Ezio did. I understand the developers’ desire to keep things challenging, but I found this change aggravating.

FireworksSecondly, instead of renovating Monteriggioni, you now renovate Rome. In order to start renovating a district, you have to free it from Borgia influence, which involves killing the local Templar captain, then setting fire to a lookout tower. You can then put shops back into business, renovate monuments (eg. the Coliseum) and sewer tunnels, which are a new addition to allow faster travel between the various districts, but also assign vacant buildings to various factions, thus strategically distributing groups of courtesans, mercenaries and thieves throughout the city. As if that weren’t enough, each faction now has a set of challenges Ezio can undertake (such as killing a certain number of guards with poison). There are various advantages to completing these (reduced hiring costs, new weapons), and they’re also needed for a trophy/achievement.

Have at them!Last but not least, the reason behind the game’s name: Assassin recruits. Partway through the storyline, Ezio will be able to help civilians being harassed by guards. In return, they will pledge themselves to the Assassin cause. Ezio can then send them on missions, which will gradually increase their rank. Mission difficulty is indicated by stars and a percentage of success. Obviously, you don’t want to send a fresh recruit on a 4-star mission: if they fail, they die, and you’ll have to recruit someone new. Recruits can be of either gender, depending on the location where you find them, and their names are randomised. You can change the colour of their outfits and, once they gain a level, Full-fledgedupgrade their weapons and armour. When they finally reach the rank of Assassin, you can travel back to the Assassin HQ to formally induct them into the Order via a ceremony. The advantages of recruits? Ezio can summon them in combat or have them unleash an arrow storm, which usually kills all soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Of course, this only makes fighting even easier…

Overall, I’d say that this game is a mixed bag at best. It does have its good moments, and after a while, you get into the old AC-swing of things. On the other hand, it also shows distinct signs of getting bogged down by bling. I was already concerned about excessive variety in ACII, and ACB only adds more chips to the pile. Ultimately, you’ll still wind up with a mountain of cash and a boatload of optional things to accomplish that make you lose track of the overall goal. On the other hand, if you just go for the overall goal with as few distractions as possible, you’d end up with a rather meagre story, more akin to a scraggly, underfed pony than a well-groomed, healthy purebred. Desmond’s plotline does get a rather shocking twist at the very end, but apart from that, it’s still as I kill you!dull as before and doesn’t help the rest of the game. I guess it’s not easy to deal with this sort of hybrid: crammed into ACII, the events would’ve felt inconsistent and tacked on. But, as a standalone game, it’s a bit too light, and, in the immortal words of Monty Python, I frequently found myself mentally telling Ezio to “get on with it”.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

The fine art of farniente

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

SerenissimaLet’s get this straight out there: Assassin’s Creed II is, quite simply, a better game than its predecessor. Great care has obviously been paid to varying the gameplay, streamlining old and new features, and enhancing the storyline. The plot is set in a more famous, and therefore more recognisable, environment (Renaissance Italy, rather than Medieval Syria and Palestine), and introduces a flashier protagonist, with the end result that it tends to overshadow its predecessor. And yet, in spite of the first game’s flaws, I could never shake the feeling that the second opus had lost part of its soul under all that bling. Don’t get me wrong: ACII is a lot of fun. But there were moments when I found myself missing the leaner, sterner world of its older brother.

The game starts exactly where AC left off. Desmond–he of the infinite charisma (not)–is rescued from the Abstergo lab where he was being held by Lucy, the assistant in his previous memory-delving adventures who actually turns out to be an Assassin, and two of her comrades. They take him to a secret location and hook him up to a better Animus You want me to do what?machine to send him into the memories of a more recent ancestor, the Florentine nobleman Ezio Auditore, in the hopes that it’ll help them find a Piece of Eden. The story is still split between Ezio’s sequences and Desmond’s, and the latter now at least has more partners in crime. Rebecca’s one of those hacker-types–short hair, funky clothes, headphones–with a perky, upbeat attitude, while Shaun is the prim, British-accented history geek with a degree in deadpan snark. Lucy’s also gotten an upgrade: from unremarkable lab mouse to…goggle-eyed and fish-lipped trendy babe in skinny jeans and a form-hugging top. Yeah…The modern-day sequences now also include a chance for Desmond to put all the moves he learned in his virtual escapades to the test. Although, seeing him perform those acrobatics in his baggy jeans, hoodie and sneakers was distinctly less glamourous than long white assassin robes and leather boots. Doesn’t help that he’s still completely unremarkable as a character. Just as Altaïr stole the show in AC, Ezio also steals the show this time around.

As has already been mentioned, the three operative words are variety, streamlining and enhancement.  And boy, is there a LOT of the former. The new and upgraded Animus features a historical database, which provides bite-sized info about notorious landmarks and characters. Ezio has access to more weapons (a second hidden blade, maces, smoke bombs…even a prototype gun) and armour, all of which he can upgrade, or, in the case of armour, repair, as it gets damaged in combat (which is a distinctly annoying feature). He also has more acrobatics at his command, such as assassinating targets When all else fails, use waterwhile hiding in bales of hay. He can disarm enemies in combat, poison them, toss sand in their faces to disorient them; he can also ride gondolas, and, most satisfyingly, swim. Which is handy, since one of the cities he visits is Venice. The conveniently placed groups of monks which allowed Altaïr to inconspicuously enter guarded areas have been replaced with various factions that Ezio can hire for the same purpose: courtesans, who can distract guards by shaking booty, thieves, who can steal their stuff to have them give chase, or mercenaries, who will simply go in and bash some heads. There is a day and night cycle, which, apart from varying the atmosphere, also comes into play in certain missions. Ezio now also has a homebase in the small Tuscan town of Monteriggioni, which he can renovate and upgrade (notably by buying famous Renaissance paintings) to earn regular income, as the game now features an economic They never said I'd have to do thiiiiiiiis!system, complete with merchants and even street doctors. There are a lot more sidequests, in particular the Templar Lairs and Assassin Tombs, which consist of some advanced platforming and reward Ezio with money and, in the case of the latter, special seals which eventually grant access to Altaïr’s black Master Assassin outfit (yum). There are also some strange blips in the Animus interface, which appear as shining glyphs on buildings and allow Desmond to solve some puzzles left behind by Subject 16, his defunct predecessor at Abstergo.

Adorkable geniusMuch like Desmond, Ezio is also surrounded by a more varied and more interesting cast of secondary characters. Among those, the biggest highlight is, undoubtedly, a young Leonardo da Vinci, with whom Ezio becomes good friends, and who helps him decipher some of Altaïr’s documents which he fortuitously finds. Leo is fun, chatty, endlessly enthusiastic, scatterbrained and just eminently huggable. And, thanks to the new system of cutscene interaction (an upgrade of AC’s camera angle changes), whereby you can be prompted to press some buttons to affect Ezio’s actions during some cutscenes, you can do just that. And beware Leo’s kicked-puppy eyes if you miss that hug! Other memorable additions include Caterina Sforza, the willful, intelligent and crafty ruler of Forli, or Rosa, a gutsy, very pretty and very foul-mouthed thief whom Ezio encounters in Venice. On a less serious note, there’s also Uncle Mario, whose claim to fame is the infamous “it’s-a me, Mario!” shout-out.

Noooo, there's THREE of them!As far as streamlining is concerned, the controls are more fluid, and there seem to be fewer bugs. The horrible beggar women have been replaced by the no less persistent, but much more amusing minstrels. Those will run up to Ezio and sing utter nonsense (“here comes a brave signoooreeee”), both hampering his movements and drawing attention to him until he either outruns them, knocks their lutes out of their hands or throws some money on the ground to send his immediate entourage, both rich and poor, frantically scrabbling for it. Flag collection still exists, but has been pared down to reduce tedium. Ezio now also has a notoriety meter, which rises when he performs risky or illegal acts in front of guards, and gradually makes him easier to detect. It can be reduced either by ripping off wanted posters, bribing town criers or assassinating corrupt officials. Oh, and a small detail which nevertheless makes me happy: Ezio has an accent. I missed that with Altaïr.

Horseback chopFinally, we come to storyline enhancement. Where Altaïr’s plotline basically boiled down to “here’s a hit list, do your worst”, Ezio’s tale is more linear, but also more personal, growing from revenge into commitment to a greater cause. Paradoxically though, this kind of presentation makes Ezio’s targets less memorable. Sure, there’s his first victim and the big bad at the end, but the people he kills in between? I couldn’t name them to save my life, and this despite the fact that their portraits are displayed in Monteriggioni after the fact. By contrast, I can still remember every one of Altaïr’s targets, and the unique settings for their assassinations. The other problem of the storyline is that it spans about twenty years, rather than just a couple of You call this old?!months. I’m sure the idea was to give it more scope, but it just doesn’t work very well. The only character who shows any signs of aging is Ezio, and even that is limited to…growing a beard. The only other indication that time has passed is the date which appears onscreen between chapters. Sometimes, the temporal gaps are downright baffling. Surely, someone with such a burning desire for revenge wouldn’t spend so much time doing…what exactly?

This brings us to the inevitable Altaïr vs Ezio showdown. The general opinion appears to be largely in favour of the latter, and this is easily understood: he’s depicted as far more human. He’s fiery, cocky, has a sense of humour and, upholding the most typical cliché about Italian men, is a total playboy. In short, the dashing rogue type. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this kind of personality didn’t quite befit an assassin. Altaïr may have been an arrogant jerk, but he was efficient, focussed, shady, and, to me, a lot more believable in his role. Ezio…just spends a whole lot of time faffing about. Defending a Hey, Lorenzo, d'you think I could maybe do my own stuff now?lady from an importunate suitor? Ezio to the rescue! A thief wants some racing practice? Ezio’s happy to oblige! And, what’s most detrimental to his integrity: his involvement with Lorenzo de Medici, whom he saves from an attempt on his life, only to become…his lackey. Lorenzo wants anything done? Ezio’s on it! No wonder the game has to span twenty years.

This, in turn, showcases the flipside of the lavish amounts of variety in the game. Weapons? All you ever really need are the hidden blades. Upgrading the villa? Ezio ends up sitting on a mountain of money he doesn’t know what to do with. Helper factions? They all amount to the same thing. Random sidequests? After a while, you He has his own way of walking off into the sunsetstart forgetting what your main goal in the storyline was. And much as I enjoyed running around familiar cities and scaling monuments I’d visited in real life, sightseeing isn’t all the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Still, don’t let this deter you: the game is definitely a terrific romp.

Fly like an eagle

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

I’ve always been wary of action games, because I tend to think too much before acting, and was concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be up to the task. However, as time went by, the ‘you won’t know until you try’ credo grew on me, and I decided to expand my game collection with new genres. One of my friends pointed out that I couldn’t own an Xbox 360 and not try out Assassin’s Creed, and since the premise of the game already intrigued me, that finalised my decision.

The overall verdict is a favourable one. But I must say that both the storyline and characters left me with dual impressions. Incarnating a skilled Assassin is great fun, and Altaïr is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the game: the sleek moves, the sneakiness, the arrogance, the taciturnity, the beauty and symbolism of the name. Even the missing finger. There’s just one problem: why can’t he swim? I know the sequel cooked up a dubious retroactive explanation, but it still seems a bit absurd. I’ve run into enough mishaps trying to make him cross bodies of water to make this a particularly annoying trait. But that’s just about his only drawback.

However, since Altaïr isn’t the ‘real’ hero of the game (pfff, as if!), that leaves us with Desmond, Altaïr’s descendent in modern times, as the main protagonist. And he has the charisma of a wet sock. Apart from the odd sarcastic quip, there isn’t a single interesting thing about him. Sure, he looks identical to Altaïr, but looks alone do not a compelling character make. Sorry, Des, you should have gotten yourself a personality instead.

The storyline suffers from the same duality. The gist is that there are two opposing factions, Assassins and Templars, who have faced each other throughout history. In the near future, Desmond, who is an Assassin by training, gets captured by a Templar-led company named Abstergo. They have a machine, called the Animus, which allows Desmond to relive the memories of his ancestors (which are somehow hardcoded within his DNA), a process Abstergo needs to locate something. So off goes Desmond into the skin of Altaïr, a Syrian Assassin from the XIIth century. This Medieval part of the game works very well, and some of Altaïr’s assassinations are truly memorable. Garnier de Naplouse, the Hospitalier leader, springs to mind: very convincingly unsettling, and the setting for his episode was well-nigh perfect. On top of that, I like the sonorities of his name, for some reason. Anyway, I’m sure all this would’ve constituted enough material for a game on its own. The modern-day part just feels tacked on and uninteresting. Perhaps because it features Desmond. Perhaps because it’s simply innately boring.

Since this was my first real action game, I apprehended the combat. The stealthy stuff, such as making Altaïr creep up on an unsuspecting victim and swiftly stick a knife in their back, came naturally enough (take that as you will…). But open combat took some work. It was simply a matter of getting used to it, and it won’t pose any particular challenge to action game veterans, but I did have to give my reflexes a bit of a shake to get used to blocking and countering, which is, by far, the most efficient way of fighting in this game. Still, once I’d come to grips with the technique, it became a treat to watch Altaïr stabbing his way through hapless soldiers who had no idea what hit them. I must really commend the combat choreography, by the way. In the hands of a skilled player, it looks like some sort of deadly dance.

The sandbox aspect of the game does its job well, and if you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia games, you’ll be right at home with Altaïr’s acrobatics, even though he’s less of a gymnast than the Prince. Playing Spiderman among the rooftops is thoroughly entertaining. Scaling minarets and belfries to get an overview of the area and then swallow-diving off them (into haystacks…which should be lethal, but who needs realism, right?) is a novel way to fill in the area map, and the views themselves are impressive, especially for someone who’s afraid of heights, like me. The leap from the cross of the cathedral of Acre–the tallest building in the game–was a particularly intense moment.

Other positive aspects include graphics and…language. Despite some of the textures seeming overly sharp (I’m not sure how else to describe it), the game looks good. An added peculiarity is that each of the three big cities Altaïr visits has its own unobtrusive, but present colour palette: Acre has a bluish hue, Damascus red and Jerusalem green. As for the linguistic aspect, it’s noteworthy for its accuracy. Historical facts may have been doctored to make for a more exciting experience–most of Altaïr’s targets were real historical figures, but they weren’t quite as…colourful as in the game–, but the language is spot-on. Ubisoft is a French company, so it stands to reason that they’d know their stuff, but hearing a proper French accent in an Anglo-Saxon game is a rare enough occurrence to be noteworthy. Even random soldiers who spoke entirely in French (“Je vais t’étriper!”) were perfectly fluent. Same for the German, as far as I could tell. Details, I know, but they help the immersion. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been if Altaïr himself had an accent.

The bane of Altaïr's existenceHowever, there are also negative elements. To start with the anecdotic, the beggar women who plague every city are the devil incarnate (“I’m poor and sick and hungry!”); if you don’t know what I mean, play the game, and you soon will. Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of people complain about the game’s repetitiveness, and while I found the context of each assassination episode to be interesting enough to make up for the fact that you essentially had to do the same thing every time, I can certainly concur. You’ll definitely get a sense of déjà vu after a while. And it will onlyFlagged get worse if you decide to go flag hunting: I’m really wondering why the developers felt the need to put so many of them in the game. There are also quite a few glitches (think random non-playable characters in gravity-defying positions on rooftops), which give the game a bit of an unpolished feel. The music is adequate, but nothing more. And, last but certainly not least, the ending is terrible. I understand that the developers likely wanted a tie-in with the sequel, but they probably got a tad overzealous. It’s as if the game didn’t end at all.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time. The initial concept is original enough to outweigh the kinks in execution, at least for me, and if the rest of the series is anything to go by, the developers do take account of the criticism they receive. Subsequent games have made a genuine effort to streamline the gameplay. I still far prefer Altaïr to his successor, Ezio, though. So here’s to the original four-fingered stabbing wonder.