Whiskey Monday: Ass Creed 2’s difficulty

To say the house I live in is at the top of a hill isn’t quite right. It’s at the top of the hill.

Going into town isn’t much of a problem. I put the word out to my roommates, and they meet me outside and spend fifteen minutes wrapping me in plastic bags, rags, dead towels and blankets, securing the fabrics with duct tape. When I resemble a morbidly obese tramp they carry me to where the hill begins and cast me down. I usually wake up at the bottom, shaken but uninjured, and can cut my way out of the fittings and go stumbling off on my way.

Returning home is more dangerous. Crampons and daylight are required. One point in the climb is known as The Englishman’s Wife, which is where the mossy incline of the hill tilts beyond the vertical and extends over your head. I had a nasty scare there yesterday. I leapt out, grabbing a tuft of weeds in each hand, and pulled myself up and over the ledge. It was after I’d stood up that the soggy lip buckled under my weight, tipping me backwards. As I fought to regain my balance, arms windmilling and death licking at the back of my neck, I realised the extent of my problems with


I really liked the first Assassin’s Creed. It had its moments. When I was being ridiculed by my friends for liking it so much I told them about those moments. I told them about tense escapes, terrifying swordfights, and the rush you got from instant-fail alert missions and some of the trickier assassinations. I told them “the final third of the game is different, man! Once all the features have been introduced everything starts getting really exciting! I’m serious! Let go of my balls!”

Those same friends are playing Assassin’s Creed II now, because of me. They’re currently asking “Uh, where’s the bit where it gets hard?”

And I have to bite my tongue, look down at my shoes and tell them that it never gets hard. Ubisoft Montreal completely pulled the difficulty.

I died six times in my game of Assassin’s Creed II, each of those times from acidentally flinging myself off a very high building onto flagstones 100 feet below. That’s not a game about assassinating people, that’s a game about not acidentally jumping off a building.

For obvious reasons the devs at Ubisoft have given their new Italian murderer about two dozen more tricks than their Middle Eastern murderer ever had. These new tricks, which range from smokebombs to paying gangs of thieves to lure away guards to being able to use your new SECOND hidden wrist-blade to assassinate TWO people at once are Assassin’s Creed II’s new features. They’re the selling points, and they had to be included.

But not only have Ubisoft not upped the game’s challenge accordingly, and not only have they increased the number of assassinations where your victims stands idly in the exact place that leaves them open to attack from your newest technique (no thought required!), but they’ve also added Medicine. Let me tell you about Medicine.

Ezio, your assassin, has a Medicine Pouch. It holds 5 Medicine initially, but can be upgraded to hold 10 or 15 Medicine. Tap left on the d-pad at any point and there’s a .75 second animation of Ezio popping a pill, which maxes out your health. As I said, the combat in the game’s no harder than the first Assassin’s Creed so assuming you’re a hardcore enough gamer to remember to tap left on the d-pad when the screens starts going fuzzy you’re working with a minimum of 350% more health.

Ubisoft are exploiting a gimpy little psychological hole, here. Medicine allows gamers to come close enough to death that most will still feel they’re surviving against all the odds despite there being no danger. Medicine’s just the start, anyway. There’s also armour Ezio can buy which further boosts both your health and your resistance to damage, or how it seems a lot easier to lose pursuing guards, and the change of pickpocketing from a sweating bullets minigame into holding down A and walking into someone.

Fuck that. This isn’t a game anymore, and my friends still think I’m a dick for liking the first game.

So, Ass Creed II is built for people who want to breeze through cinematic experiences. I appreciate that at this point those people way outnumber those of us who are a little more jaded and need something, anything, to be at stake for a game to be exciting, but this is what difficulty settings are for! Jesus! Why doesn’t Ass Creed II have one? It’s not like it’d have been some insurmountable technical challenge. It would have been changing numbers in a config file somewhere, making smokebombs more expensive and removing the option to use medicine while guards are looking for you. Little things. Give me my difficulty. Give me a game.



  1. I liked AC, also. Shame!

  2. This is exactly why I oppose the argument that games should just be easier, all the time, and that difficulty settings can be adjusted upwards for those of us who still want challenge. That’s nice in theory, but the game is being designed for the lowest, most incompetent denominator. When push comes to shove, developers will pitch difficulty over the side. Why provide a game for the small number of people who want a challenge when most gamers will be happy to simply hold the controller while the game unfolds smoothly from beginning to end?

  3. how about self-imposed difficulty settings? Forgoing medicine use, for instance, or not buying smoke bombs?

    • Yeah, I’ve touched on this before. That’s a theory that doesn’t work, and I’ve yet to hear self-imposed restraints suggested by anyone who actually uses them.

      Dying and having to replay 10 minutes of progress because you chose not to use a feature or ability brings a special kind of distaste towards the game. The challenge that got the best of you ceases to be you versus the game, it becomes you versus your own weird self-imposed rules. The game becomes less rewarding to win and more boring if you lose.

      • Pedantry 5000: with regards to self-imposed restraints, what about the internet Far Cry 2 play-on-normal-til-you-die bandwagon?:


        I find myself largely siding with you when it comes to difficulty, Quintin – the tougher the challenge, the more you get out – but I use some devious shit when I realise the game lets me.

        Recent example: playing MW2 in Spec Ops mode with a friend (the best purely two player game of the last three years), we reached a natural impasse fighting ten ‘juggernauts’ – massive, armoured folks with belt-fed machine guns and the pace of a charging rhino. Cue a bit of creativity, and we managed to exploit the game’s idiosyncratic approach to cover (walls: shoot-throughable; tables: BULLETPROOF) to let us knife the bastards to death in relative peace.

        It didn’t feel good, per se, but we did it, and I got the same “we did it!” adrenaline rush that I would’ve had I used some superhuman ability to beat the section ‘correctly’. I think I’m happier exploiting a tough game to win than I am having the game lay a coat over a muddy puddle for me.

        If that’s even vaguely on-topic.

      • Check out RealmsBeyond for a community based around variant play that focuses on self-imposed challenges. http://www.garath.net/Sullla is another website full of AARs where the player solos Final Fantasy V, for instance, or runs a sub-optimal Diablo 2 build for added challenge.

        You seem to see the player-game relationship as an adversarial one; I see games as a way to facilitate some fun rather than a challenge to be vanquished.

      • Calibrator says:

        “That’s a theory that doesn’t work, and I’ve yet to hear self-imposed restraints suggested by anyone who actually uses them.”

        Oh – we have several self-imposed playing styles in the Thief games community and lots of active people use them.
        “Ghosting”, for example, is quite popular (not being seen the whole mission, no alarm allowed etc.) and if you want it even tougher play “Lytha’s Way”.

        Granted, “lots of people” may be a few hundred worldwide and not millions of AC2-players but they resemble a large part of the active Thief player community.

      • I know about ghosting from time spent playing Thievery. I am a fan of ghosting! But putting self-imposed restraints on your first run-through of a game is completely different to replaying certain missions again, like the Thief community does.

      • Calibrator says:

        That’s right but many people ghost new fan missions, too, and they are often more difficult than the (already well known) original mission.

        Take care.

  4. For me, the first AC came off seeming pretty lame, but I’ve enjoyed the first four hours of the sequel – mainly, I think, because the characters, plot, and presentation have been, in my opinion, improved by leaps and bounds. I would expect that kind of fun to drop off as I get into the mid-game grind, but that’s normal. Damn! Decent characterization, real mystery, and (so overlooked in so many games) competent motive-provision – Ubisoft, have you grown up while I wasn’t looking? I can’t say how relieved I am to be able to play a hot-blooded convincingly-young nobleman in search of revenge rather than a heartless hateful murderer again (AC 1, Prototype, the GTAs, etc.). Now this is what I call a motive for killing lots of people! I can get behind this. Plus, I liked the father. And what about that first assassination? “You would have done the same for your family.” “I just did.” CONVERSATION OVER. OOOOH BURN!!!

    Anyway thanks for the tip, I think I’ll avoid getting armor, or buying a larger medicine pouch. I completely dig what you’re saying about the desire for real edge-of-survival challenge (to which I point every person to Hulk: Ultimate Destruction on XBox – Quinns, hint hint, someone could write a very interesting essay on the complex way the health bar regen and health recovery works in that game – in short it’s intensely skill-based, WHILE offering room for decision-making in the use of the destroyer moves that are fueled by the tippy-top end of your health bar). BUT I do dislike restarting missions in games like this, where the sense of immersion is everything. By the time I have to use the medicine at all, I feel like already have failed, and I’ll keep trying to get better until the point when I don’t have to use it at all. It feels like a cheat. Actually I’ll redefine: it IS a cheat. What is that stuff? Crack in a pill? PCP?

    Here’s the thing though: when I use the medicine, I acknowledge to myself that I’ve failed for having dropped to that point at all, and I’ll try hard not to let anything happen to my newly refilled health bar, AND I can just keep playing the mission. I don’t have to restart. The story continues to flow. I like that – so far anyway. I only rented the first game, but if this one keeps on being fun I’ll buy it. Score one for Ubisoft.

    Seriously though, why are there no other difficulty levels?

  5. Can we also discuss the stupid, lame-ass future plot and how the series would be infinitely better if it just stayed rooted in the past?

    My theory was that the developers just threw in the future-stuff to prevent people from pointing out anachronisms. There’s a bit in the first game where Desmond asks, “Well, why does everyone speak English?” and the developers explain, “The computer is updating everything for your brain. If you see any errors\hear anyone make a Chuck Norris joke, it’s just a glitch in the programming.”

    • No! There will be no discussion of that here. Whether you think they’re succeeding or failing, it’s still hugely brave of them to be experimenting like that in a AAA license.

  6. It’s games like this that drive me back to Demon’s Souls for all my self loathing game masochism needs.

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