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Assassin's Creed has to be one of the most interesting franchises to spring up on the current crop of consoles; a sci-fi/period mystery that borrows heavily from The Da Vinci Code school of historical accuracy with a bit of Phillip K. Dick thrown in. Despite a somewhat mixed reception it has been blessed with fairly solid sales on home consoles and I can happily count Assassin's Creed II for the PS3 and Xbox 360 as one of my favourite games in years. However, as is so often the case, the series has had a difficult transition to the portable market. The series' PSP outing stands out as a truly excellent console to handheld adaptation, 2008's Altair's Chronicles on the DS and iPhone, on the other hand, left quite a lot to be desired. And so we arrive at the latest challenger to appear, Assassin's Creed II: Discovery.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the plot follows Desmond Miles, an assassin in a secret order of assassins that has been kicking around since well before the crusades. Desmond is also fortunate enough to be descended from a long line of very successful and historically significant assassins who look and sound remarkably similar to him. In the not too distant future Desmond is being plugged into The Animus, a high-tech easy chair that allows him to relive the memories of his ancestors and work through a conspiracy that stretches back centuries. Each game explores another chapter in the secret war between the assassin's and the Knights' Templars as they struggle to recover powerful artifacts. The first Assassin's Creed title saw Desmond exploring the life of Altair, a moody assassin lurking in the 12th century middle east while the sequel follows the much more likable Ezio Auditore, a charming rake in renaissance Italy.
Assassin's Creed II: Discovery is released very much as a companion to the main title on home consoles, a piece of supporting merchandise rather rather than a direct adaptation. While that isn't a negative point in itself, it does give the game a somewhat limited scope. Discover takes place during a gap in the narrative of its parent game and as such it is limited in its contribution to the overall story. Followers of the series will find this to be little more than a side story, a brief deviation in Ezio's career, though not an unwelcome one. Ezio Auditore finds himself in Spain and uncovers a plot to wipe out the Spanish assassin's using the inquisition as a cover. Distracted from his own quest for vengeance and his rebuilding of the Assassin's, he stays to help the Spanish assassin's network before returning to Italy. It's filler mostly but it is narratively consistent and well characterised filler that suits a DS side quest. Players who complete Assassin's Creed II can return to the characters they enjoy but the game avoids treading on anybody's toes. While it's not the most daring way of adapting a series to handhelds, it is still a better option than attempting a shoddy retelling, squeezing intricate story points into a little cartridge. I was pleased to discover that the game features full voice acting for its many dialogue scenes, original voice actors included.
Where the game begins to take more risks is in its approach to the gameplay. Bravely, the developers have chosen to distance themselves from the open world gameplay that defines the console versions. While the DS provides many options for varied and original games, it is short on the real brute force needed to push an open world title. If you are seeking a portable game that reproduces the open world, exploratory scope of the series, Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines on the PSP is an excellent choice. Discovery wisely opts to play to the system's strengths and presents itself as a sidescroller with a strong emphasis on climbing. While this seems like a stark contrast at first, the developers have gone to great lengths to give it an authentic feel. When climbing a wall it still feels like Assassin's Creed but with less time looking for those tricky grab spots. It emphasises the wonderful feeling of running across rooftops and levels are largely a case of running towards a goal, string jumps and momentum together into smooth acrobatics and finding the best path through the city. It borrows heavily from titles such as Mirror's Edge, managing to maintain a feeling of scope.
Its great success is that, at its core this still feels like Assassin's Creed. Levels that see leaping off ledges and swinging on poles to reach your goal feel much the same going left to right as they did going back to front. Most interesting is the debt the game seems to owe to Sonic the Hedgehog. While it occasionally delves in very climby platformy sections, many levels really involve making it from one end of the screen to the other in the quickest time. Again, like Sonic, it exploits multiple paths. Rooftops, scaffolding, street level, each offering different challenges. Street level paths will often lead you into more any guards and tax your combat skills. Fortunately the game replicates the feel of combat from the consoles perfectly. As the series features a very locked on, one on one feel to combat even in 3D, this is very easy to retain in the side on perspective. Completing a level presents you with a time and a ranking, encouraging you to replay and beat your scores. It's a good example of playing to the strengths of handheld gaming and shows a real effort to create a strong game in its own right.
Visually, Discovery is a very impressive title. While it doesn't push more polygons than I'd expect for a DS game, it has been approached so well it's hard not to be satisfied. The game uses 3D rendering on a locked perspective, an approach that can yield good results with patience. By restricting what the player can see, each level can be optimised so much more effectively, only pushing the hardware on the objects in sight. Until the dramatic closeups, Ezio looks nice enough. Animation is beautifully done with every sprint, leap and parry of a sword looking as smooth as on a console. His cape flaps a little behind him and everything looks right, time has been taken to make the models look as good as any character would render with the same amount of pixels. This is to be expected considering your eye will be on the character constantly but an absolutely incredible amount of time has gone into rendering the backgrounds. Often in sidescrollers such as these you find 3D characters rendered upon flat backgrounds, this is not the case. So much work has gone into keeping the feel of the wide, open cities of the console titles. While you may begin running past a fairly blank building, soon you will pass an alley, fully rendered. You can't head down it but you can see past your track, see builds a few feet away and towers off in the distance. Rivers, corners, markets and bystanders. Climbing up to the tops of buildings reveals the most incredible depth and a reassurance that despite a change in the gameplay, we are returning to the same world, the same style. It is unfortunate that we rarely see a developer try to bring out the best in a game for the DS but it is a very rewarding experience to play a game that so well made.
This game isn't for everyone. Its side story approach to the franchise is likely to exclude newcomers and even fans looking for revelations about the series' wider plot arcs will be disappointed. It is a little like a deleted scene from Assassin's Creed II that takes an opportunity to play out a little differently. Gameplay is definitely more simplistic than the vast world of Assassin's Creed II and that might let some people down. However, at the end of the day Assassin's Creed II: Discovery does the best it can with what it has. It takes a well established franchise and makes it work on a console with a fraction of the power available. It is a gamers game on a console that often falls victim to developers too fond of cutting corners and it offers what it promises; More Assassin's Creed II in your pocket.