The pre-boss fight: giving our nemesis context

[Contains SPOILERS for Assassin’s Creed 2, Knights of the Old Republic, and Bioshock. Consider yourself warned.]

I recently completed a play-through of Assassin’s Creed 2, which left me with a rather negative taste in my mouth. Part of it had to do with the wild ‘conspiracy theory’ story reveal at the end, but a lot of it had to do with bad game design, principally the way Ezio deals with his nemesis: Rodrigo Borgia.

Rodrigo is introduced to the player very early in the game, is clearly telegraphed as Ezio’s final object of revenge, and hovers behind the largely indiscriminate slaughter Ezio inflicts on the guards of various cities in Renaissance Italy. Despite ‘meeting’ him in various cutscenes, Ezio catches up with him for the first time about 85% of the way through the game. The battle is rather well-done at the outset, and is easily one of the more memorable parts of the game. The fact that Rodrigo is one of the more formidable enemies of the game despite only wielding a sword (though he does summon help) is actually quite impressive. Normally, sword-wielding guards are little more than practice dummies for Ezio.

Ultimately, however, this is still Assassin’s Creed 2, and combat can be overcome by mashing the attack button. Though there were a few tense moments, within a minute or two I had Rodrigo thrown to the ground and was about to kill him—and then one of my allies suddenly appeared, in order to help me—allowing Rodrigo to escape. I forget the plot contrivance for this; suffice it to say, the game designers would never have let me kill Rodrigo at this point, because this was a pre-boss fight. In other words, it is a battle that features the final boss, but you can’t possibly win (at least in any final sense).

Other players may not have triggered this interruption in quite so ridiculous a fashion, but the obvious scripting in play really pissed me off. After enduring a cut-scene, I/Ezio calmed down, and hoped for the best in our final encounter. The fight really had been interesting, so I expected Ubisoft Montreal to have something really special in store for the grand finale.

After finishing the game, I am utterly mystified at the design choice made for the game’s ending. I won’t comment on the story reveal, which is simply so bizarre as to be beyond commentary, but rather the truly final boss fight. Once again, it is Ezio versus Rodrigo. An opening phase features weapons but the final culmination finds the two going at each other mano e mano. The melee system in the game is incredibly limited, making it really odd to feature in the final battle. While sword battles can be won with two attacks (the standard attack and the times counter-attack), more imaginative players can mix things up with dodges and rolls–even picking weapons up off of dead enemies for temporary usage. By contrast, the melee system is either (X to bunch, B to grab–then press X to punch). Unlike the challenge posed by Rodrigo in the first encounter, mashing X simply overwhelms him. I pressed B a few times, just to mix things up, but it was over in under a minute. I despise QTE’s, but a QTE-based boss fight might have actually been more interesting.

Ubisoft Montreal put together a well-designed encounter, but it was ruined by the constraints of designing a pre-boss fight. They then proceeded to design one of the weakest final boss encounters I can remember—all of which leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. One last defense of the game would be that Rodrigo has become Pope since the first encounter–an occupation which likely doesn’t require much physical training–but the story doesn’t support Ezio exacting revenge on some frail opponent. By all accounts, Rodrigo should be just as hard (if not harder) than before given, but he is not.

Players should feel like the final boss is a real antagonist, but there are better ways to do this than the pre-boss fight. After all, Rodrigo was well-established as the villain early on; the pre-fight could have been removed and then used in place of the final encounter.

This reminds me of another game with a similar structure: Knights of the Old Republic. While my memory of the game is considerably fuzzier than of Assassin’s Creed 2, BioWare’s otherwise masterfully-done game suffers from a similar dissonance. In the first battle against Darth Malak, I easily overpowered him in all three of my play-throughs, though he was given an escape path to elude me until several hours later.

Despite having increased levels several times between the first encounter and the game’s final battle, the second encounter with Malak still ranks among my most frustrating gaming experiences of all-time. Even after removing his tactical advantage (the imprisoned Jedi), the only realistic approach required kiting him around the room, periodically pausing long enough to throw a lightsaber, and thereby winning via attrition. Despite attempts to min/max a Force-user or duelist, Malak has such high resistances that none of my builds were ever able to go toe-to-toe with him. Despite making him run away like a coward just hours earlier.

Games have to put their antagonists in context. If they are going to have a final boss, they can’t materialize from nowhere like General RAAM in Gears of War unless the reveal of who the boss is clarifies the game’s previous enemy encounter. Using a pre-boss fight as a way to provide context is a dangerous design element. The first encounter must (of necessity) have a non-ending and this has to be handled in a way that makes sense, or doesn’t break immersion. KotOR, from what I recall, handled this decently well. The second and/or final encounter needs to mesh with the first encounter while providing a difficulty level that makes sense in context. KotOR fails on this second count, kitting Malak out in such a way that an un-fun tactic like kiting becomes the only option. Assassin’s Creed 2 fails on both accounts.

Of course, it is easy to criticize without offering anything constructive in return. One game that established the final boss in a remarkably good way was Final Fantasy VII, especially the flashbacks in Nibelheim. Though I will not hold up the final battle with Sephiroth as a great final boss, it provides a solid challenge.

Bioshock also comes to mind by establishing Andrew Ryan as the villain without ever placing him in gameplay incredibly well; moreover, the non-fight with which his story arc ends makes sense from a narrative perspective. ‘Replacing’ him with Frank Fontaine is a much-discussed twist in gaming history; the control Fontaine exerts over the player-character, however, establishes a great deal of hatred despite having a shorter arc to build things up. The final fight is oddly designed, but it does provide sufficient challenge to feel satisfactory.

Any games that you think solve this problem rather well? I’m particularly interested in any that do so despite relying on the pre-boss fight design. Please share!