The first Assassin’s Creed was a love it or hate it affair. The game was, to be honest, a proof of concept more than anything else, a playground where Ubisoft could test out a really impressive graphics engine. The game rightly caught flack for its repetitive nature and the general silliness of its sci-fi overtones, but there were a lot of people out there who believed that the series had some merit. The game ended up selling fairly well, so the green light was given on the sequel.
Whereas the original game took place mostly in 1191, the second Assassin’s Creed is set during Renaissance Italy around the late 15th century. While you still control hapless kidnap victim Desmond Miles during some sections of the game, you spend most of your time inhabiting the body of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a brash young nobleman and banker’s son. The game starts off very similar to Grand Theft Auto where it walks you through a bunch of missions that teach you how the game’s mechanics work while setting up for the first big plot point. Some of the early missions are, admittedly, fairly stale but serve as a good introduction to the setting and some of the major characters you’ll be running across.
Ezio himself is far more likeable than Altair was in the first game. There’s no denying that Altair knew his business, but he wasn’t a sympathetic character. During the course of Assassin’s Creed II you’ll actually be rooting for Ezio as you pilot him through his trials and tribulations and, in a way, you’ll sort of feel like you actually grow with him. While the story does get kind of muddled around the end (I’m fairly sure the gaps in the plot will become downloadable content, but that’s just a guess), Ezio’s tale is full of likeable and hateable characters, and the writing and voice acting are both sharp.
The world itself is just as important to the game as Ezio and crew, and the graphics engine that powered the scenery in Crusade-era Middle East works just as well at building the various city-states of Italy. During my play-through of the game, I was showing some of Florence to a friend of mine who had traveled to Italy and he marvelled at how the major landmarks were placed in approximately the right locations by the art team. As great as the scenery looks, the graphics fall a little flat when it comes to animating facial expressions. Ezio and Desmond look OK, but some of the ancillary characters are visually very strange, like the animators were taking cues from Robot Chicken. There’s one of Ezio’s targets in particular that has some very pronounced fish-lips, and a couple of the modern day characters bear more of a resemblance to dolls than actual people. For a game with abundant visual splendor it can be a little weird to watch some of the characters talk and move around in such a strange fashion.
Fortunately for those of us who will be staring at Ezio’s back for about twelve hours, the control scheme has been tightened for the second outing and is a lot easier to master than the first. Combat is still a “wait to counter” undertaking, but now you have a few more options when it comes to both straight up brawls and assassinations. You can disarm, poison, take down two targets at once, and finally hide in a bale of hay and pull an unsuspecting target to their doom. There’s dozens of way to distract and ultimately dispatch your foes, and if you’re running out of ideas then you’re just not doing it right.
For distractions, Ezio can hire one of three factions: courtesans, mercenaries or thieves. They all have their own special way of distracting the guards and depending on what kind of approach you want to take, from stealthy to belligerent, there’s a way to do it. Besides the aforementioned bale of hay surprise, Ezio can now swim and dive, and take out his foes from the water. In the first game just getting the hem of Altair’s robes wet was a ticket to Davey Jones’s Locker and in a city like Venice dying upon contact with the water would have lead to several controllers being snapped. The new controls aren’t perfect however, as the free-running is somewhat automated and it’s up to the game to interpret where you want to go. In this it’s mostly successful, but I have hurled myself off a few buildings that I didn’t mean to.
Assassin’s Creed II isn’t just about kicking ass and taking names, it also fills out the game with a lot of interesting side features to compliment the main story. Ezio comes into possession of a villa and a small town fairly early in the game, and as he’s a lone man out for vengeance instead of an Assassin bank-rolled by a whole keep, he needs to earn some money. You come by florins through completing main quest missions and side quests, and can you spend your blood money on either upgrading the town, which in turn puts more money in your pocket, or buying some armor, weapons and pieces of art for your mansion. The more cash you spend on renovation the more you get back in the long run, so it’s prudent to upgrade the various shops and guilds that inhabit the town. Buying weapons and armor will add a boost to Ezio’s health and combat abilities, but the best suit of armor in the game is earned for free by completing six Prince of Persia style challenges. Buying armaments adds to your villa’s income anyways, so you’ll eventually end up owning every suit of armor before you get the final prize.
You have to go back to your villa every once and while and retrieve florins from the collections chest, but seeing as you’ll usually be carrying several story items and feathers and statues and seals at the same time, it’s a good way to break up the pace. The game now features a fast travel system so you can hop quickly from one unlocked location to the next, which is a great addition after the interminable horse rides of the first Assassin’s Creed. There’s a bit of collection in the game, but nothing as mind-numbing as the flags in the first. All of the collections quests have tangible rewards, and unlocking Subject 16’s Truth video is a challenging but fulfilling task.
Suffice it to say that there’s way more to do in Assassin’s Creed II than there was in its predecessor. True to their word, Ubisoft removed the repetitiveness of the original and left us with a game that’s part GTA, part Hitman, part Prince of Persia and all awesome. While I did make mention of the wonky character animations and the sometimes imprecise nature of the free running controls, the fact remains that this is probably the most fun I’ve had in a single player experience. While what it offers differs from something like that of Uncharted 2, I just couldn’t tear myself away from the game and found myself gobbling up every possible side quest in order to delay the actual completion of the game itself. Assassin’s Creed II is, hands down, a fantastic game, and something you should check out even if you’re on the fence.
That’s what I thought of Assassin’s Creed II. I certainly loved the game, but what did you guys think? What platform did you play it for, and did it meet your expectations? What do you want out of the third?
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