Coming into its Own
The original Assassin’s Creed was actually a bit disappointing to me. I know, I know… my gaming friends and family members thought I was nuts, too (of course, I felt the same way about GTA IV – in my opinion, perhaps the most overrated game of all time). While I gave the first game a more-than-solid 4.4 overall, it was a generous grade based on the fact that I figured most players who picked it up would actually love it (despite my concerns). As it has turned out a lot of gamers mimicked my sentiments, and Assassin’s Creed was met with its fair share of criticism. Lackluster combat, extremely slow platforming, and a somewhat unrealized epic storyline held the game back from attaining true greatness.
Flash-forward two years and Assassin’s Creed II (ACII) seems to right many of the wrongs perpetrated by the initial offering. While combat is still not perfect, it is far more engaging and malleable. The plodding platforming has been sped up significantly, and the story sets its hooks into gamers early and often. Best of all, the amazing environments of the original have somehow been greatly improved upon. The city-states of the Apennine Peninsula serve as the perfect backdrop, providing a platforming playground and a believable web of intrigue. Moreover, the addition of an upgradeable stronghold, tons of interesting weapons and armor, new shops, better mission types, and improved PC to NPC interactions make ACII a superior gaming experience, elevating the series considerably.
If you haven’t played the first game, you will miss some of the overarching story’s subtleties. However, Ubisoft does a nice job of succinctly retelling the tale in about a minute at the onset. Taking on the role of Desmond Miles once again, moments after the conclusion of Assassin’s Creed, players will evade the clutches of Dr. Vidic and his Templar overseers with help from the Assassin’s. Joining the Assassin’s cause willingly, you once again explore your family history locked deep within your DNA by using the Animus – this time in version 2.0. Going back centuries into the past to the Italian Renaissance, players will play the bulk of the game as Ezio Auditore – son of Giovanni Auditore, a Florentine banker and noble closely tied to the Medici family who is also an elite within the Assassin brotherhood. Trouble and betrayal soon rocks the house of Auditore, and Ezio finds himself taking up the mantle of Assassin in order to exact revenge for his family. Along the way, he’ll also unlock clues to mysteries that have far reaching effects on the ongoing struggle between the Templars and the Assassin’s centuries later. The layered, multi-faceted, dual-narrative presented in ACII is far more cogent and intriguing than that of the original, and it lavishly rewards players who embark on the journey.
ACII also has many sides to gameplay. This action-adventure is chocked full of combat, platforming, exploration and puzzle-solving, stealth, mission types, and even a bit of stronghold management. As such, players of many different stripes should be able to find a lot to enjoy here. Throughout the game, Ezio will acquire weapons, armor, and gadgets that improve his ability to fight. The same high and low profile combat scheme that was introduced in Assassin’s Creed is back, but this time linking combos feels a lot more natural. Also, executing quick kills through proper positioning are very prevalent and quite satisfying. What’s more, the varied weaponry at your disposal brings with it a host of new animations that keep fights from becoming repetitive and mundane.
Without question, combat in ACII feels much improved; however, it is not perfect. Taking on foes is very easy and never really will challenge you. A big reason for this is the stupidity of the enemy AI. Even though you’ll often be surrounded by large groups of enemies, they’ll typically attack one at a time. Sure, you’ll often be flanked and get one jab in the back if you’re careless, but this only serves to throw off your current attack combo. After waiting a second to watch Ezio stumble and recover, you’ll jump right back in and finish slicing open your target, moving on to the bastard behind you. In other words, most enemies you’ll find are little more than annoying pylons that are dispatched with ease. Of course, if you’re not that good at (or into) action combat, you’ll love the way fights never bog you down from advancing the plot. Still, I would have liked to have seen more clever AI – even if that meant greatly reducing the number of foes allied against Ezio to maintain game balance.
The poky platforming found in the original is also back, but this time it feels more rewarding. The team at Ubisoft Montreal tries to make the game feel as “real” as possible by making climbing and jumping/landing animations very deliberate. In other words, when you’re climbing up a wall, you’ll notice just how Ezio grips the next handhold and sets his foot into the next foothold. While this makes the game feel more realistic, it also slows down the pacing notably. Thankfully, Ezio does progress around the various cities with a lot of grace and quickness, regardless. The overall platforming experience is better this time around, just don’t expect a lightning-fast experience like that found in Prototype or inFAMOUS.
The exploration factor in ACII is through the roof. First of all, the Italian cities featured in the game are immaculately realized. The cities are laid out as close to how they would have been in the 15th century, and getting to know these jewels of civilization from the rooftops and spires to the market squares and back alleys is a real joy. Also, the developers were able to bring the addictive nature of flag collecting and eagle perches back to the title. Players are nicely rewarded throughout the game by locating feathers (instead of flags) and synchronizing their maps by negotiating their way to the tops of landmarks – this really adds to the platforming experience.
Speaking of sightseeing, the devs even went so far as to provide data entries of architectural masterpieces that you can access on the fly. I loved arriving at a new section of town and getting the lowdown on the famous building I’m about to scale (I wish this was also provided for statues strewn about the cities).
Stealth mechanics in ACII have improved. Rather than simply blending in with wandering monks, Ezio can actually hide in plain sight simply by hopping into any crowd. Also, hay bales and leaf piles, while conspicuously ever-present, are now not quite as concealing, as guards will check hiding spots if you’re within the search area of your last known position.
Mixing things up a bit, this time you have the option of hiring thieves, mercenaries, and courtesans to help you distract guards. This allows you to circumvent human obstacles rather than taking the fight directly to your foes and sounding the alarm. Disappointingly, once again the enemy AI’s silliness is exposed. While targeting guards with the feminine wiles of ladies of the night or the pilfering proclivities of thieves seems interesting, these hirelings distract guards so completely that you can bump into them without drawing their attention. This ends up making these new stealth portions of the game less than perfect, but it is still nice to have a lot more options this time around.
ACII is rife with varied mission types: parkour-style free-running races, beat-up events, courier assignments, and assassination contracts. Unlike the first game, these missions – whether mainline or otherwise – tend to be a lot more enjoyable. Also, side missions adapt themselves nicely to the story rather than sticking out as tacked on. In addition to missions, players will eventually be granted access to the town of Montereggio. There, the Auditore family has carved out their own refuge; a sprawling villa within a walled town. This villa serves as the game’s main hub, granting you access to goods and collectibles. Players will find themselves regularly hiring caravans to fast-travel to and from Montereggio to restock on goods and seek repairs without the constant threat of suspicious guards made hostile by your notoriety in other cities. As a bonus, you’ll be able to develop your stronghold over time with architectural improvements and lavish pieces of art.
There’s a ton of content to wade through in Assassin’s Creed II, but none of it would be worth squat if the production values stunk. Naturally, the team at Ubisoft Montreal really made this game well. The environments are captured so exquisitely, you’ll be hard-pressed to find more attractive and lifelike virtual surroundings. The cities seem incredibly accurate and truly lived-in. I especially liked the way the developers were able to essentially get rid of clones. From passersby to guards, everyone has clothing, body sizes, and hairstyles/facial hair that make them unique. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is not to be ripped out of immersion by a constant stream of clones.
On the audio side, the voice acting is excellent and infused with a lot of great dialogue and even some humor – I roared when I first met Mario Auditore. I especially loved the intermingling of Italian phrases in the dialogue – by the time you finish playing through the 20+ hours of gameplay, you’ll likely have a lot more knowledge of Italian than just “Mile grazie!” or “Arrivederci!”. Ambient sound effects are also amazing. Stepping over cobbled streets and terracotta roofs sounds authentic, and the shouts of vendors, heralds, and merchants really gives the game flavor. Finally, the musical themes in the background add a real edge to gameplay and the setting.
Assassin’s Creed II is greatly improved over its predecessor. At the same time, it doesn’t mess with what made the game so attractive to fans in the first place. The varied and refined gameplay along with the engaging story makes this title a must-buy for any serious gamer.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
The environments and animation work is utterly outstanding. Sometimes characters look artificially ugly, but the lack of clones more than makes up for it. 4.4 Control
Combat and platforming are both pulled off with ease, but they can feel a little too easy and slow, respectively. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music, dialogue, and sound effects are essentially flawless. 4.5 Play Value
The varied missions and gameplay aspects along with a load of content and an engaging story make this one game a must-have experience even if there isn’t a whole lot of replayability. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.