-The major improvements to mission structure and variety
-The gripping narrative in two different timelines
-Free running. It’s still a ton of fun
-The occasionally choppy framerate
-Occasionally draggy swordfights
-The fact that I won’t see Assassin’s Creed III for two years
Assassin’s Creed II is the most improved videogame sequel I’ve ever played. Building upon the mechanics of its predecessor in spectacular ways, Assassin’s Creed II practically renders the original game useless, and stands on its own as one of the best action-adventure titles of 2009.
The game starts off with a bang. Desmond Miles is exactly where we left him in the first Assassin’s Creed: a prisoner of the evil Abstergo Corporation. And, with the help of the beautiful Miss Lucy Stillman, he’s finally busting out. Once free, Lucy takes Desmond back to a current-day base of the Assassins. By his own will this time, Desmond steps back into the Animus, in hope of acquiring skills, and finding some answers hidden in the past.
And so we are introduced to Ezio Auditore da Firenze, merely a boy when we meet him, and a member of a very influential family in Florence. You’ll soon realize that both Ezio, and the events he gets caught up in, are quite a bit more interesting than Altair and his endeavors ever were. Ezio is quite the likeable protagonist, actually, and the murder of his father and brother provide a strong motive for his actions throughout the game. Assassin’s Creed II tells a much better story than its predecessor, and maintains the same impressive attention to historical detail. Wanna take a crash-course in Renaissance-era Italy? Give Assassin’s Creed II a spin.
Like the first game, you will switch back to present-day at certain points, and take control of Desmond. Unlike the first game, these instances are painfully rare, which is unfortunate because they’re far more interesting this time around. Ezio’s historical drama is intriguing for sure, but the present-day events remain the most gripping aspect of the narrative. I’ll refrain from any spoilers, but let it be said that the ending of Assassin’s Creed II is mind-blowing, and leaves me on pins and needles for the inevitable third game.
Assassin’s Creed II is built on the same groundwork as the original, but the entire package has been given some serious renovations. From the most radical additions right down to the smallest of adjustments, every tweak and every change integrated in Assassin’s Creed II makes it a better game than its predecessor.
The largest addition to the game is the Currency system – there is money in Assassin’s Creed II, and you’ll use it to buy weapons, mercenaries, prostitutes, and much more. While it’s not a terribly prominent aspect of the gameplay, it does have its uses that make it a solid addition overall. It’s also worth mentioning that one of Assassin’s Creed II’s main sidequests involves restoring an entire Villa – which acts as Ezio’s home base. Restoring the Villa is as simple as pumping money into it, and over the course of the game it’s quite rewarding to see it shift from a run-down ghost town to a thriving little city. Oh, and as an added bonus, the town makes you money.
Another welcome change is a different approach to the stealth elements of the game. In the original Assassin’s Creed, the player had one way to blend in with a crowd, and that was to follow one of those creepy monk processions around. Pretty stupid, eh? Well worry not, because Ubisoft has taken a much more versatile approach to the stealth elements in Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio can blend in with any crowd at all, so long as he doesn’t disturb them. It’s as easy as slipping in and out of different groups of people. Also, you can now hire prostitutes and mercenaries, for the purpose of distracting guards or simply cloaking you in the crowd. Aggression from city guards is directly correlated to your Notoriety – aka, how much trouble you’ve been causing lately. Your notoriety level tends to go up rather quickly, with Ezio being an assassin and whatnot, but there are a variety of ways to lower it. Ripping down wanted posters, bribing town heralds, and offing certain politicians will do the trick. All said, unlike the first game, you won’t find yourself in many unwanted confrontations with armed guards. Quite the relief, really.
The fantastic free-running mechanics have been given a minor facelift. Running and jumping across rooftops is just as thrilling as it was in the original game, and you’ll likely find yourself platforming around without any objectives in mind, just for the fun of it. Ezio is much faster at scaling walls than Altair, which not only saves time but makes the climbing that much more enjoyable. Like the original, the game’s gigantic city environments not only provide fantastic platforming opportunities, but they maintain a consistent level of realism, which is quite impressive indeed; especially since they’re much larger this time around.
Combat is slightly improved as well, though it’s not as different as some might hope. Some new weapon types spice things up a little, if only for their unique counter-kill animations. A disarm tactic has been integrated, which helps make short work of weaker enemies. However, attempting an old-fashioned down-and-dirty swordfight remains a very slow, clangy affair. Your enemies block a lot, and you’ll find yourself relying mostly on counterattacks. Actually, if you’re like me, you’ll discover that you can actually engage in physical combat with your Hidden Blades, which makes extremely short work of any enemy. Counterattacks with the Hidden Blades are, as you can imagine, instant kills. Pretty neat, and definitely a timesaver, but unquestionably broken. Oh well. Combat really isn’t bad at all in Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s far from perfect.
If you were to simply watch someone else play Assassin’s Creed II, you might think it looks like largely more of the same. When you play it, you’ll think otherwise. The greatest improvement Ubisoft has made with this game is its mission structure and flow. The original Assassin’s Creed featured essentially the same four missions over and over again. Walk into a town, get some information on where your target will be at what time, go there, and stab him. The assassinations themselves were always fun, but everything around them became rather dull after the first few hours. In Assassin’s Creed II, there is far, far greater variety – and the missions themselves display much better mission design. Let’s take the assassinations themselves, for example: in the original game, they were merely stabbings bookended by lengthy cutscenes. In Assassin’s Creed II, you might assault a noble’s castle with an army in tow for the sake of routing out one man. One impressive segment of the game requires Ezio to assassinate six different men in order to learn the location of one target. Others might require you stealthily follow a target for an extended period of time. One of them might even require to you fly. And the inevitable moment of truth? Even sweeter than it was before.
Side missions are still aplenty, and they’ve been improved as well. They offer actual rewards this time around, such as added health squares and equipment. The Assassin’s Tombs sidquest deserves special mention: scattered throughout the world are six different tombs to be found and navigated. These tombs require Prince of Persia-esqe platforming and puzzle-solving to traverse, which is especially thrilling to a Prince of Persia fan such as myself. And the reward for completing all six tombs is so sweet that I refuse to spoil it here. Smaller side missions include “beat ups,” in which you literally hunt down an unfaithful husband and slap him around just for the hell of it. On the less ridiculous side are Assassination Contracts and Mail Deliveries, which are occasionally fun, and offer monetary rewards if nothing else.
Needless to say, Assassin’s Creed II is quite the looker. Not quite on the level of, say, Uncharted 2, but regardless, it’s one of this generation’s better looking games. Environments are absolutely gigantic, featuring not just cites this time around, but the accompanying countrysides as well. The game’s depiction of 14th Century Italy is absolutely gorgeous to behold; the art direction is absolutely top-notch, and the sense of realism is impressive. Playing on the PS3, the only problems I’ve experienced are an occasionally choppy framerate, as well as a few glitches such as audio cut-outs. None of these are game-breaking issues, but they’re present and worthy of mention nonetheless.
Assassin’s Creed II sounds quite good as well, featuring a better, more noticeable soundtrack than the original, and a solid voice cast across the board. Ezio, thankfully, is voiced far more competently than Altair was, which makes everything that much better.
Frankly, there isn’t much bad to say about Assassin’s Creed II. My main complaints border on nitpicking. This is a prime contender for Game of the Year, and one of the best open-world adventure titles I’ve played in some time. Oh, and it’ll keep you entertained for quite a while – even if you stick strictly to the main storyline, it’ll probably take you 15-20 hours to complete. I played for 25 or so, and I’m far from 100 percent. If you have the means, do not hesitate to give this game a try, even if you didn’t enjoy its predecessor. Given how the game ends, I’m quite interested in seeing where Ubisoft takes the series from here. Don’t be too surprised if goes somewhere completely unexpected – with Assassin’s Creed II, this franchise has shown that it can evolve, and better itself in the process.