Review by Scottie theNerd
"Nothing is true."
Ubisoft does not waste time or effort to capitalise on the success of Assassin's Creed. In between the end of the first game and the release of the sequel, we've seen plenty of pre-release material that teases the mind with the grandeur of Renaissance Italy, including an epic mini-series titled Assassin's Creed: Lineage. The sheer amount of creative effort bodes very well for Ubisoft's second outing in the world of Assassins' Creed.
Assassin's Creed II continues immediately after the events of the previous game, in which the player-controlled Desmond Miles breaks out of his cell in the Templar-run Abstergo Industries and links up with a splinter group of modern-day Assassins. Eager to get his own back at his former captors, Desmond is ready and willing to delve into his genetic memory to uncover the hidden truth and prevent the Templars from gaining ultimate knowledge and power.
Thus, Desmond assumes the identity of his Renaissance ancestor Ezio Auditore of Florence. Immediately we see a big shift in the tone and development of the characters and plot of the second game. While Altair of AC1 had a rather simple background and the game panned out as a list of people to kill, AC2 presents a far more dynamic story that spans over fifteen years of Ezio's life. Starting from his young playboy roots, Ezio encounters a political conspiracy involving his family and, as he later learns, the Templar plot to knock off the leaders of all the Italian city-states and gain control of the masses. With his family betrayed and executed, Ezio begins his mission of vengeance, guided by unlikely allies such as Leonardo da Vinci. Along the way, he learns the Assassin's creed: that nothing is true and everything is permitted. Truly, everything you see always seems to have something more to it.
On that note, there is a lot more to see and do in Italy than there was in the Middle East. The cities are much larger and feature beautiful visuals that incorporate many historical elements in their design. There are more places to visit, including numerous historical landmarks that, rather conveniently, have database entries that you can read to learn about what you're standing in front of. The storyline missions are mostly linear in that you can immediately go from one to the next, but that's actually a good thing. Its predecessor suffered from severe repetition of having to do the same menial pickpocketing and eavesdropping that wasn't very exciting, while the sequel does away with the mundane and allows the player to smoothly go from one story-based mission to the next.
That isn't to say that there aren't any side missions. In fact, there are tons of things to do, and Assassin's Creed II is a perfect demonstration of how to create an open-world gaming experience. As you go through the story missions, you unlock side-missions as you go along. These include familiar missions such as races and beat-downs, as well as assassination contracts and treasure hunting. Given that the main quest line has a lot of variety, it can be forgiven that there aren't a lot of side missions, but appropriately numbered and spaced so that you don't become bored of doing the same thing. Likewise, the necessity of climbing lots of tall buildings to synchronise your map isn't as important this time, although free-running fans may still do so for the thrill and the sake of being a completionist.
The free-running in this game isn't much different from the previous game, although the environments certainly are more interesting to look at as you blaze across rooftops. Much credit to the developers for being able to strategically place every single ledge, sign, arch or scaffolding to allow you to get to places you think you can't. It makes for a smooth running experience while still challenging your deftness in making decisions over where to jump next. Special mention goes to the hidden tombs that are accessible at certain points in the game, allowing players to test their free-running skills against the clock in some of the most challenging 3D platforming; some of which feature the interior of some of Italy's grandest buildings.
The combat aspect has been given a nice lift too. Generally speaking, combat has been streamlined by removing some redundant elements, such as power attacks, and providing a set of new skills, such as grappling, bare-handed fighting and disarming. To go with that are a broad range of new weapons including maces, hammers and long and short blades, as well as weapons that can be temporarily taken from enemies such as axes and spears. Ezio acquires a set of not one but two hidden blades that can be used in combat as well to assassinate multiple targets. Progress also unlocks several upgrades to the blade, including the poison blade and pistol.
The abundance of these tools offers a far greater range of options when it comes down to how to approach your missions. In AC1, Altair was stuck with a fairly limited approach and the choice of sneaking in for a stealth kill or being gung-ho with swords swinging. Ezio, on the other hand, uses more subtle elements to make things work his way, including some nice new features in the game.
Say you are following a target to complete a mission and you come across a checkpoint with four guards. You could do the usual free-running to get over them or choose to fight them, but the scenario and setting might not allow for either. Instead, you could use your poison blade to subtly inject a guard. Stepping away, you can watch the guard gradually succumb to the toxin. They don't just drop dead, however. They begin having seizures and spasms, grabbing their weapon and swinging madly, hitting everyone in the way while the crowd looks on, allowing you to slip past without having to do any of the dirty work.
Or, you can hire one of many factions to distract the guards. Courtesans will flirt with anyone walking by, thieves pick their pockets and get them to chase after, and mercenaries will attack the guards, allowing you to easily kill guards from behind. A small mention goes towards the smooth backstabbing instant-kills, which make the tactical removal of strong enemies important in large group fights.
Still want a different approach? Now you can blend in with the crowd freely. In AC1, blending came in the form of doing a side mission to join a group of monks to move from A to B. In AC2, the streets of Venice, Florence and even the villages of Romagna and Tuscany are heavily populated. By attaching yourself into a small group, you become merely a face in the crowd and invisible to guards looking for you. No more contrived walking-with-old-men; you can camouflage anywhere there are people. This adds an incredible depth to the game, especially in sections that require subtle movement across large areas without drawing any attention.
The game doesn't get any easier despite these tools. Enemies are fairly generic but grow in strength as the game goes on, sporting more armour and better weapons. To match this, Ezio is able to upgrade his own equipment through the many shops now accessible in towns. Purchasing at blacksmiths provides new weapons and stronger sets of armour; doctors restore health and provide potions; tailors allow you to dye your clothes while art merchants offer treasure maps and Renaissance paintings. While a painting won't help you in battle, it serves to decorate your villa, which serves as a base as well as a deposit for all the mementos you collect throughout the game and serves as a physical embodiment of your progress. A lot of time will be spent collecting items just to make your villa the number one attraction in Italy, and admittedly it's quite fun to be a perfectionist.
In general, it feels that the developers have taken their lessons from Assassin's Creed and put more effort and content to make a more satisfying experience. The sheer immersion factor is astronomically high. You feel actually want to see the sights and sounds of Italy. The visuals are beautiful and varied, taking you from the canals of Venice to the wetlands of Forli. The game has a real day/night cycle that gives you a different view of city life at any hour. Even something as easy as racing against the clock becomes more epic as the gorgeous music comes in, offering the best in chase music without Benny Hill overtures.
There are some problems, of course. The controls are a bit sticky, especially using the mouse and keyboard, and there were several moments where I found myself swearing because of a missed jump or stupid camera panning, especially during the timed sections. Combat does get repetitive, but given the amount of ways you can fight, I found myself experimenting with every weapon and disarming foes just for fun, so there are ways to make fighting more interesting. Plus, there's just so much to do and choose from that you can avoid parts you don't like with little detriment to the main game.
Full marks to Ubisoft for pulling this one off. Where Assassin's Creed was a bit of a teaser in what an open-world, free-running historical third-person adventure game could do, Assassin's Creed II actually does it. The characters and plot are engaging, the depth of the story memorable, the conspiracies unveiled almost sacrilegious. It clear that Ubisoft have a good franchise on their hands now, and we can hope that even better sequels push this idea to new realms.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/03/11
Game Release: Assassin's Creed II (AU, 03/04/10)
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