Review by Crono09

"One of the most improved sequels in the history of video gaming"

The first Assassin's Creed made its mark a few years ago with its unique story and atypical setting for a sandbox-style game. Although I loved the concept, I found its execution to be sorely lacking, and my review of the game was less than favorable. It was, therefore, very pleasing to see that Assassin's Creed II took everything that was good about its predecessor and transformed it into a genuinely good gaming experience without changing the core nature of the game.

Much like the first game, there is a framing story that takes place in 2012, beginning almost immediately after the end of Assassin's Creed. Desmond, the series protagonist, is rescued from his cell at Abstergo Industries by Lucy, an Assassin who acts as a mole in the Templar organization. She takes him to an Assassin safe house to train him to become an Assassin himself. There isn't time to train him the traditional way, so instead, the Assassins use a new version of the Animus to have Desmond relive the events of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio's training should have a bleeding effect on Desmond and allow him to learn the ways of the Assassins more quickly.

Ezio was the son of a noble banker who resided in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance. He lived a mostly carefree life, spending his time brawling with his rivals, racing up buildings with his brother, and wooing the local women. This changed when his father and two brothers were falsely accused of treason and publically hanged. Since the Auditore family is now considered traitors to Italy, Ezio must escape with his mother and sister. He then swears revenge on the conspirators who killed his father and slandered the Auditore name. He locates a number of associates who train him in the skills he needs to become an assassin. Along the way, he gets caught up in an even greater conspiracy involving the Templar that threatens not only all of Italy, but even the entire world.

The gameplay is far less structured than the predecessor, which consisted primarily of nine missions that each involved six investigations and an assassination. In this game, the events are driven more strongly by the story. What you do leading up to an assassination is much more varied and is driven by Ezio's role in the game. This takes away some of the sandbox elements since there are times that you are forced into a mission without knowing it ahead of time. However, since the storyline points are clearly marked, it is easy to hold off on them until you are ready for them.

As before, Ezio does his work by hiding in plain sight. He will not normally be noticed by guards, but this game introduces a notoriety meter. Certain actions, such as stealing, causing a disturbance, or making high-profile kills, will increase this meter. When it maxes out, guards will attack Ezio on sight. Guards will also attack Ezio if he enters certain restricted areas regardless of his notoriety. Ezio must escape the guards before he can do anything else. Haystacks, benches, and rooftop gardens reappear as hiding places, and he can now blend into any crowd of people. Wells are also introduced as places to hide. Ezio can take actions to lower his notoriety, such as tearing down wanted posters, bribing heralds, and killing corrupt officials. There are many flaws with the notoriety system that I found annoying. For example, pick pocketing a person or killing a guard will increase your notoriety even if no one sees you do it, while killing a corrupt official in plain view of a crowd will do nothing to your notoriety. However, these are mostly minor annoyances and do not make the game any less fun.

One of my biggest issues with the first game was the difficulty in evading guards, and that has been addressed admirably. It is now possible to escape guards simply by running from them, something that was lacking in the forerunner and led to some ridiculous situations. Guards are more intelligent than before and are even able to search hiding places near where they last saw you. While this does increase the challenge, it makes sense in context, and it adds a little more to the strategy of escaping them. Running is usually the easiest way to escape, although it was more satisfying to hide in a haystack or in a crowd of civilians.

Combat has also been streamlined. There are many more combat options, such as disarming enemies, throwing sand in their eyes, and sweeping them off their feet with a spear. You also have many more weapons than a single sword and dagger. A variety of swords, daggers, and hammers can be purchased, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Hand-to-hand combat is also much more viable than it was previously. This generally makes combat much easier, and there is rarely a moment when your life is in danger, but that's fine since this isn't meant to be a combat game. To make up for this, three types of elite enemies are introduced in the game. These are more difficult than your average guard and add some variety to your typical combat strategies.

There are many additional ways to assassinate your enemy than before, and I found myself looking for opportunities to take out guards because, as morbid as this sounds, killing them in cool ways was just so much fun. You gain a second hidden blade fairly early in the game, allowing you to make two assassinations at once. You can now kill guards by jumping on them from above or by pulling them off of a ledge that you are hanging from onto the ground. My personal favorite technique was to make a haystack kill where you hide in a haystack, reach out to stab the guard, and then pull his body into the haystack to hide it. You can also add poison to your hidden blade, which makes guards go berserk and cause a distraction before dying. As promised in the trailer, you also get a pistol mechanism in your hidden blade, which lets you make assassinations while hidden in a crowd.

An economic system lacking in the previous game was introduced in this one. Ezio can earn money by completing quests, finding hidden treasure chests, pick pocketing civilians, and searching the bodies of fallen guards. He events gains a villa in Monteriggioni that periodically provides his largest source of income and can be upgraded to add even more to his coffers. Money is used to purchase weapons, armor, ammunition, medicine, treasure maps, and villa upgrades. It is also used to heal Ezio, repair armor, bribe heralds, and pay allies. Once you get a few upgrades for the villa, you will be making more money than you know what to do with, making it mostly immaterial. In spite of this, it is still a nice addition to the game.

Ezio does not go into this battle alone. He has allies this time around in the form of three factions: courtesans, mercenaries, and thieves. Groups of these allies are scattered throughout the cities, and Ezio can obtain their services by paying them a small fee. Courtesans surround Ezio and provide a mobile group for him to hide in. They can also lure guards away from their posts. Mercenaries are strong warriors who will aide Ezio in battles with guards. Thieves can distract guards by getting into fistfights, and unlike the other two groups, thieves can follow Ezio onto rooftops. It is rarely necessary to hire any of these groups, but they are valuable for getting out of open combat with guards throughout the game.

The flags from the first game have been replaced by many other side quests, most notably treasure chests and feathers. While still somewhat annoying, the frustration factor is lowered by the fact that you can purchase maps to indicate the locations of treasure chests. While such a luxury does not exist for feathers, there are only 100 of them in the entire game. Furthermore, you receive rewards for them: treasure chests are a source of money, and you get unique equipment for finding 50 and 100 feathers. I actually didn't mind these quests that much, especially since they were generally much easier to find than the flags in Assassin's Creed. Although there were far more treasure chests than there needed to be in the game, their existence provided an excuse to explore the cities, which is one of the game's best features. Other side quests include Assassin Tombs, which contain seals that unlock the Armor of Altair, and glyphs, which contain puzzles that unlock cryptic messages from the mysterious Subject 16, a previous Animus user with insights into the origins of the Assassins and the Templar.

Although the gameplay was certainly excellent, I was even more impressed with the setting, which spans 23 years of the Renaissance, going from 1476 to 1499. The locations of the game include Florence (divided into four districts), Monteriggioni, San Gimignano and the surrounding Tuscany countryside, the Apennine Mountains, Forli and the surrounding Romagna countryside, Venice (divided into five districts), and Rome. Great lengths were taken to make the game historically accurate. The first Assassin's Creed had many large buildings that I am certain were historical landmarks, but the game did not indicate this in any way. Now, major landmarks stand out on the map, and you will get information about them when you get close. These landmarks are often the locations of major storyline events or side quests.

Many of the characters in the game, including most of your major assassination targets, are based on real-life people who are portrayed with astounding accuracy. Some of your allies and targets include Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de' Medici, Francesco de' Pazzi, Caterina Sforza, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Girolamo Savonarola. In fact, looking up how the targets died in real life sometimes provides a spoiler on how to take down the target. A number of actual events (with some dramatic license taken) are portrayed in the game, including the Pazzi conspiracy, the Battle of Forli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities. The involvement of conspiracies and assassinations in Renaissance politics as well as the corruption of the Roman Catholic church during this time is certainly consistent with historical data. I think that I learned more about the Renaissance from this game than I ever did in school.

The flaws in the game are relatively minor. Controls can be sketchy at times. It is far too easy to accidentally run off the side of a rooftop or to run up the side of a building when you were aiming for the ladder. In contrast, something as simple as stepping off down from a small ledge requires several distinct actions, making it more complicated than it should be. On at least one occasion, I got stuck on a gondola in Venice and could not move without reloading the game. I found the racing side quests to be very annoying since a single mistake would often make it impossible to win the race. Unlike its predecessor, the game does not allow you to repeat storyline missions that you have completed, making it impossible to replay these missions without restarting from the beginning. The PC version of the game is also completely lacking the three Templar Lairs, which were provided as pre-ordering bonuses or DLC in other versions of the game.

As a whole, Assassin's Creed II provides many excellent elements of a game packaged into one. Both stories, the Ezio story and the Desmond story, are outstanding, and they tie together very well. Both the combat elements and the stealth elements are vastly superior to the first game, making this one of the most improved sequels in video game history. While getting through the first game was often a chore, this one is legitimately fun. Sometimes, when a game is flawed, the developers mistakenly try to fix it in the sequel by either removing the good elements of a game or by replacing the flaws with more defects (I'm looking at you, Square Enix). Ubisoft did everything right to improve this game, and it sets a standard for what sandbox games should be like.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/07/12

Game Release: Assassin's Creed II (US, 03/09/10)

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