Review by Tarrun

Reviewed: 02/08/10

Assassin's Creed - Now with an engaging story AND fun gameplay!

Sequel – a word that can evoke feelings of ecstasy or disgust. A good sequel takes everything you loved about the first game and makes it bigger and better while looking at anything that didn’t work and fixing it. A poor sequel does the opposite, changes what made the original worth playing, or is often the result of rushing through development to capitalize on the success of the series.

Enter Assassin’s Creed. The first game was heavily promoted for months prior to its release and claimed to have revolutionary stealth gameplay that would truly welcome in the next generation of video games. What we got, on the other hand, was a game that forced the player to repeat the same five boring pre-assassination missions and decided that enemies would attack the main character if he breathed too loudly. Oh, and that revolutionary gameplay? How does holding down the gentle push button as you walked through a crowd sound? Welcome to the future, everyone.

Funny thing, apparently the folks at Ubisoft were listening to the critics and set out to resolve the problems in the sequel. The end result is a game that’s actually quite compelling.

Assassin’s Creed II picks up right where its predecessor left off. Lucy Stillman, the Abstergo research assistant who controlled the Animus from the first game, returns to help Desmond escape. She reveals herself as a modern assassin, and tells Desmond that the group needs his help. Desmond must once again enter the mind of one of his ancestors, but this time for a different purpose. While searching for clues related to the Pieces of Eden is certainly important, Desmond must also learn to become an assassin himself if he hopes to survive in the real world fight against the Templars.

The ancestor this time around is Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young man from a respected family in Renaissance Italy. However, Ezio soon finds his family victims to a conspiracy that leads to his father and brothers being hanged for treason, leaving Ezio to fulfill his father’s dying wish and become an assassin himself.

What’s immediately noticeable is that Ezio is immensely more likeable than the stone cold Altair. Up until his family’s execution Ezio has no knowledge of his father’s role in the war between the assassins and templars, so he is initially presented as a regular young adult – flirtatious, witty, and owner of an ego the size of a pickup truck. With the death of his family we become even more attached to him, and his quest for revenge is much more intriguing than Altair rebuilding his reputation following a botched assassination.

Visually, Assassin’s Creed II is nothing short of stunning. The various cities in Italy are all gorgeously recreated, with a bustling population in the main cities and quiet serenity in the farmland outskirts. You will, of course, have a chance to stop and appreciate all of it through the viewpoint syncs, and at times these brief moments can truly leave you breathless.

In terms of gameplay, nearly every aspect of Assassin’s Creed has been tweaked, almost always for the better. The free running system has returned, and while it may take a while to get accustomed to it you’ll quickly find that scaling a tower or hopping from rooftop to rooftop is incredibly smooth. It isn’t flawless, of course, and Assassin’s Creed II shamefully falls victim to forcing the player to do extra work when scaling some buildings, primarily for viewpoints. Few things are more annoying than when you reach the ledge right underneath the roof, only to realize you have to shimmy 350-degrees around the tower to reach the last foothold, and one of them is having to do this constantly. The game attempts to throw you a bone near the end by introducing a move that allows Ezio to jump and up grab a higher ledge, but this only serves as a reminder of how they intentionally made scaling buildings annoying up until this point.

The stealth system has received more of an overhaul, and like the difference in personalities between Ezio and Altair, is much more relaxed and flexible than the original. Rather than having groups of roaming priests walking in circles as the only people you can blend with, Ezio is able to walk into any crowd of three or more people and instantly blend in with them. This allows you to actually use the blend feature in general gameplay rather than to enter cities when the game tells you to. To complement this, Ezio can hire groups of prostitutes to serve as his posse and follow him around, allowing the player to come up with more dynamic strategies of accomplishing a mission. Similarly, Ezio can also hire thieves and soldiers to distract enemies, or can even just throw money on the ground to draw any nearby civilians into a mad frenzy.

To pay for this, Assassin’s Creed II introduces a monetary system, though it only ends up being important for about the first tenth of the game. Ezio can earn money not only by completing missions, but robbing couriers or even pickpocketing random people. Besides the uses already mentioned, money can be used to repair weapons and armor and purchase new ones, buy stock items such as throwing knives or medicine, and renovating his uncle’s villa to increase its profit.

I say money is only worth paying attention to for the first tenth of the game because the villa transforms Ezio into a sixteen year old girl with Daddy’s credit card. The villa generates a regular income, and almost immediately you’ll see the profits pile up to the point that you can buy up everything you can and still have more left over. The player naturally reinvests this back into the villa, increasing its value and the profits earned, and before you realize what’s happened your piggy bank is up to six figures in a game where the average item costs only a few thousand Florins.

The combat system has also been improved, and Ezio has a few new tricks to use against his enemies. While you’ll still mainly stand around waiting to be attacked so you can perform a counter, some enemies are smart enough to block them and require a bit more work. The most useful new attack is the ability to disarm an opponent and use their weapon against them. This is particularly useful against brutes – heavily armored guards with enormous swords and axes. Perhaps the best things to come out of this, though, are all of the new death animations Ezio can perform with all of the various weapons. Maybe it’s just my sadism showing, but finding new weapons and seeing the unique, fresh way Ezio manages to strike down his enemies was extremely compelling, whether it’s impaling a guard with a spear into the ground and watching his body slowly run down the pole or beating them down with a war hammer and listening to the disturbingly satisfying thud sound as it comes into contact with their skull. You have to enjoy the little things, right?

Of course, killing is generally frowned upon, but fortunately Assassin’s Creed II makes it a bit easier to maintain a low profile. As Ezio commits more crimes and gains public attention, his notoriety meter will increase. When it becomes filled, guards with immediately recognize and attack him, essentially making your life hell if you want to accomplish anything useful. To remedy this, Ezio has several ways to lower his notoriety, including tearing down wanted posters and bribing or assassinating officials. This gives the game more flexibility to make you notorious when it wants to, but still allows the player to roam around the cities without being constantly bombarded by unwanted attention.

This is important because there are a plethora of things to do in Italy besides assassinating a handful of templars. The side missions, once the utterly repetitive bane of every Assassin’s Creed player’s existence, have been expanded upon to keep the game fresh. The most obvious improvement is the fact that most of the side missions involve assassinating someone, which, considering the nature of the game, is what I and I expect most players came in looking to do. However, there are a variety of other missions that test your free running and platforming abilities as well, though my one complaint in this area would be the tailing missions, which force you to follow your slow-moving target from one corner of the city to another without ever really challenging the player. Overall, though, what at one time was a game’s weakest link has been revamped into one of its stronger selling points.

Along with the side missions, the innumerable collectibles have also returned in all of their glory. Gone are flags, instead replaced by feathers, statues, seals, and treasure chests. While collecting anything is rewarded by increasing the value of your villa, treasure gives you more money while seals unlock better equipment. However, the game doesn’t expect the player to find the two item types blind, and instead appear on your map, meaning it is simply a matter of doing the grunt work to collect them. This is a little disappointing in that the fun of searching for their locations is not existent, but completing the platforming challenges certainly makes up for it.

In the end, while Assassin’s Creed II is by no means perfect, it’s improved by leaps and bounds over its predecessor. It feels like a complete game rather than tedious busy work between a fun beginning and finale. It vaults the player into an intricate universe with a life of its own, with fun, fresh missions and tons of extras to do on the side, all tied together with a story that’s genuinely compelling and entertainingly bizarre. Simply put, if you liked the original Assassin’s Creed you’ll absolutely adore the sequel, and if you didn’t or haven’t played it, you’ll still find it easy to be drawn into the game.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Assassin's Creed II (US, 11/17/09)

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