Review by neonreaper
Awesome game, just a few little issues...
The first Assassin's Creed game came around with an excess of hype, and while it had some terrific elements, its repetitive gameplay soured many people on the game, and the poor ending didn't really connect with gamers at all. Assassin's Creed II really needed to fix these problem areas while expanding on the positives in order for people to become invested in the series, and for the most part, this sequel nails everything it needed to.
The biggest complaint about the original was in regards to how repetitive it was. Assassin's Creed II has a much better flow and structure, as the ancestor in question is Ezio, who is not a disgraced super assassin, but a young guy destined to become one. He starts out just a sly young lad, and then certain events force him into hiding and a long road to revenge ahead of him. He finds help along the way from his uncle, and it directs Ezio on the path to obtaining new skills and weapons and becoming a force that leaves city guards in terror. There are optional "assassin contract" and "intimidate" and "race" missions, but for the most part you don't have to really deal with those (maybe once or twice but nothing bad at all). The structure for your quests takes advantage of the platforming aspects of the series, largely overlooked in the original, as well as close interactions with your uncle, some local resistance movements, Leonardo da Vinci, your immediate family, and so on. As you can see, they've restructured the gameplay such that there's a natural and compelling flow to the ancestor's story.
It also helps that you spend a lot more time away from Desmond. He is removed from the facility from the original, and now in a lab with some young scientists, being hunted by the Templars. That's pretty much it, there are some elements of this anchored into Ezio's world, but they typically only serve as a wrapper for the old world Italy experience, with a couple breaks thrown in, and how the ending is dealt with. The ending is much better this time around, but it's still focused on Desmond and the series being a trilogy, so it's still ultimately a "to be continued!" style ending, and Ezio doesn't get the full resolution the player may have hoped for, but the ending is actually pretty cool despite these complaints.
Guards are a bit smarter in AC2, and you don't have to help out dozens of citizens to have the people on your side, you just need to pay them to help. As a result, you have less of a sense of controlling the city from up high, guards are more active (they might just push you around because they're full of themselves), and you really feel like you need to blend in a bit better. Blending isn't just reserved for packs of monks anymore - any group of similar individuals can be blended into, which helps out during missions where you have to follow someone (probably the most common mission type). Ezio has a meter for how notorious he is - the more guard slaying or other poor manners he might have, the more notorious he is and the quicker guards will be to attack. Ezio can take down city officials, remove wanted posters, and bribe town criers to help keep Ezio's good name.
Combat is mostly more of the same, though Ezio has a few more tricks and tools to use. Enemies do as well, including heavily armored enemies, long range melee weapons, and different classes of enemies (some climb buildings, some can outrun Ezio, some take to tactical discretion when stronger enemies are felled, etc), as well as poking around haystacks and having spotter civilians that will point Ezio out in a crowd. Ezio counters this with new items such as smoke bombs, double hidden blades, poison, medicine, etc. He also learns the ability to disarm opponents, and he has an away of weapons and weapon types to use. Some of the finishing moves are brutal and amazing.
Platforming has a little more focus this time around, especially with the Assassin Tombs, in which Ezio has to figure out how to use his skills to solve puzzles and explore an area and find a tomb. One of these is mandatory, the rest are optional but the player would be foolish to skip these, as they are some of the most fun you can have in the game.
Instead of hundreds of flags, there are 100 feathers spread out through the game. It's a bit more manageable but is still somewhat of a lame time sink in order to get achievements. What fun you might have looking for them is washed away by how many you have to find, and I imagine every single person who finds them ends up using a guide for most of them. There are also 20 glyphs, which lead to puzzles (some of which are fun, some are heavily annoying) that unlock historical fiction about assassins/templars through major historical events and figures.
Graphically speaking, AC2 is terrific and chock full of little details. It has to be, given how every little building has to have some defined structural elements to maneuver on. Not only that, but the grand scheme of the layout of the cities is amazing, on a nicely sized HD set, this game can be stunning, especially during the viewpoint sequences. On the smaller scale though, is where this game is truly impressive. As previously mentioned, every building has its own layout for ways that Ezio can climb it, and the sheer amount of work (even with some re-use) was probably staggering, especially with the play testing. Not only can Ezio move around the busy streets of towns and villages, but he can move around the exterior walls and roof tops, given Assassin's Creed II a sense of three dimensional life that few games can touch.
The control scheme is pretty much the same for climbing, with an additional move (jump + grab) obtained at some point during the game. Ezio also has a brief run-in with Leonardo's flying machine, as well as using gondolas in Venice. Ezio can swim, which as you might imagine is paramount to survival in Venice.
Money is used in AC2 to bribe people, to throw to the ground to distract guards or to attract civilians (or you can combine the two, poison a guard which makes him flail his weapon blindly, then attract civilians to the guard by throwing money on the ground and watch the magic unfold!), and buy weapons, armor and paintings. You are put in charge of a villa, and paintings and other upgrades lead to more visitors, which gives Ezio an income. There are also treasure chests scattered throughout the cities, and maps for these treasures. These take the place of flags to some extent, but are not needed for achievements and give the player money, in addition for having mapped locations in game. The weapons don't really change the game a whole lot to be honest, you'll probably just buy the best one you can and skip a whole bunch of them, only to buy them later for achievements or trophies. The armor upgrades give Ezio a different look and increase his combat durability, definitely useful. Ezio can also spend money on dyes to change the color of his outfits.
Assassin's Creed II is definitely an upgrade over the original, though they still lose focus on the terrific ancestor character at the very end of the game, and Desmond isn't that interesting at all in comparison. Otherwise, the narrative for the game is improved greatly over the original, and whatever repetitive aspects of the gameplay there were in the original are replaced with a much smoother game. Assassin's Creed II is deserving of accolades and is a game of the year potential. It's also a very easy game to get the Platinum Trophy in, just make sure to get the flyswatter achievement when you have the flying machine. If I had one other complaint, it would be how a few chapters/sequences are removed and released as DLC, and the game skips over them with a few "whoa, there's all this cool stuff that happened during the time" discussion. It seems a bit sleazy to release DLC this way, but doesn't really hamper the game.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Assassin's Creed II (US, 11/17/09)
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