Review by grasu

Reviewed: 09/17/10

Building on a strong premise Assassin's Creed II is a vastly improved sequel with a terrible story.

The original Assassin’s Creed was a standing ovation to Ubisoft’s marketing department. Little tidbits revealing the exploits of Middle Ages’ assassin Altair going about his daily business of killing historical figures a maiming unsuspecting guards generated a frenzy of anticipation with the public. Despite it’s best selling status however Assassin’s Creed failed in many key gameplay areas and was berated by critics and bemoaned by consumers. Two years later and Ubisoft promises a bigger, better, more varied experience in Assassin’s Creed 2. For the most part Ubisoft makes good on its promises but while the sequel to one of the most significant titles for the current generation is a vastly superior game it’s still not quite worthy of classic status.

Assassin’s Creed 2 picks off exactly where the last game left off with Desmond, the titular bartender and heir to a great assassin legacy, trying to escape his captors. After the initial few scenes Desmond & Co. are reunited in yet another attempt to stop the conspiring Templars form ruling the world through ignorance. In this sense Desmond reenters the newly update Animus 2.0, a machine that allows him to virtually relive the memories of his ancestors, and takes up sword as Ezio Salvatore de Firenze. Ezio is an Italian aristocrat plying his trade of banking, women, alcohol and gang clashes in Renaissance Florence. Before our boy wakes up from his hangover though he is swept up in an epic conflict between assassins, such as his father, and Templars such as the hated Pazzi family of Florence.

The story of Assassin’s Creed 2 is threadbare even by comparison with the original. While the first game relied heavily on the sci-fi/historical contrasts and twists the story in Assassin’s Creed 2 focuses more on the sci-fi element and on Ezio’s struggle rather than on contrasting the two settings. Ezio’s struggle, which lasts him well over a decade, sees the boy at the beginning of the game turn into a grown man while attempting to solve the mysteries of his father’s assassin past. Desmond on the other hand, uses Ezio to find out what exactly was it that the Templars were planning in the Middle Ages and why they created the Animus to begin with. The story is laking almost any twists, is completely unsurprising, the bad guys are just who you’d expect and it drops previously explored threads, such as that of Ezio’s father, out without much finesse. The ending however has to take the cake for one of the most utterly absurd, “buy the sequel”, schemes ever produced in the entertainment industry. Without spoiling much, the ending here is so ridiculous, over the top, non-sensical and somewhat predictable that it makes Dan Brown look like a classic!

Along with the main storyline Assassin’s Creed 2 also features a secondary, optional, storyline know as the “Truth”. Slowly unravelling the truth is mostly a work of tedium and repetition as symbols plastered all over the most representative buildings of Renaissance Italy need to be found. The game clearly indicates which buildings have symbols on them but locating these buildings without clearly marking them on the map is ludicrously tedious, especially in bigger cities such as Venice. As a story arc the truth focuses on a previous user of the Animus, subject 16, and implies solving a number of puzzles associated with famous historical figures. Suffice to say that if you’re willing to pursue the “Truth” it’d be best to do it before the main story’s ending as the latter is likely to completely turn you off from the Assassin’s Creed’s story alltogether.

Even if it fails as a story driven game Assassin’s Creed 2 makes up for it in the gameplay department. The two biggest problems of the original were combat and repetitiveness and Assassin’s Creed 2 attempts to address both problems through a number of subtle changes. In terms of mission structure Assassin’s Creed 2 drops the “information gathering” missions from the previous game and adopts a more linear path. Basically the mission structure in the original implied climbing a number of buildings in order to locate missions on your map. This could become immensely repetitive during the later stages of the game and so Ubisoft has all but thrown it out from the game. Scaling tall buildings in order to synchronize Ezio’s map with his surroundings is only need to pinpoint optional missions on the map as now all of the main-story missions are clearly labeled. The downside is that the new mission structure makes the game more linear but it also saves players the frustration of climbing a dozen towers just to find out they missed a small area of the map where the missions were.

Quests during the main story portions have also gotten a significant overhaul. Mission variety has gone up tremendously. Most of the original’s mission types have been scrapped all together and have been replaced with a slew of new ones, including escort missions, battles, an assortment of tutorials and a few other unique tasks. The standout endeavors here are definitely the ones involving Ezio’s pal, Leonardo Da Vinci. Most of the tasks involving Leonardo usually utilize some types of vehicles, including a flying machine and a cart race through a mountain pass and are genuinely fun. On the other hand the main story missions, even if a bit more varied, still resume themselves to two basic endeavors: follow someone or kill someone. The way that these missions are presented definitely makes them feel different but the underlying mechanics are the same.

In addition to the main story mode, as any free roaming game that respects itself, Assassin’s Creed 2 features a slew of side missions. The side missions are fairly varied, including races, assassination contracts and a ton of collectibles. The two standout performers here are clearly the assassination missions and the new Assassin’s Tombs. The assassination missions involve killing any number of individuals under specific conditions, such as time limits or killing method and reward players in gold. For the first five or so assassinations the game offers enough variety, but unfortunately there just isn’t enough of it to keep most players’ interest peaked. Assassin's Tombs on the other hand are Prince of Persia-esque environmental puzzles that range from downright frustrating to stupidly easy.

The major issues with the side missions though is that the incentive for completing any number of them isn’t enough to encourage most players to do it. Money flows like the water in Assassin’s Creed 2 and the standard equipment that can be bought from vendors is enough to make Ezio into a killing machine. Of special note however is a side mission that tasks Ezio with collecting a specific type of object throughout his travels. The only reason why this mission is worth noting though is because the game forces you into collecting all of those items in order to progress to the final stage... and it never tells you that before getting there!

As stated Assassin’s Creed 2 introduces two new features not seen in the original: money and equipment. Since Ezio is a noble, early in the game he takes up the reigns of his father’s plot, a villa in the mountains. As the game progresses Ezio can spend money to improve the villa and generate more money from travelers and residents. Every 20 minutes the villa generates a sum of money that Ezio can then use to buy equipment, weapons, armor or further improve his plot. Too bad however that the amount of money generated by the villa is huge! By the middle of the game most players who’ve invested in their villa will notice that they have more money than they could potentially spend.

The second new feature is equipment. As Ezio travels the world he can buy armor, weapons and accessories. Purchasing any of these elements allows for a great deal of customization but it also quickly makes Ezio into a tank. Armor increases health on a semi-permanent basis, halted only by the possibly of breaking the armor, and weapons exponentially increase in damage and speed. Couple this with the ability to buy pouches to store up to 15 vials of medicine (which heal great amounts of vitality instantly) and combat becomes a cake-walk. Not only does this make the game easy though, it also makes some of the side quest, such as the aforementioned Assassin’s Tombs useless.

In light of all of these improvements to mission structure it’s a shame that the combat hasn’t received nearly as much care. Battles in Assassin’s Creed 2 are virtually identical to those in the original. Ezio has the ability to counter-kill from very early in the game and this becomes crucial in most fights, as players are encouraged to dispatch hordes of guards by simply standing still, blocking, and waiting for an opening to inflict some extremely satisfying and deadly sword-swinging techniques. To be fair though, not all enemies are so susceptible to counter-killing. Larger enemies, such as axemen are immune to countering and require careful positing before striking. Others, such as pikmen, have a greater range and require skillful dodging. Finally the game also features large scale battles, composed of multiple parties fighting each other in the streets; clearly one of the highlights of the battle system. Additionally Ezio can now assassinate from virtually all directions using his staple hidden blade. One of the most satisfying elements of assassinating though are the dual assassinations, whereby Ezio uses his blades to strike two enemies at once. Pulling off this trick from the air on two unsuspecting guards is immensely satisfying.

This time around Ezio also has access to more weapons than his Middle Eastern counterpart. By comparison to Altair, Ezio can recur to smoke grenades in order to lose his pursuers or poison daggers in order to make his enemies go berserk. Even a primitive pistol makes into the Florentines’s arsenal, though its use is limited due to the long charging times. Furthermore players can now disarm their enemies and use their weapons against them in an ironic twist of battle. The downside of disarming opponents though is that you two will lose your weapon and will be forced to then find it amongst the corpse-littered battlefield. Additional skills such as dodging and strafing have also been thrown into the mix, but their usefulness is limited to specific types of enemies.

All of this battling in city streets though has an adverse effect on one’s notoriety. In Assassin’s Creed 2 Ubisoft changed the awareness meter and replaced it with a notoriety gauge not at all different from that in GTA IV. As players slay guards or targets their notoriety raises and as a result they must bribe heralds, rip posters off walls or kill witnesses. The notoriety meter works as a gameplay mechanic as it makes the game more realistic and better geared towards the stealth genre along with ensuring that armed combat is not all that common. On the other hand it is so simple to reduce your notoriety that only gamers looking for a challenge will keep this indicator at anything above 50%.

The stealth element in Assassin’s Creed 2 is, thankfully, much improved over the original. In addition to the aforementioned notoriety meter, which makes it easier to keep a low profile, escaping pursuers is finally feasible as not all guards will be able to climb up buildings, scale rooftops or jump from pillar to pillar with an assassin’s grace. Blending has also been heavily improved. Instead of focusing on specific groups of people blending can now be done with any group of people so long as Ezio moves at the same speed as the group. Items such as smoke bombs or throwing money on the streets to distract guards also make the game much more complete in terms of stealth gameplay. Finally, players can hire groups of courtesans, thieves or mercenaries to distract guards and make a clean exit in a sticky situation.

All of the new elements in Assassin’s Creed 2 are refinements rather than major leaps, but combined together they make the sequel to one of the most repetitive action games in recent memory an enjoyable romp. Small touches such as the ability to quickly travel between any location using “travel agencies” also lend themselves to a more fluid and satisfying experience. Using groups to distract guards also means players wont have to sit through minutes of unsatisfying combat as they can skip it all together. Combined with the already ingenious free-roaming mechanics of the original game Assassin’s Creed 2 finally allows would-be assassins to do some actual killing! One of the key improvements to the game is the ability to now easily pull of an assassination worthy of a true master of the blade. The game no longer requires gamers to go through wave after wave of enemies in order to assassinate their targets in a brutal, spectacular and extremely public fashion. Players who’ve enjoyed that sort of thing can still do it in most cases but now things have been greatly refined. Ezio can now easily blend with crowds, use long distance weapons and slowly creep on to his unsuspecting victims killing them in some of the most gruesome ways in videogame lore. A few standout assassinations have Ezio killing an individual with his gun during a fireworks show or slowly piloting into a heavily guarded palace and stopping a poising attempt by a treacherous henchmen.

Outside of the myriad of changes Assassin’s Creed 2 is still firmly rooted in the lore and structure of the original game. The Italian Renaissance and its cities are again the stars of the show. The three major cities, Tuscany, Venice and Florence are all large, heavily populated with citizens from all walks of life and extremely detailed. In fact the producers’ obsession with these cities has gone to such lengths that almost every major and minor historical site has its own separate entry in a codex of sorts, detailing the place’s history, significance and importance to the Italian city-states of that time. The detail with which all of these cities have been drawn is absolutely stunning and every building, even those which are not monuments, are incredibly believable by design. As Ezio climbs houses, castles, palaces or towers everything fells “right”. No cracks, poles or architectural designs seem out of place.

All of the cities also have a feeling of their own, even if this is less poignant than in Assassin’s Creed. Florence for instance is the center of Italian banking and is a rich city, filled with markets selling luxurious items to well dressed aristocrats. Tuscany is a bit farther out, on the reaches of Renaissance's influence and is more medieval, even brutal, in nature. Venice on the other hand is a lavishly designed city, with massive feats of architectural acumen and free flowing canals densely populated by gondolas.

Traversing the world of Assassin’s Creed 2 is done much in the same way as in the previous entry, with both faults and benefits. Parkour allows players to quickly travel from rooftop to rooftop and to easily climb up and down buildings with the simple press of a button. However, when precise platforming is required, especially in Assassin’s Tombs the automated jumping and grabbing leave much to be desired. Some small but significant improvements have been made to the free running mechanic though. The most significant improvement is Ezio’s newfound ability to swim, which makes the moronic drowning deaths a thing of the past. Players climbing vertically can now employ a jump-grab maneuver to ledges they couldn’t reach otherwise.

Graphically Assassin’s Creed 2 borders on art. This game looks so good that it’s fairly hard to imagine how much farther the envelope can be pushed. Ezio animates even better (if this was at all possible) than Altair, floating more freely and accurately from pole to pole. Details are brimming all over the world, it seems as if no two people are alike. The game moves along without a cinch for most of the experience, bar a few action heavy sequences where slowdown rears its ugly head. The world presented here is nearly perfect in every sense of the word. Lighting is spot on, buildings and locales are heavily detailed and graphical bugs are nearly nonexistent.

The sound component has received a massive improvement over the previous entry. Clearly the biggest step forward is the voice acting which is heads and shoulders above that in Assassin’s Creed. Ezio sounds Italian, both through accent and through the dialogue. The annoyingly repetitive sound bytes uttered by citizens every 5 seconds in the original have been all but eliminated and the dialogue is generally better all around. The music is still top notch but not quite as impressive as in the first Assassin’s Creed, mostly due to its repetitive nature. Combining great graphics and sound also lends Assassin’s Creed 2 a better overall presentation by comparison to the first game. Close-ups are far more common now, getting players accustomed with friends a foes on a more personal level and the inclusion of quicktime events (even if a bit random) makes cutscenes more interactive. Finally the cast of characters, which includes famous historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, are much more lively and entertaining than the dull and uninspired lot of the first game.

Length has never been a strong suite of action adventure games but Assassin’s Creed 2 begs to differ. Just completing the main story line is a gargantuan task by today’s standards, as a no frills play through lasts at least 15 hours. The number of hours spent in Renaissance Italy can however increase exponentially with every side quest completed. The incentive to complete side quests is fairly slim however as the rewards are paltry thanks to the overabundance of gold, but the possibility is here for those so inclined. Outside of getting 100% though Assassin’s Creed 2 doesn’t offer much in the way of replay.

Assassin’s Creed 2 is a vastly improved sequel. It takes many of the original’s problems and fixes them while it refines other elements, all the while adding new ones. The story could be better and combat could be more intense but what is here is still one of the best and most original third person action-adventure games of the current generation.

Gameplay: 7/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 8/10
Multiplayer: N/A
Overall: 8/10

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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