Review by DouglasFett

Reviewed: 08/29/11

Hashishin: Italy or bust

Sweep aside any preconceived biases against Ubisoft, and judge them not for their Tom Clancy games [Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six], but for a series all their own: Assassins Creed. Assassins Creed II, released two years after the first installment in 2007, picks up where AC1 left off. Now...usually I start a review by talking about graphics and audio, but I think this game's background and story needs to be explained in full.

With AC1, Ubisoft took a page both from their "Prince of Persia" series, and from history itself...but with major twists. Players, as Desmond Miles in the modern day, were taken in by Abstergo Industries, and in similar fashion to being "plugged into the Matrix," were plugged into their own "genetic memories" via use of a machine called the Animus. Desmond is the descendant of a member of the "Hashishin" [a real-life order of Islamic Assassins based out of Persia and Syria, that operated from about the 1090's to the 1270's], Altair ibn La-Ahad. The first game, set during the Third Crusade [1187-92], documents Altair's rise to prominence, as he discovers a plot by the Knights Templar [also a real-life order, of elite Christian Knights whose mandate was to defend pilgrims and protect the Holy Land from the Saracens; operated from 1119-1314] to gather the pieces of the Apple of Eden, which will give them power over the minds of everyone in the world.

That being said, the Assassins Creed series is largely a "what if." That is, what if all the conspiracies of the world are true? The Templar Order may have been eradicated by the French King Philip IV centuries ago, but *what if* surviving members went underground, taking with them the Templar Order's considerable wealth? Such 'what if' theories have evolved today into actual conspiracy theories. Some people believe the Knights Templar survived, evolving into modern day secret societies such as the Free Masons. Ubisoft took such conspiracy theories and heavily fictionalized versions of the Hashishin and Knights Templar, and gave us the first Assassins Creed...ancient orders of warriors with opposing ideologies, who continue to battle for the fate of the world into the modern day. The Assassins, operating from the shadows to keep mankind free, versus the Templars, under the banner of the front company, Abstergo Industries.

Enter Assassins Creed II. Desmond, rescued by an Assassin named Lucy Stillman who infiltrated Abstergo, is introduced to other Assassins Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane. With help from these three who act as Desmond's 'support crew,' the player is put back into the Animus to relive the life of another Assassin, the Italian Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who lived in the latter half of the 15th century. Despite the Templars and Assassins being destroyed centuries prior [the Templars were hunted down and executed by the French from 1307-14; the Assassins were destroyed by the Mongolian Il-Khanate from the 1250s to the 1270s], here we see that survivors of both orders escaped destruction, with their descendants carrying on their traditions to fight their respective foes. Players take control of Ezio as a teenager, a nobleman's spoiled son, who fights off gangs of rival nobleman's sons and has girls pining for him left and right. However his life quickly takes a turn, as he's introduced to his destiny: to become an Assassin, and to fight against the Templars and the threat they represent.

1. Graphics/Sound 10/10: A very impressive looking game, the characters look, feel, and sound believable. Renaissance Italy is brought to life, and its amazing to see what could have been. Extra kudos to Ubisoft for finally writing a cast of characters that are not only likeable, but have personality, and for once, DECENT SCRIPTS. Just saying...Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games have had pretty bad dialogue...they've either been dry, or the enemy AI have just been foul mouthed buffoons. I don't know how much I can stress this, but I am really, really impressed with Ubisoft's efforts to give their characters personality. While Ezio carries the game as both a boyscout and a ladies man [at first I thought I was going to hate his character, but he's so awesome], every one of the characters you can interact with as Desmond and Ezio are interesting and neat to talk to.

2. Story 9/10: I already went into the game's background above, but it wouldn't hurt to elaborate. Ezio initially joins the Assassins to seek revenge against his father and brother's killer, which seems rather hollow...but the story comes full circle as its learned that his killer's and their associates are - you guessed it - Templars, still alive and still seeking the Apple of Eden, in their quest to dominate the world. Ezio will travel to various locales to hunt down and assassinate his Templar foes, including such cities as Venice, Rome, and Florence, among others. Along the way he'll accumulate allies to his cause, including fictionalized depictions of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli. At the end of the game, players will find that there's more to the story than even just the Assassins and Templars...BUT, in any case, something odd about the story progression. After a player finishes a mission, the next cutscene will take place...several years after the hit...and Ezio will be talking to his allies about the assassination, as though it just happened the day before. Which is odd, to say the least, and why I'm taking a point down here. I'm also taking a point away because the story is literally incomplete. Since the main gameplay is Desmond reliving his "genetic memories" via the animus, memories are broken down into sequences. Technically there are 14 sequences overall, but you only play 12. Sequences 12-13 were cut from the game and are referred to in-game as "corrupted memories," but are available over Xbox Live for however many MSP Ubisoft is charging...HOWEVER, those two sequences are already included in the PC version. Ubisoft may have revamped their storytelling abilities, but you can't take the greed out of the business.

3. Gameplay 9/10

- Sandbox: Like AC1, players will be able to traverse not one large city, but many. Rome, Florence, Venice, etc, make an appearance here. Ezio and his allies, meanwhile, have taken up refuge within the walled city of Monteriggioni, which serves as their HQ. Cities themselves vary in size, but the ability to explore and unlock more areas is always available. "Parkour" [free-running] is the main staple of the game, as Ezio can run up walls, jump from rooftop to rooftop, leap off walls onto unsuspecting enemies below...the possibilities are endless. In addition, Ezio can swim, navigate through Venice aboard a gondola, and even ride horses. Your foes deploy foot soldiers everywhere you go, so the player must find ways to avoid catching their attention, or else find themselves constantly under attack. A notoriety meter is present on the H.U.D. wherever Ezio goes, reminding the player how 'well known' he is in select locations. Notoriety can be decreased by bribing orators, or ripping down 'Wanted' signs.

- Combat: Ezio has many weapons at his disposal...the hidden blade, and a variety of swords, daggers, and the like. Players have the ability to disarm, counter-attack, drop smoke bombs, block, dodge...players can loot dead bodies for money and weapons. If the player wishes to flee though, Ezio has many options to hide, either by blending in with a crowd, hopping into haystacks, hiring select groups of 'underground' allies to distract the guards, or even simply outrunning their "sphere of awareness."

- Economy: As a free-roaming adventure game in similar substance to the GTA games, Ezio needs money to fuel his quest. Ezio's sister aids him in this endeavor by managing his finances. Ezio can gain money in a number of ways. Besides looting corpses or treasure chests, the main staple of his income comes from 'building a portfolio,' so to speak. By upgrading their HQ - Monteriggioni - the shops of the city, rebuilt, will produce a larger income. In addition, adorning Ezio's inner keep within Monteriggioni with paintings, as well as collecting more weapons and armour, will also increase income. The player can carry as much currency [florins] on them as they wish, but to access said income, the player can either visit Ezio's sister within the HQ and withdraw money from their personal vault, or by visiting a bank in any one of the other cities throughout the game. Money is used to buy weapons, armour, health kits, ammunition, bribe orators, renovate Monteriggioni...plenty to do.

- Side Quests: Besides the main story, Ezio will have plenty to do. Ezio can take on assassination contracts and other similar jobs, explore ancient tombs to discover lost relics...within cities themselves, Ezio can even hire various groups [thieves, thugs, and courtesans] to distract and dispatch enemy guards. In addition, Ezio can also track down feathers [collecting all of them unlocks some special item], in the same fashion that Altaïr could collect enemy flags in AC1. Lastly, there is the matter of Subject 16, another individual whom Abstergo accosted. The exact identity of Subject 16 is unknown, but what's revealed to the player is that Abstergo left him in the Animus for too long and he died. That said, Subject 16, having figured out Abstergo's identity and purpose, left clues throughout the genetic memories within the Animus for future individuals to discover, and find out for themselves Abstergo's true nature [IE more conspiracy theories, all tied together to show Abstergo trying to take over].

- UPlay: Lastly, it should be noted that AC2 was the first Ubisoft game to make use of their online 'UPlay' rewards systems. By completing certain objectives in-game, the player will be rewarded with UPlay points they can spend in UPlay to buy items [weapons, outfits, etc] they can use in-game. The great thing is that these UPlay points are universal across any Ubisoft game that is connected to UPlay - that is, extra points I earned in Splinter Cell Conviction I can use to buy items for Assassins Creed II, and vice versa.

After the fact, what does AC2 bring to the table? Players can roam about Renaissance Italy parkour style, and sneak around rooftops like a badass. Its plenty fun, about 20-30 hours worth. Yet, its occasionally frustrating [like making a leap from one roof to another, somehow missing, and falling down to the streets below and dying. So. ****ing. Annoying]. But something needs to be said about AC's influence within Ubisoft itself. After a disappointing run of games with the Splinter Cell series [2002-06], Ubisoft released AC1 in 2007, and then AC2 in 2009. Ubisoft then released Splinter Cell Conviction in 2010, which is stock full of elements from AC: conspiracies, parkour, and quick one-hit assassinations. As a fan of Splinter Cell since 2002, and having played both AC2 and SCC, its easy to see that the Splinter Cell series was revived with a lot of help from the Assassins Creed series [and other games, like Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas]. To drive the point further, if one looks at what Ubisoft is doing with the yet-to-be released "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier," its easy to see Splinter Cell's influence in that other Clancy game series. In other words, Assassins Creed is Ubisoft's signature banner that they're driving to revamp their oldest series. AC2 gets an 'A' in my book.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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