Review by BloodGod65

"From Ninja Dog to Master Assassin"

Despite tremendous sales and rave reviews from the critics, Assassin's Creed was one of 2007's most divisive titles – and not without good reason. While the wild story and unusual take on the Crusades were sure to press buttons, the most controversial element of the game was its repetitive structure. Although the game was fairly long, it adhered to a rigid formula that forced players to perform the same simple tasks over and over. The backlash from the gamers was profoundly vocal. With Assassin's Creed II finally here, many gamers will be more reluctant to step foot into the Assassin's Creed universe again. But fear not, fellow gamers; Ubisoft has heard our complaints. They have fixed Assassin's Creed.

I don't hesitate to reveal that the sequel is better than its predecessor in nearly every way imaginable, but I must first make an unfortunate statement. If you haven't played and completed the original, you shouldn't skip ahead to the sequel. The plot of the original was one of its most intriguing elements and this game plays heavily off the events that transpired in it. Without the knowledge of the previous game – especially the last hour or so – you'll be hopelessly lost.

Having made that disclaimer, let's move on. Assassin's Creed II opens with a bang; after the shocking revelations in the first game, Lucy decides to make her move and busts Desmond out of the Abstergo facility. Once they've escaped the building, the two hook up with a splinter cell assassin group that has managed to work up a homebrew Animus prototype. Unsurprisingly, they intend to continue the war against the Templar, but their plan is a bit unusual. The assassins reveal that extensive time inside the Animus leads to a phenomenon known as bleeding, where the knowledge of the ancestors begins to merge with the consciousness of the patient. The assassins intend to use this phenomenon to retrain Desmond so that he can join their fight.

In order to do this, Desmond will have to experience the same trials of another person in his family tree who learned to become an assassin. Instead of rejoining Altair, Desmond steps into the body of Ezio Auditore, a man who lived in Renaissance Florence. Unbeknownst to him, his family is part of the assassin order and he is thrust into the ongoing intrigue when his father and brother are slaughtered by a rival family working for the Templar. Vowing his revenge, Ezio takes up his father's mantle and begins to learn what it takes to be an assassin.

While Assassin's Creed II continues the tale of a global struggle between the Assassins and Templar, the story is less focused than the original. Rather than engaging in a series of hits against important targets whose misdeeds are well defined, Ezio is really just targeting a group of people involved in the betrayal of his family. As a whole, the mission just doesn't seem as important. Once again, it's only until the last hour or so of the game that things begin to become clear. And once again, the game ends rather abruptly, raising more questions in the last five minutes than it answers.

Even so, the plot as a whole is presented on a much more grandiose scale than the original. Through an optional, ongoing puzzle presented throughout the world, the game reveals the true scale of the war between the Assassin's and Templars. I hesitate to ruin anything, but it's worth saying that each puzzle contains many hints and documents about real world individuals purported to be a part of the war, from Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla and Henry Ford, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Adolf Hitler.

On the whole, the plot is so well written and presented – especially the conspiracy theory element – that the looser focus is not too distracting. Ubisoft has woven together so many elements, historical figures and events with such expertise that it becomes difficult not to buy into the wild tale they are weaving.

Of course, I enjoyed the story in the original Assassin's Creed but ended up hating the gameplay, so it's good to see that Ubisoft has taken pains to ensure that doesn't happen this time around. Although the game as a whole has received a comprehensive makeover, a few things remain the same, such as the open cities, parkour style free running, and the unique control system.

In case you've forgotten about the last two, here's a quick recap: buttons have a limb specific function, with A being for legs, Y for head and eyes, and X for arms. This allows you to walk silently through a crowd, pickpocket someone, and use eagle vision. By pressing the left bumper, these buttons are modified for high-profile functions, such as running, jumping, and grabbing people. The same applies in combat, with the regular functions being offensive and the modifications being defensive.

As for the parkour, Ezio, like his ancestor, is a capable acrobat who can run and climb up walls, traverse rooftops, and make death-defying leaps. The only difference is that Ezio moves quicker, so you can get to your destination much faster.

The biggest change to Assassin's Creed is in the overall structure of the game. The repetitious mission structure is abolished in favor of the open world, GTA-style industry standard. You proceed through a series of story missions that introduce you to various characters, teach you the new mechanics of the game, and as often as not don't have you assassinating anybody at all. And as in Grand Theft Auto, the story is now merged fluidly with the action; you no longer complete a bunch of mini-missions, kill someone, and then listen to his deathbed confession. You learn about the story in every mission, through conversations with other characters, and through what you observe during the course of the mission itself. That's not to say that you won't see those intimate moments following an assassination; they're just shorter and less revelatory. One of the early assassinations even mocks the previous game structure as the dying villain mocks your expectation that he'll tell you what's going on. The overall effect is that you constantly learn about the story and get much better acquainted with Ezio than you ever did with Altair.

New to this game is the concept of notoriety. As in the original Assassin's Creed, it's best if Ezio maintains a low profile during his activities. If the guards see or recognize Ezio, they will begin to come after him. As Ezio does socially unacceptable things in sight of the guards, such as trespass on guarded property, jump around, climb on walls, or kill people, he will gain a reputation. Once you fill the game's notoriety meter, the guards recognize Ezio and they'll give chase when they see him. Since being recognizable by the authorities is a bad thing for an assassin, Ezio can do several things to lower his notoriety level. Tearing down wanted posters, bribing heralds to stop talking about you, and assassinating local officials all lower Ezio's notoriety (although that last one seems a bit counter-productive).

Of course, it is inevitable that Ezio will be discovered and need to fight his way out of a tight situation. This time around, Ezio has a greater selection of weapons to arm himself with. Along with his trusty hidden blade, Ezio can carry throwing knives, smoke bombs, a dagger, and a main weapon such as a sword or a warhammer. New and better weapons can be purchased periodically throughout the game.

The health system has also been revised. In the first game, Altair's health was based on synchronicity and if he did something out of character, such as hurt an innocent bystander, he'd lose health. This would replenish over time, as long as Altair didn't get hurt further. Now, Ezio's health is represented in blocks. If a block is damaged, it will replenish, but if it is depleted entirely you'll need to visit a local doctor to get it restored.

It's also worth saying that Ezio is a significantly more dangerous character than Altair, and he has more tactics and items at his disposal. In addition to a larger selection of weapons, Ezio can use smoke bombs to mask a quick getaway, and late in the game he'll even get a primitive firearm. A vial of poison can be used to coat the hidden blade and make it even more dangerous. Ezio can also carry extra health potions in case he's not near a doctor.

As fun as these new items are to play with, the new, advanced assassination moves are even more impressive. One move allows Ezio to assassinate from hiding by jumping out from a haystack, stabbing his enemy, then dragging him back in. Another allows him to kill while hanging from a ledge by jumping up and sinking his blade into them. Finally, there is the air assassinate ability, which allows Ezio to jump down on a target and kill them instantly. These new moves are much appreciated and give the player more options in how to eliminate a given enemy.

There is much more to do in Assassin's Creed II than pursue the main storyline. As in the original game, there are a significant number of collectible items to hunt down. Before you start moaning about how that stupid game made you hunt down hundreds of flags and only gave you a lousy achievement for your troubles, take heart. Every collectible in the game gives the player a tangible reward. And some of them are really, really freakin' awesome. Treasure chests are scattered throughout every city, and finding them will give you a cash reward to use in the game's various shops. Feathers can be hunted down to unlock a special item.

One of these collectibles is actually part of the over-arching puzzle game I mentioned earlier. As you move around the environment, you may notice strange glyphs on ancient, historical sites. These glyphs are the key to unlocking the truth about the Templar order and the nature of the war. After you find one, you must solve a puzzle to unlock a short video snippet that reveals a piece of the Truth. The puzzles themselves are usually deceptively simple, such as piecing together pictures or breaking a code. They're also remarkable for the way they incorporate historical events, persons, and artwork into the conspiracy theory angle of the game.

If the rewards of hunting down various items aren't enticing enough, there are many side activities to discover. Assassination events are like miniature hits and charge you with killing a minor target without being seen. Then there are courier events that have you delivering items to people within a short period of time, races that challenge your free-running abilities, and contracts to beat up cheating husbands. If any of that sounds familiar, it's because these side activities are actually just reworked versions of the missions in the original Assassin's Creed. Set against this new backdrop, it is easy to see just how insubstantial and repetitive they really were. On the other hand, now that they're optional and incorporated into something much larger, they're easier to deal with.

Another fun activity comes in the way of platforming challenges. While there are only six scattered throughout the entire game (as part of an interesting story thread leading to one of the most desirable unlockables in the whole game), they end up being the most enjoyable platforming segments on a non-Nintendo console since… well, ever. The free-running system fits this style of gameplay perfectly and Ubisoft has created some very interesting locations with their own unique challenges. These platforming bits are so good and often so tense that I actually broke a sweat playing through them. That's something I haven't done since playing the original Donkey Kong Country.

There is another major diversion in the form of Ezio's mansion. The Auditore family is in charge of a large villa in Tuscany, but years of feuding with the Templar have seen it and its associated village run down to a shadow of their former glory. When Ezio inherits the place, it is a ramshackle affair with no shops and few visitors. By investing money into the village, opening new shops and tourist attractions, you will increase the value of your estate. Nearly everything you buy in the game helps increase this value, from weapons and art, to upgrading the shops. As the value of the estate increases, Ezio gets increasing monetary returns.

The original Assassin's Creed was an early landmark for this generation in terms of its graphics, and the sequel looks just as good. The two games possess a very different style; whereas the first had a stark, gritty realistic look, this game has a more vivid and stylized look. While it is jarring at first, it is more suited to the bright colors and architecture of the Renaissance setting. Other things, such as the animations and lighting effects are just as good as they were, and there is even a day to night cycle now.

The audio design is just as good as before as well. The voice actors are great, and Ezio is an immensely likeable, albeit brash young guy. The Italian accents are kept under control as well, although at one point Ubisoft does the greatest video game character homage ever, as Ezio's uncle Mario introduces himself by saying, "Don't you recognize me? It's-a me, Mario!". Music remains just as beautiful as before, although it is present more often this time around. Finally, Ubisoft has added subtitles to the game.

There is really only one thing in the game I take issue with and it is the way Ubisoft cut out two sections of the game to reserve for use as downloadable content. Towards the end of the game, the narrative skips over a period of several years and jumps straight to its conclusion. While the game explains it away as a glitch in the Animus, and gives a brief description of the events that took place during this time, we all know now that the Battle of Forli and the Bonfire of the Vanities were both released as DLC. When it comes to cutting important parts out of the game just for the sake of making a buck later on down the road, well I thought only Activision was capable of such disgusting greed. If it weren't for that sudden jump past several important events to a sudden, weak conclusion, Assassin's Creed II would have been perfect.

Ubisoft should really run a class on how to do a sequel properly. In an industry that thrives on iterations, it's amazing that it's so rare to see one done with such finesse. Bigger, better, with more to do and all the crappy bits taken out, Assassin's Creed II is exactly what a sequel should be. More to the point, it's everything the original wasn't; namely, a great game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/11/12

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

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