An assassin’s job is to eliminate a target with cunning stealth, blend in with a crowd, and when necessary use brute force to accomplish his objective. They live in the underbelly of society, but appear as an everyman, only to pounce on helpless prey with lightening fast attacks. This was the premise of Ubisoft’s finely crafted Assassin’s Creed, which despite some minor gameplay flaws went on to become one of the most successful new IPs in recent years. In the months leading to the release of the sequel, Ubisoft Montreal promised it had learned from its mistakes and we’d see a perfectly polished open world action-adventure game with Assassin’s Creed II. Sadly, while the end result falls short of this pledge, the developer more than makes up for the sequel’s flaws by delivering a captivating story and sprawling, eye-popping world to explore.
By now, we assume many of you have played Assassin’s Creed II, or at least the prequel. The game focuses on Desmond Miles, an average man with some more than average ancestors. Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up shortly after the events of the first game, but instead of doing research in the Abstergo facility, the lab-technician, Lucy, helps Desmond escape the facility altogether. Lucy wants to help Desmond flee Abstergo to keep researchers’ dirty hands off Desmond’s memories. The pair ends up in a renovated warehouse where an ad hoc team working against Abstergo is conducting its own experiments. They hook Desmond up to an Animus and start searching through his memories. Without giving too much story away, it’s safe to say that the individual on the cover of the AC 2 box, especially how he is dressed, doesn’t appear in the actual game for a few hours. In fact, this entire opening sequence is decidedly slow burning and plot heavy.
Despite the rocky start to the story, Assassin’s Creed II actually excels at plot and character development. Perhaps the best part of the AC 2 lies within the plot twists and character betrayals, and the devices Ubisoft uses to illustrate and guide the gamer. One minute you’ll be in a carefree life – laughing with your brother, sleeping with a sexy woman, and running around on top of Florence’s majestic rooftops. Then, you’ll watch as your brothers and father are executed at the hand of a trusted family friend. If the game feels slow at the beginning, rest assure that after about three hours, everything starts to happen fast.
Instead of playing as Altair, the Animus sets Desmond back to Ezio Auditore. Ezio lived in 15th century Florence and was a bit of an arrogant chap, as established by his opening adult combat sequence. For what it’s worth, this switch in character between the first AC and the sequel appears strictly for storytelling purposes. It is extremely difficult to tell the two apart. While Ezio comes equipped with a handful of new tricks (none all that impressive), the game’s core fundamentals are identical to the first game. Ezio still deftly leaps across rooftops, assassinates enemies with concealed weapons, and blends in with crowds to avoid guards’ attention.
Combat in Assassin’s Creed was at best decent, and at worst, downright annoying and monotonous. It’s unfortunate that Ubisoft promised a revamped combat system in Assassin’s Creed II, yet we still found it extremely unrealistic, clumsy, and slow paced. It is certainly improved, but if/when we see Assassin’s Creed III, we hope they start with making the combat system better, then build the game from there on out. It’s not to say the combat is bad or overly difficult, but in a genre that begs for swift and graceful killings, bashing the attack button and attempting to properly time counter attacks is just not that much fun. The counter attack mechanic, a cornerstone of the first game’s combat system, is slightly improved. The window in which you have to counter is increased, but only by a little. We presume there are folks out there that genuinely enjoy this style of combat, but we feel the game again fell short in this respect.
Even when the combat feels smooth and you feel in control of the situation, the way the AI interacts with you is odd. You can face 10 enemies, and they take turns swinging away at you. This breaks the veil of believability the game works so hard to achieve. The rest of the game’s AI is spot on. We absolutely loved walking around the cities and towns, listening in on conversations, pushing away beggars and street musicians, and watching ‘ladies of the night’ dance for our pleasure. We were, however, a bit frustrated with the poor cutscene graphics during voiceovers. On several occasions, the characters’ lips were not even close to being synched with the dialogue. Still, that’s not to say the cutscenes are horrendous, they’re just not quite as polished as we expected.
Visually the game is an absolute joy to behold. Throughout your journey you’ll visit a diverse range of beautifully crafted locations, including Florence, Venice, and the evocative Tuscan countryside. Needless to say, it’s pretty obvious Ubisoft spent a lot of time working on the game’s scenery, as the attention to detail is positively jaw-dropping. The cities are intricately detailed, massive in scale and completely open for your exploration, while the characters and particle effects are equally stunning.
Elsewhere, Assassin’s Creed II also throws in a healthy dose of exploration. Whereas the first game tended to steer people towards storyline missions, the sequel seems to encourage you to take the road less traveled, and investigate every little icon on your mini-map. This is where the game truly starts to excel. There is just so much to do outside of the story mission – which can take you roughly 20 hours to complete depending on how fast you blow through the missions. You’ll find yourself killing unfaithful husbands, chasing thieves, opening treasure chests, searching for feathers, and uncovering various glyphs that all help to tell the story. You can even hire prostitutes to distract guards, or hire warriors to fight along your side.
Another aspect of the game is helping Ezio’s uncle’s villa flourish. Monteriggioni starts in a pretty sad state. There isn’t all that much to see or do. But over time, as Ezio deposits money into the community, and helps the local architect make improvements to the infrastructure, the town starts to bustle. As the game progresses and your donations get put to use, the town starts to liven up and it actually looks welcoming. There’s also potential to make some serious cash off of your investment, so play it wisely.
You’ll spend money on various weapons and armor upgrades. You can also buy medicine and poison. The upgraded armor boosts your overall health, while new weapons do more damage. The differences between the weapons in combat are not too noticeable. One important note, a young Leonardo da Vinci plays a very important role in the game, and without spoiling too much of the story, he becomes an integral part of the story and one of Ezio’s most trusted friends. Notoriety is also a key component in the sequel. As it rises, the guards will be much more likely to find you and attack. You can lower your notoriety by tearing down wanted posters, assassinating corrupt officials, or bribing town criers.
Perhaps Assassin’s Creed II’s biggest flaw comes from how the game begins. It took us a while to find much interest in learning how to properly run across rooftops, or fight pathetic guards. It’s not that it’s overly difficult (although, both of these can be extremely frustrating), it’s just the first couple of hours are downright slow. Once the game picks up, it’s hard to put it down. The noticeable advancements compared to the first game are well needed, but above all, the game is so beautiful and massive that we found ourselves distracted by the Italian cities and countryside, and the long list of side missions and non-story tasks. The story is one of the most complex in all of recent gaming, and the characters are some of the most developed we’ve encountered. Still, hopefully Ubisoft will see fit to tidy up a few of the game’s shortcomings – specifically the combat – for the inevitable third entry. Until then, there is so much to do and see in Assassin’s Creed II, that you won’t spend much time noticing its flaws.