In nearly every respect, Assassin’s Creed was a success story. An industry darling from its debut, the new IP earned a groundswell of hype and praise and attracted the likes of Steven Spielberg, gathered talk of movie options, won industry awards, and more. After its release, the game raked in remarkable, record-breaking sales numbers for a new IP. There was only one thing that publicly troubled Ubisoft: Reviews ranged from high nines to low sevens and sixes. Critics either loved or hated it.
Beneath its gorgeous exterior and sweeping vistas, Assassin’s Creed didn’t deliver the high-octane experience everyone, including Ubisoft, hoped it would be. Two years later, the French publisher’s vast, sweeping sequel answers its critics in every way. Where the first game was rigid, repetitive, and uncompromising in design and gameplay, the sequel is open, diverse, and full of options. The first game’s title, Assassin’s Creed, messaged “stealth,” but in reality it failed most stealth tests. The sequel, however, delivers innovative and exciting stealth components. The list of improvements goes on. The combat is deeper and more robust, the interactions with civilians are more interesting, and the exploration options are in many ways more manageable than before. To cut myself short, Assassin’s Creed II (AC2) actually over-delivers in the same way that Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV did, improving in every way over the original and creates a distinct, forceful, and full game that truly delivers on the original’s promise.
The Story So Far
With a complicated storyline full of twists and turns, time travel, and a mixture of religious and science fiction themes, Assassin’s Creed II’s narrative is a handful. You play modern day bartender Desmond Miles, an apparently normal guy who happens to have been reared by a family of assassins, and whose DNA contains secrets of his family’s past. Captured by Abstergo Industries, Miles is forced into a lab to undergo sessions in which a software tool called the Animus mines his DNA for memories. The first game traced Miles back to the role of Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad, in 1191. AC2 sends Miles back to Renaissance Italy, 1476, and puts him in the role of young Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Yes, that is his real name. And yes, the game is full of Italian names just like that.
Like the first game, the second one takes place in the present and the past. Thankfully, you’ll experience a majority of it in the past, while a sprinkling of events in the future explain your predicament, adding new twists to the dual narrative. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll remain a little vague on the story details. The original game took itself a little too seriously. Instead of the characters’ intensity gripping players’ interest, the modern day scenes with Lucy and doctor felt like interruptions and resulted in annoyance rather than intrigue. In AC2, players quickly discover that Miles’ new science/medical team is quirkier, funnier, even a little nastier, but even when nasty, they’re always more comical. A little light comedy might seem like a minor addition, but considering how heavy the subject matter is, the comical asides and more colorful characters add much needed balance to the dialogue and narrative flow.
Within the first few minutes of the game, you dive deep into Miles’ DNA history and you become Ezio, the second oldest child in the prominent Auditore family. Ezio’s father is a prominent banker and primary supporter of the ruling class Medici family of Florence. The Medicis, it turns out, are facing political challenges from another prominent family and, after a series of shocking events, these challenges turn into a confrontation that forces Ezio’s hand. He takes his family into hiding and then takes on the role of an assassin, seeking sweeping vengeance for those involved in his family’s tragedy.
In truth, AC2’s story feels like a forerunner to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with warring families killing each other in the dark and sophisticated factions strategizing to one-up another for power and prominence. It’s all quite dramatic and serious in nature, though just like the modern day characters in AC2, Ubisoft has injected the Italian narrative with light humor and some GTA-style one-liners for good measure.
The story is vast, involves a lot of characters, both fictional and real, and Ubisoft does an excellent job of blending their known history into the fiction. Each time you meet a new character or see a new piece of historic architecture, you can read about their roles in history. You can easily skip the optional text. But Ubisoft’s inclusion of historical better explains why this period in Italy was important in history and gives an underlying depth to the game. AC2 actually makes a good case for a bit of historic education while gaming.
Bigger in Every Way
The first Assassin’s Creed was not a small game. You could walk, run, jump across building tops, and ride horse back in ancient locations such as Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus. AC2 is not only bigger in literal surface-level geography, it’s also taller and digs deeper underground. In AC2, Ezio will travel on foot, on horseback, in carriages, and in a flying machine across a vast region of Italian spots including various portions both inside and outside of Florence and Venice, Rome, the mountains, and various outlying countryside locations as well. The game’s size is impressive on its own, but more importantly, Ubisoft has made good use of the new space.
Just like the first, Ezio will uncover regions in each city by climbing to Eagle’s nests, but these buildings are more like 40 stories high instead of 20 stories high. The cities themselves are vast labyrinths of asymmetric streets, alleyways, and marketplaces, making for fun/challenging escape routes, with erudite re-creations of Italy’s famous religious structures peppering every region. Additionally, Ubisoft has introduced assassin’s tombs hidden deep underground. These tombs are physical puzzles in the vein of Prince of Persia/Tomb Raider, and while optional, they add mode depth and variation to the central game. They’re also good for gathering more information and money.
Assassin’s Creed is as much about historical conspiracy betrayal as any good drama or noir movie. Folding in more layers to the game’s depth, Ubisoft has introduced collectible glyphs. These hidden glyphs are located in hard-to-reach locations, and each one can only be opened after solving a trio of puzzles, each of which incorporates classic art (more education!). Once solved, the riddles reveal a small video clip. The object is to collect them all and piece them together to help you solve a bigger puzzle. The bigger puzzle? Yes, these glyphs appear to be from the future, and are a message sent by a previous Animus subject who was overexposed to the Animus and got lost in it. These are his means of communicating what he has found.
Adding even more depth to the game, Ezio is re-introduced to long lost family members, including one rowdy mercenary uncle who grants him his villa. Like Grand Theft Auto Vice City’s real estate mechanic, you’re able to invest and improve the villa, which in turn produces revenue. You don’t have to invest in the villa to beat the game, but the upside is tangible. You’re able to own a place of your own, generate extra cash, and visit your family once in a while.
Although I haven’t measured them side-by-side, the enormous geographical landscape of AC2 is reminiscent, once again, of Rockstar’s landmark action-adventure series. Translation: it’s really, really, really big. The result of such enormity is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you will experience a minimum of 25-30 hours of gameplay–that’s without collecting everything–providing little doubt you will get your money’s worth. On the other hand, despite the addition of a horse carriage function designed to quickly transport you between most major cities, getting around is a slow, arduous process.
The upshot of all this space and additional depth is that AC2 isn’t just bigger for the sake of being bigger. Everything works into the main story and is incorporated into the game design in a fundamental way. This is important, and with the exception of one huge fetch-quest near the end (which is one of the few down-sides to the game), you’ll feel like every big new city you visit has a meaning and purpose of its own.
The original Assassin’s Creed had some interesting ideas in it that didn’t necessarily work out. For instance, why did it have a Halo-style health system? Why did it have these neat eaves-dropping missions, but lack basic mission variety? Why did it seem like a stealth game but play like an action game? And why were you always displaying poor public conduct?
AC2 discards a number of systems from the first and replaces them with better ones in the second. In the original game, Altaïr regenerated his health automatically, just like in Halo. In AC2, a full monetary system requires Ezio to not only buy health, but buy clothes, weapons, weapon upgrades, and armor. Of course, you earn money too. And this is where the monetary system gets interesting. You can steal money from local citizens by simply brushing up against them; not much, like 2-4 lire per person. But if you brush up against 100 people, all of a sudden you’re in the money. Citizens take about two seconds to realize they’ve been robbed, and you have to do is keep moving on down the road. As I mentioned earlier, upgrading your villa earns you money, but it requires you to constantly revisit it, which is slow, slow, slow. Tumbling down into tombs earns serious cash, as does completing primary, secondary, or tertiary missions. But no matter what, you will need to earn money to keep up your health, and even to repair your armor. This could sound like a red flag to some, but because you can buy five viles of health potion at a time, and doctors are plentiful in each city, a little planning usually goes a long way.
The AI has improved for the better. In Assassin’s Creed 1, if you were found out, you basically had to head for the hills. The original game’s AI was binary. As is the sequel’s theme, everything in AC2 is loosened and broadened. If you attract unwanted attention, you can still jump to rooftops or find hay bales or find wells to hide in. Or you can be pro-active, pulling down posters with your mug on them, or silencing witnesses through a bribe or with a stiletto. It’s your choice, and it’s now fun to be a stealthy bastard.
You can also use the crowds in a far more intuitive and useful way than before. Unlike the unforgiving priest crowds in the first, Ezio can blend into ANY crowd of two or more people, indicated by a gray circle of computer data icons on the ground. This simple evolution of the original game’s crowd mechanic makes the blending work 200% better. You can now sift through the crowds like ghost. Conversely, you can hide among prostitutes or hire them to distract enemies. Or you can bulk up against an oncoming squadron of enemies by hiring thieves or mercenaries to fight by your side. I often found myself just hiring thieves and just killing as many guards as possible.
Think about this for a moment. When was the last time you were rewarded for beating up a philanderer? In AC2, the explosion of mission types makes sure you won’t feel the dread of repetition again. You’ll beat up disloyal husbands, escort important citizens across town, enter into races across town, explore distinct parts of the city, explore tombs, collect special items, rob important people, get to hard-to-reach spots under a timer, and so on. There are countless primary missions to push the story forward, but there are an equal amount of side missions providing money and information too.
The New Killing Instinct
The combat in Assassin’s Creed was decent at best, and like many other aspects of the first game, it was repetitive and underwhelming. AC2 brings serious chops to the fighting table. First, with the money you’ll earn, you can upgrade to more powerful swords, spears, poles, and axes. Or you can just pick up the weapons dead enemies leave behind. Second, your hands are powerful tools. You can throw solo jabs at enemies or pummel them with impressive combos. Later in the game you’ll earn knives, so you can throw knives from a distance at enemies, and much later in the game you’ll earn the ability to use a primitive handgun, which isn’t as fun as it sounds.
Like the first game, you’ll re-learn how to deflect enemy attacks and counter. You’ll also be able to strafe, jump back, and disarm. The disarm move is especially cool. As the game progresses, you’ll face different classes of enemies. You’ll start facing basic thugs with swords, arrow-shooting guardsmen, then spear and hammer wielding enemies; and later on, you’ll face axe- and long-pole wielding brutes wearing armor. You can eventually wear these last types down, but the best way to confront them is to retract any weapon you’re holding, strip down to your bare hands, and disarm them. Once you strip them of their axes and long-poles, you’ll see some of the best death animations the game has to offer. Now, instead of being an annoyance, the combat is easily one of the best parts of the game!
But Ezio is limited in what he can carry. He can wield one sword, one dagger, one gun, and at a certain point in the game, he’ll upgrade to double wrist blades. Any enemy weapons he picks up are dropped when he switches to his personal weapons, or when he climbs or swims (yes, you thankfully can swim this time).
Still, if you thought a single-jump stealth kill was wildly exciting in AC1, brace yourself. Easily one of the coolest, most exciting new moves in the game is the double wrist blade kills. I yelled several times at the top of my lungs to an empty room when I performed these stealth kills. Making them especially fun is the newly added stealth kill moves. You can pull enemies down while hanging from a balcony, stealth kill them while hiding in a well or in hay, or jump down from a balcony to assassinate them. Doubling the stealthy death is indescribably satisfying. While in Venice, you swim up to the shore, a boat, or a gondola, and silently drop kill enemies too.
Assassin’s Creed 2 delivers a game that’s bigger, better, and deeper than the first. And it’s actually fun as a fully functional stealth-action game. It not only answers criticisms aimed at the first, it fixes almost every problem, and adds more variety, combat depth, exploration, and personality to the mix. Nearly everything has a purpose for being in the game, and everything ties back into the main theme. In amongst the great expanse of gameplay, a few minor issues stuck out: collecting 100 feathers is a ridiculous, arduous task; the required fetch quest near the game’s end is forced and annoying, and because of the game’s size, some gamers won’t ever return to the game’s early cities. Still, these are small complaints laid upon a game that fulfills the original’s promise.
Score: 9.5 (out of 10)