Assassin's Creed II Review

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Assassin's Creed II Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

The events of the original Assassin's Creed saw Desmond Miles, a sheltered young man from a reclusive community, captured by a pharmaceutical company. Forced into a machine called the "Animus," Miles was used to unearth information from the past by reliving the memories of his ancestor, an Assassin named Altair Ibn La-Ahad, active during the Third Crusade.

With a little help, Miles learned that his abductors were the Templars, a secretive order bent on world domination. Now he has escaped and is using a hacked and Jerry-rigged version of the Animus to try to discover secrets from Renaissance Italy before the Templars can put them to use. To do so, Miles must relive the memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an assassin trapped in the politics of the Italian city-states of Venice and Florence.

Kyle Ackerman

Much has been made about the character of Leonardo da Vinci in this sequel to the original, brilliant Assassin's Creed. But what I like about the character isn't necessarily what he does for the game – though he's a great "Q" to the main character's James Bond, decoding pages and providing clever inventions to solve puzzles at the right moment. Instead, what the developers have done with the character of Leonardo is a wonderful example of everything that makes this game so compelling.

Today, most of the images one sees of Leonardo are based on self-portraits he did just a few years before his death. They show a white-haired old man, with massive beard, and the ravages of time and hard-won wisdom carved deeply into his face. Contrast that with Assassin's Creed II, in which Leonardo is shown as a vibrant young man, just coming into his own, with wonderful ideas and a whole life ahead of him. Give him a plan for a new gadget, and if you ask if it'll work, he'll perk up and say "I don't know – let's build it!" like a kid with a new toy. Just as with Leonardo, the setting of the game – Renaissance Italy – is portrayed in all its newness and originality. All of the towers are still standing, because they've just been built. The buildings are shiny and new, and have not yet been subject to millennia of weather and flooding.

New ideas are exploding all over Florence and Venice, and everything is fresh, the sense of possibility, endless. The developers created a perfect conceit for this incredibly creative and clever, open-sandbox of a game. Like studying a chiaroscuro painting, in which hidden depths come out of the play of light and shadow, playing the Assassin's Creed series of games reveals ever more complexity and wonder.

The original Assassin's Creed was already an impressive game, mixing a brilliant parkour engine, gorgeously choreographed fights and positively awe-inspiring visuals of ancient cities in the Levant. All of this was tied together with clever writing, an intriguing plot and an overall conceit (that you are experiencing simulated memories reconstructed by a computer from RNA) that gave an in-game justification for every game-y element. Assassin's Creed II is a paragon of sequels. That's not to say that the game is perfect, but it polishes and improves on every element of its predecessor, adding tremendous depth, scale and excellent secondary metagames.

Rooftop Chases and Condottieri for Hire

Everything that was compelling about Assassin's Creed is back. If all you want is to follow the basic story, commit a few spectacular and elegant assassinations, and clean Renaissance Italy of corruption and evil, you can do that. I'm still not tired of the "Leap of Faith," when I get to leap from the pinnacle of buildings, doing a graceful dive into a convenient bale of hay or wagon of dead leaves. I enjoyed that move in the first game, and climbed up some towers over and over just to watch Ezio's graceful descent. But in this sequel, even the basic elements of the game have been polished.

The parkour (Ezio's ability to leap, climb, swing and carom off rooftops and obstacles to navigate quickly through the environment), perhaps the biggest selling point of the original game, has been enhanced. Most importantly, with an even richer environment, I felt more in control over my leaps around the environment. That meant it took a little longer to get accustomed to the controls than with the original game (as I was just starting a friend shouted, "Use the ladder!" as I leapt to my death from a window sill), but once I got going, it was brilliant. Also, since Ezio can swim, every canal in Venice is an easy (if stinky) escape from even the tallest buildings.

Assassin's Creed II also features smarter foes, able to pursue Ezio across the rooftops and poke at possible hiding places. To augment the already cinematic and heroic combat, Ezio has access to a variety of armor and a wide assortment of weapons and gadgets that fit different combat styles. Rapiers allow players fast attacks, while broader swords are better on the defense, and maces or hammers do more brutal damage. A few more flourishes and animations to support all the new weapons make combat even more varied and dramatic.

A Victim for Every Blade

A common criticism of Assassin's Creed was that the secondary missions (checkpoint races, assassinations and such) were far too generic, and were used too heavily to bulk up the game. In Assassin's Creed II, the plot and related missions are extensive. The story takes a long time to work through, and that doesn't even touch upon the huge store of side missions. Ubisoft has done an impressive job of trying to lend more story and relevance to each mission.

This shines through with the assassination missions, most of which are clever and unique challenges, loosely tied into the main plot. The courier and race missions, too, even show some polish. The only exception was "beat-'em-up" missions. I'm not entirely clear why Ezio likes to beat up cheating husbands, but he clearly does. With the free-form optional missions, extensive story and almost unlimited collectibles, Assassin's Creed II offers play on the scale of recent Grand Theft Auto games. Of course, instead of a car, you can jack a gondola, and when you hire courtesans, it's to distract guards with enticing gestures.

There are still a few elements that stuck me as odd. I don't quite understand why wanted posters are almost always on high ledges (Ezio can rip them down to lower his profile), or why art dealers sell maps to treasure chests that lie literally everywhere around the landscape, but I can overlook these issues. Never mind that by the end of the game I had more cash in my pouch than the Medicis had in their bank. I was, at least, sold on the mixture of English and Italian. I didn't even mind some of the absurd accents (except when Ezio's uncle introduced himself with, "It's-a me! Mario!").

The Game Behind the Game

Much to my delight, Assassin's Creed II didn't stop at simply improving on every aspect of the first game. This latest outing in the franchise adds additional games to play while exploring Ezio's world. The simplest is the ability to build up Ezio's family villa, upgrading and improving the town with looted funds and the bloody cash earned through assassinations. That's as far as most games go, and it's a welcome addition. The villa is also a ready source of cash once the town is rebuilt and filled with Renaissance masterpieces.

For those who really enjoy the acrobatics of Assassin's Creed II, the mortal remains of great past assassins are hidden around Italy. Each of these is a series of acrobatic puzzles that would seem equally at home in a Prince of Persia game. It's the same studio (and now, engine) behind both games, but it's an entirely different style of play. Instead of determining how best to use the environment and crowds to perform a spectacular kill, reaching each hidden sarcophagus involves figuring out how to use Ezio's talents to navigate a difficult acrobatic challenge.

Finally, there is "The Truth" behind Assassin's Creed II. Hidden in the data that underlies the simulation of Ezio are a series of cryptic challenges that unlock more of the game's backstory. It's a collectible that leads to an entirely different game. The puzzles that decrypt and unveil The Truth won't even give a seasoned adventure gamer pause, but might be challenging to a dedicated action gamer. It's a way to deliver additional play and content in a way that draws the gamer in incredibly well, rather than forcing the gamer to participate.

Anyone who simply wants to run around Florence, Venice and other Italian locales can do so, but these additional games-behind-the-game do a miraculous job of changing the pacing and delivering tons of extra information and content to those who want it. The database entries in the game speak to the volumes of information available for players who want it. Those that don't, can simply kill things. And leap from tall buildings.

The Code Goes Well Beyond da Vinci

Although the da Vinci character is a fun, he is just one of many compelling characters in the game. And sadly, some of his coolest innovations are introduced late enough in the game that casual players may never find themselves gliding around Venice in his model of a flying machine, or shooting a pocket pistol, for example.

All told, Assassin's Creed II is one of those games that, if you have the vaguest semblance of coordination, you need to pick up and play. It's an unforgettable experience with so much play that it's more than worth the AAA-price tag.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 17, 2009 9:01 AM.

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