(Originally Posted on Crush! Frag! Destroy!)
Assassin’s Creed was 2007’s “love it or hate it” game. Personally, I was negative on the title. It was plagued by a predictable story, repetitive and bland side-missions, and a bizarre (and boring) decision to center the game’s focus on Desmond Miles, a modern-era bartender who happened to be related to historical assassins. A mysterious doctor named Vidic and his assistant, Lucy, forced Desmond into using a machine called the Animus to retrieve memories encoded within his DNA. These Animus sequences occurred in interactive cutscenes that popped up after you completed an assassination, but required little more of you than to put Desmond to bed.
That said, Assassin’s Creed II completely blindsided me. I had no interest in this game outside of the new, interesting setting in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance period. What I found, however, is one of the deepest and most creative open-world video games in recent memory.
For those of you who also disliked the Animus sections from the first game, you’ll instantly be upset when you boot up Assassin’s Creed II for the first time. Desmond is back, giving you a short cutscene that will bring you up to speed on the events of the previous game before being interrupted by Lucy. She puts Desmond back into the Animus to copy files relating to one of his ancestors, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
The two escape from Astergo, the corporation being used as a front for the Templars (the Assassins’ sworn enemies), and find refuge with fellow Assassins Shaun and Rebecca. These two are probably the worst written characters I have ever experienced, playing off stereotypes most recently found in Fox’s 24. Rebecca (the hip, loud-mouthed technophile) has created a totally awesome new version of the Animus, creatively named “Animus 2.0”. Shaun (the snarky, brilliant British guy) orders Desmond to venture back into the memories of the aforementioned Ezio to discover a hidden Templar secret.
Ezio Auditore is the son of a wealthy merchant in the city of Florence and, after a few tragic events, he discovers his heritage is that of an Assassin. The rest of the game follows Ezio as he hones and perfects his skills in the deadly craft.
The game takes place in several venues, including Florence, Venice, and a large villa Ezio happens to acquire. These locales are considerably more expansive than those of Assassin’s Creed and are certainly more interesting, presenting the player with an impressive number of side-missions. That’s right! There are actually things to do in Assassin’s Creed II! GTA IV-style optional assassination missions are available to complete, players can hunt down money-carriers, and steal from citizens to earn some extra cash. My favorite quests to complete, however, were to track down the stone seals of deceased Assassins by completing large Prince of Persia-esque puzzles. Upon collecting all six, an excellent reward is unlocked in the basement of Ezio’s home overlooking the villa.
Which brings me to the game’s most notable addition: a pseudo-economic system. While ignoring the core concept of Supply and Demand, Assassin’s Creed II puts you in charge of operating the villa. Investing in the town’s upkeep and construction will yield significant monetary rewards that can be used to purchase better weaponry, medicine, or dyes that will change Ezio’s appearance. That may seem a bit boring and irrelevant to the rest of the game, but it’s completely optional. However, I would advise that you invest a fair amount into the villa, as you’ll want some spending money to hire thieves, soldiers, and courtesans to attack and distract guards.
New to the series is a notoriety meter that is unique to each area within the game. Similar to Hitman: Blood Money, guards will be more likely to attack Ezio on sight while the meter is high. The meter can be lowered at any time by taking down wanted posters, bribing spokesmen, and killing public officials. Each actions varies in difficulty and reward, with the assassination option lowering your notoriety meter by 75%. During times of high notoriety, you have the option to fight off the angry guards or blend into any group of people on the street. I especially enjoyed moving among a crowd while stalking a target and I can’t help but wonder if the mechanic was borrowed from Splinter Cell: Conviction’s original concept.
Combat has been given a slight overhaul with the addition of spears, maces, and smoke-bombs. It’s almost identical to the first game, but using the new equipment shakes things up enough to keep the fighting from going stale. In a truly genius move, the iconic hidden blades can now be used outside of stealth and provide a fast-paced attack option.
As far as the main assassination missions go, they’re everything Assassin’s Creed should have been. No longer do you have to eavesdrop, pickpocket, then kill a loud-mouth to unlock your next target. Each mission leading up to the assassination follows the main story very well and makes sense within its context. It makes for a much more natural progression within the storyline and you feel as if you’re actually plotting to take down your opponent.
Unfortunately, the game hits a serious wall near the end if you don’t complete a lot of side-missions. At the outset of the game you’re tasked with collecting ancient Codex pages within the environment and bringing them back to Leonardo da Vinci for deciphering. To advance the story to its final chapter, however, you have to collect all 30 pages. You’re graciously given their locations on the map, so you wouldn’t expect it to be such a difficult undertaking, except you can’t see them on the map if you hadn’t yet reached the majority of the viewpoints scattered throughout the area. If a game is going to require a set amount of collectibles to complete its story, the items should be incorporated within the storyline. I was supremely disappointed that Assassin’s Creed II took such a frustrating turn so close to its conclusion.
Looking at the game’s technical aspects, the PlayStation 3 version is as close to a disaster as a game can get without being unplayable. Character models are reminiscent of late-era PS2, texture pop-in is rampant, framerates jump sporadically, and the game even managed to crash ten times. Comparatively, the 360 edition of AC2 displays far fewer graphical problems and seemed much more reliable during the short time I spent with it. The PS3 version was so unstable that at one point the camera got stuck on “Contextual View”, which is usually only available when guards are giving chase. The game’s sound design isn’t much better. It produces a relatively weak 5.1 mix that occasionally piped rear-left audio to the front and center channels. The sound department’s saving grace was an excellent score by series composer Jesper Kyd, who also scored titles such as Hitman: Blood Money and Borderlands.
Assassin’s Creed II is without a doubt one of the finest games to release last year. The story, locations, and fun-factor have all been vastly improved from the original, rendering Assassin’s Creed completely irrelevant. It’s just a shame the game failed so miserably from a technical standpoint. It’s like a delicious cheesecake, except the cherry on top is rotten and filled with poison.
Things We Liked: Great story. Expansive sandbox playgrounds. Solid combat system. Rewarding new economic system. Lots of side quests. Great soundtrack. Lengthy campaign.
Things We Disliked: Animus sequences are still weak. Terrible visuals on PS3. Bizarre sound design. Frustrating final sequences.
Target Audience: Anyone disappointed with Assassin’s Creed. Third-person open-world fans. Obsessive-compulsive gamers.
(Assassin’s Creed II – Developer: Ubisoft Montreal. Publisher: Ubisoft. Available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – PlayStation 3 version reviewed, Xbox 360 version sampled to compare visual performance. New to CFD!’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)