While I enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed (I gave it a 9/10 in my review of the game), I, along with many other fans and critics, agreed that there was quite a lot that Ubisoft needed to improve on for the expected sequel and thus, the original game was greeted with mixed reviews. Well, Ubisoft decided not just to make a few improvements here and there for the sequel; they decided to change almost everything about the series. Assassin’s Creed II has a new protagonist, new gameplay features and structure, and even a new setting and time period of Renaissance-era Italy, which, as a history nerd, is rather fitting if you ask me. You see, the Renaissance was this big explosion of cultural advancement and achievement all throughout Europe in art, economics, politics, science, and almost everything else, and not many locations were more affected by it than Italy, which is where the Renaissance started in the first place. Thus, while it certainly had its downsides, the Renaissance basically cast away the Feudalistic and religion-dominated society of the Middle Ages (which is when the first Assassin’s Creed took place) and set humanity back on track and without it, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today artistically, technologically, or otherwise. So I find it fitting that Assassin’s Creed II’s role in the series as a means of pushing the series forward is similar to the effects of the Renaissance. The question is though, can Assassin’s Creed II accomplish its goal as well as its time period did or will the series remain in the Dark Ages?
As I said before, the story in Assassin’s Creed II takes place in 1476, right in the middle of the Renaissance in Italy…sort of. If you remember from the first game (or not), the series has a sort of split perspective, as the historical portion of Assassin’s Creed is only a simulated recollection of the memories of an ancestor of Desmond Miles (Altäir). Desmond himself lives in the year 2012, a strange world full of mediocre plotlines, corny dialogue, and awesome special effects…wait that’s the movie. In actuality, 2012 has Desmond trapped in a lab owned by Abstergo Industries, an evil corporation that kidnapped Desmond and forces him to enter a machine called the Animus, which allows the person in it to not only recall, but simulate the memories of an ancestor because those memories are in that person’s DNA. If you don’t remember any of this, a short recap at the beginning of the game should help.
This is where Assassin’s Creed II’s story really begins, with Desmond escaping the Abstergo lab with the help of undercover assassin Lucy from the first game. Lucy takes Desmond to meet more modern assassins, who decide to train him as an assassin through the memories on another ancestor. So they strap him into their own Animus and you’re whisked off to the Italian Renaissance, where you relive the memories of Ezio Auditore. Ezio was the normal son of a powerful aristocrat who has his life thrust into turmoil when his father and brothers are killed. Ezio then discovers that his father was an assassin and decides to train as one as well. Thus, over the course of the historical and main portion of the game (which takes place over the course of 30 years), Ezio avenges his family while learning the bigger picture of the situation at hand through the assassination of a new group of Templars.
While the overlying concept may seem similar to that of the first game or just plain unappealing, it’s the way in which Assassin’s Creed II orchestrates its tale that makes it original, exciting, well crafted, and superior to its predecessor’s plot in several ways. One, you don’t exit the Animus as much in between memories, so there’s a lot less “dull Desmond gameplay”. However, when you are Desmond, you can rest assured that you won’t just be walking back and forth between two rooms. Two, the story is a lot more personal. Ezio isn’t just assassinating targets because he’s asked to, like Altäir; he’s assassinating targets because he wants to. This story of revenge definitely adds a much deeper level to the plot and thus, you’ll feel more connected to Ezio than Altäir. The voice acting is still fantastic this time too, but the accents are actually Italian, with some Italian words thrown in to add to the flavor. Speaking of which, not only are there now subtitles that you should turn on so that you can understand the Italian dialogue, but Ubisoft also translated the entire game into several languages. Now that’s going the extra mile. Unfortunately though, the cut scenes where this is displayed still can’t be skipped, even though this time they are actual cut scenes.
There is one complaint I have with the story though, which is that the beginning is rather slow. While the tutorial is now part of the story and thus, more interesting, it still drags on for quite a while and even after it’s “done”, you’ll still feel some tutorialistic parts pop up here and there to explain the gamut of things in the game (which I’ll get to later). So it’ll be a bit before things pick up but when they do, the game’s fantastic plot shines brightly. Also, for those of you who are wondering how you logically go from Altäir to Ezio, fear not, as this, and many other questions from the first game will be answered. So overall, while it starts slow, Assassin’s Creed II’s plot is fantastic.
As far as the graphics go, the Renaissance-era Italian cities look absolutely fantastic, even better than the cities in the first game, and each are entirely unique. Ubisoft’s attention to detail really shines through even more this time between the cities and the inclusion of more famous landmarks and people (as in, I think more people know who Leonardo da Vinci is than Robert de Sable). Seriously though, each city is a work of art. When Florence, the first city you visit, was “constructed” (it’s how the Animus loads things) before me for the first time, I think my jaw dropped and I mouthed the word “Damn”, and just about every other area was like that. The game is much bigger too, featuring a total of seven or so cities and open areas (as in The Kingdom from the first game) and six Assassin’s Tombs, which are Prince of Persia-esque platforming segments that are rather lengthy. So as with the first game, history geeks and video gamers alike will be amazed at how detailed Assassin’s Creed II looks, and how big it is as well.
However, it is the gameplay where most of the praise and criticism with the first game was found. Well, Ubisoft listened to the criticism and did not only keep everything that made the first game exciting, but also ripped to shreds and rebuilt everything that critics leveled at the first game and added even more. First though, all the parkour running and scaling structures is back and as awesome as ever and the controls are as easy to use yet still remain complex. You can’t assassinate random people anymore though, but you can assassinate guards in several new ways. Besides being able to kill two guards at once, you can kill guards from hay, from a ledge, and from the water (you can swim now), so it sort of makes up for it. As far as swimming goes though, you’re the only one who can swim…for some reason. That said, let’s get into responding to the criticism.
The major criticisms other critics and I found with the first game was that the combat, while fun, was way too easy and the overall structure of the game was overly repetitive. Ubisoft has definitely tried to fix these criticisms and I feel that they have…mostly. As far as repetitiveness goes, you won’t feel like your doing the same thing over and over again. There aren’t too many boring missions either anymore and story missions are clearly differentiated from other missions. The story missions themselves though, are a series of hundreds of missions types that are altered and put into different combinations for each mission, so you definitely won’t feel like your doing the same thing twice, that’s a definite improvement. The combat is another story. Ubisoft removed the regenerating health (synchronization) bar, so you’ll have to pay doctors now to heal you or buy medical supplies to heal yourself whenever you want (I’ll get to that later). I’m assuming this was an attempt to make the combat harder, however, it doesn’t because one thing is still included: counter kills. Once you get the timing down, killing loads of soldiers is a breeze. That’s not to say that the combat hasn’t been improved in other ways: new enemy types and new combat moves help add to the variety of the combat. Like I said though, it’s still easy because of counter killing and everything else just barely balances that out. But overall, the two complaints from the first game have been addressed and improved on greatly.
In addition to all these refinements, Ubisoft also added two new features: the economy system and the notoriety system. Unlike the first game, you’ll acquire money for every mission you complete, as well as from looting dead guards, finding treasure chests scattered throughout the cities, and pick pocketing. This money can be used for a variety of things, such as hiring courtesans, thieves, or mercenaries to help you out, buying new weapons (of which there are many more this time around), buying medical supplies, dying your robe different colors, and buying paintings to improve your villa. Yeah, you own an entire villa this time around, which you can invest money into in order to buy goods for cheaper prices from your merchants and to make a lot of money off the villa in return. The economy system definitely changes up the game quite a bit as you now can’t simply acquire new items (well you still can somewhat). While it adds to the complexity of the game, it never impedes your progress in it, so it’s a good new feature.
The notoriety system is another good new feature as it amends a problem with the first game, which was that you could assassinate hundreds of guards and no one would ever catch on. Now, if you assassinate guards in high profile or right in front of other guards, or just kill a lot of guards in general, you’ll gain notoriety in that city. Once your notoriety meter fills up, you can’t walk down a street without guards becoming suspicious of you, which will lead to them attacking you if you don’t hide. You can lower your notoriety by tearing down wanted posters, bribing heralds, and killing corrupted officials, so it’s relatively balanced. Thus, it’ll make you think twice before going on killing sprees, which although taking away some of the fun of the first game, makes things more realistic, so it’s definitely a positive improvement and a good new feature.
Of course, the first Assassin’s Creed is rather notorious for its flag collecting and Assassin’s Creed II, while still having collectibles, does improve on the ludicrousness of collecting. You can collect feathers, which don’t really do anything until a certain point, but at least they have relevance to the story (they’re not ridiculously small by the way), but the much more improved collectibles are the pieces of the Codex and glyphs. The Codex pieces can be deciphered by da Vinci and are basically pages of Altäir’s diary that will explain what happened to him. The glyphs, however, are much more interesting. These are cryptic messages left by Subject 16, who you learn about in the first game and, upon finding one and solving the incredibly clever puzzles attached to them, you’ll unlock a short video clip. While at first these clips look like pieces of a trailer from James Cameron’s Avatar (play the game and tell me that’s not true), they are actually part of something called “The Truth”, which while I won’t get into for spoiler purposes, is very interesting and fun to discover. Therefore, even the collectibles are improved from the first game.
So is Assassin’s Creed II an improvement over its predecessor? Yeah, pretty much. Just about everything that was wrong with the first game has been fixed for the sequel, and much has been added to improve it even further. That’s not to say that Assassin’s Creed II is perfect: the game is still easy and begins rather slow, but between the great new areas, the awesome story, and all the improvements and expansions to a now solid formula of gameplay, Assassin’s Creed II manages to blow away all its criticisms. Fans waited two years for this game and, if you’re like me, you couldn’t be happier with the result. Although Assassin’s Creed II is now structured more like your standard sandbox game, its unique concept keeps it from being another GTA clone, and certainly one of the best and most original games of the year.
+ A great new story, breathtaking new environments, solid controls, and a slew of expansions and improvements to the gameplay, plus several new additions, leave Assassin’s Creed II as an overall awesome experience that’s as fresh as ever
– Unfortunately, the game is still rather easy, at least in terms of combat, and the story starts rather slowly