Assassin's Creed 2
System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Action / Adventure :: Released: 17 November 2009
By Damien Wilkens
12 January 2010 — To say that I disliked the first Assassin's Creed would be a bit of an understatement. Honestly, I don't know why I was surprised. The entire marketing campaign seemed more focused on Ubisoft's Jade Raymond and the fact that a pretty female producer existed than it did on any engaging gameplay features. The story — which was just about the worst-kept secret in gaming — revealed the running and killing through the streets of Jerusalem to be mostly a farce. The main character was not the mysterious assassin Altair, rather a bartender named Desmond Miles, who was being forced to live the memories of an ancestor by the evil Abstergo Corporation, all in an effort to find the ancient Pieces of Eden. The game had a habit of pulling you out of Altair's cowl rather frequently, and most found issue with being forced to play as the decidedly less exciting Desmond between missions. I was the opposite. I found the story to be captivating, and loved trying to unravel the clues that the game had set before me. Unfortunately, I had to keep going back to 1191 AD and engage in repetitive tasks as Altair that made me want to turn the hidden blade on myself. The ending left a lot of questions, and I was always sort of bummed that you never got a chance to make fun-times with Kristen Bell's Lucy character, but the narrative was strong enough that I found myself wanting to at least try the sequel to see if Ubisoft could improve on such a disappointing first effort.
In short, they did.
We start exactly where the first game left off, with Desmond and Lucy making their escape and kicking all sorts of Abstergo ass along the way. Anyone that missed out on the first game will have absolutely no clue what's going on, but as things progress, this becomes less and less of a problem. Eventually our duo retreats to their secret hideout, where we meet fellow assassins Shaun and Rebecca. Shaun is British, curmudgeonly, and loves to take the piss out of Desmond at every opportunity. On the other hand, Rebecca is kind of a spaz, and immediately strikes me as the kind of bird that would use "rad" in casual conversation. You don't get a whole lot of time to interact with these two at first, and their characters had the potential for eye rolling annoyance, but they're well acted to the point of being rather endearing. Shaun, in particular, is quite amusing, as it seems that every breath Desmond makes fills him with an indignation that causes him to uncontrollably spurt passive-aggressive insults in his direction. By game's end, the man had become my idol.
Critics of the first game's more Desmond-focused segments will be happy to hear that you're put back into the Animus rather quickly, and you only come back to the present day twice more during the course of the game. The vast majority of your time will be spent inside the memories of ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze during the Italian Renaissance. The first thing you'll notice about Ezio is that he's quite the opposite of Altair. Where the original cloaked wonder was a straight-laced killer driven by his duty, Ezio is much more in touch with his emotions, namely those that dictate the use of his lips and his fists. He's a womanizer, a jokester, and has zero tolerance for those that mess with his family. When we first meet Ezio, he's far from the hardened seeker of vengeance that he will soon become, and for the first hour of the game your objectives are no more critical than racing your brother, beating up the guy cheating on your sister, or jumping out of bedroom windows to avoid angry fathers. When the shit finally hits the fan — when our hero is forced to don the trademark white hood and take his first life — you truly get a sense that this is the point of no return.
Early on, you get the feeling that Assassin's Creed 2 is one long apology to all those who suffered through the first game. Gone is the formulaic mission structure. No longer will you be saving random civilians, eavesdropping on conversations, or pickpocketing all of your important information. In fact, you'll never do the same sort of mission twice, unless of course, you want to. The more nonlinear structure of the game allows for a lot of freedom and variety this time around. There are still story-driven missions, but in between the checkpoints you're basically free to screw around as much as you want.
And there is a lot to do. Every city has its share of side quests and secrets waiting for you to uncover. Perhaps you want to go freelance and do assassinations for other people, or maybe you're tired of killing and would rather explore one of the six Assassin's Tombs, which supply Prince of Persia-esque platforming challenges in pursuit of one of the coolest bonuses in the game. Replacing the useless hidden flags are now feathers that grant you special items if all are found, along with Codex pages that your good buddy Leonardo da Vinci can decrypt for you, resulting in upgrades to your new dual hidden blades. As if that weren't enough, there are also hidden glyphs in each city that you can only see with your Eagle Vision. Finding them will initiate a series of increasingly complex puzzles. Solve the puzzle and you get a one-second clip of a video known only as The Truth. There are 20 in all, and they're fairly well hidden, despite the hints that are thrown your way.
You still need to climb viewpoints to open up parts of your map, but thanks to the new climbing mechanic, it actually requires some thought on the part of the player to scale the more involved structures — all of which are accurately modeled after the real landmarks. It sort of goes without saying that this is a beautiful game, and the cities reflect this the most. Obviously the scale is a bit compromised, but the sheer scope of the game is still incredible. Venice, in particular, is massive, with canals running through every orifice of the city. Unlike Altair, who sank the instant he touched water, Ezio can use these waterways as a form of transportation, or to cushion his fall from rooftops.
Though the free-running mechanic has been improved, it still feels a bit too automated at times, and often you'll miss a critical jump through no fault of your own. On the plus side, the AI is a lot better in most cases. Guards no longer go berserk at the sight of a horse surpassing the speed of a wounded otter, though they still tend to stand and stare inactively for long periods of combat. The new armored brute enemies are a welcome addition, and force you to learn the new disarm ability before you can do any damage. Watching a guard chop Ezio's spear in half with an axe, only to have said broken pieces jammed into his head and chest moments later is a thing of sheer beauty.
If there's really anything I can fault the game for, it's that the whole experience is a little too easy. You'll never be in short supply of healing items thanks to the new shop system, and combat is still dictated mostly by your ability to counterattack. Money is in such constant supply — thanks to a stream of revenue coming to you from your home villa — that you'll often find yourself buying weapons that you don't need just to have them. One such weapon is, no joke, a gun. When you've reached the point that you can bust a cap in your target, it's safe to say that a fair bit of the challenge is gone. The only real demanding parts of the game are the aforementioned glyph puzzles, the latter of which border on the insane — though Shaun will pop in to help out if you get stuck for too long. Honestly, it's hard to argue that the glyphs are even worth the effort in the end. The Truth video only serves to drive the story away from futuristic mystery and into the realm of a Dan Brown novel, which is a regretful, if not entirely unexpected turn of events.
Ultimately this does little to take away from what turns out to be a very fun ride. The developers listened to the complaints mounted on the first game and actually fixed them, transforming the series from glorified proof of concept into a legit game of the year contender. Ubisoft issued the gaming community a 15-hour apology, and on behalf of my fellow gamers, I'm happy to say, "Apology accepted."
Final Grade: 9/10