Assassin’s Creed II
Assassin’s Creed was a brilliant game, but one that divided opinion. While its core gameplay was exhilarating, it was also repetitive and had characters few could empathise with. For some, these issues could be looked past, but for others they were a deal-breaker. Two years on and the sequel is here, but this time, there’s no question that its potential has been fulfilled.
Previously on Assassin’s Creed
If you skipped the first game, here’s the gist of it. In September 2012, barman Desmond Miles is kidnapped by evil corporation Abstergo Industries for use as a test subject. Using a machine called the Animus, he’s made to relive his assassin ancestor Altaïr’s memories in the 12th century Holy Land. Along the way, we learn of a centuries-old war between the Assassins and the Knights Templar and that Abstergo is actually a modern-day Templar organisation. Abstergo use Desmond’s memories to find powerful artefacts so that they can finally end the war, but when the job is done, they try to kill him. He’s saved by Lucy, an assistant at the corporation and the game ends with Desmond still at Abstergo.
Assassin’s Creed II picks up where the first game left us; bartender Desmond Miles is at Abstergo Industries, the corporation that kidnapped him. With the help of Lucy, he escapes and joins up with a group of modern-day Assassins who are fighting back against Abstergo. With their own Animus, they use Desmond to go through the memories of another ancestor, Ezio Auditore.
While the first Assassin’s Creed dropped us straight into the deep end with Altaïr, its sequel takes time to develop its main character. Ezio begins as your average young Italian nobleman, caught up in skirmishes with other families and various girlfriends, but when his family is killed, he begins to change from a mere ruffian to a lethal killing machine. It takes several hours before you’re allowed to use the game’s more useful weapons and moves, but it’s all the better for it. While Altaïr was just some guy in a cloak with an American accent for no apparent reason, Ezio is a real character with a proper background and narrative. The same contrast is also true of Desmond and Ezio. While Desmond is the most average man in the world, presumably so that you can project yourself onto him, Ezio is distinct and defined.
Although you’ll play small portions of the game as Desmond, most of your time will be spent in the Animus as Ezio. For anyone who played the first Assassin’s Creed, the gameplay will be instantly familiar. Sprawling cities – this time including Florence and Venice – are like large playgrounds for Ezio, who can climb and jump almost anywhere in sight. Doing so is just as remarkably easy and reliable as the previous game; just hold down a couple of buttons and Ezio will negotiate all but the trickiest obstacles.
Combat is a mix of stealth and overt swordfighting. Many missions begin with Ezio sneaking in somewhere, hiding in the crowds until you reach your target. Once you take them out, all hell breaks loose and you’re forced to either fight off the approaching guards or make a run for it. Often, Ezio’s ability to climb and run anywhere makes doing the latter the more prudent option.
“This time, there’s no question that its potential has been fulfilled”If you choose to stand and fight, things are much the same as the previous game; guards encircle you and only attack one or two at a time. This seems a little bit unrealistic, but to condemn the combat for this would be to ignore every swordfighting movie in history. Sure, it’s a bit silly, but it’s incredibly satisfying when Ezio counters and slices open each attacker in turn.
This time you’ve got a number of extra moves to use to dispatch your enemies. You can now assassinate two at once with double hidden blades, take people out from inside cover, jumping down onto them and from a climbing position underneath battlements. Ezio also has a number of new weapons and items that he picks up during the game, such as smoke bombs, a poison blade and even a small gun.
Ezio can also buy items from the shops scattered around the Italian cities, including weapons, ammunition, clothing, medicine and artwork. For the latter half of the game, you can also buy property in Ezio’s home town and then collect rent, which provides you with a steady income that must be collected by returning to the town. One very welcome addition is fast travel stations. While the first game forced you to traverse across the game world by horseback, Assassin’s Creed II makes travel a simpler affair and horses are now a pleasure to ride instead of an absolute necessity.
All of these new features help to flesh out a game whose predecessor struggled to maintain your interest. Not only does it have more depth, but both the core and side missions are far more varied, with many having multiple stages with checkpoints. There are also a number of neat one-off missions such as soaring over Venice in Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine and driving a carriage through a mountainous pass which only crops up once in the story.
For all of the improvements Ubisoft have implemented in Assassin’s Creed II, its core appeal is identical to the first game. Scramble up to the summit of a church tower and the view of the landscape before you is stunning. While the city bustles below, you are alone, free from the perils of the guards and the duties laid on you by the unfolding story. It’s here that Ezio and his kind can escape from the rest of the world and it’s a suitable metaphor for videogames as a whole.
“Its core appeal is identical to the first game”The sense of awe elicited from that first moment in the original game isn’t quite as much this time around because we’ve already experienced it, but it’s still incredible. The game’s graphics, audio and overall presentation combine and complement each other superbly, producing a cinematic and authentic recreation of Renaissance Italy.
For all its successes, Assassin’s Creed II does have a number of flaws which detract from the overall experience. It’s difficult to work out whether a target on the map is above or below you, which can be a considerable problem when you’re swapping from street level to rooftops to frequently. Towards the end, the game also suffers from similar issues to its predecessor. The final mission requires you to collect all of a certain item before you can continue and when you have, the climatic battle is, well, anticlimactic.
Minor annoyances aside though, Assassin’s Creed II is a superb game. Ubisoft have clearly listened to the reaction to the first game and have gone out of their way to remedy its problems. Assassin’s Creed II has the same exhilarating gameplay, but with a much improved story, greater depth and more variety. This is undoubtedly one of the finest action games of this decade and there’s still nothing quite like it.