Assassin’s Creed II
The original Assassin’s Creed has been one of the most striking and divisive games of the generation so far. Some were won over by its unique setting, innovative controls and impeccable free running, whilst others chastised its lack of mission variety and the absence of an opportunity to meaningfully interact with the game world. A fair summary would probably fall somewhere in between the two, but there’s no denying that it has been one of the most potential-laden games of the last few years, driven by some of the most impressive and powerful tech to have graced the PS360.
Assassin’s Creed II is without doubt one of the most exponentially improved sequels in modern gaming history. Ubisoft Montreal have obviously listened to user feedback, made improvements in a multitude of ways and developed a sequel with pacing and depth that the first game unquestionably lacked. As someone who wasn’t a particular fan of the original, this game is probably the nicest surprise and best use of its source premise this year alongside the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Taking place in 15th Century Renaissance Italy this time as opposed to Third Crusade-era Israel, ACII casts the player as young ruffian nobleman Ezio Auditore on his various misadventures around the city; brawling with a rival family, running errands for his father and sneaking illicit visits to his girlfriend. Before long his family is disgraced and his relatively carefree lifestyle is turned upside down as he uncovers his father’s legacy and takes the fight to their betrayers. While the original game was very structured in its design – i.e. ‘nine people must be killed, here is how it must be accomplished’ – ACII flows much more smoothly, with a more interesting plot concerning the Auditore family and their enemies, and far superior pacing which isn’t simply about killing faceless villains.
The free running element remains intact, and is once again a showcase for how to make some of the most visually alluring and immersive platforming gameplay seen in any game. The automated way in which it micro-manages Ezio’s movement is an excellent decision, allowing the player to concentrate on navigating their path through the environment and avoiding or confronting enemies. Sprinting through a busy marketplace, effortlessly scaling a two-storey building, running across a cluster of tiled rooftops and diving into a Venetian river is exhilarating, and one of the most vibrant and enjoyable means of exploring any open-world environment.
The game world is excellent, and like the first game, it’s encouraging to see the interpretation of such a unique and distinctive environment as historic Italy amongst all the po-faced modern day New Yorks. The major cities of Florence, Tuscany and Venice feature, with the smaller town of Monteriggioni acting as a hub of sorts where Ezio can train, invest in town regeneration and discover both the family Auditore and the Assassins’ secrets. The cities each have a differing feel to one another, with the golden buildings of Florence contrasting against Tuscany’s muted stone and Venice’s flamboyant architectural style. There are some ‘Assassin’s Tombs’ to be discovered around the cities, which are trap-laden, at times taxing and always linear, recalling designs from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which again pleasingly juxtaposes with the open-ended environs elsewhere.
ACII most successfully sets itself apart from its predecessor in the small details. An economy is implemented which allows for a few different types of shop and introduces some RPG-lite elements – for instance, Ezio can purchase armour upgrades which increase his health meter, he can purchase maps which reveal locations of hidden treasure chests and he can carry medicine vials for use on the road. These options and details also manifest themselves in the combat; he can fight guards at the risk of prematurely raising the alarm, or alternatively he could hire a group of courtesans to use their womanly charms to distract them, or throw down coins in a chase to attract civilians and delay any pursuers. The whole aspect is implemented on a fairly basic level, but it brings an element of depth and variety that the first game desperately needed, and searching dead guards for Florins to buy Ezio some new bracelets or a different coloured outfit is often compulsive and very welcome.
There are plenty of distractions around Renaissance Italy, from optional courier missions, finding hidden items or just scouring the land for hidden treasure chests. Dotted around the city are various people who have paying work for someone of our fallen nobleman’s talents, and he’s just at home beating up unfaithful husbands as he is racing through checkpoints, delivering letters to estranged lovers or just climbing up towers to get an overview of the area. Several hours into the game Ezio gains the ability to invest in and regenerate his uncle’s dilapidated home town, and this is a compelling side-mission which almost feels akin to Fable‘s property/landlord aspect. Investing in the shops such as tailors, brothels and blacksmiths allows costs to drop, and likewise he can rejuvenate churches or the main villa, which encourages tourism in the town and thus earns Ezio money back for his expenditures.
The combat engine is similar to the first game, although Ezio can acquire various weapons this time around, which means a hammer to the back of the skull might be more satisfying and effective than a sword fight. There’s still a lot of emphasis on the counter-moves, and sometimes this feels a little too overpowered, although to be fair Ezio’s almost always outnumbered and it’s an alluring way of evening the odds. There is a moderate assortment of moves and combos he can perform, and there’s a substantial training arena which can be used for specifics or just general practice, which is very useful when additional moves become unlocked progressively through the game.
Despite its oddities, the plot in Assassin’s Creed was always structured to be the cornerstone of a franchise. The story picks up here exactly where the first left off, with Desmond and Lucy escaping from Abstergo before meeting more assassin allies and delving into Ezio’s world to find more answers in the battle against the Templars. There are one or two interesting aspects such as hidden glyphs which unlock various puzzles or mini-games showing how historic characters such as Gandhi or Napoleon were involved in the Assassin/Templar conflict. The voice work on the Italian characters is generally well done and feels authentic, but the modern-day characters suffer from poor scripting and largely uninterested or irritating voiceovers. To be honest the plot is still a load of implausible sci-fi nonsense and it would probably be more entertaining if they abolished the whole Animus aspect and just concentrated on the historical characters.
Technically speaking, ACII is very impressive in almost every regard. The stellar animation is its crowning glory, with lots of extremely detailed characters and excellent effects such as a day/night cycle and a stable frame rate. There is a fair amount of screen tearing, but the city feels busy and alive, with dozens of NPCs often on screen at any time. Enemy A.I. is often a little suspect, allowing the player to murder guards next to their fellows who take seconds to react, but at other times they can be fairly astute, following Ezio up to rooftops and calling to their fellows once he’s spotted. The horizon distance is excellent – get to a high point and you can observe literally the whole city, and although each city region is broken by a loading screen, the need for them is very infrequent.
Overall, there’s not a huge amount to criticise in Assassin’s Creed II, and I can’t remember the last time I played a sequel which had improved so successfully over its fun-but-flawed predecessor. This game has clearly been the result of a tremendously talented development team listening to feedback and giving gamers what they wanted – namely more variety and more depth. The excellent gameplay of the first game has made the transition, and now it has the brains to go with its impeccable looks and presentation. It has been a busy year for third-person action adventures, but ACII can comfortably sit at the front of the pack with the likes of Uncharted 2 and Batman. An exemplary sequel.