Assassin’s Creed II Review: Bigger is Better

Touted by Ubisoft as a “gaming masterpiece,” the original Assassin’s Creed for Xbox 360, PS3 and the PC delivered and likewise fell short of gamers’ lofty expectations when debuting back in 2007. Accompanying its stellar visuals and intriguing storyline was stagnant and repetitive game play which led some to label it “amazingly boring.” In returning to the franchise two years later with Assassin’s Creed II (or Assassin’s Creed 2), Ubisoft’s Montreal studio must convince gamers returning to the stealthy world of the assassin is a worthwhile investment.

Continuing soon after the events of Assassin’s Creed, the sequel sees Desmond escapes the Abstergo facility and go into hiding with the help of Lucy Stillman. There he and Lucy team up two more modern day assassins to enter their upgraded Animus 2.0 where, in a nutshell to avoid too many spoilers, he enters the life of Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

Ezio lived in 15th century Italy during the Renaissance, approximately 300 years after Altair’s time. Living the life of a noble in Florence 1476, Ezio’s world is turned upside down with the murder of his father and brothers where he is thrust into a world of betrayal, treachery and revenge. Within this world are wonderfully complex characters, a plethora of background information on buildings, historical events and more. Ubisoft has succeeded in creating a fully realized and engaging narrative.

Assassin’s Creed 2 features Italian Renaissance cities including Florence, Tuscany and Venice. The cities are massive open world areas with nonlinear game play environments. Buildings and landmarks are impeccably modeled right down to cracks in stone work from penetrating foliage, to beautiful stain glass windows. Lighting and especially shadows are near perfect. The streets of these beautiful cities are filled with citizens, shop keepers and guards alike. Major city squares or streets easily showcase upwards of thirty or forty NPC’s living around you. If anything the only complaint to find visually is the excessive cleanliness of the cities. In a century without running water or proper sewers, and frequented by disease, it appears brand new instead of appropriately weathered by filth.

Further adding to the sense and scope of realism of the Italian Renaissance in Assassin’s Creed 2 is the fantastic audio. Little complaints can be found with any of the voice acting. Every character’s accent or line of dialogue sounds authentic to the time period. If you fancy even more authenticity, then feel free to choose to play the game fully in Italian.

Thankfully Ubisoft has remedied most of the stagnant game play elements from Assassin’s Creed. That is not to say that the core game play in Assassin’s Creed 2 drastically differs, but many new additions help push it forward. Florins (money) can be spent at local vendors for many items such as weapons, upgrades, armor, and colored dyes for their character’s outfit. A young and idealistic Leonardo da Vinci is present in the game, aiding Ezio by creating new weapons and translating various items. While da Vinci provides the player with new weapons such as a poison blade, there are also several types of swords and maces, as well as axes and spears that can be bought or obtained.

A day and night cycle has been added for more depth to the mission structure. Certain mission objectives can only be accomplished during certain times of the day. The game features a notoriety system, with Ezio becoming more recognizable depending on his behavior, his location, and the current mission. This infamy can be reduced by bribing, removing wanted posters, or assassinating corrupt officials. The latter is not recommended in broad daylight. Trust me; it does little to reduce your notoriety.

Mission structures feature a much more expanded variety. A simple courier job can quickly turn into a chase or assassination. Investigation is much more open ended then just eavesdropping. You will have to follow conspirators, explore structures and find clues any way you can. Hiring prostitutes or mercenaries to create distractions further adds to the player creating their own experience. Assassin’s Creed 2 is not a fast paced action game, but the varied approach to accomplishing goals breaks up the monotony of how you play, something sorely lacking in the original.

One of the best new features is the “Villa.” While seeking refuge with your Uncle at the Auditore family’s countryside villa, you are given the opportunity to use your game play money earned by Ezio to upgrade and rebuild the small town. Merchant shops, the church, brothel etc. can be renovated or rebuilt. The better the town thrives, the more money and benefits you receive from its prosperity. You will witness a near abandoned town, full of boarded up buildings and dead greenery become a lively bustling trading post with each upgrade. It is a nice addition for a change of pace and a great distraction to the main story.

AI intelligence can be hit or miss during Ezio’s missions. For the most part it is excellent, but occasionally you will experience extreme examples of AI stupidity. Simply running around a corner or hiding behind a rooftop chimney can result in the guards giving up chase. You may also toss a body from a rooftop to the guards on the streets below and garner no reaction from them. Most of these problems are not prominent, and for the most part the enemy AI is quite aggressive. The general populace reacts to you and their environment extremely well which is a welcome added touch that easily could have been overlooked.

The controls are solid and very similar to Assassin’s Creed but offer a bit more complexity. Combat has added the ability to disarm opponents and use their own weapons against them. Killing moves are more elaborate in display but retain their one button attack method, as do most of the movements. Climbing and jumping in each city’s vastness is exceptional, but moments of frustration are present; especially during chase sequences. The controls seem more unresponsive when the action takes on a faster pace, and you will find yourself falling or jumping where you do not want to in the heat of the moment more often then not.

Repetitive game play aside, the original Assassin’s Creed packed a healthy dose of great looking graphics. Assassin’s Creed 2 is noticeably superior to its predecessor visually which is quite apparent at the game’s startup as you see flashbacks from the original. It is a testament as to how far game engines can improve in two years time.

Character models are quite varied and detailed right down to nondescript background NPC’s. Ezio and the rest of the main cast feature excellent facial models, and superbly intricate costume details such as jewels, lace, ruffles etc. As Ezio dons his assassin robes in a busy torch lit marketplace, storm clouds swirl overhead blowing his cape in the wind. Few games can match the dynamic and compelling atmosphere.

Assassin’s Creed II is a unique and detailed gaming experience with over roughly 200 missions and side quests. The missions and game play elements are much more varied then its predecessor while retaining the franchise’s signature atmosphere and attention to detail. Ubisoft has created a worthy sequel which surpasses the original in every aspect claiming a top spot as one of the better games of 2009.

– Jason Krahn

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