Platform: 360 (Also PS3)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Review by: Bill Jones
The original Assassin’s Creed was a polarizing game, no doubt about it. While the vast, open world with an incredible vertical landscape to scale like a crazed parkour athlete was enticing, the story was shaky at best, the environments always looked like more of the same doused in a heavy coat of bluish-white, and the combat was a tedious mess that slowed things down but could always be won by simply hitting “counter” at the right time. That said, the game showed promise of being a foundation for Ubisoft Montreal to build upon.
And build they did.
Assassin’s Creed II is one of the best examples of a developer listening to the complaints of its audience and working to make a truly better sequel. Assassin’s Creed II is an infinitely better game all around, but still a good leap from a perfection of the formula, with inherent flaws being retooled and hidden better, but still putting chinks in the armor of the series. Still, enough has changed to make the second installment a little more than just worth playing. Sometimes, it’s actually fun.
Players are reintroduced to Desmond Miles, the near-future protagonist of the first game who used something called an animus to sync his body with the exploits of the assassin Altair in the first game. The near-future bits were not handled well in that game, but things take a turn in Assassin’s Creed II. Immediately, Dr. Lucy Stillman is rushing Desmond out of the facility to a secret base where she and two others have built their own version of the animus, intent on utilizing its powers but outside of the realm of Abstergo Industries.
Desmond finds himself zipped to the past once again, but this time it’s in the shoes of Ezio Auditore de Firenze, in 15th Century Italy. Immediately, his world is turned upside down with the murder of his father and brothers. He sets out on a quest to kill the men involved in the corrupt plot that led to their deaths, and uncovers something much bigger along the way, in a story that spans several years and most of the major towns in Italy.
And that’s where Assassin’s Creed II finds its biggest success. The overall scale of Assassin’s Creed II is immense. The world players are left to explore feels alive. There are still plenty of recycled objects and environmental textures, but the game does an impressive job of keeping things fresh. The Tuscan countryside is very different than the city streets of Venice, and even different neighborhoods in Venice have a different vibe. Aside from athletics, these environmental elements change the way the game is played. In the countryside, a horse is required for any quick work, because buildings are blocks apart, while even the rooftop platforming of different cities varies. The designs are varied, and it feels like cities truly evolve over time.
In addition to the size of the environments, the sheer length of the game – it’s easy to find about 25 hours of gameplay with the side missions – also adds to the feel of the story, and of being this assassin. Despite all of the action, Assassin’s Creed II is a slow burner. Ezio’s story takes place over several years, and though the animus lets the player jump in and out, skipping the boring stuff in between the big events, the length and pacing do a good job of making it feel like the character and story are evolving over time. That said, much of what helps create its length – a good deal of side missions and a stronghold city-building exercise – can also be seen as one of the game’s detriments, an area where the pieces themselves are inspired, but don’t quite click with the overall experience.
After more than 5 hours into the game, players come across a place called Monteriggioni, or the Villa, which becomes home base for the remainder of the game. Ezio’s mother and sister use the estate to hide out, while it also becomes the hub to return hidden seals, collected feathers and pages of the mysterious codex. It also becomes the “Stronghold,” a town that has fallen into disrepair.
Through a hub inside the house, players can invest money on restoring old landmarks, creating and improving stores – players can utilize blacksmiths, art dealers, tailors and health specialists throughout the lands of the game – and ultimately tracking the progress of the extra objectives in the game, which all add to the value of the Monteriggioni. The point of putting in the money and effort is that many items can then be purchased at the shops in town at a discounted rate, and a chest inside the Villa begins to fill with cash, royalties of successfully making the town a destination for travelers to come and spend their money.
It’s a nice exercise, but along with some of the side missions – assassination contracts, races, beat ups and more – it feels a hell of a lot like grinding without much purpose. Yes, the exercise returns dividends, but with several strains of DNA left to sync (Assassin’s Creed talk for missions or levels) I already had more than enough money to purchase every weapon, piece of armor, painting and treasure map, and still have plenty left for general supplies (smoke bombs, throwing knives, health packs). By the end of the game, I had accumulated roughly 500,000 in Italian currency, with nothing to spend it on but courtesans. Seeing everything on the list checked off is rewarding in its own right, an achievement for anal 100 percent types, but like the series of secret glyphs (which are well implemented, for the record) the payoff isn’t worth as much as the effort. If there’s fun to be found, the fun is in the grinding itself rather than what it achieves.
One other detriment to the pacing is the game’s progression of training players. Maybe Ubisoft Montreal figured with such an extensive amount of gameplay, training could evolve slowly over time, but its implementation is senseless. The combat seems improved at the outset of the game, but apparently countering constantly still works. That turns out not to be the entire case, but it takes 5 to 10 hours before that’s apparent when new enemy types are tossed in to teach gamers the hard way. The training for fighting them properly often doesn’t come until after a few encounters. This is how many things in the game unfold. Certain buildings seem impassable, but then Ezio learns a new technique to go back and try a different way. In many cases, the argument could be made that it’s all part of character building, showing Ezio’s progression as he goes from being a sloppy combatant to a proper assassin. And while I get that, there’s a reason the Zelda formula has worked for years. There’s a reason Link gets the boomerang before fighting the boss whose weak spot can be exploited by the boomerang.
That said, some might argue that combat isn’t meant to be the core of this game. Instead, it’s about careful planning, observing, then making a killer move and escaping the scene. To a degree, this is all true, and no assassination is done right without the planning, observation and the sharp strike, but escaping the scene seems stupid when it’s so easy to dispatch the enemies, and unlike a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed II doesn’t often make stealth kills a necessity for survival. In short, in a game fixated with matching the course of its historical fiction, there is a surprising lack of guidance to help players tread that course properly.
The argument also doesn’t hold up when Assassin’s Creed II forces a number of situations on the gamer that absolutely require combat – and the case in point is the final mission, which, without going into spoilers, is balls-to-the-wall action and a showdown rather than a calculated assassination to end things. For a game supposedly about shadowy assassins, there’s an awful lot of fighting required, and if the fighting is in there it should be done right. Unfortunately, that’s where Assassin’s Creed still falls behind.
And despite better world design and better environments, the latter portions of the game don’t seem to be as well implemented and bug-tested as those at the beginning. While things flowed incredibly well at the outset, much smoother than in the original title, late in the game I found myself in awkward situations where I was running along a wall and something invisible stopped me, blocking my path, or jumping a certain direction was prohibited for no apparent reason. And too many times did I take out an archer only to uncontrollably slide across his body to watch Ezio plummet to his death. Given, these problems are the exception, rather than the rule, but they’re just another element that takes gamers out of the experience.
And that’s a shame, because Assassin’s Creed II is a better game all around than its predecessor. The plot is engaging,= in a very interesting and meta sort of way, with the animus being a metaphor for the gamer plugging into a video game and playing through the story of another, and the ending plays into that concept even more. But for every good move Assassin’s Creed II makes – much of it in an attempt to force gamers to think about playing in a new way, – it is still part of the video game medium and fails to execute some of those ideas properly, and for all of its flair feels at times tedious. Still, Assassin’s Creed II is an incredible improvement over its predecessor, and gamers would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore it.
For more info, www.ubi.com
Pads & Panels purchased a copy of Assassin’s Creed II for review purposes.