If there’s one type of story that works well with games, it’s a good mystery. There’s few better examples than the original Assassin’s Creed – despite its repetitive mission structure, the game sucked in millions of gamers by slowly revealing a conspiracy. The reason it worked so well, and why so many people slogged through the same missions again and again, all came down to what makes games such a powerful medium to begin with: interaction.
The mix of interaction and intrigue saved Assassin’s Creed from being a complete slog. You felt empowered to progress and seek out answers on your own terms. There were no commercial breaks, no annoying cliffhangers – just you and the assassin Altair tearing through a compelling bit of revisionist history as quickly as you could stomach. The feeling was not unlike getting lost in a good book.
With Assassin’s Creed II, there are no excuses to be made. Ubisoft has listened to complaints and made something that’s as fun to play as it is to experience. It’s a lengthy game that thanks to more variety and much improved structure becomes almost impossible to put down.
But for those who couldn’t stand the original despite the story, the second entry doesn’t do you many favors. Its brief video montage opening is more a plot refresher for fans than a summary for newcomers. First-time assassins will want to skim over a Wikipedia summary (or check out this great video) before jumping in.
The game begins with Desmond Miles, present/future-day prisoner and test subject of the modern day Templars, exactly where you left him at the end of the first Assassin’s Creed: staring at a wall. Veronica Mars rejoins you after a curious breast reduction, and you’re off to train for the assassins (a.k.a. the good guys).
It turns out that the assassin’s have their own version of the Animus, the Matrix-esque device that the Templars used to explore Desmond’s genetic memories. The premise of Assassin’s Creed II revolves around the “bleeding effect”, a transmission of skills from Desmond’s ancestors to himself. If he follows the life of an ancestor from newbie to full-fledged assassin, he’ll learn all of their abilities in a matter of hours (20-30 hours, in fact).
Their training-wheeled candidate is Ezio Auditore, a young ruffian living the high life in the streets of Renaissance Italy. His humble beginnings are more than just a cleverly masked tutorial though – you’re introduced to his life, his family, and his penchant for finding beautiful women and trouble around every corner. There’s far more time and care spent on Ezio and his world compared to the previous game’s Altair, a character whose tale existed more to pad out the length of the story than add anything interesting to it.
Ezio is an immediately likeable character, so when things don’t go well for him the emotional repercussions are far more significant – even short-lived characters leave a mark.
The developed cast marks one point in a feedback loop that magnifies your engagement with Assassin’s Creed II. The characters infuse the world with life, the world makes the exploration and gameplay more grounded, and the gameplay offers that all-important interaction allowing you to pace the plot on your own terms.
That it plays around with history makes it all the more fun. You’ll spend a lot of time talking to Leonardo da Vinci or working for the Medici family, and it’s all presented in a brilliant compromise of language that mixes Italian-accented English with bits of actual Italian sprinkled in. You can opt to subtitle the entire thing, or simply infer the meaning behind the language. Either way, this approach lends far more credence to the world than the anachronistic voice work in the first game’s Crusades-era Jerusalem.
But that’s a subtle improvement compared to how Ubisoft has reworked the mission structure. They’ve adopted a framework that sits comfortably between Grand Theft Auto and Fallout 3. The main missions follow a linear progression, but even mid-mission you can loot treasure chests, collect feathers, reveal sections of the map, and piece together “The Truth”, a collection of ominous puzzles that unlock snippets of a suspicious video.
These actions alone would be repetitive – looting over 300 treasure chests, for example – but among the huge variety of story missions, hours of side-quests, and an entire town you develop over the course of the game, any hints of repetition are completely lost. There’s always one more thing to do.
In fact, if there was any criticism to level against the sheer wealth of content in Assassin’s Creed II it’s that it distracts too much from the plot. There’s an entire city that exists as a five-minute pit-stop on the way to Venice – a footnote on Ezio’s adventure – and yet you can choose to spend hours there completing assassination contracts, exploring tombs, and tracking down that last codex page. Some of these actions eventually provide answers to the game’s ever-escalating conspiracy, but until then they feel extraneous and distant from what actually matters to Ezio.
You’ll be compelled to do and see everything regardless, as Assassin’s Creed II is such a joy to play. The free-running controls from the first game are further refined – they feel less automatic, more responsive, and as elegant as ever. Each input feels important. The rooftops of Italy are puzzles, ones that must be tackled with subtle changes – a release of the A button, a quick flick left or right – variations that feel more thoughtful and sophisticated than the majority of platforming games.
It’s a true step in the right direction, but it’s not perfect. The limits of these smooth controls and animation are on display in the environments themselves. Major landmarks aside, the cityscape of Assassin’s Creed II can be somewhat repetitive. Ezio is able to navigate the world so gracefully because it’s essentially a network of modified templates – chunks of the world carefully crafted to mesh with his animations. It’s at the edges between each template that trouble arises, as you’ll find Ezio doesn’t always listen. First aid is generously available not because the combat is challenging, but because every once in a while you’ll take an unintended dive off the top of a building.
Not to say combat isn’t without its quirks. The subtle inputs of the free-running are half-replaced with standard button-mashing. It’s a mix that feels awkward for a while and leads to its share of unintended moves. Once you adjust to the combat it works well, but never feels quite as kinetic as it should. Swords clang and clash, but victory doesn’t offer the same satisfaction as a stealthy assassination. The muted tone of the combat results in a final showdown that feels more like two old men beating each other with canes, not the climax of a decade-long revenge plot. In the face of some genuinely satisfying and worthwhile plot revelations, it’s unfortunate that the last few minutes of gameplay don’t match up.
It may seem overly critical to harp on these faults – they bare minimal significance to the game as a whole – but they’re memorable and bothersome enough to detract from a near-perfect adventure.
Aside from those issues though, Assassin’s Creed II offers up a massive adventure through history that builds upon its predecessor in every way – amazing mission variety, more combat options, character customization, funny dialogue, and a truly satisfying mystery are yet more examples of the improvements on display. At this rate, if Assassin’s Creed III made a similar leap it’d pretty much be the greatest game of all time.