The first Assassin’s Creed raised the bar with its run anywhere, climb anything core, but its rigid design kept it from classic status. Two years smarter, Assassin’s Creed II is the product of fan feedback. The danger is that you could end up with a game that is simply what the first one should have been. Does it go a step further to become one of the industry’s greats?
Provided no one spoiled it for you, the first Assassin’s Creed had a story with a clever twist. Now that the secret is known, the story in part two has to rely on substance instead of gimmicks. It’s all rooted in late-fifteenth century Italy where a young, scrappy Ezio Auditore is forced to grow up fast when his father and brothers are murdered. He makes revenge his priority and the chase is on to bring the templars to justice. Spanning a decade, just when you think you’ve snuffed the final threat yet another emerges. It’s the old dangling carrot scenario, and by the end of the game it starts to look a little wilted. Ezio meets people, and five minutes later he’s killing for them with no questions.
The writing holds up well, the authenticity is impeccable, and appearances by legends like Leonardo da Vinci provide it with some built-in interest. Almost all of the game takes place inside the virtual world of the animus, leaving the opportunity for a real dual story on the table.
The most popular complaint lodged against the original Creed was its repetitive mission structure. There simply wasn’t enough variety, and once the wonder of parkour wore off, it could become a grind. The number of mission types are nearly tripled in the sequel, yet you’ll still tire of trailing, racing, or killing groups of targets because the game is longer. Missions are much more involved at least with some having multiple parts with checkpoints in between.
Divided into a handful of cities including Florence, Venice, Forli, Tuscany, and Rome, there’s a lot more to keep track of this time around. Weapons and armor can be bought from a blacksmith or earned, doctors sell health potions, tailors offer new robe colors, and art stores sell maps to help you keep track of it all. There are also a lot of things to collect like feathers, chests, and codex pages. You actually get rewards for finding them this time, but it’s much easier to just pay for the rewards.
The economy is unbalanced by the villa--a town all your own where you can pay to build and upgrade shops for discounts or civic services to attract citizens. The more people living in the villa, the more money you make from taxes. If you concentrate your cash on upgrades it pays off in spades, and eventually you’re making more money than you can spend--making some of the collectibles pointless.
Between all the doodads, missions, and shops the map gets crowded quickly. You can spend as much time as you want traveling and tackling side missions, but there’s one definitive path to the end. Then when you do get there you’re forced to go back and collect all of one specific item before you can move on to the final sequence. Even without the last-second goose chase, you’ll get 18-20 hours from Assassin’s Creed II, and even more if you’re a pack rat.
Like the first game, gameplay is divided between navigation and combat. How Ezio runs, climbs, and jumps across the terrain has the same strengths and weaknesses it had before. Going from point A to point B as quickly as possible benefits from the automatic jumping and wall scaling, but when precise platforming is required automation can cause problems.
Combat has been expanded, though again the same problems arise. Enemies are more than happy to stand around and wait to be felled by counterkills, and those that don’t simply require a dodge before slashing. You can disarm enemies and use their weapons against them and enemies can return the favor. There’s nothing worse than not being able to find your uber sword after a skirmish.
With a world this large, a horse isn’t going to cut it. You can warp from one city to another, but you can’t zap within a city. Instead you must select another town and then teleport right back to the point you want.
The blend button made for some ridiculous scenarios in the first game, and this time it’s simply a matter of walking with crowds of people at the right speed. The throngs of people serve another purpose as well since you can hire prostitutes or thieves to distract guards or fight on your side. Larger-scale battles are definitely one of its distinctions.
You get new weapons this time, mostly thanks to da Vinci’s workshop. As you collect blueprints he will build you upgrades to your hidden blade that allow for dual assassinations or to discharge it like a gun. He also provides contraptions like wings that allow you to soar across the city, but you hardly use them. The final new gameplay component is water. You can dive in to easily evade enemies or hop on a gondola to travel more quickly, giving you options beyond the cabana.
Outwardly, Assassin’s Creed II may appear to have overhauled its gameplay, but many of the same strengths and weaknesses remain. Poor AI hurts the combat, and the parkour is incredible until you’re asked to be precise.
If you’ve ever been to Italy then you will be absolutely blown away at the authenticity paid to the environments. While not an inch-by-inch replication of each city, the major landmarks are recreated with startling accuracy. There are even historical entries to read if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in visiting the country, but doubt you ever will, this is the next best thing.
The visual quality is basically the same and both the PS3 and 360 versions share the same limitations. It can draw large, detailed environments, but things aren’t as impressive up close and details like shadows draw in. The animation is still silky smooth and the new counterkills are sweet, but some character models look funky up close and the framerate will jitter. The sheer volume and quality of the voice acting is commendable, and small details like Ezio aging during the course of the game help set it apart.
Assassin’s Creed II has plenty of fixes and additions, but the story can drag, and the sense of awe that the parkour provided two years ago is muted. Yet new mission types, freedom from a linear quest, added depth, and a stronger historical bent fortify the overall experience. There’s still no other game quite like it, and whether you dismissed the first game or absolutely loved it, this is one creed worth taking.