In Depth Review: Assassin's Creed II [X360]
Assassin's Creed II picks up immediately after the original, pulling you safely from the cliff off of which you were left hanging (if you bothered to finish the latter, at least). However, when using the Animus, you'll be assuming the role of a different assassin-to-be: the charming, cocky Ezio Auditore di Firenze (read: of Florence, Italy). Hailing from the Renaissance era, Ezio takes his wall-scaling, guard-killing antics across Italy, hitting up Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and Venice. Throughout, you'll make plenty of enemies, as well as new friends, one of whom is the great Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci.
Ubisoft managed to make one of the original game's bright spots--its mechanics--even better. Ezio scales buildings quicker and with less effort. He learns to vault himself to higher ledges while climbing. He employs three new hidden blade techniques: pulling victims off ledges; shanking them while hidden in a bale of hay; and performing a leaping kill from higher ground. Furthermore, Ezio's sly ruthlessness is doubled when you earn a second hidden blade. Planting palmfuls of shank into the faces of two unsuspecting guards at once provides a sick, twisted sense of satisfaction.
Hiding within crowds is much more organic than in the previous game: All you need to do to "hide" is saunter up to a group of three or more people and walk amongst them. You know you're hidden when you--and those surrounding you--lose all color saturation. Meanwhile, you remain in complete control of Ezio while you're doing this, letting you slip into and out of a low profile at will. No more finding scholars (essentially groups of NPCs with pre-set routines, who existed solely for mobile cover), pressing the A button and waiting for the game to do the rest. I can think of no better complement to Ezio's dual hidden blades than the ability to quietly slip into any group of passersby.
Well, except maybe smoke bombs. Assassin's Creed II features currency, earned by pickpocketing and completing missions, so in addition to being more versatile than the already-skilled Altair, Ezio can buy new primary and secondary weapons, pieces of armor (which add to his life meter), and even healing items. This makes Ezio even more lethal, allowing him to kill from afar with poison darts and even a hidden pistola. Here's something fun: Drop one of the aforementioned smoke bombs in a crowd of soldiers, but instead of fleeing the scene, stay awhile and shank. There's something undeniably gleeful about seeing a mound of guard corpses left in your wake when the smoke eventually clears.
That's not all you can with your money, though. You can invest your earnings in a humble villa which you eventually inherit, and the more money you put into its individual pieces (including a brothel!), the more money you earn while out and about. It eventually becomes a point of vanity but that totally fits Ezio's playboyish character, and it's simply a fun distraction to boot. Cash is useful during missions as well, where you can hire thieves and prostitutes--erm, I mean, escorts--to distract guards protecting entry points or valuable items, or even bribe town criers to stop alerting the townspeople to your dastardly deeds.
Aside from the main plot-driven tasks, there are plenty of footraces, contract assassinations, and courier missions to accept on the side in case you ever get greedy for finances. You've also got collectibles and glyphs to find, strewn about the cities. While the collectibles are no more interesting than the ho-hum flag collecting from the original Assassin's Creed, finding a glyph leads you to solve some variety of puzzle to reveal small snippets of a video feed that supposedly reveals part of the series' backstory. But what I find more intriguing about the glyphs is the way in which their puzzles take historical facts--the discovery and distribution of electricity, for instance--and twist them to fit within the series' Templar-Assassin conspiracy. It's unnecessary to the story, yet so novel and captivating once you find yourself wrapped up in the fiction.
Perhaps the most enjoyable addition to Assassin's Creed II is the series of tombs found hidden underneath the cities. These tombs take a completely different approach from the more improvisational platforming of the city streets and rooftops, challenging you to reach a goal by traversing a linear, deliberately designed set of environmental obstacles. Hearkening back to the recent Prince of Persia games from the aughts, these tombs will tax your platforming mettle to a noticeably greater degree than the topside's "regular" platforming, and are just that much more satisfying to play through to boot. The tombs are optional, but even before mentioning the tasty unlockable you get by completing all of them, you'd be missing a huge part of the gameplay experience by skipping them.
With so much else to do--activities both major and minor--Assassin's Creed II definitely trumps the original in terms of variety and payoff. One of the biggest contributing factors to the monotony in Assassin's Creed was its templatized nature--you almost always ended up executing on a very similar routine with every assassination mission. True, this allowed for some eventual comfort with the game structure in a "practice makes perfect" sense, but with the anticipation of each new assassination came the dread of slogging through the same thing I just did before. Not so here--instead, with the main missions, you're pushed along a path of tasks and goals that is clearly plot-driven, which does end up removing some of the franchise's "freedom" to slay as you wish.
The immediate benefit of this newly-imposed linearity is that the game better directs you through a well-paced variety of activities. Between taking part in a slew carnival games; flying over the guard turrets using Leonardo's flight machine; storming through a city with a band of mercenaries; and impersonating a guard to confront a previously inaccessible target; Ezio's almost always doing something different from moment to moment, or at least ultimately accomplishing different ends. Even with all this linearity going on, the aforementioned side missions and activities are always there for you to escape to should you ever want to veer off the beaten path (so long as you've earned the appropriate abilities to access them). You can advance the story to its end before trying to find the glyphs and tombs, try to do it all before tackling the bulk of the story, or blend all of these activities in together as you come across them.
Yet, there's still one pretty significant caveat that still hasn't rectified from the first game: the "freedom" of the assassinations. In fact, they've become even more restrictive. That "freedom" meant that we were supposed to be free to kill targets however we chose to do so. That wasn't entirely the case before, and this time around, you're so beholden to the story progression that you're forced into actual combat with some of your marks. Some victims will even flee as part of the story, so attempts to sneak up behind and stealth-assassinate these folks in particular will result in no action being taken on-screen--no matter how hard you jam on the button. This, along with some of the odd enemy A.I. (try dropping and hanging off a window sill when a suspicious guard starts stalking you--he'll eventually turn around like nothing ever happened), breaks the otherwise fantastic and immersive illusion that the rest of the game nails.
This is all a notable chink in Assassin's Creed II's armor, to be sure. At the end of the day, the game is still so enjoyable from top to bottom--aided by the glorious and geographically accurate (as far as I can tell) visual portrayal of the three Italian cities, as well as Jesper Kyd's versatile soundtrack serving up dynamic, ambient and dramatic musical cues--that I can easily make peace with its flaws. It could be because its predecessor was a letdown to the degree that it was, or because I get absolutely giddy whenever I dole out dual-blade face palms, or maybe even because Ezio is not the dull, prickish pariah that Altair was. Whatever the case may be, knowing what I do now, Assassin's Creed II is an experience I couldn't possibly feel right about missing out on, as well as a shining example of how to improve drastically upon a series' debut.