Version tested: Xbox 360
Despite Assassin's Creed II's inaugural downloadable content pack, Battle of Forli, having underwhelmed us so comprehensively last month, hope remained that this was nothing more than a dip in form which would be swiftly rectified with the release of this second "deleted scene".
As you'll recall if you've completed Assassin's Creed II, the main game inexplicably jumps from Memory Sequence 11 to 14 near the end, leaving players befuddled as to what happened in the intervening period. Step forward Mr DLC, offering you a chance to plug the yawning narrative chasm for a mere 320 Microsoft Points, or about three Queen Elizabeth Pounds.
The official explanation for the reinstatement of these memories is that computer whizz Rebecca Crane has managed to repair the corrupt code, thus allowing Ezio to experience what happened in Florence in 1497. Set nine years after the previous memory sequence, the now-bearded assassin must meet up with Machiavelli and help take down a crazed monk named Savonarola.
As you'll be well aware by now, this involves killing a whole bunch of people and running away very quickly until a shouty barrage of heavily armed men stop trying to stab you in the face. Specifically in the case of Bonfire of the Vanities, the task at hand is to systematically take out nine of Savonarola's lieutenants, before concluding events once and for all.
In pleasingly non-linear fashion, you get to pick each of the nine targets in any order, and it all plays out rather like any of the Assassination Contract side missions you might find. Unfortunately, there's not an awful lot to characterise most of these assignments. Once Machiavelli leaves you to carry out your casual campaign of mass murder, most of the hits play out in roughly the same way, tasking you with sidling up to the target unseen and stabbing them in the throat. In traditional Assassin's Creed style, you then sit back and watch Ezio have an unnerving chat with his victim while all the nearby guards stand back and let you get on with your one-to-one.
True, you've seen it all before, but Ubisoft certainly doesn't believe in making it an easy ride this time. One of the most pertinent criticisms of The Battle of Forli was that it was so insultingly easy, with its ammo recharge stations and procession of easy-to-kill AI goons. After a handful of near-identical battles or chases, it felt barely different from any number of random scraps you could trigger by simply baiting groups of guards in any town.
This time around, though, the game does at least include a few scenarios where it's essential not to disturb any of the guards before you deliver the killing blow. As challenging as it undoubtedly is to not be able to wade in and kill your target, the potential for frustration is ruinous thanks to the endless trial and error required. This exacting brand of stealth never feels like a good fit, with many quirks and inconsistencies destined to get the better of you before you figure out the best route to pick sentries off one by one.
One of the more memorable examples of this approach is when you're tasked with sneaking aboard a ship. Once you're there the only way to kill your target is to make sure you don't alert a single sentry to your presence beforehand. At first, hanging off the side of the boat and pulling unsuspecting guards to their doom feels fun and interesting, but it soon transpires how easy it is to alert the AI this way. Sometimes a guy standing nearby to your victim will trigger an alarm, and sometimes he doesn't; if you're unlucky enough to be caught in a sentry's cone of vision a split second before killing them, then even that can be enough to prompt a seemingly unnecessary restart. After a while, this repetitive pedantry drags a difficult assassination down into the realms of a thoroughly tedious one.
For the most part, though, these assassination missions aren't much of a challenge, and they tend blur into one another as you quickly realise you're going through the motions. There's precious little invention, and no real narrative hook to drive you from one to the next. As beautiful as the game world is, and as slick as the mechanics are, you find yourself wishing that the DLC would dare to do something outside of the basic comfort zone.
With no more upgrades or new weapons to play for, the incentive to keep plugging away fades very quickly. Strangely the package doesn't even offer the added bonus of extra Achievement points or Trophies, leaving what feels like a meaningless bolt-on. The addition of the new Spring Jump move is utterly superfluous, and made worse by the fact that the game fails to adequately demonstrate how you use it, or in which context. The truth is that you never need to use it even once.
Also to make matters needlessly complicated, there are actually two distinct options for buying The Bonfire of the Vanities DLC. One simply tacks on Memory Sequence 13 into the game for your 320 points, while the other also adds three new Templars' Lairs to explore for an all-inclusive price of 560 points. If you bought the limited edition Black version of the game, then you'll own all the Templars' Lairs already, but for everyone else the more expensive option is well worth the extra. Sadly you can't actually buy the Templars' Lairs separately if you happen to buy the cheaper pack first.
That annoyance to one side, all three Templars' Lairs are well worth investigating, adding the kind of hand-crafted experiences that we all hoped the other DLC would provide. As ever, the general idea is to explore the innards of an intricate interior location in search of treasure. Spiritually aligned to both Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider, the emphasis is firmly on athletic platform-puzzling, with plenty of patient trial-and-error required to pick your way through these devious locations. Occasionally a chase ensues, or a minor scuffle, but for the most part the emphasis is firmly on figuring out how to get from A to B.
As usual, a little persistence goes a long way with these enjoyable nuggets, offering a welcome change of emphasis to what's usually expected from Ezio. Although the additional Templars' Lairs are nowhere near as challenging as some of those featured in the main game, they still offer a good hour or so of absorbing entertainment that works better as downloadable content than the "deleted scenes".
Now that we've finally experienced all 14 memory sequences, it's easy to see why 12 and 13 were removed from the final cut, such is the humdrum nature of the missions. As much as the delightful cut-scenes provide interesting insight into the events leading up to the climax, the tasks provided for you amount to little more than half-baked side-quests that most people would have ignored the first time around.
Completists will certainly enjoy the three Templars' Lairs bundled alongside The Bonfire of the Vanities, but being forced to buy the accompanying memory sequence to access them leaves a bad taste in the mouth. If Ubisoft plans to release any more DLC for Assassin's Creed II, then some serious quality control is in order.
6 / 10