Assassin's Creed II Reader Review
Assassinís Creed had a lot in common with Eidos Interactiveís Hitman: Codename 47. Both games followed the adventures of hired killers, and both were built around solid concepts let down by terrible implementation. Assassinís Creed II continues the likeness of the two franchises, proving a sequel in the mould of Hitman II: Silent Assassin; refining the original concept, while improving on gameplay in just about every way.
The sequel picks up where AC left off, following bartender and all round damp squib Desmond Milesís historical odyssey through the genetic memories of his murderous ancestors. If AC II is worse than the original in any respect, this is it. Desmond was quite a tragic character in AC; an unwilling protagonist essentially forced to play the game in the vain hope he wouldnít be murdered at the end of it. Now, he is somehow irritatingly whiney and depressingly surly in equal measure. Just as well that your time controlling Desmond is confined to three brief interludes, and just as well that these sections starkly contrast the rest of the game experience.
The majority of the time has you in the shoes of lothario-turned-Assassin Ezio Auditore as he engages on a murderous quest for revenge through renaissance Italy. Itís clear that Ezio is far more relatable a character than Altair, and not just because of his authentic accent (you can opt to hear all the dialogue in Italian, turning the game into an action-adventure-come-linguaphone course). Through the course of the game Ezioís character grows convincingly, from his beginnings as a womanising teenage thug, to his maturity as a fully fledged assassin. This journey feels less contrived than Altairís rather hair-shirted quest for redemption, and gives AC IIís story a greater sense of immersion as a result.
The core of AC was sandbox assassination and free running fun through historical cityscapes. That action is faithfully transplanted to Florence and Venice, as well as a couple of smaller towns. Like the cities of the Holy Land, the gorgeous environment engine does the cities justice. Iconic buildings like the Campanile and the Palazzo de Medici are present, with accompanying database entries providing a welcome historical depth to the world.
Getting around the cities is the same as before. Actions are mapped to the face buttons, with the stealthy low profile and dramatic high profile actions differentiated by holding down R1. Movement through the cities is much faster paced than it used to be. You can run full pelt without fear of alerting the guards, and running over the rooftops is rarely hampered thanks to tactical placement of scaffolds and cranes (although the canal network in Venice can present flow-breaking roadblocks at times).
While the core gameplay is the same, virtually everything else has changed. AC was hammered for itís repetitive missions, dreary investigation sections and poor pacing. AC IIís pace is demonstrated right from the get-go, opening the game with a full-on street brawl. Progression is essentially linear, but the missions are now shorter and more numerous, while being more localized (no more pondering horse journeys from Masayaf) with greater variation in objectives. The much-maligned investigation sections are gone, replaced with a slew of optional side missions, including checkpoint races, courier missions and paid assassination. In addition there are a huge number of optional fetch quests, which grant money, special equipment and background history amongst other things. You can spend time upgrading your home villa to increase annual income, search for hidden treasure, chase down pickpockets, seek out the lost assassinís tombs, and more. There really is a huge amount of optional content in the game; optional being the key word. During my first playthrough I ignored all the side quests and never felt like Iíd missed anything crucial.
The stealth aspect of the game has received a welcome revision too. Staying in low profile keeps you a blade in the crowd, while high profile actions attract unwanted attention from the guards, as before. Hiding away in haystacks, roof gardens and benches allows you to lose the law, also as before. You can now also hide within crowds of citizens, presenting an alternative to the groups of remote-control scholars of the first game. In addition, you can hire groups of thieves and courtesans to distract guards for a small fee. Another new feature is the notoriety bar. A bit like a fifteenth century ASBO, it fills up as the result of public displays of violence or murder. Gain too much and you become notorious, and with guards attack you on sight. Reducing notoriety is done by ripping down wanted posters (some of which are mysteriously placed on ledges, rooftops, and other unlikely places), bribing heralds, or assassinating witnesses. The system works quite well, providing a reason to be inconspicuous, but not being so punitive that it ruins the fun if you botch an assassination or go on a therapeutic killing spree.
Dealing death is more varied this time around. Through the course of the game new equipment is unlocked, including the double hidden blade, smoke bombs, poison, and other weapons to assist with your numerous murders. Assassination can be done quietly from hiding spots and from under ledges, and can be done with your standard weapons, rather than just the hidden blade.
Combat is much faster paced and more varied thanks to new tools and techniques. Weaponry can be purchased from blacksmiths, and there is a decent choice of swords, hammers and maces, even if it is basically a cosmetic one. There are also numerous ways of quickly dispatching enemies, although the tougher ones will block most of them. In spite of that, success in combat boils down to nailing the timing for the counter-kill and disarm moves with the occasional smoke bomb thrown into the mix. This combination will kill more or less any enemy in one shot. Also, the addition of health kits presents an unneccessary dilution of the combat. By the middle of the game you can carry fifteen of them, and they are instantly effective in combat. The combat is still dramatic and flashy, but as a result of the above, is actually less challenging than it was in the original, which will be an issue for some.
Another irritation is the lack of a level select. In spite of all the missions being self-contained blocks, and in spite of the game including a chronological list of all your completed missions in the pause menu, there is no way to replay them without starting all over again! While I see no reason people wouldnít want to play it through a second time, the omission is just perplexing.
Putting those complaints into perspective, we are talking about minor hickups in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable game experience. All too often the sequels of popular franchises turn out to be massive let downs, or else uninspired clones with only new levels and cosmetic additions tacked on to differentiate them from their progenitor. Assassinís Creed II is a shining example of how a sequel should be made; strip out the bad bits, polish the good, and include enough new content for it to stand up on its own merits. Whether or not you enjoyed the first game, Assassinís Creed II is a worthy investment at full price. When the price inevitably gets reduced itíll be an absolute steal.
This game is a priority purchase. Unless youíre opposed to action adventure games in general, Assassinís Creed II is something youíll not regret spending your time or money on.