Assassin's Creed was one of the first games of this generation that really felt "next-gen." It presented an opportunity to interact with the world in ways that simply wasn't possible without additional power, which is, for the most part, the very essence of that somewhat overused phrase. Ubisoft's adventure title provided gamers with a fully climbable recreation of different historical cities, an engaging story, and wonderful graphics. Though flawed, it was without a doubt one of the most advanced-feeling experiences to hit consoles. That was two years ago, and a lot has changed in the gaming industry. The idea of climbing on everything is still fantastic, but has lost much of its luster when it found its way into a handful of other titles. Other complaints were mostly rooted in a repetitive mission structure and a lack of content, things that were more forgivable in 2007 than 2009. These were issues that didn't just need to be addressed in a sequel, but eliminated entirely. Luckily, Ubisoft has been busy. With two years of knowledge and a few baskets full of critiques of their first effort, the publisher has released Assassin’s Creed II, hoping to fix the issues without changing the elements that made the game an incredible success for the company.
The story picks up right where the last left off, wasting no time diving into action and, more importantly, proving that Ubisoft has listened to the criticisms leveled at the first title. Within moments, Desmond is up and about, moving around more in the first five minutes of the story than he did in all of the original. For those unfamiliar with the series, there's likely a little bit of confusion as to why the location and time have shifted so drastically between sequels and, for that matter, who this Desmond character is. While most of the gameplay in the Assassin’s Creed takes place hundreds of years in the past, Desmond Miles lives in the modern age, and has an ancestry rooted deeply in a conflict between the Assassin’s Order and the Knights Templar, who didn’t actually disband in 1314 like the history books say. Instead, the shadowy organization has continued their practices, working towards a New World Order nearly 1,000 years in the making, only kept in check by the dwindling assassins. Now, under the guise of Abstergo Industries, they’ve kidnapped Desmond in order to have him relive the lives of his ancestors through a machine called the Animus, which allows users to synchronize with their genetic memory.
Accessing genetic memory is like living a dream. In the first game, Desmond viewed the world through Altair’s eyes, at the start of the Templar/Assassin conflict. This time around, players take on the role of Ezio Auditore, fast-forwarding a few hundred years to the Italian Renaissance. At the start of the game, Ezio is a typical Italian playboy, living in a care-free world that feels almost like the opening of a musical. He runs around being silly with his brother, throwing rocks at rival families, and doing everything short of tap-dancing and singing. Things are almost too good, which makes it all the less shocking when everything take a turn for the worst, and his father and brothers are killed. Fueled by anger, he vows revenge on those responsible, and begins a journey to find out exactly why his family was killed. It doesn't take long for him to learn that he comes from a long line of assassins, and that the men responsible for turning on his family are, as expected, Templar.
Obviously, this is a much different origin than Altair's, who was an Assassin before the original game even began, leading to two very different protagonists. Whereas Altair was calm and collected due to years of training and discipline, Ezio is emotional, fueled more by vengeance and curiosity than a sense of duty. Altair was more of a loner, only working with those who he had to and spending most of his time in the shadows. Ezio has no time for that, and will ally himself with anyone wielding a blade and dissent. In terms of story, it means interacting with a wealth of characters. In terms of gameplay, it comes to fruition in several forms, the most obvious of which is more mission variety.
In the first game, each assassination was prefaced with several missions such as roughing up someone for information or pickpocketing a map from a messenger. These elements seemed unnecessary, and before long, grew monotonous and played out. They're still intact in a way, but take on a much different form, being removed almost entirely from the regular story. They show up as optional side jobs now, and are much more entertaining when they’re not forced.
The actual assassinations, too, take on many different forms this time around by being more cinematic. Since there's so much to do in the open world, Ubisoft saw an opening to make the story missions much more linear. Each scenario is well planned, and instead of just finding a location and killing a person, they're more akin to traditional adventure game levels, just set in the open-world environment. One specific level has Ezio using Leonardo DaVinci's flying machine to infiltrate a building, which, while fairly cool in theory, isn't actually as impressive in execution. Still, it provides much needed variety in the story, and it does its job well.
Working with others also plays out in the way Ezio interacts with his surroundings. He feels more like a part of the environment than Altair did, and has a number of different abilities that take advantage of that. Courtesans, thieves, and other factions wander the streets, and for a price, they can be hired temporarily to distract guards. They can also simply be walked with, enhancing one of the smartest upgrades to Ezio’s arsenal: the ability to blend in with any group of people. Being able to disappear into any crowd not only makes more sense than the wandering monks of the original, but makes for much more entertaining and strategic gameplay. Sneaking up on a target by shifting from one group to another provides a feeling that, alone, makes for one of the coolest encounters of the year. On top of that, Ezio is able to assassinate from more positions and disarm enemies to use their weapons, making skirmishes flow better, all the while keeping the counter-based combat of the original. Enemies still seem a little dull, standing around and waiting for their turn to fight, but the combat is improved greatly by additional weapons and overall tighter controls.
The only real problem with the narrative is that it can sometimes become lost in itself. The many fast-forwards that take place during the ten years the story spans can be dizzying, leaving the player wondering what has happened, who Ezio is working for, who he is supposed to be killing, and why he has a goatee. Beyond that, the game does a wonderful job of introducing and wrapping up a story set in historic times, with an entirely likable character and a complete tale. Not only that, but it manages to do so while slowly moving forward the modern-day narrative, an impressive task in its own right.
The greatest triumph of Assassin’s Creed II is tying all of the new and old elements together well, something many developers too often miss when adding new features. A monetary system makes completing jobs more fulfilling, being able to spend your loot on upgraded equipment makes it more meaningful, and it’s possible to hire different factions to help distract or combat town guards. All of this might seem unconnected, but they share common functions: making completing missions easier, and the core game better. There’s even a side quest in which Ezio can put money into a village to build up its worth, seeing a return over time as the village grows into a bustling town, and earning discounts in the shops. It’s almost too tempting to become lost in the world, picking up side quests and collecting objects scattered around the environment instead of actually working towards completing the story. Luckily, it’s fun enough that this isn’t a bad thing.
To complain too much is to get nitpicky, especially when the complaints are so highly outnumbered by the accolades, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things worth mentioning that can detract from the experience. For the most part, the problems come in the form of presentation issues, dealing almost entirely with elements that are actually outside of gameplay. In order to quell complaints of needing to travel on horseback between cities in the original, the option to fast-travel between the game’s locations is available, and accessible from several different points within each area. Traveling between said points, however, is mysteriously absent, so getting from one end to another means running or jumping to another city and then coming back.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the parkour was better, but the free running itself, too, can run into problems when precision becomes important. Getting from place to place isn’t too troublesome, though there’s usually at least one misplaced step that leads in Ezio taking a fall, and it can often feel like it isn’t so much the player’s fault, but the game’s for not having precise enough controls. There's also a strange problem with characters popping in, which sticks out considering how stunning everything else looks.
Just about every issue from the first game has not only been addressed, but almost entirely eliminated. Assassin’s Creed II isn’t just a step forward for the series, it’s a leap. The improvements are immediately obvious, and it isn’t a stretch to say that Assassin’s Creed II feels like a game two or three sequels away instead of one that was just two years from the original. When it’s all over, it’s one of the best gaming experiences of 2009, and while there’s still plenty of room between it and perfection, the gap has been lessened quite a bit.