I was a big proponent of the first Assassin's Creed. Don't get me wrong, like everyone else, I was disappointed in its repetitive structure and felt it was a hugely missed opportunity, but I also felt it was a bold move on Ubisoft's part and the potential for the idea, series and tech was more than visible (and viable). So, unlike
many others, I maintained faith Ubi would see the folly of their first attempt and broach newer, more innovative ways of interacting with the excellent narrative foundation they'd laid alongside the stunning technology of it all.
I'm glad I backed their play.
Assassin's Creed II not only tackles all the issues we had with the first, but does so in context. That sounds weird, but in the wake of story developments right from the outset (things pick up immediately where you left them in the first game), everything falls intelligently into place. It's brilliant, and you almost can't scold Ubisoft for the first outing because of how they've placed it into their overall vision - strictly from a narrative viewpoint.
Without spoiling too much, you start things as Desmond Miles, the hapless kidnappee from the first game who, it turns out, is intrinsically linked to an Assassin's Guild and, specifically, key assassins of said guild spanning from the third crusade (at least as far as we know). Within him, Desmond holds the key to an ancient treasure also sought by the Knights Templar, and so must unravel actions from his past in order to locate the treasure and seemingly save the world.
Escape is the first portion of Assassin's Creed II as Lucy Stillman, the lab assistant from the first game leads you from Abstergo Industries and to a group of rebels attempting to locate the treasure before your previous captors. They have a similar set-up to the Animus, only far more robust and free-form (allowing, in context, for interaction with the past or "game") which also means you're being given new types of information, instructions and story-specific commentaries from the game's rebel NPCs helping you locate the treasure through the eyes of Assassin's Creed II's protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
There are vast differences between the first game and ACII. For one, the personal journey of Ezio is far more involving. He's not simply a vessel through which you interact with the past, he's a part of you (or Desmond). In this sense, his plight, which also becomes a much more personal affair built around vengeance, is more involving; embracing the player to encompass all his action and care
about those around him (you).
In saying all of that, the core foundation laid by the first game is all still in place. Ezio has master climbing and athletic abilities, he is a master of combat and you assassinate people. There're massive, sprawling cities to explore and utilise as virtual parkour playgrounds, and there are hidden treasures (in place of Flags), enemies and civilian plights for you to interact with. It's proof enough the first game was definitely on the right track that everything is still based around these basic elements, but the gain here in the series' first sequel is that these core elements are presented to you in a very different fashion.
In fact, the way in which Assassin's Creed II's pacing is given to you crafts an almost opposite gameplay experience to that of the first game. Where people were complaining about a lack of variety in missions, gameplay, exploration and more, Assassin's Creed II almost has you wishing for some repetition throughout your play. This is due to the way in which the story is driven (in that it's utterly compelling, almost prodding you to explore the characters and their situation further) along with peripheral elements of play.
Traversing cities, for example, will often engage finer details to be made attention of. You have a database that outlines the actual real-life history of various buildings, characters, societal types (such as the Courtesans), items and more. It's a deeper way of engaging you in the time period the game is set (renaissance Italy, for the slow ones up the back) and is also a not-so-subtle reminder Ubisoft Montreal take their history - and the poetic recreation of - very seriously. Adding to this, however, is the inclusion of a new mystery to unfold that goes deeper than Ezio, Altair or Desmond - it's the history of the ancient treasure you're seeking (Pieces of Eden), plotted throughout history. The first time you discover this new addition to the game it's at once both tantalising and definitive. Ubisoft are no longer playing around and when someone spoke up and said "please sir, can I have some more?" after playing the first game, they clearly went about opening up a whole new kitchen to make seconds for millions, with plenty of leftovers in the fridge for lunch tomorrow.
Structurally the game plays very much the same in that you're doing plenty of reconnaissance before doing your actual assassinations, though this time around you're not just doing any three of six options to get the go-ahead. There's no real hierarchy for you to follow as there was in the first game; it's much more free-form and after an hour or so in, you start working from the game's hub, Monteriggioni. This is a town run by your uncle Mario (who literally introduces himself brilliantly with "it's a me, Mario" - I kid you not) that also holds many secrets to the Assassin's guild. Awesomely, when you first move here, the town is pretty much dead but thanks to a new currency system, you're able to build it up and purchase improvements.
This is all done by making money. In this instance, the game follows the GTA monetary system in that side-missions and main assassination quests well net you cash rewards, but you can also have money going into Monteriggioni, the funds of which are handled by your sister, through building up its economy and business. It's not nearly as robust as it could be, but is again another element of elevation from the skeleton gameplay of the first outing to the fully fleshed engagement in the second.
There are also treasures riddled throughout the game-world and they're barely scarce (at least for the first portion of play). In this sense, you're constantly prompted in-game to enamour yourself with each and every little hidden item, of which you can buy maps to locate, or simply parkour yourself around until you see that magic glow, ever so inviting, marking the next destination for your treasure-hunting.
But as if all of this wasn't enough, there are also Assassin's Guild catacombs to find and conquer. These are insane platforming moments that truly offer you chances to utilise Ezio's amazing free-running abilities. The treasures you find at the end of these go towards unlocking the deeper mysteries of the guild you're a part of, thus fleshing out and expanding upon Ubisoft's AC lore - something they're clearly attempting to do across the board as witnessed by the production of the Assassin's Creed: Lineage
short film series (the first of which is actually something of a prologue to ACII).
While Assassin's Creed II is a vast improvement over the first game, it's still not perfect. For one, while ambitious and stunning the first time around, the AC game engine looks like it could do with a revamp. There's a fair amount of pop-up, and traversing the game-world's farmland areas (another new addition) reveals terrible texture load-ins. It's a testament to how quickly games are advancing on a visual level (with Uncharted 2 being a good benchmark in this instance), and something I'm hoping Ubi can address with the obvious next instalment in the series.
Some of the game's scripting is also terrible, especially when coming from the rebels you're now working with. Nolan North does an awesome job, as usual, as Desmond Miles, while most of the renaissance characters are solid. I felt Leonardo da Vinci was too much of a wooden, little-explore character. So much history from his life points at his eccentricities and distaste for authority; all very much glossed over here (and missed as far as expansive character opportunities go).
Moreover, the game's opening, while cool in that it takes off exactly where the last game finished, is clunky and poorly paced. It's a small issue, but something that should have been a key focus point for immersive gameplay to sate the haters from the first outing. It's also worth pointing out that it's actually very appropriate to have played Assassin's Creed because of both where this game opens and to fully understand your character's motives and the overall story. Some people might cringe at this idea as it's actually quite rare, but I welcome such consistency; it's proof Ubisoft are planting their feet firmly behind the franchise and believe in the narrative they've crafted.
At the time of writing this review, I haven't finished the game which is both a case of having Modern Warfare 2 interrupting play sessions, but also its length and longevity. If you're a completionist like me, you're going to be playing for a long while because there is just so much on offer, and while there are a few niggling points, Assassin's Creed II is a fine example of thoughtful structure, and of developers listening to their audience. The sales pitch here really is that there's so much more to this game than there was in the first and anyone who thought of it as repetitive, will be more than surprised with the variety and its structure. One of the year's best.