Five By Five – Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II picks up literally where AC1 leaves off, continuing the adventures of Desmond Miles and his ambiguous quest through his ancestors’ genetic memory via a strange machine called the Animus, reliving a conflict across time between the assassins and the templars. If this confuses you out of context, don’t worry; at times it barely holds together in context. Ubisoft promised to address the flaws in the first run this time around, so when I saw this one on sale I decided to finally find out if they delivered.

Synchronized

Animus 2.0, now with less seizures – The controls feel a bit tighter than the last time around. Instances of Ezio leaping off in the wrong direction or swinging at the wrong enemy were somewhat reduced (though not eliminated). I also liked that there seemed to be a bit of a dead zone at certain points during free running where it’d ignore a button press so you don’t go launching yourself off a tower at a bad time. Another good upgrade is that now blending into crowds is done by subtly slinking from one group of people to another, rather than just pressing A to ride the monk train as in part 1. Overall a greater feeling of control means a greater feel of satisfaction from success. The strictly enforced speed limit from AC1 has also been all but abolished, allowing you freer reign of the city so long as you don’t get the attention of johnny law by stabbing a bunch of people in the face.

At least I don’t have to do that again – For the most part the mission design does a bang up job with placing checkpoints. Though failure is rare, when I did fail I usually found myself not far from where I left off. This is a big help when you have the whole mission figured out save for how to get past that last guard so you don’t have to repeat a long sequence over and over as you experiment with that last little cog.

Tangential learning – The background story arcs of AC2 are assembled by cobbling together an extra large helping of conspiracy theories and having the macguffin from the first game turn out to secretly be the cause of just about every major world event in human history. This framework is built with a decent amount of real historical people and events. Have Wikipedia handy when the game starts dropping names and you’ll learn a thing or two. I for one was not aware until playing this game that in the grand rivalry between Tesla and Edison (opposed proponents of AC and DC electricity respectively), the latter invented the electric chair to ‘prove’ that Tesla’s AC was dangerous because it could kill. No, really.

Leave home, return a stranger – Roger Craig Smith does an excellent job in the lead role of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, evolving his delivery over the course of the story. At the opening he’s all full of upbeat optimism and careless bravado (the sort that practically screams ‘everything this character loves will probably be burned to the ground within the next half hour’). Towards the end after he’s been on his quest for revenge for over a decade there’s the grim desparation one would expect from someone who’s been fighting for so long he can barely remember why he started or imagine what to do after. The voice acting is pretty good all around, but Ezio seems the most dynamic character of the bunch. Speaking of dialogue, you may want to keep the subtitles on to keep up with the 20% of the dialogue spoken in italian.

Tedious repetition optional – For most folks the number one complaint lodged against AC1 were the side missions. I myself enjoyed the variety in how they were set up but to be honest there were just too few types of side missions and the intel earned from them was ultimately inconsequential. In AC2 you can just get out there and start stabbing people in the throat right away, advancing the plot as often as you like. That’s not to say there’s no garnish; there’s side bits to do like upgrading your villa and equipment, as well as odds and ends like races and delivery missions. None of them are particularly thrilling to be honest, but filling in all the checkboxes on your collection is a fun little time waster that kept me up past 3 on more than a few nights somehow. Even the side story going on outside the animus is almost entirely handled in optional side quests. There’s also some little instanced zones that evoke memories of Persian tombs, and on occasion I felt a bit like a movie monster as I chased a lone frantic guard through catacombs. But perhaps more importantly, they’re there if you want them and you can ignore them if you don’t.

Desynchronized

Insert compelling story element here – Unfortunately the game feels a bit unfinished in places. It may be that I got so attached to the side missions because the actual missions to go assassinate people were often rather bland. Unlike the first game, you rarely get more than a surface skimming of the personal character of the people you’re sent to kill beyond a friendly NPC telling you that this guy is a jerk and you should go stab him in the throat. Likewise a majority of the supporting cast is rather underdeveloped. Characters come and go seemingly without purpose, most not returning until the end. A character billed in the beginning as Ezio’s girlfriend appears in exactly one scene and then is apparently forgotten for the rest of the game. Overall there’s a lot to do in the various cities, but it’s all just a little bland. As mentioned by Anthony Birch on Destructoid, there’s also quite a few re-used parts. The fight animations are fun to watch but few in number. At one amusing point I was fistfighting with a 70-year-old-man who was using the same fight animations as a regular guard, and at one point after landing a counter hit on me he did a little Ali boxing shuffle. Amusing, but incongruous.

Quarrel in the streets – For a stealthy assassin you do rather a lot of fighting in public. Although the combat engine allows for more fun moves and strategy than the first time around, there’s still very little danger to it. Furthermore, killing seems quite a bit more routine in round 2 than round 1. A great many guards shall be stabbed in the throat along the way as there are several missions where the objective is ‘kill all these guards’ rather than ‘sneak past these guards or kill them if you have to’. Something I really liked about the first game was that they made you think about who you were assassinating and why, and it was usually possible to get out of most situations without bloodshed. Considering Ezio is an upper-class scoundrel with a penchant for free running rather than a born and bred assassin, it’s a bit odd that he so easily dives into so much killing. Health doesn’t refill automatically anymore, but still a harder difficulty may have been a good idea to discourage open combat.

It’s about the journey, not the destination – AC2’s finale has a lot in common with the end of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. In both games the ‘last boss’ is a series of environmental hazards that can only be passed by utilizing every skill you’ve learned over the course of the game. Then because somebody up top wants a ‘real’ boss fight at the end you go beat up an old man who swings a stick at you. The last battle probably could have been handled with a quick cutscene of the scuffle rather than dragging it out. In related news, I guarantee most folks are not going to be happy with the epilogue

Death to QTE – Quicktime events continue to need to go die in a fire. The one positive is that to my knowledge the QTEs only add flourish to the cutscenes rather than randomly killing you. A big negative is that there’s probably a dozen or less QTEs in the entire game, making it quite difficult to catch them unless you sit controller in hand, ready at a moment’s notice. In addition, the QTE notices are quite easy to miss with their small buttons and smaller text. The damage to gameplay is mitigated quite a bit since the QTEs can’t kill you, but with such a minor influence on the game they might as well not be in it at all.

What’s the big deal? – Despite the epic sweep of the story there’s a distinct lack of escalation. There’s a brief moment towards the end when assorted NPCs you’ve met over the course of the game all show up at the same time that feels a little more exciting, but for the most part the end of the game doesn’t feel like anything’s built up compared to the beginning. Likewise although they make a big show of reloading the cities every few years, aside from the villa becoming nicer I didn’t notice any changes to a majority of the game world from year to year. Again, credit to Birch on the point that the game never really gets any more difficult towards the end either. Excessive challenge can make a game unplayable, but a lack of challenge can make victory unsatisfying. On the plus side this does mean just about everyone will be able to see the story through to the end, but most folks will be craving more challenge.

The Final Word

Assassin’s Creed 2 makes a lot of promises and manages to succeed at a decent chunk of them. On the gameplay side there are numerous refinements to make the exploration and combat more fun, and the gauntlet of mandatory repetitive side quests is no more (replaced with optional repetitive but strangely addictive side quests). It’s a good game, but a bit longer in the oven could have made it a great game. Overall what you think of AC2 will depend a lot on what you thought of AC1. If you at least kinda liked part 1 but wished for less repetition, better combat, and less interference from the sci-fi side plot, you’ll be mostly pleased with the sequel. If you didn’t enjoy AC1’s easy cruising difficulty or effortless free running then AC2 has little to offer. As for the DLC, Battle of Forli has a pretty good story arc with some fun set piece battles even though they seem to have jack all to do with stealth, but Bonfire of the Vanities left me with a bad aftertaste due to numerous missions that kick you back to a checkpoint if you’re spotted. Also beware the PC version with an impressively draconian DRM system, requiring you stay online at all times or be booted to the desktop, leaving your progress at the whims of your connection strength. All in all though I’m giving this game a positive review. Strangely, although the individual components are each flawed in various ways they fit together in a fashion that somehow makes for a fun experience. Unlike AC1, I’m probably gonna play through AC2 again sometime. If you can find it on the cheap as I did I reccomend taking a stab at it.

Assassin’s Creed II was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3, PC, and Mac OS X. Initial retail price was $59.99; average retail price at time of review is between $10 and $20. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, and Strong Language. Assassin’s Creed II is developed and published by Ubisoft. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

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