Assassin’s Creed II Review (PS3, 360, PC)

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Assassin’s Creed II is the sequel that whole-heartedly triumphs over the original in every possible way. This sequel is an expansive and bloody romp through Renaissance, Italy that plays up every popular aspect that the first installment had, while righting many of its flaws and downsides.

Assassin’s Creed plot borrows a bit from the Matrix, and combines it with a lot of historical fiction, and throws in some elements of conspiracy theories that could be found in a Dan Brown novel. The series has the benefit of being crafted by some of the most talented hands in game development. The environments, animations, and art are beautifully portrayed in addition to the game-play which builds upon the foundations of the first game, that in hindsight makes the first Assassin’s Creed look nothing more then a tech demo.

Both fans, and detractors of Assassin’s Creed will be pleased to know that the sequel fully addresses, and ties up many of the loose ends from the first game. It picks up directly where we left off, with Desmond Miles, the kidnapped bartender locked in his cell at Abstergo. This corporation is the face of the modern day Templars and they’re after Desmond’s precious and valuable genetic memories. The plus side to modern technology allows Desmond to relive the exploits of his ancestors, many of whom were Assassins. His very own genealogy puts him at the center of a war between Templar and Assassin.

The game begins with a bang, springing Desmond out of his confinement and introducing him to other modern day Assassins at their hideout. Here they have access to the same technology that he was being forced to use at Abstergo. This time though instead of going through Jerusalem and the third crusade, Desmond finds himself in 15th century Italy, learning the ways of the Assassins through his ancestor Ezio Auditore Da Firenze.

While convoluted in theory, it provides a great excuse to skip through different periods of time. Players are introduced to Ezio at the moment of his birth in a clever way to show movement. Then it jumps forth to his formative years as a womanizing street fighter, who also happens to be the son of one of the wealthiest bankers in all of Italy. Depending on your tastes, you may like Ezio, or you may not but the game produces your common revenge plot that provides the player with plenty of reasons to stick with the story. The addition of the Renaissance as a setting also adds a healthy dose of color and humor to the series overall.

As we learn more about Ezio and become acquainted with his home-town of Florence, the game presents interesting bite-sized tidbits on how to play Assassin’s Creed II. This interweaving of plot and tutorial establishes an interesting tale of revenge and slowly explains a varied and complicated control scheme.

Just like from the first game, Assassin’s Creed II employs the use of a free running system that allows player to climb over almost any surface. Movement speed has been significantly increased from the first game, allowing players to fluidly zip around the environment. The only real downside of this free-running is that there are moments, where the camera doesn’t always presents the best view of what’s over the next rooftop. Players who are over-zealous will take more damage falling off rooftops and buildings then from a sword of a guard or enemy.

As a stealth game, Assassin’s Creed II breaks the mold by having it adhere to a set of rules one might find in a Bourne film where quick actions and a dense crowd are the tools for escape. While this may go against the grain in terms of more traditional stealth games like the Metal Gear series, I personally found this version more refreshing, and more realistic and ultimately a success due to numerous options the player has when navigating the city streets and rooftops.

There are still hiding places like bales of hay, and rooftop gardens in which Ezio can use a sort of safe-zone that will break a pursuer’s line of sight. Also Ezio can dive underwater for a short period of time which also can be used for temporarily cover. However a more satisfying approach in dealing with foes, lies with distracting them from hired help. Thieves, mercenaries, and even whores can be hire for a fee an be directed at targets as living tools of distraction. Players also have the option to throw money into a crowd of people which in turn can start a small riot as everyone makes a grab for what you’ve thrown.

If you choose to fight instead of taking the stealthy approach, then that opens up a plethora of possibilities and choices to fight with. Open up the weapon selection wheel, and players are granted with the choices of swords, daggers, smoke bombs, throwing knives, and the dual assassin blades. There is also a surprise weapon, that I won’t spoil here. Each weapon has its benefits in terms of strength and speed along with its own slick set of animations. New weapons can be permanently purchased through shops or temporarily stolen from an enemy in combat. The weapon variation has done a lot to improve the style of combat.

Even without a weapon, the way you engage an enemy has depth. A notoriety meter and enemy awareness indicators that are clearly marked on the screen gives the player fair warning over what sets the guards off. Once engaged, there are side-steps, and special combat moves (like the ability to throw sand in an enemy’s face) and grapples. Novice players will fall back on pressing a single attack button, which can turn repetitive real quick, but experts can turn the combat into an art.

The addition of a monetary system also changes things for the better. Ezio receives money as he completes quests, finds treasures, or pickpockets victims. Health will not regenerate completely over time so buying both medicine and better armor is a must in order to survive against the more heavily armored enemies. Besides applying these funds to new weapons, armor, and remedies, players will also have the choice and ability to upgrade your home base which is a Villa in the countryside. This home base is something of a glorified display case for all the collectibles and secret items but players can also dedicate money to upgrading its appearance and facilities. Rebuild the church and find a treasure, upgrade the black-smith and receive a discount on weapons and armor. This provides an addictive and optional diversion that competitionists will drool over.

Through the mission structure, Assassin’s Creed II guides and nudges the player towards the meat of the game. At the start of each mission, the player must “accept” the task or put it off until later.

The missions that advance the plot are always marked on the map with an exclamation point, meaning that even though the game offers a bunch of side and optional things to do, it keeps the main goal visible at all times. This in of itself is a good design as well as a nod to the critics of the first game who moaned that the side missions stood in the way of the good stuff.
It’s rather difficult to nail down parts of Assassin’s Creed II that aren’t satisfying. Sections that border on frustrating are either fleeting, or optional and some of this “extra” content is downright enjoyable.

For example, Prince of Persia fans, will revel in the hidden Assassin tombs, scattered throughout Italy that require dexterity, patience, and expert timing. Even if you ignore all the extras in Assassin’s Creed II, the game is still a lengthy experience. The story alone can last upwards of 18 hours and still include enough variety to be interesting throughout. The assassinations are far exhilarating then tailing a target or following an alley through a city. However, there are some one-off missions that are both exciting and wildly different from the core game-play. With more variety and a tighter focus, Assassin’s Creed II gets the pacing just right.

Assassin’s Creed II, transforms a middling action game, into an intriguing and consistently entertaining, open-world adventure. The experience is layered, unique, and shows an incredible attention to detail. This is indeed one of those instances where the sequel has triumphed over the original by catching the game-play up to the already impressive visuals. No matter what your preconceptions are about Assassin’s Creed II, the game is well worth your time and your money.

Rating: 9/10

Contributor: [Adam Buskirk]

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