Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
Plot: In Renaissance Italy, Ezio’s family are accused of treason and executed. Ezio’s father left him with a parting instruction: find the assassins and embrace his destiny.
Assassin’s Creed II ditches Altair and the shady world of Israel’s political back-stabbing to the more exotic and sexier Renaissance Italy. While at first, you cannot shake off the idea that Altair was predominantly cooler than Ezio Auditore, time eventually taught us that this change of pace was a welcome switch. The evidence is in the fact that Ezio has been the leading hero in more games than any of the other assassins. Simply put, Ezio is a far more interesting character than Altair ever was. Now we have come to terms with the nature of the Creed, it is a nice change of pace to be given a proper origin story from this likeable Italian charmer. It helps that Ezio is the most likeable hero the franchise has given us yet. The first few missions sees the player simply get through a couple of punch ups in the street, caused by Ezio trying it on with someone’s girlfriend. After the ‘world domination’ drama of the first one, there is something silly and fun about playing an Assassin’s Creed game that wants you to embrace being a foolish layabout. Of course, the further we get into the game, the more Ezio embraces the ways of the Assassin, thanks to the addition of the Borgia family, one of Renaissance Italy’s most ruthless families. Again, history and fantasy are blended remarkably well, so we get to embrace the crazy, while always being grounded in realism and fact. When this gives us our very own Q figure in the form of Leonardo Da Vinci, Assassin’s Creed II deserves top marks.
The gameplay hasn’t changed too much, since we last picked up a copy of the game. After all, the controls to the first Assassin’s Creed were so easy and fun that it would seem idiotic to try and tweak them. Assassin’s Creed II also trims away a lot of the useless parts of the game. We do get some more techniques, giving the game a wider range. There are some more weapons and combos, making fighting seem that little bit more fun than last time. There are more ways to shake off the guards chasing after you, as well, so there are new things to check out, rather than slipping into the last game right from the starting point. We never settle into a formula like we did with the original. The assassinations don’t need much prep time put into them and there is no crossing a hostile environment to get from one map to the other. This could provoke any number of feelings from you. Some will not like this side of the game: players have little choice how to off a target, because they are so closely ingrained into the story that there are few options as to how you end up killing them. The ‘holding your hand’ feeling that I grumbled about in the first game, is a tad more prominent here. However, for some reason, this game still makes these sequences fun (at least on a first play-through), and the lack of structure to this moments makes the targets feel more like fully-formed characters rather than boss fights, while we work our way up to the bigger villains.
The big change here is Assassin’s Creed beginning to embrace the open world. It seems weird to imagine an Ubisoft game without this format now, but Assassin’s Creed II found the right balance between structure and exploration. Assassin’s Creed II simply allows the player the option of breaking from the mission and having fun in Renaissance Italy. Maybe this is another reason Ezio’s age has responded far better with the critics than Israel did. In the last Assassin’s Creed, Israel was a backdrop; here, Renaissance Italy is a living, breathing city that you can throw yourself into. The concept of the character earning money to build up the Assassin’s secret village seems like a trivial thing – Ubisoft padding out their game. Yet it works and really took off from this point onwards. Ezio feels like a bigger cog in the Assassin’s force, rather than a pawn like Altair. We are building the Creed up and it brings us closer to the mythology of it all. Once the game is done, you often find yourself returning to Italy and doing little more than bonus objectives, in order to finish renovating the place you have come to call home.
The real glue in Assassin’s Creed though will always be the fascinating story it weaves. The story is the only thing keeping me invested in some of the poorer sequels that have been coming out recently. Right from the off, the game is changed. Lucy, the Abstergo Professor, turns out to be a hidden Assassin mole and breaks you out of Vidic’s prison. You are given to a rag-tag group of Assassin allies, who want to throw you back into an Animus, but this time, fighting the Templar. While Ezio fights the Borgia, your mind is always connecting the bigger dots lurking in the background. There is always a bigger conspiracy at work here, and Assassin’s Creed II was the ideal point in the franchise, where you knew little enough to marvel at each twist, but enough was revealed to keep you hooked. And boy, some shocks are unleashed in this instalment. Just when you think the Templar were the true villains, some new characters are revealed that change the way the games work entirely. Some will roll their eyes, but if you embrace the new plot development, you will end up being sucked deeper into Assassin’s Creed fandom than ever before. I also appreciate the hidden symbols (20 buried through Renaissance Italy) that give you a small snapshot at the bigger picture, revealing a conspiracy that will blow your mind.
Final Verdict: Assassin’s Creed II is bigger than ever before. It takes some narrative risks, but the gameplay is familiar enough to enjoy. In my opinion, this is the high point of the franchise.