November 23, 2009
Attention! This is a public service announcement. Before reading this review, discard everything that tainted your thoughts previously regarding the Assassin’s Creed franchise, because this is Assassin’s Creed, but not as you know it... this is Assassin’s Creed 2.0. Hey! It was my turn to do that! Everyone else is putting that “point zero” crap on the end of things these days, I just wanted to try it, and unfortunately, it’s not as overpowering or amusing as you’d quite expect. Nevertheless, on with the show, and whilst my opening few sentences may have been quite tongue-in-cheek, there was a more than a little truth to it. Yes, this is Assassin’s Creed 2, and yes, you can discard all the negativity about the franchise, because Ubisoft Montreal have injected an unprecedented amount of life into their third person action-adventure title and proved they can truly make a sequel of epic proportions.
Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up where the original left off, although thanks to a recap at the beginning of the game it isn’t necessary to have played the first, although highly recommended. As it was in the original, you’ll take control of Desmond Miles, an important player in an ongoing war between the Assassins and the Templars. Although the story is built around Desmond, there is no denying that this game is all about Desmond’s ancestor, Ezio, whose memories he can access through a neat little device called the Animus. Set during a 30 year period spanning from 1470 to 1500 in Renaissance Italy, Assassin’s Creed 2 follows the tragic story of Ezio who sets off on a tail of revenge after a tragic event.
Ubisoft Montreal have not only done a stellar job of bringing the atmosphere and the vibe of 15th century Italy to the game, but they’ve done it whilst including and adapting many of the Renaissance’s key events – including the Pazzi Conspiracy, and seeing characters like Leonardo Da Vinci, Marco Barbarigo and Rodrigo Borgia make an appearance. The streets are more vibrant, the locations more varied – with interiors in certain places as well – and the whole world screams attention to detail. In all there are 3 main cities, 1 region for Ezio’s villa – more on that later – and a few other places that make a guest appearance throughout – no spoilers though! Just know that the Ezio’s story is a strong one, driven by emotion, flavoured with humour and includes all sorts of nods to other pop culture favourites, including Mario – of the famed Super Mario Bros – and the Joker, to name but a few. The problem, I suppose you could say like the first, is it’s frankly Matrix style ending. Everything was going swimmingly before Ubisoft Montreal threw a massive spanner in the works and totally upset the apple cart. Not a bad ending, more like a “what the fuck?!” ending.
Whilst the city seems to have captured the mood of the period and setting perfectly, and everything looks in tip-top shape, it’ll be the actual character model’s faces that let the overall package down. To say they look a bit dated and for loss of a better term, “fugly,” is an understatement; something that they need to address for the inevitable sequel. It’s a good job that the main character is actually the world you are thrown into and not the people that occupy it, which otherwise is excellent. The score on the other hand doesn’t have the same problems as the visuals, and is frankly epic all-round, and easily the best soundtrack of the year. Jesper Kyd’s use of haunting melodies, angelic voices and pulsating rhythms are enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Jesper Kyd seriously knew what he was doing here and delivers in style. Throw in a great performance from all the voice actors and you have a perfect audio package here.
The central mechanics of the game – namely the combat and the free-running – have pretty much been kept in check, so players familiar with the franchise will feel at home in no time. That doesn’t mean it’s stayed the same though, on the contrary, everything seems that much more fleshed out this time around. Free-running seems smoother, quicker and more fluent, whilst the combat has seen the introduction of weapon disarms, grabs and even taunts. Taking that one step further is the inclusion of a wider range of weapons including maces, axes, spears, long swords, short swords, and so much more. The foundations remain the same though and you are only permitted to carrying one two-handed weapon and one one-handed weapon at a time... as well as your trusty hidden blade of course, which thanks to Da Vinci, sees plenty of upgrades. Our only qualm may be that although there are a ton more weapons, the death sequences get a little samey after the 10 hour mark, although the brutality and sheer goriness of some of them goes to making up for that somewhat.
Throughout the story you can upgrade the hidden blade to two hidden blades, administer poison and even use it as a gun – which surprisingly isn’t overpowered and you’ll find it actually taking a backseat to all your other weapons. The throwing knives make a welcome return, and we see the introduction of some fancy smoke bombs which are a great distraction when you become overwhelmed or just want to cause a nuisance.
The combat is taken up another notch this time as well with various archetypes to take chunks out of, including Seekers – who search hay with their long staffs, Brutes – who are bloody strong, and the Agiles who can give you a relentless chase if you happen to anger them. The enemy AI may not be the game’s strongest point, but it is a vast improvement over the original as your foes will try and sneak around the back and attack you at the same time. It’s an aspect of the game that definitely still needs some work and refining.
You’re not entirely alone this time either, and not only do you have four new amazing assassination moves at your disposal – the extended air assassination, the pull over ledge assassination, the double assassination and the pull-in-the-hay assassination – but you can call upon the help of the three factions littered around the city if you so wish. The Courtesans will act as a nice distraction, the Mercenaries will wade in and help in battle, and the Thieves will disrupt whoever and lure the guards away from their guard post.
New to the franchise as well are some minor RPG elements that allow you to control your character progression and these tie in somewhat to the new economic system. You can earn money by stealing it off the locals or performing main or side missions. This money can then be spent on a number of things including various armours which improve your health, weapons which improve your damage and combat success, gadgets which make your life easier, health (because it no longer regenerates over time) and objects for your stronghold. You even have a notoriety system to keep an eye on this time that goes up as you are caught stealing or slaying guards and so on, but a quick bribe of a herald, assassination of an official or removal of a wanted poster, and you’ll be back to an unknown assassin in no time.
The stronghold acts as Ezio’s hub in Italy and here you can drop off feathers, return pieces of various puzzles, upgrade your stronghold so it makes you more money, and store your weapons and armour. You can even purchase things like paintings that not only improve your stronghold income, but also add a sense of personalisation to your giant villa. It’s a nice, albeit unnecessary touch, that breaks up the one thing that the original had an abundance of... repetition.
The original’s much discussed problem was its repetition and in the sequel, there isn’t much of that in sight. Okay, so the combat might be a little repetitive at times, but I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a thousand times, it’s no more repetitive than a shooter. The mission structure is devised in Assassin’s Creed 2 so that the experience is much more organic and free-flowing one as you roll from one mission to the next with various different objectives and play styles that the game will draw upon. These include such things as a carriage chase, a fight club, flying Da Vinci’s flying machine, stealth missions, chase missions, combat missions, and more. One of the highlights of the game is the new “linear game sequences” that throws Ezio in to some fantastic interiors to hunt down some ancient seals with a Prince of Persia style gameplay sequence.
The depth and variety doesn’t stop there either, and for those that want to put in the effort, the cities contain 20 glyphs that contain access to a series of progressively challenging puzzles that give more of an insight into this Templar and Assassin war that you’re embroiled in. The searching and following of this side story was a personal highlight of my Assassin’s Creed 2 experience and is a true indication of how much effort has gone into making this game something special. For those that can’t get enough, there are a ton of side missions to get involved in as well, with particular thought going in to the assassination contracts which are a pleasant distraction.
The achievement list is a vast improvement over the original which had a little too much flag collecting for our liking. You will however be expected to collect feathers, but there are only 100 of them, compared to 420 flags. As usual you can expect general story progression achievements, some for some combat moves – a personal favourite is stealing a long spear and sweeping the legs of 5 guards, visiting and completing all the linear game sequences and spending your cash on a variety of things. There are a hugely varied amount of achievements that encourage you to experience every facet of the game and you’re looking at 20-25 hours for the full 1,000.
Assassin’s Creed 2 does exactly what we want a sequel to do. It improves on the original vastly and corrects all the errors, it adds a ton more depth and content, yet it still manages to encapsulate the charm of the original. Screw encapsulate, it truly exceeds the charm of the original, which isn’t hard with a likeable main character like Ezio. The ending was a little bit off tangent and not expected, but it is the build up to it that is the truly memorable experience. I would be willing to go out on a limb here and say that not only is Assassin’s Creed 2 in the running for Game of the Year, but it’s that much of an improvement over its predecessor, that it could be held as one of the greatest 2 year development cycle sequels ever.
Not many soundtracks as a whole have made such an impact on me that I’ve had to purchase it in its entirety, however Assassin’s Creed 2 does just that. Truly epic. The voice acting is commendable throughout also. An all-round audio orgasm.
The main characters aren’t as detailed and realistic as we would have expected and aren’t much of an improvement over the original, but the cities they have created are utterly fantastic, rich, vibrant and full of Renaissance life. The animations are second to none as well.
The free running mechanic is a lot more fluent this time around and they’ve introduced a few handy assassinations and abilities to spice up the combat. It’s hard to pinpoint any major issues.
The issue of repetition is a thing of the past. With an organic missions structure, plenty of mission variety and purpose, and hours upon hours of gameplay, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a fantastic package.
A solid list all-round, encouraging players to sample a few of the missions on the side and step off the main path. A few quirky achievements for random tasks always goes down a treat and although there is some collecting, there’s only 100 feathers so it’s not all bad. You’re looking at 20-25 hours for the full 1,000. They’re an exhilarating 20-25 hours though!
Ubisoft Montreal have proved the naysayers and doubters wrong and delivered an organic and truly immersive story, a vibrant world full of colour and personality, and a ton of fun. Once you pick up the pad, you won’t be able to put it down... which is quite worrying for a game that boasts around 20 hours of story. You’ll be seeing this one in the running for Game of the Year, that’s for sure. After you’ve bought the game, go buy the soundtrack as well... it’s absolutely fantastic.