Sunday, November 17, 2019
It's easy to forget just how big an impact Assassin's Creed II had upon its release, a decade ago today. While the first game - which came out in 2007 - managed to make history interesting with the story of Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, set during the Third Crusade in 1191, that game turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of potential, Assassin's Creed II expanded upon its predecessor in almost every conceivable department, putting a more charismatic lead character, in Ezio Auditore, at the centre of an epic narrative that revolves around family, insidious political machinations, betrayal, and vengeance – everything you could possibly ask for.
Ten years on, Assassin's Creed II has aged surprisingly well. Sure, games have come an awful long way (visually, at least) since Ubisoft Montreal shipped the game, but it still casts something of a long shadow over open-world games that, to this day, use the series' towers to defog its world and push players into exploring (Horizon Zero Dawn, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Dying Light, and even Death Stranding’s chiral network are a few recent examples, as well as a raft of Ubi’s own titles). But it's Assassin's Creed II's attention to detail that still impresses, and the huge amount of depth it brought to the table, improving immeasurably upon its forebear with interesting side quests and sub-games.
Most involving of these was the rebuilding of Monteriggioni, the Auditore family villa and surrounding walled township - an initially sad sight as you skulk past boarded-up shops and derelict places like the church, barracks, and the local brothel. Because every 15th century town needs a good brothel, and for 3,000 florins, it's yours. Additional quests presented you with assassination contracts, requests to beat up certain ne'er-do-wells, message delivery, and races across rooftops. Variety was the spice in AC II, and a refreshing change of pace after the relatively restrictive nature of the first game. Assassin's Creed 1 set the template, but Assassin's Creed II built something far more significant upon those foundations.
Spread across Florence, Venice, and Forli (with a thrilling coda in Rome), it's the game's revenge story that persists in the memory, the brief visits in which you catch up with Desmond Miles in the present day remaining largely forgettable. You can see why Ubisoft decided to put these bits further and further into the background in subsequent AC games, and why Desmond's tale was hastily put to bed at the end of Assassin's Creed III. The reason AC II was so good, then, was because it successfully provided a wish list of things that players wanted, and layered so much more on top of that, focusing on the fundamentals that make Assassin's Creed tick. It made history a playground, with a version of Italy that served as a wondrous piece of virtual tourism.
The less said about collecting feathers, the better (at least it wasn’t 400 flags), but who could forget gliding with Da Vinci's flying machine, traversing intricate subterranean tombs, scaling the grand Il Duomo cathedral, or scampering across the sun-burnished terracotta rooftops of Florence? Assassin's Creed II's ambition is encapsulated in its dual hidden daggers – now you could assassinate two targets at once (as long as they were close to each other), doubling the playful, brutal thrill of assassination that the first game harboured at its core. Greater detail, a more compelling story, a protagonist with a personality, and a vibrant, lived-in location that felt vital and fresh. AC II had it all, and it still does. It quite possibly remains the best and most influential Assassin's Creed game that's ever been. Without it, there’s no Assassin’s Creed Origins, no Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, there’s no Assassin’s Creed.
Granted, the success of Assassin's Creed II essentially gave Ubisoft carte blanche to copy the formula again and again for countless sequels, muddying the waters with naval combat and other fripperies that we could have done without. Assassin's Creed II was the purest expression of the series' remit, enabling you to fully embody Ezio, and see through his vengeful mission to its bitter conclusion. His saga continued in the brilliant Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and the less good Revelations, but the sequels couldn't really hold a candle to where Ezio's tale began.
And yet, we'll probably never see another Assassin's Creed game like AC II ever again. The series has moved on to far more expansive, action-RPG pastures, scrapping many of the fundamentals that previously informed what an Assassin's Creed game was. In moving forward, the franchise's future seems assured (at least for now), and Origins and Odyssey have both demonstrated the level of ambition that Assassin's Creed is still capable of delivering. But there’s no escaping AC 2’s utterly pivotal influence over the series, ten years hence.
Still, we long for the simpler days of the hidden blade, a hooded robe, and a trusty sword. We miss stalking prey from the rooftops in a dense, populated city, waiting for the right time to emerge from out of the shadows, the glint of our steel in the moonlight the last thing our quarry sees, as we take their wretched life. Requiescat in pace.
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