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Ezio brings redemption to Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed with a sequel that goes beyond expectations...
- Vastly improved design
- Varied gameplay
- Great plot & presentation
- One or two bugs
- Combat gets a little easy
- Poor QTEs
Despite a compelling premise and stunning visuals, TVG wasn't the biggest fan of the original Assassin's Creed. Set during the Holy Crusades, the concept of a medieval hitman schooled in the art of free-running should have provided the perfect backdrop for the studio behind Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia to deliver a groundbreaking experience. Ultimately we got a lesson in monotonous rinse-and-repeat gameplay and the dangers of making a game too 'accessible'. It didn't help that the game was billed as something akin to the second coming, despite its appropriate setting.
Thankfully the publicity seems to have been curtailed this time around and the pre-release hype has been tastefully subdued in comparison. The result only serves to magnify the sheer improvements that Ubisoft Montreal has managed to bring to Assassin's Creed II; a true gulf in quality and scope that demonstrates what a sequel should offer. We'd have understood Ubisoft Montreal settling for a few improvements and a different setting for the sequel though; after all it's hard to argue with more than 8 million sales for a new IP. Nothing can really prepare you for the lengths to which the team has taken in delivering an improved and vastly superior sequel. Ubisoft Montreal has taken things back to the drawing board to achieve this, strengthening every core aspect of the series and making up for the original's considerable inadequacies.
Picking up directly where events left off in the original, Assassin's Creed II follows the events of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a 15th century charmer from Renaissance Italy and the latest character in a long line of assassins that ultimately leads up to Desmond Miles in the near future. We'll skirt around details surrounding the plot and characters, as there are plenty of surprises packed into the game and it would be taking a considerable chunk out of the game's overall enjoyment (plus Ubisoft would probably nail our private parts to the cross). Suffice to say the plot continues the tale of the Desmond's attempt to stop Abstergo's plans, a time-honoured story that involves the Knights Templar, the Mayan prophecies surrounding the end of the world, and a New World Order with much more conviction than Dan Brown could ever muster.
Firstly, Assassin's Creed II is the stealth game that the first one aspired to be, but clearly wasn't. It's not a pure stealth experience along the lines of Hitman or Thief before it, but it makes considerable strides forward for a game that shared more in common with a Benny Hill skit and took the edge and gravitas out of being a Templar-killing hitman. Central to this is the improved blending system, which allows Ezio to disappear into a veil of secrecy provided by crowds of people. Nudging people to one side as he slips into a group, Assassin's Creed II presents the concept of stealth via crowds with a stylish certainty way beyond what its predecessor achieved. It helps to bring an end to the incessantly mundane technique of running along rooftops until a convenient hay bail appeared that typified the original. Assassin's Creed II still employs these safe areas, but their use is largely restricted to carefully scripted stealth scenarios. Easing the ability to slip away unnoticed is the chance to hire groups of courtesans, thieves and warriors, who assist Ezio by distracting guards with their charm, mischief and brute strength. Giving each group a valid sense of purpose along with a set of advantages - thieves can free-run, courtesans provide cover, and warriors can fight - ensures that these form a very apt technique in Ezio's book of tricks.
Ezio's heightened abilities and increased options are complimented with a more refined patrol and alert system. Charting Ezio's current level of notoriety within each individual location, the system behind Ezio remaining undetected and guards attempting to identify him is a much more natural and enjoyable setup. It's no longer as twitchy or erratic as the first game, and won't kick off an alert the moment you decide to run or just happen to look at somebody the wrong way, while Ezio can help to reduce this by removing wanted posters, bribing officials and intimidating witnesses of his acts. The game also benefits from the introduction of different types of opponents, such as tougher brutes and those that can detect Ezio even when he's concealed in a hiding spot or amongst people.
Although it was hard to fault the original game's free-running system, the slightly more cynically inclined could point towards a setup that sucked away any need to be skilful, and largely came down to holding buttons and pointing in the right way. The system is largely similar, but its use is more effective and is developed with the unlockable skill of being able to make leaps towards grapple holds slightly out of Ezio's reach. The setup is promoted in the Assassins Tombs, hidden locations which provide environmental puzzles closer in scope and challenge to another Ubisoft Montreal title, Prince of Persia. Not only do these provide a challenge which requires a more skilful approach but also a reward worth discovering!
Combat has also seen a number of improvements through a wider selection of weapons and additional moves such as stealing an opponent's weapon and using it against them. It was satisfying enough in the original and largely remains the same; although as a deadly assassin, getting caught up in crowded battles shouldn't be too high on the agenda. If we had to criticise, we'd say combat becomes a little too easy, particularly once Ezio's health and armour upgrades have been unlocked and the effectiveness of the counter attack is a little too overstated. But these are minor quibbles in a setup that on the whole compliments the overall tone of the action.
So Ubisoft Montreal has refined and developed the key components, but the improvements don't end there. In recognition that the biggest fault lied with the lack of variety, the team has decided to reset the overall design and flow of the game, bringing something that is genuinely absorbing throughout its captivating 20+ hours. Assassinating targets remains the principle objective, but the way in which Ezio goes about it makes Altair look like a bumbling desk sergeant in comparison. The missions featured in the game benefit from the care of being crafted and created individually, layering different challenges atop of one another to ensure there's variety before culminating in the assassination that marks each sequence. No longer is it merely just a case of eavesdropping, pick-pocketing, interrogating, assassinating, move-on mediocrity; Assassin's Creed II genuinely feels like a more rewarding experience this time around.
Variety isn't restricted to just the design of the levels. Finding hidden Glyphs throughout Italy's various regions unlock a range of satisfyingly challenging puzzles, each of which revolve around the key plot themes running throughout the plot. They offer a challenge that is a considerable departure from the main gameplay, but it's the reward of mini video clips, parts of a mysterious video sequence, which provides the impetus. Typically collecting things is a pretty naff way of extending a game's length (feathers?), but in this case Assassin's Creed II manages to provide something that compels you to search and discover to unravel the mystery. Beyond this are 30 codex pages to collect to help uncover what it all means - just take a word of advice and make sure to collect these along the way!
Classic video game elements also embellish the overall experience. They may be small things, but the ability to loot bodies, buy weapons, armour, and health adds to the overall experience with a sense of reward and progress. Money is also key to the Montenegro Villa, which becomes a hub of sorts for Ezio fairly early on in the game. Beginning in a state of disrepair, Ezio can invest money to open up shops and local amenities, which in turn provides a regular form of income through taxes and an increased population. Leonardo Da Vinci makes a frequent appearance throughout the course of the game, inventing new devices for Ezio and helping to decipher the codex pages that Ezio discovers. Items such as Da Vinci's flying machine are kept to a careful minimum, but it's his inventions such as poisoned blades, smoke bombs and a pistol upgrade that gives a further sense of reward to the proceedings and opens up various means to go about Ezio's daily business.
As a result of these additions and considerable improvements, progress through the 14 different DNA Sequences is enticing and entertaining throughout. Strangely a plot device leaves two of these sequences inaccessible, which can only hint towards future DLC addressing these 'missing' levels/memories. But despite this, Assassin's Creed II is still a heavyweight in the content stakes. Focussing on the main narrative offers roughly 20 hours of gameplay, but adding Glyphs, Assassin's Tombs, and the range of side missions such as races increase this total considerably. Assassin's Creed II is a game with plenty of substance and manages to keep this enthralling throughout.