There’s something fascinating about historical fiction. The idea that our ancestors held long-forgotten secrets in artifacts and structures that still survive today excites the treasure hunting adventurer in all of us. That there might even be grand conspiracies behind it all is even more enticing. It’s why movies like National Treasure and books like The Da Vinci Code are so popular. The Assassin’s Creed series tries to tap into this genre as well by allowing players to see these grand conspiracies as they play out. The first game laid the groundwork and was mostly successful from a narrative standpoint. However, the gameplay was far too repetitious to make it a classic. Now Assassin’s Creed 2 is here with promises of a far better experience, and it delivers.
The world of Assassin’s Creed takes place in the year 2012 and focuses on a man named Desmond. He was taken captive in the first game and forced to use a machine known as the Animus, which allows him to relive digital versions of his genetic memories and see the lives of his ancestors who happen to be Assassins. The sequel picks up soon after the end of the first game with Desmond escaping his captors and needing to learn how to be an Assassin. He enters the life of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, and follows his story. Much of Ezio’s life centers on revenge and discovering the conspiracy behind his family’s fall from grace.
The story is much more confident this time around. Where the first felt meandering and unimportant, the sequel knows exactly what kind of story it wants to tell. The main plot focuses on Ezio’s revenge and his evolution into a true Assassin but gives time to develop his personality so you actually care about his quest. For those that want to dig deeper into the game’s mythology, there are codex pages to find and ready and scattered pieces of data that provide puzzles which lead to the “Truth.” This mythology can actually be quite entertaining for history aficionados, and the puzzles, at least at first, are clever and fun. How you react to the game’s version of historical events is up to your tastes. Personally, I found the information related to history fascinating, but the “Truth” video and the end reveal were a little weird.
Looking beyond the story and at the gameplay, it becomes obvious that Assassin’s Creed didn’t exactly have largest repertoire of abilities. There was the hidden blade, throwing daggers, sword, and that was about it. This has been corrected for the sequel. Several different weapons are now at your disposal with each type having different stats and kill animations. There are also two hidden blades now, which are immensely satisfying to use as well as poison and a hidden pistol. It’s entirely possible to beat the game without any of these, but they help allay the repetition that starts to set in as the game goes on. The free running returns to the game as well but it’s one of the few things that was done better in the first game. The camera occasionally wants to show off Ezio more than where you’re jumping, but it was the architecture of the Italian Renaissance that gave me the most headaches. Roofs tend to slope and hide other objects you can leap on. It challenges your perspective and jumps you thought you could make turn out to be farther away. I ended up with more frustration over free running than fun. Assassin’s Creed 2 also gives you the option of hiring groups to distract guards or keep you hidden. Swimming and piloting gondolas are available though neither are particularly fun. The same can be said of the much hyped but underutilized flying machine. It’s a diverse enough set of abilities to keep you occupied, but repetition still sets in during the last quarter of the game.
The greatest improvement to the game is easily the mission structure. Rather than having you collect intel by repeating the same actions ad nauseam, it adopts the Grand Theft Auto model of giving you a snippet of story and sending you on your mission. Most objectives are designed to bring you closer to the target until the inevitable assassination. This design helps the story move at a brisker pace even though the game is surprisingly long. The missions feel varied for most of the game and some even change in the middle based off unknown circumstances. But toward the end of the game, you’ll recognize each type of mission and the repetitious feeling sets in. The game tries to rectify this by adding sidequests, which do help but most of those grow tiresome as well with the exception of the hidden tombs and the “Truth” puzzles. The tombs are pure platforming at its best and some can provide a good challenge. I mostly enjoyed the “Truth” puzzles because of the alternate history they provided rather than the puzzles themselves. Some could be clever but most were either too easy or way too obtuse. They were all able to hold my interest though.
Then there’s the town that you can help rebuild. I had little interest in it at first, but I soon found myself addicted to improving the town. It acts as your home base throughout the game and is a physical representation of everything you’ve collected in the game. The money you earn from missions or in hidden chests can be spent to improve the town and eventually transform it from a forgotten mess into a thriving villa. All the weapons, armor, and classic paintings you collect is also displayed for your perusal. As the town grows more prosperous, the more money you are able to collect back. The problem is that as you get the town back on its feet, you have less uses for the money earned. By the time I beat the game, I was sitting on over 200,000 in cash.
For all my gripes about the gameplay, Ubisoft Montreal nailed the setting. I’ve never been to Italy, but it certainly feels like that’s how it actually was. The graphics are aided by a database that provides background information on all the people you meet and places you see. It provides greater context to all the things you experience as you explore Italian cities and some of the countryside. It all looks amazing. However, the character models did not fare so well. They all have fluid animation, which is especially impressive with a city full of people, but the look of them is hit or miss. Some, like Ezio and Desmond, look quite good and almost realistic. Others look downright ridiculous. One look at their mouths and you’ll know what I mean. The worst offender of the entire game is actually the second character you meet. It leaves a bad impression that is eventually cast aside when you see the city designs.
One of the first things you’ll want to do when you start the game is turn on the subtitles. There’s a lot of Italian interspersed throughout the dialog and while none of it is vital to the plot, it provides some of the finer details. You’ll also learn how to swear in Italian which is a fun touch. The voice acting and music are excellent across the board though I think the musical accompaniment is a tad limited. Sounds bites from the crowds also repeat often, but that’s only nitpicking.
The highly repetitive nature of the original Assassin’s Creed forced me to play the game in small bursts. With the sequel, I had trouble putting the controller down. The game can still get repetitive toward the end, but the experience is much grander than before. The story drives you to see what’s next, and I found myself trying different tactics to see all of the combat possibilities. The team at Ubisoft Montreal did a great job of listening to fan complaints and creating a tighter game. I hope they continue the trend and provide a satisfying conclusion when the inevitable sequel arrives.