Assassin's Creed II ReviewBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Nov 17, 2009
It's not uncommon for a developer to take criticism to heart and incorporate changes in ensuing games, but the structural overhaul done to Assassin's Creed II exposes the indefensible flaws of the first game. Some older things didn't get fixed, and some new things were broken in the process, but the Montreal studio is definitely sending the message that this is what they've wanted to do from the beginning. It shows.
- Massive Improvements from First Game
- Engrossing Past and Present Plotlines
- Outstanding Soundtrack
- Ezio Has Movement Issues
- In-game Economy Becomes Meaningless
- Noticeably Glitchy In Areas
Everyone likes to say there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion, but, if you were a fervent defender of the first Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft Montreal has just put you in an uncomfortable situation. Praised for its beautiful recreation of the Crusades-era Middle East and juxtaposing it with a sci-fi story concept, yet maligned for its repetitive structure and sputtering conclusion, AC divided popular opinion like few games before it. It's not uncommon for a developer to take criticism to heart and incorporate changes in ensuing games, but the structural overhaul done to Assassin's Creed II exposes the indefensible flaws of the first game. Some older things didn't get fixed, and some new things were broken in the process, but the Montreal studio is definitely sending the message that this is what they’ve wanted to do from the beginning. It shows.
Previously On Assassin’s Creed...
The sequel starts immediately following the events of the first game. Desmond Miles is now aware of his role in the centuries-old battle between the Knights Templar and the Assassins. AC II kicks off with Desmond and Lucy, an Assassin mole who worked as an office assistant in the first game, escaping Abstergo Labs (the Templar's modern-day facility) in favor of more Assassin-friendly confines. It's from here that Desmond dives deeper into his blood-stained heritage.
The memory vehicle this time is Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who is pursuing the Templars of Renaissance Italy. The cities of Florence and Venice are obviously different than Jerusalem and Acre, but are just as beautifully realized in the game. The open hub world of the first game has been deemed unnecessary and is replaced by the Auditore family villa, which is the cornerstone of a smaller walled city. There are five regions to explore in total, with Venice being particularly massive, and the feeling of living in the Italian Renaissance is wonderfully actualized. It's incredibly easy to move between areas using the travel stations scattered about, so downtime is minimal and you have quick access to your base of operations.
Views To A Kill
Assassinations in the first game were a very defined process: gather information, locate the target, perform the kill, then escape. The problem was that this seemed to put artificial rules on a character and gameplay mechanic that were driven by creativity and improvisation. It also advanced the plot in an unflattering way, as it shoehorned much of the story into preset mission types (i.e. "beat up this guy for information"). Ubisoft did away with that structure, but rolled the investigative and story elements into something that more resembles the traditional missions of the Grand Theft Auto series. Instead of beating up random henchman for information, you're tailing them through the city streets as they reveal their intentions through natural conversation. Or, you're eliminating rooftop archers in preparation for a coordinated attack you'll be attempting two steps down the mission line. The basic pieces are all still there: enemies, hiding spots, assassination targets, helper characters...everything just flows together in a more natural manner.
Ezio's story is one of revenge, so the culmination of these missions is the marquee kill, and like the first game, most of them are designed in a way that provides for multiple strategies. Depending on the context of the story, sometimes the mission will require you to choose either to kill with blunt force or to quietly kill and escape undetected. But there are elements of both required throughout the game.
The direct approach is to attack the target head-on with no regard to subtlety. This is a combat-heavy method, and, because his guards have received a boost in power, defense, and intelligence, you need to be in command of the combat system. Parrying still plays a role when taking on a large group of enemies, but several key improvements have been made so that battles don't turn into boring stand-offs while you wait for an attack. For one, you'll run into guards with differing speed, armor, and weapons. Parrying won't work against pikes or spears, and blocking won't work against maces and hammers, so it's necessary to identify who's attacking with what before deciding to parry or dodge. And, if you do find yourself standing around a group of timid opponents, you can taunt them into attacking. As a result of these new tactics, different weapon types, and the returning stylistic kill animations, combat remains a fresh experience throughout.
For the cerebral murderer, there are new tools as well. Courtesans, mercenaries, and thieves populate the city streets, and each group can be hired to help you create different diversions. Say a cadre of guards stands between you and the target. The courtesans will use their feminine wiles to distract the guards, mercenaries will launch an attack, and thieves will lure them out of position. You don't even need to hire anyone specific. By throwing spare change on the ground, the townspeople (and the greedier of the guards) will scramble to pick it up and cause a commotion. A poisoned blade can also be used to kill discreetly. To slip in, make the kill, and slip out completely undetected is the essence of this game, and you can be much more creative with it this time around.
What's My Motivation?
There were 100 flags to collect in Assassin's Creed. There are 100 feathers to collect in Assassin's Creed II. The difference here is that the feathers actually mean something, in terms of both plot and the incentive to collect them. That, in a nutshell, symbolizes Ubisoft's approach to the secondary activities. There’s a real purpose to them. Ezio’s optional assassination missions relate to the events at hand, put extra cash in the coffers, and they keep you actively exploring the cities. Your own villa and its associated populace can be upgraded to generate income, with which you can purchase better armor and weapons (you can even dye your assassin’s robes). The races and courier missions are still straightforward, but they have financial rewards, too. Collecting 30 Codex pages for Leonardo da Vinci is required to fully complete the game, but finding the optional 20 mysterious glyphs and solving their puzzles contributes an incredible amount to the conspiratorial atmosphere. In short, ACII is one of those games that constantly distracts you with something to do between the primary missions, and it keeps you engaged in the time period and the story.
The highlight of the optional objectives almost should have been mandatory: the six Assassin Tombs. These are obstacle courses populated by environmental puzzles and hostile guards. Get to the end of all six and you'll get a worthwhile reward. You'll also get a nice action-oriented break from all the sneaking around.
Ezio's agility is simultaneously the game's biggest strength and the biggest source of its frustration. When everything's clicking -- when you've found a running line from the street level, bounding up boxes onto an ivy-covered balcony, climbing up to the rooftops and leaping across gaps until you see the pigeons that mark a leap of faith -- it's a thrilling experience. But it often doesn't go as perfectly as described. There's something askew with the combination of climbable architecture, analog sensitivity, a misbehaving camera, and Ezio's difficulty with diagonal movement that leads to way too many misdirected movements, unwanted jumps, and blown missions. Much of the problem can be attributed to having both "sprint" and "free run" live on the same button. There are times in the game (races, for example) where you'll want to sprint through areas but not necessarily grab on to the closest chimney stack/ladder or hop on the nearest ledge. Ezio loses a lot of fluidity in his movement and becomes too "sticky" -- not something you want to happen when running from guards or trying to beat a countdown clock.
The camera can be bothersome as well, making inopportune pans to the left and right and throwing off your directional line of sight while you're running or climbing. The natural tendency is to force the camera back and correct your route, but it's easy to overcorrect, and what started out as running a simple straight line ends up as a free fall. There's a perfect example of this in a later Assassin's Tomb mission. Balancing on a narrow beam, Ezio needs to run down it lengthwise and hop across to the next beam. But the camera inexplicably swoops to a side view while this is happening, making it a blind jump. Cinematic, yes. Helpful? Not at all. The problem is rarely that severe, but the smaller instances add up quickly. The more you encounter these issues throughout the game, the more you distrust your own abilities, to the point where simply sprinting through the streets becomes far less aggravating than hopping across the rooftops. It certainly doesn't feel as cool, but you'll probably get there faster.
Even though Assassin’s Creed II represents a massive improvement in almost every area, there are still signs that Ubisoft's ambition is one step ahead of their execution. Grabbing dropped weapons from the ground doesn't work very well, leaving you exposed and defenseless in battle. The economy is off-balance, so if you upgrade the town bank early and frequently collect funds, there'll be more than enough money to buy anything you want in the latter half of the game. Ezio is impervious to water, yet it is instantly fatal to NPCs. In one humorous yet disappointing sequence in Venice, a bad jump intended to be a killing blow resulted in Ezio hanging on to the side of a ship. Before he could climb back up, the two assassination targets both randomly fell off the dock and died instantly in the water, making for perhaps the least impressive assassination in history. ACII is bigger and better, but it's still rough around the edges. You take the bad with the good, perhaps epitomized best by the erratic (yet ultimately satisfying) conclusion to the game.
The Big Apple
The good news is that there's still room for the series to grow, and judging by how far they've advanced the Templar vs. Assassin battle, the merging of the past and present, and the mystical/religious/scientific brew that is the overarching plot, we're going to go in some very interesting directions. If you saw past Assassin’s Creed's flaws, you'll love this one even more. If not, Assassin’s Creed II proves that Ubisoft Montreal deserves the opportunity to win you back.
Want to hear more about Assassin's Creed II? Check out this video of reviewer Andrew Pfister talking to X-Play's Adam Sessler about the game!