Much ado has been made regarding Ubisoft’s decision to slice out two chapters of Assassin’s Creed II and deliver them as downloadable episodes post-release. Many gamers feel that they’re getting the short end of the stick when it comes to a complete experience. However, after completing both January’s The Battle of Forlí and the recently-released The Bonfire of the Vanities (320 Microsoft Points or $3.99 at launch), I’m not so sure that the assertion holds much water. Ultimately, both episodes prove that sometimes, less is more.
For those of you who haven’t played through Assassin’s Creed II to completion, Ezio makes some big discoveries at the end of Sequence 11 that play into the greater scheme of the centuries-old battle between the Assassins' Guild and the Knights of Templar. Suddenly, the action fast-forwards several years to Sequence 14 and wraps up in a previously unseen locale. After another hour or so of gameplay, the credits roll, and you'll be asking a whole new set of questions, such as the age old one about knives and gunfights.
At the finale of The Battle of Forlí, AC2’s first DLC release, Ezio regains the Apple of Eden, but is incapacitated by Giralomo Savonarola, a real-life historical figure who uses the mystical device to kick the Medici family out and bring Florence to its knees. That’s where real life and history blur as Sequence 13, The Bonfire of the Vanities, begins. Ezio returns to his home town to see that its people are under the sway of Savonarola, who has installed nine cronies to enforce his twisted vision of religious purity.
The action starts with an escort mission as Ezio must help Machiavelli get from the Florentine city entrance into its core. The problem, however, is that under Savonarola’s rule, Signore Auditore might as well be wearing his family cape; that is, every guard in Florence wants a piece of his head. Upon joining with the other members of the Assassins' Guild, Ezio determines that the only means of getting the Apple back and snapping Florence out of its spell -- in real life, Florentines began burning the city’s cultural treasures under Savonarola’s anti-Renaissance movement back to religious purity -- is to partake in nine assassination missions.
To be brutally frank, while many gamers complain about publishers stripping out content only to resell it on a disc, the two downloadable chapters of Assassin’s Creed II are proof positive that sometimes, game stages are removed for a reason. Both of these downloadable sequences, while fun, are rather uneven and lack the refinement of the other segments of the game. Arguably, Bonfire’s worst offense is its three stealth missions, which evoke the same sense of tedium that stripped the fun factor out of Assassin’s Creed’s final third. In these moments -- Ezio must climb heavily guarded monuments around Florence without being detected -- it’s easy to see how much the game is not optimized for stealthy gameplay. Ezio’s “stickiness” gets him caught far too often, and the missions simply feel like speed bumps along an intense journey.
The majority of Bonfire’s other missions consist of chasing a target. If you’ve completed the core game, it’s likely that hours of nabbing Borgia couriers has prepared you for these hits, which are similar, except for the fact that ten guards are constantly breathing down your neck. Eventually, I started to seek these missions out instead of the stealth assassinations, if only to prevent myself from spiking my controller.
Bonfire delivers another nice addition to the Florentine rooftops with springboards. These fixtures stick out from certain buildings and give Ezio a boost across gaps that were fatal misjumps in the core game. In light of the numerous chase assassinations, they're a big help when you can find them.
Completion-obsessed gamers will be thrilled by the news that for a few extra dollars or Microsoft Points, Bonfire is also sold in a version (560 Microsoft Points or $6.99 at launch) that delivers the secret location content that was previously divided up into retailer-specific downloads, such as the Gamestop-exclusive Palazzo Medici. With all locales and sequences opened up (provided you coughed up for the prior DLC release), getting 100% completion should be attainable with this content.
With all of these factors taken under consideration, I can't emphatically recommend The Bonfire of the Vanities. I’ve sunk well over 30 hours into Assassin’s Creed II, and if I’d played through the game with both sequences fit squarely into the proceedings, I’m not sure that I’d look at the entirety of AC2 quite as favorably. While the majority of the sequence is business as usual, it's hobbled by some unnecessarily frustrating moments that leave me relieved that they were excised from the final game. If you’ve collected all of the feathers, achieved 1000 points or that Platinum Trophy, and you still want more of Ezio’s adventures, then it might be worth diving in. If you’re already satisfied with those aforementioned carrots, then this penultimate sequence might have a bit too much stick for your taste.