Assassin’s Creed II
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Published by: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC
Originally released in November 2009, Assassin’s Creed II is widely considered to be the breakthrough moment for the franchise that cemented its position in the videogame industry and its continued longevity to this day. Whilst the original Assassin’s Creed wowed audiences with its open-world exploration and accessible combat mechanics, the sequel focuses more on character with a change in protagonist from the stoic Altair to the more genial and relatable Ezio. Along with the change in lead character comes a change in locale as the story switches from the Crusades to Renaissance Italy in the late 15th Century. An era largely unexplored in videogames, it results in some beautiful level design with the sloping tiled roofs, narrow alleyways and canals creating a dense labyrinth for players to escape guards and stalk targets.
Learning from the criticisms of the original, Assassin’s Creed II features a lot more variety in its missions and makes use of the narrative to guide the player to the next mission, as opposed to the extremely formulaic intelligence-gathering in the first game. We also witness Ezio’s transformation from an innocent playboy into a hardened assassin intent on getting revenge on the Templars for ruining his life. This character development feels a lot more authentic than Altair’s journey away from arrogance, and it is no wonder that Ezio became such a favourite amongst gamers that he spawned two spin-off titles to continue his adventures. The game also introduces some light RPG character progression with weapons and armour upgrades to be earned/purchased and the ability to decorate and renovate your home to earn regular cash stipends. This customisation adds a whole new dimension to the game experience, tying character improvement to the side-missions and resource gathering to encourage more exploration of the virtual cities.
There are also several improvements to the gameplay mechanics with smoother traversal of the landscape and an improved combat system. At times, Altair felt invincible in Assassin’s Creed if you just blocked and countered each enemies move, but in Assassin’s Creed II, the enemy AI seems to be more advanced and skirmishes become less predictable as guards are able to block, dodge and counter against your own moves. The notoriety system has also been rejigged with prolonged bad behaviour making you more noticeable to guards instead of the instant amnesia that occurred during the events of the first game. The game also features new items to help balance the playing field; with smoke bombs to help facilitate an escape or a miniature pistol to perform assassinations with style. Some of these new elements didn’t quite gel with my existing playing style, for instance I rarely made use of the poisoned blade or the groups of mercenaries, thieves or courtesans that could be hired to fight alongside you.
During Assassin’s Creed, I found myself more engaged with Desmond’s story in Abstergo than I was with Altair, however I found the opposite to be true with Assassin’s Creed II. The framing story with Desmond is relatively thin on the ground this time around, although we do get to meet two new members of the team; the permanently sarcastic Shaun Hastings and the tech geek Rebecca Crane. The game focuses more on Ezio’s journey with hardly any interruptions from the outside world, although this results in little advancement in the series’ present-day plot. The final sequences unite the two narratives together in a surprising twist that was a little bit “too sci-fi” for my tastes and took the mythology of the games into a bit of a weird place. I like the idea of supernatural treasures intermingled with historical fiction (not unlike Indiana Jones), but some of the reveals towards the end of this game seemed a bit too far: think Kingdom of the Crystal Skull vs. Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With the handy in-game stats keeping track for me, I can report that I managed to complete the game in thirty-one hours, with most of the collectibles and side-quests complete. Most of the achievements are easy to get and just required a bit of extra exploration, or some helpful maps showing where feathers or glyphs are located. Playing the remastered version of the game found on Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, I was also able to play the DLC chapters, “The Battle of Forli” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” as well as some bonus hidden Templar Lairs which were available as optional extras when the game was initially released. These additions, while fun, are relatively non-essential and seem to extend the narrative by a few hours by having Ezio go on a last-minute side quest before confronting the final boss. At that point in the game, I was ready for the climactic showdown in the vault, but instead had to go on a bit of a detour to get there. This remastered edition also came with some extra cosmetic rewards, unlocked via the Ubisoft Connect app, further enhancing the experience.
Assassin’s Creed II is rife with little historical details, accessible through pop-ups in the Animus’ display, and I loved how it introduced real world figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli as supporting characters within its fictional events. The environment is breathtakingly beautiful and immersive, managing to convey the atmosphere of Renaissance Italy through the world design, graphics and even the ambient sounds of the marketplace. An improvement on the original in every single way, Assassin’s Creed II is an incredible gaming experience that stands up to the test of time over a decade after its release. Filled with plenty to do and see, along with a genuine sense of progression and growth as you advance the plot, Assassin’s Creed II is one of the definitive examples of a “sandbox game” out there, competing against the Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause franchises for the title.
If like me, you missed out on experiencing these games the first time around, Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection offers amazing value for money, combining all three titles onto one disc! Next up, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Score – ★★★★★
Assassin’s Creed II is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC from Amazon. It is also available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as part of the Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection from Amazon and direct from the Xbox Store.