The lights are on
The original Assassin's Creed received an enormous amount of hype and delivered, with a variety of mixed results. Yet, the resounding criticism was due to its repetitive missions and numbingly dumb AI. However, the appeal of the game's story and its brilliant use of historical events and conspiracies wove an engrossing narrative that kept us hooked, even despite its wtf ending. Ubisoft promised us variety, improved combat, and a lot of other new material to sink our teeth into, and they delivered. While not the old dog it was before, Assassin's Creed II has a nostalgic feel, remaining true to its core roots while fixing the sore spots that plagued the debut of the series.
Players take on another character instead of Altair, in this Assassins vs. Templar conspiracy plot, as Desmond and his pals seek to uncover yet another mystery in their race against Abstergo, the corporation that seeks to control the world with the pieces of Eden. Leaping forward into the Renaissance period, you assume the identity of Ezio Auditore Da Firenze, who soon embarks on an idyllic quest for revenge. Yet, the game, while slightly linear in comparison to the first, doesn't have you lose all your powers ala Metroid at the beginning. You gradually learn how to become a master assassin, which, as the story goes, is just as important for Desmond.
While I won't spoil the plot any further, I will say that you will be seeing Desmond a lot less, and yet, as you play as Ezio, you can't help but remain attached to the delicately interwoven stories taking place. Ezio, in comparison to the naive and zealous Altair, is also much more likeable, which is to say that he has a personality that extends further than blindly assassinating his enemies. Each of the people you meet, including Leonardo Da Vinci himself, will thrill you, although the major assassination scenes aren't as thrilling. However, the stories and side stories - you will be peturbed by some of the lengths this game goes to convince us of a worldwide threat - will keep you involved.
Aside from its stellar narrative, Assassin's Creed II also improves its sound. Gone are the days when beautiful pieces would play for a few minutes and then magically quit, only to pop up for a few minutes hours later. The rhythm and orchestration is spot-on with some truly haunting and ambient pieces.
In terms of visuals, I'd say that the graphics are slightly polished, but the character models don't feel as improved, although the set pieces are just as breathtaking as before. Never has history looked so beautiful, whether you're exploring the world at day or at night.
The climbing mechanics are also refined, if not occasionally too refined, as the slightest twitch sometimes sends Ezio flying off whatever obstacle he was climbing, and to his detriment, as it means thousands of florins wasted on newly purchased armor -which, consequently, can be fixed for a hundred or so florins. Despite this minor issue, the exploration of the worlds Ezio will visit still remains one of the high points of this game. However, the major improvements are also worth a gander.
Those who played the first remember the monotony that overwhelmed the playing experience due to the lack of variety in missions. Not so this time, as there are a vast number of tasks to keep you busy, from beating up unfaithful husbands to assassinating different targets or exploring Assassin's tombs. Later on, you'll even get to try out Da Vinci's flying machine, in a very intriguing mission.
With the introduction of money to the game, you can build up your own estate and upgrade your character by purchasing new weapons, armor, paintings, even training lessons for new abilities. You can also renovate the different places of Florence to increase your estate's worth. Adding to the list of new abilities is Ezio's ability to lower his notoriety via ripping off warrants posted around various cities with his image. This will prove handy when you need to follow people in troublesome regions.
To note, you won't find yourself trudging along the city because of how paranoid everyone is. The Notoriety system is also a lot more flexible and less confining. The ability to hire small groups of people, from thieves to courtesans, along with a new blending mechanic, allows you to effectively immerse yourself amongst the people and remain beneath the radar in the toughest situations.
The combat system has also improved, with Ezio now also able to use axes, spears, double knives -for some brutal assassinations - and even smoke bombs or poisoned daggers, among a few. His ability to steal an enemy's weapon while barehanded also levels the playing field when you run into tough, armored knights known as brutes, who can overwhelm you... if they aren't plodding around, watching as you fight other enemies. In this regard, their biggest improvement is that they tend to constantly block and counter your attacks until you eventually kill them with some cheap move or strafe.
Yet, your enemies have strength in numbers, so you might want to hire a faction of warriors to help you when facing large groups, although they tend to stand around, doing nothing as well. In fact, I think this might be intentional, as I once heard Ezio scorn them for their laziness. However lame the computer AI may become when you're in combat or free roam, the other NPCs will entertain you with their liveliness.
Now, this is the part of the review that covers what this game and all future Assassin's Creeds will be about: the assassinations. The first made assassinations fun, but quickly lost steam as they lost the stealth and tension of the earlier missions. With the exception of a few assassinations related to the story, your character Ezio will have the chance to commit a number of heinous acts in an intriguing and varied way. My current favorites involved hiding in a bale of hay after luring a guard near with a neatly placed corpse and dragging a guard inside to his doom; or, swooping from the roofs of buildings and pouncing on guards like a jaguar; or, hanging off a ledge and tossing guards off buildings... even hiding in water and assassinating them. The possibilities are nearly endless, and equally rewarding.
Assassin's Creed II is far from a perfect game, yet it is incredibly close as well. The story, and wealth of activities and new plot twists more than make up for the occasionally lackluster AI mechanics - despite the wtf ending players are left with. What else is there to say about a game that satisfies a feeling so primal and ideally human? Not only does the player come off empathizing with Ezio and Desmond's quests, they also feel accomplished.
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