Don't get me wrong, I love video games, but I find most of them represent junk food for the mind. You pop the game in, you shut your brain off, have some fun, and you don't really come out any richer from the experience. Shoot some enemies, solve a puzzle or two, and then put the game out of your mind forever. Assassin's Creed II is nothing like that. For those looking for a gaming experience that provides your grey matter with a work out, and becomes a truly inspirational experience that you'll never forget, look no further than Ubisoft Montreal's opus, easily one of the best titles of the year.
For those of you who played the first title, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. However, ACII has taken everything that was great about the solid but flawed original (sweet weapons, go anywhere free-running gameplay, and a strong storyline), and multiplied it by a factor of ten. At the same time, they have taken out nearly all the annoyances and hindrances that kept the original game from truly classic status.
In ACII, you play once again as Desmond Miles, a mild mannered bartender who has quite the storied lineage. In the first game, we learned that Desmond is the direct descendant of a line of assassins throughout history, engaged in a centuries' long battle against the Templar order. Desmond is forced into a machine called the animus, which allows him to relive the experiences of his forefathers through memories embedded deep within his DNA. In the first game, you played as Altair, who ran roughshod across the Holy Land, killing historically significant figures on his way to a stunning revelation that I dare not reveal here. As ACII begins, Desmond is broken out of captivity, and taken to an undisclosed location to help out the modern day assassins. Of course, Desmond is soon once again inserted into the animus, this time reliving the memories of one Ezio Auditore de Firenze, an impetuous youth living in Italy in 1476. Ezio begins living a carefree existence in Florence, but soon his idyllic world is shattered when he and his family are betrayed by a man they were sure they could trust. Alone, thirsting for vengeance, and on the run, Ezio soon learns the ways of the assassins, first for revenge, and then to fight for the forces of good against those who abuse their power. It's a journey that will take him across Italy, from Florence, to Tuscany, to Venice, and finally, Rome over the next decade of his life.
Using the animus as a device to drive the plot was a brilliant move on the part of the writers. This means that the story is being presented as a virtual reality video game, and means there is no disbelief to suspend when you have tons of information on hand, maps showing your objectives, and a special vision mode called Eagle Vision that shows you friend from foe and hidden areas. Even the loading screens with Ezio standing in a foggy purgatory fit into this aesthetic. The developers even stuck in some on-purpose graphical glitches, a nice touch.
I know I've gone on about the story for three paragraphs now, but that's only because it's such an indispensable component of the Assassin's Creed experience. It's fascinating how the developers and writers were about to create a game that is so sprawling, grandiose and epic, yet feels so intimate and profound. This is a game where you uncover massive conspiracies, but also become buddy buddy with historical figures like a young Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli. There's no tunnel vision when it comes to the plot. ACII deals with themes such as family, loyalty, class barriers, religion, abuse of power, and above all respect. Heady themes to be sure. To have them presented so well in a pastime renowned for it simplistic storylines and mindless action is comforting proof that our precious hobby is finally growing up.
Fortunately, ACII combines its brilliant storytelling with top notch gameplay. Using an easy to learn free running system, Ezio can run through and climb around nearly any structure, giving you four Italian cities and the surrounding countryside to become your playground. The controls use a context sensitive layout. Each of the face buttons controls your head, each arm, and your legs. A handy controller map in the top right corner shows you what any button does at any given moment. The trigger buttons work as modifiers such as blocking, lock on to targets, and running. When holding down the run trigger with the "legs" button, Ezio will run, climb, and jump his way through and over any possible obstacle. The system was great in the first game, and it's been polished to mirror sheen for the sequel. The only problems arise when the camera occasionally neglects to find an optimal angle to judge your jump in tight spaces, but these instances are few and far between. Some people may run into some deaths if they just run full-tilt through everything, but if you take your time and judge your leaps, you'll navigate the gorgeous environments with astonishing ease.
The amount of options you have, even from the outset of the game can be overwhelming at times. The sheer amount of content here makes almost every other game out there seem quaint. ACII falls into that category of life sucking heavy hitters like Oblivion, Fallout, and Grand Theft Auto. The main storyline will take around 20 hours to complete on its own, and you can easily double or triple that if you do all the side quests and missions. There are over 200 missions in the game, and more than half are optional.
One of the major complaints levied against the first game is that the mission structure was repetitive. ACII rectifies that with a ton of different options for side quests. There are assassin tombs to explore (which are essentially parkour obstacle courses), courier missions, quick hit assassinations, finding hidden items, and the story missions. If that's not enough, you even have a fortress town known as Monteriggioni to call your own. Monteriggioni starts off as a decrepit pit with a dishevelled villa owned by Ezio's family. By pumping money into the local economy, the town will soon become vibrant, teeming with people and businesses. The more money you put into it, the more you get back. ACII features a fully fledged economy, and Monteriggioni is the catalyst. The more you upgrade the town, the cheaper you'll get your weapons and accessories, and the more money you'll make in your war chest. The war chest really helps you in the long run, as a sum is deposited for every 20 minutes of gameplay. The economic design reminds me of GTA: Vice City, but with an even more addictive quality. The only caveat is that after a few upgrades, you'll find yourself with more cash than you'll know what to do with, making hunting for hidden items a little irrelevant when you can just buy them. You'll also earn cash by pick pocketing people, looting victims, and completing missions.
When on an actual assassination mission (the most fun part of the game), you're always given a few ways to approach your targets. Surprisingly for a game built on stealth, ACII doesn't really punish you for going in with figurative guns blazing. Of course, if you go this way you'll have loads of guards coming after you to battle or run away from. Still, combat has been refined, and not just in terms of upgradable weapons and armour. You can still counter attacks from guards with a well timed button press, but you can also disarm them, grab them, slit their throats, and toss them off ledges. Throw in a ton of new weapons like wrist mounted pistols, double hidden blades, daggers, swords, smoke bombs and a ton of new toys, and you have a combat engine that is fun and varied. Some may find the combat to be a little too easy and predictable, but I thought it worked well and certainly rewards good timing.
ACII will greatly reward you if you decide to play stealthily. You can now grab unsuspecting enemies and toss them off balconies and strike from within a haystack and hide the bodies. New is the poison blade, which is one of the coolest weapons I've seen in some time. By giving your mark a little prick with the blade, you can get a safe distance away without them even knowing you were ever there. In about 10 seconds, they start flailing and going berserk before finally dying another 10 seconds later. It's an awesome effect to behold.
Staying hidden is more intuitive than ever before too. To escape pursuers, you can blend in with the crowds, sit on benches, hide in haystacks, or simply run for your life. The guards aren't stupid though. They'll poke and prod haystacks, and recognize you if you linger on a bench too long. It's very cool how the crows react to your actions. ACII introduces a new notoriety meter. When the meter is full, people will recognize you, run for guards, and you'll be hindered at every move. You can lower notoriety by bribing heralds, killing criers, or tearing down posters of yourself around the town. When the meter is empty you can go about your business without as much as a second glance. The notoriety system and social aspects of the NPCs really make you feel like a guest in a living, breathing society.
If you needed even more options to go about your business, you don't even have to kill guards to get past them. Throw some coins on the ground, and watch them (and normal citizens) run after the gold. You can hire brigands to fight alongside you. Courtesans and prostitutes are available for you to hire and distract the formerly vigilant. You can even hire thieves to pickpocket someone and create a chase. Hiding in plain sight has never been so satisfying.
With all these options, it sounds like ACII might be a little overwhelming to some players. This may be true, the controls aren't exactly simple, and there are always a dozen things to distract you from the main quest. However, the developers have done a masterful job of bringing the player along slowly, and not overloading the mind with a ton of complex controls and play mechanics. 10 hours into the game, you'll still be learning new skills and taking on new mission types.
Beyond learning new skills and how to play the game, ACII just might teach you some things s about the renaissance and history itself. The game is loaded with an encyclopaedia that explains the significance of many famous people, places, and landmarks. The game even features loads of famous paintings and art for you to admire and adorn your Villa with. History has never come this alive in a video game until now.
ACII is a beautiful game, but not without visual fault. The environments in the game are simply breathtaking, especially when you climb on top of the highest towers in the game and soak up the astonishing vistas. Real life Italian landmarks are rendered with shocking accuracy, and held up well to my own memories of a trip to Rome a few years back. The environments are expansive, crisp, and packed with tons of little details. Lighting and texture work is also excellent. Many character models don't fare nearly as well, though. Ezio himself looks great and animates with great fluidity. Even secondary characters are well rendered and express themselves well. On the other hand, tertiary characters don't sync up to voice acting, and have dead, expressionless faces. Even the texture work on these characters is lacking. Finally, I encountered a disconcerting level of screen tearing and texture pop in, especially right after loading. ACII is a beautiful game that is unfortunately let down by some unfortunate technical issues.
Audio in the game fares very well. The voice acting, especially, is at the same high level as the writing. You may recognize the voice of Desmond as none other than Nathan Drake—err, Nolan North. The actors bring an authenticity and urgency to the proceedings that is refreshing to hear. It bears mentioning that a large portion of the game is in Italian, so if you want to understand everything that is being said, you may want to turn subtitles on. I personally appreciated the Italian accents and authentic Italian on display. Everything else sounds fine too, including sword clanging, footsteps, and the singing minstrels. Music in the game is subtle and nuanced. It's barely noticeable at times, but always provides a suitable ambiance to whatever action is going on at that moment.
Assassin's Creed II is one of those few games that manage to be both intimate and epic. Both poignant and light hearted. It's even fun and educational at the same time. Most importantly, ACII is a game that doesn't insult the gamers' intelligence. This is a game that assumes you have an interest in one of the most interesting eras of human history, and a willingness to learn more about it. If not, I hear there are many budget first person shooters to play that won't stimulate the senses even remotely as well as this masterpiece does.