by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 19, 2009 @ 7:55 a.m. PST
Like the first game, Assassin's Creed 2 has a two-pronged story. The first part of the story stars Miles Desmond, one of the co-protagonists of the original title. When the last story ended, Miles found himself trapped by the Knights Templar and forced to use a machine called The Animus to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, the assassin Altair. This game begins with him being broken free from the Knights Templar and brought to a hidden warehouse under the control of an opposing group. This group has its own Animus, the Animus 2.0, and wish Desmond to use it to train his abilities and become a true assassin. At the same time, they are hoping to use him to relive the memories of one of his ancestors, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, and discover what the Templars are up to. Ezio is an Italian nobleman during the Renaissance and member of an elite noble family. A group of Templar betrayed his family, leading to the execution of his father and brothers. Understandably, Ezio isn't too happy about this. Fortunately for him, he is the heir to the assassin's legacy, and with some help from famous figures like Leonardo da Vinci, he sets out to kill everyone who wronged him.
By and large, Assassin's Creed 2's plot is rather straightforward. Despite being a bit more charismatic than Altair, Ezio doesn't have much to do with the overall story. His adventure has him following a list of assassination targets, from the lowest rank to the highest. There are no real twists or turns to his story, though; the villain is exactly who you think it is, and everything occurs in a very straightforward and predictable manner. The plot is made more interesting by a charismatic cast of characters, the standout being the immensely likable Leonardo da Vinci. However, the main focus is on the characters in the future, who are looking for clues in Ezio's life. The clues lead up to a plot twist that is so ridiculous that it will likely leave most gamers just as dissatisfied as when they encountered the sudden and abrupt ending to the original game. A lot more is resolved when compared to the first game, but the answers range from unsatisfying to insane. Even the protagonist's own reaction to the reveal is a stunned "What. The. F---," the last lines before the credits begin to roll. The big reveal at the end is just foreshadowing for the inevitable Assassin's Creed 3, leaving you with the unsatisfying feeling that everything you did was to get a five-minute-long cut scene that amounted to "Buy Assassin's Creed 3."
Assassin's Creed 2 uses the same "puppet" control method as the original Assassin's Creed. Each of your actions in the game world is bound to one of the face buttons, which is context-sensitive. Anything involving your legs, for example, uses the A button, and anything using your head requires the Y button. Similarly, your arms are controlled by the X and B buttons. Depending on where you are, the X and B buttons could be doing anything from climbing to swimming or fighting. Holding the right trigger modifies your actions into "high profile" actions, which are more likely to attract attention, but are faster and more effective. Pressing B in low-profile mode may cause you to gently push someone aside. Pressing B in high-profile allows you to grab him and toss him roughly to the side. The controls take a little getting used to, but the end result is that almost everything in the game is automated. Getting around is as simple as holding down the A button, causing Ezio to jump from place to place automatically, or to scale a wall easily. It makes it a breeze to move around the city, and it is a lot of fun to boot. However, the controls show their flaws in any area requiring precision platforming. Ezio has a nasty habit of not jumping where you want to go, causing him to fall and restart the area. It doesn't happen enough to be game-breaking, but it can be exceptionally frustrating when you have to redo a 15-minute climbing sequence because Ezio jumped an inch too far to the right.
Unlike Altair, Ezio doesn't have the direct support of an ancient cabal of assassins. He has to take care of buying his own weapons and supplies, so your money plays a big role in the game. With every mission Ezio completes, he'll earn money that can be spent on new weapons, armor, upgrades or hiring help from the nearby guilds; it can even tossed into the air as a distraction while you're running away. You can also spend it to upgrade Ezio's home, which fixes the various shops that are located there and increases the overall value of the place. Depending on the quality of Ezio's villa, you will earn money for every 20 minutes of game time. While this starts out as a pittance, it quickly becomes obscene. By the end of the game, I was earning enough money per tick to make Ezio the richest man in Italy. This actually became a bit of a problem because money is supposed to be a big motivator in the game, but they give you so much that you can afford to buy anything and everything and still have cash left over. Aside from a few early areas, you aren't short on money at any point in the game, so it ceases to be a big motivator and becomes an ultimately pointless extra.
One of the more interesting new features in Assassin's Creed 2 is the ability to customize Ezio. Once you get access to a steady supply of cash, you'll be able to spend it on making Ezio more powerful by purchasing new weapons, armor, outfit and healing items. Each weapon has its own strength and defense ratings; some swords are faster but weaker, others are slow but can better deflect enemy weapons. Armor reduces the damage you take and adds semi-permanent health bars to your stats. Take enough damage, and the armor will be "broken," requiring you to spend some cash to repair it before you can use it again. You can also change Ezio's outfit a bit, giving it new colors or replacing the sash with a special flag that lowers aggression from certain enemies. You can even upgrade the amount of healing items and throwing weapons that he can carry.
Being able to customize Ezio is a nice feature, but even in his default state, Ezio is really powerful. As you get new armor, he starts becoming ridiculously so. By the end of the game, I had so much armor that I could stand still for a while and enemies would take ages to do significant damage to me. Even worse, being able to upgrade the amount of medicine you carry further exacerbates this problem. You eventually hold 15 medicines, each of which restores a huge chunk of your health. Dying is a nonissue in Assassin's Creed 2, except for the occasional mistimed jump that leads Ezio screaming to his death.
Money can also be spent on various things around the city. You can hire courtesans, mercenaries or thieves to assist Ezio in his missions. Courtesans can distract guards, mercenaries fight alongside you, and thieves can do both. They're extremely cheap to hire, and there's little reason to not keep a group around. It's useful having help, since the game now features a notoriety meter. As you take actions in the game, your notoriety builds up, and the higher it is, the more likely guards are to recognize Ezio. Unfortunately, removing notoriety is far too easy. You remove 25 percent of your notoriety bar anytime you pull down one of the wanted posters, which are located all over the various cities. This means that even if you kill a whole heap of guards, returning to being anonymous only requires a short walk and the press of a button. Even if you should somehow raise your meter more, it is still incredibly easy to drain. Heralds located all over the city can reduce it by 50 percent for a mere 500 gold, and killing a "witness" can drop it by 75 percent. There is no reason to have any sort of notoriety for more than a few moments, and it has little impact on the game.
Ezio doesn't begin the game as an assassin, but he promptly picks up the tricks of the trade from his father's notes and some help from Leonardo da Vinci. Compared to Altair, Ezio is faster and more capable of performing stealth kills. As long as you have Ezio's wrist blade equipped, he can kill enemies while leaping from a building, hanging from a ledge, or even while swimming. Thanks to his twin wrist blades, he can kill two enemies at once. Assassination is easy: You simply walk up to enemies and press the X button, which instantly kills them. It's also incredibly satisfying to pull off a good kill, and many of the game's high points come from a well-timed assassination. Killing people is actually is a bit too easy. Without any particular effort, you can usually kill three to four guys in a group by walking up to them and pressing the X button repeatedly before the slow AI manages to react by switching from "on guard" to combat mode.
Once you enter combat mode, you'll find that the basic mechanics are fairly similar to Assassin's Creed. You can attack enemies with the X button, grab with the B button, and dodge with the A button. Depending on your weapon, you can also choose to counterattack or disarm an enemy. You can switch weapons at any time, allowing you to battle one enemy with a sword and then switch over to a dagger or wrist blades for another. You can even disarm enemies and use their own weapons against them, although these tend to be a bit inferior to whatever you're using. You can also drop smoke bombs to escape from combat or use a poison-tipped dagger to drive enemies crazy. There is even a new wrist-mounted pistol you can use, although it requires you to stand still and "charge" it before you can fire accurately.
When it comes to combat, Assassin's Creed 2 suffers from the exact same problem that the original title did. There are interesting mechanics that can be used, but there is absolutely no reason to use them. Using these mechanics is likely to make the game harder on you, for no benefit whatsoever. Against any sword-wielding enemy with light or medium armor, you can use the exact same tactic you used in Assassin's Creed 1: Stand still and pound on the counterattack button while enemies attack, and you'll instantly dispatch them. Against enemies wielding the new ax or spear weapons, or those with heavy armor, the counterattack tactic is less effective, but those enemies can be defeated just as easily. You attack a few times and then press the "grab" button, which lets you instantly slit their throats. In some cases, it's easier to defeat the heavily armored foes than the speedy foes!
The big problem here is that using these methods doesn't just let you get through the game, but it does so by making the battles significantly easier. There's no benefit to trying to be fancy. You're more likely to get stabbed in the face as you try to dodge, or you'll take longer to defeat enemies if you try to use everything that's available to you. It's also worth noting that enemies are far fewer in number compared to the original Assassin's Creed, and they stop showing up much faster. Thus, it's almost universally easier to kill every enemy you encounter instead of trying to run and hide. When you combine this with the fact that Ezio is practically unstoppable, a lot of sections of the game suddenly become quite boring.
One of the biggest problems in the first Assassin's Creed title was how boring it was between doing assassinations. You had to do some missions to get "clues" in order to advance the plot and get to the next assassination. Fortunately, that has been fixed in Assassin's Creed 2. The story line is now far more linear so all you have to do is advance from plot point to plot point, which automatically sets up the assassination. There are some very interesting set pieces too, like a sequence where you have to use Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine to zoom across the city to get to a target. Unfortunately, this comes at a bit of a cost to the assassinations, and they feel less involved than they did in the original Assassin's Creed. Most of the time, you find the way in, get to the enemy, and then have to chase him down and stab him or beat him in a straight-up fight. There are not many instances when you feel like you have any freedom beyond what the script demands. However, there are some excellent assassinations amidst the less interesting ones, like a sequence where you have to kill someone with your wrist-pistol while timing the shot for the burst of fireworks. Overall, the game is more well-paced and interesting than its predecessor, but it still is flawed enough that it can become repetitive after a while, and there are a lot of moments when it feels overly scripted.
The real shining part of the game is the side-quests. With the exception of one, the side-quests are truly optional so you can completely avoid doing them if you'd like. Since they comprise a bulk of the gameplay, though, it would be a bit silly to skip them. These missions range from races to small-scale assassination missions, and they're a lot of fun. There is a bit of repetition, and you'll notice a few of the same basic ideas popping up over and over, but the assassination missions alone are miles above any of Assassin's Creed 1's offerings. Perhaps the biggest standout are the Assassin's Tombs, mini puzzle areas that feel more like Prince of Persia than anything else. These areas offer a unique new look at the Assassin's Creed gameplay and are a welcome diversion from all the outdoors stabbing and killing.
Although these side-quests are fun, there is not much of a reason to do them. The prizes you get are either money or special equipment. As previously mentioned, money flows as freely as water, so there is no real benefit to getting more money when you finish the game with a stuffed bank account. Equipment is nice, but you're so powerful by the end of the game that becoming more invincible feels a bit pointless. There are a series of quests that give you access to new plot points, however. These quests involve solving puzzles left behind by a former user of the Animus, and this reveals a fairly major plot development. Admittedly, it's a very silly plot development, but if you're looking for more hints about what is coming in Assassin's Creed 3, then you should track it down. The side-quests are a lot of fun, and even without worthwhile prizes, there is plenty of reason to do them, if only for the enjoyment of a perfectly executed assassination.
Assassin's Creed 2 is very close to being an all-around great-looking game. The magnificent Italian landscapes are lovely, and each city is memorable and interesting. Venice in particular is my favorite city, with tons of little details to help really flesh it out. The only real flaw is that there is a lot of repetition in buildings. This wouldn't even be that noticeable, except the game makes you scale high buildings in order to fill out your map. When doing this, it becomes very easy to notice that you're climbing the exact same building, with the exact same architecture, and the exact same cracks in the wall, over and over again. It certainly detracts from the feeling of exploring a breathtaking city when the buildings that you look at the most often are identical. The character animations and movement are great, and there are only a few occasions when they looked odd. The real problem comes from the characters' facial animations, which are extremely poor. They look cartoonish and out of place at best. In this case, the fact that so many people wear hoods or look away from the screen when talking is more of a blessing than a curse.
While the voice acting in Assassin's Creed 2 ranges from mediocre to excellent, the entire game is tainted by an extremely frustrating problem. For no clear reason, the characters randomly lapse into Italian words. The theory behind the Animus is that it is supposed to be translating everything into English for Desmond to understand, but instead, everyone speaks like they've wandered out of a bad stereotypical movie. The characters randomly lapse into Italian for words or phrases for no clear reason. There isn't even consistency to it. One character says the English word "nonsense" in one line, and then in the very next, says it in Italian instead. The game provide subtitles that translate the words, but those only serve to drive home how ridiculous and stereotypical the dialogue is, and the subtitles are almost necessary unless you speak Italian. It is something that sours the game, and only the sections outside the Animus are mercifully free from the bizarre dialogue. Fortunately, some solid voice acting helps with the problem, and the soundtrack is top-notch. The only other problem is that it could use some more variation in the dialogue. As you wander through the city, you'll hear the same few lines over and over again. Even in plot events, your partners tend to repeat themselves.
Assassin's Creed 2 is simply a better game than Assassin's Creed. If you liked the original Assassin's Creed, there is a lot here for you to enjoy, and you'll likely be able to easily overlook its flaws. The problem is that the new mechanics just don't do much to improve the game, and a number of flaws from the original Assassin's Creed have returned in full force. The plot is even sillier than the first, and it's bogged down by extremely poor dialogue. The assassination mechanics have been improved, but poor enemy AI takes a good amount of the satisfaction out of killing enemies. If you ever get into straight-up combat, it is just as repetitive and button-mashy as the original game. The side-quests have been improved and are a lot of fun, although there is still no real benefit to doing them. Fans of the original Assassin's Creed will find a lot to love here, but anyone who left the first game feeling unsatisfied will want to rent before they buy.
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