Assassin's Creed 2
One of the most celebrated franchises of the current generation of consoles makes its triumphant return as master assassin Ezio sneaks and slays through the streets of 15th century Italy. Reviewer-turned-assassin John Davison plunged headfirst into Assassin's Creed 2's incredibly detailed world, and was soon swept away by the game's epic scope and impressive improvements over the 2007 original.
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Seconds after Ezio deals the killing blow to one of his despicable and deserving targets in Ubisoft's highly anticipated sequel, the action stops, the surroundings are peeled away, and the focus shifts entirely to a scene of the hunter and his prey. The brief but poignant scene plays out against a stark, white background and the camera moves around to look up at the hero as he cradles his victim in his arms, quietly uttering the last rites in Latin. It's moments like these that reveal the real beauty of Assassin's Creed 2. For all its pomp and Renaissance-themed grandeur, the game's true artistry is revealed in its tiny details, and in its creators' willingness to turn the focus away from the sheer scale of the thing, and allow individual brief moments to really shine.
Though the story is truly epic, and weaves its fiction in and out of a variety of complex historical narratives, the real tale here is that of Ezio. Introduced as a young, carefree noble, oblivious to the political machinations unraveling around him, and equally blind to his family's involvement, he is quickly drawn into a life with which he, and by association the player, is almost entirely uncomfortable. Unlike Altair, the medieval crusader from the original Assassin's Creed, Ezio is a sympathetic character, clearly designed to draw the player into the narrative. Far from just a white-robed angel of death with superhuman skills, he is a far more believable hero thrust into a situation where he is very clearly in over his head. It's clear that the team at Ubisoft has learned a thing or two from Naughty Dog's success with Uncharted's Nathan Drake, as Ezio is noticeably cut from the same cloth. He's charming, witty, and comically self-deprecating - at least to start with anyway. It's not just his dialogue either, which is confidently delivered with a smoldering Italian accent by accomplished voice actor Roger Craig Smith (previously the voice of Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5, though curiously not an actor used in the first game) it's also his presence and body language. While nearly all of the characters found throughout the game are wiry, gaunt looking creatures with tired looking faces and vacant eyes, Ezio is noticeably more expressive. Throughout the story's numerous conversational exchanges, whether its with flirtatious courtesans, Florentine nobility or his friend Leonardo da Vinci, Ezio's features are extravagantly animated and the energy of these scenes is all the better for it.
If there's one thing that Assassin's Creed 2 does particularly well, it's pacing. Whether it's these poignant or amusing conversational set-pieces, or the way the story unfolds through a variety of different challenges, there's never a sense of any kind of grind. While Eidos' excellent, and quite similar Batman: Arkham Asylum successfully achieved the same effect by queuing up sequences of complimentary tests, Creed 2 is far less contrived and considerably more elegant in its execution. Though divided into distinct acts (known as "sequences" in the game's parlance) the game offers the player a huge range of choices throughout, and shares much of its structure with other open-world games like inFamous or Grand Theft Auto IV. Unlike these games though, it never dwells on its set pieces, or wallows in its own opulence. The most spectacular scenes are typically the game's shortest, with some building for hours before a pay-off that can be measured in seconds, rather than minutes. Perhaps its a response to the negative feedback poured upon the original for being repetitive and (some would say) boring, but while the primary narrative path is always clearly marked, available distractions are many, varied, and introduced in a way that they can be enjoyed simultaneously.
The game is still primarily driven by a series of assassinations, but there is no longer a sense of repetitively grinding through a sequence of intel-gathering subquests before moving if for the kill. Creed 2 is far more reliant on its complex conspiracy story than the original, and the accumulation of knowledge is as much about story and character development as it is about dealing that killing blow. There's still a reliance on open-world game conventions, like "follow the bad guys, but keep your distance" and "eliminate 'X' number of guards and then come back here" but they never seem tedious because they're all kept mercifully brief.
The game's reliance on collectible items for its side-quests seems quite laughable at first, however. Feathers, treasure boxes, wanted posters, and "viewpoints" are indicated as possible diversions within the game's first couple of hours, and these are later joined by a completist frenzy of weapons, armor, paintings, maps, codex pages, and clothing. By the game's halfway point you can also "collect" real estate and businesses to generate revenue (in a nod to Grand Theft Auto) and a larger, more structured fetch-quest is introduced in the shape of six seals that are required to unlock a vault containing Altair's 12th century armor. Layered on top of all of this, of course, is the fact that none of it is real. You're not really Ezio, you're really Desmond Miles, a 21st century bartender hooked up to a supercomputer that's cataloging memories from deep within his DNA. You're a descendant of both Ezio and his forebear Altair, and you're simply tapping into these genetic memories to try and unravel a modern day conspiracy. It's this additional layer, however, that makes the fetch-quests far more bearable. The sundry items, like the feathers and treasure boxes, are placed throughout the game's four primary locations of Florence, Tuscany, Monteriggioni, and Venice. Their job, to all intents and purposes, is simply to encourage thorough exploration. You don't need to collect them at all if you don't want to, but each has a purpose that makes them far more attractive. The 330 available treasure boxes, for example, each contain large sums of cash. The wanted posters, on the other hand, are directly linked to Ezio's infamy. The more notorious he is, the more the guards chase after him - so if you tear down the wanted posters, the population is less likely to know who he is. Obviously this conceit is utterly broken by the fact that Ezio is far from inconspicuous with his white hood, flowing cape, and arsenal of weaponry, but at least the mechanic is sound.
As you explore the cities further, and unravel more and more of their secrets, the supercomputer (called the Animus) that Desmond is jacked into is cataloging more and more information about the people and places he encounters. As you collect more, the game offers up more data and provides more context for the events that are unfolding. As a motivator it's particularly effective, especially as there's a liberal dose of fact mixed in with all that fiction.
Of all the fetch-quests, it's those six seals that have the most dramatic effect on the experience. While everything else takes place in the streets and on the rooftops of the game's lovingly-rendered cities, these seals are hidden within what are, essentially, the game's "dungeon quests." In a nod to what could no doubt be the source material for a half-dozen sequels, each of the seals are hidden within the burial chambers of six great assassin's guild members from throughout history. To get to the sarcophagi themselves, Ezio is faced with a very different set of challenges. Whereas the city streets offer up combat tests, and basic climbing and jumping challenges, these interior locations are far more puzzle-focused. Early on, they are little more than simple pathfinding puzzles that encourage spatial reasoning skills and environmental awareness. Later the challenges expand into epic, multi-part climbing puzzles that have the added modifier of being against the clock.
Of note is the challenge flagged as "the riddle" of Basilica San Marco, which if you know your Byzantine architecture is the cathedral church of Venice. The "riddle" concerns the location of the tomb in which the seal can be found. In order to solve it, Ezio must embark on a four-part environment puzzle around the cathedral's opulent fixtures in order to manipulate a mosaic in such a way that it opens a doorway to the secret crypt. While it's a beautifully crafted puzzle sequence, the real drama is that it builds tension in a way not present in the rest of the game. Gone is the reliance on the fear of discovery, or the need for sharp combat abilities, and instead there's a need for accuracy, speed, and competent pathfinding skills.
Again, it's the pacing that makes the experience magical. Every challenge, fight, quest, or puzzle is densely packed, tightly choreographed, and pleasantly bookended by performances from the excellent cast that brings both humor and credibility to the well-written script. None of the scenes drag out too long, and the player must never suffer any lengthy monologues to get a sense of the complex political maneuvers that the game is trying to convey. The writers should also be commended for preventing the script from ever descending into melodrama. As Ezio's story evolves from one of personal revenge to that of murky political conspiracy, it does so with a consistent temperament and even an occasional joke. Playing on all of the heavy Italian accents throughout, the writers even make room for a beautifully-timed "it's-a-me! Mario!" joke too.
Although millions of people bought the first Assassin's Creed, few would contend that it was without fault. It started well, and had a thrilling, if somewhat mystifying conclusion, but it suffered from a drawn-out, badly-paced and repetitive core that disappointed many. The sequel picks up immediately after the events of the original and promptly settles into an improved and solid gait that it maintains throughout. Few games so deftly balance the contrasting qualities achieved here. It's at once both epic and intimate, earnest and lighthearted. The scale of it is truly magnificent, but often its largest and most moving moments come from the smallest and most carefully composed scenes.
PROS: Terrific writing, voice acting and gameplay comes together in a fantastic experience that builds upon the epic scope of the original.
CONS: There is very little to complain about; the game truly is that good.