Assassin’s Creed II
SPOILER-SAFE GUARANTEE: No plot points were harmed in the making of this review.
On a technical level there was nothing wrong with Assassin’s Creed. As a germinal set of ideas there was nothing wrong with Assassin’s Creed. In terms of repetitiousness and stupendously bizarre rules of play, there was quite a lot wrong with Assassin’s Creed. Dozens of nonsensical niggles in fact: the gallop button that gets you chased down and summarily executed by Jerusalem five-0, the lunatics that barge you to the floor in the city streets for no purpose other than to frustrate, the need to spend ten minutes running down from the top of a mountain at the beginning of every mission, the amazing super assassin parkour powers that were shared by every lowly guard in the world. The list goes on, and feeling like a deaf burglar at his hearing, none of it made a whole lot of sense to us.
You’ve already looked at the score. You already know that we think this game is brilliant. So before we get into the good stuff, let’s square away the whinging. There is still one – special emphasis to be placed on the next two words – very minor gameplay element whose inclusion is beyond our comprehension. A facet to the gameplay that is a little, well – for want of a better word – French. Bards. They act in place of the aforementioned lunatics and deliberately place themselves in your path. Even adjusting your course sees them whip around the side of you and block your way whichever direction you face, strumming away on their lyres without a care in the world, as if this is the kind of behaviour that’s not going to hurt the gameplay.
After failing to circumvent them, we began stabbing them on sight; a move which quickly led to us losing synchronisation because, historically speaking, Ezio didn’t kill innocents, even though there is nothing innocent about these trite little bastards. Switching our tack to punching them in the face seemed to solve the problem at some cost to our notoriety – a line of sight system which works similarly to GTA IV’s. Their inclusion in the game serves no purpose other than as a nuisance to the player, for which reason we find them entirely baffling. But, minor gripes are exactly that, and this one is King Canute before an unstoppable tide of goodly gaming.
As you will no doubt know if you’ve followed the game’s development with any interest, you fill the shoes of one Ezio Auditore di Firenze; a loveable rogue chiselled from the same block as the most recent Prince Of Persia, albeit delivering the kind of caricatured Italian accent usually reserved for foam puppets who sell pasta sauce. The early sensation that you’re playing a renaissance-skinned version of Aladdin quickly drains away, however, as Ezio sets about fighting, killing, and philandering. But for reasons we won’t reveal, the mood changes dramatically over the first couple of hours as he’s unavoidably sucked into the life of an assassin and set on the path to revenge.
As in the original Creed, the back story of Desmond Miles and his animus-bound temporal globetrotting runs parallel to the happenings in Ezio’s renaissance Italy. But you can forget about being jarred from your increasingly intriguing roof-hopping period drama every time you complete an assassination objective. Ubisoft has quite rightly restricted Desmond’s scenes to a minimum, so there’s very little futuristic wandering around while looking for whatever mystery object or conversation will inch the plot forward. Instead, these anachronistic experiences happen only when they need to; hours upon hours apart. It’s just one example of how well Ubi has learned its lessons when it comes to making critical adjustments to its burgeoning IP.
Assassin’s Creed II revels in reward. Other games of late have also made this their clear focus; enough for us to label it a trend, but this game succeeds beyond its contemporaries both in its sheer volume and in the variety of ways in which one can garner delicious satisfaction through progress. Ezio himself is fully customisable in terms of both weapons and armour, and you can even choose from a pleasingly well-stocked array of dyes with which to alter his overall colour scheme.
To do this you’ll need money. Lots of money. The game’s new economy system is so well-implemented that it will have you wondering how you ever did without it. It forms the mortar between each substantial reward as you build your wealth beyond your power-hungry ambition. Everything in the game is tied to it. Beyond simply purchasing new gear and ammunition items – smoke bombs, throwing knives and so forth – it can be used to cause a distraction by flinging coins into a throng of plebs, to bribe town criers into cessation in addressing the public of your malfeasances, or to hire thugs or courtesans to distract the local constabulary from your sneakery.
Some way into the game, you’ll be placed in charge of your uncle Mario’s villa. Here, practically every aspect of your achievements in the game are on display by way of their own room. Paintings can be collected, armour shown off and secrets you will find littered around the game world such as feathers and codex pages stored and analysed. The villa’s surrounding village is also under your control. Its shops and public buildings are in a run-down state of disrepair at the outset, but should you choose to invest a significant portion of your ill-gotten lucre on sprucing the place up, your philanthropy will be paid back in kind. Essentially, the greater the value of the villa and its grounds, the greater the income you gain from it.
Income is paid to your sister who looks after the family books. Every 20 minutes of game time, one unit of your current rate of income will be paid into the box, which in turn can hold four units at any given time. Anything beyond its capacity, your sister keeps, so in order to maximise your wealth, you’ll need to return to the box once every 80 minutes for the purpose of emptying it. This is presumably to stop people ‘doing a Fable’ and leaving their consoles on for days on end, returning to find themselves rich enough to make the economy redundant. We had worried that this would constitute a huge pain in the arse – it wouldn’t be the first time the series had included a gameplay mechanic that made no real sense – but to our surprise it worked really well. Forcing us to pop back and visit our villa every now and then gave us the opportunity to stroll around it, look at all of our stuff, take pride in our accomplishments and in doing so, increase our enjoyment.
Ezio’s parkour abilities are much improved over those of his ancestor. Movement is more fluid and Ubisoft has addressed another major criticism in offering us some control beyond simply holding down a button. Slipping, missing your handhold, or being clipped with a rock will see Ezio falling. This time, though, a tap of the B button will cause him to grab for whatever he can latch onto on the way down. It’s a good mechanic and definitely adds a measure of control beyond its predecessor. Much, much later in the game, Ezio will also learn a jump and grab ability that’s entirely under player control, adding yet another dimension to some of the more taxing urban mountaineering.
One of the elements of the original Creed that we felt there wasn’t a whole lot wrong with was its combat. Some may argue that its ‘wait and counter’ rhythm was a little contrived and on occasion dull, but this was heavily contrasted by Altair’s ability to take on dozens of guards at once and win convincingly. Easy? Perhaps. Empowering? Definitely. We’re glad that the bare bones of it have made a return, adding new layers rather than going back to the drawing board. Ezio, unlike Altair, can fight with a range of weapons beyond the basic sword, each with an expanded range of moves. For permanent use, poles and maces are available at any blacksmith’s shop, but Ezio can also disarm his enemies or pick up the weapons of the vanquished.
Snatched weapons are usually only good for a couple of uses before you have to pick them up again, since the moves available tend to leave them embedded in your enemy’s head while you quickly switch back to your standard weapon. Ezio will have to fight bare knuckle to disarm and some enemies will force your hand in this respect. The battleaxe-wielding brute guards, for example, take swings with a weapon so heavy that Ezio is unable to block. Or the city militia whose poleaxes keep them safely out of range – an irritation, but one that’s more than made up for by the pleasure of plunging their own weapon through their guts, and watching as they slide down it like an undercooked shish kebab.
Ubisoft’s interpretation of renaissance Italy is consistently surprising. While we understand that not every house and alley could be identically mapped into the game, a consistent atmosphere along with the dotting about of recognisable landmarks makes for a very cohesive experience. In addition, each landmark site or building comes with its own short rough guide, offering the player a concise snippet of facts about the building or monument and its history. These architecturally and historically significant structures are also where most of the game’s glyphs can be found.
Along with the map-marked codex page locations – of which you’ll need to collect all for the endgame – glyphs, like feathers, need to be found manually. They appear as large symbols and glow in the light of eagle vision – an ability that Ezio, unlike Altair, can use any time he likes. They’re often very cunningly hidden and reaching one can be a puzzle in itself. Finding them is entirely optional and since we didn’t find them all ourselves, we cannot tell you what the full collection will unlock (even if we did know, we probably still wouldn’t). But what we can say is that finding each opens up one of many varieties of tricky, but highly satisfying puzzles, the solving of which unlocks approximately a second of a figurative piece of CG known only as ‘The Truth’. We found seeking these out to be just another in a vast array of compelling quests for us OCD completionists.
Leonardo da Vinci’s part in all of this is to serve as Q to your Bond. Every time there seems to be a gap where your attention span drops anything below totally, irrevocably mesmerised, he has a habit of stepping in with a new gadget for you to try out. What we can’t fathom, though, is why this supposed genius is depicted as a blithering idiot who seems oblivious to Ezio’s rampant slaughter. Child-like almost.
Which leads us onto perhaps the game’s greatest strength. A factor whose polarity has been entirely reversed since Assassin’s Creed; that of variety. To say there’s a lot to do in the game’s three cities and wilderness areas would be to undersell the lengths to which Ubisoft has clearly gone to in addressing that game’s primary criticism. If anything, there’s too much to do. Certainly during the early moments of enlightenment, the point at which, if you want to see and do everything, the size of the task begins to dawn, it can feel almost over facing. There are races, glyphs, feathers, weapons, assassination side quests by the dozen, beat-up challenges, puzzle-infused climbs, secret parkour challenge crypts and much, much more besides. A fact which will see the game stretch well into the 30-40 hour range among the meticulous.
There’s enormous pleasure to be derived from simply taking a step back from each task once complete and setting a waypoint from an enormously varied menu of entertaining asides and plot-forwarding story quests. This, coupled with an immensely satifying sense of progression in every sense makes Assassin’s Creed II every bit the game that its ancestor promised, but in many ways failed to deliver.