Assassin's Creed II
17th Nov 2009 | 17:51
Oh, this is a clever, clever game. It may not have the immediate, explosive impact of Uncharted 2, the beautifully manicured cut-scenes of MGS4, or the insane depth of Fallout 3, but in terms of the way it hooks you in and delivers its epic story of conspiracy, betrayal and love, Assassin's Creed 2 is unmatched - not even by GTA IV. Now, once you've finished reeling in puzzlement and disbelief, read on and we'll tell you why that is.
It starts at the end: of the first game that is. Desmond Miles is stood in his cell at Abstergo, staring the strange glyphs left on his wall by the mysterious Subject 16. If you didn't play the original - don't worry - there's a recap of what happened, done as a flashback (or you can check out Assassin's Creed: Explained). He's forced back into the Animus by Lucy where he synchronises with the memory of new character, and star of the show, Ezio. This first scene sees Ezio being born and your first action as the player is to wiggle his limbs with the face buttons.
X controls your legs, square your right arm, cirlce the left, and triangle your head. Why are we discussing the movements of a baby in such bizarre detail? Because these buttons directly translate to all your abilities later in the game. So, X is run (legs), square is action (assassinate etc.), circle handles your secondary hand actions (interacting with objects) and triangle handles targeting and eagle vision. It's a simple trick, but right from the off it makes you feel part of Ezio, engaged with his story.
This level of smart presentation and clever little narrative tricks continues throughout the rest of the 30 hour game. Amazingly we didn't find one wobbly moment where immersion was sacrificed for a convenient gaming mechanic, or an inconsistent plot device. Everything in Ezio's (and Desmond's) world feels natural, even the voice acting - no rubbish accents here - and plot lines are largely free from the usual ham and madness that runs through games. However, what really impresses is the way Assassin's Creed 2 puts it all together and weaves this world in with the action.
birth of Ezio inside the Animus, Desmond and Lucy flee the Abstergo building. Here we're treated to our first taste of combat, as the pair punch, kick and headbutt their way through a shambling selection of guards to reach the underground car park and freedom. The simple combos feel satisfying and brutal.
One quick cut-scene later and Desmond is rubbing shoulders with a new cast of friendly characters and being ushered into a modified version of the Animus where the game begins in earnest. Ezio is now a young man leading a bunch of friends and followers across the Ponte Veccio in Florence to start a fight with a rival family. It starts with boyish name-calling, escalates with stone throwing and culminates in a bloody brawl where you learn the basics of fist-fighting. But hang on a minute: haven't we already done scrapping when Desmond left Abstergo? Yes, but now we're in the Animus. We have a HUD, we have tutorial pop-ups, we have button prompts: we are Desmond, literally learning to fight as Ezio.
This is the key to AC2's story-telling success. It constantly reminds you that you are a man inside a machine, and feels no shame in giving you intrusive prompts like glowing doors, information flashing up in little boxes, and tingling noises every time you're near a collectible. In fact, it makes an event of these usually mood-killing conventions.
Glowing, collectible glyphs? They are hacked parts of the Animus software left by Subject 16. Loading screens? Here you see the city you're visiting being created building-by-building by the Animus. Intrusive information flashes that pop up whenever Ezio spots a famous landmark? These are snippets of info fed to Desmond by Shaun Hastings, one of the support team, to help him navigate the city.
Every traditional 'gaming' moment ironically makes you feel more like Desmond Miles. Smart then, but a game is for playing, not just technical willy-waving. Thankfully, Assassin's Creed 2 delivers confidently and consistently throughout its epic story. Although the action will be familiar to anyone who tackled the original, it's both more varied and better paced this time around. You're not just dumped into Ezio's shoes and told to get out there and kill - you don't even start out as an assassin. Your interactions with the members of Ezio's family slowly introduce the basics like climbing, interacting with the world and fighting, and as events unfold you learn new skills. This gentle approach works extremely well, keeping you in control of your actions and confined within manageable portions of the vast game world without shattering the illusion of freedom or the believability of the story. You don't even get your hidden blade - the series' trademark weapon - until about two to three hours in, but you never miss it.
Free-running and climbing is still responsive (one of the few aspects the original did well), and each city feels unique and inviting to explore. Occasional awkward moments aside, when Ezio takes the wrong angle off a building and ends up leaping like a lemming to certain death, the platforming is easily on a par with Uncharted 2. The distribution of enemy AI is spot on too - you're never hassled too much for roof-running - as is the temperament of the enemies. In the original, walking at street level usually meant a fight with a bunch of hyper sensitive guards, but in AC2 unless you've been raising hell and not covering your tracks, you can stroll the alleys of Florence, San Gimignano, Venice or other parts of renaissance Italy (spoilers dodged) without fear of undue violence.
If things do get nasty, Ezio has several new moves to bring to a fight including the ability to blind attackers by throwing dust in their face (handy if you want to back out of conflict). Combine this with the much wider array of weapons, and the ability to counter and disarm enemies, and combat becomes something of a playground for your skills. Sure, you could hammer r, or counter until everyone drops dead, but there's more satisfaction to be had in grabbing your enemy's axe mid-swing, yanking it off him, and using it to split his skull. Get it just right and you can string together counters, blows and special moves like Batman in Arkham Asylum. It takes practice, but there's no shortage of fights to be had on your adventure.
As the game progresses it opens up, inviting you to explore and experiment with the skills you've learned. Just when you feel you've mastered them, it feeds you a few more tricks, giving you scope to approach scenarios in a whole new way. Eight hours in, when we'd be watching the end credits in most adventure games, we're still learning fresh techniques that allow us to explore more of the game's beautiful renaissance cities and kill their inhabitants in ever more fiendish and creative ways. The more you learn, the more creative you can be with your main kills. Once fully kitted up, you have a Hitman-like freedom to carry out hits and, thanks to the considered build up where you learn not just how to murder but how to distract, each kill feels like a real event; a mental puzzle you can conquer in so many satisfying ways.
In all this game is 30 hours long and (unlike the original) very little of it feels like filler. Even the traditionally mundane side-quests, like letter deliveries, are spiced up by AC2's characters and scenarios. Want an example? One of the first courier missions sees you delivering letters for Casanova (who looks like an old letch) to rich ladies who have been put under armed guard by their fathers. Again, these little incidentals really give you the feeling that everything in Assassin's Creed 2 is there for a reason.
There's no sloppiness or dead weight. In fact, there's often more going on than might first meet the eye. Buy a new weapon, for example, and not only do you get to wield it in combat, but it also appears in a display case in your Villa, adding to the property's value. And the more valuable your villa, the more income you get to spend on the wealth of stuff that you'll find inside each of the game's cities.
The sheer amount of things to see and do almost rivals the exhaustive GTA IV, but unlike Rockstar's classic the story (or rather stories) is always on hand to drive you forwards and keep things focused on the task at hand.
The only real downside is that you need to make a committed effort to get the most out of Assassin's Creed 2. It isn't something you can casually pick at with your mates - it's a deep, involving game that rewards persistence and curiosity. Like we said, it doesn't have the immediate 'wow factor' of Uncharted 2, or Batman's intuitive, flowing, combat, but if you invest in the story and characters some of the revelations later in the game are phenomenal. We don't want to spoil it, but there's actually a fascinating third story ticking away in the background, which slowly but surely unveils itself as you play through, influencing events inside and outside the Animus. There's no multi-player, and we didn't expect it - but DLC add-on rumours persist.
As a sequel, Assassin's Creed 2 embarrasses the original game. It expands on everything that was great, adds a stack of fresh content and trims out all the fat. And somehow, there's enough genuine quality and divine touches to fill an experience that lasts and entertains for three times longer than most blockbuster games. Clever, clever stuff.