Assassin's Creed II Review
The original Assassin’s Creed was one of my favorite games of 2007 and I’ve been looking forward to the sequel ever since. I was well aware of the repetitive nature of the first title but as I found each and every action entertaining, I never grew tired of the involving and absorbing experience. Besides, the game did so many things so well that it was difficult not to be impressed. However, that being said, it seems clear that Ubisoft has worked to give us a sequel that is better and more detailed in just about every possible way. Essentially, if you consider the first Creed to be the foundation – and a very solid, albeit incomplete one – you can view the second effort to be a fuller, more satisfying, more realized piece of virtual entertainment. From conceptual art that just misses its aim to a very similar piece of art that has more in the way of polish; perhaps this is how I view ACII. From the story to the gameplay enhancements and alterations, this title just screams “upgrade.”
The graphics aren’t as much of an upgrade as one might believe, but that’s more of a testament to the original’s beautiful display. On the downside, the in-game cut-scenes aren’t quite up to the standards we’ve seen in some of the newest, most impressive cinematic adventures of late. The movies (that you often see acting as promotional trailers) are amazing, though, and the entire focus of this project is to immerse the player in a living, breathing world. The original did a wonderful job and the sequel does it even better. There’s even more detail in the surrounding environment; more NPCs and seemingly more animations as well; overall, it’s a more realistic and authentic medieval presentation. Just moving through the roving crowds or viewing the landscape from one of your many high vantage points is a pleasure, and you won’t find much in the way of glitches. I’ve heard about a so-called screen-tearing problem with the PS3 version but it’s an extraordinarily minor issue.
The sound represents one of the biggest upgrades, due to the superior voice acting, better balance in the surrounding effects, and a slightly more effective soundtrack. I have no idea how long it took to assemble a voiceover team almost entirely comprised of Italian actors (either that, or they’re all just really good at thick Italian accents), but it works. It works really, really well. In the original, there was a balance issue that would pop up during moments of intense action but I can find no example of that in this new title. And while I continue to think the soundtrack should assume a more prominent role in these games, it remains fitting and superbly composed. Lastly, it’s the little things that Ubisoft continues to do well: the passing chatter of the citizens in the streets, the cries of guards, the sharp clash of steel on steel, the clear yet appropriately understated grunts of effort; it all gels to provide us with a truly believable environment. The sound has a lot to do with atmosphere.
If you enjoyed the original, there’s absolutely no chance you won’t enjoy the sequel. At the same time, if you liked the concept of the first game but found it a little boring (due to the aforementioned repetitive nature), you’ll probably enjoy ACII. I say “probably” because the game is set up very much the same way; there are dozens upon dozens of optional quests scattered around the map almost all the time, and while there are definitely more than in the original, you’ll still be doing them over and over. But before you freak out, bear in mind that I just said there are more missions, and on top of which, they all feel quite distinct and test very different elements of Ezio’s skill set. Besides, the addition of multiple gameplay aspects really elevates this sequel to an extremely lofty position in my eyes. One could argue that such aspects should’ve been included in the original but they’re here now, so I don’t want to hear any whining about the past. Like I said…upgrade.
But let’s start with the basics: the game controls almost exactly like the first one, with only a few small changes. The focus still revolves around the concept of “free running” and treating the main character like a puppet (the instruction manual refers to it as “Puppeteering”). The latter simply means that each face button corresponds to a part of Ezio’s body; the triangle button controls his head – which he can duck to better hide his identity – the circle button handles his “other” hand (the one that isn’t holding a weapon), the square button moves the dominant, weapon-holding hand, and the X button controls his feet. Yeah, this may sound complicated but like the rest of the game, it all comes together to give the player immense control over every part of Ezio’s movement. The “free running” concept means you need to pay attention to your surroundings: by holding down the R1 button, you can sprint, and when you combine that with the X button, free running will let you leap and toss yourself about like the agile assassin you are.
However, due to the fact that you have to keep a close eye on health this time around, you’ll want to stay off the X button unless you’re certain of your direction. See, when just sprinting, Ezio won’t attempt to jump when he comes to a ledge; he’ll stop short, which is a good safety feature. If you’re holding the X button, he will fling himself off any ledge – any ledge – and of course, Ezio is no superhero. If he falls too far, he will suffer damage and if he falls way too far, he’s done for. But this leads me to the upgrades section: the first part of this is the health; you will be able to purchase equipment this time around that increases your overall health and if you get damaged, you have to visit a doctor to restore that lost health. You can also carry some medicines around if you simply don’t have the time or motivation to find a doctor, and yes, that’s another upgrade. Ezio has a pouch that he can carry items in, and he can even visit tailors to change the look of his robes.
Ah, but it doesn’t end there. You’ve got blacksmiths who will repair current weapons and sell you new ones and the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, who will make you some very cool items if you can find original blueprints hidden around the world. Oh, and there are also special groups you can hire: there are the courtesans (prostitutes) who, when hired, will surround you and keep you from being spotted by the guards. They’re especially useful when you have to get through a guarded door; when you spot the guards, you can highlight them and send the courtesans over to distract them. While the ladies work their charms on the guards, in you go. Then there are Thieves and Mercenaries who you can also hire for a certain fee. Money is a new addition as well and you’ll definitely need it for all the things I’ve mentioned here. All this stuff, going back to the health description is entirely new for the sequel. Please understand that.
It just opens everything up. Sure, you’ll be clambering to the top of Viewpoints, getting letters from one place to another in a certain span of time, and handling some dirty work just like in the original, but there’s just so much more to do and so much more to consider. The combat has been revamped as well; no longer are we just countering all day long (although it’s still a definite requirement for success). No, Ezio’s ability to grab a foe adds even more possibilities, ‘cuz you can grab someone and instantly slit his throat with your short sword. Or, you can sneak up behind them and shove them off a high precipice. If you’d rather they be dead in front of you, you’ve still got your trusty hidden blade and once an enemy falls, you now have the option to sift through his pockets for money and pick up and move the body. How easily you move about is once again based on your visibility; i.e., your Notoriety. You can use haystacks, wells, and rooftop gardens to escape from pursuing guards, but only if your Notoriety level is yellow. If it’s red, they’re on to you and they’ll just drag you out of your hiding spot.
The enemy AI remains high and in some respects, it’s even higher. New enemies are very smart and will even be able to root you out regardless of Notoriety level, and I’ve also noticed more in the way of different melee attacks. You can pick someone’s pocket if you’re quick to disappear into the shadows, you can choose to tackle other aspects of the map before the plot-advancing missions (all conveniently marked with a “!” symbol), purchase maps that show you the location of all the treasure boxes (oh yes, another new addition), and continue to add new pieces of information to the Animus by pressing Select when prompted (this happens when you come across new characters or locations of some significance). The multiple weapons – everything from smoke bombs to assassin blades – add even more flavor to an already vastly improved sensation of depth and options, and with such an expansive environment, you’ll never grow tired of your gorgeous surroundings. And did I mention Ezio can swim? Yep, that too.
Lastly, we should probably mention the new “Uplay” rewards program that allows you to earn special “U” points for completing certain challenges. Those points can then be redeemed for in-game items like more throwing knives, maps, and costumes, plus other extras like wallpapers and themes. Obviously, this is reserved for Ubisoft titles; the next one that will feature this program will likely be Splinter Cell: Conviction, which unfortunately isn’t coming to the PS3. Anyway, getting back to the game at hand, you should’ve come to understand by now that this sequel has grown and expanded a long way past the original. But perhaps best of all, at least from my point of view, is that they didn’t alter the core gameplay much at all. This means you still have the stellar control, style and format setup, but there are multiple layers of upgrades and advancements superimposed over that excellent foundation. This is what we should expect from a sequel, isn’t it?
By now, you can probably tell I love Assassin’s Creed II. But as usual, nothing is perfect. There is still something in the way of repetition despite all the new missions, it remains a little too difficult to determine height (even after playing for a long time, I can screw up my “gap estimation”), there are a few collision detection issues, I don’t think the in-game cut-scenes are anything to get excited about, and blending with the crowd is a little too erratic. But I think it’s great how guards have to get closer to you to recognize you (as they get closer, a triangular meter over their head fills with yellow; if it goes red, they’ve got you) and everything else is awesome. The storyline is excellent, the voice acting and effects are excellent, the size, scope and detail of the environment is both a pleasure to behold and downright thrilling, interacting with everyone around you is an impressive experience, and the plethora of gameplay additions are much appreciated. And remember, you do typically have the option of going stealth or exercising your aggressive right, which is a definite keystone of this particularly ambitious structure.
Obviously, ACII and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are entirely different experiences but in terms of single-player, I will say there are very few titles available that can rival Ubisoft’s gem. If this sounds like everything you wanted out of a sequel, you owe it to yourself to start playing…like, really soon.
11/18/2009 Ben Dutka