Assassin's Creed II Review: A Season For MasterpiecesS

Assassin's Creed 2 is set in an era of history famous for the creation of beautiful art and master inventions, a fitting backdrop for a game that leaps beyond the achievements of both its predecessor and some other vaunted works.

Two years ago, the first Assassin's Creed sold millions while evoking grumbles that its free-running, pickpocketing, killing and escaping routine was too, well, routine, repeating a formula with little variation from the first slice of hero Altair's sword to the last. What some saw as a shallow game, I described as a short-session game masquerading as an epic, a game that discouraged lengthy play sessions but rewarded the occasional indulgence of its strong core gameplay loop. It was more of a Pac-Man than a Zelda.

Two years later, Assassin's Creed 2 appears as a marvel, occurring mostly in 15th century Italy, starring the amateur assassin Ezio Auditore — he, like Altair, an ancestor of true series hero Desmond Miles — and embarrassing its predecessor as if it had been little more than a tech demo. What was tested and tamed in the first game is tweaked and topped in a new one that spans playable cities, countryside and decade of the Italian Renaissance. Killing is done in new and interesting ways. Extraordinary buildings are climbed. Tactics are evolved. Mysteries upon mysteries are introduced and sometimes solved. And, by the end, the series earns as its peers not Pac-Man but Metal Gear, The Da Vinci Code and Lost, as Ubisoft and Ezio alike take their stab at greatness.

Loved
The Adventure Evolved: It may be an odd point to start on, before mentioning how this game looks or even how it plays, but the best achievement of Assassin's Creed 2 may be how it flows. This is a game with a specific story to tell about Ezio, the son of Italian nobility. He is a man whose family and life is demolished before the player's eyes as events force him to become an assassin who scours Italy for conspiracy clues and rightful victims of his vengeance. It's an adventure that is told through a weave of exposition and gameplay that defies the usual frayed conventions of story taking turns with interactivity. In Assassin's Creed 2 you are most definitely playing the story, the mechanics of the first game and those introduced in the new, propelling an adventure that is full of changes and surprises. For example: The game's fifth chapter contains nine missions, which introduce Ezio and friend Leonardo Da Vinci to Venice in a walking tour, leading to a mission that involves rushing a wounded new character from corrupt guards, indoctrinating ones' self into the wounded persons' guild of thieves through a series of trials, learning new moves, and then returning to the scene of the wounding to assassinate a corrupt official. It's all story. It's almost all played.

History Made Virtually Real: For those of us who can't recall when the Covenant first invaded, why Ganon keeps getting angry or any of gaming's other major made-up narratives, Assassin's Creed 2 offers the hooks of real historical places and people. I've been to Florence but not climbed the magnificent Duomo until Assassin's Creed. I've heard of Da Vinci and read about Lorenzo De'Medici but not met them until Assassin's Creed. The ability to both encounter historical figures and, for those of us who stayed awake in history class, predict who might appear next, adds both intrigue to the series and the excitement of being able to trace and guess where this adventure will wind up. Let World War II no longer be the beginning and end of gaming's exploration of historical fiction.

The Killing And The Climbing: For those who don't care about story flow, yawn at history or think that's all nice but still demand that their game play well, AC2 thankfully satisfies. Ezio is a deadlier assassin than Altair, capable of killing two men at once with the retractable blades hidden in his wrist-guards, able to more nimbly and swiftly scale buildings and descend from them like a bird of prey. Combat on the ground, once the enemy is alerted, typically consists of Ezio surrounded by eight or so angry guards who politely take turns to attack while the player waits for counter-kill moments, or, better yet, opportunities to wrench a weapon away and turn it on its owner. Neither the climbing or killing is all that complex, but both are easily executed, fun and rendered beautifully.

The Structure: Assassin's Creed creative director Patrice Desilets has already admitted that the first game in his series was too conventional, that it introduced a gameplay formula that it never tweaked. He promised to play with it in AC2 and his team of over 200 developers has delivered. The main flow of the game consists of the aforementioned memory chapters, covering different years of Ezio's life and divided into mandatory missions that are activated from within the game's open environments and advance the story. They seldom follow formula, as one rooftop assault on archers feels nothing like the participation required in a carnival or the visiting of a prisoner that are the subjects of other objectives. Off the critical path, there is a bevy of diversions: Optional assassination missions, optional free-running races, hundreds of collectibles to gather, classic art to buy and more. Even those side-challenges that do repeat themselves do so with flair, such as the handful of "beat -up" missions that always wind up having the player punch a cheating husband. And best of all, are the tombs, mostly optional missions heavy on platforming and relevant to the series in a way I can't bring myself to ruin here.

Tactical Variety: One of the game's best attributes is its redundancy of options. Many games offer little more tactical choice than to kill with an axe, a fist or a fire spell. Assassin's Creed 2 builds upon its predecessor by presenting a more interesting choice of approaches: Will you pursue your goal by free-running across rooftops and risking the attention of archers? Why not barrel through the pedestrian-clogged streets instead? Or walk through them, blending in with the crowd (and pickpocketing the crowd at the same time)? How about breaking off from the flow of the crowd and hiring a group of prostitutes to lure some guards away? Or maybe poison those guards? Or swim past everyone? Etc.

Mysteries And More Mysteries: Assassin's Creed 2 appears to have been made by people who share The Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown's fascination with secret societies and centuries-spanning conspiracies that involve dozens of historical figures. They also are probably fans of Lost, given how effectively they pepper their game with mysteries that, when solved, typically reveal even more tantalizing mysteries. Through an unexpected puzzle-gameplay twist that I won't spoil here, a player of Assassin's Creed 2 can begin to discover some of the secrets of the series' lore, injecting a nice amount of mystery and sleuthing to a game that already was doing action and adventuring so well.

The Teases: The finale of the first Assassin's Creed has nothing on the entirety of Assassin's Creed 2 in terms of hinting at possible subject matter for sequels and spin-offs. You may finish this game, like me, eager for Ubisoft to consider pulling an Activision and exploiting every possible future release. Because, given what's discovered in various parts of the new game, it's hard not to want the developers to bring to video game systems the adventures they hint at involving everyone from Marco Polo or Cleopatra to, well, some people from way back in the day.

Desmond Miles: Like the first game, this sequel takes place in the interactive, buried memories of Desmond Miles, a man living just a couple of years ahead of us and whose ancestors were the assassins Altair and Ezio. The first game interrupted Altair's adventures several times to subject the player to locked-room barely-interactive Desmond sequences. First-game Desmond could do little but walk and talk. New-game Desmond is capable of more but is also playable less frequently. Perhaps he too could be an assassin, the game suggests. And perhaps Ubisoft could pull a Kojima Productions, as it seems set to turn its Raiden — its unpopular alternative to the action stars of its series — into a protagonist gamers want to be. Not quite there, but getting closer.

Hated
Touchy: There is little to complain about with Assassin's Creed 2 other than the touchiness of its controls. The game often requests that the player climb and leap from windowsill to ledge to brick outcropping to wooden post with grace and speed. That happens best when players treat the free-running flow of the game as if it is a racing game, but all the steering and speeding up sometimes, strangely, sends Ezio leaping in the opposite direction you pushed, ruining everything. It's hard to tell if the controls are too sensitive, too smart or if the player is in error, but the sophistication of so much of the rest of the game is sometimes undone when the great assassin clambers not to the roof but falls from a facade to plunk into the water below.

Assassin's Creed 2 looks great, plays great and avoids all of the pitfalls of its predecessor, which might be enough praise for some. But its finest achievement is to present one of gaming's most mature adventures, a game that can be played and tell a story at the same time, a game that assumes its players are educated and curious, and willing to be teased and willing to test its limits.

The level of craft and care evident in the creation of Assassin's Creed 2 — to say nothing of the level of obsession with conspiracy — is on par with those of the creators of the Metal Gear Solid series. This is big budget with polish. This is technology put in the service of artistry. Climbing and killing might wear thin by the end of the next game if the current formula of Assassin's Creed is maintained, but given the willingness of the series' creators to think and execute boldly that is evident in this sequel, complacency and obviousness are two things for which Assassin's Creed is little at risk.

Assassin's Creed 2 was developed by Ubisoft Montreal (and affiliated studios) and published by Ubisoft for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on November 17. Retails for $59.99 USD. A PS3 copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Completed the campaign, including one, freely downloaded bonus mission, in 24 hours, 14 minutes, for about an amusingly specific 82.4% completion rate, with about a third of the side-tasks left undone. Laughed at the game's Super Mario reference.

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