Assassin’s Creed II is the follow-up to Ubisoft’s 2007 hit that attracted a mass audience if not unanimous critical acclaim. The sequel is an expansive and bloody romp through Renaissance Italy that plays up every popular aspect of the first installment while righting many of its flaws.
The PC version was released months after the game came out on consoles, and much has already been said about the digital rights management issues that have affected the experience since its release. The DRM measures require users to maintain an internet connection while playing Assassin’s Creed II in any mode. If you lack a constant, reliable connection, you might want to give this game a pass, even though it’s a single player experience.
Ubisoft’s DRM servers also went down directly after launch, restricting access to new gamers. However our recent experience with the game remained uninterrupted. We did purposefully cut off our internet connection to confirm that the game will pause until a new connection could be established. It does. While disconnected, we were also unable to access the “bonus content” from the game’s main menu due to an inability to reach Ubisoft’s servers.
Once you get past this strict and inconvenient method of piracy protection, Assassin’s Creed II is the same great experience that console gamers enjoyed last year. The two “missing” memory sequences that were later made available through download on consoles are available right from the start. PC gamers who have yet to experience this sequel will notice right away that Assassin’s Creed II has evolved from an ill-defined action game into a fully featured open world experience. Everything from the new monetary system to the ability to buy armor and weapons makes it a richer, and ultimately more satisfying game than its predecessor.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed pulls together a bit of The Matrix, a lot of historical fiction, and throws in elements of the madcap conspiracy theories found in a Dan Brown novel. The series also has the benefit of being crafted by some of the most talented hands in game development. With only a handful of exceptions, the environments, animations, and art are beautifully portrayed. In addition to its good looks, the sequel’s gameplay builds so much upon the foundations of the first game, that in retrospect, the first Assassin’s Creed looks like little more than a technical demonstration.
Both fans and detractors of Assassin’s Creed will be pleased to know that the sequel fully addresses and ties up many of the loose ends from the last game. It picks up exactly where we left off, with the kidnapped bartender Desmond locked in his cell at Abstergo. This corporation is the modern-day face of the Templars and they’re after Desmond’s valuable genetic memories. The magic of modern technology allows Desmond to relive the exploits of his Assassin ancestors. His genealogy puts him at the center of a war between the Templars and Assassins.
The game starts off with a bang, springing Desmond from jail and introducing him to the Assassins at their secret hideout. Here they have access to the same technology that allows Desmond to relive the past. In the last game, his brain was forcibly used to reveal powerful artifacts hidden in 12th century Jerusalem. This time Desmond temporally relocates to 15th century Italy by choice to learn the ways of the Assassins through the life of Ezio Audituerre de Firenze.
It’s a convoluted setup, but it’s also a great excuse to skip around in time, taking control of a character for only the most interesting moments of his life. Players are introduced to Ezio at the moment of his birth as part of a clever lesson on movement. It then jumps to his formative years as a womanizer, a street fighter, and the son of a wealthy banker. He isn’t a wholly likable character, but the game steers us towards a revenge plot that provides the player plenty of motivation to stick with the story. The Renaissance setting also adds a much needed dose of color and humor to the series.
As we learn more about Ezio and become acquainted with his hometown of Florence, the game presents bite-sized bits of information on how to play Assassin’s Creed II. This interweaving of plot and tutorial establishes an intriguing tale of revenge and slowly explains a varied and complicated control scheme.
In the early missions, we’re introduced to the excellent free running system that allows players to climb over almost any surface. Movement speed in Assassin’s Creed II has been significantly increased from the first game, enabling players to fluidly zip around the city. The animations are still excellent, and Ezio’s body realistically adjusts to his environment as he climbs and vaults past obstacles. The only downside of free running is that there are moments when the camera doesn’t present the best view of what’s over the next rooftop. Overzealous free runners will take more damage from falling off buildings than they’ll ever take from a sword.
The controls on a PC are fully customizable, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this game was developed specifically for a controller. I recommend using the supported Xbox 360 controller over a mouse and keyboard setup to avoid the awkward button combinations required for something as simple as running and climbing.
For better or for worse “stealth” games are defined by the Metal Gear series. Hideo Kojima’s vision of tactical espionage has extremely rigid rules about when a player is hidden and when they are plainly visible. Assassin’s Creed II breaks this convention, adhering more to the rules of a Jason Bourne movie, where quick actions and a dense crowd are the tools of escape. I find this version of stealth refreshing, more realistic, and ultimately a success due to the numerous options players have when navigating the city streets.
There are still hiding places like bales of hay and roof gardens in Assassin’s Creed II. They act as sort of “safe zones” that break a pursuers line of site. Ezio can even dive underwater for a limited time to hide from his enemies. But a more satisfying approach to dealing with foes is to divert them with hired help. Thieves, mercenaries and whores can be hired for a fee and directed at targets as living tools of distraction. Players can also toss money into a crowd to cause a small riot amongst the peasantry. This sandbox approach to stealth requires a bit of practice and it won’t always result in success, but when it does come together, it’s very rewarding.
If you choose to fight instead of hide, another plethora of options opens up. On the weapon selection wheel, there are swords, daggers, smoke bombs, throwing knives the dual assassin blades, and a surprise weapon I won’t spoil. Each weapon has its benefits in terms of strength and speed along with its own slick set of animations. New
weapons can be permanently purchased through shops, or temporarily stolen from an adversary in the heat of battle. Weapon variation has done a lot to improve the variety of combat; late in Assassin’s Creed II you’ll be looking for a fight instead of turning tail.
Even without sword, the way you engage an enemy has depth. A notoriety meter and enemy awareness indicators being clearly marked on the screen give players fair warning over what sets off the guards. Once engaged, there are sidesteps, special combat moves (like throwing sand in someone’s face), and grapples. Novice players will fall back on slamming a single attack button, which quickly becomes repetitive, but experts can turn combat into an art.
The addition of a monetary system also drastically changes Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio receives money as he completes quests, finds treasures, or pickpockets victims. Health will not regenerate completely over time, so medicine and upgradeable armor must be purchased to keep Ezio alive. Besides applying funds to armor, weaponry, and remedies, you also have the ability to upgrade your home base — a Villa in the country-side. The Villa is something of a glorified display case for all of the collectibles and secret items, but players can also dedicate money to upgrading its appearance and facilities. Rebuild the church and find a treasure; rebuild the blacksmith and get a discount. It’s an addictive and optional diversion that completionists will drool over.
The Villa also gives the game a geographic center and a safe zone to tally your progress. Annoyingly, it’s also the only place Ezio can swap weapons and armor, but the addition of travel kiosks mean that players can now be transported to surrounding cities instantly.
Through the mission structure, Assassin’s Creed II guides and nudges players towards the meat of the game. At the start of each mission the player must “accept” the task, or put it off until later. The missions that advance the story are always marked on the map with an exclamation point, meaning that a game with plenty of diversions also keeps the main goal visible at all times. It’s a good design and a nod to critics of the last game who bemoaned side missions that stood in the way of the good stuff.
It’s difficult to nail down parts of Assassin’s Creed II that aren’t satisfying. Sections that border on frustrating are either fleeting or optional and some of this “extra” content is downright excellent. For example, Prince of Persia fans will revel in the hidden tombs that require dexterity, patience, and expert timing.
Even if you ignore the extras in Assassin’s Creed II, the game is still a lengthy experience. The story alone lasts upwards of 18 hours and includes enough variety to be interesting throughout. Not every mission is equally as exciting. The assassinations are far more exhilarating than tailing a target or following an ally through a city. However, there are some one-off missions that are both exciting and wildly different from the core gameplay. With more variety and a tighter focus, Assassin’s Creed II gets the pacing just right.
Of course some PC gamers enjoy the benefits of playing at a much higher resolution with crisp, clean textures. Our beefy AlienWare was able to run the game at full settings with only minor stuttering. But while the art direction and detailed recreation of Renaissance is still visually pleasing, it is slightly less impressive when compared to games that are currently pushing graphical boundaries on the PC.
Assassin’s Creed II transforms a middling action game into an intriguing and consistently entertaining open-world adventure. Based on this game, Ubisoft Montreal should run a clinic on how to iterate a franchise and if the series continues in this vein, the next installment will take aim at Rockstar’s best efforts. The experience is layered, unique, and shows an incredible attention to detail. This is one case where the sequel has triumphed over the original by catching the gameplay up to the already excellent visuals. No matter what your preconceptions are about Assassin’s Creed II, the game is well worth your time and money.