Assassin’s Creed II
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Out Now
Players: One
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Well, after 2 years the much-anticipated sequel to the good-but-repetitive Assassin’s Creed is here at last and I have to say, don't believe the hype. The game continues shortly after the events of Assassin's Creed. The hero (if you can call him that) of both games, Desmond Miles (voiced by Nolan North), is still being held prisoner at Abstergo Industries so they can search his DNA for memories of his ancestor, the Assassin Altair, using a machine called the Animus. Abstergo, a modern-day corporate descendant of the Knights Templar, have used Desmond to locate powerful out-of-place artifacts called "Pieces of Eden", going back in virtual time to perform actions as Altair. Due to overuse, Desmond is suffering the "bleeding effect" and is now able to see messages and symbols written in blood, warning of the end of the world.

The sequel has you plugged into the Animus practically right away. Former Abstergo researcher Lucy Stillman (once again voiced by Kristen Bell) frees you from the evil company’s clutches and relocates you to a safe location where she and her boffin pal Shaun Hastings have secreted another Animus machine. This means you can re-enter the Animus, re-synchronize with your ancestor’s memories of the past, discover the truth behind the story, right some wrongs and go after the Pieces of Eden. Lucy has a couple of friends coming along for the ride; Rebecca (voiced by Eliza Schneider) and Shaun (played by Danny Wallace). The team help you re-enter the Animus and remember your ancestor’s past. This time as a young man called Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who lived in 15th century Italy - that's right, the pasta capital of the world. Even though there's SO many Italians, not one of them has a restaurant so you can try their food. Bummer! The story has you searching your way back through the cob-web filled corners of your ancestor’s memory strands to remember more dates, events & places to unravel the truth behind the whole story of the Knights Templar and the Assassins.

If you played the first Creed, the game is pretty much as you expect it; there are complex cities, hundreds of citizens milling about seemingly going about their own little lives, thousands of buildings with diverse architecture to climb, things to hang and swing from and lots and lots of guards to kill on the roof-tops. The view points are still in the game, these are highpoints (often giddyingly high) that you have to climb to synchronize (fill in) the map. Once at the top you can do the Assassin’s “leaps of faith” into what must be the best hay & straw in the world – how it absorbs the energy from those falls without Ezio being crippled, the Pope only knows.

The rooftops are still the quickest way to get around and are patrolled by guards, often archers. Be warned, if you don't kill him when climbing to a view point, a guard can knock your ass off the building and your life will last just long enough to hit the ground way below. Falls from a great height can kill you but if you do have any life left, guards on the ground that may have been alerted to your presence will mess you up real good as well. You can try to climb up, but for some odd reason, rocks just appear in their hands and they’ll pelt you with them while you are climbing back up to rooftop level, making you lose your grip so you frequently have to fight your way out of trouble. As with Altair, Ezio is able to run, jump and climb around like a drunken monkey on speed, except this time you have many different weapons in your arsenal and have several new moves at your disposal. There are three new stealth kills; air kills (drop on enemies from above), ledge kills (pull a guard off a roof or into water from below) or concealed kills (drag a passing guard into a hiding place and kill him).

Just like in the first Assassin’s Creed you get to get to mess with the guards on a regular basis (they seem to be placed on every other rooftop and around every corner), but at ground level you can blend in with the crowds by sticking close and matching their pace. Your level of notoriety plays a big part in the game and this is shown on a gauge in the top-left corner. Your notoriety rises as you perform your violent acts in sight of people, and once you’re “notorious” you won’t be able to blend in and your level can only be lowered by ripping down “wanted” posters (and boy, do they get pasted up in some dumb places!) or bribing a Herald (kind of a town crier or latter-day news anchorman) to stop telling the masses about what you’ve been up to.

This time your good looks, charm and combat skills won't be the only way to handle enemies as Ezio also has groups of Courtesans (“ladies of questionable morals” to label them politely), thieves and mercenary ruffians with weapons to help out and either distract or fight the enemy guards together with. Any of these groups can be hired for 150 florins and will follow you faithfully around awaiting your orders. The Courtesans can be instructed to walk over to the guards at which point the poor sex-starved guys will start drooling like horny teenagers seeing a porn movie for the first time. Thieves, take their money and fight with the guards as they chase after them, and the mercenaries will just go up to them and begin to use their clean shiny weapons to hack & slash the guards until one or the other die. But each of the ways will cost you 150 florins per job. If initially that may seem like a lot, don't worry. You'll be as rich as a renaissance Bill Gates in no time. More on that later.

I’m pleased to say that AC2 has widened its horizons a little compared to the first game and it supplies considerably more variation. Altair was scared of water to the point of instant death (or “de-synchronization”), but Ezio can now swim in water and even dive beneath the surface to evade chasing guards. You can also cruise around on a gondola, and even hi-jack one GTA-style, at which point the gondolier will bail out in fear of his life and, disappointingly, just disappear beneath the waves. There’s a lot more variation in terms of story missions and side-tasks; races, assassin contracts and sections that can only be described as Tomb Raider-esque as you clamber around secret tombs to obtain former assassin’s seals. There’s an exciting carriage ride as you race to get Leonardo to safety, and Ezio can ride horses outside the city walls and in the surrounding areas and roads that link the cities.

The weapons are the usual ones you might expect, you have your trusty spring-loaded wrist blade, but this time it’s been modified so Ezio doesn’t have to lose one of his digits to use it. Good thing, because you'll need them all for this game. There are also swords, staffs, knives (for those short quick jabs) and even war hammers to help you quickly knock an assailant’s life gauge down to zero. There are also a few surprise weapons that you won't associate with being a 15th century assassin. Sadly you can't & won't be getting a bow & arrow or a crossbow in this version either, the only ranged weapons are throwing knives and a single shot pistol, neither of which require any skill to use. An assassin without a ranged weapon is like a birthday cake without frosting & candles, it's just wrong.

The strength of Assassin’s Creed II is that its storyline can be as short or as long as you want. This’ll depend on whether you are playing it to go straight from A-Z with the story missions or take it easy and do all the side quests and treasure hunting along the way. I hope you do the latter, because there's SO much to do, and so many places you won’t necessarily see if you do just charge through the game. With the side quests: you can be an assassin for hire, be a marriage counsellor (it's NOT as boring as it sounds) and/or unlock your part of the memory called “The Truth”. The truth is, it WILL help you along with the game, but, the puzzles involved within are SO difficult, and frequently so obscure that it will make many give up after 10 minutes. These aren't as easy as a memory game or simple math questions, so they aren't for the faint of heart or the easily put-off. Fortunately they are only a side-quest and not vital to the completion of the game’s story.

The camera system is still flawed and will occasionally mess up and give you no view of Ezio whatsoever, this can easily be re-manoeuvred into a more favourable position but it’s a shame that the game wasn’t given a bit more polish and this sort of tedious omnipresent gaming problem ironed, as you might have expected them to in a game of such a high profile. The camera occasionally reverts to a remarkably unhelpful fixed camera in the same way as the last Prince of Persia game (but heck, why not, they're both by the same company) and gives you some strange views at times, often during the tomb raiding sections. Veterans of the first Creed will also be glad to hear that the collectable flags are no more, this is a good thing, but they’ve replaced them with feathers that you’re supposedly finding for your dead brother or your mother (or something). They are 100 of them scattered throughout AC2’s little Italy and although they glow and are easy enough to spot, many are in places you wouldn't think of putting them.

Amassing a fortune is really easy. At the start of the game you may wish to boost your funds by pick-pocketing the dopey locals, or you can go treasure hunting by looking for glowing treasure boxes that are peppered throughout the game. You can do ‘Assassin For Hire’ jobs to earn more money, and when you do the storyline you’ll regularly get awarded with even get MORE Florins. By rejuvenating the villa and the surrounding town, adding statues and artworks you can draw a substantial income to spend on new weapons, more repairs etc. There many vendors in each city who will be only too glad to sell you weapons upgrades, medicine, repair your armour and even dye Ezio’s outfit a range of different colours. So easy is it to earn Florins in AC2 that right now I have over a half a million, and that makes me a regular Richie Rich in-game. Sadly what you can't do is put it all in a pile and dive into it like Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tails. You also can’t sell your unwanted weapons, but all weapons and armour that are bought and made obsolete aren’t discarded, but kept on display in Ezio’s family villa.

There are several negatives to this game that means the 9+ scores and “Game of the Year” awards I’ve seen it get are baffling to me. First off: on the visual side, the pop-up. It starts from the moment you take your first step in Italy and never improves. You can be no more than a few feet from a group of people or even a horse or gondola and POP! There they are/it is! Right in front of you. For a state-of-the-art Xbox 360 game, that's unheard of. And there's tearing as well - it’s not as bad as in the first game but anytime you turn to admire the view it’ll soon become apparent. The collision detection is quite terrible when on horseback or when rowing a gondola and most obstacles need to be given a wide berth to ensure you actually miss them. The sea water in Venice looks like tinfoil moving under a sheet of glass - a very slapdash effect when compared to the fluid, splashy, rippling and genuinely wet-looking water we’ve seen in many games recently.

The controls aren't spot on all the time either. You can start climbing up the building & Ezio’ll just stop for no reason - like his batteries are dead, he just won’t perform some moves or transfer to some surfaces he clearly should be able to climb or jump to. This is a bug that shows up time and time again as you perform exactly the same action you did in first place, only this time he will climb onto that ledge, clearing the previous sticking point. I’ve actually managed to drop off a building and get stuck in a tree on more than one occasion (see pic above, left), meaning all I could do was quit the current memory, and this sort of thing just shouldn’t be possible. The combat, whilst mostly pleasing can be annoying when you come up against guards with pikes or staffs – these guys seem to be able to block nearly every attack, and the only quick way to defeat them is to un-equip your weapon so you’re empty handed and disarm them – which again is ridiculous. Also, just like Altair before him, Ezio is rather non-stealthy and slow for an assassin, especially when trying to “sneak” a mission or when drawing or changing weapons. If you do get noticed and those guards start chasing you, you'll do fine running from them and with practice can usually escape, but there are agile guards that run so fast they’d give Usain Bolt a race, who will frequently catch you, meaning that as with the first game you’ll end up in far too many swordfights surrounded by 6 or 8 enemies, fighting for your life and wondering if it’s just you who’s so bad at being stealthy or the game is really supposed to be like this. Whatever the case, AC2 often supplies moments of sublime animation and cool-looking, blood-spurting fight action and counter-kills, interspersed with clumsy antics, trips and pratfalls that Laurel & Hardy would have been proud of. Not. Enough. Stealth.

Two years on, the way Ezio interacts with the environment is just as impressive, but there are inevitably times when he just won’t grab a ledge you want him to, or climb somewhere that looks like he should be able to. Some movements still seem far too automatic and pre-determined, and steering Ezio while moving quickly lacks finesse, meaning more than a few falls from great heights because he didn’t go exactly where you pointed him. The targeting and lock-on still doesn’t work and actually feels broken, it lacks any precision and while it works some of the time, it messes you around at like it’s trying to sabotage you at others - it’s quite simply the worse lock-on system since GTA 3, and actually seems worse than in the original game.

The game sounds great, with excellent music and thousands of sound bites for the many, many people who inhabit the cities. Some of the Italian accents are amusingly bad though, and the game even seems to poke some Nintendoid fun at itself when Ezio’s uncle Mario introduces himself with: “It’sa me, Mario!”

The sci-fi back story is, for want of a better term (but really I don’t think there is one) a load of twaddle, and turns what is a fascinating real-life tale of rivalry down the ages into a load of unintelligible mumbo-jumbo. The glyph puzzles that unlock mysterious video segments are silly, ambiguous, irrelevant, clearly designed to do nothing more than waste the player’s time and don’t really belong in the game.

Nevertheless, despite flaws and gripes aplenty, AC2 is a good, solid time-consumer of a game. Although gameplay may differ, this second installment supplies enough variety that it should be able to attract fans of other open world games such as Grand Theft Auto IV or even Halo 3. Its detailed and bustling environment demands and rewards exploration, and the gameplay is good enough to keep you at it until the end. The way Ezio reacts with each obstacle is still technically impressive and pleasing to the eye, but gameplay glitches and graphical blemishes spoil things far too often. A full two years after the original game, I was hoping for something amazing but got a formulaic, unambitious game that feels more like a data disc or DLC than a full sequel. It certainly provides the Assassin’s Creed fan with plenty more to do, but may well be hugely disappointing if you’re expecting something radical or pioneering. If you've read some of the early (and frankly, bafflingly sycophantic) reviews for AC2, you may well be.

Best Bits

- Looks lovely - most of the time
- Very atmospheric
- Extremely addictive
- Plenty to do
- More varied action
- Enjoyable, superbly-animated combat
Worst Bits

- Glitches and pop-up
- That daft back story
- Lock-on system feels broken
- Too much fighting and not enough stealth
- Still no bow or crossbow
- Tomb Raiding sections are poor
- Obscure “puzzles”

by: Masonic Dragicoot

Copyright © Gamecell 2009