I wasn't a huge fan of the first Assassin's Creed. Like many, I found the progression repetitive, the AI unconvincing, and the lack of proper stealthy bits a bit baffling (you were, after all, an assassin!).
That was a shame, because the premise of free-running around the Crusades era, slitting throats, then jumping back into the present day to uncover a wider conspiracy, was pretty darn cool, and the tech that held it together was incredibly impressive. You could tell there was a decent - potentially even a classic - stealth-action title in there, waiting to break out from the constraints of its structure.
Assassin's Creed II is that game - and then some!
The story was one of the original game's best aspects, and the great news is that they've continued it in fine fashion for the follow-up. It's probably worth a recap though, so (with a little help from the Gamestation Award for Best Story Game)...
Desmond Miles, a descendent of the Assassins, has been nabbed by Abstergo Industries, the modern-day incarnation of the fabled Knights Templar, and strapped into a genetic memory recall device called the Animus. Through this, he relives the memories of his ancestor Altair in the Crusades era with a view to locating the Pieces of Eden, which hold the key to some world-conquering power.
Assassin's Creed II picks up right at the end of the first game, with ol' Dezzy in his cell... and then all hell breaks loose. Controlling Des, you're soon sprinting around Abstergo HQ, beating up guards and eventually escaping to a modern-day Assassin hideout where, as luck would have it, you're soon sat in some sort of Super-Animus and plunged into freshly-surfaced memories belonging to your Great Great Something-Or-Other, Ezio Auditore Da Firenze.
Even at this point, however, you still don't feel like an Assassin. There's a good two hours of tutorials before Ezio finally dons that famous cloak, by which time you've established his standing as a Renaissance playboy, gotten to grips with Assassin's Creed II's acrobatic platforming, and have a decent understanding of those important in Ezio's life - which makes the big twist at the end of the chapter all the more affecting.
It's a slow start, but when Assassin's Creed II gets going proper, it shows itself to be a much more diverse, surprising and all-around enjoyable experience than its predecessor.
Born to run
Set in glorious renditions of 15th Century Florence, Venice, Rome and the Tuscan countryside, Assassin's Creed II is, like its forebear, a free-roaming technical marvel - but here the environments have been put to much greater use. The platforming is at once silky-smooth and almost entirely organic. These locales are packed with people, the architecture is authentic and downright beautiful, and every handhold, hay cart and rooftop is placed in a way that makes sense as part of the area, and still allows for streamlined free-running movement. Creed II doesn't feel contrived, allowing for a fantastic sense of immersion.
While that was true of the original, within two hours the repetitive structure had shattered all pretence of a living, breathing world. Creed II maintains some of the basic ideas, but deploys them in a far more attractive way. You still scale viewpoints to open up more of the map, for instance, but from there the number of options falls into two categories where once there was one.
The first set of missions follow Assassin's Creed II's core storyline. These used to involve visiting the Assassin's Bureau, taking a few side-missions to gather info, then offing your target in one set way. It's now woven into the fabric of the narrative in a few more convincing way, and mixes up the tasks required to keep you on your toes.
This time it's personal
Whether you're sneakily tailing a target, stealthing past an entire garrison, listening in on private conversations, or marauding into battle, the assassinations themselves put those in the first game to shame, making for a far more open-ended way to take out your targets. Stealth and action fans will both find an approach they can enjoy, making Assassin's Creed II a much more adaptable, personal experience.
The second category is side-missions - and there's LOADS of 'em. Coupled with the re-worked gameplay features, they offer enough rewards and neat little touches that they could well double your playtime well into 40+ hours.
One of the most prominent features is Ezio's notoriety level. Throughout the game you'll find this rise and fall depending on your actions; Steal or brawl in the street and it'll go up. Bribe public speakers or tear down Wanted posters and it'll decrease. Go out of your way to find all 100 hidden feathers, though, and you'll unlock the Auditore cape, which spikes it up to 100, making things distinctly harder and the playing experience significantly different.
Coming of age
There are also 330 treasures to collect, catacombs to explore, glyphs to decipher and Codexes which unlock more back-story on the first game's protagonist Altair.
All of this is underpinned by a distinct RPG-style slant, epitomised by the ability to furnish Ezio's home in the mountains with spoils purchased with the game's new money system. You can purchase armour, weapons and even art to hang in the halls of his cliff top abode - and you're afforded more ways to earn these as you progress, with rowboats, swimming and even a flying machine all viable options for getting around the enormous gameworld - the latter courtesy of Leonardo Da Vinci, who pops up regularly as a sort of 15th Century version of James Bond's Q.
As you can tell by the sheer length of this review, there's a LOT of Assassin's Creed II to get your teeth into. The most impressive aspect though is the same thing that made Uncharted 2 so fantastic - it feels like its predecessor, but far more accomplished, and with pretty much all of the flaws addressed.
If the original Assassin's Creed was the birth of a promising franchise, then Assassin's Creed II sees it triumphantly come of age.
- Loads more variety than the first game; a really top-notch, all-around action-adventure.
- Complex, engrossing plot.
- Truly fantastic presentation.
- The AI could still be a bit smarter.
- It takes a while to get going.
- The controls might still feel a bit hand-holdy for hardcore platform fans.