Review / Assassin’s Creed II (PS3)

You’re probably already familiar with the deal behind the original Assassin’s Creed, but just in case, here’s the quickest of rundowns; awesome trailer, massive hype, very ambitious, very repetitive, some loved, most didn’t. It’s been two years since Altair’s debut now, so here comes round 2. This time you’re scrambling over rooftops as Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The Holy Land is out while 15th Century Italy is in. Can Assassin’s Creed II’s new tricks make it the game we wanted the first time round, or will it disappoint once more?

Assassin’s Creed II is a free-roaming action game comprised of many different bits and pieces like combat and free running. The setting that plays host to all this mayhem is a beautiful world to live in, with colours assaulting your screen from orange rooftops, and pretty flowers all about. It’s lively too, filled with people roaming round the city, carrying boxes, talking to friends, even stealing from you at times. You’ll get to love and hate the playground Ubisoft Montreal have created here. Darting along buildings and climbing on their sides is still a thrill, but then you’ll narrowly miss a jump, or barge into someone accidentally, setting off the guards. Plenty of real world aspects mean you can’t be clumsy, but it makes it one of the most interesting environments in videogames yet, building on the first to give you a place where you constantly have to be aware of your surroundings. For example, if you want to distract some guards, there’s usually a group of fancy ladies around you can hire to put on a show for them. It really makes for a living, breathing world.

The game starts out following on from where we last left off with other section of the story. It actually takes quite a while to take up the reigns as Ezio, and even then it takes longer to finally step up to your destiny as an Assassin. You might wonder if you’ve even brought the right game for a while as the first few hours sees you run around the city of Florence, delivering letters and carrying boxes. Fear not though, just before you fall asleep your family is finally murdered and you can get into the good stuff.

The story takes you all around a simplified Italy as Ezio searches to avenge his family. Along the way he gets caught up in all kinds of political madness and templar fighting. It’s a plot that has a heck of a lot going on, making it sometimes difficult to remember why you’re carrying out your current task. That said, it never has any dull points, and takes some pretty surprising twists, especially at the end. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say if the final scene in the original Creed had you confused, this one will extract your brain, pack it full of explosives, and then blow it sky high.

What it comes down to however, is if the more radical part of the Assassin’s Creed story appeals to you, the part that doesn’t have much to do with Italy. Personally, I found it to rudely interrupt the experience of being Ezio, and brought down the game entirely at times. However if it pulled you in the first time round, you’ll be happy with where it goes, expanding the characters that will undoubtedly become pivotal in the games to come.

The characters on Ezio’s side of the story are interesting too, but more importantly, they give you interesting stuff to do. If there was one continuous complaint about the original game, it was easily a lack of variety. Thus, AC2’s biggest challenge was always going to be defeating repetition, consistently supplying dynamic new missions for you to take on. Throughout the game you’ll complete a bunch of objectives. Gone is the boring research, kill, escape setup, and in its place are a wide range of tasks making the game resemble Grand Theft Auto more than its predecessor. Races, escort missions, and more focused platforming make for great additions, and turn the assassinations themselves into more exciting tasks as you really have to work towards them.

What helps fuel the fun are the new gizmos, like a wrist-mounted gun, or dual hidden blades thanks to Mr. Da Vinci. There are even a few vehicles to take control of, like that huge flying machine you’ve seen so much. It definitely mixes things up, though it might not drop your jaw.

Some of the more important missions really capture a great feeling too. At one point, you and a small band of assassins assault a town for a target. While your friends take the fight head-on, you work behind the scenes, slipping through cracks and opening doors as you edge closer to your goal. It’s a different way of approaching what could have been such a bland mission, and little twists like this really help to inject some life into most of your tasks.

However for all the great missions, there are a handful of types that are just completely dull, frustrating, and downright silly. Eavesdropping missions, for example make for a boring stroll around town, or a simple beat up mission is as straight forward as it sounds. A good portion of them simply serve the purpose of teaching you a new move, to the point where you really wonder when the game is going to stop telling you how to do your job. There are times when the right mission and the right setting means Assassin’s Creed II plays like you’ve always dreamed, and there are times when its exactly the opposite, making it hard to go on. But continue your path and you’re bound to be rewarded with another fun mission soon after.

Nothing’s perfect here; platforming can often leave you lost and confused, and a single slip can ruin a perfect race, but the important thing is that Ubisoft Montreal definitely applied themselves to fixing the first game’s main problem. It makes AC2 something we rarely see, a product of fan feedback instead of a “we have a flamethrower” sequel.

But not everything has been addressed. The combat, quite simply, is still awful. Nothing has really changed here, you still watch enemies surround you, they senselessly attack you one at a time while you stand, waiting to counter a move. There are essentially three enemy types that present three ways of fighting; standard countering, disarming (which works the same way as countering, just when you don’t have a weapon equipped), and dodging, then attack. It’s boring to look at, boring to play, and even though there are a host of new weapons to use, still easily the weakest part of the game. Sure, counter moves look cool, but they don’t play the same.

Plus, when a lot of enemies come at you, the game can start to chug noticeably, sometimes bordering on near slide show quality as you dive around the city. Glitches rear their ugly head a fair few times too, creating a few awkward times where Ezio found himself in some very uncomfortable positions, or guards decided to fight me, then forgot where I was, then discover me again just as I chose to give up.

What worked in the first game still does work, leaping from a ledge and plunging your blade into a target is officially cool, and the free running still works like a dream for the most part. Although parts that weren’t so welcome are still here, still stealing from innocents, which gets turned into one of the easiest and silliest missions of all time at one point.

Some new aspects like upgrading armour and weapons, or even your own villa provide some depth to the experience, not that it’s anything different from what just about every other game is doing at the moment. However improving Ezio does make life a lot easier, and will give you something to do when you want a bit of time off from the main story.

In fact, there’s a fair amount to do when you’re bored this time. Mostly just mission types similar to what you’ve already done in the campaign, but accessing hidden tombs, and finding the returning viewpoints helps pass the time. It also helps to boost what is already a game that’s easily longer than the original, if not most other releases this year.

Of course, AC2 has all the usual presentational aspects of a top tier game. Graphically, while character models can be a little questionable, the world around you often looks stunning. It might take a couple of moments of pop-in to display this to you, but it’s worth it when you realise the wall you’re currently scaling actually looks rather detailed, littered with cracks and uneven brick work. A large open world game hasn’t looked this good since Niko Bellic’s adventure round Liberty City, and it has the voice acting to match too. Here’s a hint: turn on the subtitles that translate every Italian word, which turns the cut scenes into foul mouthed rants.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed II is a game that genuinely tries to make improvements over the first title, and in many respects it does. There a still a few key pieces of the experience that need fixing though, and until they’ve been dealt with, it still doesn’t quite achieve the must-have potential that the first game spread.

+ Huge focus on variety keeps things much more interesting than last time
+ Great deal longer, making it more of a full game than ever before
+ Still keeps the cool feeling of being a historical badass

– Fighting still terrible
– A few technical bumbs along the way
– Some awful mission types