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Monday, October 17, 2011

Assassin's Creed II (9.1/10)

One of the great things about games like Assassin's Creed is there are virtually endless possibilities to expand the created universe. Can you imagine having a person of Japanese origin as the test subject? You could play as his ancestor, a proper ninja in feudal Japan! Seems like the perfect evolution from the Desmond/Altair story arc, doesn't it? However, Ubisoft chose to stick with Desmond's tale, although this time the story takes place in the shared memories of another of his ancestors... a man named Ezio Auditore da Firenze (try saying that three times fast) in Renaissance Italy.

The game starts where the original left off: Desmond and Lucy escaping from the Abstergo Corporation. Something funny is going on with Desmond... there are times when he seems to hang on to some of the skills and abilities (like Eagle Vision) of his infamous ancestor, Altair. But he is still pretty green, as you'll soon find out as he tries to fight with the guards. However, they manage to escape and join a small underground group of assassins working against the ancient Templars and their Abstergo front.

Along with Lucy, Desmond joins Shaun (a smartass historian who seems out of place, solely there to provide crass humor, until you realize just how important his job actually is...) and Rebecca (a computer savvy girl who has built their own Animus) so Desmond can uncover more of the plot hinted at the end of the first game with the glyphs left by the mysterious Subject 16. It's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a vest... not unlike Nelson Muntz.  But there is more! They are using the Animus to train Desmond (the aforementioned weirdness causes a "Bleeding Effect," whereby he will retain some of the skills of his forebears) to become a proper assassin and join the Order.

So he agrees to "go back under" as it were, this time revisiting the memories of his ancestor Ezio in Italy. Ezio is a brash young chap, constantly getting into scrapes, chasing after the ladies, and generally being an irresponsible fool. But there is conspiracy and treachery afoot, and soon he finds himself the head of his family. They relocate to his uncle's villa (there is a great insider joke here that I won't spoil...) in Monteriggioni. Therein, Ezio learns that his family has a long history with the Assassin's Order (duh!), so he learns their ways in an effort to avenge his family's honor and stop the Templars. This time the bad guys are various influential families in the Italian nobility, and once again everything revolves around finding the mysterious "Apple of Eden." 

The use of historical fact blended with liberal re-imagination allows the writers to take real world locations, like Rome, with real life historical figures and mix them together to fit the story they are trying to tell. Ezio eventually meets Niccholo Macchiavelli (famous for his writing of The Prince, and his ideology of "The ends justify the means" is incredibly fitting to the Assassin's Creed dogma) and Leonardo da Vinci (one of the most famous, and more importantly, influential inventors and artists in history). They join forces to help stop the Borgia family who are seeking the secrets of the "Apple" for the Templars.

Now, without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that the story takes a turn at Weird Ave. and Reeeeeaaaaaalllly? St. It's not bad as it is, but I have to agree with Desmond's last words at the end of the game... "What the f***?!" Trust me, play it and see... it's bizarre that they chose to take this story down this path. 

Assassin's Creed 2 plays pretty much the same as the first; however, Rome as the central location for you to explore is truly magnificent... as it must have once been. Not only is it gigantic, but it's wonderfully realized and detailed. I can't emphasize this enough, especially with free-running and exploration at the forefront of the experience. The open world sandbox style lends itself perfectly to this sort of narrative, and there is a ton of stuff out there for you to find.

One of the biggest complaints of the original was the lack of variety in gameplay. AC2 seeks to remedy this by offering plenty more options in story missions. You're no longer stuck doing the same pattern of interrogating people/pickpocketing/eavesdropping to gain enough information to actually go through with assassinating your target. Now it seems like the missions evolve naturally, and things don't always turn out as you might expect. The story missions blend together much more smoothly, and there are plenty of side missions and optional things you can do if you so choose. Finding and looting treasures or completing missions nets you funds you can then spend to upgrade your home base at the villa, right down to purchasing famous artwork to adorn the walls.

There are lots of little things like this that really add to the overall experience. Buying famous works of art to spruce up the homestead is just the beginning. You can even dye Ezio's clothes different colors! Oh, and Ezio can swim, something Altair, for some inane reason, couldn't seem to manage. Since this alternate version of true historical events is the basis for the Assassin's Creed universe, one nice touch is the database whereby you can access tidbits of actual information on the cast and locations. Every time I'd enter a new area or meet a new historical figure I'd take a moment to read up on them. I actually felt like I learned something... which was nice.

One thing that irked me about the first game, as good as it was, was the collectibles. There were feathers and Templars everywhere. If you did them all, you got... bloody nothing! Argh! There are tons of this sort of thing in AC2 as well, but there is actually a pay off this time around. By finding all the feathers your poor deceased younger brother left all over the place, you'll get a cool cape that allows Ezio to walk around each area unmolested. Discovering Codex pages means that your new friend Leonardo da Vinci can make you new weapons, including dual hidden blades (nice!) and even a gun (nicer!)! There are even some rudimentary vehicle sections. What's more, there are now interactive platforming puzzles that far outstrip those from the previous game. These hidden sections are brilliant additions not only for their challenge and entertainment value, but also because they serve to give you a break from the rest of the story. Seek them out, they are totally worth it!

The action is also basically similar with Ezio climbing all over everything and fighting against endless numbers of guards. However, despite the fact that most of your combat is still waiting on your foes to attack so you can counter, there is a lot more variety in both how you approach combat and the enemy types themselves. You can purchase a plethora of weapons to carry; some work better in certain situations than others. Plus, you can actually disarm opponents and use their own weapons against them! Once again the brutal finishing animations left me smiling sadistically. There are a whole bunch of new animations because of all the new weapons. I loved trying to see them all! The climbing/platforming is still hit and miss in my book. It works fine and looks pretty smooth, but you need to have the camera lined up precisely on precarious jumps or Ezio (like Altair before him) will leap majestically into thin air... and then impersonate a pepperoni pizza upon landing.

In fact, I think that the biggest thing going against AC2 (apart from the bizarre conclusion to the story) is the fact that everything is a little too big. With such a huge space to explore, so many hidden things to find, and such a wide spread and complex narrative, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Switching back and forth between Desmond in the present and Ezio in the past can sometimes be a bit jarring, not to mention confusing, as the plot begins to unravel. To do everything in AC2 would involve a major time commitment, and I really don't feel like the game has any replay value. Still, it is what it is, and I really enjoyed my time in Rome.

I honestly feel like the framework created here for "story telling" has a lot of potential. The idea of the Animus is fascinating! While I won't go so far as so suggest that the Assassin's Creed series has limited itself by sticking solely with Desmond, I'd hate to see such potential squandered. AC2 is a great game, fixing the problems of the original and adding a wonderful new world to explore. My only real complaint is that the story has gone a little too far down the proverbial rabbit hole for my taste (hence the fact I scored it the same as the first). With so many things to do in Rome it's easy to lose the thread, a problem compounded in the third installment Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (to read my review follow the link here). With Assassin's Creed: Revelations upcoming this holiday season supposedly rounding out the Desmond/Altair/Ezio story arc, I'm really hoping Ubisoft will continue the series with a different setting.

Maybe they could do one with someone of South American origin? How cool would it be to play Assassin's Creed in the jungle during Mayan times? So many possibilities...


Score = 9.1 / 10

P.S. It is absolutely worth taking the time to find all of the hidden messages left by Subject 16. Each is part of a video file. Upon finding them all you can watch a short scene that leaves you wondering about the very nature of humanity... our past, present, and future. It's fantastic, if a little over the top.

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