Assassin's Creed II is the second mainstream title in the Assassin's Creed franchise. It was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows, and Mac OS X.
This review will contain significant spoilers for plot elements from the first Assassin's Creed title. Caveat emptor.
Title: Assassin's Creed
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Open-world action platformer
Assassin's Creed II picks up immediately where the first Assassin's Creed left off, with Desmond Miles held prisoner in a Abstergo Corporation facility. The game jumps directly into action, with Abstergo employee Lucy Stillman leading a group of Assassins in Desmond's rescue and extraction from the facility. The Assassins also possess an Animus device, this one a "Animus Version 2.0" building heavily on technology stolen from Abstergo. The Assassins want Desmond to return to the Animus, but for a different purpose: this time he will learn to become an Assassin himself, through the same Bleeding Effect that gave him Eagle Vision at the beginning of the first game after reliving Altaïr's memories in the Animus.
To this effect, Desmond follows the genetic memories of a different ancestor in an unrelated branch of his family tree, Ezio Auditore, who lived in Italy during the Renaissance period. At the opening of the game, the Auditore family is a wealthy upper-class family Florence. Ezio has not yet been trained as an Assassin but is able to climb buildings and traverse rooftops, and has basic abilities in swordplay and pickpocketing. Ezio's father and brother are killed in a conspiracy and Ezio himself becomes infamous in his home city; he flees to his uncle's villa in Tuscany, in a town called Monteriggioni. His uncle introduces him to his family's heritage as Assassins and Desmond follows Ezio's memory as he begins to train in the skills of the order and seeks out his revenge against the conspirators who helped to destroy his family.
Ezio meets a number of historical figures throughout the game, most notably including Leonardo da Vinci who plays the Q to Ezio's James Bond and fellow Assassin Niccolò Machiavelli, who helps Ezio rises to assume a leadership position among the Assassins. The game takes many liberties with recorded history but makes a strong effort at using actual politics and places from the Italian Renaissance as a backdrop for Ezio's campaign.
The gameplay is very similar to the original Assassin's Creed, with a mixture of exploration, platforming, stealth, and hand-to-hand combat elements. Additions to the game include a greater variety of weapons, most notably dual hidden blades, a wrist-mounted pistol, and a crossbow. There are also changes to the crowd-blending mechanics. In the first game, the primary way Altaïr blended into a crowd was to find a walking group of scholars, gently push to their center, and once the Legs context button switched to Blend, holding it down to blend in and automatically walk with the scholars. In this game, crowds are stationary but much more frequently appearing throughout the city. Additionally, Ezio can hire three different kinds of allies: groups of fighters, who do not help Ezio blend in but will fight guards while he escapes; groups of thieves, who Ezio can order to create a diversion against a specifically targeted group of guards; or courtesans, who work as mobile blending for Ezio and can also be ordered to seduce a specifically targeted guard and lead him out of the play area.
Ezio's opposition is also upgraded over the guards from the original game. In addition to the ordinary guards he could always fight, he now has to contend with some specialty classes: a heavy guard that deals a lot of damage and uses two-handed weapons that must be dodged rather than parried and countered; a light chaser guard that can pursue Ezio onto rooftops and can even outrun him over certain distances, forcing Ezio to stand and fight rather than hiding; a seeker guard that can search Ezio out in his hiding places, for example using a polearm to probe haystacks for people hiding inside.
The game also introduces a notoriety system. Rather than taking direct "desynchronization" injury from out-of-character actions the way Altaïr did as the sole mechanic to enforce good behavior by the player, Ezio is given a little more flexibility to behave badly, but this misbehavior will increase a notoriety meter. Once the meter reaches 100%, guards will begin actively searching for Ezio and he will no longer be able to move anonymously through crowds. Ezio can reduce his notoriety by tearing down wanted posters, intimidating/killing witnesses, and bribing town criers. Intimidating witnesses is basically a mark-and-chase random encounter through a given city region. Similar random encounters have Ezio chasing down thieves that pick his pocket, or robbing messengers for the Borgia family--the group at the heart of the Templar conspiracy that Ezio is seeking to destroy.
In addition to the increased access to weapons and da Vinci's inventions, Ezio also has the opportunity to participate in an in-game economy, where he can purchase weapons, armor, consumable items such as throwing daggers and crossbow bolts, or upgrades to the town of Monteriggioni. The economy is similar to the economy in the Fable franchise, in that everything Ezio purchases, especially the town upgrades, generate some amount of recurring income that Ezio can return to Monteriggioni to collect.
As in the original Assassin's Creed, Ezio's gameplay is divided into story arcs where a number of missions function as preparation for the eventual assassination of a specific high-value target. These assassinations are mostly part of a blood vendetta against the conspiracy that was responsible for the deaths of Ezio's father and brothers, but as in the first story, they gradually expand to an overall defense of the Assassins against the Knights Templar. Unlike the original Assassin's Creed, there are a significant number of unrelated optional side missions, where Ezio can complete murder-for-hire missions or participate in memory-within-a-memory flashbacks to a romance with a woman he left behind in Florence. The traditional "flag collection" mechanics from the first game are present here as well; reaching 100% completion in a given region will unlock a cape that Ezio can wear. The unlocked capes have various effects on the notoriety system, but generally are not unlocked until after there's no more action in a given game region.
The game also introduces a number of hidden plot-element puzzles that can only be accessed using Eagle Vision; these are essentially graffiti within the reconstructions of Desmond's genetic memories, left behind by a previous Animus subject, the mysterious Subject 16 who occupied the Abstergo facility immediately prior to Desmond. Additionally, most of the major cities feature one or more optional missions that function as more traditional 3D platforming challenges, where Ezio must figure out how to scale and cross vast building interiors to retrieve hidden relics. These relics unlock the Armor of Altaïr, the best armor upgrade available in the game.
As the game progresses, there are periodic breaks from Ezio's gameplay where we see Desmond exploring the Assassin safehouse facility and training his own Assassin abilities acquired through the "bleeding effect." Desmond begins to pay a psychological toll for his continuing immersion in the Animus. These dreams and hallucinations afford some additional gameplay.
This game is very true to the spirit of the original Assassin's Creed, but as a direct sequel it manages to fix much of what was wrong with the original. The gameplay offers considerably more variety, exploration in the city environments to collect various items is still a major activity but improvements in the game UI make those tasks much less frustrating to complete. In the previous title, Altaïr already knew how to do everything and use all the equipment, but had it all taken away (and slowly restored as the game progressed) as punishment for his bad behavior. Ezio's progression from rambunctious teenager to grown-ass killer of great men feels much less contrived by comparison. Ezio can also swim, which fixes a major complaint some people had about the first game.
The story is complex to the point of being a little confusing. It draws directly on Templar/Illuminati conspiracy theories putting an occult order at the very heart of the Catholic Church, with lots of unexplained/hidden references to historical figures, events, and dates. Decoding all of this stuff with research in books and on the Internet is almost an "alternate reality game." There's plenty here to reward the inquisitive player, but it means that the game itself doesn't hang together as an internally-consistent work as well as it otherwise could. None of this is helped by the way the game jumps forward almost a decade in Ezio's memories with the intervening memory sequences patched in as downloadable content; missing them in the main campaign made it feel like we had skipped significant parts of his life. The awkward way they were spliced back in once the content was available for purchase meant that they really did feel tacked-on, and like they hadn't added anything important to the original story.
The main story ends with a huge WTF? moment, setting the stage for another direct sequel, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. This game is a great second chapter in a grand multi-title epic, but taken as a standalone title, the ending and the poor integration of the DLC made the game feel sort of unfinished.
The thing is, we're not really inhabiting this world for the story so much as we're inhabiting it to have the experiences. Free-roam both at street level and on rooftops in a number of large, heavily populated cities; swashbuckling hand-to-hand combat throughout Renaissance Italy; people cursing at you in a foreign languages. The action in this game is lush and consistent, and the sense of flow that I was able to achieve while playing this game is hard to match in the modern gaming era.
As with the original title, I still really like this game's "puppeteer" control scheme, where the player uses the "head, weapon hand, empty hand, legs" context-sensitive buttons to express general intentions rather than to make the character perform specific actions. I was frustrated when combat went more with a direct mapped model. Pressing the weapon hand button when the targeted guard is out of attack range will still cause Ezio to swing his weapon. I would have preferred if the context would have just changed from melee to range; weapon hand against a not-in-range guard should just always result in a throwing knife or something similar.
I liked that we got to see Desmond in action as well as Ezio. Desmond's growth as a protagonist from someone who just walks and talks to someone who runs, jumps, climbs, and kills reflects the player's own growing experience with the game world. This helps to string together a sense of continuous progress even though the setting and protagonist both changed radically between the first title and this one.
I also really liked the "puzzle platforming" side quests. These felt like a throwback to Ubisoft Montreal's earlier contributions to the Prince of Persia franchise, and I've liked those sorts of challenges ever since I first played Ico and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. A lot of people I've talked to about the game hated these, though; they felt like a significant diversion from Ezio's core character and I have to concede that point in spite of the fun I had along the way. There's plenty of room for that kind of platforming in other franchises, and it's not exactly a core competency for the Assassin's Creed titles at this point in the series--although I should come back to this topic once I write a review of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
I found the combat to be a lot more challenging and less repetitive than in the first title. The variety of different guard types means that the combat is less of a rock-paper-scissors enterprise than it was in the previous game, and Ezio's added ability to disarm guards and fight with their weapons instead of his own offers some very different combat styles than we had seen previously. The crossbow is awfully redundant with the throwing knives, but given that the trailer for the first game showed an Assassin firing a crossbow, they basically had to put it in--and it's certainly gratifying using it to drop a guard from a distant rooftop. Throwing knives have been downgraded a little bit in strength to compensate for the addition of the crossbow, which was annoying: hundreds of years later, Assassins have become somehow less deadly.
This particular title is simply incremental progress from a game design that was already almost fully-baked with the first Assassin's Creed. People who found the first Assassin's Creed to be too repetitive will like this game better, but people who are looking for a reinvented gameplay will need to look elsewhere. The refinements in this game are all shaving rough corners off the basic design of the original title.
One of those refinements isn't a software feature at all: Ezio Auditore has become a franchise character for Assassin's Creed in a way that Altaïr never was. He's charming, rakish, and eventually portrayed as a leader of men in a way that we didn't get to see from his predecessor. Altaïr was a much darker and much more sinister figure by comparison--and strangely much more boring. He was an impressive guy, but not a very interesting one. Altaïr is a disgraced fanatic become murder incarnate, where Ezio is in turn a much more rounded and fully-realized person. Ezio still a bad motherfucker but we can see--and are explicitly shown at several points during the course of the game--why the ladies love him.
Ultimately, Ubisoft Montreal is in the Assassin's Creed business now. The first title was a commercially successful breakout, one of the first times the studio had an opportunity to develop wholly original intellectual property. At the time of this writing there have been four major games in the franchise plus a number of tie-in titles for mobile/handheld platforms from other studios. This particular studio is a big one and releases titles in a number of different franchises, but it appears that with Assassin's Creed II they've moved into full-time continuous production of these titles and their downloadable content.
I almost didn't buy Brotherhood because it came out less than a year after this one and I didn't realize it was a full-featured sequel to this game. I thought Brotherhood was just a multi-player cash-in on the core franchise and that the next game I was supposed to play for a single-player campaign would be titled "Assassin's Creed III." I was wrong, and I'm not surprised to see Ubisoft drop the Roman numeral numbering for the sequels. It really feels like the business model around these games has more in common with something like the John Madden Football franchise than with similar action-adventure franchises such as Zelda, Tomb Raider, and Prince of Persia. The idea that I'm going to be playing one of these a year for as long as they keep selling is daunting, but also a little bit exciting. After all, the whole of history is a much bigger backdrop for the annual blockbuster game than is the NFL gridiron.
This game marked the turn of Assassin's Creed from must-play title into must-play franchise, and the franchise should remain healthy for a long time to come. The biggest thing they have to worry about now is being passed-by due to innovations in other, competing brands.