Originally, I did not care much for the Assassin’s Creed series. It seemed like an interesting concept, but not more than just that. I just didn’t see the appeal in the adventures of some faceless assassin hero doing something or another. Playing the first game of the series didn’t make me change my mind. It was an okay game, but nothing spectacular. The main plot was good, and the game was filled with ideas and loose gameplay elements that seemed like they could lead to something bigger and better, but ultimately didn’t. The same could be said of the plot, which left me feeling that the sole purpose of the game was to promote the sequel. It was a disappointment, but it was impossible to deny the influence it had on other games released after. Now I’ve finally played the second title, does it fare any better than the first? We’ll have to step inside the Animus and find out.
Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up where the first one left us. The precise moment it left us, in fact. You escape from your cell during an assassin attack and hook up with a brand new crew… that then puts you back inside an Animus. A new, shiny, better Animus that creates much more accurate virtual reenactment of your ancestor’s memories. Extremely convenient, since we also ditch Altair in favor of the young Ezio Auditore. You’ll need to replay his memories both for what happened to him during his quest, as well as the bleeding effect the Animus has: Ezio still has to receive his assassin’s training and everyone hopes that Desmond will learn the same skills along with him by reliving his ancestor’s memories.
The game makes a massive shift in tone and representation by doing this, one that I can only applaud. No more sterile labs, no bland master assassin main character with the and attire of a bed sheet, much more variety in terms of quests, and way better pacing. Playing Assassin’s Creed 2 is like playing that game you were hoping to play when you entered the Animus the first time. Just about everything has been improved and expanded upon.
One of the biggest improvements is the switch to Ezio. Where Altair felt like a blank slate, almost justified by his appearance just feeling as an avatar for Desmond within the memories, Ezio actually comes across as a real person. Let me stress this even further: Ezio Auditore does not come across as a well written video game character, he comes across a person. He doesn’t always do what is right. More often than not he is lost and insecure. He has a certain amount of charm and confidence to him. There’s a lot that he has to learn, and he is more than aware of it. There are layers to him, and we see him grow throughout the entire length of the game. I haven’t seen this being done in any game half as well as Assassin’s Creed pulls it off. That alone was reason enough for me to keep my attention during the entire game.
The story itself plays out much better than the first as well. Instead of riding off to a city and doing the same random quests on repeat to get information about your target before finally taking him down, you get much more linear and straightforward missions to help prepare you for the big kill later. They often involve taking down smaller groups or figureheads, saving allies, or practice for your abilities and weapons. These missions feel much more connected and rewarding than the ones from the previous titles. It’s a clear case of linearity winning over a bland free roaming kind of gameplay.
One small gripe about the story is the amount of historical figures that appear in the game. History buffs are sure to get a kick out of this, but at times it felt a bit too much. Almost every single person you encounter during the game is a famous historical figure. At first I was afraid about the whole Leonardi Da Vinci thing, but that turned out really well in the end. In fact, he’s a pretty minor historical character compared to some of the others you run into. And if you start digging deeper into the story through the Animus, you’ll start to see a massive conspiracy theory emerge in which every single historical figure ever having been either an Assassin or a Templar, with the exception of Da Vinci. It feels a bit too much for my liking, but at the same time, more often than not, it shows that they have done their research. It also stops fans from over-analyzing and fantasizing about what-ifs and gives them more time to dream about Ezio. Which is never a bad thing.
Not many games released during this console generation actually made me feel like I’m playing something from this generation. Most games have a level of gameplay that I feel could have worked out just as well during the previous generation. They’re certainly not bad, but they’re not really advanced or polished enough to fit in with what this generation should be capable of. One example of this is the concept of free-running in games. Most games butcher this up to the point that playing them gives you glitches and problems that weren’t even acceptable at the start of the PS2 era. Assassin’s Creed 2 is the first title I have played where free running actually worked the way it should. Running through the streets of Venice and jumping from rooftop to rooftop feels magical. There’s still a few kinks in there, and I did encounter my odd jump in the wrong direction, but it didn’t turn me into a completely hopeless mess of swears and aggravation like some games, Prototype comes to mind, have done in the past.
Except during the short horseback parts of the game, but luckily you spend much less time on a horse than you did in the first game. Most of the time the game allows you to quick travel, unless you’re going to a new city you haven’t been to yet, and even then the rides never last that long. Except at the end, and it quickly turned painful for me. You’re supposed to storm this castle and make this big leap over a gap with your horse. The horse didn’t seem to care for it too much and refused to jump, so I got off the horse and started fighting the guards that I was supposed to avoid by making the jump. Somewhere halfway through the fight I saw my horse make the jump by himself. Funny and memorable, yes, but ultimately broken when it comes down to it.
I think I owe this series an apology. Assasin’s Creed always felt stupid to me for some reason, and the first game seriously made me wonder why so many people seem to be so fond of the series. I’m also not one for the whole “but it gets better!” mantra, so the rough start really did not help its cause at first. Assassin’s Creed seriously did get better with the second instalment of the series. If you haven’t played it yet, and care for games that have clearly been made with a lot of love and dedication, do it. You will not regret it.
Well, not until you see the ending anyway.