Review: Assassin’s Creed 2

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History and the fantastic tales surrounding it have always been a playground for entertainment.

But no game gives you as many historical seesaws and jungle gyms quite like Assassin’s Creed 2, a sci-fi period piece that amazingly manages to mix the brilliance of Renaissance Italy with scientific fantasy and Templar legend. Despite its flaws, it’s one of the most enthralling tales you’ll find on any system.

Stories about powerful, secretive societies of the past have been the fuel of bestselling fiction books and movies for years. Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code respectively tackle the Illuminati and Priory of Sion, while Steve Berry (The Templar Legacy) and Raymond Khoury (The Last Templar) wrote about the elite group of Christian knights – the Knights Templar – who dominated the Crusades but were later disbanded.

Among the many tales that spawned from the Templar mythos was how they amassed immense riches and power. They were able to bend people and governments to their will because of the corporate way they handled things.

In the world of Assassin’s Creed, the Templars are portrayed as an ultimately evil, morally bereft and nearly invincible force in the modern era. They’ve formed their own mega-corporation, Abstergo, which specializes in practically everything. The only people who stand against the Templars are the Assassins, an ancient clan dedicated to keeping the Templars from their goal of ultimate power.

At the center of both games is Desmond Miles, an unassuming bartender who gets pulled into Abstergo and hooked up to a machine called the Animus, which is capable of delving into a person’s DNA and unlocking memories embedded into it – even the memories of Desmond’s ancestors. Turns out that Desmond is a descendant of Assassins, and his ancient memories hold the key to something very valuable to both the Assassins and the Templars.

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The first game, even with its litany of technical issues, did just enough to set the table for an intricate story. It followed the memories of the assassin Altair, who uncovered and foiled the plans of the Templars in the Middle East by killing key figures in their organization. Throughout the game, Desmond learns a little more about himself, the Assassins and his place in the ensuing battle against the Templars.

Now comes Ezio Auditore di Firenze, the Italian protagonist of this newest chapter and the latest assassin descendant to ride DNA shotgun with Desmond in the Animus. He’s light years ahead of Altair in terms of personality, as his pre-Assassin days are spent as a fight-happy young noble. Altair, on the other hand, was like a Terminator, stone-faced and monotone. I thought personality was especially important for this installment, since a story with this many pieces requires a strong character who can hold everything together.

Ezio fits the bill — he’s strong-willed, has a great love for his family, and despite his rough-and-tumble approach to life, carries an admirable sense of loyalty and honor. I thought it was interesting how the game handled his evolution from a skirt-chasing youngster into a skilled, tempered assassin with a gift for being around pretty girls. This gives him an almost Bond-like quality, instantly making him more likable.

The Italian’s growth is just a small part of a layered, enjoyable story that starts on the streets of Ezio’s hometown of Firenze and stretches all the way to Vatican. Ezio stumbles into the life of life-ending when he becomes embroiled in a Templar conspiracy that leads to trouble for his family. He is forced to relocate and train with his mercenary uncle Mario, who, along with a host of other characters, aid him in his quest for vengeance against the Templar conspirators.

A courtesan-slash-nun, thief leader and an ex-soldier are just a few of the people Ezio encounters on his travels. Some, like the courtesan, take the time to train him (and the player) in game’s system of blending in with crowds. Gone is the pray-and-blend system from the first game … now you have to simply be near a group of people to be hidden from suspicious enemies. It’s a little harder than it sounds, since some of Ezio’s tasks require him to stay undetected for long periods of time. Groups weave and churn through the streets of places like Venice and Tuscany, so it takes some mastery of timing to stick with the crowd.

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The most notable side character for both story and gameplay purposes was Leonardo da Vinci. He serves as the Q to Ezio’s Bond, assembling weapons and gadgets for Ezio to use against his enemies. Among them are the hidden blade, the signature wrist/switchblade weapon of the Assassins (unlike Altair, Ezio can use two) a wrist pistol, a poison blade and, of course, his legendary flying machine. And in one entertaining, short mission, you actually use the flying machine to infiltrate a seemingly impenetrable fortress.

But one aspect of the game I enjoyed more than even da Vinci’s impact was the sheer abundance of story-related tasks Ezio had to perform. The game makes it very clear that defeating the Templars takes time – in this case, the story spans about a decade. The game could have very easily been built like Hitman, where simply killing a list of foes would have been enough. But here, Ezio’s plate is full with other quests that masquerade as irresistible side missions.

First, there’s the case of a hidden chamber in Uncle Mario’s villa that houses Altair’s armor. But in order to get to it, Ezio has to find six seals that are scattered throughout Italy and tucked away in special, hard-to-reach tombs with masked entrances. So yes … there’s tomb raiding. You get the impression you can survive without getting Altair’s stuff, but it’s also implied that Desmond and the Assassins would be much better off if Ezio decked himself out. Plus, it just seemed wrong not to try.

What I got was a sweet tour of various Italian landmarks, complete with bits of actual history about them. Each tomb is an exercise in puzzle solving or skill, and you have to wonder if any of the basilicas, palazzos and other edifices you run into could possibly have been this exciting in real life. You also have a chance to spend some money and improve your own villa hideout, upgrading the local shops, wells and buildings in the surrounding community. The better your villa, the more it has a chance to make you some serious money.

Another important piece of side-questing is the finding of codex pages littering various spots in Italian cities. Da Vinci decodes each page you find, which can lead to bonuses like extra health. However, collecting all of the pages is a key part of the story and eventually helps Ezio discover the true plans of the Templars in what I found to be a clever puzzle-solving sequence.

One more layer that adds to the mayhem is symbolism. Certain Italian landmarks are marked with special glyphs. Every time Ezio/Desmond runs into one, the Animus decodes it, and it adds to a larger piece of video left behind by someone who used to be in the Animus. It’s a nice piece of side story, and the completed video is just long enough to give the player a vision into yet another long-standing part of historic imagery: (SPOILER ALERT) The Garden of Eden.

Speaking of imagery, the Animus’ depiction of Renaissance Italy is a gift for the eyes. While the first game did an beautiful job of capturing the architectural atmosphere of cities like Acre and Jerusalem during the Crusades, its follow-up manages to pull off the indomitable task of capturing the visual essence of one of the most important eras in world history. Venice, with its waterways and gondolas complimenting the spires and imposing nature of some of the city’s churches, is perhaps my favorite of the cities to virtually visit and assassinate people. I also like how there are constant reminders to the player that they are hooked up to a machine. You’ll see stuff that glows, the occasional “skipping” and of course, the “loading” of scenery when you successfully piece together a memory sequence.

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Of course, even in the midst of all this wonder, I certainly found a few imperfections. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been spoiled by games like inFAMOUS or Uncharted 2, but I found the climbing mechanic in the game to be a little sluggish, even stiff. Sometimes Ezio would hop to a ledge next to him or near him, sometimes he wouldn’t. Other times he’d know enough to reach up to something directly above him, only to sit still in the same situation — I felt like I had to jiggle the thumbstick (I played the PS3 version) to remind him that yes, indeed, he can grab that ledge.

The game’s combat is still not quite there. Enemies still take the same approach as Bruce Lee villains, electing to attack the hero one at a time even though they have superior numbers. Ezio’s got more attack moves than Altair, which helps on the rare occasions your enemies gain the upper hand, but overall, I was never really faced with an insurmountable opponent. Even the final confrontation lacked a sense of epic combat drama. I found it a little funny that my opponent was able to have a conversation with me while I was punching him in the face.

There are a few other slightly annoying nuggets here. Apparently, no one in Renaissance Italy was capable of holding onto their boxes of supplies if someone barely nudged them by accident. Apparently, the local city guards really hate dropped boxes, even more than the three dead bodies I left near the blacksmith. I’ve gotten in more random trouble by making people drop stuff then by sending a bunch of mercs (you can hire various factions around the city to distract or lure guards away from key places) to fight people. I know there’s a “gentle push” button so I can run into people without having to deal with their butterfingers, but it’s almost like some of themwantyou to run into them. I also found it interesting that no one seems to ever notice the hooded, armed man when he dives off rooftops into haystacks. Happened all the time back then, I guess.

Even in the presence of those irritations, I thoroughly enjoyed the 15 to 16 hours I put into the game. I’ve always been fascinated by gaming’s version of revisionist history. After all, Wolfenstein 3D put Hitler in a gun-toting mech, and Capcom’s Onimusha games turned Lord Nobunaga into a demon emperor. Assassin’s Creed 2 didn’t go to quite those drastic lengths, instead choosing a balance among several weighty elements. The result was an excellent piece of art in its own right.

Assassin’s Creed 2
Ubisoft
PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Rated M for Mature