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Assassin's Creed II

Score: 95%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Free-Roaming/ Action


Graphics & Sound:

For all its repetitious missions and other goofy flaws, I tend to look back at Assassin's Creed as a one of my favorite games from this generation of consoles. Judging from comments from co-workers and friends, I have a feeling I'm not alone. I remember hating the long drudge between receiving a new target and the chance to end his life with my wrist blade, yet I also spent many an hour searching for every little clue to make sure I'd be able to pull off the assassination with as few complications as possible.

Assassin's Creed II is a completely different story entirely. I still found myself losing out on sleep, food and most human contact for hours on end, but unlike my missions throughout the Crusades, I relished every moment of my adventure through Renaissance Italy. AC2 is a polished game in every aspect and a great example of the iterative process. Nearly everything wrong with the original has been reworked or replaced with something more functional.

At E3 2009, Ubisoft made a big deal about its foray into the visual effects field, and AC2 is a good proof of concept they're heading in a logical direction. The environments are varied and look great, particularly when surveyed while perched atop a cathedral. However, it was the little details that really made me take notice. AC2 features some of the best facial animation this side of Uncharted, probably better. Coupled with the excellent voice work, it helps give characters more personality. Compared to Altair, Ezio (AC2's protagonist) has a personality, marking one of AC2's bigger improvements. It's great to actually have a character that isn't just a generic brooding mess, but someone with some sort of depth. Granted, Ezio isn't exactly likeable, but that's part of the game's magic. You grow to like the guy over time and even sort of sympathize with his journey.


Gameplay:

Assassin's Creed II follows the story of the Knights Templar and Assassins in two different time frames. The game opens with a quick recap of the first game for those who missed out, but all you really need to know is Desmond is the last in a long line of Assassins and the group's secret weapon against the Templar's plans for world conquest. In order to prepare Desmond for his role and uncover the Templar's secrets, Desmond must relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore di Firenzi, a well-to-do noble who, like Desmond, has stumbled into the life of an assassin.

Structurally, AC2 follows the same general basis as the original, but with a slightly more organic flow. The Assassin's Guild is long gone, forcing Ezio to rely on a small group of allies aligned with his cause, some of the greatest benefits the Renaissance has to offer, the Medicis and Leonardo da Vinci. Having a powerful banking family in the mix is a great way to earn information while Leonardo will provide Ezio with tools, such as a winged glider used to gain access to an otherwise impregnable courtyard.

Having historical figures around isn't just for flavoring. One of the more overlooked aspects of AC2's setting is there's some educational value here if you're willing to look for it. Granted, the story is a work of fiction, but there are some interesting facts about Renaissance life built into AC2's data files. It's probably not a major selling point, nor does it make AC2 an "educational" title, but I can also say I learned a few things as I played.

Italy makes for a much better playground and everything is streamlined. You can take missions whenever your want, or spend time exploring areas and collecting items. Even if you're typically not an OCD completionist, you'll want find every hidden item in the game. The first game was marked with dull, meaningless side-quests such as searching for flags and killing Templar Knights. Now, everything you find builds towards something, including clues to help unravel the game's mystery or upgrades for Ezio.

Speaking of rewards and upgrades, AC2 plays host to Ubisoft's new uPlay feature. Essentially, uPlay offers a more tangible prize for completing in-game Achievements. For instance, earning a 10 point Achievement grants you a AC2 dash theme, while for 20 points you can buy additional dagger slots or a special map. It's a really cool feature and something I wish more games would incorporate.


Difficulty:

Another of Assassin's Creed II many improvements is it won't frustrate you into submission. I can't tell you how many times I swore off playing the first game because something was too hard. This isn't to say there aren't a few really hard parts in AC2, but at least now you can always look back on mistakes and learn from them. It's much easier to ditch enemies, but guard A.I. is smarter and will check bales of hay and other hiding spots if something looks suspicious.

The new Notoriety system can influence Ezio's on the job difficulties. The more "noise" you make (i.e. randomly killing innocent people), the more likely guards will notice you in the streets. There are, however, plenty of opportunities to correct mistakes and lower your visibility by ripping down a few signs, bribing a herald or killing a dirty politician. Okay, so the last one seems like it would cause more problems, but hey, I'll take it.


Game Mechanics:

Money is a big part of Assassin's Creed II's gameplay. Ezio can purchase new armor, weapons and upgrades from local merchants. You'll no longer have to wait for a cool new weapon or risk exposing yourself to enemies on the off chance you might lift a couple of throwing knives from them. Ezio can also spend money on upgrading his stronghold, providing a few upgrades and other tasks for Ezio. Money also helps when trying to escape detection. Ezio is more extroverted and personable, a trait that allows him to escape pursuers. You no longer have to look for random groups of monks to hide among; instead, you can hide in crowds or even pay off certain groups, like courtesans or thieves, to distract guards.

When tracking targets, you're still required to find information, but most of the tedium is removed. Rather than forcing the "think like an assassin" concept, AC2 offers the freedom to approach assassinations from a variety of ways. A few missions require certain conditions, but generally you're given a lot of freedom. Collecting information and completing missions is more about exploration and using crowds to your advantage.

Ezio's skills aren't limited to a silver tongue and the king of all gadget men. Ezio is every bit as spry as Altair and comes equipped with two arm blades instead of Altair's one, perfect for taking down two unsuspecting guards in one shot. If stealth fails and you're forced to fight, Ezio is a master at hand-to-hand combat. Combat follows the same path as the first game, but the road is smoother. Ezio can disarm any guard and use their weapon.

Assassin's Creed II feels like a more complete game than the first, and is probably more along the lines of what Ubisoft originally had in mind. Even if you hated the original, the sequel should win you over.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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