In the original Assassin's Creed players found themselves experiencing new forms of stealth fighting. Climbing buildings, jumping down on helpless enemies and having one helluva chase after another, there was plenty to like. Regretfully, after a while the gameplay got a bit old and the continuity between present and past became distracting, which led to 'middle of the road' gaming.
So to say there was a lot riding on the sequel would be a terrible understatement. The question is, did Ubisoft deliver or disappoint?
Come find out.
Real Italian, very fast (didn't want to tread on Fazzoli's catch phrase)
Let's get this review started off right by letting you know that the visuals of this game are some of the best on the next generation system. The pictures attached to this review are honest-to-God gameplay screens. There are an enormous amount of details in this game that make the original pale in comparison.
First, the buildings and environments are absolutely enormous. They are at least twice the size of the original game's. You'll find Venice and Florence landscapes ever expanding. You won't be able to memorize one market place from another. You'll find the buildings to have 1400 style to it with very beautiful details. The gothic arches of a church or the perching faces of dragons and demons sprouting out in a building's design are nothing short of breathtaking. Having seen this at E3 I figured that the devs were showing us only the best, but all the environments you encounter are given this type of detailing.
Speaking of detail, the shading and shadowing in the game is simply unrivaled. I was impressed with EA's Madden 2010 (don't laugh, there's a fair comparison coming up) weather and sun positioning and shading. I had no idea that anyone, including Ubisoft, could improve on such a thing. Let me just say that I haven't really ever been impressed with this type of detail before. To see Ezio climb a building and swing around to the other side and the shadow of his body change position properly; that is impressive. Sometimes it is the small things that make a good game better.
The character models are sick. The rippling of capes, changes in armor, costumes, weapons and colors make the details even better. You will feel like a complete badass when you're scaling the side of a building and your clothes are swaying with your movement (okay, you'll feel really cool; 'badass' might have been a bit strong). Anyway, the character faces aren't as strong as the other elements, but you won't be falling into the deep eyes of Ezio anytime soon. Cousin to the character models are the character physics. The physics have been improved in the game, as you will move around in the environment almost perfectly. When you slip off a building or hang from a ledge, Ezio's body will replicate the proper physics of how a person would survive such a situation. Now, the physics are sometimes in overkill. For example, you'll kill an archer on top of a building/tower. Instead of going dead weight, the game will try to force the body to slide down the roof and onto the streets below. You'll chuckle a little bit at this, but it won't make you feel silly playing the game.
I'm not one for small talk (as you probably know from my other reviews -- God, they're long. Not Schardein long, but you get the picture), so I want to start off with telling you what has been improved in the game. Before you ask, yes there are still carts full of hay that you get to jump into. Laugh all you want, but jumping off a 20-30 story tower into a cart full of hay, and surviving, is still fun. Anyway, let's talk about gameplay and what has been improved in terms of controls, climbing, puzzles and weapons.
The very first thing you'll notice about the gameplay in Assassin's Creed II, in comparison to the original, is that it's a lot tighter. Controlling Ezio (our lovely Italian hero) is incredibly easy and smooth. I know that doesn't sound like much, but the original posed some frustrating controls in the middle of a fight that the sequel gets rid of. You won't have to worry about catching yourself in the middle of a combo while getting stabbed in three different directions. That was one of the more frustrating features of the first. Your character would be fighting a soldier and get caught up in a fight and won't break a three hit combo to fend off the guy behind you. This time around, you can start on one guy and break off in the middle of a swing to quickly block the attacking person behind you. I know what you're going to say, "Is it that big of deal?" For this reviewer it was a major deal. For example, Bethesda's game WET had this annoying problem and it was just murder (figuratively and literally) during a large fight. As common sense would dictate, your character should be able to stop what they're doing and switch positions almost instantaneously. AC2 allows for Ezio to do that quickly. I think out of 15 hours of gameplay I died once or twice, which isn't much. I was able to fight, fight, turn and fight. It's a comforting improvement that shows Ubisoft's willingness to listen to their fans.
Another improvement in Assassin's Creed II is the smooth climbing motions that you can achieve while moving across city landscapes. There are few games out there that can activate my fear of heights and the Assassin's Creed series has done that for me. Why do I randomly bring that up? Well, the first game had my creeping along at sloth like speeds across and up buildings because of the shaky controls and fear of falling (because of those controls). Ubisoft has gone back and improved the clinging, climbing and jumping in the game. The smallest of ledges are accessible and Ezio moves smoothly across the sides of buildings clinging pretty solidly to them. Again, much like the fighting, Ubisoft must have gone back and tightened up the techniques a bit. I found myself comfortably trusting my jumps more and taking a few more chances that I would have normally never taken in the original game. For example, in one mission it has Ezio storming 4-5 towers to get to the highest one in order to kill one of the main bad guys. There isn't much room for error in the climbing portion of the game and you have to walk gingerly across lines tied between the buildings. The tightened controls mixed with the forgiveness of mistimed jumps equals out to be a fun experience when it comes to the bread and butter of this game; which is scaling walls.
Moving along, another improvement in the game is how quickly the game teaches you to figure out things and the flexibility of puzzles. For example, there is a portion of the game where you follow some templars down to their hidden underground meeting room. There is a sequence where you have to chase down a guard (who is running for his life) and while he is running he's closing gates behind him. You can't go through the gates, the game doesn't ask you to open them; it simply directs you to find another way around. You've got a bit of dilemma, you must keep running, but at the same time you have to figure out where you're going to go to keep chasing this guy. The game gives you details, but doesn't tell you everything. It allows you the flexibility to think on your feet (literally) and keep going without stopping/going. It's pretty remarkable. I found myself running after this guy, running through a broken wall and jumping to catch a pulley to swing me back on the path. It's not an obvious solution, but it's not impossible to figure out as you're running. I love this as it keeps the mood and the story of the game going.
Speaking of keeping the mood going, the weapon, armor and health system are intuitive and pretty much automatic. I can't rightly remember how the original went (sorry, it's the Holiday season, I've got ancient notes), but obtaining and applying weapons/armor in the game is easy peasy. You need only go up to a shop and purchase either and they will be applied to Ezio instantly. It's pretty damn easy and very cool. You can mix and match things and you can even change the color of your Assassin's uniform; there's plenty here to be happy about. Much like the puzzle solving portion of this game, it's an afterthought of a process and Ubisoft makes sure it blends with the overall story.
The health system is just as easy as the armor/weapons system. You have a verity of pouches you can obtain that can hold vials of medicine. You start off with five spots on the pouch and you can buy a bigger pouch to hold more. Healing yourself is mindless, as you'll only need to press left on the direction pad to take a vial. It feels up the health blocks that are empty and it makes you worry less. I didn't have a single moment in the game where I thought I was going to lose a fight because I didn't have the medicine at hand. Also, it's a helluva lot better than hitting pause on a game, selecting medicine and applying it. The last few games that I've reviewed have had that type of system in tact and this one just seems like a brighter idea. If I'm fighting five guys I don't want to have to break the continuity of the fight to heal myself; that would be annoying, mainly because of the amount of fighting you'll be doing.
One of the brighter spots of change in the game, from the original, is the amount of time you spend in the present and past. For me, this was the attention/deal breaker in the first Assassin's Creed. I felt like just as the past scenes were getting interesting the present would break in and disrupt the good action. This time around you get a lovely backstory at the beginning, you spend some time in the present and then you dig right in for a good amount of time in the past. Ubisoft compensates the lack of 'present' by including voice-overs through out the game where the 'present' folk are communicating with you in 1480. For example, you'll have tiny side quests to find symbols sketched on the side of buildings. When you access these symbols they reveal something about the templar experiment in the 'present' and help to put some missing pieces together. They aren't intrusive and because they're optional they can only get in the way if you want them to. Ubisoft has created more of what should have been in the first game; action! action! action! This isn't to say that the 'present' is an annoyance like in the first, but I certainly think any amount of time in the 'present' takes away from the action and experience that makes this game worth buying. Now, with that said, Ubisoft did try to incorporate the 'past' into the 'present' by allowing your 'present' character to latch on to techniques you gain in 1480. Still, I would rather be in 1480 Italy jumping from rooftop to rooftop killing people. This still hurts the game a bit, in my opinion, but not as bad as it did the first time around; it was the straw that broke the camels back for me in the original.
The game isn't as perfect as it sounds, though. While minor, there are things that just annoy the crap out of me when I play this game. One of these things is how running through a crowd can be a pain in the ass. I know that the game has this element in it where if you bump into too many people you end up losing your balance and doing a barrel roll on the ground. I'm fine with that. I'm not fine with running after someone, only to cut a corner slightly too close and have Ezio trying to jump in a corner, while getting trapped by an oncoming crowd. It sounds like a complicated, rare situation to find yourself in, but I did this multiple times. I'm not sure what to blame, but it added some unneeded frustration to the experience. What's even worse is when you have to turn on Eagle Vision (an option that allows you to find enemies and specific folk in large crowds). Everything turns black/blue with exception to the people (who come in a variety of colors: blue, red and gold). Why is this a problem? Well, when you're running through a landscape and you have to chase someone with Eagle Vision you're basically turning off the environment around you, which leads to tripping, trapping and frustration. Why did they have to turn off the surrounding environment? It only leads to bumping into walls and people and wasting time; most of all breaking the mood of the game.
Anyway, that's my biggest complaint.
Other gameplay elements to note are your freedom to go out and freelance missions and work. There are times during a major mission where your character will bump into an individual who need some help. For example, there is a mission where I have to get a letter to a church across town before it's too late (I think there was a marriage about to happen or something). You'll have a time limit on these side quests, but they're quick and rewarding. You'll get paid major money and that money comes in handy. Outside of spending money on armor, there is another side quest to rebuild a town that has been worn. Ezio's uncle has a dying town that needs funding to make it thrive again. This is a side quest to make an entire city better through your missions and side quests. You'll pay for renovation of buildings and businesses; yet another example of a side quest. The game really earns its stripes through this and expands the universe of Ezio even further. It's fun and rewarding, which always makes for fantastic gameplay.
Speaking of fun, is the game fun? Yeah, the game is a much better experience than the first. Sure it doesn't have online play (thankfully, some companies depend on that too much), but it has a very strong story that continues from the last. You'll get yourself wrapped up with the details and the need to seek revenge for your fallen family. More importantly, the game will make you want to kill the Templars and stop them in the 'present'. The game also knocks the frustration level of the first down thanks to smooth controls and movement. There's plenty to really like about Assassin's Creed II and it's certainly worth the price of $59.99. In other words, you've read other reviews that score this game high and it certainly deserves it. Some people will knock Ubisoft for the short amount of gameplay (if you subtract the side quests) because as you'll get 8-12 hours of gameplay from the main story. Well, the difference maker is the side quests. What's great about the side quests is that they're not bullsh*t quests. As mentioned above, they're short and challenging, which makes them valuable in this type of game environment.