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Assassin’s Creed II

Note: I’m altering my earlier announcement.  Starting from today, Friday the 2nd, my reviews will be weekly.  It saves me a lot of time, energy and brain power.  As such, Modern Warfare 2’s review will take a while… Anyway, onto the review!

250px-AC2coverHighResThe Short Version

It’s really quite good – not flawless, but a damn fine open-world game and an excellent sequel.  Many of the problems the original had have been dealt with, and I can recommend this game to most people without reservation.

The Long Version

Typically, when being marketed, sequels have the dubious honour of being called “a better version of the original”.  It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not; the point is to create a positive image for your product, thus ensuring a healthy flood of buyers on release day.

However, this does open the floor to three distinct responses: either the buyer will shrug indignantly and say something to the effect of “I’ve been through worse” (your Iron Man 2 or Force Unleashed 2); they’ll scream at the top of their lungs in rage at how badly the product has failed (that’s Deus Ex: Invisible War for many people); or they’ll nod and smirk, saying “This is how it’s done”.

Assassin’s Creed II is undoubtedly deserving of the third response.  It’s a faster, heavily revamped yet structurally similar complement to the original game, showing that Ubisoft does take criticism seriously and cares about its output.  There’s more to do, more to see, a lot more story to ingest, and ultimately – though not universally – it succeeds where it counts.

If you aren’t keeping track of the continuity thus far, here’s the gist: it’s 2012, DNA contains ancestral memories that can be viewed using the Matrix chair-like device known as the Animus, and the corporation responsible for the Animus – Abstergo – is actually a front for a millennia-old cabal of manipulative masterminds we all know as the Templar Order.  You play as bartender-turned-test subject Desmond Miles, a man sought after by Abstergo for less-than-noble and, indeed, self-centred reasons.

If you have been following along, then you remember the cliffhanger from the first game leaving watchful fans with omens of disaster and increasing stakes (and disappointing sequel-bait for the rest of us).  Assassin’s Creed II picks up seconds later, with Desmond being rescued by the modern Assassin Order and taken to a safehouse for training.  Obviously, with the threat of Abstergo on their minds, traditional training isn’t an option; thus, the plan is to have Desmond head back into the Animus and relive the memories of a new ancestor – the theory being that the Bleeding Effect seen in Assassin’s Creed will allow him to adopt said ancestor’s abilities.

Enter Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a 15th century nobleman with a heart of gold and a tendency towards… well, womanizing.  The “meat” of the story, and much of what players have discussed over the years, consists of his tragic quest to avenge a great crime committed against himself and his family.  Through a traumatizing series of events, Ezio is inspired to travel Italy in search of the devious mind responsible for his suffering.

The concept of a revenge tale isn’t new to fiction or even games, but the inclusion of the historical Italian setting and the presence of a strong protagonist makes the journey worthwhile.  Ezio, as voiced by Roger Craig Smith, is exactly what this story needed, bringing plenty of charm, passion and even dramatic gravity when it matters most.  He has a natural chemistry with everyone he meets, and he gets across a sense of youthful naivete that’s as charming as it is sincere.  His quest takes him from Firenze, to Tuscany and Forli, and even Venice itself, all of which are realized in their classic forms with great attention to detail and indescribable beauty throughout the streets.

The rest of the supporting cast suffices, including more than a few historical figures that add to the series’ credibility as an intelligent fact-oriented franchise, but no one besides Leonardo da Vinci and Uncle Mario truly stood out.   The secondary antagonists have some neat quirks and some dynamic Database entries (more on that later), but otherwise work better as cannon fodder for brutal assassinations than as true foils to Ezio.  The standout, antagonist-wise, is the enigmatic and outright dick-ish Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a Pope Alexander VI – and yes, that is an important plot point in this particular story.  I hate using made-up words like dick-ish, but nothing else suffices to describe how gloriously maniacal and completely horrid Rodrigo the Spaniard comes off.  He’s an asshole in a story that needs a clearly defined asshole character, so mission accomplished.

In terms of its story, Assassin’s Creed II walks a fine line between simple revenge tale and Renaissance-based political thriller, generally using the first to explain Ezio’s involvement in the second.  The plot sometimes stumbles whenever it get caught up in major political turning points, such as the Pazzi conspiracy, and I get the sense that Ubisoft’s interest in historical accuracy may have come at the cost of narrative focus and tight pacing.  It also doesn’t help that much of what Ezio does feels like busy work suited to an errand boy; it reached a point where I basically chanted in my head, “Get to the stabby-stabby part.  Get to the stabby-stabby part.”

Ultimately, though, it starts with a heavy heart and ends in a generally enjoyable, though still question-raising way.   The potential for the series’ various mysteries to be answered satisfactorily still stands, as does the promise of Desmond living up to his full potential as an all-seeing Assassin (though at the time of this review, that’s pretty much out the window, isn’t it?).

The more immediate stunner of Assassin’s Creed II is how vastly improved the game design turns out to be.  True, the basic skeleton is same as it always was: control head and limbs of an Assassin using face buttons, freerun and climb around various cities painstakingly recreated in their Renaissance forms, horribly slaughter guards and Templars with a range of weapons.  The difference lies in the details; for instance, Ezio’s movement is much faster and smoother than Altair ibn La’Ahad’s, suiting the tighter experience as a whole.  Even when he misses a jump and lands face-first in the dirt, he is animated so believably it doesn’t matter so much.

That range of weapons also receives a 15th century update, with the addition of poison, upgradeable amounts of throwing knives, a second Hidden Blade, and a few other excellent surprises not to be spoiled here.  Suffice to say, having Leonardo da Vinci serve as Ezio’s own “Q” was a superb decision on Ubisoft’s part; it provides further incentive to collect those pesky Codex pages to unlock new equipment (and the end of the story).

You won’t have to wait for any opportunity to use said weapons, either; the story does an admirable job of setting up missions that don’t have a fixed method of completion.  Save for a few instances where getting spotted or being careless ends the mission instantly, the player has the freedom to tackle their objectives however they wish – and thank goodness, because there are some real standouts.

For me, the best of the bunch was the sequence set during Carnivale, wherein Ezio must obtain an elite Golden Mask to advance in his mission.  This leads him, and the player, into a series of challenges ranging from a rooftop race, to an all-out brawl, to even a clever nod to “Capture the Flag” game modes.  They’re creative, engaging, and kept me entertained throughout.

Another new addition – arguably the most noteworthy – is the implementation of a proper economy system, allowing for the purchase and replacement of tools & items.  Specifically, players can buy armour and weapons of varying quality and statistics, a recommended practice since each melee weapon has a unique animation.  This also ties into a micromanagement element involving the villa of Monteriggioni, a sort of investment system where Ezio spends money to setup shops and structures throughout the villa to increase its income – and thereby earning both a cut of the profits, and discounts from the shopkeepers.  Some may claim this system provides more money than can be spent, and at times even I considered that sentiment, but overall it’s just another layer of depth that pays off for the player.

Stealth, meanwhile, received some welcome tweaks; namely, that it now allows for a properly stealthy approach to gameplay.  The crowd camouflage system lets Ezio enter and automatically follow a moving group of citizens, serving as mobile protection from enemies.  The hiding places, like hay bales and rooftop boxes, return from the original game, as does the concept of a Awareness meter – here referred to as the “Notoriety meter”.  Notoriety increases based on conspicuous actions on the player’s part – namely killing enemies in public or non-stealthy ways – and decreases by either paying off heralds, killing witnesses or ripping off wanted posters from oddly placed locations.

Then there is the combat, which has seen its own changes for better or worse.  The simplicity of a four-button system (wherein the options consist of attacking, dodging, blocking, or countering) remains appealing, and there are new options like disarming enemies and turning their weapons on them.  However, as with Assassin’s Creed, there’s a distinct lack of more complex moves in combat, and the player never really improves their combat ability or discovers any unique strategies; it’s more about timing and countering, rather than progression and skill, and thus the challenge is reduced to a quiet roar.  At most, all-out brawls give the player opportunities to test new weapons and their brutal kill animations.

Fortunately, the extras cushion the failings of combat, both because of their range and their actual impact on the experience.  Take the Assassin’s Tombs; these six labyrinths not only pay tribute to the platforming antics of Prince of Persia, but when completed they also allow Ezio to unlock a powerful set of armour that ties into the greater mythos of the Assassin Order.  There’s also a few sets of collectibles, like feathers (damn them!) and the aforementioned Codex pages, which add to Monteriggioni’s value and further certain plot threads.  Even if I don’t like the walling-off of the endgame for the sake of a large-scale fetch quest, and some Tombs came off as tedious or frustrating, I appreciate their presence and the benefits they grant.

One complaint I can level directly at Ubisoft, besides their wonderful decisions regarding DRM, is their idea to extract two entire sequences of the main story, and sell them as DLC.  It’s a bit jarring of a leap heading into the finale, and it seems somewhat unwarranted given that said chapters explain key details that seem – at least to me – kind of important for the player to know in full.

Regardless, the experience as a whole is well-crafted and very consistent, a complement I couldn’t muster the last time around.  Matching this level of quality is the visual presentation, which is nothing short of astounding.  I can’t claim to be a history major, but my impression is that the timeless stone and mortar designs of Italy’s finest cities and villas is masterfully recreated in Assassin’s Creed II.  The Carnivale sequence, in particular, brings a very theatrical approach to this experience, with bright friendly colours strewn throughout the environment and the locales wearing elegant masks.

If I was to level a complaint at the visuals, it would be that the character models themselves feel a bit too artificial and archaic in design, which is to say they felt a bit plastic-like.  Still, for 2009 they hold up well – even if they drew unfavourable comparisons to the powerhouse that was Uncharted 2.

What truly drew me into the experience, though, was the elegant yet tragic soundtrack.  A symphony of mournful vocals and subdued instruments, Jesper Kyd’s work here added a level of melancholy and beauty to the game that you don’t really see all that often.  From start to finish, every theme feels like an expression of Italy’s very soul, complemented by a range of notable voice actors – including the likes of Nolan North, Fred Tatasciore, Kristen Bell and Elias Toufexis.

Assassin’s Creed II presents itself as the best kind of sequel I could ask for: the one that goes further down the rabbit hole than its predecessor, and looks damn good doing it.  This game, introducing more depth and emotion into the series than ever before, justifies its place on any and every gamer’s shelf, even with its occasional missteps.  If this is how an Assassin lives, I’m happy to be along for the ride.

four-stars

Recommendation: Buy It

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