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Assassin’s Creed II

10:2725/11/2009Posted by Simeon PaskellNo Comments

As far as original intellectual properties go, Assassin’s Creed is one of this generation’s great success stories, selling 8 millions copies (as of April 2009) and spawning spin-offs on multiple platforms. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses however; despite the huge sales and positive reviews, it is generally accepted that the series début fell just short of greatness, with repetitive gameplay, dubious AI and some rough edges cited as fairly major concerns. As a franchise debut, it was undoubtedly a strong start; as a gaming experience, it wasn’t quite as polished as it could have been. Two years later, Assassin’s Creed II comes skulking out of the shadows, wrist-blades drawn, with the focus shifted away from Altaïr and onto Italian stallion, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The question is, though the hero has changed, has Ubisoft Montreal also managed to take the original’s problems out of the picture as well?

Assassin's Creed 2 01Assassin’s Creed II picks up from where its predecessor left off, and the plot is as hard to explain as ever. To briefly fill-in the uninitiated, the original saw our hero Desmond Miles (in the present day) kidnapped by a mysterious company called Abstergo Industries who proceeded to use him as a guinea pig for the ‘Animus’, a technology that enables the exploration of genetic memory. Thus ensued a time-skipping adventure, as Desmond flitted from reliving the experiences of his ancestor, Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad – an assassin in the 12th Century – to dealing with his problems in the present day. The story proved to be many things (confusing being one of them), but most of all it was massively ambitious, which in fact is something that could be said as the game as a whole. Spend a bit of time with Assassin’s Creed II and it’s beyond question that this sequel has the same lofty aspirations.

So, back to the plot….Desmond, with the help of Abstergo employee Lucy, manages to escape his keepers and find refuge in an assassin’s hideout where, with the help of annoyingly quirky, Bjork-lite Rebecca and uber-nerd Shaun, the pair set about bringing down Abstergo and the clandestine Templars. The problem of how best to initiate newcomers to the series (and its undeniably complicated premise) while delivering an opening that lives up to the huge amount of hype that surrounds the game is clearly something that Ubisoft Montreal have struggled with and in all honesty, Assassin’s Creed II’s opening few hours are competent if unspectacular, with the narrative unfolding somewhat awkwardly. While Ubisoft Montreal obviously chose to hold off giving you the signature assassin’s hood from the outset for dramatic purposes, the underlying drama isn’t convincing or engaging enough to make this work.

Assassin's Creed 2 02In fact, one of the overriding impressions of the game’s opening are the visuals. While it has to be pointed out that Assassin’s Creed II is an absolutely gorgeous looking game, with every aspect of the world lent a delicate, refined beauty that matches the 15th Century Italian setting wonderfully (more on this later), the opening seems to do a fine job of highlighting the game’s visual weaknesses – namely some fairly bad screen-tearing and dubious facial animations. Those who have recently played the visual stunner that is Uncharted 2 will find this particularly jarring; where the face of Nathan Drake and co were amazingly well animated, using state of the art virtual actors, some of the gurning visages featured here take some adjustment.

Luckily, this slightly awkward opening does not foretell of things to come and Assassin’s Creed II soon blossoms into an engaging, often spectacular and (possibly most importantly for the series…) varied experience. It’s clear that Ubisoft Montreal has learnt from their past mistakes, as well as from recent sandbox masterclasses such as Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV and Sucker Punch’s Infamous. Like those games, the game’s environments, primarily Florence, Venice, numerous smaller towns and the Tuscan countryside are wonderfully dense, packed full of detail and enough diversions to keep even the most hard-to-please wannabe assassins occupied. The degree of freedom you are given is fantastic, and many an hour can be spent simply exploring the cities and getting into (and out of!) trouble.

Assassin's Creed 2 03There are a raft of mission types from which you can choose, ranging from freelance assassinations, races, delivery runs and ‘beat-ups’ (philandering husbands had better beware…!) to story missions that progress the narrative. Add to these a dizzying number of collection challenges (feathers for Ezio’s grieving mother, wanted posters, statues for your villa and Assassin’s seals to name but a few), and it’s clear that Ubisoft Montreal took the criticisms levied at the previous game to heart.

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