For some reason, it feels like Assassin’s Creed II is up against the kind of challenge that even its acrobatic hero Ezio would struggle to scale. The original game was massively successful and rightly loved, but we all know it suffered from a few significant flaws. And in the intervening two years, the state of the art in visuals has leapfrogged a bit past this game’s engine, so the graphics won’t blow people away as much as they did the first time around. Worry not, though: in this sequel, every other conceivable element has been improved, expanded, buffed, or polished. While the straightforward action is definitely a follow-up to Altair’s adventures, the rest of the game is barely recognizable — in a great way.
One of the main reasons Assassin’s Creed II is so enjoyable is that your historical character is properly fleshed out without compromising the present-day plot that runs in parallel. Ezio Audittore di Firenze is brilliantly realized and develops over the course of the game, which spans a huge portion of his life. At the beginning, he’s a spoiled, petulant teenager, but then his world is shaken by betrayal, and you see him become the steely assassin you expect. It’s a subtle and beautifully handled transition to maturity that fortunately doesn’t result in Ezio becoming another generic, growling anti-hero. In most of the cutscenes, his cowl is removed and he’s an expressive, well-acted character with a sense of humor. You feel much more connected to the history that makes the series so fascinating, and that world’s reaction to you becomes more personal as well.
Desmond, your character in present day, also gets a more meaty role in the proceedings, rather than simply wandering around looking confused. Assassin’s Creed II opens with a mad dash to escape the Abstergo complex, and while you play as Desmond only three times in the game, more of his ancestors’ powers are unlocking, and he’s inching ever closer to the same abilities as Ezio and Altair. The present-day portion of the game is also less intrusive than it was last time — you won’t be constantly hauled out of Ezio’s story just to poke around a sterile lab for a few minutes. And when you’re in the Animus, gamey contrivances block your progress on much fewer occasions.
It’s Renaissance Italy that’s most exciting to explore, though, and once again each city is a gloriously dense environment that feels like a living, working metropolis. The Italian architecture is considerably more haphazard as well, making negotiating the rooftops a more satisfying challenge. It’s worth mentioning that while the first Assassin’s Creed was visually a revelation, Assassin’s Creed II is still gorgeous — every crack in the stucco walls is rendered with ludicrous clarity, and the draw distances and sense of scale are still breathtaking. It’s not just cities, either: Ubisoft Montreal has fleshed out the villages in between. We’re particularly enamored with the walled town of San Gimignano, which includes huge medieval towers that are perfect for stretching Ezio’s legs.
Your newfound involvement (and investment) in the medieval world is mirrored in the missions that are dished out over the course of the storyline. Those who played the original will be pleased to hear that the deeply artificial structure of “investigations” leading to an assassination has been chucked out the window. While your primary objectives within each chapter are likely to involve introducing some corrupt official to the business end of your wristblade, the build-up is more organic, and the smaller objectives aren’t limited by classification as different types of mission. Instead, they’re led by the requirements of the story — how it should be, essentially.
These sub-missions build neatly toward the eventual assassination attempts, which are just as satisfying as they always were. When you’ve planned the perfect route through a restricted area, silently taken out the surrounding guards, and then sprinted the final few yards for a deliciously soggy kill, the sense of elation is enormous. There’s generally plenty of freedom in how you approach your mark — stealth is recommended but usually not essential — and if you’re prepared to spend the cash, you can arm Ezio with poison, throwing knives, and a cornucopia of different offensive weaponry to help him carve his way to his target.
This combination — an involving story, a rich detailed environment, and objectives that feel like natural plot progression and interesting challenges — means that throughout the 20-or-so hours it took to complete the game, we were almost always totally engrossed. There’s only one spot when the story falters and descends into the kind of item collection that rankled people last time around. It’s tiresome because it occurs at a moment where the story is barreling toward its conclusion, and the change in pace is severely jarring. It’s genuinely the only misstep, though, in a story that is otherwise as sure-footed as Ezio himself.
Assassin’s Creed II also offers a healthy lump of sandbox distractions, but because you’re so invested in the political intrigue, the characters, and the bumping off of Italian nobles, it’s often difficult to tear yourself away. But it’s well worth finding the time to complete some of the secret locations, which offer Prince of Persia–style clambering puzzles within some of Italy’s most famous buildings. While you might wonder how that sits with Assassin’s Creed’s intelligent free-running system, these puzzles are some of the most pleasing in the game because you attempt to plot a route and then execute it in one fluid movement. The puzzle is there, but by and large the fiddliness of precise timing is taken away, so you’re unlikely to fall to your doom because you mistimed a jump. Six of these Assassin’s Tombs are dotted around the world (only one is mandatory), and there’s even variety within the secret areas. One might involve clambering to the top of the Duomo in Florence from the inside; another might be chasing a guard through a series of dank underground caverns. Best of all, there’s an extremely tasty reward if you manage to clock them all — we won’t tell you what it is, but we bagged it and it’s worth chasing both for a competitive advantage and general kudos.
Another pleasing element is the opportunity to build up the entire town of Monteriggioni (the location of your family villa) from its initial status as a rundown, barely inhabited settlement into a bustling market town. By renovating the various buildings, you generate income that you can collect between missions, and you earn discounts on armor, clothes, and medicine. It’s by no means vital to the plot, and some people will blow all their cash on the latest, pointiest weapon; but if you want to be stinking rich, it’s worth taking the time to spruce the place up a bit. It’s not a complex real-estate simulation, but it’s a neat diversion.
Finally, the conspiracy-theory nuts who went bonkers over the ending of the original game will be pleased to hear that the mystery only deepens. They’ll delight in the opportunities to dig deeper into the Templar’s plans through a series of increasingly confounding mini-games that you can unlock during your travels. The reward for solving them all is as integral to the plot as the proper ending of the game. And even more enticing, documents that reveal the extent of the Templar’s influence throughout history are displayed as you progress through each of the different puzzles.
There’s just a huge amount to do in Assassin’s Creed II, and none of it feels like fluff or filler. While plenty of people will be satisfied by the 20-odd hours it takes to wrap up the story, there’s at least another 10 of subquests and side missions to chew on if you’re still hungry. It’s the most substantial game we’ve played since Fallout 3.
Assassin’s Creed II is clearly a triumph of reaction to criticism. Everything that was fantastic about the first game returns, but everything that was a grind or an annoyance has been dumped in favor of better and often more traditional game mechanics. The result is a gorgeous, rich, and believable world that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the climactic finale. The charm of the first Assassin’s Creed came from the sumptuous graphics and the straightforward action — that incredible freerunning and the visceral thrill of stapling evil people to the dirt with a wristblade. With Assassin’s Creed II, the rest of the game has caught up with the brilliance of those central ideas to create a complete and coherent experience. We can think of plenty of words that could describe Assassin’s Creed II — involving, exciting, cinematic — but one word sums it up beautifully: killer.
+ Deep, involving story; gorgeous environments; heaping piles of side quests.
+ Free-running is still great.
- A brief reversion to old ways is disappoint.
? What era is up next for Assassinâ€™s Creed III?