With parkour-style freerunning and blatant murdering through Crusades-era Jerusalem, the first Assassinís Creed offered the promise of a truly great game. Indeed, the first quarter of the game stood as an addictive breath of fresh air in the gaming landscape as you tore through history as Altair; however, it wasnít long before its many shortcomings made it somewhat of a chore to power through to its bewildering conclusion. Thankfully, those problems have almost all been addressed with Assassinís Creed 2, which kicks the gameplay into the Italian Renaissance and delivers on every ounce of promise held by its predecessor.
Continuing the tale of future-living Desmond and his escape from evil super-corporation Abstergo as he explores his ancestorsí genetic memory, Assassinís Creed 2 doesnít take long to kick into high gear. The extended Desmond sequences have been all but excised, leaving the bulk of the plot to focus on another ancestor, Ezio Auditore. Young Ezio represents a much different protagonist from the staid, cold-as-ice Altair; heís a brash, womanizing young noble with a quick wit and no shortage of emotion. His epic journey across the Italian landscape over the course of nearly 20 years, changing and maturing him as he discovers the Templar threat which spans much further through human history than Altair could have ever expected.
Of course, the core of the game is much the same. Ezio learns a series of new techniques and moves as he progresses on his personal quest for truth and justice, and develops a series of new tools along the way. Indeed, through his friendship with a young Leonardo Da Vinci, Ezio gathers a fairly impressive and highly useful arsenal, including dual wrist-spikes, smoke bombs, poison, and yes, even a miniature pistol. By the end of the game, youíve got a truly diverse set of ways not only to kill but to distract and help you break from a bad situation and blend into the shadows. And although it may sound superficial, the dual wrist-spike is far more useful than youíd expect. Being able to leap from a rooftop and plant your blades into two guardsí skulls at once is not only a) cool as hell, and b) pretty messy, but itís also c) helpful for reducing the amount of time you spend picking away at the opposition.
In fact, Assassinís Creed 2 offers you no shortage of new things to do, including making use of a wide variety of weapons. From scimitars and spears to enormous maces and hammers, Ezio doesnít mess around with what heís willing to use to beat the living bejeezus out of his many enemies. If it comes down to it, he can also pick up those left behind by his foes, if only temporarily. Nabbing them permanently means paying a visit to one of the gameís many blacksmiths, allowing you to drop some coin in exchange for adding to your increasingly huge arsenal.
In fact, this arsenal is accessed from your familyís villa, something you gain fairly early on. It becomes your base of operations, and an emotional centre for the remainder of your journey. It allows you to store and switch out weapons and armor, though its real value extends beyond being an extended inventory. Your villa is attached to a small town, which you can actually improve with enough financial investments. Give enough coin to the villaís architect and heíll make sure the town gets new and improved amenities, from shops to a church and more. The more you invest, the more worth your villa accumulates, jacking up the amount flowing into your coffers every 20 minutes. Making those improvements also boosts the discount you receive at those shops, which can make a significant difference in the long term.
What will also add to that value is the collection of classic art pieces you can buy throughout all of Italy, codex pages which provide you with more health, and feathers, which act as the AC1 equivalent of flags. Adding each and every one will boost the worth of your home and therefore the amount of money you receive, if the obsessive-compulsive need to collect Ďem all isnít enough incentive for you. In time, money is no issue whatsoever, and it doesnít take long to build up so big a bankroll that you will literally not know what to do with it all. Fitting, perhaps, for someone of Ezioís standing, though getting to that point is purely optional, another of many nice touches.
Also optional now are the many side missions which had previously been mandatory to build up to the big-ticket executions. No longer do you need to sneak around and spy on random folk to progress the story, with many exciting and sprawling self-contained missions moving the plot along. Instead, thereís a truly entertaining mix of assassination contracts, races, and yes, even beating on unfaithful husbands. More entertaining and tantalizing are the mysterious glyphs scattered throughout the landscape, placed there by a previous Abstergo subject, each of which unlocks a series of puzzles. These are often also connected with some revelations about the Templarsí role through the major chapters of history, and reveal significant chunks of the gameís most in-depth lore. Whatís more, finishing each set of puzzles unlocks a single chunk of ďThe Truth,Ē a memory clip which, once unlocked...well, itís best left unexplained, except to say it helps to redefine what the Assassinís Creed series is really about.
The game also features a number of catacombs and dungeons to explore, some eventually leading to the ability to access the legendary armor of Altair. That in itself is handy enough, but itís true that in this case, the real reward is the journey: these segments are highly reminiscent of the Prince of Persia series as youíre often forced to navigate positively huge environments Ė many of which are the major landmarks of Italian history Ė and work out how to use your acrobatic skills to get to where you need to be. Like so many of the other elements of the game, it provides a wonderful sidestep to the main action and helps to break up the heart of the action. Although the primary game is stunning and addictive, having a wide range of distractions that are fun and varied makes the first handful of hours every bit as fun as the last Ė a great achievement, and something which makes Assassinís Creed 2 great.
Spending that many hours mired in Italian history is made all the greater through the astounding vistas and amazing graphics on offer. Much like how Assassinís Creed 1 brought the Crusades to life, its sequel introduces the jaw-dropping vistas and architectural majesty of the period. The visuals are truly memorable, and even many hours into the game, they never fail to impress. Whether youíre at ground level, tearing through alleyways and past aggravating minstrels or hopping across rooftops and perching atop St. Markís Basilica, you canít help but admire the horizon and the sheer beauty of it all. Even the differences between each area are noticeable and significant, with the dark, damp Forli region standing in stark contrast to the bright, sprawling canals of Venice. The images are evocative and will stay with you long after youíve set down the controller.
All of this isnít even to mention the many little touches that make Assassinís Creed 2 vastly superior to its predecessor. Being able to swim not only makes sense in the water-logged lands of Italy Ė heíd be screwed in Venice, otherwise Ė but it paves the way for some truly entertaining missions involving taking out bad people on big ships. In fact, thereís something truly satisfying and calming about getting from one side of Venice by rowing your way atop a gondola. Other elements, like soaring over the city on a flying machine, or tearing across the countryside on a carriage under siege, are some of the most memorable experiences youíll have in a game for some time.
It seems clear that, for years to come, Assassinís Creed 2 will stand as the prime example of how a heavily flawed game with strong promise can be improved upon in a sequel that can capture that promise and turn it into real greatness. It turns around all the issues that squandered the awesome potential of the first and spins it into gaming gold, eliminating the repetition, improving the visuals, and deepening the entire experience overall. Itís a fantastic run that, unlike the first Assassinís Creed, is never boring, even countless hours in. Forget the blockbuster status, forget the hype: itís a great game, and a great time.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)