For a game that was based around such an interesting concept, the original Assassin’s Creed faltered just shy of greatness with its repetitive gameplay and boring side missions. Assassin’s Creed 2 hits a few new stumbling blocks of its own but overall is a much better go of things, and feels more like a cohesive game and less like a loose collection of assassin-themed mini-games. The game has a new protagonist and is set in a new and slightly more modern era of history, but more importantly is the point where the series seems to have found its footing.
As the series lore goes, the memories of a person’s ancestors can be found buried in their DNA. Using a special machine, these memories can be replayed and even interacted with in order to uncover more information about the past. In the first game a man named Desmond was trapped in a facility that tried to tap his DNA to find the memories of his ancestor Altair, a skilled assassin in ancient Rome. This facility was run by the Templar, a shadow organization using these memories to try and find ancient artifacts of great power. The sequel finds Desmond able to escape the facility, and while on the run with some friends he is able to tap into someone else’s memories, the mysterious Subject 16. These memories revolve around a different man named Ezio who lived in Italy in the 1700’s.
Though the locale has changed, much of the basic gameplay has not. Controlling Ezio as he leaps from rooftops and climbs up the side of buildings is a complex yet straightforward affair. Much of the complexity is due to the control scheme, which assigns two functions to each face button of the controller depending on whether or not the right trigger is pulled as well. This does lead to times where in a panic you accidentally do the wrong function than what you wanted, but surprisingly it becomes second-nature fairly quickly despite the crowded controls. One area of the game that consistently stays cumbersome is the targeting system, which doesn’t allow you to switch your lock-on via any real method other than unlocking your current target, relocking, and hoping for the best.
Mastery of the controls is critical, as soon enough Ezio will find himself in need of leaping off of rooftops only to catch a windowsill before becoming a splat on the road below, or dueling and eliminating enemies in melee combat. Fighting in the game makes of the bulk of the gameplay, and Ezio can deal damage using a wide array of weapons. Ezio can also dodge or disarm his opponents and use their own weapons against them, not to mention if you have the proper timing you can have Ezio counter an enemy’s attack and instantly kill them with an animation based on what type of weapon you currently have equipped. Barring the lock-on system’s unreliability, combat in the game is quite fun and boils down to watching all of the enemies around you as you parry or counter enemy attacks and then unleash a timed flurry of your own attacks when you can.
As you complete missions you gain money, which can either be used to purchase new weapons, armor, or items or can be dumped into renovating your own private villa such as adding a blacksmith’s shop or renovating the brothel. Though some upgrades for the villa are merely superficial they all increase the town’s value, which in turn benefits you in the form of a sum of cash getting added to your coffers every twenty minutes. Ezio must return to the villa to collect it, and the chest only holds an hour and twenty minutes worth of revenue, but it is a nice income stream to offset all those times you need to replace your medicine, smoke bombs, or need that nice new sword.
Most importantly, the game is a lot less monotonous than its predecessor. The plot missions are the meat of the gameplay for sure, but the side missions feel a lot less like mini-games. Instead of sitting on a bench and eavesdropping you are doing things like embarking on assassination contracts, sometimes with stipulations such as not allowing you to get discovered, or using only your fists. Other random events can pop up as well such as tackling an enemy messenger to steal his loot as he flees the scene via the rooftops. To help spice up missions themselves you can opt to spend some money to hire courtesans, mercenaries, or thieves to distract / battle guards as you sneak past unopposed rather than just take them on yourself.
In short, Assassin’s Creed 2 is the game that the original should have been. Some parts of it such as the lock-on system or when one character introduces himself with “It’s a-me, Mario!” are certainly groan worthy and slam into the fourth wall like a wrecking ball, but the gameplay as a whole is much more refined than it was in the first game. You basically are a super agile Italian ninja adept at scaling walls, stabbing people in the face, and then disappearing without a trace; only this time the game is about as fun as the premise sounds.
Versions Reviewed: Xbox 360, PS3