Review: Assassin’s Creed 2 (Xbox 360)

By Matt Carey

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”
(Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci 1452 – 1519)

Clever chap, that Leonardo. Most recognise him for his most famous work, the Mona Lisa, but he was also proficient in science, maths, engineering, invention, anatomy, sculpting, architecture, botany, music and writing, amongst other fields. His thinking was greatly ahead of its time, as demonstrated by his conceptual drawings of tanks, helicopters, the use of solar panels, and calculators. At a time of great thinking and incredible art, namely the Renaissance, da Vinci stood head and shoulders above the rest, demonstrating constantly the potential of modern man and how to realise that potential. How fitting then that he has been chosen to be the glue that binds together elements of Assassins Creed 2, the sequel to the eponymous sleeper hit from 2007.

The original title was met with opinions ranging from ‘good’ to ‘great’. As fun as climbing up buildings and sneaking up to your prey before gently sliding a knife in the back was, the repetitive tones of the title held the game back from being regarded as a classic. The world was large and, whilst appearing to be quite open, in reality, the towns all looked the same, and the areas surrounding too large with too little to do or see in them. The narrative coursing throughout the game was strong, if slightly confusing, but this was always meant to be a story told over time.

And so, here in 2009, we find the latest chapter in the tale continuing from where the previous game left off. And for a good, long while you cannot help but think “Here we go again”.

As Desmond, you are assisted in escaping the facility by Lucy, the attractive blonde lady from the first game, and escorted through the building, to the safety of, well, a warehouse, complete with hidden lab and two accomplices. Before long, you find yourself strapped back into a new version of the animus, the VR device from the first game that enables Desmond to live through the genetic memory of one of his ancestor’s lives.

This time we find ourselves in Renaissance era Italy, in the heart of Florence, and our main character seems to be a bit of an ass. Always in fights and climbing through the windows of the daughters of wealthy businessmen for a bit of ‘how’s your father’ seems to be the lifestyle mantra of choice. Well, that and climbing buildings with your brother for some inexplicable reason. Seriously, who in renaissance era Italy spent their free time randomly climbing buildings?

But I digress. The story continues, half of your family are murdered, a conspiracy is afoot, and your character finds himself donning his father’s assassin outfit.

For a long time the game holds your hand. A long time. It constantly hints – or blatantly tells – you what you can do during the course of the game, without ever letting you go and do it. As such, a great deal of these first few hours is restricted to doing as you are told. This can be quite frustrating. But, perseverance pays off, and soon, more of the game is shown to you, opened up, and revealed. And then there it is. The entire game world to go and do as you wish. Heaven.

Now, those that played the previous game will be shrugging their shoulders and wondering what exactly is different so far. Indeed, most of the little side quests are still there, such as beating people up, assassination missions, and loads of things to collect. I myself found everything mentioned, and more, to be a major irritant in the original, in keeping with my ‘video game pet hates (numbers 3 and 4)’. This time, however, everything is optional. So, if you want to race against some thief you can – you get an achievement for doing everything at least once – but if this is just a boring diversion, then leave it be. Heck, you can even strike these things off your map, should you so choose. Should you choose to participate then a paltry sum of money will be afforded to you, but more on the dosh later.

Not everything collectible this time around is pointless. Indeed, some of it is integral to completing the game, or at least, understanding what is going on. Some are easy enough to get, such as codec pages, and only involve the distracting of guards to be able to enter the room in which they are kept. The codec pages have two purposes. The first point of call is to Mr. da Vinci. He is able to translate these pages and as a result of what is contained within, a weapon or health upgrade will be granted. Once translated, these pages join others that have been collected, and very gradually, the story begins to unfold. I like this. Collectibles with a purpose.
The other items of importance are contained within the hidden crypts of other long dead assassins. The seals obtained initially don’t help that much, but when all are obtained, well let’s just say the reward is worth the effort involved. And what an effort it is. Ubisoft, in their wisdom, decided to draw on their strengths and make the crypts mini Prince of Persia-esque levels. So, upon gaining access, you are required to jump, climb, and fight your way through to your goal. This change of pace, and level design, is very welcome, and makes use of the acrobatic abilities of the lead character in a way that just running around rooftops can never achieve.

I mentioned earlier something about money. Yes, this time around your character can earn some currency. This can then be used to purchase treasure maps, weapons and armour, amongst other things. At first, the sums attained seem paltry, but a major part of the storyline – that I won’t spoil for you – gives you ample opportunity to start earning more. Without giving too much away, you become responsible for a small town, and your actions over the course of the game bring more wealth to the area. More wealth means more income for you, and before long you will be popping back periodically to empty the coffers of the tens of thousands of currency you have acquired. This money can then be used to upgrade either the town further, or yourself. The addition is a welcome one and, whilst not particularly comprehensive or exhaustive, it is a fun new aspect to the game and again, it gives some purpose to wandering off from the main story arc and roaming around to see what you can find.

The improvements extend to the main storyline too. In the debut title, the player kept popping back and forth between reality and the virtual world. Not only was this irritating in itself, but the load times were extensive, and much time was spent wandering around a pure white environment. That is still prevalent, but now the time spent wandering around nothingness is greatly reduced. Add to this the fact that once you are in the virtual world, then you stay there, and you find that the annoyances of the story that held back a good game from being great have been worked on. Instead, your real world colleagues can communicate to you whilst you are in the game, and although they don’t do it often, it does help in keeping the storyline in front of your virtual self and behind your physical self running in synch. Not only that, it’s far less irritating than coming out of the animus just so your character can go to bed.

There are little foibles to the game still. Although you are able to fast track from town to town (which costs a little money), some areas are still fairly expansive, with not much in them. Roaming an area of countryside just to find a not-to-easy-to-see golden feather is a chore. Thankfully the menu system, though confusing at times, does give statistics for everything, enabling you to see if you have found everything that there is to find in each district. The combat, whilst slightly improved, can still be a pain at times, especially when surrounded by enemies. However, there is a bit more leeway in just wandering around. The amount of times in the former game that was spent trying to evade the enemy was annoying, but now there are many varied ways to avoid detection, and chase sequences don’t have to take too much time. And of course, the initial hours where the game holds your hand for so long can be a nuisance.

This is the game that the first should have been. AC2 is much more adept at letting the story unfold whilst rarely breaking the illusion in front of you. Whilst it takes it’s time in letting you get off the starting blocks, there is reason for this. Not only that, it is much more preferable than jumping in and out of the animus every level. Ubisoft have thankfully listened to the complaints of the first game and tried to accommodate change, whilst not pulling out what did work in the first game. Kudos earned then, but let’s hope that the conclusion to the trilogy is the classic that we all want it to be.

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