Late to the Party: Assassin’s Creed II

Waiting for a month to review a game is probably not the best move I’ve ever made. I don’t remember a lot of the specific parts of the plot that tie the game together, so I’m going to be referring to a lot of reference material. You were warned.

Initially I wanted to finish the first Assassin’s Creed game, but a mapping glitch made it impossible to find any of the targets and destinations, so I decided to skip ahead to Assassin’s Creed II. That may be part of why this review will in no way be an opus.

General Thoughts

The first word that comes to mind when comparing Assassin’s Creed II with its predecessor is ‘detail’. The detail in every aspect of this game was bumped up and it went above and beyond my expectations in all fields (with the biased exception that it’s altogether far too easy to jump and find yourself flying in the opposite direction that you intended).

Piazza

This shot, still in the 'rendering' phase, is a great example of the detail that went into the environmental design.

The non-linear gameplay combined with an open-world setting made this game much more entertaining than the first. Running around the rooftops of Italy, throwing money at minstrels and hiring ladies of questionable intentions to distract guards? Come on. That already makes it better than the first Assassin’s Creed!

The graphics also deserve a mention. Watching each city render in brilliant precision and colour was fascinating each time I got to travel to a new place. I don’t even want to try and think of how much time was spent designing the cities, because it must have taken forever to get them to look that perfect. To be fair, the original game looked pretty rad, but this sequel blew its graphics right out of the water. I loved it. A lot.

Plot

To be completely honest, I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the plot as I should have. It took me well over a month to finish this game, simply because I haven’t gotten used to the idea of sitting down for hours and hours to play anything except for Minecraft and Portal 2, so  the plot was lost on me. I remember a few things, like the hanging of Ezio’s family, and that there was a puzzle hidden in a number of codex pages that would somehow be important … And, of course, I remember that Desmond Miles had been cooped up in Abstergo and that he was rescued by Lucy at the very beginning of the game so that he could work with her new team. Aside from that, everything is a blur.

I so don't understand you, Minerva.

After reading up on the full plot, I was reminded that in addition to the usual political stories that go along with assassination, there was a story following the existence of two ‘pieces of Eden’: a papal cross and an apple which, when brought together, were all crazy-powerful. There was  also some talk of a prophet, which I believe Ezio to be, if my memory is to be trusted (hah). Prophets and prophecies always make things ridiculously complicated and at least a little confusing. Hopefully I’m not alone in thinking that.

Speaking of complicated, the ending was … you know, I’m still at a loss for words. I have no idea what to think about it. After defeating the final target and claiming the pieces of Eden, you find and are addressed by an ethereal being, and it talks about the history of the world and a bunch of other things that I didn’t hear because I was just sitting there trying to understand how it was at all related to assassin-ry. I completely understood it when Desmond’s character paused after the screen went dark and uttered a quiet “what the f—?!” Exactly what I was thinking. I’ve been told that it makes more sense as you play the following sequels, but my brain hurts just thinking about it.

According to Wikipedia, this being is named Minerva, and she tells Ezio / Desmond that she belonged to a society that existed on Earth alongside the earliest of humans. Something happened that nearly destroyed the planet, and the survivors from both societies had to band together to guarantee their continued existence. Minerva warns Desmond and the team that something similar is going to happen soon (in the ‘present day’ of 2012) and that it was up to them to deal with it. Lucy says something about a solar flare hitting the atmosphere and how it could be devastating to Earth, and … other stuff happens. That’s essentially the end of the game.

Now, maybe this exchange would make more sense to me if I’d finished playing the first game. I don’t know. Wikipedia made reference to a piece of Eden that Altaïr had found in the original Assassin’s Creed, so maybe I should finish that one before going on and playing Brotherhood. However I choose to go with this, the plot seems very out-there, even for me, but I’m intrigued by it and I’m curious to see how it carries through the series.

Gameplay

The Market

I really, really need to touch on this. I didn’t realize until I was about 80% through the game that I could go and buy things. I had no clue. I don’t remember that being a part of the original game, and if it was in the manual, I must’ve glanced right over it. This made the game much harder for me than it should have been.

First thing: you can buy extra space in your inventory. This would have reeeeally been handy if I’d bought enough pouches to hold more medicine for the fight in which you try to keep an enemy from obtaining the Apple. I fought that fight so many times before finally winning it with throwing knives so people couldn’t get close enough to hurt me, and immediately afterward I discovered that I could buy a pouch that would hold fifteen vials of medicine, rather than just having five. I was pissed. And then I was amused by my own stupidity. Ask my roommate.

Anyway. You can also purchase weapons. Very handy, this. Each weapon is given a score that you can view and compare when you’re shopping around. I won’t say much about that, because weapons aren’t something I know a lot about, so I’ll just say that buying the sword of Altaïr pretty much saved my butt in the last fight.

Weapons

The ever-so-handy Inventory Wheel

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of weapons in this game compared to the original. You still have your sword, throwing knives, hidden blade (best thing ever) and dagger, but you also eventually get to use a small hummingbird pistol, smoke bombs, poisoned blades and so on. As you earn more money, you can also go to a shop and purchase weapon upgrades, which can really save you when you start fighting tougher ‘boss’ battles.

There’s a more realistic aspect as well in which you need to repair your weapons. It can be a pain when you forget to visit the blacksmith and something breaks in the middle of an intense fight, but … you know. Live and learn. I didn’t have a weapon crap out on me often, so even if you forget about repairs, all is not lost. Look at this inventory. If one thing fails you, you have a ton of back-up options to help you get your butt out of that fight alive.

Eagle Eye

Though it didn’t come into play as often as it could have, the difference in the Eagle Eye function was an interesting one. In the first game, you had to remain in one place in order to use it, and you were only allowed to look around from where you stood (or perched or sat). In Assassin’s Creed II, it evolved into something much more useful. You can remain in Eagle Eye mode as you move, allowing you to track your targets or enemies while stalking or looking for a hiding place or seeking a good vantage point.

Because of the thickening of plot, Eagle Eye serves another function: it allows you to view symbols that randomly litter the world inside the Animus. When viewing these symbols, you unlock puzzles that must be solved in order to gain access to files that will ultimately … well, I don’t remember, exactly, but files are always important, right?

Controls

The addition of high-jumping abilities was much-needed. It gets frustrating when there’s an obvious hand-hold that’s just out of your reach, and you know that if you could just jump, you could snag it and carry on your merry way. Learning to do this halfway through the game seemed a bit late, but … better late than never, I suppose.

Ezio diving into a canal

Even when you're jumping in the wrong direction, you can't help but admire the graphics.

Because of the extra weapons and other things that you carry around with you in this game, the controls have altered slightly so that you can access any weapon (or other item) at any time from a wheel that you navigate with one of the stick-controls. It works pretty smoothly, but sometimes it’s more difficult than it needs to be to toggle to a specific item without cycling on past it accidentally.

As with the first game, the jumping in Assassin’s Creed II royally pisses me off—especially the ‘advanced jumping’ that the game tries to teach you when running around the catacombs. I never got the hang of it and it’s frustrating as hell, especially when you’re trying to learn the controls while on a timer. If that’s a necessary part of the later sequels, I will be sad. Very, very sad. Even with the regular jumping, as I noted at the beginning, it can be hard to control the direction in which you find yourself traveling. I’ve launched myself toward buildings that have nothing for me to grab onto, off of towers into wide, open piazzas down below, and inexplicably from the side of a house into canals. It’s problematic for me, but fortunately it rarely resulted in my death with that last example, now that the character can swim.

Pulling a guard from a rooftop

Yanking guards down from the rooftops makes sneaking about so much easier.

Along the way you learn a few new fighting moves from uncle Mario, like evading and escaping, but sadly I promptly forgot most of these after not playing for a week. Those moves could’ve been really useful … Silly me. There are also new attacks, like being able to pull someone down from a ledge or stabbing someone whilst hiding in a haystack that made the game much more enjoyable, as far as combat is concerned.

Reconstruction

One addition that seemed strange was the whole part about renovating and rejuvenating the town in which Ezio’s uncle lives. It brought in this sense that I was playing SimCity, choosing which businesses I wanted to help out and how I wanted the town to function. It had its place as far as the story was concerned, and it gave you spending money (which, in my case, turned out to be extremely handy at the end), but I wouldn’t normally associate business ventures (aside from one-off contracts) with the life and trade of an assassin.

Final Words

I could go into so much more detail here about catacombs and NPCs and the world in general, but this is long enough as it is. I’ll just finish with saying that overall, this is a brilliant and beautiful game, and at some point I’ll replay it so that I can understand the plot. If you haven’t played it, it will probably knock your socks off.

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One Comment

  1. Ben
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you liked Assassin’s Creed 2, which is one of my favorite games of this console generation despite the drawbacks you have mentioned, such as the jerky jumping controls. To be honest, the story of Ezio is expanded further in Brotherhood and the story of the first game comes full circle in Revelations, so you don’t really -need- to go back and play the first one. Unless you’re a completest, in which case have at em’. Anyway, great review as always. Keep it up 🙂

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