The first Assassin's Creed will stay in memories as one of the prime examples of this generation's games. An overly ambitious title, with incredible graphics marred by a truly repetitive gameplay and many technical issues. To say that Assassin's Creed 2 was awaited with cautiousness is an understatement. Did this new episode fix all the problems of the first one? Read on for the answer! Update: Ubisoft sent us the launch trailer of the game, it fits nicely with this review I guess.
Assassin's starts totally differently compared to the first one. Here we are introduced gradually to our new hero, instead of diving right into the game without knowing who we are actually playing as. The first 3 or 4 hours are all about Ezio Auditore and his abilities, new or not. Fans of the first episode might find this way too long, but this is still a good way to get to know him and to show that he's a much more human figure compared to Altaïr who was for the most part all about his own personal gain.
This new character is also a good way to introduce the new form of narration, this time all based on actual cut-scenes. Gone are the long dialogs with a fixed camera where the bored player would inevitably go and have Altaïr run around in circles. The part happening in the present/near future is now less present than before, and instead gets included directly inside the game via the voices of the crew working with Desmond Miles while he's still in control of Ezio's actions. So gone too are the many back and forth trips between the past and the present to listen to a few lines of dialog between the characters. It really helps for the immersion, without totally losing that peculiar retro-futuristic feeling of the first episode.
As interesting as the story may be, it does little to get the player emotionally involved with the character. Although it does push the player through the missions and the various environments of the game, and what environments they are! The beginning will see Ezio take his first steps to becoming an Assassin in the streets of Florence, the Tuscan countryside, Venice and a few other surprises. The two cities are of course the main playgrounds, and logically are the ones that got the most work done on them. All the main monuments are instantly recognizable with nothing seemingly out of place. A truly wondrous recreation of the fifteenth century cities.
As proven by the first Assassin's Creed, the best environments and a solid story aren't always enough to make a great game. For some the pleasure of just exploring the cities wasn't enough to compensate for the incredible lack of different things you could do in it. As soon as the sequel was announced, Patrice Desilets and his team made sure to let everyone know that they had listened to the gamers and that the mission system would be completely changed. And thankfully, they did. From an open but ultimately repetitive structure city parts after city parts, we now go to a more linear system where the missions themselves almost never seem to be the same. No more sitting still on a bench listening to conversations, no more pick-pocketing documents, now we get stealth, assassinations, escorts, freeing allies, alone or with friendly AI all “intelligent” enough not to get lost in the city, and much more. This variety is most welcomed, especially since it doesn't mean that the side quests have been neglected in any way. They are freely accessible in between missions.
Beyond the big evolution of the heart of the game's structure, Ubisoft Montreal also added some real side content, not mandatory but they certainly shouldn't be over looked either. Ezio's family owns a Villa (or should we say a small town?) in the middle the Tuscan countryside. With some renovations, the city will come back to life and with the people will come bigger and bigger revenues for Ezio. This money will be much needed to complete the renovations, but more importantly to buy health potions, ammunitions but also weapons and armor parts. Armor improvement is directly related to the size of Ezio's health bar so they are very important, and the most advanced parts require a lot of money. But by simply doing the renovations as the game goes on, the revenue will increase more than enough to cover for all of Ezio's needs.
Furthermore the underground part of the villa has a surprise element that can be unlocked by going through 6 secret levels hidden in the various cities. These levels are very similar to the ones from a modern Prince of Persia game, and that makes sense since the Assassin's Creed team was the one behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Expect more platforming than usual, with still a bit of action. These sequences are all very well done and make a very nice break from the open environments of the main game, and shouldn't be neglected especially since the ultimate reward is a must have.
The gameplay itself stays mostly the same as its predecessor, and that's not a surprise because it was one of the really good points of the first episode. Ezio of course has quite a few new moves and is a bit more agile than Altaïr when it comes to scaling buildings. The fighting system itself hasn't really changed that much, even with the addition of many new weapons and moves. It's still all about dodging and counter-attacking, with all opponents all basically waiting for their turns to attack. The only really useful new move is the disarmament system where an unarmed Ezio will be able to block an attack and steal the enemy's weapon, leaving him basically unprotected in the process and making for an easy kill. This is all a question of timing, just like the rest of the fighting system. Once the various timings have been learned almost no fight will be a problem, and the fact that it's possible to “rent” fighters to come and help us makes this even easier than it should be. This is a good thing for the progression of the player in the game as a fight will never become difficult enough to actually prevent the player from seeing what happens next, but it's also frustrating that there is no real danger when going into a fight. Allies are mostly useful to make sure these fights won't take too long, the allies can distract the enemies while Eizo sneaks behind them for an instant kill.
It's also possible to pay thieves and courtesans to distract the guards while Ezio gets inside the guarded area without being detected. It's an interesting novelty, but it also does make Ezio's work easier than it should be. In most cases there is only a choice between distracting the guards or killing them all. A more “lonely Assassin” approach to these parts of the game would also have been a good option to have.
Ezio has many tasks to accomplish in the game, one of them being to collect 30 pages of a mysterious codex linked to the Assassin's guild. These tasks are always well guarded, and each time will require distracting or killing the guards before going in and then having Leornardo da Vinci, an old friend of the family, decrypt them for you. This is one of the few really repetitive tasks of the game, thankfully the pages are all easily accessible in the middle of the city and won't require much time in between missions.
To be done with the big new gameplay elements of the game, it's also important to add that glowing glyphs are hidden on various monuments throughout the game. These glyphs, when looked at through Eagle Vision will open a special and rather cryptic interface that will open a part of a special video after some puzzles solving, these puzzles increase in difficultly as they are solved. It's a complete change of gameplay from the main game, and it won't please everyone. Thankfully this isn't mandatory, but it's a quite interesting way to add even more mystery in an already quite convoluted story.
The first Assassin's Creed is without a doubt one of the finest looking games on the current HD consoles, but also one of the worst when it came to framerate and tearing. Tearing especially was almost always present, to the point that it was really removing a lot of the enjoyment to be found in the incredibly detailed reconstruction of the medieval cities. Here again Ubisoft listened to the gamers and made sure to deliver a much better running game. There are still some instances of tearing when there are many characters on screen, but the Xbox 360 version we got to play completely is for the most part very smooth. The PS3 version is said to be running a tad worse than its 360 counterpart, but is still a major improvement.
The cities are still beautiful, and the addition of a day/night cycle and of even more people moving around reinforces the feeling that it's not just a video game, but real breathing world. These additions haven't been done without any consequences though, and the textures seem a tad less sharp than before. But thankfully the new smoothness of the game more than compensate for this.
It's not a surprise, Ezio animations are a direct evolution of Altaïr's, since they were already excellent in the original game. We also get back some annoying bugs from time to time, like when Eizo falls down onto a ledge where only 1 foot is touching the surface and his other leg is in pointing straight up in the air. Eizo's animation wouldn't detect this instance and make the player fall straight down in an upright position. Problems like this are few and far between and thankfully it's quite rare. The NPCs, mostly the enemies and allies have all gained tremendously in terms of movement, some of them won't have any problem following Ezio around the city's rooftops.
Assassin's Creed 2 manages to correct all of its ambitious but flawed predecessor's issues, and even adds many new, and for the most part interesting, things that make the game even more varied. It's also a very long game (we finished it with 62% completion, clocking 16 hours in the Animus clock) that never feels like it's repeating itself. Assassin's Creed 2 could have simply been a very good sequel, but thanks to the great work done by Ubisoft Montreal it now becomes one of the must-haves on the both consoles it's being released on.