Assassin’s Creed may have been met with mixed reviews, but it still sold extremely well. This and the fact that the story was designed for sequels made Assassin’s Creed II an inevitability. What’s amazing is just how much they improved upon the original title. For plot and gameplay reasons, this review will assume you’ve already played Assassin’s Creed 1. If you’re interested in the series, I advise starting from the beginning, a review for which can be found here.
Assassin’s Creed II starts off with a bang. Lucy Stillman, one of Desmond Miles’ captors from the previous title, breaks him out of confinement in Abstergo Labs, but not before saving some data from the Animus and plugging Desmond into it just long enough to re-live an ancestor’s birth (weird!). After a short sequence of escaping the lab, you’re brought to a small Assassin hideout to be trained. Lucy plans to use the Animus’ “bleeding effect” to train Desmond as an Assassin by having him relive the training of ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze in Renaissance Italy. The base is fully equipped with an “upgraded” Animus, thus explaining the improvements to the menus and HUD’s between the two games.
The plot structure for Ezio’s life is very different from that of Altair. At first, Ezio doesn’t even know he’s an Assassin; once this knowledge is provided, it’s time to learn the ropes whilst on a quest for revenge. You therefore learn as you go, and the story missions are usually provided one after another instead of thrown around the map to do as you please (although that does still happen occasionally). Gameplay controls are strongly based upon those of AC1, with only a few changes. There is no longer a “blend” button, as blending has changed into something you do automatically by walking into a group of people. Instead, low-profile “feet” button pressing initiates “fast walk.” This move seems utterly useless at first, but is used to pick pockets for loose change once you earn the ability. There’s also a new quick-swap weapon wheel that’s accessed using R2 in order to accommodate the expanded arsenal.
A major new feature in ACII is money, in the form of Florins. You earn some simply for completing missions, and can get more by pickpocketing, looting enemy corpses, or searching for treasure. There are various shops strewn through the city streets in which to spend all this cashola, including Blacksmiths for new weapons and armor, Tailors for pouches and purely cosmetic clothing dye, Art Merchants for paintings and treasure maps, and Doctors for healing and pharmaceuticals. Ezio doesn’t simply refill health automatically as Altair did, so it’s well advised to keep a good stock of medicine on hand. Once you get far enough in the game, you also unlock an investment minigame. You pour money into upgrading your uncle’s villa, and in return you earn money back that must be collected from a chest in the villa. If you keep at this diligently, you’ll wind up with hundreds of thousands of Florins with nothing much to buy by the end of the game (at least if you go for 100% completion), but it’s still a nice gameplay addition nonetheless.
Collectibles abound once more, but are now significantly easier to gather overall. There are 100 eagle feathers scattered about the cities, which are usually found on roofs. You can keep track of how many you have in which area in the menus, which is a huge help. Subject 16 has left 20 special glyphs painted on significant buildings through Italy for you to scan with Eagle Vision. The game points out via database entries which buildings have one, so they’re easy to collect. There are also 330 treasure chests hidden all over the place, but those maps you buy from the Art Merchants makes collecting them all a snap! Why these artists are privy to this information and would sell it so cheaply is unknown, but you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth when the alternative is scouring the web for maps. As with the eagle feathers, chests are recorded in the menu.
The oddest thing about the game design is that the story follows Sequences 1-11 and then abruptly skips to 14. The original excuse for this was that Sequences 12 and 13 were somehow “damaged” and could not be accessed. Of course, this was really just a cynical way to cash in on some DLC, as those two Sequences are indeed available for download for a nominal fee. I’m not saying they’re BAD, mind…they are in fact quite good. It’s just that the way they’re presented is awkward and may anger those who are generally against the concept of cutting part of the game to sell as DLC. If you want to experience the full game, I recommend the Deluxe edition available on PSN; you get the game and ALL DLC included for the same price as a new retail copy.
The visuals are a definite upgrade from AC1, partly because Renaissance Italy is naturally more visually appealing than Medieval Israel. The world is much more colorful, and the streets of the city feel at least slightly less repetitive than before. The music is an improvement as well, doubtlessly also because of the move to Renaissance style. The voice acting sounds nice and clear this time around, and there are also now subtitles available should you desire them.
Assassin’s Creed II is rated M by the ESRB for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, and Strong Language. As usual for the series, the blood can be turned off in the options menu. The intense violence includes brutal kills such as stabbing people in the face. The sexual content revolves around courtesans, which were quite commonplace for the setting of the game. Sex is referred to, but never shown. The strong language includes words up to and including the classic F-bomb; in a change of pace, many of the worst words tend be spoken in Italian and translated in the subtitles only. The Templars are not as clearly linked with the Christian church as they had been in AC1, though some of them are clergymen. It becomes clear as you play that the Assassin’s Creed fiction revolves around completely fantastical explanations for creation that cut God out of the picture altogether. It makes for a fascinating story, provided of course you remember that even though the game’s fiction is interwoven with historical truth, it is, in fact, still FICTION.
Assassin’s Creed II is an astounding improvement over its predecessor. With nicer graphics, better programming, and a multitude of gameplay improvements and additions, it’s a game I can easily recommend. There remain some repetitive and sometimes aggravating side-missions that dampen the experience to a small degree, but Assassin’s Creed II is nevertheless an experience well worth undertaking.