The first Assassins Creed seems like a world away at this point. It was an ambitious open world game all about free-running and stabbing people in the neck. While it was quite harshly criticised for the repetitive nature of the optional side missions, it fared better commercially, and now the promised part two of the trilogy-in-progress is upon us. So Desmond’s strapping himself back into an animus chair and this time he’s channelling his Italian ancestor Ezio for an adventure that can only be described as “viale apprezzamento galassia molto indosso biancheria intima da donna” (which I have it on good authority means “really quite good”, cheers, Brian).
From the outset, AC2 doesn’t assume much prior knowledge. A short clip encapsulating the events of the first game will bring the uninitiated up to speed and provide a quick review for the rest. For some of us, it’ll serve as a reminder of just how long it’s been since the first game, and how little we cared/remembered about the Abstergo corporation (the modern day Templars) and their little science project, Desmond. It doesn’t beat around the bush too much however, and while it does, it’s not a burden to learn more about Desmond and his new posse, and on top of that, it’s largely optional. One of Desmonds new colleagues in particular is an unmitigated jerk, but I kept pestering him because I wanted to know what his part in all this was.
In the grand scheme it’s all window dressing though, a little contextual glue to hold the (eventually) three games together. It’s quirkily poignant that the virtual world of the animus is considerably deeper, unconstrained, better designed and more fun place to inhabit than Desmonds “real” world. The first time Desmond gets into the mind of Ezio, you’re quickly run through a brief tutorial, in which you are literally babied. The game breaks the face buttons down to one for each hand, weapon and non-weapon, and one for feet/legs, and finally one for the head. In a way it makes sense, but at the same time it could have been broken down into action sub-types and made the same amount of sense. It does seem odd though, that pick-pocketing people is mapped to the supposedly “leg” button. It’s worsened by the fact that it recognises the action as the button is held down, which is what you’re doing when you’re walking fast. So fast walk + bumping into someone = theft. It’s an absolutely minor issue, since there’s never a point where you need to be fast walking and not stealing, and you could easily complete the game having never done a fast walk and only stolen someones change when you had to for tutorial purposes.
Visually, AC2 looks pretty amazing. It’s at its best when surveying one of the many magnificent vistas that flaunt a long draw distance, or the combat sequences which feature some slick hand to hand combat. Less impressive is the dialogue-heavy cut-scenes. It could be any number of reasons that I’m being put off, but the talking mouths look a little awkward at times, just failing to reach the plateau on the other side of the uncanny valley. Again, it’s a trifling matter that doesn’t impact much on the larger experience.
The most significant criticism I have of AC2 is largely an extremely subjective one, and is somewhat entwined with one of the biggest praises of the game. Ezio, at his full power, has a good many gadgets and actions at his disposal. While they’re all pretty good, I never felt distinctly compelled to use many of them. Smoke bombs, poison blade, money throwing, all these I never really appreciated it until too late, once the game was over I took to climbing buildings and tossing florins from up high as if they were candy and watched the ensuing chaos. The crux of this is that AC2 is perhaps aligned a little with the mainstream accessibility ideal, in that it has these neat additions and they’re effective if you want to use them, but they’re not all that necessary, if you want to ignore them. The unfortunate side effect is that you can actually accidentally ignore them, as I did. For shame!
The world is probably the most significantly improved aspect AC2. Where the cities of AC1 had arguably infuriatingly many contrived repetitions of the same task, AC2 actually sets up each side-mission up as a distinct event. Arguably they’re still many repeats of the finite number of side quests, but the injection of variation in each one goes a long way to make them far more bearable. Also, gone are the scholar monks, replaced by whores. Okay, you caught me, I just said that to be shocking. Really they’re replaced by whores, mercenaries, thieves, and average joes. Whereas before you had to find an unruffled group of monks to chill with in AC1, in AC2 you can hire groups to hang around in you (as I said in the last podcast, nothing says inconspicuous like rolling 4 deep with prostitutes), or you can blend in with a group of wandering civilians for free, so long as you’re happy going with the flow of the foot traffic.
The economy of AC2 seems a little immature unfortunately. You can spend it to upgrade your stronghold, which will in turn earn more money… and at some point I stopped caring; it was obviously beneficial enough to upgrade the income of the stronghold to the point where money quickly became a fleeting concern. It seems a shame that somewhere along the line the only thing left to do with the earned money was to throw it away (health potions notwithstanding), but thankfully it never hampers the experience in any way, either
Assassins Creed II has the curious distinction of being the first videogame I’ve ever played to have the word “vagina” voice acted. It actually has a bunch of other firsts, but my puerile nature causes that to be forefront in my mind. Assassins Creed managed to carve out a niche for itself but the execution didn’t quite live up to the potential the idea had. The sequel, however, makes good on the promises of the first, and secures itself as one of the elite high points that define a generation of games consoles.