Assassin's Creed was a game that made you crave a sequel. Not just because it was fun but because it had a lot of untapped potential. Ubisoft had created a good skeleton for a game but there wasn't enough meat on those bones. It's clear in Assassin's Creed II that Ubisoft understood what didn't work in its predecessor and this new sequel is an improvement across the board.
Once again players step into the shoes of an Assassin, a member of a secret order who attempts to manipulate history behind the scenes for the better. They're in direct opposition with the Knights Templar, an organization trying to control mankind. Instead of going back to the 11th century Holy Land, the setting of AC1, AC2 brings us to Italy during the Renaissance. The cynic would just assume that the sequel is simply a rehash of the first with new visuals. They would be wrong, though.
The differences between the two games start with their protagonists. Whereas AC1's Altair was an veteran Assassin by the time the game begins, AC2 hero Ezio starts out as a hell-raising young noble without a care in the world. The opening tutorial missions follow him as he sneaks into his girlfriend's window and performs errands for his family. By the time he dons the Assassin's hood (maybe about an hour into the game), we already know him better than we ever knew Altair. Altair just methodically carried out the will of the Assassins throughout AC1 but Ezio's journey in AC2 is a personal quest. The emotional core at the heart of the story pulls you in even if the wider narrative about the Knights Templar, the Assassins, and Pieces of Eden doesn't grab you.
Though his background and personality are very different from Altair's, Ezio has the same core skillset. He navigates the city mainly by climbing up buildings and jumping from roof to roof. Alternately, he can stay on the streets and try to avoid guards by blending in with the crowds. If he catches a target unaware, he can quickly dispatch them with his wrist-mounted blade. If his cover's blown, he's armed with a sword, dagger, and throwing knives.
Each facet of Ezio's "game" is slightly better than Altair's, though. Unlike Altair, he can blend in with any crowds, not just packs of priests. Once he begins walking alongside a group of people, he'll turn a shade of grey to indicate he's hidden among the throng. The risk with hiding in these crowds is that they might not go where you want them to, though. In those situations, you can hire prostitutes who will walk alongside you and even approach and distract guards at your say so. Another option is to simply throw money on the ground, which will cause guards and villagers alike to run and pick it up.
Ezio navigates the city with the same ease as Altair, climbing up buildings with flicks of the analog stick. In time he learns a few new tricks though, such as a double jump-like manuever that allows him to scale previously untraversible walls. He can also swim and row gondolas, two skills that come in handy when the story takes you to the canals of Venice. Diving into the water is a great way to avoid pursuing guards, too. If memory serves, Altair died if he fell in the water. Pussy.
In battle, you'll be often fight large groups of enemies at once and the "counter" button is key to success. You press it as soon as an enemy is about to attack and Ezio will perform a reversal, either a simple knee to the groin or a deadly killing blow. This was pretty much all you needed to do to succeed in AC1 but the sequel's combat is complicated by the fact that some guards wield polearms or wear heavy armor. Both sets of these enemies can easily block your attacks and just overpower any defensive move you make. To take out the guys with polearms, you'll generally need to rely on your new disarm ability, which allows Ezio to take away his opponent's weapon and wield it for the remainder of the fight. These spears are, in turn, great for finishing off the heavily armored opponents. Another option for taking out the heavies is to dodge their blows and get behind them for a backstab. These small wrinkles in the combat system ensure that fights will no longer simply be a matter of spamming counterattacks over and over.
Every Assassin's Creed II advertisement produced shows Ezio's dual wrist blades (Altair only had one) but they're not really a big deal. Jumping off a roof onto two guards and stabbing both in the neck as you land looks swell for trailers but this really isn't something you'll need to do much. More important is the fact that the wrist blades now have padding so you can use them in melee combat. They're not especially good for a stand-up fight but it's a less awkward alternative than swapping weapons in mid-fight. You'll also get a poison injector for these blades (which causes enemies to go berserk and attack others before dying), and a tiny wrist-mounted firearm to give you something more precise and powerful than throwing knives.
You start out with a sword and dagger but can replace them with better, different weapons purchased at blacksmiths. Most of the upgrades are simply different swords and knives but there are a couple exceptions. You can actually carry around a mace or hammer if you so choose. Bludgeoning weapons don't change your capabilities at all but they do have new kill animations so they at least inject a little variety into battle.
Most criticism of AC1 wasn't directed toward the basic mechanics but rather the campaign itself. Each story mission followed a very rigid structure. Altair would be told to assassinate X person in Y city, so he'd ride out there on horseback and begin to gather intelligence on his target. You were required to perform a set number of these intelligence-gathering missions before being able to then begin the assassination mission. The intelligence-gathering missions, unfortunately, all followed very basic formulas - pickpocketing a messenger, interrogating a target's associate, and so forth - so they quickly began to feel like chores.
AC2 doesn't feel nearly as copied-and-pasted. While you'll still do prep work for your hit jobs, these tasks don't come off as randomly generated. They fit with the game's narrative and you'll actually understand how they help with your assassination missions. At one point in the game, you'll steal crates of uniforms so the group helping you kill a local noble will be able to pose as his guards. While many of these tasks could be reduced to simple categories (kill those people, escort this woman, follow those guys, etc.), there's far more mission types than in the first game. Furthermore, some missions combine several different tasks. For example, Ezio might tail a couple guys to eavesdrop on them but unwittingly walk into an ambush. Ubisoft also crammed in some unique, cinematic moments into the campaign as well, such as driving a horse-drawn carriage along a country road while trying to shake off enemies hanging onto the sides.
The campaign is centered around assassinations but strangely enough, I found them to often be the low points. I don't mean the wider mission so much as the actual assassination. The process of approaching your target in his villa (or whatever) - climbing up the walls, stealth-killing guards, and so forth - is fun. Once your target is in sight, though, all that's demanded of you is to just run up and slash him with your sword, though. You're mainly just killing defenseless, old and/or obese men so it's not like they're putting up a fight, either. After all the build-up from previous missions and all the prep work, simply stabbing a guy is a letdown. There just needs to be more to the deed. Some sort of context-specific, ultra-stealthy way to kill them might work, sort of like how Hitman would let you poison a target's food or unplug their life support. Players could at least be rewarded for more stealthy assassinations; right now, the only incentive toward a quiet kill is that you'll avoid more guards but running away from them isn't that tough.
In the past, I've stated that "Assassin's Creed could've been a completely linear game, with players being automatically transported from briefing to mission and it honestly wouldn't have lost anything." With the sequel, Ubisoft has taken pains to make the world worth exploring. The best pieces of optional content are the Assassins' tombs, hidden throughout the land. These indoors segments have some light combat but they mainly test your platforming abilities. It feels a lot like you're playing Prince of Persia, actually. It's a distinct change of pace from the rest of the game and completing all six tombs will allow you to acquire Altair's armor for use in your adventures.
There are a lot of side missions in the cities (assassination, rooftop races, defending a woman's honor, to name a few) and while they don't count toward the campaign like AC1's intelligence-gathering, they do give you money. Shop owners throughout the cities sell weapons, armor, clothing dyes, medicine (for health regen), and other items that help you in your quest. You can also spend your money on developing your family's villa and the surrounding town. Overseeing the town earns you a steady income, which increases when you spend money to upgrade the stores and other amenities. The stores within the town will receive new items when they're renovated and offer you progressively larger discounts. Your rebuilding efforts will also unlock some previously inaccessible areas as well, like a sewer with hidden treasure. There's also some raw satisfaction in seeing this town and villa get cleaned up.
For completionists, there are also two sets of "find all of the hidden items"-style quests in the game. While they don't give you money, they do flesh out the game's storyline. You may not deem this or the other additional content worth your time but the point is, there's incentive to perform them besides just Achievements/Trophies. The Villa will earn you a tidy income even with minimal renovations, so you really don't need to do side missions in the cities if you don't want to. Ubisoft realizes some of you might care only about the campaign so you're never forced to do any of the side tasks. It's your loss, though, as the open-world really the biggest area of improvement of the game. Jumping from story mission to story mission is quite simple even though they take place all over Italy. Each town has a number of Quick Travel stations to instantly teleport you across the country. It's a welcome change even if you do like exploring.
Assassin's Creed 2 does everything you want a sequel to do: it maintains the core experience of the predecessor but offers something bigger, better, and more fun. It seems much closer to what Ubisoft (and gamers) envisioned when the first Assassin's Creed was announced years ago. There's still room for improvement but the series took a large step in the right direction with this game.
Players: 1 Player
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal