Anyone who has been following the release and reviews of Assassin's Creed II will note that this review is slightly behind those on other sites. The reason for that is distressingly simple – once the game was inserted into the PlayStation 3, this reviewer found it absolutely impossible to tear himself away long enough to put fingers to keyboard. Assassin's Creed II is not a perfect game – and we'll certainly discuss some of its faults here – but it is absolutely bloody brilliant, a must-have for anyone who likes history-based games, platformers, sandbox games, action adventures, and people who just want to have a whole lot of fun while videogaming.
Though this game is a sequel, it is unnecessary to play the original Assassin's Creed in order to be up to speed with the new one. The majority of game takes place during the Italian Renaissance, though that all occurs via the "genetic memory" the main character, Desmond Miles, unlocks while sitting in something called the Animus 2.0. (the original Animus being used in the original). And that little bit of insanity is just about the worst part of the game. Very happily, the game doesn't spend a lot of time in the near-future (when Desmond lives). While the not-travelling-back-in-time-but-playing-in-the-past is, perhaps a necessary evil, in order for some of the high-tech things that occur to take place without destroying the illusion of the game, it is one of those weird, over-the-top moments that instantly turns off all non-gamers. Seriously, try to explain the Animus and that storyline to anyone who doesn't play games, you'll lose them immediately, but if you solely focus on the Italian Renaissance stuff they'll be enthralled.
In ACII, while Desmond Miles may be the main character, that's only because it's his genetic memory – the memory of his ancestors which lie in his DNA – that is being accessed. The player actually spend much of their time as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a poor lad coming of age during the Italian Renaissance who witnesses the brutal murder of much of his family at the start of the game. Ezio's mission is to uncover the plot that led to his family's demise, part of which has to be accomplished by finding Codex pages strewn over the country. Desmond's mission as Ezio is to uncover the evil secrets of the Knights Templar and locate the various "Pieces of Eden" which the Knights desperately want their hands own for their own nefarious purposes.
While that is the linear plot, the gameplay itself is much more open. Certain areas only become unlocked through playing the linear plot, but there are almost always other side quests. In fact, one of the greatest joys in the game is picking up various short assignments around one of the numerous locations in Italy Ezio visits (Tuscany, Rome, Venice, and Florence among them). Side quests include delivering letters, carrying out assassinations, and beating up people who completely deserve it (adulterers, bullies, those sorts of characters). One can even just travel around the city stealing from anyone – thieves make particularly good targets – or killing guards (because the establishment is evil).
Doing these sorts of things however will, unless their done very stealthily, raise Ezio's notoriety. Once Ezio has done enough to raise his profile in less than stellar ways he becomes "notorious," and he'll no longer be able to follow that bit of the assassin's creed that deals with stealth, the guards will spot him instantly and attack. This can be fixed with a few well placed bribes, the elimination of wanted posters, or the killing of certain characters, but can cause momentary headaches.
Cash in the game isn't only earned by thievery and the accomplishment of various tasks, Ezio is placed in charge of his uncle's villa and the surrounding city, and can earn money by purchasing various improvements for the area and finding different items across Italy. Investing in various shops – tailor, doctor, blacksmith, etc. – not only earns Ezio cash, but discounts as well, and there is much to purchase in the way of armor, weaponry, and ancillary items.
Ezio moves around in kind of a Parkour Prince of Persia style – jumping from one ledge to the next, climbing walls, and swinging on anything that will allow it. The fact that the game looks outstanding makes Ezio's rooftop running and jumping and swan dives into stacks of straw a beautiful thing to watch. The camera is at times problematic, but can generally be made to do what one wants by adjusting it with the right analog stick.
Though the look of the cities are the highlight, the rest of the game's graphics are outstanding as well. Characters and clothing are beautifully detailed and differentiated. The areas outside the cities are, perhaps, a bit sparse, but still look good. It is a bit odd that Ezio is allowed to run through small shrubs without seeming to actually touch them outside the cities, but perhaps that's because Ezio's memories have been corrupted within Desmond. The sound, too, is good, with appropriate sound effects for running, jumping, and fighting. And, if Ezio turns around as someone is speaking to him, the voice will move from speaker to speaker in fluid fashion.
The AI present in the game is good, but not outstanding. It is relatively easy to take on a large group of enemies at a single time – most of them will stand around and watch as only two or three actively attack Ezio. Different enemies are better and worse at pursuing and following Ezio across rooftops and spotting him in his hiding places. While the best of the enemies are quite intelligent and function realistically, the lowest level of pursuer are, perhaps, slightly less mentally swift than seems plausible.
Despite the fact that Ezio and his actions may be fictional, the game is built around actual historical facts and figures – Leonardo da Vinci appears as does the Medici family and others. Additionally, beyond real names of cities being used, some Italian landmarks are included as well. This historical backbone to the story – and not Desmond's reality – are what help drawer one into the game and make it sure an incredibly worthwhile experience.
With the promise of a minimum of two different DLC packs coming in the new year, hours upon hours of open-world fun in the main game, beautiful graphics, and a mostly compelling story, Assassin's Creed II represents the best videogaming has to offer.
Assassin's Creed II is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360 and PC.