REVIEWS -- Assassin's Creed II -- PC
An astounding experience
by Lazare Gvimradze
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy/Rent
This is how you create sequels. Ubisoft Montreal did the unthinkable and improved just about every nagging issue from the original game.
Many agree that Ubisoft Montreal may not be the best game developer studio out there, but few will deny they always put selflessly determination into creating new interactive adventures. 2007’s Assassin’s Creed strongly proves that statement: the clumsy compilation of ambitious ideas bound together by a shallow, but somewhat interesting story, was basically screaming that it was an experimental concept at best.
Stunning visuals aside, Ubisoft definitely took one hell of a risk releasing the ridiculously genre-reforming parkour sandbox to the general public, who, in turn, bombarded the developers with an array of pretensions, many of which were technically well deserved. But Ubisoft was secretly grinning under the hood as their plan began to unfold magnificently: they launched a prototype and got the results; now all they had to do is refine every criticized aspect and amp up every positive one. It took them only two years to do so.
Truth be told, Assassin’s Creed II is quite probably one of the most solid representatives of a rare group of games called “good sequels.” At times of post-announce, it seemed that the developers were actually listening to what the fans said, and every single presentation or trailer further strengthened the hopes. The setting was moved from the gray middle-ages to the lush Renaissance of 15th century Italy, the walking piece of stone called “the main protagonist” was swapped by an emotional, lively new hero, and the gameplay held threats to any repetitive issues relative to its predecessor. It’s always like this with hype: it’s just too good to be true. Are we often given the chance to actually defy the rule?
To start, Ubisoft made some corrections to their understanding of “plot progression” and managed to squeeze an unbelievable amount of suspense from what many thought to be a dull and cliché-heavy script which took start in Assassin’s Creed. The story of the original, and I currently address the “modern-day” branch, is literally continued from the very second it left off. Using newfound abilities of his assassin ancestor, former bartender and a current hostage of the Abstergo Industries named Desmond Miles ponders over the mysterious symbols written over his bed. As explained in the first game, this power transfer happened due to the “bleeding effect” -- a reaction of Desmond’s body to the overexposure of the Animus, a machine that Abstergo used to recreate genetic memories of Desmond’s ancestor, an assassin named Altair. These particular moments were the general highlight of Assassin’s Creed, with the alternate story of Miles progressing by a minimum, namely, from being hostage to mysterious scientists to being hostage of the ideological successors of the Templars.
During the second game, however, Desmond starts out by commencing an epic jailbreak, teams up with a group of Templar opposers, and gains access to the Animus 2.0, which serves purposes above the recommended spoiler barrier. Generally speaking though, the revelations and plot turns occurring in the secondary setting are much more sophisticated and actually qualify as “story”: new characters are introduced, emotions are explored, and you’ll get an ending even more interesting and irritating (in the good, cliffhanging sense) than in the first part. But the most interesting events take place, of course, inside the Animus.
The purpose of the machine hasn’t generally changed -- this time around, Desmond gets to step into the shoes of a more recent ancestor compared to Altair. Our new main hero, Ezio Auditore, is a young Florentine noble enjoying a carefree life, hanging out with his friends, starting street fights and so on. It is actually unclear at first where the Assassins and the Templars fit in, but once the story picks up the pace, you’ll be sucked in head-on into a whirlwind of discoveries and intrigue.
A story of vengeance, Assassins and Templars
After having his family betrayed by an old friend and executed before his eyes, Ezio learns that his father’s profession as a Banker was a mere cover-up for his true identity as an assassin. Longing for vengeance, Ezio puts on his father’s white robes and gets ready to kick some -- well, it’s not actually shown this harshly, but the words perfectly capture the new essence of the narrative.
Which is not to follow another shallow career of a typical assassin, but to tell a personal story of a broken young man experiencing a major shift in his life. It’s a whole new perspective broadened by dozens of interesting characters, all perfectly placed and tuned for the most magnificent portrayal of the Renaissance era ever achieved. The light attitudes, heavy accents with thrown-in Italian expressions, strong friendships and emotional betrayals bare zero similarities to the original. The writing in Assassin’s Creed II actually shows that it was conducted by a group of expert historians. You’ll even befriend a young Leonardo da Vinci full of enthusiasm for building all of those flying machines. He’ll achieve certain successes, by the way.
Honestly speaking though, we would have embraced the sloppy storytelling of AC1 had it as much as showed signs of any kind of replay value. The first and foremost problem of the original was a multiplied version of the most common syndrome in open-world games: repetitiveness. When nine Assassinations separated by three or four identical side-missions represent the entire gameplay process, it seems unlikely that even in 2007 this would seem as an acceptable structure. I am happy to inform you that if you think that the difference between the two games is anything but minimal, you are horribly wrong.
The mechanics are mostly modified at a minimum -- the acclaimed “puppeteering” control scheme of the original was thrown in unchanged, and for that, a big thank you to Ubisoft. The perfectly balanced and extremely well-responsive system knows well when to hit on the automated jump directions or let you perform pin-point actions. The parkour element works even better than the original -- apart from the excellent ability to swap stances on the go from aggressive to neutral, you can activate certain passive triggers, like a tackle/sprint ability while running which balance your chances of falling from a bump or speeding up. The climbing system is identical to the original, except that you can trigger “sprint” here, too; in which case Ezio begins to climb twice as fast, provided that the route up is “straight.” Oh, and as a bonus to realism, Ezio can swim.
All in all, if you’ve ever played as Altair, Ezio will feel quite familiar to control. Even the combat remains unchanged, albeit smartly improved -- perhaps the only formidable flaw of the sequel. The enemies still wait in turns before attacking you; the developers even gave us an option to taunt them to hurry them up. You hit them, they block you, they hit you, you block them. Hit them with several consecutive blows and you’ll witness a brutal finisher. It’s as simple as it sounds -- probably looking a bit more impressive in person. The counter-attack system is also unchanged, but it won’t help you out of all situations anymore. New types of weapons can counter only their very same type, but this can also be easily fixed by switching to your fists and disarming a bored foe.
However, the most impressive, and honestly speaking, badass weapon is the one that was the weakest in AC1: the hidden switchblade. After progressing through the game, you can even get an additional blade on your right hand, and turn both of them into full-fledged offensive weapons via upgrades -- as a result they’ll effectively block, slice or counter practically any kind of weapon, and their finishers are always the most stylishly presented. The hidden blade system was improved in other aspects, as well. Doing a ninja-takedown involving a jump-and-stab technique was one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the original, but it’s dumbed down to targeting a foe and pressing one button in AC2.
All-new toys include a poison blade which can be stealth-injected in an unaware guard, who later starts swinging around his weapon wildly before finally crumpling to the ground, dead. You can also employ smoke grenades for ninja-escapes, use both hidden blades simultaneously for spectacular kills, and even scatter some coins in poor districts to create a jungle of desperate citizens, a perfect barricade for an escape. And if you want to go all high-DaVinci-tech, transform that blade into an actual gun and bring some bullets to the fight. Another flaw corrected: there are LOTS of ways to deal with your foes in Assassin’s Creed II.
Gameplay is the new Creed
But combat was never really the biggest focus of the franchise. A minor problem of Assassin’s Creed was that while it had boring fights, you could always try to turn a chase into an interesting scenario: but where’s the motivation to run when you can fight your way out of any problem? Here, the overall sophisticated nature of weapons classification and some mini-boss type enemies make for situations that are sometimes easier to outrun, and some pursuers may even happen to possess the same array of parkour moves that Ezio does.
The key to winning is the same: break the line of sight, and hide in a haystack or sit on a bench. This time around however, special “seeker” foes may try to poke around in any potential hiding spot if they happen to be in the vicinity. Additional irritations come in the form of thieves who have a habit of stealing your money (I’ll address this one later) and managing to create a problem out of catching them.
True, the dangers of an everyday assassin’s life seem to have gone up in numbers since Altair, but you won’t need to deal with them alone this time around. Several new “hiring” systems have been implemented, like decoy gangs, merc groups capable of stalling a formidable bunch of enemies, or even courtesans who’ll distract unwanted doorguards. If all else fails, you can actually blend in with ANY groups of people (Ezio automatically becomes stealthed while maintaining their pace), a pleasant successor to the obviously silly monk trick from the first game.
Speaking of hirings, theft, and money, Ubisoft successfully added additional depth by creating a working economical system. Ezio’s spacious Villa can be upgraded with numerous structures like churches or shops (unlike the static Masyaf from AC1), which will attract more citizens and grant you income in the form of florins. Florins can be spent for buying new upgrades, weapons, health (no more “automatic re-synchronization”), or even dying your clothes with a classy color. It’s fun to watch an assassin running around with a “universal color of stealth,” red with golden stripes.
Actually your garments may speak more of you than you’d think. Getting various types of capes will grant you a certain level of Notoriety in a certain city, either in a positive or a negative sense. Your Notoriety will become neutral if you wear the default cape, but may decrease if you go around assassinating people from down the street. In which case, you either need to kill or bribe propagandists cursing your cause, or simply tear down Wanted posters sticked on the weirdest of places. Ubisoft really tried to make it all complex, and while they succeeded, it actually works in favor of gameplay as well. A city where you are loathed can become a serious inconvenience if a critical mission happens to take you there. And an inconvenience is great when it works correctly in a game.
Back to the subject, florins can actually be found while searching dead bodies (which you can later pick up and dump somewhere dark), pickpocketing random bypassers or finding treasure chests, which are scattered all over the maps and are often guarded by soldiers. Bonuses have become a big part of the game altogether, since exploring the cities in AC1 was generally unrewarding. In Assassin’s Creed II we get Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Monteriggioni and even some more areas which are double the size of Acre or Jerusalem. And what’s more important, they’re riddled with all kinds of goodies. The aforementioned chests are only the beginning: you can explore and gain info on landmarks, discover hidden glyphs which trigger puzzles (not saying more), even stumble across full-sized side-missions.
Side-missions. The painful curse of Assassin’s Creed for many, the blessing of the series for those who’ve played the second game. When you first open your map in AC2, the amount of little dots representing spots of interest may amaze you, maybe all of a sudden make you feel lazy even. As declared by Ubisoft, the new game has triple the amount of side-quest variations than the first game, and they are all uniquely presented and constantly morph into one-another. Chariot races, rooftop pursuits, tomb explorations and similar intense scenarios are occasionally crowned by a sequence where you, for example, soar through Venice on Leonardo’s flying machine en-route to an assassination target. It is exactly as good as it sounds.
Truth be told, there are some flaws from the first game that are still showing through the carnival masks of AC2. But any criteria pointing at those microscopic mistakes will eventually get stuck in your throat once you realize just how MUCH Ubisoft has polished and re-created in a couple of years. Adding new layers of depth and overcoming repetitiveness in the most traditional of ways, the developers at Montreal finally made their new formula run on all fours. The risks they took with AC1 have been rewarded with a warm welcome from the press, and Assassin’s Creed II got well-deserved appraisals along with constructive reasons for it being one of the best games of 2009. Exactly where I was leading to.
It seemed that we got the Assassin’s Creed we wanted, with that perfect mix of gameplay, story and an almost absolute absence of repetitive moments. Many would have settled with the same old setting just to make sure that the above was not an evil joke, but Ubisoft pushed their envelope and wrapped AC2 in such a gorgeous presentation that you can equally praise the gameplay and then go on about all those historic accuracies and polygon counts. Seriously, whoever thought of moving the action to Italy hit the nail right on the head, as there’s possibly nothing more atmospherically engaging than the Renaissance of the 15th century in one of the most beautiful places in Europe.
Meaning, of course, that the art direction runs the show here. The midnight carnivals, Gondolas through Venice, scorching sun upon the plains of Tuscany, neighbors shouting at each other in the middle of the street, merchants luring over potential customers, it’s all soaked with the essence of the care it took to recreate all of those colors and action and organically fuse it with the gameplay process.
Going in-depth on the amount of beautiful landmarks and amazing color schemes may prove to be a bad idea, since subjects of appraisal may not run out for a few paragraphs. If there’s one thing that can be objectively STATED about AC2 is that, despite all that it offers in terms of gameplay, the aesthetic value and the sheer beauty of the recreated world may as well captivate the hearts of anyone who has any interest in art, history, or irritating street singers.
The sad part remains the presentation from its technical side, which has progressed little since the edgy model of Altair. The polygon count, texture resolutions and all of the major criteria which define “graphics” are basically on the level of the first game, but you’d want to dig a little deeper and discover some neat nuances. For example, the animations. While the organic motion captured movements were great in 2007, they somehow managed to remain just as great today, regardless of the fact that many new movements have been added. Ezio moves like a dancer through fights, and to say that he “jumps from rooftops” would be an understatement of his mastery. Even the horse animations are proudly saying that Ubisoft had the poor animal strapped in a mocap suit to record the movements.
How it fares as a PC port
There were some concerns with the porting of the game to personal computers, and it’s the one thing that I’m sad to talk about. The same black bands for 4:3 aspect monitors. The same delayed release date for additional code optimization. But the main problem of the PC version for Assassin’s Creed II, which is also the most widely known one, is its ridiculous disc protection system. Not only does the game require constant Internet connection to run (resulting in frequent crashes), but it also synchronizes saved games with Ubisoft servers, which makes up for an irritatingly long start-up time. It isn’t necessarily a bad port, but it’s intrusive enough to actually ruin the gameplay.
Purely optimization-wise things are okay however. The game runs swiftly on all low to high-end configurations, and fully supports both the mouse/keyboard and gamepad layouts. There was some concern with the absence of a Direct X 10 version, but the visuals were already very breathtaking, and asking for more would simply be wrong.
But while the graphics and the horrible port may pull the game down for just a bit, the music is what keeps the immersion on at all times. Jesper Kyd has seriously improved since the first game, creating an unnaturally beautiful score incorporating tarantellas, soft guitar tunes and atmospheric orchestral pieces. Add that to the outstanding cast of actors playing their roles perfectly, with all the right expressions and intonations, and you get one generally outstanding audio component that few games have the luxury of boasting about.
In the end, however we want to put it, Ubisoft Montreal did a hell of a job on Assassin’s Creed II. So much fan feedback and such labor over mistakes were definitely last seen a very long time ago. Whatever Ubisoft has planned for the future of the franchise. If it continues to improve with the same intensity, it’ll definitely be worth all the wait. ACII is a living example of how a flawed, but potent formula can be fine-tuned and re-released with the utmost of success.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: March 9, 2010
Review Date: 29-03-2010
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: No
Few technical improvements become unimportant in the face of a magnificent art direction capturing the very essence of Renaissance Italy, recreating breathtaking views with striking clarity.
A major work on mistakes, practically every minor mechanic was modified and improved in ACII, resulting in a much richer experience completely overshadowing the original.
A soul-deep recreation of the 15th century Italy comes with all the right bonuses: a gripping, twisting story, emotionally engaging characters, and an actually interesting interpretation of the Assassin/Templar theme.
If you close your eyes while playing ACII, your experience won’t suffer one bit. The brilliant music and outstanding acting create a living, breathing world, where mere dialogs can give you a complete vision of Florence existing 5 centuries ago.
Assassin’s Creed II has the definite potential of pleasing anyone who criticized AC1 for just about anything: repetitiveness, blank story, plot progression. Ubisoft just showed us how sequels are meant to be made.