Review: Assassin’s Creed II (*** stars)

TL;DR – Assassin’s Creed II is a victim of the first game’s unexpected success: it places the philosophy onto the sidelines, replacing it with Ezio’s humanist story of revenge. Although it retains the repetitive game pacing and inaccurate controls of the first, these are improved substantially through tone and setting. The setting, however, takes the cake and makes Assassin’s Creed II more a “historical tourism simulator” than a game.

Assassin’s Creed II feels like a great game. That might feel weird coming from me, a man always focused on the objective and truthful, right? I can’t help but hide my joy during Assassin’s Creed II – it’s honestly a great experience, and exploring Renaissance Italy was a joy in itself.

A few key improvements contribute to this. First, Ezio is MUCH faster than Altair ever was, making most platform jumping fast, fun, and smooth, a joy in itself. People who complain about ACII’s controls only have themselves to blame – there’s always a distinct route across rooftops and/or water, unlike the first game, and it’s very possible to run without any major gaps in building or loss of speed. It requires a keen eye to see where the developers placed the stepping stones, and it requires the player to face the camera correctly to move efficiently. It’s almost like a game in itself, especially when you’re on the run from guards or retreating from an assassination attempt. As in the first game, much of its fun comes from this particular mechanic.

Furthermore, the art design and beauty of Italy has been carefully rendered to an almost impeccable level of detail. As a lover of history, it’s rare to see this attention to detail and these many landmarks I can recognize, but Ubisoft did a fantastic job making Venice, Florence, Forli, Tuscany, and Montereggioni into place both interesting, alive, exciting and (most importantly) playable. Saint Mark’s Basilica and its surrounding area were especially breathtaking; having gone to Walt Disney World more than I ever should, that entire particular pavilion has been recreated into a video game. That you get to explore in and around here, climbing and looking as you please only adds to how realistic it is. It reinvigorated my interest in this revelatory, yet tumultuous period in human civilization; that’s something remarkable.

It’s dissapointing, then, to say that with all the fun I had, it’s not quite an exemplary game by any stretch. Rather than fixing what needed fixing, Ubisoft Montreal went to the traditional sequel model of “bigger is better”, leaving other aspects changed completely while others remain anemic and underdeveloped. Combat, for example, has been sped up exponentially much like the free-running. However, it amounts to the same “wait and counter” style as the game progresses, forcing a frustrating waiting game to counter correctly. Yes, it looks much cooler and flows much better, but it boils down to the exact same system mechanics. Having two-handed weapon added to the mix doesn’t save the combat. Nor does having different enemy types, as all can be conquered with the counterattack (or counter throw). Simply put: combat is boring.

It actually becomes substantially worse than the first due to the new city-building mini-game. Basically, at some point in the game,  you’ll have an entire villa/city-state to yourself. By developing parts of the city and donating funds to, say, rebuild a church, a brothel, or a blacksmith, you can increase your income  and total income that you can hold in reserve. It accrues as you go out on missions every twenty minutes, and you must return to the villa in order to get your money, as the bank can only hold a limited amount. This gives you breaks from the action and forces a particular  pacing on the game (for those who take the time to invest, of course).

However, getting so many florins (Italian currency, of course) literally breaks the game. Think about it like this: upgrading the Blacksmith gives you improved weapons, and upgrading the Doctor gives you additional medicine, and the Tailor gives you bigger medicine pouches. With full upgrades, you’ll have 20 medicine slots, each of which refills almost 3/4s of your life. Even if you’re horrible at the game, this ensures it’ll never punish you too harshly if you spend enough time doing missions, investing, and doing as many side-quests as possible. You can buy everything but the best set of armor in the game, which must be obtained through jumping puzzles that allow you to try and try again if you fall. Sidequests fall into this same vein; you can fail, but trying again is easy. So why have a health bar if I’m never going to die, ever? It’s an uneccessary contrivance, almost. The only time I ever died was through an over-estimated jump, and even then it was hard to tell the difference between a “death fall” and something just close enough to keep me alive.

Mission variety, though improved from the first, still falls into the same old patterns. Usually, you’ve got the standard “assassinate person X” mission, but we also have “beat up cheating husband” or “race around a city through imaginary gates”. These inject variety into the proceedings, especially during Assassinations, by putting each target in a new situation, context, or location. Some stand on top of towers surrounded by archers, forcing a careful ascent; others are in monasteries, meaning weapons (and jumping around the place like a maniac) will make detection very easy. These make them a pleasure to play because they force a little thought – how do I approach this? What weapons and tools will I need? Many assassination missions have multiple solutions which only adds to the fun. The other missions…not so much. They’re derivative and boring, unfortunately. They feel like work more than fun, and you’ll probably do them anyway The racing one, in particular, are affected by the occasional inaccuracy of controls – something still not entirely fixed from the previous game.

The new “notoriety” system aids the tension of some assassinations. Basically, every action seen by the public, like throwing dead bodies onto streets and killing guards in plain sight, adds to a notoriety meter. Do too many actions of that style, and you become Notorious – guards will be on high alert and look for you. You can only reduce this by ripping wanted posters off walls, bribing town criers, or killing town officials (which, for some reason, doesn’t increase your notoriety even if done in broad daylight). This seems cool at first – wow, guards will actually be looking for me? – but it never really amounts to a problem outside of the missions where it’s actually activated regardless of your previous actions. If you bother to do any notoriety-reducing actions, then you’ll be fine; apparently, murdering a dozen guards in the street doesn’t make you a convict in Florence.

Those game-like elements really ruin the immersion like the first game. Guard AI, though improved substantially, still show signs of inconsistency. Most rooftop activity makes you suspicious, which is now displayed on the guard by a meter filing yellow (suspicious) then red (you might be a bad person!). It’s nice to have feedback on my activities, but simply moving behind a chimney after a guard sees you will often make him look away instantly – then you stab him. Seriously? He doesn’t act like a real guard, obviously. Sometimes, targets whom you are supposed to tail around the city will never see you; replaying the same mission, they’ll detect you from miles away and you’ll fail for no particular reason other than faulty, inconsistent programming. These are frustrating moments that haven’t improved substantially from the first game.

The story, for all its additions to this setting, doesn’t really do much with the first game. The philosophy of “bigger is better” limits the game’s scope to humanist tales of revenge and retribution with a few scenes of “Assassins = good, Templars = bad”. It’s fairly dissapointing to see them waste such good material with this reductionist model – but that makes it an easier experience to digest, certainly. If the first game was an undergraduate philosophy essay, then ACII is like a popular novel that says “important” things about teenagers. Ezio Auditore, for all the plot’s machinations, still manages to be likable and you root for this average guy throughout, but I can’t help but think the opportunity to expand the plot (and NOT just at the end of the game) was missed.

Overall, then, ACII shows the opportunity for great potential. It’s a notable improvement over the first, and infinitely more enjoyable. But, any in-depth analysis shows the game just hasn’t improved overall. It’s mostly a huge lot of unneccesary feature creep without anything to do with all of this virtual stuff. More isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes you need to refine the concept, rather than adding extraneous feature. Heck, even God uses the same concept as in Gideon’s case. Here’s this completely unskilled young man, has the fate of Israel on his shoulders. How do they defeat the opposing army? With 300 guys and a trumpet. Seriously, Judge 7 says so:

19 So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just posted the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers that were in their hands. 20 When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing, and cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” 21 Each stood in his place around the camp; and all the army ran, crying out as they fled. 22 When they blew 300 trumpets, the Lordset the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath. 23 The men of Israel were summoned from Naphtali and Asher and all Manasseh, and they pursued Midian.

I’m sure I can list plenty of other examples in this vein, but you get the idea. Less is more, in the case of Assassin’s Creed II – yet all we get is more of the same flaws, exacerbated by additions and only saved by the few notable (and yes, big) improvements to the setting and the controls.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.