Monday, October 03, 2022

First Play Review: Assassins Creed 2 [2010]

Note: The version reviewed is Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition

Assassins Creed II is a direct sequel to the original Assassins Creed. The modern day story of The Animus continues as does the struggle between the Templars and the Assassins. The Templars continue to seek "The Apple of Eden", a McGuffin which they intend to use to enslave the world, and the noble Assassins seek to protect it. The genetic memories being followed to lead the Assassins to victory however are now of new protagonist and his adventures in Renaissance Italy. Many of the elements return such as the hidden blade, rooftop parkour and blending into your surroundings to escape your foes.

It has been three years since my first step into the world of Assassin's Creed by enjoying the original game in one of Ubisoft's most famous franchises and I was itching to return to see for myself why the series had spawned almost a dozen sequels in just 15 years. During the summer Ubisoft announced that they would limit the functionality of some of their older games, including the retirement of multiplayer and servers used to deliver DLC on September 1st 2022. One such game would be Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the third game in the franchise which I had not yet played. However, more pressing was that I hadn't yet played Assassins Creed II which preceded it. It was early July and the race was on.

Assassins Creed II picks up for Desmond Miles in the 'present day' pretty much when we left him at the end of Assassin's Creed. However after exhausting the immediate relevance of Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad's memories you now delve into the past of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a descendant of Altaïr some 300 years later and whom the modern-day Assassins believe will reveal the location of "The Apple" in 15th century Florence. Ezio is a completely different character to Altaïr which is a godsend as the latter was an uncharismatic and deathly serious compared to Ezio who quickly establishes himself as a lovable, womanizing rogue, yet fiercely loyal to his family. We learn more about him in the first 30 minutes than we are ever likely to know about Altaïr and it's easy to see why our new protagonist is considered the favourite of the series.

There are many additions and changes in Assassins Creed II. Ezio can heal his wounds, disarm foes in combat and is subject to a notoriety system which will have guards more alert to his antics. The main story is far more gripping than the original. It's structured differently and the gameplay missions are more varied now with multiple objectives that advance the plot as opposed to simply stalking and killing a target. Interestingly it also intersects with some more famous individuals one may remember from history class such as Pope Alexander IV, Lorenzo de Medici and your new best friend Leonardo da Vinci who creates some new equipment for you such as dual hidden-blades! In addition to the main story quests there are plenty of extras which range from mundane feather collecting to exciting assassination contracts. There are also Prince of Persia-esque puzzle-dungeons in which your accuracy and speed with acrobatics are considerably tested, rewarding you with the means to unlock powerful equipment.

One of the more interesting additions to the game is the inclusion of a central hub that's more than just the Assassins' safehouses of the original game. Ezio gets a home base in the form of the dilapidated walled town of Monteriggioni where you use your money to renovate, restore and earn income through tax. You will likely make far more than you can physically spend in the game, finishing with about a quarter of a million florins, enough to buy the papacy if you were allowed. Your home also allows you to display paintings you buy and display weapons and amour you acquire throughout your adventures all of which serve to cement your connection to the character as well as properly establish his connection to the world in a way not done in the original.

The detail level of the environment is also incredible. The Italian cities feel much more alive then those of the the holy-land and even more crowds of people are going about their business. NPCs range from courtesans which can be hired for distraction, street vendors telling you they have the best prices in all of Italy, to men carrying objects who curse you for causing them to drop them. And of course how could I forget to mention the deliberately annoying mandolin players blocking your path as they play misic for you in the hope of you sparing them some coin. Running through the streets can be difficult in crowds so free-running across rooftops can be a better way of traversing the world once you avoid guards positioned on the roofs who scold you before attempting to force you down. 

Sound design was standard Ubisoft fare, plenty of people cursing you and screaming in English but in vaguely comical Italian accents. Jesper Kyd returned to provide a competent and unobtrusive score as did Nolan North (Uncharted) and Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) reprising voices for Desmond and Lucy respectively. They are joined by Roger Craig Smith (Resident Evil) as Ezio.

What really impressed me about this game, more so than all other elements was the sheer accuracy of the setting. I've never been to Florence, Venice or the other Italian locales depicted in the game but I do know something about architecture and to see the level of detail and accuracy of the famous buildings that still stand today is remarkable. After playing for a few hours I found myself watching travel videos on YouTube which go into the architecture and history of the buildings in which I had just spent hours scaling to find secrets and sneaking around silently killing guards. The thought occurred to me of course that it may in fact be easier for developers to input architectural studies of these famous buildings into to a 3D modelling application for the game engine than it would be to create an entirely fictional environment. Scaling the famous Giotto's Campanile and Brunelleschi's Dome on the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower is an extraordinary experience probably more than flying over somewhere familiar in a flight simulator and enhances the unique connection one has with the game world.

Final Verdict: Ezio is a likeable protagonist who is enjoyable to control. His arc spans three games, the first two - this and Brotherhood - vie for first and second favourites of the pre-RPG genre that the franchise adopted with Assassin's Creed: Origins. It's easy to see why as Assassin's Creed II is as superior a sequel to a game as Half-Life 2 or Mass Effect 2 are. It took all the mechanics of the original, and refined them, making the ones that worked better and took what didn't work and changed it to make them work.

DLC: Originally Assassins Creed II featured two DLC packs The Battle of Forlì and Bonfire of the Vanities with several hours of additional story content. They were sequences cut from the base game on release due to time constraints. Purchases of Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition include these packs reintegrated seamlessly and unskippable as part of the main game.

Technicals: 37 hours playtime through Ubisoft Connect using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 @ 175Hz on Windows 11. Cutscenes force 16:9 ratio, returning to 21:9 for gameplay. Win 11 HDR provides no notable enhancement. Only bug was about two unexpected program quits over the course of 37 hours.

The Assassins Creed II base game is available from the Ubisoft Store or Steam for €9.99.with significant sales occasionally. The Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition was not available for sale at time of publication. Reviewed copy purchased from Fanatical in 2019 for €3.39.

Series Timeline [PC]:
Assassin's Creed [2007]
Assassin's Creed II [2010]
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood [2011]
Assassin's Creed: Revelations [2011]
Assassin's Creed III [2012]
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag [2013]
- Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry [2014]
- Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD [2014]
Assassin's Creed Unity [2014]
Assassin's Creed Rogue [2015]
Assassin's Creed Syndicate [2015]
Assassin's Creed Origins [2017]
Assassin's Creed Odyssey [2018]
- Assassin's Creed III Remastered [2019]
Assassin's Creed Valhalla [2020]
Assassin's Creed Mirage [2023]

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