Developer/Publisher: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
Release Date: November 17, 2009
ESRB Rating: M for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language
Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360
[b]Genre: Third-Person Action
Number of Players[/b]: 1
Strong Points: Extremely well-detailed environments; character models are gorgeous and well animated, with the exclusion of a few minor gripes; compelling story and protagonist; game seems to move far faster than before, and with less aggravation; combat has been streamlined for easier accessibility; segments outside of the Animus are few and far between, as well as much improved from the slow-moving segments of the previous game
Weak Points: With the streamlining, some of the more innovative storytelling elements of the previous game have been scrapped; the game is still occasionally glitchy, which results in some aggravation but nothing game-breaking
Moral Warnings: Assassinations are the name of the game here (quite literally), with various members of a historically secretive Catholic sect providing the basis for the enemy; blood sprays and coats clothing for short periods of time; the player can kill anyone - civilian and enemy alike – but civilian deaths are highly discouraged by the game and the story itself; sexuality runs throughout the story, with mentions of sodomy and rape in the presented backstories of real-life figures, as well as one minor scene of sensuality that would not be out of place in a PG-13 rated film; bad language is used often, and utilizes profanities seen in R-rated films
I didn’t much like Assassin’s Creed. The game did a lot of things right: it had a great setting, a compelling set-up and some pretty cool game play, seemingly backed up by an impressive design that we could expect from the makers of 2003’s Prince of Persia reboot trilogy. The bad far outweighed the good, however.
You see, Assassin’s Creed 1 was a game of partially formed ideas. Half a dozen hours in, a sense of repetition was already taking hold. The end of the game became a chore, marred by sloppy combat and bad level design, with two tacked on boss fights that felt less suitable for exposition than the majority of the game’s primary assassinations. To top it off, the story began to feel far less plausible by the end, with hints of aliens and magical technology and Jesus just being some dude with a glowing metal orb. Honestly, it felt like the developers were just capitalizing on the controversy from The Da Vinci Code, and ultimately that felt disrespectful to both the player and the purported audience of the game. Nothing that occurred felt like a “twist”; instead, it seemed like your own personal 12-15 hour journey had all been build-up for a bad conclusion to the main narrative of the game and an even worse conclusion to the hidden meta-narrative of the game, which occurred in the real world.
For those who haven’t played the first game, don’t worry; all of the pertinent plot details are more or less explained right from the get go, and you’ll be caught up within ten minutes. As for the abovementioned “meta-narrative,” you play as a man named Desmond Miles. A mysterious mega corporation kidnapped Mr. Miles in the previous game for his genetic memory. He is then strapped into a machine called the Animus where this memory can be accessed. Ignoring the shallow, pedantic nature of naming a machine that accesses hidden memories an “Animus” (glad to see you read Jung, guys; it’s clever), we find Miles taking on different ancestors of his in what we think is an effort to learn about their pasts, and to ascertain the locations of various artifacts that both major groups in the game’s fiction – the Assassins and the Knights Templar – are interested in acquiring for reasons undisclosed as of the beginning of the game.
All of this is to say that the player controls Desmond Miles, but is also controlling a man named Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and does so for the majority of the play time. Literally beginning with Ezio’s birth, the game innovatively moves through some thirty years of narrative, though the problem of the passage of time begins to make itself evident (several instances referred to the character being in a place for weeks, when I had just loaded the area minutes before). And Ezio’s journey is not without reason, either. I was surprised to find myself in the garb of an Italian noble when I began the game. The events that occur after this opening sequence offer significant reason for Ezio’s motives of revenge, and they control his life as they steer him inexorably towards his destiny. It’s really a very clever narrative device. Though some of the dialogue was contrived and some of the events predictable, I found myself captivated by Ezio’s journey, an anti-hero moving with what becomes the noblest of goals.
In the Desmond Miles sequences, most of the game play is pretty slow and dialogue-driven. This isn’t the case the entire time, however, which is good; while the dialogue-driven stuff can be pretty interesting, it can also be a major bore (especially if you’re not one to sit through story-driven cinematics, which are unskippable here).
When strapped into the Animus, the player assumes control of Ezio in what can only be described as an acrobatic romp through Renaissance-era Italy. Bounding from rooftop to pillar to whatever else, one can’t help but feel like a more automated, slightly more acrobatic Prince of Persia. Indeed, some of the animations – such as the in-place jump – have literally been taken from the former series in its Sands of Time trilogy. But where that series utilized precision and timing in the run-throughs of the levels played, Assassin’s Creed does not.
Starting from a design ideal that states that as few buttons as possible must be used to play the game, Assassin’s Creed 2 almost overwhelms itself with what can be accomplished on a single button. The face buttons initially perform gentle actions: a gentle push, a faster gait in Ezio’s walk. However, when the modifier button is held down (on the Xbox 360 version, which is the review copy, this is the right trigger), higher profile actions are performed. These enable the player to scale most any building in the city, and perhaps most importantly, to perform assassinations. High profile actions start to fill up the in-game notoriety meter, which tells you how much of the population of a given city is aware of your presence. The more people that are aware, the faster guards spot you. Needless to say, a high notoriety level isn’t something any player should be wanting. Not unless you want the entire armed forces of a given city running after you if you bump into a bystander.
There are ways to lower notoriety. You can bribe a herald, which results in a 50% decrease, or you can tear down a wanted poster. Harder still is the third option, where you kill a corrupt official spreading lies about Ezio. All of these offer relatively temporary solutions, because as you go on, necessity dictates that notoriety will be raised through actions that the player is required to commit.
Assassinations are the bread and butter of the Assassin’s Creed games. Unfortunate, then, that the first game in the series had several assassinations that were possible, but exceedingly difficult to perform in the established set pieces. Here, the assassinations aren’t handed out to the player, but the difficulty curve is down, which means that some of the cooler-looking kills are quite readily available as the player moves through the story.
Leaping from rooftop to rooftop and killing Italian nobles is all well and good, and is most assuredly the realm of this type of game, but what about the problems with repetition and tedious travel segments that plagued the last title? Thankfully, many of these problems have been resolved. In the previous game, the player was required to complete three different assignments to prepare for an assassination. These assignments were the same three for every mission, and by the end of the game grew quite tired. Here, there is no real mission preparation; the player simply completes a number of story missions in a given city until the next assassination is to take place.
While there are more locations in Assassin’s Creed 2 than in the last, journeying between those locations has become far more eventful, making it seem less arbitrary by several degrees. Chase sequences and assassinations have been sprinkled between the cities, with nary a flag to collect (a minor complaint with the last game).
Through the course of the game, the player will find themselves in several different locations, ranging from Florence to Tuscany to Venice, totaling five in all. Assassinations are not performed in all of these places, though story segments are utilized in all locations. In the previous game, a good portion of the playing time was spent traveling between locales; here, that occurs, but on a much slighter and deemphasized scale. Only one segment of the sort even begins to touch annoying, and that comprises maybe a half an hour of the game.
Each of the locations seems lovingly detailed, and while the streets seem less crowded than in the previous game, the cities here also feel more like cities. They seem more lived in and flow far better in terms of level design. Scaling the tallest of buildings is now less of a chore, which is a very good thing and a major improvement over the pacing of the first title.
Within each of the cities lies a tomb, which the player can optionally explore. For the most part, the tombs are well designed and logical, hearkening back to the Prince of Persia series in both the way that they feel and the way that they flow. Upon entering a new room, the camera will zoom out, leading the player along the path to the exit, over obstacles and traps that must be overcome.
Essential for completing the game is the Codex, which the game says was created by Assassin’s Creed 1’s protagonist Altair following the events of the first game. In order to complete the story, the player is required to collect around thirty pieces, most of which are collected during the main quest and used to upgrade weapons or health. While you can read the Codex in order to gain more insight into the plot and the world that the game takes place in, this isn’t required; what is required is the actual collection of these items, as the game literally blocks you from continuing if the items aren’t collected. Certainly it feels a bit like a tacked on extension to the game’s length, but because there weren’t many to collect once I had completed the vast majority of the game’s quest, it didn’t seem as aggravating as it otherwise would.
The characters themselves are for the most part well designed and well animated. Stiff facial animation in places can be excused when a game is this massive in scope and features this much going on. Even the lip synch is mostly spot on, which is – unbelievably - still an achievement in this day and age. Assassin’s Creed 2 screams high production values and a design team that cared about putting out the best possible product that they could.
I found occasional instances of choppy animation, and up close, extremities (hands, fingers, et al) didn’t look that great, lessening some of the visual impact that the game has. Despite that, character designs and animation seemed lifelike and believable. The characters feel real enough without slipping into that almost robotic feel that many games suffer from. Granted, non-player characters (NPCs) repeat far too much and there frankly isn’t enough variety in the enemies encountered. However, considering the scope and size of what the teams accomplished (there are five large cities, packed with people and little to no slow down), any graphical hiccups that don’t impede game play can largely be forgiven.
The audio design is very impressive from almost every angle. A subtle, sweeping score composed by Jesper Kyd (known for his scoring in the Hitman series) compliments the proceedings accordingly, flowing naturally with the action going on in the game. The voice acting is equally well done, with no one character being a standout.
When roaming the city streets, the incidental noises bring the city to life, and that Ubisoft Montreal has brought the cities in their game to life is a testament to the quality of the audio in the game. And when in combat, to really sell the fight, every impact, every clash of steel on steel or steel in flesh should be visceral and brutal, and here the game shines as well.
During my play through, the game froze completely on me once, requiring a system reset. Other than that, there were no problems with corrupted save files or anything game breaking, even in downloaded content.
Assassin’s Creed is by nature a very violent title. Stealth and non-violence are encouraged to a point, but there comes a point where an assassination must be completed or combat must be entered in one form or another, and the game isn’t shy whatsoever about this. Generally, combat falls back on an attack-dodge-counter mechanic that results in brutal executions, ranging from stabbing enemies in both eyes, to slitting their throats, to running them through with a sword, with plenty of space in between for each weapon. Blood sprays with each swing of the blade, spattering walls, and upon execution of the enemies, your formerly pristine white garments. If an enemy is assassinated, blood can be seen blooming outwards on their clothing.
Civilians can be killed, but doing so prompts a swift reaction from guards, a rise in the in-game notoriety level, and an on-screen alert saying that your actions have deviated from the memories of Desmond Miles.
Sexuality is prominent in some aspects of Assassin’s Creed 2. In the beginning scenes of the game, protagonist Ezio beds a young woman with quick time button events. A bare back is seen, and the screen fades to black. Characters that are dealt with include written biographical information on the pause screen: some of the things that these characters are detailed doing are highly sexual in nature, from sodomy to rape to incest. Other characters run bordellos that shelter Ezio in foreign cities, offering their women to our hero as a method of protection, so he can successfully blend in to a group of harlots and order them to distract the guards with their flirtations.
The nature of the story in the Assassin’s Creed series is such that it is likely to offend many. In the first game, the ending established that a device called a “Piece of Eden” granted god-like powers to the holder; this is expanded upon in the newest entry in the series. The story very specifically states that all gods that have walked the earth have held this device and used it to their own ends. There’s no denying it: the story in Assassin’s Creed 2 almost seems to ask for controversy. However, the developers did a far better job this time of making the concepts presented less Judeo-Christian specific, focusing instead on the Roman and Greek belief systems while still retaining Christianity in the framework of the story. It makes the story seem far more fantastical and less like something simply intended to attack a belief system different from that of the writer of the story.
Profanity is also used quite a bit in the game, with varying profanities in both English and Italian. The Italian profanities are all translated if the subtitles are on, as is all Italian dialogue. It’s almost too bad that so much profanity is included in the game, largely because it seems like Ubisoft Montreal wanted to emulate Grand Theft Auto more and more. However, the language is also never out of context or excessive; that it’s there is more the problem.
The good news is that Assassin’s Creed 2 takes hold of the promise and potential that the first game had and improves upon it. The bad news is that this also comes with its own set of problems that will have to be fixed next time out. That said, what remains is a well-done, flawed title that manages to be its own beast while fitting nicely in the emerging mythos of the Assassin’s Creed universe. Questionable morality aside, Assassin’s Creed 2 is highly recommended to those who loved the first game and are of age to play it; everyone else, stay away, for within lurks a dark, adult story that is brutal until the end. For those that find themselves offended by the dark, violent and sometimes sexual subject matter on display here, maybe it\'d be best to find another game to sink your time into.
Game Score total: 45/50
Sexual Content/Nudity 5/10
Appropriateness Score total: 17.5/50