“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past.” —Edward Gibbon
When the trilogy of Desmond’s free-running descendants is ultimately finished, and the coding dust has settled amongst the virtual bodies of historical and fictional persona, Ubisoft will have many things to look back upon with great chest puffing. I spent much more time than is necessary exploring the nooks and crannies of this sequel because the original game left me so impressed with the cusp of what was coming that I felt obligated—nay, driven—to see everything this middle child had to offer. Assassin’s Creed 2 is a great game held together by a fascinating tale bred in science fiction and cradled in a poignant time period ripe with historical significance. Despite some small hardware issues and yet another cliff-hanger ending that left something to be desired, AC2 is an absolute improvement over the first in every single way and sticks out in the recent squadron of great games as a story with unique presence, and you even get a history lesson along the way.
First, the setting: 15th century Renaissance Italy. Those words alone conjure up tomes of information that would be near impossible to encapsulate in a single game, which may have been why Ubisoft chose to focus on the Pazzi vs. Merdicini conspiracy aspect of the time period, allowing them ample important figures for our protagonist Ezio to master the art of assassination. I believe the design of Florence, Venice and the Tuscany landscape to be the crowning jewel of AC2 as Ubisoft went to enormous lengths to create each area as painstakingly close to back then as they could, and it shows brilliantly. The sprawling streets and alleyways of Florence and the canal-bearing channels that crawl through Venice lend this maze-like quality to their environments , brought to life by vibrant colors and the many famous locations spread across the game. After playing the original AC, one can see how much larger the scale of this game has become, as the beginning city is even bigger than Jerusalem was in the first game, and yet it somehow only gets bigger from there. Now that I think about it, I am truly amazed at how Ubisoft managed to put this kind of game together in just under 2 years time. The level of detail throughout the cities is absolutely phenomenal and is well deserving of an award in its own right.
As in the first game, AC2 sets out to tell two different stories bound together by the overlooked main character Desmond. And while AC2 pays great attention to the story involving Desmond’s ancestor Ezio as he uncovers the growing conspiracy of the shadowy Templars, Desmond’s side doesn’t quite get the same attention he had in the first game, and I felt as though this was one of the game’s few weak points. As the first game taught us, this story arc is a tale of history and science fiction; we are immersed into the world of history through Altair and Ezio, yet we observe the world of science fiction through Desmond. Rather than segment these experiences by pulling the character out of the animus, they are woven into the world of history by collectable puzzles than can be solved to unlock pieces of some video. When (or if, depending on the player’s tolerance of puzzle-solving) they are all finally solved, the science fiction elements of the story start to show again, but little of what you see makes any sense on its own, let alone when coupled with the game’s bewildering ending. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the lives of real people who lived during such an amazing time in history, but at the end of the day I wanted a little less history lecture and a little more Desmond sci-fi. Perhaps this will be addressed in the franchise’s grand finale, but only time will tell.
But how can we forget the real reason we all wanted to play this game? Apples of Eden are fun and all, but how does Ezio stack up to Altair’s Art of Assassination (or A3 for short)? Ubisoft again clears all expectations and deepens each aspect of what make the original AC so much fun to play. Gone is the monotonous process of gathering evidence and information to make the kill, and in it’s place is a series of diversely crafted kills that vary from chapter to chapter. Ubisoft wisely chose to forgo the aspect of a one-man army and incorporated several allies at Ezio’s disposal to help him close the distance to his prey. The “blending” system has evolved into an art of manipulation in which the player can either work with what he is given, or create the necessary angles to truly disappear in plain sight. By incorporating a monetary system this time around, players are given the freedom to hire help in the forms of thieves, prostitutes and mercs that each have their own “special” manner of disrupting the guards. While the final objective is still the same as in the original game, the creative freedom one has to reach that goal is both refreshing and rewarding. While the combat wasn’t exactly the intuitive system in the first game, it was nice to see Ubisoft deepen this part of the game by allowing the use of enemies’ weapons against them. It still inevitably reverts into a cat-and-mouse game of waiting for the enemy to attack so you can counter with a kill move, but doing so with weapons besides the wrist blades is a nice addition to the overall combat scheme.
Ubisoft’s level of detail is present in every part of this sequel, which is why I was rather annoyed when I encountered not one but a number of glitches throughout the game. While most of them amounted to nothing more than a quick clipping issue that resolved itself or getting caught on a street corner when trying to break the line of sight from pursuing guards, there were some that forced me to either retry the entire mission over again or even restart my entire console. In certain instances, Ezio is forced to protect another character while they travel to another location, and there were a few cases where instead of reaching the new destination, the character would run in a square around a few buildings over and over again. After many failed attempts of trying to knock them over to stop their artificial retardedness (and one instance of actually punching a woman in the face), I’d restart the mission and everything worked just fine. While it wasn’t horrible by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that it occurred more than once was what began to rub me the wrong way. That aside, there were a few times where the game would simple freeze suddenly and without reason. I was happy to see the automatic save function bring me back to a point a few minutes before it happened, but I was starting to get quite frustrated with the rising number of bugs and no explanation in sight.
Many people have said that if we are not students of history, we are doomed to repeat it. As a single entity, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a product of programming excellence, enthralling game play design and scientific intrigue. As part of a greater whole, AC2 sits upon the same pedestal as Empire Strikes Back does. Without sacrificing the originality or creative universe began by the predecessor, AC2 expertly deepens the overall plot of the story while offering it’s own signature blend of history and game play. However, it has dangerously set itself up for a finale that must answer many elaborate questions about Desmond’s past, present, and future. To this day, people still continue to debate how Empire compares to Return of the Jedi and vice versa, and if Ubisoft is the student of history they display themselves to be, they will give us a satisfying conclusion to an amazing story.