Avenge your family’s murder in a decades-long quest for the truth.
PC Release: March 4, 2010
By Ian Coppock
My quest to analyze video games’ story and artwork has brought me to WordPress and a new website, following the bug-riddled end of Belltow3r Gaming. It is my great passion and pleasure to welcome you to the first original Art as Games review, Assassin’s Creed II. Whether you’re a console gamer looking for something great at the tail end of generation 7, or a PC gamer for whom all generations are kind of woven into an ongoing tapestry, hi there. Let’s get started on the second installment in Ubisoft’s flagship series.
Assassin’s Creed II picks up literally from the last frame of the first Assassin’s Creed. Just as our hero Desmond Miles is about to be minced up by his Templar captors, an Assassin pops out of nowhere and spirits him out of Abstergo to a safehouse. Desmond is introduced to a new Assassin crew, including the delightfully snarky Shaun Hastings, a British database expert, and Rebecca Crane, an engineer who administers the sexy Animus 2.0. This thing is a huge improvement over that concrete slab of the Templar’s.
The Animus is a device that could find the memories of ancestors locked away in Desmond’s DNA, and render them as a simulation. Having already assumed the role of his stoic Syrian ancestor Altair, Desmond uses the Animus 2.0 to jump a few centuries’ worth of ancestors to the Italian Renaissance, and into the shoes of Ezio Auditore. His mission? To absorb all of Ezio’s assassination skills directly into his own mind, and fight the modern Templars.
When I first played this, I had no damn clue how I was supposed to be an assassin. After being teleported into a beautifully rendered Florence, I saw that Ezio is a teenage rich kid who spends his time drinking and chasing skirts.
My first few side quests consisted of just these goals, including a button-by-button woo-hooing of the hottest girl in Florence. The only thing this dude assassinates is virginity.
But, things take a drastic turn when Ezio’s father and brothers are hanged by the Florentine government before his very eyes. Marked a fugitive and a traitor, Ezio skips town with his mother and little sister, all hints of that bravado I saw not twenty minutes ago replaced by grief and rage. Ezio stumbles into the care of his uncle, Mario Auditore, who reveals that he and Ezio’s late father were members of an ancient order of assassins. Ezio learns that the bastards who killed half his family (including a sickly six-year old, seriously, what the hell?) are those dastardly Templars, back for more after the thrubbing Altair gave them centuries ago. He trains under his uncle, and because it’s the “II” sequel, he starts wielding two of the iconic weapon instead of just one. This transition is a secret rule of video game sequels.
As Ezio travels between Florence, Venice, Tuscany and his new home base of Montoriggioni, he encounters a cast of strange and wonderful characters. These include a young Leonardo Da Vinci, who is almost obnoxiously high on life, the lovely Catarina Sforza, and Rodrigo Borgia. Better known by his later papal name, Alexander VI, Borgia is cast as the leader of the Italian Templars and the primary antagonist of the game. As with the first game, the Templars seek peace through psychic control, and as a guardian of mankind’s free will, Ezio must focus on this war as much as his quest for personal revenge.
I like Assassin’s Creed II because it is one of the strongest arcs of character development I’ve seen in a game. Ezio’s journey spans the course of decades (the game begins when he’s 16 and it ends when he’s 40). The game excels at portraying the character’s changing views and emotions as he kills his way across Renaissance Italy, and as he grows from a young, angry boy into a seasoned killer. He throws in a bit of existential philosophy from time to time, arguing with others and himself about which course is best for humanity’s future. Though the game takes only 20 hours or so to finish, these constant character tweaks made it seem as though it actually was 24 years long, in an engrossing sort of way. Though traumatized by the deaths of his family, Ezio retains the charm he had as a boy, and can turn almost any situation into an opportunity to get laid.
The game also explores how Ezio’s actions change the course of Italy over those decades. Entire regimes rise and fall, landscapes and political atmospheres change, and commoners become more aggressive about taking what is theirs. Ezio makes a few friends and a ton of enemies because of this, and though he welcomes the positive change, his primary focus is avenging his father and brothers. A lot of games don’t bother to portray the consequences of player actions, especially over such a long course of time. This made the game more immersive, because the ramifications of my actions became clear as the plot progressed.
Though Assassin’s Creed II is a wonderful game, it has a few plot problems. I didn’t like how nearly every historical character Ezio met (and he meets a lot of them) fall onto either the Assassin or Templar side of the war. Where’s the in-between, the shades of gray that make the story less polarized? In this way, the game failed to take true story advantage of the political chaos that was the Renaissance. I also thought that the game was too stuffed with historical characters, and you might wonder at how that could be a bad thing, but it left less room for the few original, more interesting characters. You even run into Machiavelli, who, despite his authoritarian views, is somehow an Assassin and not a Templar.
I think the game also leaned a bit too much on Leonardo da Vinci, one of its proudest selling points. He’s the convenient inventor archetype, who can build guns and decipher ancient Egyptian squirrel droppings without batting an eyelash, but do we question that? No, because it’s goddamn Leonardo da Vinci. His presence is just a little too convenient for the sake of the plot; he moves to whichever locale Ezio is hunting in, and he’s always on hand to build and decipher stuff, even though history tells us his schedule was a bit ridiculous.
Also, the game’s timekeeping is confusing. I’d drop in, kill an Italian fatcat, cut to cutscene, and it would suddenly say “three years later”. I don’t understand. Did the mission happen over three years, or did Ezio spend three years drinking wine and eating pasta, or what? So that’s a bit rocky and jarring.
The biggest wrench ACII threw into my gears was just before the end sequence. I was all pumped and ready to go on to the final mission, when the game vomited a magical wall into my path and said “whoa there, hotshot! You gotta collect those codex page collectibles before you can do the finale.” Oh, I see. A collectible you touted as a “get when you feel like it” deal is now essential to doing the final mission??? The dramatic tension could not have destroyed itself faster if it had confused hot dogs with dynamite. So I had to tear across the game world for three hours looking for the damn things. Take my advice; collect them as if they’re marked necessary (because they are necessary).
Combat in AC II is similar to the first game, but Ezio has a much more expanded arsenal than Altair. In addition to knives and a sword, Ezio also gets… um… well he gets a wrist-mounted gun, which is pretty badass. The game also has an economy, so I can actually throw coins to get those beggars to leave me alone (you’re also dogged by annoying musicians). As with the first game, your lifebar is dependent upon Ezio’s actions. Killing innocents will degrade it, and eating medicine will bring it back up to speed. A little unbalanced, but whatever. Ezio can also leap across buildings and scale the frickin’ Duomo without breaking a sweat. The series runs on parkour, so no surprises there.
Assassin’s Creed II excels in the art department. The game’s rendition of 15th-century Italy is gorgeous, and no subsequent AC game has succeeded in matching its visual majesty. Like the first game, AC II is open-world, and is divided into several zones that you can loaf about in. The first, Florence, is a beautiful collection of towers, market squares and villas. Vines creep down cream-colored buildings and people amble down wide streets with their goods and children in tow. Town criers announce everything from the latest works of art to punishments for defacing the local church, and beefy merchants war over whose wares are the best.
Florence was my favorite location, but it was well-complimented by the Tuscan countryside. Ezio can wander the endless wheat fields under a golden sun, visiting the various farming estates, or meander through the small walled towns comprising the region’s beacons of civilization. Montoriggioni, Ezio’s new base, is a walled village that you can pay to rebuild and improve, adding an interactive element to the artwork that I really enjoyed.
The last half or so of the game takes place in Venice, and it faithfully replicates the city’s spectacular landmarks. Palaces and citadels that look like something out of an ocean myth line narrow avenues, while fishermen traverse the canals and artists capture the vista on their canvases. Ezio can survey all of this from a boat of his own or traverse the rooftops, though doing so risks angering the psychotic pricks otherwise known as rooftop guards.
The game’s score is sweeping and light, incorporating plenty of fast-paced Mediterranean strings and quieter, more contemplative violins. The voice acting is pretty good, but Roger Craig Smith’s performance as Ezio is the only one that stood out to me. I’m glad that, unlike the last game, they hired a guy who had an actual local accent to play the part. You’ll be surprised at how much Italian you’ll learn; characters will often speak common phrases and bits of sentences in Italian. Rebecca, the Animus engineer, passes this off as glitches.
As I said up top, there’s something acutely kickass about surveying the majesty of Baroque architecture from atop the Duomo, and subsequent Assassin’s Creed games haven’t been able to match that sense of visual power. Music, perhaps, but not the sheer artwork that was the highlight of the times. These gigantic pieces of art made the cities I visited seem more alive, and are good examples of how visual power can drive the sense of urgency and consequence in a narrative.
Assassin’s Creed II has some narrative stumbling blocks, but the game is well-put together. Even if you’re not interested in the larger mythos, I’d recommend getting this game. It’s by far the best and most epic of the series, and I think it’s also the prettiest. The game has a nice length, 20 hours or so of core gaming, plus more if you do the side missions. Experience it for yourself!
You can buy Assassin’s Creed II here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.