Assassin’s Creed II
Released: November 17, 2009
As much grief as I give the franchise as a whole, I cannot hide my former obsession with the series and this game in particular. It truly is near and dear to my heart and I spent hours upon hours playing it. This was actually the first game of the Assassin’s Creed series that I played and it had not occurred to me that I should probably have attempted the first one beforehand. Although, with my most recent experience of a game (The Witcher 3) it seems to be an ongoing trend of mine. I have quiet an ardent love and interest for the Renaissance and it spans from the artwork to even the politics, particularly in the Italian Renaissance. It’s such a fascinating time in my opinion and by setting Assassin’s Creed II in this period, Ubisoft managed to completely sell it to me.
You start the game as Desmond Miles, our modern timeline, Nathan Drake-sounding protagonist. Having not played the first game I was very confused as to why a lady named Lucy Stillman was breaking Desmond out of an odd looking machine and eerily clean building, littered with baton brandishing security guards. Having since gone back to play the first game and subsequently the majority of the sequels over the years, I do understand what was happening now. The main premise of the series is the ongoing war between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, who serve as the antagonists of the franchise. Desmond, a descendant of the Assassins, is captured by the modern day Templars in the first game who hide their true identities behind a multinational company known as Abstergo Industries. It is here that Desmond is introduced to the Animus, a machine that allows one to relive the memories of their ancestors. The Templars use the Animus to gain access to information concerning what is known as the Pieces of Eden directly from these memories. The beginning of this game are the events that take place immediately after the first. Lucy, an Abstergo employee, breaks Desmond out and reveals herself as an undercover Assassin. She takes him to a safe haven where they meet up with fellow Assassins Shaun Hastings, a historian and analyst, and Rebecca Crane, a technician and the mind behind the new and improved Animus 2.0. It is here where Desmond goes back into the Animus to relive the memories of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young man from an affluent Florentine family living in the Renaissance period.
Here is usually where I consider the game to actually start. The modern day timeline is still fun at this point in the series, but no one plays these games for Desmond’s side of it all, and the end of the world plot of the modern timeline becomes quite strained after this installment. Ezio remains one of my favourite characters from any video game that I have played. He is a loyal friend, intelligent and gets the job done. This does not mean that he doesn’t come with flaws, as he is arrogant at the beginning of the game with an air of narcissism. This is one of the reasons why I loved the game so much. Ezio is by no means perfect and his character development is enjoyable to watch. He goes from being a mollycoddled teenager to becoming an experienced adult who has learnt from his past actions, although his cavalier attitude does make reappearances every so often. His development also felt quite believable as well. Initially Ezio is driven by vengeance as his father and two brothers are wrongfully executed for treason, and it is only until he comes to realise that their deaths were part of a much bigger battle that he dedicates his life to the Assassin Order, like his father before him.
It’s a common opinion that this installment of the series is the best game and Ezio as a character is only one reason for this. The gameplay was heavily improved from the first game, which I quickly came to realise when I went back to play it. Assassin’s Creed (2006) was extremely repetitive, although the story was sound. As Altaïr, the player would travel between cities to do the same menial tasks: eavesdrop on a conversation, beat someone up for information, pickpocket another person and finally assassinate the target. This trend continued throughout the entire game until right at the end where there was finally some variation and a rather unexpected boss fight. Ubisoft were able to take the basics from the first game and develop these ideas for Assassin’s Creed II, such as creating a wider range of missions to participate in (whether they were main or side missions). As a result, this gave a better sense of exploration for the player as they were able to deviate from main missions to become more immersed in the game. Even the ability to swim was an improvement. If Altaïr fell into water, the player would immediately be ‘desynchronized’ (sic), so adding the element of swimming was a welcome touch and even served as a great method to run away from guards. Alongside swimming Ezio was also able to row gondolas and this was a perfect way to manoeuvre around Venice, especially when you would accidentally jump into water that would lead to a dead end. The gondolas proved to be very useful in getting around the city at a faster pace than running around like a headless chicken.
The health system had also been developed, meaning that players had to visit doctors to buy medicines that could be used to replenish health for major injuries. Armour was able to break, meaning the player would have to go to a blacksmith for repairs. There were much more weapons that could also be utilised and bought from the blacksmith, and the ammunition capacity for things like throwing knives and smoke bombs could be upgraded at a tailor. The player was also able to hire groups of NPCs to help fight or distract guards for a certain number of florins. I do remember that one of the first achievements I received in this game was for spending 5000 florins on courtesans. What can I say? They were the best at distracting guards while I grabbed treasure/Codex pages.
The more I think about all of the improvements that were made in this game, the more I realise that it’s so hard to list them all. I will say that my two favourite aspects of this game were the Glyphs and the Assassin Tombs. I loved going around the cities to find the Glyphs that Subject Sixteen (another assassin descendant) had left in the Animus because the puzzles that ensued were always so interesting and challenging. I remember my dad actually helped me with a lot of the Glyph puzzles as we spent hours one day just hunting specifically for them. The Assassin Tombs were also a lot of fun, though this was more because these levels reminded me a lot of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003), which my brother used to play a lot of on the PS2. At the time, I wasn’t really allowed to play a lot of games that my brother had because I was a little too young but that never stopped me from watching him play. It was nice to eventually experience a game in a similar kind of way as I didn’t get to play Prince of Persia all that much.
The way that Ubisoft had managed to implement their own story line into historical events was one of the best things about the first two games, but I think I eventually lost interest in it because it was no longer set in a time period that I knew or cared enough about. But, rearranging and analysing pictures of both Biblical and historical figures to reveal the supposed Pieces of Eden in the Glyph puzzles that the game’s version of the Knights Templar were after was very cool. It all just seemed to work so brilliantly, and I think the games lost touch with that further down the line. I’ve talked about my hatred for Assassin’s Creed III in a previous post, and I still stand by this opinion. I just think that after spending such a long time with the franchise, Ubisoft should be able to produce a better game than what they did in that year. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a definite improvement, and it’s probably the best one since Assassin’s Creed II, but nothing beats it.
Armed with a compelling story (that still made sense at this point), a well-rounded protagonist and polished gameplay, Assassin’s Creed II is a near perfect game. Of course, it has its quirks as every game does. It does on occasion feel as though the controls do not agree with you and Ezio sometimes goes running up walls where you didn’t intend for him to do so. The combat system has always been clunky in a sense that you’re simply just waiting for your opponent to strike so you can counter or disarm them. But despite these issues and flaws the game remains one of the best, and not just within the franchise. In my honest opinion, this was the high point for Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series. With a new game coming out every year (not to mention the spin-offs) and now an upcoming film to be released, I feel as though Assassin’s Creed has simply become excessive. However, this does not taint my love for the second game of the franchise. It’s still a great game even now and writing this has made me want to start the game from the beginning once again for possibly the millionth time.
I recommend this game for people who have an interest in history, even if it’s a slightly skewed version of it (the fist fight with the Pope at the end is worth it, trust me). Also, it’s great for people who just like to run around armed and dangerous in beautiful cities. There’s so much that this game offers players and none of it feels really feels forced or boring. I know I feel sorry for the kid who went to grab it from the shelf in Game on Boxing Day in 2009, but was beaten to it by me. It’s coming up to 7 years old now, so if you’re playing it for the first time now then it’ll feel somewhat dated but it’s definitely worth your time and energy.