The Renaissance brings to mind streets filled with merchants, Leonardo da Vinci, and a new age of art and culture. Ubisoft Montreal is hoping to add Ezio, a young nobleman turned assassin, to that image of this historic time period. Assassin's Creed II takes up the story after 2007's Assassin's Creed, only this time the developers have moved the setting from the Crusades to 15th century Italy, and are attempting to outdo the first game in every conceivable way in the process. This is not an easy feat but the Montreal-based development team has achieved this lofty goal.
Assassin's Creed II follows the same structure as its predecessor. You play as Desmond, the latest in a long line of assassins. Using a machine called the Animus to travel back though the genetic memories of your ancestors you can learn what they knew and uncover the truth about your fate. By using the Animus, Desmond takes control of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a lay-about son of an Italian nobleman. It is not until Ezio's family is framed for treason that he learns of his lineage and of his destiny to become an assassin. The ultimate quest of the game is to take revenge against all who conspired against Ezio's father, and to make sure they do not have a chance to enact there catastrophic plans.
This humanization of Ezio allows Assassin's Creed II to stand far ahead of the first game. More then just a revenge tale, the game becomes a story of a man finally growing up and taking on responsibility of the family. He takes up his father's role, helping his sister and mother survive after a murderous tragedy by fixing and maintaining the family home. The story is, above all else, an adult story that deals with serious issues such as family death, responsibilities, and honor. This is not to say it is perfect and avoids one-dimensional characters, but it does go far beyond what the first game achieved in terms of story helping in the immersive effect of the game.
The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed II has also received an overhaul. Not only has Ubisoft fixed the faulty issues in the first game like dull repetitive missions, not enough assassination, and an overall lack luster story, but they have added many side missions and tertiary locations. This pushes the player beyond the story and allows to feel like they’re part of the experience over several hours of playtime. Clocking in at over 20 hours, the main story missions keep the player moving from activity to activity at a brisk pace. Many hours vanish as you’re unable to release controller. It is so tempting to play just one more mission, and then another, until entire sections of the game world are uncovered.
Assassin’s Creed II's structure is an open world where the player can roam freely around Italian cities. It allows you access to numerous well-known cities including Florence, Rome, and Venice and presents them surprisingly accurate detail. The freedom and realism allow the player to tackle the game how they see fit. Still, for such an open-concept game, it manages to avoid feeling overwhelming. Everything can be done within a few minutes and there is always a feeling of accomplishment since the game keeps pushing you forward and rewarding the player.
Additionally, the fact that you’re a noble in the game means there is a full economy system. You help your family villa regain its former glory and you can choose to upgrade your villa or your own character, and each time increasing the money that comes to you. This money can help you buy more upgrades for your Villa or buy weapons and accessories for your missions. This system is a welcome addition but feels lacking in real depth. Although you get to add buildings to the surrounding town, very few of them can be accessed. With this lack of interactivity, it makes the system seem artificial and without purpose.
Another criticism the parkour sequences that Ezio uses to navigate the cities. Up and down are available for Ezio to climb, crawl, run, or soar. He can blend into the crowds, scale buildings, or jump from roof-to-roof with dexterous fluidity. Now, this is often the game's strongest point, but because of the automatic nature of it, it can also be the most frustrating. There will be times when outrunning guards or merely trying to reach a destination will be foiled by the game sticking you to walls or forcing you to climb when you wanted to leap. An apparently minor point, but with hours of gameplay ahead of you, it would be nice if it was unobstructed.
Assassin's Creed II improves on nearly every element of the previous title. Ubisoft has created a completely immerseive experience that, for the money, is hard to beat. With a compelling storyline, and entertaining mechanics that challenge and absorb, players will easily become addicted. If you are a fan of a strong story driven game this should be in your gaming collection. If you harbour any doubts over how fun and challenging a game set during the Renaissance period can be, rest assured that Assassin's Creed II delivers one of the most imaginative and complete gaming experiences you can buy this year.