The GoodWere you one of those who played Assassin's Creed and thought: "Damn, such a great concept, but I wish there was more to do in those cities, and more variety in the missions"? That pretty much sums up my feelings for that game. I still loved it, but couldn't help getting disappointed by its failure to exploit its own concept better.
Well, Assassin's Creed 2 does just that. It has exactly the same fascinating concept - free-roaming, no-boundaries gameplay in huge cities; but this time, it adds a lot - and I mean really a lot - of "gameplay meat" to it.
The improvement is huge. The developers of Assassin's Creed 2 obviously understood that a vast sandbox world cannot just be there, it has to be alive, has to offer places of interest that would encourage the player to explore it. They understood that it wasn't enough only to create an open-ended world, no matter how beautiful it might be; the player cannot "invent" his own game, there have to be scripted events and variety of assignments, just like in more linear games.
There are too many cool new things to do in Assassin's Creed 2. So many aspects have been worked on from different angles. The world is much richer, much more believable than in the first game. It doesn't feel like a mere decoration any more, because there is so much more to do in it now, so many more ways to interact with it.
The list of all the new features would be too long. The addition of money adds a whole new dimension to the game. You can buy weapons and armor, change your outfit, visit a doctor, hire thieves and hookers (errr, pardon me, courtesans) to "blend" or distract guards, throw money at the crowd to cause confusion, steal money from whoever you want. You have access to your own villa, which you can decorate; there is even a mini-strategy/managerial game within the game, which allows you to actually earn money by investing it in various businesses.
The amount of new tricks you can perform in the game is so high that they raise the game to a new level, building bridges between game genres. The weapons are much more varied and interesting. You can buy, repair, and upgrade your weapons, armor, and ammo. You can cast smoke bombs to confuse those who try to capture you, throw knives from a distance at unsuspecting archers, and even use a gun. You can perform precise strikes and execute different combat moves. You can swim, dive, steal boats, and fight on horseback. You can collect feathers and sign optional assassination contracts. There are treasure chests scattered around, waiting for you to unlock them. Deciphered codex pages enhance your health.
While the first game either made you concentrate on the main story or aimlessly climb and jump around, the second one fills the world with places of interest and optional missions, the best of which are Assassin Tombs and Glyphs of Truth. There are six pieces of a powerful armor hidden in various places in the huge cities. Getting them requires more than just proceeding to the location marked on the map. These quests offer some of the most best platforming in the game, something that wasn't present at all in the first game - large indoor locations that are actually designed as puzzle platformers.
The glyphs are hidden messages written on walls, which you have to discover on your own. Finding a piece leads to interesting educational puzzles, solving which rewards you with a snippet of a video sequence that apparently tells us the truth about the world... this is one of the best side quests I have ever come across in a game!
Another great improvement is the nature of the mission themselves. Instead of the predictable and repetitive assassin work in the first game, the missions in Assassin's Creed 2 are much more varied, and even though most of them are still rather simple assassination assignments, they are much more heavily scripted and set in different environments. Rooftop chases, castle storming, protection missions, stealth missions (during which you can actually fail if you get spotted), both indoors and outdoors, and unique, exciting missions such as the horse carriage race or flying over the city using Leonardo da Vinci's device.
Assassin's Creed 2 clearly learned a lot from GTA games. The influence is evident in some of the features the game introduced to the series, such as the "wanted level" system, the races, optional missions, the ability to steal and navigate boats, and generally in its design philosophy of combining interactivity and exciting, structured missions with an open-world environment. GTA in Renaissance - if this isn't cool, then I don't know what is!
The graphics, as one might have expected, are great, although they don't really stun you the same way the first game did. But the game's beautiful, "archaic" soundtrack certainly adds a new layer of charm to its magnificent world.
Like the first game, Assassin's Creed 2 is set in a historical environment. Obviously, the authors are more familiar with the Western culture than with the Middle Eastern one; you feel much more "at home" in the second game, because the environment is less exotic, but still has the appeal of a remote era. The European Renaissance was undeniably a very interesting and exciting time, and it's great to see a video game that brings it back to life in digitized form. The game world is astounding in its beauty and detail, even more so than in the first game, reminding of Liberty City of GTA IV. To put it simply, it's alive. Even without all this cool extra stuff the game offers us now, it would have been a pleasure just to walk around this world, soaking in its vibes. Realistic people behavior and incredible beauty of architecture and nature make the world of this game a masterpiece of its own league.
The creators didn't forget to supply useful information concerning the historical figures who act in this game, as well as famous landmarks and general information about the state of affairs in those times. The wealth of all this knowledge poured into the game is quite impressive. It was nice to meet prominent personalities such as the crazy fanatic Savonarola or the intriguing politician Machiavelli.
Over the course of my gaming years, I changed my views concerning the importance of a story in a video game. I no longer consider story its most important element. Maybe I've grown cynical, seeing how many of those stories fall into the same pitfall of predictable turns, recycled ideas, and cliches. It is obvious that Assassin's Creed 2 tries hard to be a good story beside being a good video game. All I can say is that the story certainly has its moments. The characters are more charismatic than in the first game, and Ezio is a much more lovable protagonist than the cold, distant Altair. At its best, the dialogue flows naturally and the writing is convincing. At its worst, the story degrades into yet another weak historical conspiracy theory with rather absurd supernatural elements. I'll refer to it in the "Bad" section.
The BadAs much as Assassin's Creed 2 does to fix the problems of the original and add a plethora of new things to do, it still retains some of its errors.
First of all, the game is too easy. More challenging than the first one, but still too easy. What it really needs is a selectable difficulty level, because the default (and only) one feels like "Novice". The battle system works great, but it is unrealistic and disappointing when Ezio can single-handedly mow down a dozen of guards for everyone to see, lose his "wanted" level, and calmly assassinate powerful people one after the other. Sure, no such game can (and should) be realistic. But in a game that is supposedly dedicated to stealth and silent killing, it is deplorable that they made brute force a valid - if tedious - alternative to all those cool tricks you learn.
To be fair, the second game certainly makes a much better use of those tricks than the first one. Fortunately, in some of the missions the only way to succeed is to use them. But making Ezio a little bit less than the demi-god he is in the game would have made it even more entertaining.
There is still a certain artificial feeling in the structure of the game's world, such as the conveniently placed haystacks, groups of thieves and courtesans stationed just where you need them, the identically-looking codex-containing buildings and guards surrounding them, and so on. And the missions, though much more varied than before, are still somewhat repetitive.
Finally, the story is a mixed bag. It starts and ends strong, but in the middle it boils down to a series of assassinations, without any twists and development to make it more interesting. Writing ranges from good to barely acceptable, and same can be said about the depiction of the game's characters. The villains are two-dimensional and comically greedy, which is especially disappointing since they are based on real historical characters (whether Rodrigo Borgia was such a monster as the game portrays him is debatable, but he certainly was not such an idiot). The game tries too hard to make us like the assassins, presenting them as noble freedom fighters and generally great guys, somehow disregarding the fact that they solve every problem with murder.
The story can also get annoyingly preachy and moralizing, with its dubious concept of "there is no truth, and everything is allowed" (which is the official credo of its heroes) being thrown at us at every possible opportunity. Many ideas expressed in the game are weak and generic, some of them probably inspired by Da Vinci Code and its idiotic idea of a global Catholic conspiracy to suppress the "sacred feminine". Luckily, Assassin's Creed 2 is still a fun and rich experience (which cannot be said of Dan Brown's opus).
The Bottom LineAssassin's Creed 2 improves, expands, and refines the gameplay formula of its predecessor. Bigger, juicier, more varied, more polished, more engrossing, more addictive - this is the sequel I've been waiting for. While there is still room for improvement, it is clear that the developers knew what had to be done, and did it. The series has now proved beyond any doubt that its fantastic concept not only works, but works exceptionally well, and can serve as a template for future games to build upon.