Assassin's Creed II

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Genre: Action-adventure

Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Steam (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X)

Multiplayer: No

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Release Date: November 17, 2009

Assassin's Creed II Review

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The first installment of Assassin's Creed sent players leaping across rooftops in the middle east during the Crusades, but the sequel brings the assassinations to Renaissance Italy. The setting may not be as controversial or politically relevant as that of the first game, but it's easily one of the most compelling reasons to play Assassin's Creed II. The developers have reconstructed cities like Florence and Venice, some of the most architecturally renowned areas in the world, to an impressive likeness of their appearance in Renaissance times. If a famous building or bridge was only half-finished in those days you'll see it under construction in the game. Even if architecture isn't your thing; all the water, stone, and culture of Renaissance Italy acts as a beautiful backdrop for the story.

In Assassin's Creed II you play as Ezio, a brash young ladies man thrust from his carefree life into a quest for vengeance. The onset is an all too familiar tale of revenge, but the story quickly morphs into something much more engaging and complex. Several characters assist Ezio in his quest for vengeance including Leonardo Da Vinci who constructs useful tools like the wrist pistol and flying machine. Time spent with allies in preparation for each major assassination becomes a bonding experience, which is a nice contrast to the bland and forgettable supporting cast of the original game. Moreover, the flow of the story is no longer stalled by the mindless fetching and grinding that preceded major assassinations in the first game.

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As the title implies you do a lot of sneaking and killing in this series, but it's not as stealth-centric as you might imagine. You can approach missions in Assassin's Creed II entirely from the shadows if you choose: carefully picking off archers with throwing knives, waiting to ambush lone guards, and hiding bodies in stacks of hay to avoid detection, but typically you don't have to be that careful. Games built around stealth, like Metal Gear Solid, can be unforgiving once enemies spot you, but AC2 offers ample leeway and numerous alternatives to pure stealth (including charging in Rambo-style for direct combat).

The variety of combat options are fun and impressive, but hidden-blade kills are easily the most satisfying of the bunch. With a hidden-blade under each sleeve you can simultaneously backstab a pair of guards or leap at them, knife-first, from a rooftop. You can even hang from a ledge and pluck patrolling guards into a deadly fall. These stylish and entertaining tactics are a bit situational, however. It's a shame the developers didn't include even more opportunities to unleash them.

Between prolonged bouts of stabbing, players traverse Italian cityscapes using AC2's slick freerunning system, which allows for scurrying up most surfaces with a single input. It's great fun, but unfortunately the complexity of the architecture occasionally interferes with efficiently hopping between rooftops. Sticking to unintended surfaces or accidentally plummeting to a gruesome death is a lot more common than it should be.

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Except for the step backward with freerunning, the developers addressed most complaints leveled against the original game. For instance, a puddle doesn't instantly drown the world's greatest assassin anymore. Instead, swimming and diving are new methods for eluding guards. Also, jamming the counter button is no longer the end-all combat solution. It's still pretty effective, but some enemies are resistant or altogether unaffected by countering, which forces players to employ new abilities like grabbing, disarming, or blinding to get the job done. Wielding weapons from fallen enemies adds to the rich combat system, but it's unfortunate how unnecessary advanced tactics are to success. Most situations can be resolved by mashing the attack button and employing  the occasional counter.

As a compliment to the traversal, combat, and stealth styles of gameplay the developers included a light touch of other genres. DaVinci Code-esque puzzles (word substitutions, restoring fragmented images, etc.) provide creepy clues to the overarching plot of the series. Additionally, building-up Ezio's villa adds a sim element to the game. You can unlock new shops that not only sell items, but also generate cash. Cash allows for the purchase of better equipment, which enhances Ezio's damage, health, and so on.

The lengthy campaign provides at least 20 hours of assassinations and roof-hopping shenanigans. Collecting feathers, completing side missions, and wandering the streets of Renaissance Italy will extend playtime, but there's not a lot of encouragement for a second playthrough. The lack of multiplayer and the absence of a New Game+ mode limits the lasting appeal of Assassin's Creed II.

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Overview

The developers at Ubisoft managed to crank this game out in 18 months, which is rather astounding. They not only addressed the major issues of the first Assassin's Creed, but also constructed a breathtaking model of Renaissance Italy. Freerunning isn't as efficient as it should be and the added complexities of combat are largely unnecessary to success. Despite these minor gameplay flaws, Assassin's Creed II is an enthralling experience. If for no other reason, play this game for the raw satisfaction of stabbing a pair of hapless guards in the back simultaneously.

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