"Nothing is true; everything is permitted." We learned this adage in the original Assassin's Creed, and Assassin's Creed II carries on the tradition beautifully, inspiring you to rethink the conspiracy at the heart of the series--and to reconsider what you should expect from a sequel. The franchise's second console outing is an impressive piece of work. Developer Ubisoft Montreal has addressed almost all of Assassin's Creed's flaws by filling its follow-up with fresh and enjoyable mission types and layering on new and mostly excellent features, while still retaining the joy of movement and atmospheric wonder that characterized the original. These enhancements range from the subtle (you can swim now) to the game-changing (there's an economy), but aside from a few small missteps, every tweak makes for a more enjoyable, more engaging adventure. The cohesive story and a terrific new character will draw you in, and you aren't apt to forget the memorable and explosive ending that will have you eager for the third installment.
6240442Say hi to your uncle. No, he is not a plumber.None
Like in the first game, Assassin's Creed II occurs across two timelines: a modern-day chronology starring bartender Desmond Miles, and another featuring one of Desmond's ancestors. When you start the game, you'll catch up with Desmond right where the original left him, though as fans of the original can guess, the Abstergo labs are no longer a safe haven. You'll spend a bit of time with Desmond during the course of the game, though the shoes you most frequently fill are those of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the charmingly impetuous son of a 15th-century Italian banker. Ezio is an instantly likable firebrand, as passionate about family and honor as he is about wine and women. When you first meet him, Ezio is living a carefree life and has not yet donned his assassin's robe, nor is he familiar with the creed. However, Ezio's devil-may-care freedom is soon cut short by murder and betrayal instigated by the assassins' greatest threat: the Templars.
Assassin's Creed's Altair was an interesting character, but only for the stealthy order he represented, not because you ever got to know the man under the white hood. Ezio is far more appealing, for he's not just quick with a secret blade, but he's a fully realized protagonist. He isn't at the mercy of the plot, but rather, the narrative evolves from his need to uncover the truth behind his sorrows. It's the personal nature of the narrative that makes Assassin's Creed II's story more compelling than its predecessor's. The few modern-day segments featuring Desmond pack a lot more punch this time around as well, and the conspiracies driving that story arc become a lot clearer and, as a result, more provocative. While the original ended on a vague and unsatisfying note, the latest chapter's climax is downright electrifying.
Ezio isn't Assassin's Creed II's only headliner. The Italy he inhabits is a character in and of itself, filled with visual and sonic details that infuse the world with life and elegance. The cities you explore--Florence, Venice, and more--are larger and more detailed than the environs of the first game. Citizens go about their daily lives, and they look authentic doing so. Merchants sweep the street in front of their shops; small groups stroll along, making conversation with each other; and courtesans smirk and cajole as you pass by. These folks aren't cookie-cutter character models. They are dressed differently enough from each other and are animated so expressively that it's as if the population would go about its business with or without your presence. More impressive are the cityscapes themselves as they unfold in front of you, inviting you to take in their splendor. This is an incredibly good-looking game: the lighting is sumptuous, the draw distance is vast, and textures are crisp. The PlayStation 3 version does suffer from some frame rate jitters, more frequent texture fade-in, and lesser color saturation. Both versions are still attractive, however, and apart from a few small flaws, you rarely get the feeling that visual compromises were made to make the game's open world run smoothly.
Make the leap of faith. You'll be glad you did.
Assassin's Creed II's sense of place and time isn't due just to its visuals, however. Its high-quality sound design is equally responsible, delivering a busy-sounding Florence while still allowing the little quips of citizens commenting on your acrobatics to shine through. There's a good variety of such dialogue now, so you won't tire of repeated lines, and because the citizen rescues of the original Assassin's Creed have been excised, you won't hear the monotonous whines of complaining peasants. Two aspects of the sound design are particularly noteworthy: the music and the voice acting. The game's splendid orchestral score is subtle and soothing when it needs to be, never intruding on the exploration and never manipulating your emotions with inappropriate musical melodrama. The simple but effective cello and double bass motif you hear when climbing to a perch and synchronizing your map is the perfect example of this smart melodic restraint. As for the voice acting, it is uniformly excellent. Not only is Ezio voiced with charm and energy, but the surrounding cast is mostly superb--though one particular line delivered by Ezio's uncle Mario might make you cringe.
The greatest beauty of Assassin's Creed II's exquisitely detailed environments is that you can run and jump across the rooftops with ease and climb the tallest towers to get a bird's-eye view of the game's glorious vistas. You control Ezio much as you did Altair, though movement feels a bit tighter and even more fluid than before. The game strikes an excellent middle ground between responding to player input and automating actions like leaping from one surface to the next, so it's simple to leap about the city smoothly without worrying that you're going to plummet to your death on the next hop. You'll still encounter a few awkward moments here and there: simply walking off a ledge onto a rooftop a few feet below can still be bit clumsy, for example. But these moments are few, and in fact, you'll pull off some awesome-looking moves without even trying. One of the many wonders of Assassin's Creed II is that the cities look so natural that they don't seem as if they were created for you to jump around in. Yet you might leap onto a wooden outcropping and find yourself skipping across a series of them, swinging and jumping with fluidity and style. Not only are there more opportunities for organic platforming sequences like these than in the original, but there are entire closed environments called tombs tailored to this kind of jumping.
Ezio interrogates his victim. Bonus: Death soliloquies are much shorter now.
Tombs are more intricate levels in which you must retrieve an important artifact (and if you collect all of them, you are in for a special treat). Some of them are platforming puzzles of the best kind, in which you must figure out how to get from your starting point to the destination, in the manner of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Ezio can't run on walls like the Persian prince, but he's incredibly agile nonetheless, and swinging and hopping about rafters and chandeliers within the tombs is great fun. A few tombs throw some additional challenges at you, such as a time limit in which to reach your goal. The best tombs, however, are those in which you pursue an enemy but run into obstacles that force you to give chase using an alternate route. The chases are excellent, and they require quick reactions, but not so quick as to be unreasonable. Flawlessly keeping up with your target without breaking your momentum is one of Assassin's Creed II's greatest thrills, and as long as you are paying close attention, you can pull it off on the first attempt.
The climbing and jumping wouldn't be as rewarding if Ezio weren't so graceful, but he is one of the best-animated characters yet seen in a game. You'll admire his footwork early in the game in particular, when his assassin's garb does not veil the incredible animations of his legs and feet. When Ezio climbs, his hands are grabbing something and his feet are resting on something. Except on rare occasions, you won't see him pulling himself up using an invisible handle or stepping on a nonexistent ledge. It's a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making these acrobatics look believable. Ezio seems even more nimble than Altair; his legs move inward and cross a bit differently during a climb, and moves connect even more slickly. The only imperfection you are likely to notice is the lack of a transition animation when you bend to loot a body or treasure chest (more on this to come).