The fine art of farniente
Available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Let’s get this straight out there: Assassin’s Creed II is, quite simply, a better game than its predecessor. Great care has obviously been paid to varying the gameplay, streamlining old and new features, and enhancing the storyline. The plot is set in a more famous, and therefore more recognisable, environment (Renaissance Italy, rather than Medieval Syria and Palestine), and introduces a flashier protagonist, with the end result that it tends to overshadow its predecessor. And yet, in spite of the first game’s flaws, I could never shake the feeling that the second opus had lost part of its soul under all that bling. Don’t get me wrong: ACII is a lot of fun. But there were moments when I found myself missing the leaner, sterner world of its older brother.
The game starts exactly where AC left off. Desmond–he of the infinite charisma (not)–is rescued from the Abstergo lab where he was being held by Lucy, the assistant in his previous memory-delving adventures who actually turns out to be an Assassin, and two of her comrades. They take him to a secret location and hook him up to a better Animus machine to send him into the memories of a more recent ancestor, the Florentine nobleman Ezio Auditore, in the hopes that it’ll help them find a Piece of Eden. The story is still split between Ezio’s sequences and Desmond’s, and the latter now at least has more partners in crime. Rebecca’s one of those hacker-types–short hair, funky clothes, headphones–with a perky, upbeat attitude, while Shaun is the prim, British-accented history geek with a degree in deadpan snark. Lucy’s also gotten an upgrade: from unremarkable lab mouse to…goggle-eyed and fish-lipped babe in skinny jeans and a form-hugging top. Yeah…The modern-day sequences now also include a chance for Desmond to put all the moves he learned in his virtual escapades to the test. Although, seeing him perform those acrobatics in his baggy jeans, hoodie and sneakers is distinctly less glamourous than long white assassin robes and leather boots. Doesn’t help that he’s still completely unremarkable as a character. Just as Altaïr stole the show in AC, Ezio steals the show this time around.
As has already been mentioned, the three operative words are variety, streamlining and enhancement. And boy, is there a LOT of the former. The new and upgraded Animus features a historical database, which provides bite-sized info about notorious landmarks and characters. Ezio has access to more weapons (a second hidden blade, maces, smoke bombs…even a prototype gun) and armour, all of which he can upgrade, or, in the case of armour, repair, as it gets damaged in combat (which is a distinctly annoying feature). He also has more acrobatics at his command, such as assassinating targets while hiding in bales of hay. He can disarm enemies in combat, poison them, toss sand in their faces to disorient them; he can also ride gondolas, and, most satisfyingly, swim. Which is handy, since one of the cities he visits is Venice. The conveniently placed groups of monks that allowed Altaïr to inconspicuously enter guarded areas have been replaced with various factions that Ezio can hire for the same purpose: courtesans, who can distract guards by shaking booty; thieves, who can steal their stuff to have them give chase; or mercenaries, who will simply go and bash some heads. There is a day and night cycle, which, apart from varying the atmosphere, also comes into play in certain missions. Ezio now also has a homebase in the small Tuscan town of Monteriggioni, which he can renovate and upgrade (notably by buying famous Renaissance paintings) to earn regular income, as the game now features an economic system, complete with merchants and even street doctors. There are a lot more sidequests, in particular the Templar Lairs and Assassin Tombs, which feature advanced platforming and reward Ezio with money and, in the case of the latter, special seals that eventually grant access to Altaïr’s black Master Assassin outfit (yum). There are also some strange glitches in the Animus interface, which appear as shining glyphs on buildings and allow Desmond to solve some puzzles left behind by Subject 16, his defunct predecessor at Abstergo.
Much like Desmond, Ezio is also surrounded by a more varied and more interesting cast of secondary characters. Among those, the biggest highlight is, undoubtedly, a young Leonardo da Vinci, with whom Ezio becomes good friends, and who helps him decipher some of Altaïr’s documents, which he fortuitously finds. Leo is fun, chatty, endlessly enthusiastic, scatterbrained and just eminently huggable. And, thanks to the new system of cutscene interaction (an upgrade of AC’s camera angle changes), whereby you can be prompted to press some buttons to affect Ezio’s actions during some cutscenes, you can do just that. And beware Leo’s kicked-puppy eyes if you miss that hug! Other memorable additions include Caterina Sforza, the willful, intelligent and crafty ruler of Forli, or Rosa, a gutsy, very pretty and very foul-mouthed thief whom Ezio encounters in Venice. On a less serious note, there’s also Uncle Mario, whose claim to fame is the infamous “it’s-a me, Mario!” shout-out.
As far as streamlining is concerned, the controls are more fluid, and there seem to be fewer bugs. The horrible beggar women have been replaced by the no less persistent, but much more amusing minstrels. Those will run up to Ezio and sing utter nonsense (“here comes a brave signoooreeee”), both hampering his movements and drawing attention to him until he either outruns them, knocks their lutes out of their hands or throws some money on the ground to send his immediate entourage, both rich and poor, frantically scrabbling for it. Flag collection still exists, but has been pared down to reduce tedium. Ezio now also has a notoriety meter, which rises when he performs risky or illegal acts in front of guards, and gradually makes him easier to detect. It can be reduced either by ripping off wanted posters, bribing town criers or assassinating corrupt officials. Oh, and a small detail which nevertheless makes me happy: Ezio has an accent. I missed that with Altaïr.
Finally, we come to storyline enhancement. Where Altaïr’s plotline basically boiled down to “here’s a hit list, do your worst”, Ezio’s tale is more linear, but also more personal, growing from revenge into commitment to a greater cause. Paradoxically though, this kind of presentation makes Ezio’s targets less memorable. Sure, there’s his first victim and the big bad at the end, but the people he kills in between? I couldn’t name them to save my life, and this despite the fact that their portraits are displayed in Monteriggioni after the fact. By contrast, I can still remember every one of Altaïr’s targets, and the unique settings for their assassinations. The other problem of the storyline is that it spans about twenty years, rather than just a couple of months. I’m sure the idea was to give it more scope, but it just doesn’t work very well. The only character who shows any signs of aging is Ezio, and even that is limited to…growing a beard. The only other indication that time has passed is the date that appears onscreen between chapters. Sometimes, the temporal gaps are downright baffling. Surely, someone with such a burning desire for revenge wouldn’t spend so much time doing…what exactly?
This brings us to the inevitable Altaïr vs Ezio showdown. The general opinion appears to be largely in favour of the latter, and this is easily understood: he’s depicted as far more human. He’s fiery, cocky, has a sense of humour and, upholding the most typical cliché about Italian men, is a total playboy. In short, the dashing rogue type. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this kind of personality didn’t quite befit an assassin. Altaïr may have been an arrogant jerk, but he was efficient, focussed, shady, and, to me, a lot more believable in his role. Ezio…just spends a whole lot of time faffing about. Defending a lady from an importunate suitor? Ezio to the rescue! A thief wants some racing practice? Ezio’s happy to oblige! And, what’s most detrimental to his integrity: his involvement with Lorenzo de Medici, whom he saves from an attempt on his life, only to become…his lackey. Lorenzo wants anything done? Ezio’s on it! No wonder the game has to span twenty years.
This, in turn, highlights the flipside of the lavish amounts of variety in the game. Weapons? All you ever really need are the hidden blades. Upgrading the villa? Ezio ends up sitting on a mountain of money he doesn’t know what to do with. Helper factions? They all amount to the same thing. Random sidequests? After a while, you start forgetting what your main goal in the storyline was. And much as I enjoyed running around familiar cities and scaling monuments I’d visited in real life, sightseeing isn’t all the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Still, don’t let this deter you: the game is definitely a terrific romp.