canuckeh's Assassin's Creed II (Xbox 360) review

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Gaming's second most popular Italian.

 

Assassin’s Creed 1 starred a preachy, philosophical, emotionless, characterless unibomber-lookalike named Altair. Killing was his business, but business was not good. First he had to pickpocket, eavesdrop and stalk random targets to obtain “information”, or rather grind missions to extend play, time about his victims-to-be. He would then proceed to attempt an assassination on said targets, one that would involve stealth and cunning…on paper. In practice, they usually ended in extended fight sequences, combating both a tiresome barrage of respawning enemies and cumbersome climbing mechanics and a dull combat system. When you finally killed your last target and a grand unveiling of the true nature of the game’s sacred artifact was about to occur, the “flashback” was cut off. Players were brought back to the present day storyline, of Altair’s descendant, Desmond, being held captive by templars and…the game ended with him continuing to be trapped. Many questions were thrust on the player, and the only surefire answer provided was “buy our sequel two years from now.”

And now we have Assassin’s Creed 2 to address some of those annoying cliffhanger questions…while providing plenty more mysteries anger players with the notion of waiting another two years. But while the first game was a wholly aggravating experience from beginning to end, Assassin’s Creed 2 only has slight growing pains and issues with modern times. Rather, unlike ex-girlfriends and boyfriends everywhere, Assassin’s Creed 2 thrives when it lives in the past.

 Ezio stabs a foe in the urinary tract.
 Ezio stabs a foe in the urinary tract.

The game begins with Desmond being liberated from his prison by that blonde chick, whom switches from cliché empathetic scientist girl to cliché ass-kicking woman in leather. After the breakout, Desmond finds solace in the assassin’s headquarters…or rather, the apartment of some preppy British geek and his stoned best friend science girl who moonlights as the the girl on change room duty at Urban Behavior. They have an Animus of their own, and they’re going to use it to Matrix-ise Desmond into an assassin. Honestly, everything about the “present day” plot sucks, and I mean everything. It’s hard to accept the struggle between assassins and templars as some kind of history-shaping struggle when the assassins look like Chess Club members and the templars like mall cops with batons. The almighty templars with infinite resources can’t afford guns. Despite centuries of history, neither party would survive a night in .

Bear with me when I say that the game as a whole is more interesting when dealing with the past storyline. And I really do mean “bear with me” because even that aspect takes awhile to build steam. You alternately spend most of the game as Ezio, a noble paysan in 1400s . He’s young, brash, charming, and you’ll have to go through a series of tutorial missions to get these points across. The tutorial is long. Lengthy. Unending. Verbose. Extensive. Substantial. Hulking. Massive. Voluminous. Elongated. Mammoth. As fun as watching play soccer. And any other word for long and drab your thesaurus may boast. The Grand Theft Auto 4 tutorial cowers in comparison, feeling ashamed that it cannot ever aspire to be as extended and boring as the Assassin’s Creed 2 tutorial. You have to undergo tutorials on how to jump, climb, fistfight, swordfight, bribe prostitutes, pickpocket your money back from them, taunt, flail your arms, and explain the many different forms of side-quests. It took me about a week of casual play (about 1-2 hours a day) before I got to partake in my first assassination. You can understand why I empathize the importance of bearing with me when I say that this game does eventually become great.  

Somewhere within that lengthy tutorial process of making Ezio pay his dues, his father and brothers are unjustly killed and thus begins his descent from cheery nobleman to ruthless-but-still-cheery assassin. The storyline then bases itself around Ezio’s quest to dispatch the conspirators responsible, all of whom just happen to be templars.

 Hypothetically, if I cut the guy's head off. Would he still monologue after his death?
 Hypothetically, if I cut the guy's head off. Would he still monologue after his death?

And the revenge quest part of Assassin’s Creed 2 is really where the game shines. Ezio is an appealing character that never falls in the same religious/ideological preaching sessions that Altair spent too much time being pre-programmed into mechanically spouting. You’ll witness his development over a ten year span, including positive and negative thoughts, and he’s surrounded by a bustling Italian landscape filled with poor people, prostitutes, that jolly next door neighbour Leonardo Da Vinci and his own little code… more poor people and plenty of lively characters and lavish buildings to climb. It’s hard to not get enraptured by the game’s scenery. That this is the only game with this unique European setting gives Assassin’s Creed 2 a wonderfully unique sense of style and immersion.

Just be sure to play the game with subtitles turned on. The characters have a tendency to slip between English and Italian as often as Italian grandparents. Even though most of the Italian spoken word consisted of prayer and swearing, sometimes in combination, it’s still nice to have the translation.

Oh, and there are religious themes. This game was made by that very same multi-cultural team of various religious beliefs, after all. Keep that in mind during the…final sequence.

Assassin’s Creed 2 is a sandbox game, though a sandbox game where you cannot kill civilians without punishment. (For you see, Ezio never harmed a civilian in his entire life, which I have a hard time believing.) You run around, you climb structures with the same Prince of Persia/Assassin’s Creed 1/Tomb Raider/Imfamous/Uncharted/Uncharted 2 climbing system that’s starting to get a bit tired in games. Most of the climbing is automated, but Ezio’s pathfinding can be a bit suspect at times. He has the occasional habit of jumping off his ledge and in the wrong direction, sometimes to his untimely dea…I mean desynchronization. This is especially profanity-inducing during certain timed platform sequences. And the sword combat isn’t particularly exciting. It still comprises mainly of timing button presses to execute combos and counters, and while there are a few new moves (mainly the ability to jack another fool’s weapon) you’ll most likely employ a mindset of “attack a lot, then block when attacked” in combat. It’s not a bad combat system, just one that lacks the flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum, and to be fair, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee as martial artists don’t quite have the flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum either.

I hope at this point you’ve bore with me up to now, because even though the platforming seems drab and the combat average, the rest of the game is quite entertaining. Those annoying pickpocket/eavesdrop/stalking missions have vanished altogether. The next story mission is almost always at accessible immediately, only asking the player to grind a fetch quest near the game’s end. (There are codex pages scattered around the world that you can collect on your own throughout your journey, and getting them is a simple matter of distracting the guards with hired floozies. So this fetch quest as a whole is harmless.) Most of the story missions are varied and enjoyable, offering a much higher ratio of time spent killing to time spent not killing than in the prior game. You’ll kill plenty of guards, often by sneaking up to them and hidden-blading their asses, and the variety of challenges that await you ensure that the campaign never grows tiresome.

 I hate you, Desmond. I hate you and don't want to play as you in Assassin's Creed 3.
 I hate you, Desmond. I hate you and don't want to play as you in Assassin's Creed 3.

Now, not all of the missions are great. The game doesn’t quite approach the same ratio of great levels to wastes of time that Grand Theft Auto 4 achieves. In particular, Assassin’s Creed 2 may feature the lamest rendition of Capture The Flag in the history of video games, and that may actually be a rare achievement. But the post-tutorial game moves at a consistently brisk pace, assuming that you even want to play the story missions. The optional side missions, including assorted assassinations, muggings, races and so forth are exciting enough to occupy your attention. In particular, there are six set-piece “tomb” levels that will have you traverse a specific platforming sequence, giving chase or solving weird timed puzzle sequences. This isn’t like other games that rehash side missions to artificially pad out the game’s length. It just happens that you’ll feel more inclined to take time away from the main plot to indulge yourself, and time will just magically fly by. The money earned can be spent on assorted upgrades (and you’re always going to need the best sword available if you want to have fun with the combat) or renovating your home villa, for Ezio is the Mike Holmes of assassins. Renovating your village is intended to be an investment; money made from tourism goes into a chest that you subsequently and unethically pocket yourself, the corrupt politician you are. The issue with this whole system is that “quick-travel” stations are scarcely scattered around the map, hence you’ll waste an unnecessary amount of time just to collect your paycheck.

Back on the positive side, the game gives you a greater sense of control. New abilities like the pistol upgrade give you more options for dispatching your fellow goomba. The addition of two hidden blades lets you feel more like Steven Segal in allowing you to end the lives of two soldiers simultaneously, and from different positions. Whether it’s killing from ledges or while hidden in a haystack, the game puts a greater emphasis on stealth kills. The guard AI is kind of dimwitted in a variety of ways, most notably how they’ll never notice how one of their fellow workers has suddenly vanished, but their ignorance provided me with great bliss as I picked them off one-by-one. And should you decide to run from the large flock of guards giving chase, new options like the ability to hide in any crowd and not just four strategically placed scholars give you a greater sense of control. Gone are the days where you ran around blind, hoping the guards would suddenly lose sight and you just happen to notice a pile of hay to slip into.  

So Assassin’s Creed 2 is a great game…all the way to the end. As I and most anyone else predicted, the game ends with another cheap cliffhanger, opening up tons of questions and completely reworking the plot in the name of building towards an Assassin’s Creed 3. Without elaborating too much, the “plot change” is cheesy as all hell, and almost puts a damper on the Ezio revenge quest that I fell so in love with. But the damage done at the end doesn’t quite sour the experience the way the first game’s ending did; rather, it merely kills off whatever enthusiasm I could’ve held for Assassin’s Creed 3, knowing the direction the story will follow now.

But let us live for the moment instead. Standing on its merits as both an action game and an immersive experience, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a treat. It isn’t perfect but is perfection something that exists anyways? The redeeming qualities are worth experiencing for yourself in spite of the flaws. Just remember that if this is your first experience with the franchise, to not give in to curiosity and play Assassin’s Creed 1. You’re not missing much.

4 stars

Actually, there is a few flaws in the game I should mention, but it’s more an issue with me than the game itself. The characters in the game revere Altair as some kind of legendary prophet or hero. I disagree with them. I did not want to see anything from the first game revered as sacred.

Also, I have beef with any game that feels it should have an achievement system separate from the Xbox one. Now Ubi Soft has to have its own online achievement system. Why?

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