Jan 20, 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 Review

Assassin's Creed 2 is a much better game than its predecessor. For one thing, it's actually a complete game, possessing a beginning, a middle, and an end, where the original Assassin's Creed had a very interesting beginning and a satisfying end connected by 20 hours of interminable grey tedium. And while this sequel may not feel quite as fresh as the first game's handful of exceptional moments did, it serves up a more consistently enjoyable experience from start to finish.

AC2 has some flaws, but it benefits from a completely reworked structure that keeps the pace snappy and makes those minor issues fairly unnoticed. Without a doubt, the most important improvement here is the way Ubisoft Montreal revamped the core mission design. The first Creed offered a sharply limited palette of objectives: Scout the area, undertake a set of investigative assignments, kill a guy, repeat. It was just so boring to do the same tasks again and again. ACII offers more varied primary tasks, largely relegating the previous game's toilsome errands to the sidelines. You may have a friendly chat with Leonardo da Vinci one minute and kill a politician at a gala event the next, while events like races and extracurricular assassinations are almost entirely left to the player's discretion. One could conceivably play the game strictly for the story missions, which would result in a lean, cinematic, eight-hour adventure.

The great thing about AC2 is that you don't have to play it that way. You don't have to play it any particular way, in fact. At any moment, the game is bursting with available objectives, both mandatory and optional, spread across half a dozen beautifully rendered city-states of Renaissance Italy. These range from the obvious (advancing the story) to the obligatory (hunting for cash and collectibles) to the exceptional (exploring a number of self-contained tombs crammed with Prince of Persia-style platforming challenges). Completing any of these tasks results in a real sense of accomplishment with tangible rewards, giving AC2 an addicting, just-one-more-mission appeal.
The story keeps things interesting, too. The game's overarching plot admittedly goes a bit off the rails in this chapter, building up to a cliffhanger ending that seems to channel Dan Brown and Xenogears in equal parts, but the whole thing is carried along nicely by the game's leading man, a young Italian noble named Ezio d'Auditore. Unlike Creed's surly cipher of a hero, Alta├»r, Ezio is charming and good-natured, driven by a desire for revenge but never consumed by it. Ezio is likable enough to sell the game's goofiest plot twists, even if his character development grinds to a halt in the latter portions of the game.

As for the limitations of the control interface? Ubisoft's workaround was to create a game that's almost preposterously easy. Constant in-game text prompts guide your actions from start to finish, generously placed checkpoints soften the blow of screwups, and Ezio can build up his health and healing items to the point where the prospect of losing in combat is unthinkable. It's definitely the right approach, since failure in AC2 so often seems in no real correlation to player error, but it makes for a game you play to have a bit of carefree escapism rather than a challenge. The tricky Assassin's Tomb platforming missions are a welcome change of pace, albeit few in number.
AC2 is everything a sequel ought to be: An improvement on the original in nearly every way. Perhaps more impressively, it actually has me interested to see where the series goes from here -- something I wouldn't have expected after I slogged my way through the original. Anyone who enjoyed the first game will definitely like AC2, but the real accomplishment is that people who didn't enjoy it will likely have a good time, too.



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