After the monumental disaster that was Assassin’s Creed (review), it was no surprise I was skeptical about the second installment, which only released exactly two years after the first. However, I had read in several places that Assassin’s Creed II is often considered the best, if not, one of the best in the series, so that praise helped grant me the will to tackle ACII. And guess what? Turns out those commendations were not too far-fetched.
Ubisoft’s ACII is not perfect, but it is most definitely a colossal step above its shallow predecessor. Anyone who has played an AC title before this specific game will realize this is the installment which essentially epitomizes a standard AC title and the one that sets many trends for the series. Examples include air assassinations, throwing knives, the dynamic combat controls, and plenty of other cases that were not present in the first game.
Ubisoft finally ditched the tedious and overly repetitive structure of the first game for a more sophisticated approach. Most importantly (and I feel like I should not have to say this), there are finally missions that contain variety. A few missions are undoubtedly duds, but they are outnumbered compared to the majority of creative ones. The final sequence in particular is designed impeccably and has the player utilize their every resource, having them use everything they have learned in one final swoop.
The coolest surprise was how Ubisoft incorporated mechanics into the starting missions in order to teach them to the player. Putting ideas into action was a fine choice, and it was great to see that they stuck with this method of teaching throughout the entire game. One of the most significant moments in the game for me was when I stumbled upon a building that was impossible to climb. I foolishly tried to find a way up for quite a while. A few story missions later, I (or Ezio) was taught how to reach higher heights with a certain trick. I then immediately climbed the building I so long desired to get to the top of. It was a big moment for me as I realized how Ubisoft’s manner of show-don’t-tell was utilized very effectively in this game.
The mechanics themselves are finely tuned. There is certainly much more complexity, but never to a confusing point. Approaches to combat feel limitless with the amount of weapons and gadgets Ezio is supplied with. The combat itself is just as complex and there is an actual craft to defeating enemies one-by-one.
An aspect that Ubisoft actually nailed in the first game that they also accomplish in ACII is the intricately detailed map. Very few areas in this game feel as though they were put to waste because of how many packed-in treasures were scattered throughout the map. The map and art designers also did a phenomenal job at implementing the culture and beautiful Renaissance architecture into the design. Because of how rich with collectibles and content the game was, I often mindlessly frolicked through entire areas doing nothing but collecting treasures. Often, it was hard to know where to start.
ACII’s environment is bestowed with lots of life. There is a neat notoriety function that freely allows the player to unburden themselves of their infamy. There are also plenty of useful, hireable NPCs to help distract enemy guards or to fight alongside Ezio. I was also caught by surprise more than once — enemies hurting one another, scaffolding collapsing when I had thrown a guard into it, and a particular “special attack” that allowed me to throw dust into the eyes of my enemies, stunning them.
As I said earlier, ACII is far from perfect. The most irking of its flaws is easily the clunky free-run controls. For the most part, they work fine, but I experienced way too many frustrating, “I-didn’t-mean-to-do-that,” moments because of how controlled the character’s movements were.
The free-run controls were honestly the only thing majorly poor. Smaller issues include the usual Ubisoft lack of polish — which there was very little of anyway. Although, ACII should consider itself lucky I’m not docking points for narrative reasons. I found there to be way too much narrative involvement when there is already a ton of content gameplay-wise, specifically the eye-rolling, overblown conclusion and a portion of the 3rd sequence. For part of this sequence, the game has you go from NPC to NPC to basically listen to them talk, almost like a generic, tedious (and unfortunately unskippable) online MMO.
Even if the “who cares” narrative is as equally present as all the new and inventive gameplay functions, Assassin’s Creed II is predominantly crafted with extreme care and detail. Unless you are a completionist with OCD like me, I would recommend just skipping the first Assassin’s Creed and coming straight to this.