HIGH Feeling my stomach pitch climbing the heights of a towering church.
LOW The poorly-planned, hours-long, painfully slow beginning.
WTF Is finding feathers supposed to be fun?
Back in 2007, my estimation of the original Assassin's Creed was that it was little more than a tech demo, rich in style but deficient in substance. However, the potential was clear to see. The premise of being a nimble intruder dancing across rooftops to deliver justice to unsuspecting enemies was an extremely attractive one. Despite my disappointment, I held out hope that Ubisoft would listen to player feedback and get things right in the inevitable sequel.
That sequel is now here. Although it's definitely a better experience, "better" is a relative term.
While many in critical circles were quick to proclaim that all was well with this new installment, I find my issues with third-person actioner Assassin's Creed II are much the same as they were the first time around; the tasks presented to the player are too repetitive, too much time is spent simply climbing or traveling from place to place, and the core controls never feel as tuned as they should.
Looking first to the controls, Assassin's Creed II employs the same system that allowed players to make impossible jumps and scale high buildings last time. By holding a button and pressing a direction, main character Ezio Auditore can ascend practically any wall and make breathtaking leaps from one precipice to another. It's a great trick and terribly impressive-looking in motion, but lacks precision.
It's a very common occurrence to leap in a direction that was not intended, especially in timed sections, or while fleeing. Additionally, since the player does little more than hold down a button and aim towards the desired destination, so much automation lends the sense that the player is only vaguely in control. There's little thrill in nailing a landing or correctly judging distance. That same sort of imprecision extends to the combat—although the developers try to maximize the available inputs on a controller by employing context-sensitive inputs, I can't help but feel that they've tried to cram too much in. It's quite annoying to try to grab a ledge and instead "push away" a person that isn't there, or to have to hold down both triggers, aim in a direction and then hit a face button to counter an oncoming attacker. At no point does the interface ever feel natural or effortless.
Although the controls were a bother, the more serious issue to address is the fact that a player's enjoyment of Assassin's Creed II is directly linked to how much pleasure is derived from climbing walls and leaping rooftops to get from point A to point B.
Rather than craft composed levels that present directed situations the player must navigate with Ezio's skillset, the bulk of the game instead relies on the auto-climb system in nearly all missions and gives the player large expanses of urban environment to traverse. Although I do feel that the parkour-styled locomotion at the heart of the game is interesting and attractive, positioning it as anything more than supplementary is a mistake. By placing it at the core of the Assassin's Creed experience and expecting it to provide the lions' share of engaging content on its own is a grievous error in judgment.
By the time I reached the game's halfway point, I had become thoroughly disenchanted with jumping and climbing tall things just for the sake of climbing them. There are only so many ways to implement such a system without providing a wider variety of scripted situations, and the biggest problem of the last game, repetition, remains a problem still.
For example, upon entering each new area, the player must obtain map data by climbing a series of towers simply to get to the top. Although it's fine to do the first few times, it quickly becomes a chore that has to be endured rather than savored. The new optional missions (ostensibly added to provide variety) are all variations on the same basic types—assassination, racing, delivering messages, and so on. Once these have been experienced, there is little to separate one from another. The same goes for finding important Codex pages, or how the game requires players to tear down posters or eliminate officials as a way of reducing the notoriety Ezio accumulates. It all basically boils down to asking the player to engage in low-complexity activities hinging on navigating the environment.
Interestingly, the most enjoyable segments of Assassin's Creed II for me were when it broke away from its free-running identity. Throughout the adventure there are six crypts (seven, if the extra from Ubisoft's Uplay system is downloaded) and a quick visit to the Vatican. These segments are all deliberately made to have one correct path through, and include discrete challenges that must be overcome by taking advantage of Ezio's agility and assassination skills. Feeling more like Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, the level of focused intent from the development team felt more rewarding than the hours of wide-open mediocrity I had to wade through between them. More than anything, these sections are what convinced me that the franchise still has potential, but continuing to rely on an open-world design to provide the bulk of what passes for "gameplay" is the true Achilles' heel here.
Built on such a shallow foundation, the rest of the experience suffers. The adventure as a whole feels samey, sluggish and bloated, and in my opinion would benefit from being half as long as it is. Although I do appreciate the return of the high-concept sci-fi elements first posited in the original, most time spent in Assassin's Creed II's deals with an overly-complicated tangle of Italian political intrigue that fails to engage or interest, just as it fails to deliver any showstopping, must-tell-friends moments. It's clear to see that the development team spent quite a bit of time and effort in developing this mythology, but to be honest, it's so boring and verbose that I can't help but feel their efforts would've been better spent elsewhere.
Although it's possible to rattle off a list of bullet-point features that imply Assassin's Creed II is head and shoulders above the first game—more missions, more story, more collectibles and extras—I simply didn't find them to amount to much. As I stated in the opening, it's certainly better, but remains too tiresome and unsatisfying to celebrate. Rather than writing a book's worth of Renaissance dialogue and tossing in more carbon-copy roof-crossing filler, I'd much prefer that Ubisoft Montreal focus future attention on expanding and enriching the core gameplay itself. As much as it pains me to say it, Assassin's Creed II is yet another promise, and not yet a promise fulfilled.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, sexual content and strong language, and those descriptors are accurate. Most definitely not a game appropriate for young ones, the violence is redly graphic, salty language litters nearly every cut-scene, and although the sexual content isn't prolific or gratuitous, it's definitely there. This one is labeled "M" for a reason, moms and dads.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have much difficulty playing the game proper, but even with the subtitles turned on I noticed that the opening scenes did not have text. It was a little disappointing to start the adventure out that way, but everything else in the game is accessible. Although sounds of enemies do occasionally play a role, their importance is also communicated through on-screen displays, so there's nothing being missed by those with hearing impairment.