The Death Merchant of Venice – Assassin’s Creed 2 Review

Assassin’s Creed 2 takes what the first game started and builds something much bigger, much more involving and hell of lot more fun.  Set in an era of history famous for the creation of beautiful art and master invention, Assassin’s Creed 2 is a game that leaps beyond the achievements of both its predecessor and some other vaunted works.

The game looks great, plays great and it avoids all of the pitfalls of its predecessor, but Assassin’s Creed 2’s finest achievement is that it offers one of video gaming’s most mature adventures.  It’s a game that can be played and that tells a story at the same time.  It is also a game that assumes its players are educated, curious, willing to be teased, and willing to test its limits.

Two years ago, the first Assassin’s Creed sold millions of copies but evoked complaints that its mechanics– free-running, pickpocketing, killing and escaping—were a repeating formula with little variation.  In truth, Assassin’s Creed was a very short game masquerading as an epic.  Then along comes Assassin’s Creed 2, which makes its predecessor seem like it was nothing more than a tech demo.  In the process, it earns a shelf place with esteemed games such as the Metal Gear series and encompasses storytelling that rivals The Da Vinci Code.

To quickly re-cap the first game: players were in control of a bold young assassin named Altair living in the Holy Land during the Crusades- although players weren’t really in the Holy Land.  Players were actually in the future, playing as Desmond Miles, an average every-man strapped into a genetic memory machine called the Animus.  Locked in a high-security facility, Desmond was manipulated to play through the Altair scenario by a high-tech, ultramodern, diabolical order of Templars searching history for ancient supernatural artifacts of power that they could use to end a centuries-spanning war with the Assassins.

If this premise is just whizzing over your head and your starting to worry that you need to play the first game to enjoy Assassin’s Creed 2, don’t.  The game makes an effort to catch new players up to speed.  If that isn’t enough, a quick view of the wikipedia page will assuage all fears.  More importantly, it will have you ready to grab the reigns of one of the BEST interactive stories ever told.

As Desmond re-enters the Animus to experience the memories of another one of his ancestors, it quickly becomes clear that this is a game with a specific story to tell.  Instead of Altair in the crusades, Desmond is about to re-live some of the more eventful moments in the life Ezio Auditore, a privileged young man living a rambunctious, devil-may-care life in Renaissance-era Florence, Italy.  In a striking move, the game starts the Ezio experience with one of the biggest events for anyone: birth.  This is the first sign of what becomes one of the clear differences between this game and its predecessor– a protagonist the player can care about.  In Assassin’s Creed, Altair was a blank slate; a character defined by his post. Granted, he was a total bad-ass, but he often came off as callous and with never any insight into his character. With Ezio, the player watches as an incredibly justified vendetta drives him from brash bon vivant to brutal assassin, but one whose interests seem in line with the greater good.  Ezio is a man whose family and life is demolished right before the player’s eyes.  The journey of events that forces Ezio to become an assassin, scouring Italy for conspiracy clues and rightful victims of his vengeance, is an engrossing adventure told through a weave of exposition and gameplay that defies the usual conventions of game story taking turns with interactivity.  In this game you play the story.  The mechanics propel an epic adventure full of change and surprise.

In Assassin’s Creed 2 players will visit real historical places such as Florence, Venice and Tuscany, and they will meet people the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Lorenzo De’Medici, and Dante Alighieri.  The ability to encounter historical figures, and to predict who might appear next, adds the intrigue and excitement of being able to trace and guess where this adventure will wind up.  In this sense, Assassin’s Creed 2 is more of a thinking man’s video game and it appears to have been made by people who share The Da Vinci Code novelist Dan Brown’s fascination with secret societies and century-old conspiracies involving dozens of historical figures. Through an unexpected puzzle-gameplay twist that I don’t want to spoil, players can begin to discover some of the secrets of the series’ lore, injecting a nice amount of mystery and sleuthing to a game that already does a rock-solid job of delivering action and adventuring really well.

But for those who don’t care about story flow and are bored by history, Assassin’s Creed 2 delivers gameplay in spades. Despite the distinctions that the characters and locales provide, the biggest differentiator between Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 is that there’s just so much more stuff to do.  Nearly all of the discreet systems from the first game have been evolved and elaborated on in some meaningful fashion. This starts with Ezio himself, who benefits from the resources that his social station provide, though he’s also generally just a superior specimen. Ezio’s more agile.  He’s able to scale buildings more rapidly and gracefully.  He’s better in a fight, where the timing’s been relaxed a bit and you’re given the additional ability to disarm your foes, making their weapons yours.  Plus, Ezio’s dual wrist-mounted blades give him more unflinchingly brutal assassination opportunities and make him capable of killing two men at once.  Combat on the ground typically consists of Ezio surrounded by a group of angry guards who take turns attacking while the player waits for counter-kill moments, or, better yet, opportunities to wrench a weapon away and turn it on its owner.  Neither climbing nor killing is complex.  Both are easily executed, fun and rendered beautifully.

Beyond fighting and climbing, Ezio’s also very capable of invisible escape.  He can disappear into a crowd and blend in with groups of pedestrians who wander the street.  He can toss handfuls of coins to create a commotion, which proves once again how Assassin’s Creed 2 builds upon its predecessor– by presenting an interesting choice of approaches: will you free-run across rooftops and risk the attention of archers? Will you barrel through the pedestrian-clogged streets instead? Or will you simply walk through them and blend in with the crowd (but pickpocket them as you go)? How about hiring a group of prostitutes to lure guards away? Or maybe poison the guards? Or just swim past everyone?  It’s entirely up to the player. But while Ezio has more means by which to dodge security, guards now have more memory of your action. Too much high-profile killing and thievery will leave you with a notoriety level that makes it harder to get around.  This level can be reduced by tearing down wanted signs, bribing heralds, and murdering corrupt city officials.

In addition to all of this, there is an entirely new gameplay element: an economic system in which the monetary investments made into a dilapidated town surrounding the family villa will pay dividends that players can spend on new weapons, armor, color schemes for Ezio’s outfit and more.  The full scope of this element is that Assassin’s Creed 2 offers players the option of restoring a dull and dying town back to vibrant colorful life.  And that’s merely one of the side options.  There’s a menagerie of optional diversions: assassinations, free-running races, hundreds of collectibles to gather, classic art to buy and more.  Best of all are the tombs, optional missions heavy on platforming and relevant to the series in a way that I won’t spoil here.

Crystal clear above all else is the fact that the level of craft and care in the creation of Assassin’s Creed 2 — to say nothing of the level of obsession with conspiracy — is benchmark.  Assassin’s Creed 2 is technology in the service of artistry.  Quite simply, the game can be boiled down to seven words:  climbing and killing for the critical thinker.

Fire Wire readers, Assassin’s Creed 2 is the game you want for Christmas.

(written by Nick Creature)

Published by Larry Fire

I write an eclectic pop culture blog called THE FIRE WIRE that features articles about books, comics, music, movies, television, gadgets, posters, toys & more!

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