Assassin’s Creed II Xbox 360, PS3 Review

History has a funny habit of repeating itself. The original Assassin’s Creed was a near perfect example of video game marketing done absolutely right. An example of how the hype-machine can be used to take a fairly average action game and sell it to millions of people, regardless of a relatively cold critical reception. It would appear that slow-motion footage of hooded men cutting guys up to moody electro-rock is all you need to whet the appetite of the mass gaming public, which is why it’s unsurprising that the same approach has been taken to promote Ubisoft’s next fairly average action game.

The first Assassin’s Creed centred itself on the theme of illusion. After a long advertising campaign leading all to believe the game was purely a period thriller, it fooled the world as it pulled back its hood and showed its true colours; a dodgy science fiction story rife with conspiracy theories and unnecessary plot twists. The second game follows on immediately from where the first left off, and in much the same way continues to build on the themes of its predecessor. This time around however, the illusion seems far more unintentional – to the point at which it would appear Ubisoft may well be fooling themselves.

In a completely unforeseen twist, Desmond – the most uninspired protagonist in the world – is rescued from his former captors, and led to a loft apartment where he – wait for it – is shoved into another Animus! This time he assumes the role of Ezio, an unlikeable womanizer who enjoys starting fights. Also he is Italian. Eventually his father and brothers are framed by a rival family and then executed, and so Ezio starts out for revenge, which is where the game starts treading even more familiar ground.

While the original was praised for creating a visually stunning game-world, it was criticised for lacking variety. Each mission became a uniform series of events that soon became far too familiar to consider genuinely fun. For the sequel the developer promised change, they promised a great deal more in which to participate outside of the main story arc, they hinted at side-quests that would impact the story in ways that didn’t exist in the first game. What they actually delivered however was a mixed bag of fetch-missions and races.

While some of these are genuinely interesting, a lot of them seem to be treading the same ground as before. Arguably the best of the bunch are assassination missions; receive a target from a pigeon coop detailing their relationship with the client, track them down and kill them. These occasionally come with variables such as ‘don’t be seen’ or ‘kill the mark in a certain way’, and take great advantage of the nature of Assassin’s Creed II’s world. To begin with, tracking down a target, planning where and how you’ll make the hit and escaping into the night can be quite exhilarating. It’s almost reminiscent of a watered-down Hit Man, perform five or so of exactly the same mission however, and it soon loses its initial charm.

Which can be said for most of the non-plot based missions really – it’s not that any of them are particularly bad ideas; it’s that they rarely manage to sustain enjoyment after the third or fourth go. While Ubisoft Montreal promised a greater number of things to do, they appear to have missed the point that – over such a large game area – increasing the type of sub-quest by however many still isn’t going to provide as much variation as necessary. Though it’s clear that the developer has strived to create a highly detailed representation of various parts of Italy, the ambition to create an ‘epic’ has taken priority over the ambition to create a ‘good game’.

While Assassin’s Creed II is undoubtedly vast, much of its content has been spread as thinly as possible over a game that was already being criticised two years prior. Rather than condensing the game area and focusing more on ways to improve the experience, Ubisoft have opted to double the size and wring as much content out of a handful of ideas as is possible. A good example is the tutorial, which appears to be still on-going four hours after the game has started. For each element of gameplay that exists, an unnecessary side mission appears – at one point being little more than just following an NPC around, for no reason other than what I can only assume is to allow PR types to declare the game as thirty hours long. It wouldn’t matter, but a lot of what the tutorial is teaching later on in the game, is stuff you’ve already had to figure out for yourself through necessity.

The fact that all of this takes place using game mechanics that haven’t changed at all in two years is also pretty damning. One of the main gripes with the original game’s free-running ability was that it took too much control away from the player. In other open-world sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Crackdown, climbing buildings and leaping from rooftop to rooftop required a great deal of user input. Successfully traversing a series of terraces in GTA4 took skill, it required timing and a developed sense of spatial awareness, and because of this it was ultimately satisfying. Assassin’s Creed II sees the return of the free-run button, hold it down and push a direction and watch as you gracefully navigate every corner, shack and balcony with ease. How incredibly dull.

Interestingly, there has been a new edition to the free-run mechanic. There is now a ‘grab’ button, which you can hit having missed a ledge, allowing for Ezio to cling on to passing hand-holds in an attempt to avoid breaking his legs. While at first this appears to be a step in the right direction, providing more hands-on control for the player, in reality it seems to be a bi-product of the game being unable to judge where the player really wants to go. In most cases the free-running is fluid and natural, but there are an increasing number of occasions throughout the game in which the computer won’t quite understand where it is the player wants to be. The ‘grab’ button appears to be a result of this. Later on it’s coupled with a vertical jump allowing for a jump-grab combo to get Ezio up to hard to reach places. While this is more of the sort of interaction the game needs, it’s handled sloppily as the button for ‘grab’ and the button for ‘let go’ are the same, resulting in a slew of mishaps that could easily be avoided.

Where the free-running shines is during the interior platforming sections of the game. New to Assassin’s Creed II, these feel far more like Tomb Raider and Uncharted, requiring thought and planning rather than just pushing directions and holding a button. Navigating the complex series of beams and struts gives a hint of Assassin’s Creed’s potential as a decent action-platformer, and had there been more clever little puzzle sections like these it would have been a much better game. Sadly these are limited to a handful of stages, but manage to impress none-the-less. If Ubisoft can somehow work these into the inevitable third game in a much more prominent way, then they may have more than just a re-hash of the original on their hands.

As for combat, little has changed. There are additional types of weaponry ranging from pikes, to heavy axes, all of which are upgradeable at shops – but the upgrades feel tacked on, serving little purpose other than providing another thing to fill up the time, most fights can be won by simply holding the block button and waiting for an opening, with little incentive to work in combos. In a year in which we saw Rocksteady introduce the ‘freeflow’ combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II feels sluggish and clumsy by comparison. It’s by no means bad, but yet another element that has failed to develop since the last Assassin’s Creed.

And then there’s the story. Unravelling like something thrown together by the bastard child of Dan Brown and L Ron Hubbard, Assassin’s Creed II will leave you stunned beyond all belief. What began as an interesting but flawed venture into the realms of Sci-Fi, becomes an over-bloated, swelling mass of absolute drivel. The care and dedication put into the historic side of the Italian cities and towns is crushed beneath what can only be described as a colossal mess, the kind that makes the plot of Lost seem like a well-planned and highly intelligent piece of literature.  What’s worse, the development of Ezio as a character, and his personal story, invites a great deal of player immersion – only for the game to break the flow as you’re quickly reminded that you’re actually playing as the most boring man in the world, stuck in a chair watching what is in essence an interactive version of the history channel.

To say the least, Assassin’s Creed II is a disappointment – not because it’s bad, but because we were promised so much more. Everything Ubisoft claimed they were changing has stayed the same, and what little new touches they’ve included fail to impact in the long run. While there are numerous additions such as upgrading armour, upgrading town shops, catching pick pockets and paying thieves to cause distractions, they’ve been cast across such an unnecessarily long-winded and laborious narrative that even these become repetitive and stale. As with most sequels it will please those who enjoyed the original game, the production values are still incredibly high, and there’s nothing to repel fans of the series. For those who saw the original for what it really was however, this is not the Assassin’s Creed to change their minds. Instead it rests behind its smoke and mirrors, no doubt selling millions with the least of effort.

6 out of 10
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