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Before I get into the review proper I want to get the DRM fiasco out the way first. I've decided to give the game five stars despite the fact that the DRM Ubisoft has implemented makes playing the game incredibly difficult and frustrating.
Assassin's Creed II's DRM (Digital Rights Management, basically an anti-piracy measure) requires customers to be connected to the internet not only to activate the game, but every time they want to play it. Your internet connection must be constant during gameplay, if it isn't - for instance, if your connection drops or stutters - your game will be paused and you'll be staring at an error screen until the connection resumes. If it doesn't, you'll be booted from the game entirely and you'll have to restart from your last checkpoint when you get back online.
This is by far the most Draconian, obnoxious and counter-productive DRM system I've ever encountered, and it's so unpredictable and useless that I would urge people NOT to buy this game until Ubisoft sees sense and removes it. The simple fact of that matter is that this DRM, while taking longer than usual to crack, has indeed been cracked, which renders it completely pointless. So, game pirates now have a fully functioning game whilst legitimate customers have something which is largely useless. Hackers have been crippling the DRM servers, as predicted, with Denial of Service attacks and this has forced Ubisoft to hand out free games to its customers by way of compensation. They'll hand out free games, but they won't treat the problem at its source by simply removing the DRM, which will surely be better for everyone in the long run. Ubisoft has given legitimate users the biggest incentive to pirate games they've ever had, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
Even if the DRM performed as it's supposed to there's a principle at stake which goes beyond functionality; legitimate customers are more and more finding themselves the victim of harsh and costly anti-piracy measures, which obviously makes no sense at all given that pirates never have to worry about such things because they simply delete them. The costs of these ineffective and restrictive technologies are passed onto the paying customer, and Ubisoft doesn't seem to mind.
~ [ Assassin's Creed II ] ~
The original Assassin's Creed is one of my favourite games, and I had started replaying it in order to reacquaint myself with the Assassin's Creed world when the release of AC2 was imminent. Coming to AC2 fresh from playing AC1 I was amazed at the sheer scope of the improvements Ubisoft had made, and I was hooked into it so much that I ended up doing an "all nighter" because I couldn't tear myself away from it.
As you can imagine I ended up completing the game's core storyline missions in just a couple of days. It was an enthralling and infinitely enjoyable experience with very few irritations, and I'm still merrily working my way through the vast number of side missions/tasks which remain.
One of my happiest discoveries in Assassin's Creed II was when I realised that you can continue playing after the story missions are completed, which is something you couldn't do in the original game (which would have been largely pointless anyway, given the utterly unimpressive selection of side missions on offer).
Having played this game to death I think I'm about ready to unleash my in-depth review. So, strap yourself in!
~ [ Storyline ] ~
As was the case with the original game you play as two characters in Assassin's Creed II. The first is Desmond Miles, who is the biological descendant of the second character, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Desmond, who resides in 21st century America, is placed into a machine called the Animus which allows him to recreate his genetic memories of Ezio, who resides in 15th century Italy, in a virtual reality world. The purpose of this process is to try to track the whereabouts of an ancient artefact known as "The Piece of Eden", which allows whomever possesses it to wield enormous power.
The story continues immediately after the end of the original; Desmond and Lucy escape from Abstergo Laboratories and make their way to a rebel hideout in which a modified and improved Animus (Animus 2.0) awaits him. He is performing the same tasks as he did in AC1 but for vastly different reasons - this time around he and his cohorts are attempting to beat Abstergpo Labs to the post to prevent them from gaining control of The Piece of Eden and therefore the world.
Ezio's world, like that of Altair's from the original game, is fraught with conspiracy and death. Renaissance Italy is a country undergoing massive social change, and everyone wants a piece of it for themselves. A plot which involves the execution of members of his family drags Ezio into the murky world of assassination and double-crossing politics. He meets Leonardo Da Vinci who becomes his go-to-guy for new weaponry, skills and tactics, and together they begin an ever-expanding campaign of assassination which serves both Ezio's desire for revenge and the larger desire of his circle of accomplices to rid Italy of the power-grabbing elite.
We play through a decade of Ezio's life in Assassin's Creed II, skipping forward two or three years at a time after each memory sequence is complete. We get a sense of his age, his growing maturity and wisdom; a wisdom he has gained by running the edge of his blade along the throats of prophets.
~ [ Voice Acting ] ~
The voice acting in Assassin's Creed II rivals that of the original game, which was fantastic. The performances are convincing and appropriate, and most of the dialogue - even that of peripheral characters - rings true. A great sigh of relief could be heard from me when I first realised that Ezio speaks with an Italian accent. In the original game, Altair - a man from the Middle East of The Crusades - had a whiny, bratty American accent which significantly dented the atmosphere of the game when he spoke. Ezio, on the other hand, is a likeable character and is played by an actor worthy of him.
~ [ Gameplay ] ~
This is obviously the most important part of any game, and Assassin's Creed II delivers a truly engaging and fun experience. The game's central mechanics involve running, jumping and climbing in a style comparable to that of Parkour, which is a highly skilled martial art involving fluidity of motion and Jackie Chan-like nimbleness, and of course the skilled delivery of death to one's enemies. These aspects of the game are largely unchanged, except for the fact that you can now drag enemies from rooftops when you're hanging from a ledge, you can break your fall by jumping on people's bodies from great heights and you can climb much faster and much more slickly if the structure you're climbing permits it.
Along with the ability to pull enemies from rooftops you can also drag them into hay bales as you hide in them. This is great fun, and incredibly useful. The hay bales play the same role they did in the original game, which is twofold; they offer a hiding place should you need to shake off a few perusers, and they offer a quick method of coming down from high structures such as the viewpoints which dot each of the districts. In AC2 pigeons nesting on certain parts of rooftops indicates that this section of the roof overlooks a hay bale, making it easier and faster to identify quick escapes from enemies. Something which carries over from the original game is the rooftop garden boxes which can be hidden in, and used to assassinate nearby enemies.
Water plays a similar role in AC2. In the original game jumping into water would instantly kill you, but in AC2 swimming has become an important feature. You can hide under the water to avoid detection, or to swim under gates, and you can drag enemies into the water which kills them just as quickly as it killed Altair in AC1. It's also a nice alternative to hay bales if you want to descend a building quickly, just as long as the building you're jumping from is close enough to the water. You can get around in water by swimming or using the many available gondolas as a means of quick transportation. The water provides you with a fantastic escape route when being chased down by enemies; the enemies can't swim, and eventually give up. They do, however, throw rocks at you if they get a chance, which gradually diminishes your health. They'll throw rocks at you if you try to climb buildings to escape from them, too, which was also the case in AC1.
As mentioned, there are viewpoints around each city. When you climb these tall structures the vacant sections of your map will be populated with the available markers and indicators, because Ezio has scouted the surrounding area for side missions and characters of interest. Climbing these viewpoints isn't mandatory, but will be necessary should you want to have easier access to side quests.
The world of Assassin's Creed II boasts a fairly impressive economic structure. There are several shops and individuals from which you can buy weaponry, armour, treasure maps, healing medicines, art and clothing. The weaponry and armour is bought from the blacksmith, who will also repair your armour when it starts to wear down after battles. The more advanced the armour you buy the larger your health bar becomes, which obviously means you'll last longer in combat situations or when falling from rooftops. Buying art will help increase the value of your uncle's castle, which becomes available near the beginning of the game. Paying the castle's architect to renovate certain sections of the kingdom will also increase its value. The castle brings in money, and the higher its value the more it will bring in. This money can be collected during the game and spent at will. You can also bring the feathers you collect from the game world to the castle and store them (there are 100 to be found, and finding them all unlocks certain items and achievements).
In the castle resides a fighting coach who you can pay to teach you special moves which become invaluable assets during the game's later stages.
Your money can be earned by carrying out missions (storyline missions and side missions included), robbing dead bodies of their loose change, finding the many treasure chests which pepper the map and "mugging" certain NPCs who are carrying dirty money. You can also pick-pocket NPCs, but as is the case with going through the pockets of the dead you'll be lucky if you get more than 10f per pocket.
The range of weapons available to use in AC2 is quite hefty. You can buy new weapons, including Altair's sword from the original (the most expensive sword in the game), or you can disarm your enemies when you counter their attacks barehanded. With that in mind, you can use every single weapon you see enemies carrying. In the original you were limited to your sword, hidden blade and knife/throwing knives. In AC2 your selection of weaponry outperforms that of most other games on the market, let alone AC1. Among the blades, hammers and staffs you can also equip poisonous blades, a double hidden blade (making the assassination of two people at once possible) and a rudimentary gun, designed by Leonardo. You can use smoke bombs to held evade or simply subdue enemies while you hack at them with one of your many swords, and you can thrown money on the ground to cause a scramble for the pennies which slows down your perusers.
Cover is provided by groups of people, if you move along within them, and can help you escape from enemies and to pass by them unnoticed. Prostitutes can be paid to follow you around which both offers cover and causes guards to be distracted and wander off with them while you sneak into wherever they were guarding. There are groups of "hired swords" all around the game's world who can be paid to provide you with additional "muscle". Both the muscle and the hookers can be given "stay here" and "follow" commands, which is useful when you are planning a more tactical assault.
If you kill three civilians in a row you'll "desynchronise", or die. If you kill many enemies you'll start to become more and more notorious, and you'll be recognised by guards more easily if you don't deal with it. The ways in which you can reduce your notoriety include tearing down wanted posters, paying off public speakers who are spreading rumours about you and killing informants.
Fans of the first game will find the health system familiar. You don't have health, per se, but "synchronisation". This refers to the synchronisation between Desmond and his memories of Ezio. Ultimately it works exactly the same as a standard health bar, in that it reduces when you get hurt and eventually you'll have to start from your last checkpoint again. You can heal yourself by taking medicine, or being healed directly by the doctor who sells the medicines, and by repairing your amour at the blacksmith's. You can carry a limited amount of medicines at first, but upgrading your pouch will allow you to carry up to fifteen medicines. As well as carrying extra medicines you can also upgrade other pouches, which will allow for carrying greater numbers of throwing knives, poison, ammo for your gun and smoke bombs. The poison can be bought from the doctor, and the pouches can be bought from the clothing retailers. As well as pouches they sell alternative outfits for Ezio, which are all largely the same save for the colour.
Travelling between cities in Italy can be done by simply riding a horse (or going on foot, if you have the time) or paying a small fee to travel instantly. Fast travel options are available from a handful of stalls which are situated at various points throughout the map. There are six major cities to be explored, which are Roma, Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Flori and Monteriggioni, so paying your way to these cities is the best option if you have the cash.
Eagle Vision is a part of Desmond and Miles' abilities; this is the "sixth sense" by which Desmond and his ancestors were able to see the intentions of the people around them. This is put to practical use in AC2, because you sometimes need to use it in order to locate your target amongst a crowd.
If you're into the finer points of the Assassin's Creed storyline you can search for the secret glyphs which are painted in the various nooks and crannies of Italy, using your Eagle Vision to see them and enjoy a cut-scene which explains certain aspects of the story. The cut-scenes are usually followed by a puzzle which needs to be solved, and when all of the glyphs are completed in this way you can unlock certain items and achievements.
There are numerous side missions which can be undertaken at will during the game. They fall under several headings:
[Beat up]: Someone pays you to give a beating to someone else, without the use of weapons and without killing them.
[Race]: Follow the markers on-screen and complete the course within the allocated time.
[Courier]: Deliver letters to one or more recipients within the allocated time.
[Assassination Contract]: You are paid to kill one or more people.
[Assassin's Tomb]: Gain access to a massive tomb and complete the obstacle course in order to win an emblem (collecting them all will offer access to special armour at your uncle's castle). Many of the tombs involve a somewhat complex puzzle which needs to be solved, but they all involve skilled climbing and jumping.
While the selection seems sparse the variation in each makes them potentially inexhaustible. The assassination contracts alone are on par with the assassination missions of the main storyline in terms of how tricky and fun they can be.
Combat remains familiar territory to players of Assassin's Creed I. You can attack, counter, dodge and grab. The biggest improvement the combat system has received is the ability to disarm enemies. This means taking their weapons from them, and then using your newly acquired weapon to finish them off. This is only possible if you are fighting barehanded, though. Fighting against enemies who have hammers or long poles is quite difficult, because you cannot counter these ferocious attacks and unless you simply dodge or run you're likely to get whacked. If you are up against an enemy armed with weapons like these I highly recommend switching to fists and disarming them, and then fighting the remaining enemies as normal. A nice little touch Ubisoft added to the grab function is the ability to hold an enemy hostage while you back away, and you can slit his throat whenever you're done with him. Great fun.
I have always enjoyed the combat in AC1, and the updates it has received in AC2 make it even more fun. I sometimes find myself picking fights with gangs of guards just for the hell of it, I enjoy it that much.
Assassin's Creed II carries over one of the original game's major flaws - unskippable dialogue/cut-scenes. Fortunately the cut-scenes in the sequel are shorter, and are more interesting now that the half-baked voice-work of Altair is absent. However, you no longer have to perform pre-assassination investigations, and the dialogue between you and your victim after you've knifed him is quite brief. It's a vast improvement, but I would still be much happier having the option to skip this material altogether.
The only other irritation I've encountered in the game is the insufferable "stealth kill" requirements of certain missions. This means that you must kill your target without being noticed by enemy guards beforehand. A lot of the missions which involve this restriction will having you tearing your hair out in frustration. My advice is to never hesitate or plan things too meticulously. Just kill people the minute they appear and you'll have a better chance of reaching your ultimate target undetected.
The gameplay offered by Assassin's Creed II is lush, varied and endlessly enjoyable. While the game isn't quite as detailed or as "flexible" as the likes of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas it certainly gives it a run for its money in the fun department. Grade A gaming.
~ [ Graphics/Performance ] ~
I've been blessed with a PC which sports some heavy duty hardware, and I'm able to turn up all of the graphics settings in the game's options as a result. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous, and are significantly more polished than those of AC1. The level of detail is much higher, the photo realistic architecture is well-researched and the character models look stunning. There's a certain comic book, cartoonish feel to the Assassin's Creed series but I think the graphics look quite realistic nonetheless.
The game features a day and night system, and you can watch time pass via the sunrises and the rolling in of the darkness. This feature was absent from the original game, and its implementation here is impressive.
The minimum system requirements are as follows:
[Operating System]: Windows XP or later (works flawlessly on Windows 7 x64)
[CPU]: Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8GHz or better/equivalent
[RAM]: 1.5GB (Windows XP), 2GB (Windows Vista or later)
[Graphics Card]: At least 256MB of on-board RAM, compatible with DirectX 9 and Shader Model 3
[Hard Drive Space]: 6GB
[Optical Media Drive]: DVD-ROM dive capable of reading dual-layer discs
The DRM being what it is you NEED a constantly-connected broadband connection with AT LEAST a 128kbps upstream (around 16KB/s).
The minimum system requirements are fairly low for such a modern and great looking game, so I'm sure anyone with a reasonably modern system will have no problem running it.
The game has run perfectly for me straight out-of-the-box. No crashes, no memory leaks/stuttering, no game-freezing bugs or scripting problems (referring to the game's underlying programming). Ignoring the obviously flawed and temperamental DRM system the game plays like a dream.
~ [ Soundtrack ] ~
Jesper Kyd is something of a legend when it comes to video game soundtracks. His back catalogue of work is credible enough to rival that of Hollywood old-timers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer. His work is so beautifully written and performed that there have been moments - albeit brief moments - during games which feature his work when I'll just stop and listen. This is arguably a bad thing; you don't want to be distracted by a soundtrack, especially when you're seconds away from stabbing someone in the guts! But it's not distracting in how it's implemented, it's distracting because it's just so damn good. The soundtrack of Assassin's Creed I is incredible; it makes use of ethnic instrumentation from the regions featured in the game, and the expansive sweeping nature of it gives the on-screen action a gravitas that a video game ought not to have. However, it pains me to say that the soundtrack of Assassin's Creed II is something of a step down by comparison. It's a great soundtrack by any measure, but the use of electric guitars struck me as bizarre given the grace and care Kyd afforded the production of the AC1 soundtrack in how he stuck with instruments of the period and of the region. I was anticipating an Italiano, operatic tone from AC2's soundtrack and while Kyd does deliver a great deal of this sort of material it's mixed in with modern instruments and phrasing, and this takes away from the experience somewhat. Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on it, but AC1's soundtrack captured everything that game and that period was about, and I feel that AC2's soundtrack is just a soundtrack. A good soundtrack, yes, but just a soundtrack.
~ [ Conclusion ] ~
This has to be one of the best games of the past decade, and certainly my pick for the best of 2010. It's actually depressing to me that such an amazing accomplishment of game development is marred so severely by Draconian DRM measures. I want to recommend this game to everyone who plays games, but I'm reluctant to do so while it's so thoroughly saturated with this ridiculous anti-piracy nonsense.
If art or entertainment of any nature could ever be considered perfect or archetypal I would argue that Assassin's Creed II fits the bill.