Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Assassin's Creed II

This open world action/adventure game is set within Renaissance Italy. You take on the role of Ezio as he makes his way from street fighter to assassin extraordinaire and killing a great many people along the way. A sure fire hit? Pretty much!
For anyone who played the first installment, or even if you haven't, the twist which appears right at the beginning of the game is that this isn't set in the past - but actually set in the future. In a weird post-modern way, you are taking control of a character called Desmond, who is actually taking control of Altair/Ezio. The device they use is almost a futuristic virtual reality console itself where a company, or what you find out to be the Templars, are trying to find the Pieces of Eden through a representation of the genetic bloodline belonging to Desmond and his subsequent assassin ancestors. Don't worry, it will make sense.
Picking up straight after the events from the first one, you have to escape the building and then you meet ... Danny Wallace?! Oh dear, he is by far the worst thing about the game. They even made the character look like him! Not a good start...

Once the action starts, the world Ezio is in is as corrupted as it is beautiful. You can tell the people behind this worked painstakingly on making the cities look incredible, and it definitely pays off. The problem is once the camera comes in for a close up, it starts to look a bit shoddy. The hair and facial movements look clunky and you'd rather see a cut-scene video rather than one using the game engine. However, this is just a tiny flaw in a visually exquisite piece. The whole game looks like a work of art itself and, even once completing the game, I still find time to go back and venture through the city's streets.
But how does it play?

What I found annoying about the first game is I often ended up jumping around in directions I didn't want to which sometimes led to my death - this has definitely been improved. They have thought about every movement you could possibly make in the surrounding environment and it has never been so fun and yet so easy. The free running is amazing and you can now jump up further and even swim. The fighting feels fluid and you have a huge arsenal at your disposal, even including a pistol. However, except for the hidden blades, I rarely used anything but the sword for combat, probably because it looks cooler. The strafing, dodging and counter-attacking becomes an art you quickly learn and the upgradeable weapons and armour only serve to make you more powerful as you progress. Some people got excited by the flying apparatus and carriages, but the flying machine is used only once in a mission - as is the carriage, which is annoying. I don't think it would have taken much to unlock them as a playable means of transport. The boats down the canal of Venice might also be a nice touch but it's so achingly slow I'd rather swim. But if you wish to travel further, luckily there's a Fast Travel service that allows you to automatically travel to the other cities if you don't fancy going by horse. Nice touch.

So what happens when you play? Most people's criticism of the first game was that it was the same thing again and again - just offing a bunch of people one by one. Well Ubisoft have fixed this by mixing things up by including carnival games, races, freeing prisoners and other such alternative missions than just assassinating people. This gives the game a broader more satisfying feeling that pushes the story forward as well as keeping you interested. Of course there's the side missions you can do - courier services, beating up cheating husbands, trying to find all the treasure chests, finding all the 100 feathers or, which is the most interesting aspect, going through dead assassin's tombs in a complex puzzle-ridden fashion to retrieve a disc that, once all are gained, unlocks Altair's armour which makes you look F-ING COOL!
You can also try to retrieve codex pages (you'll have to get all of them at some point to complete the game) which, if you give to Leonardo Da Vinci (who has a surprisingly big part in the game) will update your hidden blade and increase your maximum health. Da Vinci might sound like a poor way to purposefully shove history into entertainment, but his character works well within the confines of the game and has an extremely likeable quality. He's basically your best mate throughout what must be a lonely existence for an assassin.
If you like your games more Splinter Cell then instead of going into battle guns-a-blazing, you can hire thieves, prostitutes or blend into crowds to avoid detection, and if you become 'notorious'? You can rip down wanted posters or bribe heralds. There's always a way!
You are also able to invest your money into the upkeep of a little city centred around your Uncle's villa, which will give you money every so often that you can re-invest, or spend on items and weapons or to even dye your clothes. These details give the game a depth the first one didn't even come close to. Ubisoft have clearly listened to what everyone had to say.

The voice acting is top class and the story also feels captivating enough to keep you interested instead going to and from the 'future', an annoying detail from the first game. The difficulty may be too easy at times, (the final boss is absurdly easier) but the game has a good 12 hours on it and has a 'Lord Of The Rings'-esque multiple ending syndrome. All in all, the game feels varied and detailed enough to keep you playing long after you've completed it, and though there's no multiplayer online option (which a lot of games are including these days), it would probably feel more pushed in. What with new levels already available to download, the longevity is instead infinite in that the world will always be there for you to venture through. Fancy a holiday being a highly trained killer in the beautiful provinces of Italy? Pop in that disc.

Rating: 9/10

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