You can climb buildings in seconds, dive off towers, assassinate guards, and slip into the crowd unnoticed. You can run over rooftops with grace and ease and then jump onto an enemy with a quick tap of a button. You can hire mercenaries, thieves, or courtesans to distract guards, making it that much easier to sneak up on your foe. You can pickpocket, swim, ride a horse, guide a boat, and fight with an array of weapons that include daggers, swords, wrist blades, smoke bombs and throwing knives. While you’re running around, you might miss out on the extremely well-detailed recreations of ancient Florence, Tuscany and other iconic Italian areas. Go ahead, climb onto the Duomo. Jump over the canals in Venice. Or go art shopping in Monteriggioni.
Assassin’s Creed II, a third-person adventure game by Ubisoft, is a fantastic gaming experience not just because it gives the player the feeling of being an assassin, but because it creates a beautiful, lush, deep world and then the unfettered freedom to play around in it. All games should be this fun to play, as brilliantly realised, and as immersive. Available now on the OnLive service, Assassin’s Creed II is dagger-sharp in just about every facet.
The plot of the Assassin’s Creed series may be a bit confusing to those new the series. According to the game’s lore, there has been a secret war going on for centuries between the Assassins and the Templars, with the Assassins seeking to protect Pieces of Eden while the Templars hope to use them to control people.
In the first Assassin’s Creed, you start off as Desmond Miles, a modern-day bartender, but then you play as his assassin ancestor, Altair, in 1165 AD. A pharmaceutical company run by the Templars has taken Desmond prisoner. In one of Templars’ labs, Desmond is strapped into a machine called an Animus, which allows him to relive the memories of his ancestors. The modern-day Templars apparently are looking into Altair’s life to get clues to the location of the pieces of Eden. The game had a great deal of promise, but was marred by repetitive missions and a disappointing amount of things to do.
Assassin’s Creed II changes all that. Desmond has been freed of his captivity and now aids other assassins in their search for pieces of Eden. This time, he relives the life of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze in 15th century Italy. The game primarily is from the point of view of Ezio, whose father and brothers were betrayed and killed by the Templars. Through several cities, Ezio tracks down the members of the conspiracy and gets that much closer to unraveling the mysteries of Eden.
The Italian part of the game opens with Ezio running around the city, getting in fights with rivals of the family and chasing women (and later, being chased by their angry fathers). Few games take the time to properly pace the story and draw you in, but Assassin’s Creed II does. While the primarily story-arc is about a boy who becomes an assassin and avenges his family, the historical context is much more interesting. The Animus II’s database provides background on all of the characters or places you encounter, and virtually all are based on real people or locations. During the course of the story, Ezio will get aid from Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Caterina Sforza. Sure, History scholars may laugh at the idea that a young Leonardo would fix assassin’s blades on the side, but such nods to a larger world surprisingly work in the game.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the variety of the missions. There are approximately 200 missions to complete in the game and about half of those are plot related. Side quests include assassinations, races, “beat-up” missions, and catching criminals. Even when you’re just assassinating people, there’s an open-ended element: do you sneak up onto the rooftops and jump down onto your target, or do you sneak in with the crowd and attack him that way? In between assassinations of the conspiracy members, you’ll have escort missions, platforming segments, rescue missions, and artifact collection objectives. Enzio’s uncle’s home in Monteriggioni serves as a base of operations and you can upgrade your cashflow (and the city) by buying famous works of art, investing in city renovation, or upgrading your weapons.