I won't sugar coat it. For many, the first Assassin's Creed was a disappointment. It was a game of promises that insisted it was the first, true ‘next-gen' gaming experience. In many cases, it more than fulfilled expectations - with glorious vistas, free-flowing rooftop running and levels of realism that we were unaccustomed to. However, the gameplay fell flat. After the initial excitement that the game brought, we were left with repetitive missions that seemed derivative and unoriginal. And so the sequel appears, but has Ubisoft taken heed of the problems of the last, or should we learn from past mistakes?
As with the first, you'll begin the game in control of Desmond Miles who is still at Abstergo, his futuristic prison from the original. Desmond, this time round, has a much more emotive storyline, though his parts are shorter now. After some brief gameplay and storytelling, you'll hop back into the Animus - the virtual reality through which Desmond can control his ancestors - and take control of Ezio Auditore, an Italian member of Desmond's bloodline who lived during the Italian Renaissance. It's probably worth mentioning that Assassin's Creed is, and always was, intended as a trilogy and so the storylines do blend together, with more than one reference to the first's protagonist Altäir. By no means is the game unplayable without knowledge of the first, but to get full enjoyment of it'd be recommended you play the original.
The storyline follows several years of Ezio's life, from his early age as a brash and carefree youth to his later years as a thoughtful and cunning assassin. Ubisoft have really brought life to the characters involved in Assassin's Creed II, and it's definitely all the better for it. From the early missions, you care for Ezio and you enjoy playing as him. Altäir was a cool, calculated character, but it was never as involving to play as him through the entire game as it was from the opening scenes of Ezio's life. As a starter, we're given a reason for Ezio's fight against the Templars - rather than being thrust into an assassin's body, we see the motivation, the hidden agendas and the emotion behind it all. The story has become far more evolved and absorbing.
Beyond that, the way the gameplay is structured has improved massively. No longer is it a case of being told who to kill and proceeding to the correct area to complete a few generic and repetitive side-missions which don't have any noticeable effect. Instead, the game runs through a mission-by-mission style, where even the simple missions are part of the story. You'll have a cut-scene, introducing characters and the mission and whilst some follow a simple pattern (escort missions, searching missions, etc.) each one is different. It's a much improved style, since it discards the repetition that came with the first. Often you'll be allowed to tackle a number of missions in any order before the final assassination mission becomes available - so the idea that you must prepare for the task, which the first insisted on thrusting upon us, is still there and relevant. It's just done in a masterful way.
There are still side-missions to be completed, before those that enjoy that sort of thing rise up in anger, but there are fewer of them and they're never mandatory. This gives you a little extra to work at in-between missions, and with these and the collectables you'll have a number of goals to work towards should you wish it.
The pacing of these missions and the game in general, is largely impressive. It flows very well, never staying in one place too long, or has interesting ‘unique' missions breaking up some familiar gameplay. As soon as the game edges on repetitive, you're given control of a runaway carriage or da Vinci's flying machine and you're sucked right back in. Towards the back end of the game, you'll find yourself spending a lot of time in Venice, which would have been better had it been broken up by a visit to another location, however small, just to give the player that little bit more to see. This is doubly so since there is one city before Venice that is almost ignored with very little to do there - a wasteful shame that could've been put to better use. Otherwise, the pacing is incredible and you never really feel like you're being told simply where to go and what to do.
Beyond this, there are extra improvements that add into the experience of the game that are necessary but are worthwhile. For example, there are a number of weapons you are able to use which you can pick up from fallen enemies, or purchase from a blacksmith. You'll earn florins throughout the game which can be spent at any of the stores. These involve customising your outfit with a variety of clothes dyes, the purchasing of armour or treasure maps to locate even more money. At one point in the game you'll also be given access to Villa Auditore which you can upgrade and buy new buildings for - restoring the villas lost beauty. This is more extra content that, whilst not necessary, is a welcome addition that adds to the whole experience.
As important all this is, ultimately it is the assassinations that matter. The first was flawed since each one followed a similar pattern - the places and people may have changed, but largely it was about getting as close as you can for a quick kill then racing back to a hideout for a successful mission. In this case, the assassinations are far more fluid events. Some will be specific, pre-scripted missions - such as chasing a character down or being forced into a fight - while others give you a little more freedom of what you do. It never really feels like you're being told what to do; since the game follows so closely to mission-based storytelling, when you come to the assassination you deal with it how you can, rather than getting upset at your plan not happening as you would have liked.
All in all, Assassin's Creed 2 is largely similar to its predecessor. The controls are mostly unchanged and the actual gameplay remains the same - it's the slight improvements that make this iteration a far superior one to the previous. The game provides a number of characters you can become involved with through your interactions with them and a storyline that's worth paying attention to. There are minor flaws here, and opportunities for additions and upgrades that make the prospect of a third in the series that much more exciting. Nonetheless, the game is an improved, if not similar, Assassin's Creed experience and well worth your time.
Assassin's Creed 2 (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.