sunnuntai 6. maaliskuuta 2011

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed II (2009)

Genre(s): Action
Released: 2009
Available on: MAC, PC, PS3, X360
Developer(s): Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher(s): Ubisoft
Players: 1

Assassin's Creed was a successful and widely popular game, but most critics and fans of the story alike agreed on the simple fact that as far the different elements of third-person action gameplay went, it was incomplete and somewhat unsatisfactory in every way; Ubisoft's new title paled in comparison to the games that it was clearly influenced by. However, the ending of the game was wide open. Right after the credits rolled, those people who enjoyed the game and its admittedly fantastic story even in the slightest, started to pray for an Assassin's Creed II, and list the first game's mistakes, hoping they would be erased. In late 2009 the highly anticipated sequel came, saw, and conquered.

A fine sense of purpose

Roger Craig Smith : Ezio Auditore da Firenze
Kristen Bell : Lucy Stillman
Nolan North : Desmond Miles / Adam
Fred Tatasciore : Mario Auditore da Firenze
Carlos Ferro : Leonardo da Vinci
Manuel Tadros : Rodrigo Borgia
Danny Wallace : Shaun Hastings
Eliza Schneider : Rebecca Crane
Romano Orzari : Giovanni Auditore da Firenze
Ellen David : Maria de Mozzi

Lucy Stillman is revealed to be a mole working for a secret organization formed to oppose Abstergo's grand scheme of reviving the templar rule. She manages to break Desmond Miles out of Abstergo and smuggle him to the headquarters of this small, mysterious organization. Once there, Desmond is asked to enter a more advanced version of the Animus and relive the genetic memories of his most capable ancestor to learn his ways in combat. Although he's not sure what Lucy and her cohorts are trying to accomplish, Desmond gladly grants them their wish and straps on the boots of a young Italian man named Ezio Auditore, who trains himself to be a master assassin after witnessing the unjust murder of his father and two brothers.

I'm not sure where to begin. I hated the PS3 version of Assassin's Creed. I believe I gave it a fair review. Some of you might say I was being too hard on it, but believe me, the way I see it I was being way too soft! I cursed at the game from the very beginning to the end, from the Press Start screen to the end credits. It started out good, and ended good. Everything in between was the most repetitive, unrewarding gameplay I've seen in a basically playable genre game in years. What did you get in return for spending hours on finding those hundreds of flags? Nothing! What did you get for even trying to play by the book? Nothing! Did the game EVER change? No! ...Except in the end. I really enjoyed the end, because it was different from the rest of the game. Not very interesting to play, either, but different. The plot, however, throughout the whole game was awesome. And that plot is exactly why I returned for a second round of mass murderin' madness in Assassin's Creed II. And I am definitely not disappointed. In fact, colour me amazed. Assassin's Creed II is an amazing game - exactly what the first game should've been, and lots, lots more.

Ezio is on his way to kick his sister's cheating
boyfriend's ass. What a man!
The graphics are sharper and more detailed than before. The facial modelling is better - Kristen Bell's character's face looks more than a little bit closer to home (and her ass!) - and the environments are way more diverse than before. There are actually notable differences between the cities in the game; in the architecture, infrastructure, everything. The cutscenes and in-game confrontations with friendly NPC's still have a slightly mechanical look to them, but they're nevertheless more cinematic and flowing, and do their own part in maintaining the player's interest in the even more intriguing storyline.

Jesper Kyd's music is basically awesome, but still quite rare and almost unnoticeable during gameplay. The voice cast's near perfect. Pseudo-protagonist Ezio is voiced by Roger Craig Smith - who's most known for his work as Chris Redfield in the modern Resident Evil universe. He sounds just like a stereotypical American-Italian without sounding tacky at all, brilliant work. Nolan North and Kristen Bell nail their roles even better than before, although in this game the story really focuses on Ezio and his tragic story from a certain early point onwards, instead of cutting back and forth between past and present - hence the moderately lengthy opening sequence starring Desmond and Lucy, I presume. Scottish writer Danny Wallace (Yes Man) delivers a fine performance as the mandatory annoying asshole of the game, Lucy's real boss Shaun Hastings. Lastly, I believe this is one of the only games I've played so far in which Fred Tatasciore performs as a human character instead of a genderless mutant, robot or beast.

"Picking up where the previous game left off" is a common thesis to describe a sequel's plot, but in the case of Assassin's Creed II, it's literally so. The game begins from the very same still the first game ended in, a close-up of that weird drawing on the wall of Desmond's bedroom. As its hinted by Desmond's curious, new ability to use Altair's Eagle Vision, the genetic memories his ancestors' blood holds can teach him everything they could do. So, Lucy breaks Desmond out of Abstergo, into what Desmond initially sees as another slump, digs up a file on another one of his ancestors, and kindly asks him to re-enter the Animus to train himself to be a good, old-fashioned killing machine by completely reliving Ezio Auditore's life from a delivery boy to the greatest assassin in history, in this virtual reality - come on, who could say no to eyes like hers? This is where this game turns into one seriously fucked up conspiracy theory... and the excellent open-world action-adventure it is.

Double hidden blades, double jeopardy.
Assassin's Creed had many good ideas, but the game was no more than an incomplete tease of a sandbox game. You rode to a city, killed a guy, went back to headquarters, rode to another city, and killed another guy. That's how it went. You could gather some flags and do a little sidequesting if you wanted, but in the PS3 version of the game, there was no point to it. No in-game rewards, no system-specific Trophies. You wouldn't believe even by playing Assassin's Creed II for a few hours, all the shit it holds in store. First of all, the storyline missions are not nearly as linear. Ezio starts out as a delivery boy working for his father, totally ignorant of his father's true profession of being an assassin. During the delivery missions, you'll learn the basics of climbing buildings; there's a little fighting, as well. Initially, Ezio is very reluctant of becoming an assassin himself, but decides to do it to honor his family. It takes a lot of training to become one with the shadows, so expect many tutorials on key features of the game that make this feel more like Assassin's Creed IV or V. The game is so much better and filled to the more absolute brim with minor and major features than the first one. Like in many sandbox games, gradually Ezio becomes very comfortable with his destiny and really starts to build his life anew with his new found skills over the course of many years. That's right, the storyline spans decades, whereas the first game's storyline only spun over a few weeks. This practically means a lot of sidequesting and city simulation. WHAT? City simulation, baby!

Ezio's uncle Mario - get ready for a nicely inserted inside joke - owns a villa in Monteriggioni, a downtrodden piece of land that stands in the middle of Florence and Tuscany. A bit later on in the game, the whole town becomes your stronghold, and the Villa Auditore your headquarters where ALL the magic happens. Everything you buy in the game from that point on with your hard-earned florins (or unceremoniously looted from dead guards, or pickpocketed from unsuspecting citizens), increases your mansion's real estate value. Pieces of armour and weapons go straight into a showroom, paintings you buy are on show in a gallery, codex pages you find go to a mysterious wall in Mario's study... just think of it, in a few hundred years this place will be like the world's greatest museum! Well, what do you get from all of this? Shitloads of income to buy more stuff for your house, or renovate the whole town further. Restore the bank to its former glory and watch your income soar. Buy stocks of the local retailers to decrease their prices. Support the Thieves' Guild. Shit, I don't know, it's your town! ...But can you already grasp how fucking cool this is? In the first game, it was a drag to return to Masyaf every hour to get a new mission and run all the way back to the entrance, onto your horse, ride to the next destination and kill the next poor bastard. In this game, returning to HQ is always fun and useful, and you don't even necessarily need to kill any bastards - you're just passing through, and want to collect your income. And return some feathers to your mother, maybe. Or browse through your codex. Maybe it's time to check out the sidequests and collectibles. Go get some more coffee.

These climbs are not for the faint of heart...
First of all, there are a lot of shops. There are over 20 different weapons in the game, as opposed to the first game's total of three (+ your fists). They can be picked up from dead enemy soldiers, or bought from a blacksmith. The blacksmith also repairs your broken pieces of armour. Armour slightly increases your maximum synchronization, in other words health points. Armoured boots can actually break down if you take a nasty fall one too many times, so you'll need to repair your armour periodically. Then, there's an art merchant. He sells paintings for your house, both cheap art and ridiculously expensive work, but also treasure maps you can use to search for treasure chests hidden all around the cities. The treasure maps are very cheap considering that the amount of money you gain from finding every treasure in one city is damn well worth the effort. Doctors sell medicine, and they can also perform insta-heal if you're in need. Tailors sell pouches for different consumables, and allow you to customize your experience some by dyeing your clothes to any colour you like, or what's available. Travel agents allow you to fast travel between cities for a measly fee.

Monteriggioni exclusively has eight statuettes for you to collect and gain a fair amount of money from it. Hidden all around the game are 100 feathers, which are an important plot element, but in practice, they're just fun collectibles. They're usually found on rooftops, where you'll be spending a lot of time. Codex pages hold an age-old secret tightly guarded by templars. They're usually found in rooms that have three guards stationed at the door, and you can't enter it during an alert phase, so you need to find a way to get in unnoticed. Throwing money on the ground to cause a human tidal wave works at first, but later it's much safer and more practical (yet even more expensive) to use thieves, vigilantes and even courtesans to your advantage in distracting the three guards and gaining entry to the codex room. The viewpoints are still in the game, and they're pretty much necessary to check out, more fun than before though. I can tell you that this game gives hell to achrophobics. One viewpoint near the beginning of the game is INSANE, and Ezio's daring climbing style alone gives me goosebumps and hyperventilation. You even get a Trophy/Achievement from performing a leap of faith off this towering behemoth, so it's intentionally mad for damn sure.

Some hours into the game, you will be given the green light to go on a pilgrimage to find six assassins' tombs all around Italy, to be able to break an ancient lock and gain access to Altair's legendary armour. Uh... Altair had armour? I guess he did. The tombs are basically puzzles based on climbing. They're located inside buildings you might've visited before, but the entrances to the catacombs are indeed hidden until a certain point in the storyline. There's some crazy Nathan Drake shit here... no, wait. It's worse, I can tell you. One of the tombs is found during the storyline. What waits at the other end is indeed one of the six seals needed to break the lock, as well as some monetary compensation for your efforts. Last, but not least, when it comes to collectibles, we have the glyphs. The glyphs are some very heavy conspiratory shit. They're not part of Ezio's world, they're in fact pieces of code left behind by the guy who was Abstergo's test subject before Desmond - the guy whose existence was hinted in the end of the first game. The glyphs are somewhat spooky riddles and puzzles, based on historical imagery. JFK, Gandhi, Houdini, Tesla, Rasputin... all of these guys are featured and the more the glyph plot thickens, the more the player starts to believe Assassin's Creed has a non-fictional point. The puzzles range from finding Pieces of Eden from the pictures, to lining up Biblical artwork, to finding a common thread between six different paintings. Some of these puzzles are extremely hard, while some of them are nearly automatic. Either way, they're fun. Finding all of the glyphs results in "the truth". Literally. Every solved riddle yields a piece of film, and when all pieces are put together, why everything that's happening IS happening, is supposed to unfold. It's all quite fucked up, and I love it!

In the first game, by far the only sidequests were about saving citizens to gain some inside help from angry farmers whenever you were in a pinch. There's nothing of the sort when it comes to the sidequests in Assassin's Creed II. Just to mention a few besides the ones I've already covered, there are missions in which you need to deliver an important letter to some guy or chick as fast as you can in accordance to Ezio's original profession, beat up a cheating husband or boyfriend (seriously), and race thieves in increasingly tough challenges. The races ARE very tough, especially since the controls still aren't absolutely perfect. Much better than before, though. Let's move on to what you've been waiting for, the Three Tenets.

Just like Ezio abides to the Three Tenets of the Assassin's Creed even before he's an assassin, the game abides to the Three Tenets of the SAG Creed from the get-go pretty damn well. Just to remind you, the latter Tenets are: 1. Have decent control. 2. Have stealth mean something. 3. Do not repeat yourself more than necessary. Tenet number one: the game might not have perfect control, but Ezio doesn't quite act like the rotten wienerschnitzel his ancestor did. Overall, the controls are still very hard to learn, but once you do, the game plays out very smoothly. No more kicking walls when you're trying to scale them, at least not by the old measure. Tenet number two: stealth is a very important factor of the game. The more you go around murdering folk and simply fucking around in high profile, the more you gain notoriety and the more keen and hostile enemies get towards you. The slightest bit of notoriety remains until you've personally cleansed your slate by bribing heralds, assassinating officials that have some more shit on you, and tearing wanted posters from walls. Also, remember that you can't find every codex, or even treasure, without being somewhat discreet about your actions. You will find many ways to kill or distract people in this game as it progresses, and I implore you to exploit all the possibilities; stealth killing while you're tucked in a bale of hay, air assassinations, poisoning people, sending a group of whores to divert their attention or easily blending with the group yourself... Assassin's Creed II offers you a fine meal on a silver plate. Eat it. Tenet number three: ...well, I kind of explained it already that the game has a lot of variety, and it rarely gets boring.

...Not to mention the leaps of faith.
When it comes to the difficulty, though, Assassin's Creed II is moderate at best. It's just a very lengthy and customizable gaming experience, not difficult. The plot makes it somewhat replayable, but personally, I go by the sandbox guideline and try to stuff everything into one single save file instead of restarting the game. The Trophies and Achievements in the game are infamously easy to get. I have two friends who own the game, and both of them have nailed the game's list of system-specific achievements to 100%. I'm still working on it, since I haven't finished the game yet, but by the looks of it, it's very much possible I will plat the game as well. There's nothing out of the ordinary, and if a game yields three or four Trophies within the first 15 minutes, you just know it's not going to be that hard at all. There's a bit of an ill logic to the Trophies, as well. You get one for collecting all 100 feathers, that's pretty normal. You get one for acquiring every weapon, pouch and armour upgrade, that's normal too. How about the side assassinations? One for one. Races? One for one. You get no rewards besides money for doing them all, you only need to do one of each to gain a system-specific trinket for your viewing pleasure. I'm not complaining, it's just a bit too easy. In this day and age, you simply don't play the game after getting every Trophy or Achievement in it - it's just the way it is, so be honest. Assassin's Creed II deserves better.

I have never seen a sequel soar as many lightyears away from its predecessor like Assassin's Creed II does. Every detail that was even remotely good about the first game is phenomenally restored, and there's a truckload of stuff no one should ever expect from the first sequel. Like I said before, it's more like Assassin's Creed IV or V. I'm moving on to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (after beating this one, of course!) hoping that this game didn't set the bar a little too high. The first game was one of the worst disappointments I've had in years. Assassin's Creed II is one of the best and most captivating games of the decade... as long as it lasts. Sadly, that isn't too long. There's much you can do in the game, but beating it to the absolute hilt is quite effortless.

Graphics : 9.1
Sound : 9.3
Playability : 9.2
Challenge : 7.8
Overall : 9.1


GameRankings: 83.50% (PC), 90.47% (PS3), 90.49% (X360)

Assassin's Creed II won many awards, including "Xbox 360 Game of the Year" by both IGN and GameSpot. Perhaps the most curious one is "Best Use of the Word "Vagina"", which was awarded to it by GameShark in 2009.

At first, Ezio doesn't recognize his uncle Mario, who then introduces himself by saying "It's-a-me, Mario!", in the tone and rhythm of the famous catchphrase of Nintendo's iconic character. The developers haven't confirmed this to be an inside joke, but it's quite obvious.

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