by Mike Shea on 15 January 2010
Note, this article was originally written by me for publication to the RPG website Critical hits.
This holiday season I had the opportunity to play through all of Assassin's Creed 2. Dave gave me the unique opportunity to talk about the game here on Critical Hits and it was an opportunity I could not refuse.
First, a short bit about me. I've been playing console games since E.T. came out on the Atari 2600 and though my life has changed much over the years, I'm still a big console gamer at heart.
In short, Assassin's Creed 2 is a wonderful open-world game that feels a lot like Grand Theft Auto in 15th century Italy. While the story is almost incomprehensible, especially at the end, the action and gameplay more than make up for it. It took me about 25 hours to complete it over a two-week period, though there are many more hours I could have spent on the variety of entertaining side missions. It's a great time and worth the price and your time to play it.
I tried playing the first Assassin's Creed about a year ago but I had not yet solidified Mike's 5 Hour Rule for Video Games. In short, this rule dictates that it takes five hours of time to really understand how good a game is. Like the 30 minute rule for movies and the 50 page rule for books, if you don't enjoy a game after playing for five hours, you're not likely to enjoy it at all. Likewise, it can often take up to five hours to truly see what a game has to offer. Games like Mass Effect, Zelda Twilight Princess, and Dragon Age don't really show what they have until you're five hours in. Unfortunately, five hours is a lot of time in today's busy world. According to Mike's 15 Minutes Is Worth $5 rule, the actual time invested in determining if you like a game will cost more than the game itself (about $100).
It took less than five hours for me to grok Assassin's Creed 2, however. Pretty early on I understood how this game worked and what I was going to enjoy about it. While the storyline is heavy in the beginning, it gives you enough action early on to begin to enjoy the game.
There's a good plot to Assassin's Creed 2 if you ignore all of the tie-to-the-future weird Matrixy stuff. As a revenge plot set in 15th century Italy, it's great. As soon as you get into all of "24?-style genetic memory manipulation, I start to tune out. I understand this is the central tie between it and the original, but I don't really care. Throughout the game I constantly worried that I would be thrown into modern-day sequences where I would change from a hooded, armored assassin into a twenty-something bartender running around in shiny sweat pants, but luckily, those moments were reduced to three: one in the beginning, one short one in the middle, and one at the end. 98% of your time is spent as Ezio, the witty and deadly assassin.
Ezio is a great character, one who grows from a flamboyant lady's man ruffian into the brooding haunted assassin we want him so badly to be. The game spans enough of a significant time for him to grow both in the story and in our minds. Subtle changes, like the growing of a clearly sinister goatee, also represent these changes.
The open world nature of Assassin's Creed 2 is the reason to love this game. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 4, there are few missions that require a single course of action. Many of your assassination missions can end very quickly with the right setup. For example, you might fight through an army of guards to get to your target or you may stealthfully drop in on him from the roof of his keep. The actual battle against the target might end in a single attack depending on how things work out rather than an epic brawl. Only twice was I forced to go hand-to-hand with a boss. Most of the time I could just kill them as silently as I wanted to.
The controls for Assassin's Creed 2 work very well. Ezio can walk within cover of the crowds, then sprint up the side of a building to the roof with hardly more than a button press or two. You can impress friends and loved-ones with some impressive parkour-style scaling that really came down to you pressing forward on the stick and holding down the R1 button.
Assassinations are also easy to accomplish, sometimes too easy. More than once I got my buttons mixed up and accidentally killed four innocent burlap-wearing working-class folk when I only intended to pick their bread money out of their pockets. But boy, did it look cool. Then I realized not only had I killed four innocents and enraged the local militia, I also lost my cover at the same time.
There's a bit of a roleplaying element to AC2, along with a terrifying Farmville-like "build up your Italian villa with better brothels and nice artwork" system. I tend to ignore fluff like this in my console games and ignored it here as well. It just didn't have any real benefit to my primary differentiation as a guy who places metal spikes through the nostrils of ornately-armored guards. I would, however, hit my sister up for cash every so often. Brother Ezio needs his fancy armor!
Assassin's Creed 2 doesn't fall into the trap of a lot of modern games too much story and not enough gameplay. The idea that a game is some new form of interactive storytelling usually means you're getting about 25 hours of bad video clips with ten minutes of tedious button-pushing. I don't want interactive storytelling, I want gameplay.
The actual story in Italy is great. It's a nice clear revenge story that takes you across five cities and lets you meet a lot of interesting historical people I should probably know about but somehow managed to avoid throughout my studies. It's only when the story steps back out into that bizarre alternate genealogical memory transference thing that the story fall apart. This leads to a great crescendo of horsecrap at the end of the game the likes of which I haven't seen since the end of Matrix: Reloaded where the Architect spews forth such cerebral hocus pocus that everyone walked out of the theater glaze-eyed and feeling more stupid than when they entered. In Assassin's Creed, the final three words of the game ("What the F !?") should have been a clue to the designers to simplify this ridiculous plot.
Honestly, I didn't really care about that. I had a lot of fun running around on the roofs of Italy and putting pieces of metal into people. The one nice thing about the idiotic ending is that it gives you a good option to go back into the game after you've completed the story so you can finish the hours and hours of extra content you might have skipped.
I really liked Assassin's Creed 2. It is the kind of game I wish Grand Theft Auto 4 had been. I loved the artwork, I loved the style, I loved the gameplay. It's hard to pluck down $60 for a game these days, especially when they drop to $30 so fast but I know I got my money's worth out of this one. I highly recommend it.