"Well, he's an assassin, right? But he doesn't have guns or anything, instead, he's got knives and parkour. Oh, and the game takes place in 12th Century Jerusalem. Can we have millions of dollars now?"
When you think about what a big risk Assassin's Creed was, you could almost forgive Ubisoft if it wanted to rest on its laurels for the second game and make it a well-earned, slightly updated victory lap to celebrate having the guts to follow through on an original vision.
But worry not, friends. Ubisoft has taken the rougher but ultimately more rewarding path, and pushed the series forward so far with Assassin's Creed II that it leaves the original looking like a mere proof of concept.
The first Assassin's Creed was a polarizing experience, with reactions split between people who were bored by the repetition of a few basic missions, and those who were so smitten by the core combat and free running that they didn't mind the drawbacks so much. Though I was soundly in the second group, I'd have no problem recommending Assassin's Creed II to the first.
Assassin's Creed II's main story missions take new leading man Ezio on a quest for vengeance through 15th century Italy, testing his climbing, combat and stealth skills in dozens of different ways with few recycled ideas. While several are variations on a theme (traveling to key spots to clear out guards, for example), they're all so well integrated with the story that I never experienced the déjà vu that was so constant in the last game. You could play through just those missions, never straying from the path, and glean just under 20 hours of continuous fun -- it's that large of an undertaking.
But if you do want to do a little exploring outside the main story, you'll find plenty of rewards for doing so. Helping out townspeople with odd jobs like letter delivery or beating up cheating husbands earns you money that can be used to purchase upgraded weapons and armor, more slots for injury-curing medicines, throwing knives, or just a new dye to jazz up your signature white duds. If you'd like your money a bit easier, you can go on the hunt for treasure chests nestled throughout the cities; a job that'll go a lot smoother if you spend some coin on a map from one of the several art dealers in Italy.
Those dealers also sell paintings that can upgrade the worth of the village owned by your family, in turn generating more rental income for you. Money invested at the shops in your village will also net you some helpful discounts. On the non-monetary side, there are mysterious glyphs painted on buildings, map-revealing high points and codex pages to track down throughout the stunning, gorgeous rendition of Italy, each tied to their own gameplay or narrative rewards.
Assassin's Creed has been expanded on so much that I kept wondering why, if this was the game Ubisoft wanted to make in the first place, the company even released the first one. This isn't an experience coasting on the strength of its mechanics. This is a full, gorgeous world so filled with diverting adventures and quests that I don't even have room to list them all.
This isn't an experience coasting on the strength of its mechanics, this is a full, gorgeous world.
The meta-story of Desmond, the modern-day man whose ancestral history connects the Assassin's Creed games has been similarly expanded, going from a conventional conspiracy yarn to a battle with stakes so high that I'm not even sure I completely understand them. And, blessedly, it only interrupts the main action of the game a couple of times rather than every hour or so like in the first Assassin's Creed.
Even Ezio, the new lead character, is miles ahead of Altair, replacing what was little more than a talking hood with a likable rogue whose journey to becoming an assassin mirrors his passage into adulthood.
The combat mechanic is the only facet of the game that hasn't gotten a major overhaul in Assassin's Creed II. Though the few new weapons are appreciated, the actual controls still feel a little too convoluted to give me the feel of being a masterful killer. Even when I was on point, whether my counter attacks would scratch an enemy or murder them seemed frustratingly random.
If you were burned by the first Assassin's Creed and are worried about getting bored by the sequel, I understand your skepticism, but trust me: it's misplaced. It would be a lot more fruitful to worry about how you're going to find time for any other games this holiday season when Ezio's Italy constantly dangles the next trinket in front of you, just a few rooftops away.
Editors' note: This review is based on the PS3 version of the game provided by Ubisoft.