I slogged through the first Assassin's Creed until the bitter end. And boy was I bitter. The tiny sliver of hope I held for the game -- for the franchise -- had been buried by disappointment, and then ultimately by disinterest. Assassin's Creed was dead to me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when hope was unearthed -- nay, resurrected! -- in an experience this callous critic can only describe as a miracle. Actually, scratch that. Assassin's Creed II is not miraculous, but rather it's the result of meticulous design. It's big-budget development at its finest, its most daring, in an era when sequels seek not to challenge their predecessors but to clone them.
Sure, Assassin's Creed II borrows heavily from the first game, but it builds up that core experience -- and then leaps from the edge! Short of Grand Theft Auto III's revolutionary move away from GTA2's simple top-down perspective, there hasn't been a sandbox-style sequel that has trumped its precursor as soundly as Assassin's Creed II defies the original. If taking the empty shell of a game that was the first Assassin's Creed and bringing it to life (with customization, coordination and character) is the cake, then let us not forget the icing.
What seals Assassin's Creed II as one of 2009's very best for me is the game's unlikely side task of becoming a pseudo-historian. This brilliant addition is really two-fold: the hands-on exploration of Renaissance Italy and the puzzling mystery of a massive holy conspiracy-war. That, since playing Assassin's Creed II, I've started several conversations by suggesting, "Did you know, in Italy, back in the day they ...," is a testament to the design team's engaging recreation -- from scalable architecture to someday-priceless works of art -- of a vibrant historical place and period, which the developers have padded with colorful, encyclopedic entries built into the gameplay. While not certifiable "edutainment," Assassin's Creed II is the start of a blueprint for how we might one day learn history.
Of course, sewn into the fabric of Assassin's Creed II's Renaissance Italy is a fictional thread of intrigue. Pieced together through a series of brain twisters, which are an abrupt, yet wonderful departure from the dashing and dueling, and sneaking and stabbing, the franchise's mystery is no longer an idea hovering over the game world, but one woven within it. Assassin's Creed II is an extraordinary achievement of playable narrative and, really, you must play it.