"Assassin's Creed II"
System: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC.
Game play: A-
Replay value: B+
Final grade: A-
When the original "Assassin's Creed" was released in 2007, it was praised for its innovative plot, stellar graphics and revolutionary free-running animations. Critics also pounced on it for its repetitive mission structure and simplistic combat.
With "Assassin's Creed II," developer Ubisoft has made round-the-board improvements, resulting in a sequel that is a marked improvement over the original in almost every way.
Once again, gamers control Desmond Miles, an average guy in the near-future pulled into a shadowy conflict between two secret societies. Using a machine called the Animus, Miles relives the life of his ancestors. In the original, he played puppet master to a Middle Eastern assassin named Altair. This time, he fills the boots of Ezio Auditore, a young Italian noble.
While Altair was already a trained assassin, at the onset of the seuqel, Ezio knows nothing about killing until an early game event forces him to don the assassin's cowl. With the help of his uncle, Mario (who ends up as the butt to a horrendous gaming in-joke), and a young Leonardo Da Vinci, Ezio acquires new skills and equipment.
The narrative, while far more structured than the first, is also highly dependent on the original. Despite the inclusion of an opening cinematic that sums up the first game's plot, finding a detailed plot summary online is a must for series newcomers. Otherwise, you'll be left scratching your head over the importance of terms like "pieces of Eden" and "Subject 16."
Thanks to the return of the original's trademark free-running movement system, the accurate depictions of 15th century Florence, Venice and the countryside in between are a joy to explore. There's also a minigame surrounding improving the explorable family villa and nearby town to earn money (a series' first) to buy new arms and armor.
Crowd dynamics were a central focus of the social stealth mechanics in the original and are much improved. In the first title, people felt like game play tools instead of, well, people. Now, cities feel alive with shopkeepers hawking their wares, couples bickering and town criers either praising or demonizing you, depending on the looseness of your coin purse.
There's also a new day-night cycle, which offers visual variety over the daylight-only original. Another nice touch is the notoriety system, a metagame that tracks your ability to stay incognito. When the meter is high, guards are more likely to notice you, though you have a number of ways to achieve anonymity when the situation calls.
For those who criticized the original's shallow fighting system, you'll find little has changed. There are plenty of new toys to play with, from poison to equippable weapons like spears and war hammers, but combat still boils down to hitting the counter or disarm buttons. Thankfully, kill animations are jaw-droppingly brutal, so you won't mind the relative simplicity.
Ubisoft was clearly paying attention to fans' complaints about the repetitive structure and limited mission variety in the original. Now, there are more than a dozen mission types, from hidden vault exploration to beating up cheating husbands for cash (a personal favorite). The more focused narrative also provides a deeper motivation for your assignments than, "this man has to die, don't ask questions."
Even if you didn't like "Assassin's Creed," you should rent the sequel, if only to take stock of the many improvements. If you were one of the millions who did enjoy the first game, the second outing plays like a love letter from Ubisoft to you. Prepare to lose another 20-plus hours unraveling its mysteries.