Assassin’s Creed II is the game where most people say the series really took off. It corrected the flaws of the first game while building on what worked.
The game is set in Italy during the Renaissance and focuses on Ezio Auditore. When the game begins he is a young man more concerned with courting women and brawling in the streets than helping his father run the family’s banking business. Things take a turn for the worse when Ezio’s father and brothers are arrested for treason and hanged. Ezio flees with his mother and sister to their uncle, Mario. That is when Ezio learns he is part of the Assassin Brotherhood, and his uncle can give him the skills to take down those that murdered his family and stop the Templars from gaining control of the world.
The story really stands out in the game. Ezio is a good character. He’s flawed and doesn’t always do things for the right reasons but you feel for him and what he has been through. It helps that the game takes place over a decade, so you watch him grow from a naïve young man into a trained Assassin. There is also a strong supporting cast to back Ezio up. They do have a tendency to disappear for long stretches at a time but they always pop back up. If I have one complaint it’s that Ezio’s sister and mother have no real role. His mother is basically catatonic and his sister runs the villa, which means she stays in once location and repeats the same dialogue over and over.
I do think the story gets a little too unwieldy at times with too many characters and moving parts. There was a whole sequence dedicated to Savonarola that felt tacked on.
I also had a problem with the ending. Ezio confronts and defeats the big bad of the game, Rodrigo Borgia, and lets him live. The reason he gives for why is so stupid considering all the people Ezio has killed to this point. The real reason is that Borgia didn’t die at that point in history. It is one of the weaknesses of the series. They love to use history and historical figures but sometimes they use too many and have to twist the story in some weird ways to make it work.
The modern day story is nice though it only pops up occasionally. It starts with Lucy (modeled on and voiced acted by Kristen Bell) freeing Desmond (voiced by Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North) from Abstergo. They meet up with two other Assassins, Shaun and Rebecca, and work to unlock Ezio’s memories so they can find a Piece of Eden. The ending sets up the main arc that would continue into the next two Ezio games (Brotherhood and Revelations) and culminate in AC:III.
The game play is great, at least for when the game was released in 2009. What set this series apart from other games at the time was the parkour free-running system which allowed you to climb up buildings, leap from roof top to roof top, and pole to pole.
It is still fun here, but compared to later games the free running isn’t as polished. There were many times I had a cheap death because Ezio leaped the wrong way or did an extra leap when I didn’t want him to. There was one frustrating section where you have to travel across an area to hit levers before the timer ran out. It was a nightmare, especially since it introduced a new jumping tactic that hadn’t been used in the game before and was really sensitive. I ended up jumping backwards instead of to the side more often than not.
Still, when it works the free running is great. My only main complaint, and this goes for other games too, is that enemies are stationed on roof tops and will chase you if they see you. I get that it adds a challenge to the game but it also makes free running a hassle. It can be hard to lose the guards and it wastes time. There were plenty of moments where I just decided to stay on the streets.
I want to talk about the villa next. Ezio’s uncle Mario is in control of a villa. It consists of a small town and a mansion. When Ezio first arrives the place is run down, there are almost no shops, and no people. Ezio can upgrade the villa by spending money to open more shops and to renovate buildings like churches and banks. This generates an income for Ezio. Money is deposited in a chest every 20 minutes. The more you renovate the villa the more money is deposited every 20 minutes. I made sure to use my money to renovate the villa early so I would have a large income every 20 minutes.
What I also liked is that every collectable also improves the villa and adds money to your coffers. When you buy weapons, armor, and paintings it increases the value of the villa. The same when you collect feathers. None of it is superfluous.
I did have a sense of pride as I watched the villa go from a broken down wreck to a shining town filled with people. It was a nice visual cue as to the progress I was making.
There are some character customization options, but not many. There are different armor sets you can buy throughout the game that changes Ezio’s look, but for the most part you just wear the newest armor because that is the best armor available.
You can buy dyes to change the color of your assassin robes, and I did appreciate that.
There is also a side-quest where you explore the tombs of six previous assassins to retrieve seals to unlock the armor of Altair, the Assassin that was the main character of the first game.
There are new game mechanics as well. Ezio befriends Leonardo da Vinci, who makes new tools for Ezio to use. Ezio gets two assassin blade gauntlets, and they get loaded with poison. In one sequence Ezio gets to fly a glider over a city.
What I really appreciated about the game was the pacing. Ezio is constantly learning new techniques as the game progresses and it feels natural. He is learning to become an Assassin and he isn’t going to learn all the abilities at once. It meant that there was enough time to get used to the technique just introduced before a new one was thrown at me.
This applies to the cities as well. For the bigger cities only a small portion of the map is open to explore at first and as the game progresses more of the city is opened up. It helped to keep the feeling of being overwhelmed at bay, though the sequels will just open up the entire city at the start.
The fighting is good. Again, it’s not as good when compared to more recent AC games but I can’t complain. Combat comes down to either spamming the attack button or waiting for an enemy to attack and parrying it, which usually results in an insta-death. There is more to it. Ezio can grab enemies and punch them, knee them, head butt them, or throw them.
Of course, there are also plenty of stealth options. Ezio can assassinate enemies using his blades or a small wrist mounted gun. He can leap at enemies from rooftops or hide in hay stacks, on benches, or in groups of people.
One of the big complaints about the first game was that it was too repetitive. You travel to a city, perform the same missions to unlock the assassination mission, and then move on. AC:II avoids that by giving the main story missions a lot of variety. I’ve read that there are around 200 missions in the game, with half of those being devoted to the main story and the other half being side-quests.
The side-quests aren’t necessary unless you want to earn money and just enjoy doing them. I mainly skipped the side-quests that were races but I did most of the assassination side-quests.
The main missions are pretty varied, though some are similar in nature. Still, there was enough variety to keep me engaged. It also helped that I was invested in the story.
The game takes place in multiple cities, though you will spend most of your time in Florence and Venice. All of the cities look different enough so I never felt like I was really in the same place with just another name.
I really enjoyed AC:II. This is a game where just about everything clicked. The story was intriguing, the game play worked and was fun, the collectibles served a purpose, and the missions were nice and varied.