When Ubisoft dropped "Assassin's Creed" in late 2007, people were confused. On the one hand, here was this stunningly gorgeous open world with nooks and crannies galore, a cast of thousands and simple controls that made both exploration and combat a joy to experience. On the other hand, you had to deal with a fundamentally flawed progression through the story built upon a series of repetitive acts. What's more, the story itself wasn't related particularly well. As enjoyable as it was to free-run your way through the Crusades-era Holy Lands, much of what was built around the core gameplay mechanics flat-out didn't work.
Enter "Assassin's Creed 2."
The sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first game. Desmond Miles is still being held prisoner as a test subject for Abstergo Industries, the modern-day face of the Knights Templar. That is until Lucy Stillman, one of his captors, goes rogue and helps him escape to a warehouse where a small team is waiting with the Animus 2.0, an upgraded version of the machine used to send Desmond into the 12th century in the previous game. His destination this time is Renaissance-era Italy, specifically the persona of Ezio Auditore. Without giving away too much of the story, Desmond-as-Ezio leaves a trail of blood across Italy as he works to right a great wrong perpetrated against his family. Simultaneously, Desmond's present-day pals work to unravel more of the mystery surrounding the centuries-old sect of assassins.
Way Less Repetition
Clearly, someone at Ubisoft Montreal was listening to complaints about the previous game. The multi-phase process leading to each assassination is gone. No longer do you have to engage in a series of repetitive and trifling tasks in your hunt for information about Ezio's targets. The setup now falls closer to "Grand Theft Auto," with story-specific missions triggered by traveling to locations marked on the map. There are still sideline activities for Ezio to engage in, from hunting down hidden treasure chests and feathers to more structured races, minor assassinations and more. Ubi was smart to iterate rather than innovate; the previous game's setup was certainly ambitious, but this sequel is a far better game for relying on tried-and-true methods.
This also goes back to the previous game's shallow beauty. It had a very entertaining set of tools, but not much to do with them. To account for Ezio's wider access to weapons and tools in "Assassin's Creed 2," there is now a basic economy in place. Engaging in story and side missions earns you money, which can be spent at stores on weapons, ammunition, health-restoring medicine, armor, colored dyes for that armor, treasure maps and paintings for your family villa. Money can also be spent on sprucing up the Auditore Villa, which generates income for every 20 minutes of play time. The amount added to Ezio's coffers -- it must be retrieved from the villa to be used -- is dependent upon the value of the villa, which improves with each upgrade purchased.
Same Fun, New Setting
Ultimately, it is still deeply entertaining to run around and kill things in "Assassin's Creed 2." The setting is entirely new, and just as pleasing to look at. The previous game's vast, open countryside is gone, replaced with discrete, sequentially unlocked play areas, most of which feature both a city and the surrounding landscape. Venice -- the final location unlocked -- is the most complex but, like the last game, each location has its own, unique charm that helps it stand apart from the rest.
While "Assassin's Creed 2" is an almost wholesale improvement over its predecessor, there are a few carryover sticking points. The worst has got to be the free-running controls. While free-running through cities is very entertaining at base, precision maneuvers often devolve into a frustrating series of do-overs as Ezio sometimes performs actions seemingly at random. It is entirely possible to move so quickly that you become stuck in a loop of mounting and dismounting a beam (to give but one example). Letting go of the controller and re-orienting the camera generally helps, but when there's a chase or some other timed event involved, those precious seconds often mean the difference between success and failure.
Load Screen Fun Is No More
This is a minor complaint. As minor as it gets really. But in the last game, you could play with all of your tools during load screens. That included flicking your hidden blade in and out of its sheath. You can no longer do that. Bummer.
I say this: it is very, very, very hard to keep myself from revealing the big twist at the end of the game. It's a little bit ridiculous. Okay, it's extremely ridiculous. Make no mistake: it could conceivably take things to some cool places. For now, however, we're left with one reasonably hilarious fact about the truth behind the series' big mystery and a conclusion that wants to deliver, very nearly does deliver, but then falls unceremoniously flat. You can replay any section of the game after beating it, which is nice. But the story and the cliffhanger we're left with will probably cause some people to rage out.
"Assassin's Creed 2" is a better game than "Assassin's Creed" in every way. There are still some flaws, big enough ones that they'll ruin the experience for some. But if you can deal with a little frustration, there's a lot to like about the 20+ hours Ubisoft lets us spend in Renaissance-era Italy. They'd just better make with a sequel soon -- hopefully with some much-needed control/camera tweaks -- to quiet the fans who will soon be freaking out over the whopper of a WTF ending.