In Assassin’s Creed, you play as Altair, an arab assassin during the time of the Crusades. While a lot of the enjoyment of the game comes from the joy of assassinating enemies in the most clandestine way possible, I found a lot of enjoyment in the story. As someone who enjoys historical fiction (as well as non-fiction historical study) it was also a lot of fun that many of the characters, including your master, were real people. The way the game explains why you don’t have all your abilities at the beginning works well within the frame of the game – for reasons I’d rather not spoil, you’re stripped of your rank as top assassin and have to earn your way back up the ranks by assassinating some targets that your master assigns you. Anyone else you kill is up to you. In fact, I think that because of my gameplay style I didn’t play the game “correctly”. I was often told that I needed to clear the area of guards before going to my target and I rarely did that. Somehow I almost always got to my target without doing that. There were a bunch of side missions, but I never did them. For the most part all they led to was to have an area in the city where citizens would help you block the guards. This never seemed to help, so I didn’t worry too much about it at all. Some people criticized the fact that your main targets would have long monologues before dying, but I think this really advanced the story very well and people with lots of media experience (movies, books, video games) can probably start to predict the upcoming plot revelation.
Assassin’s Creed II takes place in Italy with the player taking control of Ezio, a member of a prominent family in Florence in the 1400s. On the Giant Bombcast, they’ve advocated just playing Assassin’s Creed II because the story from part one is not needed. They’re partially right in that there’s a bit of a recap in the beginning of the game, but I think it actually helped me really get deeper into the story in ACII to have played the first game. More on that in a bit.
When I first started playing Assassin’s Creed II, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first one. For starters, you aren’t an assassin at first. Because of the part of the game that takes place in the modern time (technically 2012), you know that Ezio is an ancestor of your main character as Altair was. But Ezio has no idea. So the game starts off with you working a gopher for your father. It’s a lot more boring in this mode. The game really does not baby you as much as the first one did, so if you never played Assassin’s Creed, you’ll probably be a little lost on the button combinations and the interface. Eventually the Ezio becomes an assassin and the game really gets going.
Unlike the first game, you don’t have a master giving you targets and they don’t monologue nearly as much. Again, this really reduced my enjoyment at first. I felt that the story was way too loose. But as it progressed and I started to get into the subtleties of the new game they’d built, I started to enjoy it a lot more. One thing that’s quite different about the narrative is the time that lapses as you play the game. Assassin’s Creed seemed to take place over a few days or a few weeks at most. I’m not yet done with Assassin’s Creed II and something like 8 or 10 years have passed since the game started. (Technically a lot more, but I don’t want to spoil the absolute beginning). This doesn’t appear to have any practical effects on the game other than the narrative. As least for me, as I’ve been taking note of the years, I’ve noticed that this has been a very long road for Ezio to achieve what he started. (Again, don’t want to spoil)
The game has also taken the series into a bit of a move towards an RPG. While money played no part in the first game, it plays a huge part in this one. Story-wise, it makes sense for this mechanic to come into the game because Italy’s city-states were a huge part of how finance got restarted in the Renaissance. And so they added money into the game which also allows them to have armor and weapon upgrades in the game. So I have spent some more time on side missions to earn more money for those.
Additionally, the game added the idea of codex pages. These are pages from Altair’s diary that, for some reason, the Templars have gotten a hold of. (Although some are found from friendly sources) So I have spent a lot of time getting to the top of watch towers to find all the codex pages. They only play a very minor role in the game, so if I hadn’t played the first one, I wouldn’t care. But, since I did play the first one and love games with a rich fiction, I collect them to read what Altair wrote and to flesh out the game’s universe. Additionally there are glyphs that allow the player to play a mini-game to unlock some video sequences. The framing story about how the glyphs got there and the thing you’re looking for in the mini-games would not make ANY sense whatsoever if you hadn’t beaten the first game.
Another mechanic they added in this game, but which had some origins in the first game is the concept of fast travel. It’s also another reason to collect money. Basically, it’s a huge hassle/waste of time to travel around by horse everywhere you go. Perhaps you like it – you got addicted to video game horseback riding in Zelda on the Nintendo 64. I prefer not to waste the time (not to mention risking pissing off the guards by running over pedestrians) so I just visit fast travel stations to get between any cities you’ve visited before. This becomes important if you get into renovating Ezio’s ancestral castle. The town merchants pay you rent and this can add up to a lot of money. I ended up really getting into this, taking some time out of the game to fix up the entire castle. But once the box in the castle fills with money, they won’t earn anymore. Also, you need to visit the house to withdraw money from the box to go buy armor and other stuff. So without fast travel that’d be very annoying. I
Yet another change that really benefits the game is the ability to buy medicine. In the first game there were tons of battle sequences that I would fail as I got to the last guy because I sucked at the fighting mechanic until near the end of the game. Thanks to medicine, I can heal while in the middle of a fight and keep going.
One of the more fun additions to Assassin’s Creed II that I didn’t take advantage of until about 10 hours in was the ability to hire people. There are thieves, hookers, and fighters all over town waiting for you to hire them. In this game there are armored guards that can take a long time to fight, so sometimes it’s just worth it to hire these people to distract the guards so you can walk right past them and get on to the more fun parts of the game.
Before, it could be annoying to go all the prep work you needed before you unlocked the main assassination. Those missions have been eliminated in favor of walking missions. Here you follow some guy or girl around and they talk about the upcoming mission and get you around the map. I’m not sure if this is a huge improvement. Sometimes the other missions could be much quicker.
In the end, Assassin’s Creed II is a great evolution of the series. It did get rid of some of the things I really liked. The plot is not as intricate and it seems to focus more on the economic and RPG side of things. But, on balance, the game is a great improvement over its predecessor. I’m definitely curious to see where the game goes in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, although I understand that game is not meant to be a sequel, but rather an expansion on Ezio’s story. (Or at least his universe) I hope they finish off the trilogy soon. (At least, I think it’s supposed to be a trilogy)