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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Assassin's Creed II (Playstation 3)

Assassin's Creed II successfully builds on the first game, improving in many key areas where it came up short. Most importantly, the repetitive mission structure of the first game has been opened up, giving ACII a more organic feel. Its main storyline is engaging, but side-missions add depth. Plus, a new money system allows you to purchase additional weapons, armor and other devices. Its combat system adds new tactics to create more exciting battles. AC II's visuals are breathtaking as you explore its beautifully rendered cities. The plot includes historic characters and events to present a detailed back story with engaging characters. Finally, some truly inspired surprises abound that make Assassin's Creed II a consistently engaging title throughout.

The first installment in the Assasin's Creed franchise was one of the most enjoyable and innovative titles to come out for the current generation consoles when it was released two years ago. It wasn't a flawless experience, but with this anticipated follow-up, we're happy to report that Ubisoft has gone a long way in fixing many of these problems. Set directly after the events in the first game, Assassin's Creed II once again takes players back in time. In this installment, you are put in the role of Ezio Auditore, a 14th century Italian playboy who's thrust into the center of a massive conspiracy when his family is murdered. In this dark tale of revenge and redemption, players have to unmask and kill those responsible for this hideous act while unraveling the mysterious battle between two opposing forces. After his father's murder, Ezio takes his robe and role, and becomes a member of the Assassin brotherhood. His investigation leads to one prime group of suspects, a mysterious and dangerous organization known as the Templars. In the game, the Templars are a religious cult bent on controlling and mastering the world.

As you progress through the game, you'll encounter many characters who will unravel the mysteries behind your family's slaying. Unlike the first title, Ezio doesn't have to perform an extensive investigation before each kill, which makes things move much faster. This is a noticeable improvement and makes the game flow much better. As you might expect, the assassination missions don't diverge too far from the first game, though there are some tweaks. When you get the name and location of a target, you can go to the general area where your prey awaits. Once there, you can switch to your eagle vision view and locate them. Once you find them, you have to get in close then perform the deed. It isn't always as simple as that, since many times, the target is guarded closely and you have to knock a few of their soldiers down to complete the task. This remains the most exciting part of the game, but Assassin's Creed throws a few new elements into the mix to keep things from becoming monotonous. While Ezio still spends plenty of time climbing over walls and jumping around, he also has new skills such as the ability to swim in water, and dive to evade capture, which adds an entirely different feel to the game. For a game with a large portion spent in Venice, it's appropriate that he can also steer ships and use them to explore its many canals. This alone makes for a deeper and more varied experience, but Ubisoft Montreal hasn't stopped there.

One of the biggest changes this time comes when you kill or fight someone, its reflected in your status. You are now assigned a notorious rating, which gives you an idea of how much attention you've drawn. As an undercover assassin, you want to keep a low profile as much as possible, but you can't always do this. There are several ways to avoid detection, the first is by avoiding performing socially inappropriate acts, such as killing civilians or getting in battles with guards. You can also arouse suspicion by climbing and jumping around in crowded areas, and by unsheathing your sword and going into attack stance. The higher this climbs, the more likely it is that guards will recognize you and attack if they see you. At the highest stages, any nearby guards will attack on sight, while you may be able to pass by at lower levels. In order to reduce your wanted rating, you can perform a number of tasks. These include ripping down posters, killing corrupt guards, bribing town criers and laying low for some time. You can find many different hiding places in the game, such as the haystacks, and rooftop shanties. However, the guard AI is a bit smarter this time, and they can see if you're hiding, and will follow you relentless at higher levels. They will pursue you over rooftops and call in reinforcements to make things more difficult.

Fortunately, you have several new techniques that you can use, such as diving kills, hanging moves and grab moves that give you the ability to disable guards without drawing too much attention. Eventually, you can lower your profile enough to become anonymous, which allows you to roam freely. Another way to keep a low profile comes with the ability to blend in with the crowds who are walking around each city. While you could do this in the first game, AC II's system makes it much easier, since the crowds you're traveling with now glow, allowing you to see which NPC's you want to follow, unlike the first game where this involved a lot of guesswork. Blending with a crowd allows you to pass by alerted guards in many instances without arising suspicion. This ability is also useful in other circumstances, such as when you want to follow someone without drawing their attention. It's a relatively simple system but the developers have added another new way for you to survive the mean medieval streets.

As you walk through the cities of Italy, you'll notice clusters of people crowded around corners. These groups of NPC characters can be hired by you for a price. They come in three distinct types: courtesans, fighters and thieves. Once you've hired a group, they'll follow you around and can be used to blend in without much effort. You can also have them stop if you want to go somewhere alone or command them to help you in certain circumstances. For example, when you have a group of courtesans following you, you can have them target and distract a guard so you can walk by. If you hire a group of fighters, they'll fight with guards on Ezio's behalf, allowing the battles to come at much less of a cost to your character's health. Doing this will also reduce your notoriety rating. Its impressive and intuitive character command system definitely adds new strategies to each mission. There are some missions where you'll need to use NPC characters to move ahead. In one particularly memorable section, Ezio needs to travel to a heavily fortified fortress and can't fight the many soldiers alone. Instead of trying to infiltrate the mission completely alone, he takes a different tactic. He enters the castle, unlocks the gate and then commands a battalion of soldiers he's been given by his uncle to attack the main forces while he sneaks by to assassinate the target. Its this type of mission structure that keeps the game interesting throughout, since there are more combinations and more varied ways to approach each mission. Its fairly easy to learn how to use these new techniques, though the control which is on the same button as the eagle vision, can be a little frustrating at times. However, this is only a minor annoyance and the game's controls are improved dramatically in other areas.

A major criticism of the first game was that it felt slightly superficial and monotonous in many ways. Assassin's Creed II addresses many of these issues in significant ways. One of the most important changes in the new game is the addition of a currency system. Unlike the first game, where you were given new items automatically, you can now purchase additional items at one of the many shops you'll see. There are specific shops that sell weapons, medicine, armor and artworks. You can earn money in a variety of ways, the most obvious is to steal money from passers by as you walk by them. Its fairly simple to do, but you can alert guards by doing this. However, if you've blended into a crowd, you can do steal their money and they won't suspect you. You'll also find treasure chests in many of the cites, and you can loot money from dead bodies of fallen soldiers. The new store system also gives you many more types of weapons to choose from, more armor types which allow you to create a custom look to avoid detection. Another huge addition to the game this time around comes in the form of the family villa, which you find has fallen into disrepair. As you earn money, you can purchase upgrades for it and the surrounding town. This will attract visitors who can add to your income, though there's a limit to how much you can make. It's a fairly interesting idea that gives you more of a stake in the game's storyline and this is implemented successfully enough that it doesn't feel tacked on or gimmicky. Using the money and shops works well with the other elements to create a game that feels much more immersive than the first title. It's new money system gives you more motivation to play through the secondary missions and rewards you by unlocking additional content and places to visit you wouldn't have seen otherwise. Of course, money and city management duties are interesting additions to the series, but they probably aren't the main reason you're playing Assassin's Creed II, so it's back to the action.

While the first Assassin, Altair was an impressive fighter when it cam to combat, Ezio has several moves that his ancestor didn't. As in the first game, combat is controlled with one button for his weapon hand and one for his bare hand. One new element this time around is the weapon-select system, where you can call up your inventory of weapons and select them at any time on the fly. This gives you a lot more options when you're in battles, and also lets you add medicine or health if you need it. Since there's an array of new weapons you can use, it also makes the combat system deeper and more flexible allowing you to try different techniques and use separate items consecutively to completely devastate opponents. When he encounters a guard or soldier, Ezio can use his standard sword attacks to battle them. These are usually quite effective against standard guards, but there are many who have more advanced moves. They can counter your moves and seem to more aggressive. There are also new hulking powerful guards who can do a ton of damage with a single swing of their axe. To counter their new abilities, Ezio can use several techniques. He can now roll out of the way and escape quickly, grab guards and throw them to the ground and even use counter moves himself. In addition, he has a new ability that lets him grab a weapon out of an opponents' hands to leave them defenseless. There are also a number of new weapons and gadgets he can use.

These are all fairly interesting but, the most impressive weapon in Ezio's expanded arsenal is the secondary blade he can use on his other hand. This effective two-pronged attack lets him take out a pair of guards simultaneously if they're in the right position. This is a very cool feature that lets you take out clusters of guards much faster. Ezio can also use shooting blades to take out enemies from a distance, which is quite effective. Other new additions include the ability to throw smoke bombs, which blinds your enemies temporarily, making them easy targets and new poison blades that you can use to quickly knock out an opponent. Those who watched the trailer will also know that Ezio has another cool weapon, but we won't ruin it for those who haven't played the game yet. These new weapons combine with the improved controls to make the battles feel much more exciting and unpredictable. This makes them more exciting and challenging, instead of the rote combat in the first game. While there are still guards that are relatively easy to defeat, some of the harder ones put up quite a fight and will take skill to defeat. This makes for a much better game overall, since you feel like you've earned each and every piece of the puzzle.

As the story unfolds, the game's mystery slowly unfolds - it moves at a good pace throughout and you're constantly entertained. We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating that the game is much more than assassinating characters and moving around stealthily. The missions come in more styles and approaches this time around. There are new races where you have to glide over rooftops and run to beat the clock, courier missions and other sections where you have to explore the underworld of caverns beneath these medieval cities. Other missions come straight out of other genres and give the game a much greater sense of scale and variety. Assassin's Creed II's most impressive accomplishment is how it makes the story feel much more integral to the missions as you complete them. It doesn't sound like much, but you feel like everything you do has a significant purpose in moving the story forward. You don't spend a lot of time performing menial tasks and this helps to keep your interest level high throughout. The storyline is fairly interesting throughout and while it succeeds for the most part, there are some sections that seem to drag on for too long.

This might seem like a minor spoiler, but since most players have already seen the first, this should be no surprise. As in the first game, the world Ezio inhabits isn't precisely real and is instead a projection into a device called the Animus. While you spend the majority of your time as Ezio, the game takes some breaks and returns you back to the present day. Here, you take on the role of Desmond, a modern day descendent of the Assassins who's been kidnapped by the Templars who are trying to retrieve his memories for nefarious reasons. While the twist was novel the first time around, it does seem to be a bit of a drag in the sequel. You spend a lot of time in these segments recapping and reliving the events you've just seen and relearning basic skills. They feel a little redundant in the storyline and are the weakest point of the story. The good news here is that these don't make up anything close to the majority of the action and most of the time is focused on Ezio's story, which is much more interesting.

That little hiccup aside, this is generally an outstanding game throughout. You can't really fault the developers for the game's quirks, since they're just continuing the storyline from the first game. As far as its atmospherics go, the game is superb - it's huge cities are absolutely massive and give players plenty of room to explore. The renderings are rich in detail and feel quite authentic, which is quite an accomplishment since most of these areas no longer exist. Using these historic sections allows you to relive Renaissance-era Italy at its finest, and travel to some of their most important areas. The vivid recreations of Venice, Rome and, Florence are quite spectacular and each city feels quite alive. There's a great attention to detail evident in every corner of the game, from the detailed fresco on walls, to individual items such as swords and the elaborately designed clothing with flowing fabrics that feels and looks authentic in the smallest elements. A consistent design makes the game feel very natural and easy allows players to suspend disbelief.

The game's storyline is quite impressive in terms of depth and sophistication with many unexpected turns and twists that keep you guessing throughout. The characters themselves are well-formed for a video game and while their motivations can be murky at times, they still have more depth than you'd expect. This includes Ezio himself, who is mostly honorable but does do a few questionable things. Other characters help to keep the drama flowing and add to the story's overall richness substantially. Assassin's Creed II offers an absolutely epic quest that exceeds the standards set in the first game by a substantial margin. It's recreation of Renaissance era Italy is breathtaking, while its gameplay delivers plenty of surprises. There are many additions to the gameplay that give you many more options and makes for a much better game overall. Those who found problems in the first game will be happy to know that most issues have been addressed, while solid additions, such as the money system, make for an even more immersive and realistic experience. Ubisoft deserves a lot of credit for adding so much content and features to Assassin's Creed II. It builds on what made the first game so popular and these additions make this one of the best action titles we've played this year.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: A

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