Assassin's Creed II 4-Years Later Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: October 30, 2013
Having entered the Animus and discovering the Templars' plot, gamers had to wait two years to return to the past in Assassin's Creed II. While Desmond Miles returns as the modern-day playable character, we do not experience the life or Altaïr, the Assassin of the first game, but instead Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a Renaissance Era Italian. Now Desmond is not only searching for information, but also trying to learn how to fight and survive.
As you would hope with many sequels, numerous changes have been implemented to the gameplay, including an economy, weapon selection, and subtitles! Upgrading to Animus 2.0 has its benefits. Of course among the changes are new ways to kill people, so it should not be surprising that Assassin's Creed II has an M rating from the ESRB for blood, intense violence, strong language, as well as sexual content.
Does Assassin's Creed II stand the test of time, or is it best left in the forgotten past? Read on to find out.
If there is one thing this long console cycle has achieved, it is bringing out the creativity of game developers when it comes to graphics. Though both Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II were built for the same console hardware, the graphics have been obviously improved in the sequel. Of course some of it is achieved by clever tricks, such as including shading in textures, so the actual models can be simpler, but in two years, the tricks can get quite clever.
Being a third-person game, the playable-character models have to be exquisite, as the player is always looking at it, and it is. Some spots reveal the limited polygon-count of the model, but not many, and mostly you can only notice it during some, but not all, animations. Also making the model look as good as it could (at the time) are the very detailed textures. Threads, folds, and wrinkles are all contained within the textures, but due to their high resolution, it is hard to pick out any artifacts that would expose their two-dimensionality. At least when the camera is at its usual distance. When it zooms in during attack or assassination animations, any imperfections become quite evident if you are looking for them. If you are not looking for them though, then you may miss them.
One graphical issue you may notice more often though is clipping. There are many possible interactions between different elements in the game, such as the weapons at your side and your legs or robes, so it is not unreasonable that some clipping occurs. Helping to conceal this is a cloak Ezio wears on his left shoulder, over his weapons. The fabric falls such that it covers the weapons, hiding the weapons and any clipping, but at times you can still see it. Also your weapons are not the only objects that can clip through something else.
The environments are actually very well designed as well, with detailed textures to give a realistic look, and plenty of small touches to further the effect. Of course there is a limited distance for detail, causing some objects to pop in, but during normal play, I doubt you will notice it much. I did notice it a few times, but I had to intentionally stop to get the screenshots of it.
One graphical aspect of the environment that does look bad, though, are the shadows. These are noticeably lower resolution than the rest of the world, so the aliased edges are very evident. Compounding that is how the shadows will actually move around, shifting as though the object of light source is moving. The problem is the aliasing also moves, making the pixels dance around, and that is hard to avoid. Of course the shadows also have a limited distance for detail, which can be exceedingly evident at times (ie. I have a screenshot where the detail cuts through a tree's shadow, so you can see leaves in one section, and a QR code in the other).
Animations, especially those for counter attacks, are very well done, though the blood spurts are not particularly convincing. Really the flying blood can look like something someone drew it on top of the image. The blood stains on your hands and clothes are a little better though, depending on where they fall. On your hands, it looks like you just reached into a punch bowl, but on your equipment, such as your hidden blades, the effect looks a bit more gruesome.
Returning to the animations for a moment, there are a number of attack animation for the different weapons you can use. For example, there is an animation for an axe that has you cleave someone's head, an animation for a hammer that has you drive through the enemy's skull, and for the hidden blades, you can actually stab your opponent's eyes out. Gruesome and violent, yes, but very satisfying to watch.
There are certain graphical elements that are just hard to get right, including fire and water. The reason for this is that both are fluids, and they are just hard to model accurately, so creative means of impersonating them have to be used. The fire in Assassin's Creed II is an animated volume, so it is not necessarily that fluid, but it still looks good. The flames actually appear to move and curl in space, when they appear. There are not many fires in the game, but there is not much wrong with that. Assassin's Creed games are not supposed to be filled with explosions, after all. However, the fires are not particularly high resolution. Look carefully and you can notice the pixelated edges. Of course the fire is also not very real looking as it does not really live in the environment. It does not burn objects as you watch, and does not even cast enough light to obscure shadows. Still though, it is not bad looking video-game fire.
Water is also present in the game, as you travel to Venice and get to swim or row around the city. The water is not particularly lively, when left alone, and it does not even react to boats that much, though you can see lighter patches behind you as you row around. Where the water does look quite good is on you. After climbing out of the water, you are literally dripping wet, causing light to reflect off of your character differently than usual. Definitely a nice touch.
Now it is time to talk about performance, so here are my specs:
- Processor: AMD A10-5800K @ 4.40 GHz (44.0x100)
- Motherboard: ASUS F2A85-M PRO
- GPU: EVGA GTX 570 1280 MB
- PhysX: MSI GTS 250 1 GB
- Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws 4x8 GB (32 GB total) at 1866 MHz 10-10-10-27
- OS: Windows 7- Professional 64-bit
At the highest settings, I noticed little if any performance issues. The framerate was consistently at 60 FPS, though there may have been times it dropped to the high fifties. This did not happen often. During the entire game, I only noticed two issues. One happened when Ezio apparently got pulled into a cutscene during an animation, causing him to hold a somewhat awkward and amusing pose. Simply trying to move fixed the problem, so this was really not a problem. The other issue was a problem, but I am not sure what caused it. At times my mouse was misbehaving in the game, seemingly skipping around the screen, instead of smoothly moving from point to point. I did not notice this outside of the game, but restarting my computer fixed it, so I am not sure what the cause was. (The restart was for other reasons than the game.) Though I mention it, I doubt you will experience it.
Like the previous game, cinematics cannot be skipped in Assassin's Creed II, which is not a problem, considering how much story is conveyed through them. Unlike the previous game though, Assassin's Creed II does offer subtitles! That may not be important to you, but I am one of those people that likes to have them there, so I can read along, in case I do not understand what is said.
For being four-years-old, Assassin's Creed II still looks good. It may not have the amazing lighting and high resolution of this year's best, but it has where it needs where it counts. Of course as you actually play the game, the imperfections will be hard to notice.
Assassin's Creed II picks up immediately where its predecessor left off, with Desmond Miles in Abstergo's Animus room. Soon as the action starts up, and if you do not know how the last game ended, you may not understand what is going on at first as you briefly re-enter the Animus to get some information. While in the Animus you actually observe the birth of your ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. It is not as creepy as that may sound, though it is an interesting tutorial mechanic. (You have to press the correct buttons to make the infant move and start crying.)
After this, you leave the Animus and escape Abstergo, ultimately joining a team of modern-day Assassins. As Desmond lacks any training, and there are questions to answer concerning the previous subject Abstergo put in the Animus, you enter the Animus 2.0. This is actually the literary mechanic to explain the numerous changes to the gameplay experience, such as subtitles; you are in a more advance Animus. As it turns out, Subject 16 had left clues in the memories of Ezio, which he and Desmond share, so by loading the data from Abstergo's Animus, Desmond is able to find them.
While the hidden clues are an interesting and important aspect of the game, the primary reason you are in the Animus is to suffer the bleeding effect. As Desmond spends time in the Animus and relives his ancestor's lives, he learns skills from them. While they learned their skills over years, Desmond learns them over hours or days. Of course the bleeding effect can lead to hallucinations… I will leave it at that, to avoid spoilers.
When we return to Ezio, he has already grown up into a troublemaking playboy, with a strong sense of family. Unfortunately for him, his family is betrayed, and his brothers and father are killed in front of him. This starts him on his quest for revenge, and this is an important point. His first assassination is vicious and brutal, as he repeatedly stabs the target's body. He has not yet acquired the inner peace of an Assassin, but that changes after he meets his uncle, who is a trained Assassin. Still, he is somewhat rebellious, as he sees his goal as being revenge, instead of bringing the peace and freedom Assassins strive for, until much closer to the end of the game.
Another man he meets and learns from is a young Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo serves as the intelligent sidekick, who solves mysteries and builds new gadgets for you to use. Though he is never inducted into the Assassin Order during the game, he is entrusted with some of their secrets.
I wish I could give more specifics, but doing so would risk spoiling it. Instead I can only speak of how I greatly enjoy the depth and design of the story. This is not a simple story, like those you find in many action games. It spans more than 22 years of Ezio's life, so you see many twists and turns, and many people enter and affect his life. It makes it more like a book than a game, with the conclusion further away than you first thought, but that just makes the end more interesting, once you reach it.
What specifics I will mention, though, are that there are parallels between Desmond's and Ezio's stories. Both are learning how to fight from the people around them, and joining a team, after thinking they were alone.
Finally, there are many story elements (and gameplay mechanics) introduced in this game that feed into its sequels. That is not to say you must play Assassin's Creed II to understand what is happening in the later games, but that this is the game where some of it starts.
A lot has been changed in Assassin's Creed II compared to its predecessor, making it hard to decide where to start. Stealth is still an important mechanic, but it has had some major changes, including a redesign to the blend mechanic, notoriety mechanic, and alterations to how you can escape enemies chasing after you. Instead of having to find a spot to hide in, where enemies will not see you, Ezio can just run far enough to lose them, which can be a much faster option.
The blend mechanic is no longer dependent on the people in the crowd; you can blend with any group of citizens just by walking into the group. This makes it a lot more interesting to get from one place to another, unseen, as you may have to enter and leave different groups to do so. Of course you do not always have to blend, thanks to how notoriety works. Sometimes every guard knows Ezio is around and what he looks like, so the moment they spot you, they are a threat, but not always. Actions that would get the guards' attention, such as killing someone, can gain you notoriety, and it will build up to the point of making you notorious. To counter this, you can tear down wanted posters, bribe town criers, or kill those that bear false-witness against you, for notoriety reductions of 25%, 50%, and 75% respectively.
Another welcome change is the mini-map. The first game really did not have one; instead it had a compass that pointed you to the next objective, but provided no information about the environment. This map does just that though, and provides some very important information as well. Though not always the case, in many places you can actually see on the mini-map a change in brightness for buildings, as well as a line, indicating that the streets pass through the building. This is very valuable when you are running around on the ground, instead of on the rooftops, as you can see if a turn leads to a dead end or if you just have to go under an arch to continue. You still use Viewpoints to reveal the map.
Easily the biggest mechanic to the game, outside of the combat, is the economy. You are now rewarded with money for completing missions, and you can spend this money on weapons, armor, supplies, and upgrading the villa you and your family lives at. Different weapons offer different stats, including improved damage, speed, and deflection, while armor affects health and damage resistance. An important mechanic of the armor is that it can become damaged over time. When this happens, you lose health blocks and must repair it to get them back. As the armor takes damage, you can see blotches on it before it breaks, so you can repair it before losing those health blocks.
Money can also be used to purchase treasure maps of the cities you visit. Every chest appears on the map and mini-map once you have these, so if you need some quick money, you can see where you need to go.
Combat is complex in Assassin's Creed II. You now have four different weapon types to choose from: primary weapon, secondary weapon, hidden blades, and fists. Each of these have their own advantages and disadvantages. For the most part I found myself using the primary weapon, typically a sword, and my fists. The choice of fists is not because I wanted to be some badass, though I guess I would be, but because of a mechanic unique to them. You can counter attack with the other weapon types, but you are only able to disarm your opponents using your fists. If successful you take your opponent's weapon, which leaves them stunned long enough for you to attack and kill them. This does not always work against your enemies, as some will kick you away, but the heavy enemies can always be disarmed, so long as your timing is right. These opponents have the highest damage output and have the highest health, outside of assassination targets, so this strategy works very well for quickly disposing of them. Plus they will walk around with large swords, axes, and poleaxes, which you pick up when you disarm them.
That is enough positive stuff, don't you think? Time for some negative. Free-running, which is an important aspect of the game, is not always that good. Quite often I found Ezio leaping off ledges and climbing walls I simply did not want him to. I would even be pushing for him to go in the opposite direction, but he would just do what he wants. In one case he actually climbed down a ladder, while I held the button to go up. At other times it felt like the free-running was responding to the direction Ezio was facing, instead of the camera, so he would do what he wanted, instead of what I wanted.
Another negative is that the economy can quickly break itself, in a good way. An architect at the villa allows you to invest in nearby shops and other buildings, which will bring in money for you. This income never stops though, even though the number of purchasable items is limited. Amusingly, purchasing items actually increases your income. Technically this is a broken economy, as you have effectively unlimited funds and limited costs, but at least it is better than the reverse; limited funds and greater costs.
It took me about 18 hours to complete the campaign, and while I did complete some side missions, most I left alone. These side missions include races, assassination contracts, and beat-up events, and most are not required to finish the game. If you are a perfectionist though, they will easily add more hours to your experience.
With the many refinements and new mechanics, the experience of playing Assassin's Creed II has been very fun and enjoyable. No, it is not perfect, but does enough right to make up for that.
Additional Game Play Images:
Is Assassin's Creed II a memory to relive or to forget? In my opinion, definitely the former. It is a very fun game with plenty to do, and you are rewarded for all of it. There are some places it could be better, but it also has a lot of places that need no improvements, though they would be welcome.
The graphics stand up for their age, but do show some wrinkles here and there. The gameplay is a solid experience with many well designed and implemented mechanics, all of which add depth. The story is also superb; especially considering it is for a video game. I would honestly expect something with its intricacies to be limited to the written word, but it succeeds in this interactive medium of video games. Four-years-old or not, this game deserves attention for its quality.
This is an easy game to recommend to anyone looking for a very good action-adventure experience. For someone who has only recently discovered the Assassin's Creed franchise due to the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag marketing, and want to learn more about the series, this is definitely a game to purchase.