In 2020, Assassin’s Creed is a household name. Receiving its 23rd entry in the franchise this year counting spin-offs, originally an evolution of the Prince of Persia franchise. But as it currently stands, one of the biggest gaming IP’s having amassed not only a lot of well-received games but also a movie and multiple novels.
Personally, the only games I’ve somehow managed to complete is Black Flag and Unity. But last week I decided to jump in from the beginning, or at least… Almost at the beginning, with Assassin’s Creed II. The original game released in 2009, to great reviews and fanfare, the game is to this day one of the most beloved titles in the entire franchise.
When playing older games, there’s a lot to take into perspective. What the gaming market looked like during its release period, how the industry has evolved from its initial release and putting it against similar titles during the same period.
Even though I suspect you’ve at some point encountered Assassin’s Creed, the general gist of the game is that you’re playing as a character named Desmond who has DNA tied to the assassin called Ezio Auditore. The reason this is important is that the company Abstergo uses his DNA to simulate Ezio’s memories which in turn give them leads to important, mythical ”treasures” and/or powers.
Aside from that, the game is a basic Assassin vs Templar story, set during the Renaissance Italy, during the years of 1476 to 1500. Even though the story revolves around Desmond, the bulk of the game is set around Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and frankly… It should be the only thing the game revolves around.
The game opens up with Desmond’s escape from the Abstergo, where he’s given a task from Lucy to A. Learn the skills of an Assassin through Ezio, and B. Learn secrets that can destroy Abstergo through Ezio. Sadly, everything that has anything to do with Desmond is at best mediocre, and at worst a bad, slow journey with a horrible cast of characters and largely uninteresting plot.
The game shows its biggest weaknesses during the parts as Desmond. Luckily, you rarely play as him. I think there are three separate segments in total during this 15-20 hour story. His counterpart Ezio however, is a different story. Set with a fun moveset, semi-likable side characters, and interesting motivations and personality, Ezio is a way better protagonist than Desmond.
You follow Ezio from his literal birth, to his young-adult life where you get to watch him grow and mature. Speaking strictly about Ezio and the story revolving him, I think the foundation there is great. Ubisoft makes a great effort at making an engaging story and character. Unfortunately, the effort is at points tarnished by bad mission structure, fairly uninteresting side characters, and large time skips that come seemingly out of nowhere. (More on that later)
The game also treats women like garbage, either they don’t show women without hinting at sex, or they talk about women strictly as whores. Even the female assassin(s) revealed at the final part of the game use sex as their tactic, with both using their brothels to remain hidden. This gets especially clear after a band of 15+ men wins a battle early on, which is celebrated by saying that they need “beer and women” followed by an awkward silence. “What? It’s true!” and all the men celebrate. I realize this is something that the franchise does better as time goes on, but it’s still worth pointing out that Assassin’s Creed II doesn’t do anything interesting regarding women.
The two biggest problems with Assassin’s Creed II is that the game has a bad pace all the way through and that it feels like the game is actively fighting against you having fun during gameplay. I felt that the game was a slug to play through, even when giving up on claiming every chest, viewpoint, and feather and focusing on the story, I felt largely uninterested and bored during every gameplay session halfway through the story.
This has to do with the lackluster mission structure in the game. Either you have to follow someone, assassinate someone, reach a place while facing guards on your way there. Sadly the game isn’t very fun, lacking in combat especially. I find that the best strategy in combat is to just do perfect parry and (Mostly) one-shot everyone. Aside from that its just button mashing, with slow and frankly boring animations.
The games running mechanics are also fighting against you. Sometimes Ezio doesn’t climb where he should. Sometimes Ezio jumps, which leads to his demise. Most annoying however is how the controller is laid out. Having to hold R2 to run, R2 + X to ”Free Run” (Climb + Run even faster) and R2 + O for pushing people.
Especially annoying is the part about pushing people. If you don’t do it, Ezio falls on the ground where he flails around for up to 3 seconds. I feel like Ubisoft thought the game would be more realistic if every human walking around Venice would make you fall if you run into them, and that you actively have to push them to run through. However, from a gameplay standpoint, I find it annoying even though I quickly got used to it.
I also didn’t have a big problem with seemingly ”filler” story missions or similar/bad mission structure until I got to Sequence 12 and 13, which is some of the worst parts I’ve played in a game for the last few years. The two longest sequences in the entire game, which also doesn’t do anything what so ever for the overall story (Except give Ezio a cool speech and a beard), the game throws you largely meaningless missions.
However, it’s not all negative. Ezio is a highly likable character, at first a very likable young man who quickly gets hit with reality. His father worked with the assassins, his family became wanted and he lost his father and brother(s). I think the setup of the story, as a revenge based one is great. Even after having played the Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima, I think the setup and payoff are handled great in Assassin’s Creed II.
My biggest complaint strictly out of the story perspective is that I didn’t feel like it communicates the time skips enough. It got apparent at the start of the game when training your combat with your uncle Mario. There are around 5 different tutorials, and every tutorial begins with ”Ezio, I know what you did at my house last week”, hinting at the fact that this combat training that takes 2 minutes of our time, actually takes weeks in the universe.
Aside from that, I realized that a few years had passed, but at one point in the middle of the game Ezio screams that it was 10 years ago he lost everything. Confused as I was I thought that it surely would’ve been a mistake since he looked the same and I didn’t notice anything different overall. Ezio’s sister had the same clothes for crying out loud!
However, by the end of Sequence 13, Ezio holds a speech once again, stating that he lost everything ”22 years ago”. The only difference in Ezio except for being more mature was the fact that he’d grown a beard. Aside from that the world and the cast of characters around him were largely the same as they were before.
One thing that did change during the span of the game was the Villa, which served as Ezio’s home base. Owned by his uncle and fellow assassin, Mario, you get the option to renovate the villa and town. Something that in the end, didn’t do a whole lot, but something I enjoyed a lot. I loved going back to the Villa to upgrade it, seeing the growth of the town, and earning more money. Its a small part of the game, but a part I enjoyed a lot.
I also realized during endgame that I liked the free-running and open-world way more than I did when playing the story. Going for the Platinum trophy, and avoiding combat, made me appreciate the climbing, running, and traversal a lot more.
Its also worth pointing out that the game has a great open world, with 5 different locations. Venice and Florence being the two big ones. They’re very ambitious in size, and look good. I think they did a great job of creating a living city too.
There are some nitpicks here and there, like how fast travel works for example. But a lot of the nitpicks I have isn’t the games fault, more-so the time that it released and the hardware it was on fault. It’s worth keeping in mind that the open world, in this scale, wasn’t being made during 2009. And Assassin’s Creed II does a lot of great things. I saw a lot of things in AC2 that I recognized doing in games like Ghost of Tsushima, a great example of this is the ease of jumping off your horse.
The trophy list is well made, albeit a bit simple. Even though I enjoyed the practice of collecting feathers and solving glyphs, I’m happy that it didn’t force me to collect every chest or viewpoint. (Unity’s chest trophy was the worst)
I think the game did a good job at balancing story, misc and collectible trophies. Albeit worth mentioning that the list is a bit on the easier side, which can be refreshing for some.
Even though there’s a lot I dislike with the game, I think it ends on such a strong point that I still have kind of an interest in returning for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Hopefully, they have fixed a lot of my complaints and continue Ezio’s story in a well-made fashion.
Assassin’s Creed overall set the template for the rest of the industry, while I feel like open-world games are way more balanced in this day and age, and I’ve seen the evolution that Assassin’s Creed franchise has made. I can’t do anything but give AC2 a lot of credit for making an overall stellar open world. Since the game is available pretty much everywhere thanks to the Ezio Collection its also easy to play the game in HD