On the surface Assassin's Creed II is the game of my dreams. A breathtakingly beautiful world, filled with missions and a playground for a parkour practitioner and assassin. My hidden blade is as sharp as my outfight, I can climb any tower and my new best friend Leonardo da Vinci has devised a flying machine. After walking many miles in my assassin boots I'm satisfied, but it's not without a nagging blister or two.
Forget the 12th century and Jerusalem and get ready for the Italian Renaissance. In Assassin's Creed II we are introduced to the new main character Ezio, who mixes the talents of a street brawler with the platform jumping abilities of Super Mario. Ezio is a much more exciting character than Altaïr and this time they have even equipped the main character with an accent. The character we control in the present, Desmond, who gets his genetic memory probed in a dentist's chair, remains the same and we control him during brief intermissions.
Assassin's Creed II is a very beautiful game. Enormous production values, and the graphical design make for an incredibly ambitious rendition of Italy during the 15th century. The cities and stores, the people and their clothes, everything oozes of authenticity and we even get to learn about crafts and trades of the era as well as dignitaries and artists. I shop for weapons, throw money at street musicians, and hire ladies of the night to distract guards for their duties. Florence, Venice, and Tuscany are teeming with life and some of the best moments in Assassin's Creed II take place when I'm engaging in sight seeing. Naturally I take the scenic route along the ridges of the tallest buildings.
Ezio has a range of fun weapons to play with and among the additions are the double hidden blades, smoke bombs and even a small pistol. You can purchase new types of swords and armours in the shops in town and after some time these will also need repairs. Bottles with medicine are also a necessity and these can be purchased from a doctor who wears an uncanny mask over his face. All of these are put to good use in your altercations with guards and other victims, and even if Ezio has some new moves compared to Altaïr it basically comes down to mashing the B button just like before.
There are also other side tracks to follow such as collecting feather for a relative who is in a coma, tearing down poster with your face in order to lower your notoriety level and seek out hidden treasures. On top of this you can also assume the role of mayor and upgrade everything from banks and brothels in a town, an investment that will generate money with time. For the compulsive collector there is plenty to do, but most of the time the side tracks are limited to just collecting.
The first Assassin's Creed suffered from repetitive missions, both when it came to side missions and the main story, and we were promised more variation in Assassin's Creed II. And it has gotten better. However, it is not consistently good. The average mission is rather bland and generic, I get the task of murdering someone whose name sounds like a pizza, I complete my mission. I seek out someone whose name makes me think of a pasta dish and do the same thing. I feel full. On top of this I'm outraged at the many escort missions and scout missions where several minutes are spent just walking at a leisurely pace.
I found it hard to get into the story. There is an enormous cast of characters and instead of focusing on telling one really interesting story we are presented with a number of short stories about Italian merchants and men of power. At times Assassin's Creed II comes across as a day-time soap you have never seen before, where dozens of families tell us who has been naughty with serious voices. The criticised modern day element with Desmond and the dentist's chair has been toned down to a point where it lacks relevance.
The artificial intelligence is sharp, but far from perfect. Once again several of our enemies stand idly by while Ezio slaughters one of their friends. And Leonardo da Vinci's status as of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind is hardly done justice as he turns to talk to a wall rather than his friend Ezio. And once again you can solve stealth missions by simply storming the main target, mash the attack button and ignore dozens of guards who surround you. The elegant assassinations of a single guard are however just as entertaining as before, and just as brutal.
Assassin's Creed II is far from a poor action game, but it's hard not to feel disappointed given all of Ubisoft's promises. In a caption I'm told that Leonardo da Vinci often left his work half finished, and perhaps that is where Assassin's Creed II lands in my book. Great ambitions, fantastic atmosphere, skilled developers. But in the end a piece of work that could have done with more further development.