Murder with a nice Chianti.
What could be more romantic than Romeo and Juliet? Plenty of things actually, because what most people forget is that outside of a few moonlit balcony scenes, that tragic story mostly revolves around gangs of teenage street thugs stabbing each other in the streets of renaissance Italy.
[image1]Meanwhile, 100 miles to the south of our young star-cross'd lovers, in the city of Florence, young Ezio Auditore di Firenze is part of another brawling Italian street gang and, unknown to him, part of an ancient family of assassins. When most of his family is framed and executed as part of the political machinations of the time, Ezio's uncle Mario reveals all, and his quest for knowledge and revenge begins. He even has help from his own personal Q, artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, who provides Ezio with all kinds of cool gadgets.
While our historical assassin has changed, our modern protagonist has not. Desmond Miles, descendant of the assassins and part-time bartender, is once again using an “animus” to dig through his genetic memory and relive the lives of his ancestors. This time, however, he's doing it for his own reasons, having escaped from the Templar-controlled Abstergo corporation.
The dual-plot uncovering Templar manipulation in two time periods is much more interesting this time around. Ezio is simply a much more colorful character than Altaïr, with engaging emotions, a rich family history, and even a love life. Assassin's Creed II is also a much more detailed historical fiction, with lots of real 15th-century Italian figures and real historical events. Much of the plot is actually the real Pazzi conspiracy, which attempted to kill or otherwise get rid of the powerful Medici family, and you will play through real past events.
The game is chock full of accurate historical notes and landmarks, which make the whole thing feel so real, and so smart, that somebody over at Ubisoft deserves a medal. Or at least a sack of gold Florins, because one of the best new additions is an economy (I hope that means they read my review of the first game). Different weapons and armor can be bought in the many markets, and doctors sell both medicine and poison. Your uncle's estate and your home base can also generate wealth if you upgrade the town's services to turn your estate into a tourist destination. And lots of real classical paintings can be purchased to adorn the walls of your villa.
[image2]Also improved are the graphics which give a healthy dose of color to the best game engine in this generation of consoles. Ubisoft's Prince of Persia team should be using this platform, and Tomb Raider and Mirror's Edge should have stolen it, because like his ancestor, Ezio climbs better than the bastard child of Spider-Man and Lara Croft. And amazingly, impossibly, every building street, ship, and canal you can see from one of your lofty perches is actually there in the game.
Unfortunately, one part of the presentation has actually gotten worse. The obnoxious, useless, ugly-as-sin health bars, maps, indicators, and other onscreen geegaws (the heads-up-display, or HUD, as we call it) is even more egregious. It has even more cluttered crap than before, distracting you and pulling you out of the immersive experience of this otherwise awesome game. Dead Space has proved we don't need HUDs anymore if you design the game right. And you can't even turn it all off because you need the minimap as it's the only map that shows you which direction you are facing. If you bring up the big map, it only shows you your location, so when you go back to the game, you still have no idea which way to head. Why can't my super assassin-vision (called “eagle vision”) just lead me in the right direction?
The other big problem is some of the A.I. The new notoriety system, similar to GTA's star system, is great when it works. Public displays of violence will up your notoriety and guards will start to recognize your face faster and from further away, leading to lots of them trying to kill you. You can reduce notoriety by doing things like bribing the town criers to shout about other matters and tearing down wanted posters with your face on them. However, it all breaks down too frequently with people running endlessly in place into walls or other objects, and guards just standing there watching while you stab their buddies.
[image3]Back to the good stuff, side missions - a big complaint about the first title - are much improved. There is a wider variety of activities, and rewards are varied, from money for hit contracts, to the eventual retrieval of Altaïr's armor, to odd puzzles which reward you with snippets of a very strange video labeled “The Truth”. It's all very mysterious and compelling, and it makes you want to flesh out the game that much more.
This is the only way to extend your game, because when the incredible single-player experience is over, there's no multiplayer. There are more collectables and exploration, and 100 feathers to find for completionists, but most of us will just be sitting around jonesing for Assassin's Creed III once we've collected and deciphered all 30 pages of the codec.
Assassin's Creed was easily one of my favorite games of the last decade, and I love the sequel even more. It has managed to improve on almost every aspect of the game, despite missing a couple of obvious and unfortunate mistakes. This side trip to Italy is a truly fantastic vacation and worth every dollar, euro, or gold Florin.