First, I should say this isn’t a review but rather an informal discussion of various aspects of the game. I’ll be going wherever my thoughts take me with little structure so if you’re not familiar with the game maybe this article isn’t for you.
If asked what my favourite video game of all time is I always used to say that it’s a tie between Star Wars Battlefront (the original one on PS2) and Assassin’s Creed 2. Battlefront encapsulated everything I loved about Star Wars from the characters, locations, music, action and that feeling you can’t quite put your finger on and so its place at top of my favourite game ranking is guaranteed. Upon release Assassin’s Creed 2 showed my young and naïve mind just what games could be from aspects of plot, mythology and just pure fun. I made sure to play it at least once a year on PlayStation 3 but when the PlayStation 4 was released I packaged AC2 away for what I thought was the last time. However late last year came the release of the Ezio Collection on PS4 which beckoned me to play Assassin’s Creed 2 once more, this time on my PS4 Pro. Now a more experienced and well versed gamer, replaying AC2 was an interesting experience filled with revelations. Did it change my overall outlook on the game and does Battlefront have that prestigious top spot all to itself? Let’s take a look.
My first surprise at revisiting Assassin’s Creed 2 is just how long it takes for Ezio to become an Assassin. We spend a while getting to know his family and his personality before tragic events occur which change him completely and I love this. Modern games, including recent Assassin’s Creed instalments, often put the players into the action straight away, scared that gamers have short attention spans and need to jump straight into mindless action without getting a handle on plot and characters first. Assassin’s Creed 2 is all about Ezio’s journey from a naïve charmer to a world-weary fighter for first revenge and then a cause bigger than himself. The opening hours of AC2 give us time to really understand Ezio so we can comprehend just how much he changes over the course of the game and the trilogy while also introducing us to the world the developers created. When we first gain the use of a sword it’s a great moment and then we lose it in the next mission and it is a while until we get a new one; this could be frustrating but the storytelling is so captivating that we go along with it. I had forgotten how unafraid Ubisoft were to put plot before gameplay and it’s one of my favourite things about AC2 and I wish more modern games would follow that mentality.
Another thing Assassin’s Creed 2 still does better than almost any other game I’ve played is its sense of location and atmosphere. The design of each and every building is stunning and feels straight out of the Italian renaissance while also being full indicative of the specific city it is a part of. The music by Jesper Kyd plays a large part in maintaining such a dense and unique atmosphere and it is undoubtedly my favourite game soundtrack ever making me wish the more recent AC games had better soundtracks particularly while free-roaming.
The game is grand in scope in both length (absolutely the longest story of any AC game) and location with multiple huge cities like Florence and Venice with several districts each. At times the sheer scale of the game did seem to dwarf certain story points and character beats but for the most part the game manages to keep the tale it weaves personal. So much of this relies on Ezio as a character in making him arrogant enough at the beginning without making him unlikable and having him become more stoic as the plot develops without him becoming dull. It’s a fine line and it works perfectly with Ezio, he remains a likable character throughout and one which the gamer becomes emotionally invested in because time is taken to present a proper three-dimensional character. I appreciated the character and understood why he worked so well while revisiting the game because his success is highlighted by the failures of Assassin’s Creed characters since then. While I liked Conor Kenway from AC3 overall it was obvious the game developers wanted to get away from Ezio and so created a character who felt a bit too much like a personality vacuum at times. On the opposite end of the spectrum it didn’t work out when they tried to copy Ezio’s success with characters like Arno from Unity and Jacob from Syndicate because they were given all the confidence with none of the suave charm making them just a bit too annoying.
Sticking with the topic of characters it was just last year when I was saying that the recently released Assassin’s Creed games, like the aforementioned Unity and Syndicate, don’t have good villains and didn’t spend enough time with them like they did in the Ezio games. After revisiting AC2 it would seem that I was wrong and the Ezio games are guilty of the same offence. The bad guys are not as good as I remember and do little more than to serve their purpose in the story. The members of the Pazzi family are good foils for Ezio due to some personal beef but others like Marco and Silvio Barbarigo are nothing more than a collection of polygons. Even the big bad Rodrigo Borgia barely appears with little information given about him until we suddenly learn he has become the Pope at the end of the game leading to a ridiculous boss fight of having to punch the old fat guy repeatedly in the Sistine Chapel.
The game does however feature a great cast of supporting characters who aid Ezio along his journey of becoming an Assassin. Paola is given an intriguing back story and Thief Guild leader Antonio is memorable and of course uncle (it’s-a-me) Mario. I’ve always thought they could have done more with love interest Rosa who disappears at the tail end of the game. Giving Ezio a character who he can truly open up to would have cemented his journey from a horny Italian teen to someone who feels he can no longer have meaningful relationships for fear of loss. They could have done this with the further inclusion of Christina who was Ezio’s girlfriend at the very beginning of the game showing how their relationship falls apart and ends due to Ezio’s new life. This story for Christina was actually supposed to appear in the game but was cut and ended up as repressed memories in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood (although they made it into the AC2 novelisation by Oliver Bowden). While I like these repressed memories in Brotherhood I feel they would have been far more impactful if they were in AC2 as originally planned.
In the interest of time – and word count – I’ll rush through some final thoughts:
I’m still disappointed in the lack of Desmond in the game. Unlike many I really enjoyed the modern-day sections of the first five or six Assassin’s Creed games and always wanted more. The opening breakout of Abstergo is a great sequence though and I vividly remember my first time playing it.
The combat does rely far too much on the counter attacks which made combat tiring at times on this playthrough and the occasional free run malfunctions of jumping the wrong way and falling to my death do get frustrating.
The subject 16 glyphs and puzzles are a great way to expand the series mythology to those that want it and can be ignored by those who don’t. The mythology feels like an intricate web at this point not the twisted convoluted knot it would later become.
The ending reveal works well which is surprising considering it is a combined pastiche of various sci-fi ideas and moves the series in an unexpected direction and genre.
One of the best moments of the game comes late on in the Bonfire of the Vanities DLC in which Ezio can return to his home and using eagle vision see his family once more before they fade away completely. It’s a beautiful moment that adds added impact to the overall character arc and Ezio’s speech at the end of the memory sequence plus it is completely optional.
To conclude I definitely found faults in the game during this recent playthrough that I hadn’t before but the game’s strengths seem to have grown with age with the slow and deliberate opening and putting plot first multiple times counters the instant gratification style of storytelling that hinders so many modern games. Assassin’s Creed 2’s world and atmosphere are the stuff of legend and I’m glad that the Ezio collection can bring the game to more gamers who have yet to experience it. At times while playing the game after my 500th counter kill and jumping to my death due to faulty mechanics I was disappointed in a game I have held in such high regard since its release but when it’s all said and done I still stay to collect every goddamn feather because I love being in the game’s world so much. Assassin’s Creed 2 is a stunning achievement and it’s staying a joint number 1 on my favourite games of all-time list because there is something to be said for nostalgia and I might just make it my annual tradition once again.
What do you think of Assassin’s Creed 2? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about Assassin’s Creed on Twitter @kylebrrtt.