Assassin’s Creed II
Assassin’s Creed II is one of the few single-player video games that I’ve totally completed more than once. I love being connected to its world, which is best done by playing the game. I’ve played it to 100% completion every couple of years, on average, since its release 10 years ago. Finishing the story might take a dozen hours, but finishing the side content probably takes twice as much time. In total, I’ve probably spent close 150 hours playing this game.
Despite being from 2009, the visuals of AC II are second to none in terms of aesthetic value. They’re not amazing from a technical perspective, but they depict things that are inherently appealing: the architecture, landscapes, and even clothing of 15th-century Florence, Venice, and Tuscany are gorgeous. The game presents idealized depictions of these settings, but they’re popular with tourists in real-life for good reason.
AC II is rare in how its quieter moments stand out. Doing parkour on the rooftops in sunny Florence and along the canals of nighttime Venice are memories that come to mind. Unlike the first Assassin’s Creed, it has a day-night cycle that affects the liveliness of the cities and countryside. Literally bumping into a street-sweeper in the early-morning hours, then taking his broom and using it as a legit weapon is as memorable as scaling the Duomo.
The music, which dynamically changes to match the setting and action, is excellent. The original score is composed by Jesper Kyd, whose prior work includes the soundtracks of Assassin’s Creed and the Hitman games. The scores in those other games are mostly forgettable, but AC II has a more cinematic approach to storytelling that calls for a more prominent score. Kyd’s work in this game and in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood are his best.
The soundtrack has several distinct songs. “Ezio’s Family” is so popular that Ubisoft has made it available as DLC for Rocksmith 2014, though I prefer the rendition called “Earth.” I love the ambient songs “Leonardo’s Inventions, Pt 1” and “Leonardo’s Inventions, Pt 2” as well as “Hideout.” “Home in Florence” might be my all-time my favorite songs from a video game; the latter half in particular is nothing less than sublime.
Besides having the best locales and music, AC II has the most interesting story. It’s a tale of vengeance and intrigue that, while somewhat clichéd, is epic in the classic sense of the word. Ezio Auditore, the protagonist, spends two decades avenging the unjust arrests and executions of his father and brothers. During this period he unravels a deep conspiracy and joins the centuries-old conflict between the Assassin and Templar orders.
Ezio evolves from charming playboy to wise hero. Over the course of the story, he’s guided by several mentors who ultimately reveal themselves to be Assassins. His and the player’s development from unknowing recruit to capable Assassin is gradual, but he and the other characters don’t visibly age. Ezio has a beard in the final chapters, but otherwise everyone looks the same, and realizing that more than 20 years have passed is jarring.
This epic journey is enjoyable because of its hero. Ezio is, by far, the most popular character in the series. Ubisoft leveraged his immediate popularity by quickly releasing two sequels, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Ezio is still the only character to star in a trilogy of mainline AC games, and it’s been remastered for the current generation of consoles. He also stars in a spinoff game and an animated movie.
This game has so many interesting characters. Ezio’s mentors are a motley crew of unconventional Assassins, including a fictional version of Niccolo Machiavelli. Other historic figures who play important roles are members of the (in)famous Medici and Borgia families; Rodrigo Borgia is ultimately revealed to be the antagonist. Caterina Sforza and none other than Leonardo da Vinci have memorable roles as Ezio’s ally and confidant, respectively.
The last quarter of the 15th century is a rich collection of historic people, events, and activity for creative interpretation. The Renaissance is such a monumental period in history that it’s hard to not feel inspired by the achievements and innovations that are depicted. The Renaissance is an under-represented setting in video games, so AC II is still unique in this sense.
Moving and Fighting
AC II improves the foundation set by its ground-breaking predecessor with respect to ease of use. Escaping from chasing guards is much easier because they have a fixed range that’s shown on the mini-map. The game also introduces white sheets draped onto objects as environmental cues to make parkour running easier, and considering how much time is spent near bodies of water, the new ability to swim is useful.
The combat in AC II is also expanded. Whereas battles in AC are tedious because counter-attacking is the only viable option, AC II lets the player take more initiative against enemies by kicking, taunting, or temporarily blinding them. Dodging and disarming are possible as well. The variety of weapons, enemies, and animations keep things interesting throughout story.
Building and Collecting
The game has other improvements that reflect innovations of the Renaissance, specifically double-entry bookkeeping, press printing, and gunpowder usage. The player can buy goods and services from shops, including smoke bombs, gun bullets, and treasure maps that show the locations of collectible items; the player can later build shops to generate income. This commerce system is both historical and convenient.
Improving properties and collecting items is a satisfying experience. Buying shops and renovating them to their maximum levels not only provides more income and better discounts, but it improves their aesthetic and atmosphere. Having collections of valuable weapons, armor, and artwork is empowering, especially because they’re on display in Ezio’s beautiful home. This game-within-the-game has since become a staple of AC games.
The consensus is that AC II and AC: Brotherhood represent the pinnacle of the series. Some diehard fans might prefer other Assassin’s Creed games, but this tandem is widely popular. I believe that their combination of memorable characters and romantic settings is the magic formula. AC: Revelations stars Ezio, but its villain is forgettable compared to the Borgias and Constantinople is no match for Florence, Venice, Tuscany, or Rome.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is my all-time favorite story-based video game, but AC II isn’t far behind it, and they share elements. They’re both heroic epics that blend high-stakes conspiracies with romanticized presentation, and they take place in highly eventful periods of history. I prefer the story of MGS3, but I would rather play AC II these days because its gameplay is less outdated and its world a lot more expansive.
Playing AC II is like vicariously being on vacation. The game has places that are inspiring or relaxing to me. Not all gamers want that experience, or at least not all the time, but I some times I daydream about playing this game, and video games usually don’t have that effect on me.