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  1.  (7747.1)

    The first ASSASSIN'S CREED was barely a good game. The potential had been buried under repetitive missions and a story that just tried too hard. The first game made a revelation in the first five minutes, that the real protagonist of the story was a clueless dipshit called Desmond Miles who is caught in a battle between templars and assassins in the present days. Captured by the templars, Desmond is forced to interact with a machine called "Animus", which sends his mind into the incomplete memories of an assassin called Altair back in the Crusades. The templars believe Altair knew of something they want, and therefore they force Desmond (and the player) to live Altair's memories, completing the gaps.

    The failure with this story's structure was that Altair was a more interesting protagonist than Desmond, and that his storyline was far better: young and impulsive, Altair commits a serious mistake that strips him of his rank within the assassins, and in order to recover his reputation he must kill a number of difficult targets. Meanwhile, Desmond is just a shithead who must do things for a powerful organization fighting another powerful organization. Simply put: Altair deserved more than being just a mere cog in a weak story designed to be a trilogy, and keep in mind neither Altair or his storyline are that interesting; but when you compare him to Desmond, well...

    The great thing about this sequel is that the developers tried to improve every single thing about ASSASSIN'S CREED that people had the slightest problem with and surprisingly, for the most part, they succeeded. What they failed with was finding some way to make Desmond Miles less of a wanker, or to make his storyline more interesting than the one happening in the Animus. In fact, the gap in quality between the two stories is exponentially widened: while Desmond Miles continues to be a clueless dipshit, Ezio Auditore da Firenze is a genuinely good protagonist in a story that does a fantastic job of fictionalizing history to fit into the game's plot. Unlike Altair, Ezio isn't interesting when compared to Desmond; he is interesting, period.

    We control Ezio literally from the moment's he's born. ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 deserves applause for being brave enough to take its time in developing the character; I was well into my second hour of gameplay when I finally got the chance to wield an assassin's wristblade, but I wasn't annoyed by this in the slightest. To the contrary, I was happy to play a game that is just as concerned with its story as it is with gameplay.

    Aside from a complex, rich protagonist, the Animus narrative gains two things the first game lacked: properly directed cutscenes, and interesting supporting characters. In ASSASSIN'S CREED, you could move Altair around during cutscenes, and cycle between angles at your leisure. This made for very boring -- and unskippable -- cutscenes. In the sequel, the cutscenes are well-directed, with special mention to a beautiful moment when a group of assassins perform a leap of faith from the top of a tower, one after the other, as the camera moves closer.

    And the supporting characters, based and named after historical figures, are surprisingly convincing (of course, within the game's plot and context). Leonardo Da Vinci isn't portrayed as a wise, serious man, but as a young artist full of enthusiasm and a prodigious mind. Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI, works fairly well as a villain, despite the unnecessary use of a hood that makes him look like a fat Emperor Palpatine. Sadly, these characters, and the entire plot of the story within the Animus, are in service of a weaker story. I believe both the first game and this sequel would have benefitted from being self-contained narratives that dealt with events of the time period they happen within without any relation to an overarching, present day plot. The ending of this game (which I won't reveal) shows what a liability Desmond's narrative has become (skip to the next paragraph to avoid a minor spoiler). By pushing the interesting Ezio aside in favour of the dull Desmond, the story shoots its own foot.

    In Ubisoft's credit, though, they do try to make Desmond's story more interesting by adding more characters and action sequences, but ultimately I just wanted to go back to the Animus to see what would happen to Ezio and jump around Florence, Venice and other Italian cities which the game does an absolutely magnificent job of recreating. They not only look very different from one another, they're all uniquely beautiful and manage, at the same time, to be easy to parkour around. I could easily find a ledge for Ezio to climb on whenever I needed, and I was astonished by how immersed I felt into the Italian Renaissance. ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 is a fantastic achievement in this regard, to the point of having explanatory text entries pop up on the side of your screen every time you meet a new historical figure or approach a famous building. The only mistake the developers made here was forgetting to portray the aging of the supporting characters; Ezio eventually gets a goatee, but Leonardo Da Vinci and the others look the exact same for two decades.

    (continued in comments)
  2.  (7747.2)
    How did the game expect me to give half a shit about Desmond and his boring present day situation when I could see what happened to an interesting Italian assassin in the Renaissance? That is, in a nutshell, why I think the sci-fi plot of this series can go fuck itself.

    One of the game's main strengths is how fun it is to control Ezio. After you get the hang of it, it becomes intuitive, in large part thanks to the intelligent control scheme and to the small graphic on the top right of the screen, which shows the face buttons of the controller and the actions they will perform if you press them. In order to parkour, you need to keep two buttons pressed and move the analog stick. This might sound easy, but you still need to watch out for jumps even the skilled Ezio can't make (and there's quite a few), and trying to sprint along a street will just result in hitting a lot of passersby, which will slow you down and/or make you fall unless you press the "tackle" button; you'll push aside everyone in your way like a rhino, but at a slower pace than sprinting.

    Of course, I can hardly think of any reason to worry about that. Fleeing from guards? Why would you do that, when Ezio is capable of turning a measly, half-hearted wave of an enemy's sword into a fantastic counter-attack that will make at least three of your enemy's major organs explode? The combat system in ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 is even more unfair to the NPCs than it was in the first game; Ezio not only masters the use of a sword and a knife -- he can fight with his wristblade now, or even his fists, not to mention disarming the enemy and using his weapon against him -- and those weapons can go from a mace to a goddamn spear, all with their own counter-attacks. And it's such a fun combat system that every time I got the attention of some (or several) guards, I never fled. I just killed the shit out of all of them. Hey, the game's called Assassin's Creed, dammit.

    Which isn't to say the combat is a cakewalk. Some enemies are covered head to toes in armor, and are immune to counter-attacks; the same goes for the spear-wielding fucks. Strategy is important, and by strategy I mean sneaking on a group of guards, target-locking on the bastards who wield armor and spears, and killing as many as possible before the others realize what's going on.

    In fact, ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 improves immensely on the first game on what, judging by its title, is its most important gameplay feature: killing. The game offers a great variety of ways to kill people. Stick a wristblade in their faces or into their guts; impale them from behind with a sword; poison a guard so he'll go berserk, wave his sword around, possibly kill some of his colleagues and then die; jump from a height and land between two enemies, killing them smoothly with the double wristblades; put your weapons away, grab the enemy's spear and kill him with it; or just use your fists all the way if you're really into humiliating your enemy. Sure, he won't die if you use your fists, he'll just fall and stay there writhing in agony -- at least until you pick him up from the ground, carry him to the nearest edge and drop him off of it. After all, you've got a reputation to maintain.

    Those deaths also received some attention to detail from Ubisoft. Although the transition from pre-rendered animation to ragdoll physics isn't as smooth as it should be, it's certainly impressive to stab your enemy and see the blood spread from the wound, wetting the fabric of their clothes. Not to mention the excellent pre-rendered animations, and the ragdoll physics that are quite believable except, as I said, during the jerky transition from one to the other.
  3.  (7747.3)
    Another problem with the first ASSASSIN'S CREED was its repetitive mission structure: do the same three side-quests to unlock an assassination, and the assassinations are heavily scripted, not coming even close to giving you the level of freedom to approach your target as in, for instance, the superb HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY. This sequel, though, does offer more ways to decide how your target will be killed, and the side-quests relating to each of the game's (many many many) targets are all original, in a mission structure that reminded me (pleasantly) of the GRAND THEFT AUTO series. In fact, the developers and writers have some moments of brilliance, like when you fly one of Leonardo's contraptions to reach a target, or when, in order to kill another target, you need to use a weapon that at the time was very uncommon. Additionally, you can look for codex pages (which increase your health when you take them to Leonardo) or find artifacts that, when put together, will unlock the game's best armor: Altair's. The latter might sound like a boring scavenger hunt, but it isn't; every artifact is pointed out in your map, but to get to it you must go through surprisingly well-designed missions.

    Adding even more variety to the gameplay, there's also a management aspect to ASSASSIN'S CREED 2. You'll get money for your assassinations, or for exploring the cities and finally, from the villa that your family owns. You can use the money to re-build decaying parts of the villa, which in turn will generate more money, which in turn you can use to buy more weapons and armor. I ended up, however, getting way more money than I really needed, rendering this aspect of the game discardable. But it is nice to see Ezio tending to other affairs not related to killing, and thanks to the game's fast-travel system and its amazingly well-rendered world that's always a pleasure to roam around, getting to the villa to do the repairs wasn't bothersome for me.

    The graphics are very impressive, but not technically: the modeling and the textures aren't as good as we've gotten used to, presumably due to this being an open-world game that happens in very detailed and populated cities. But it should be clear by now that artistically speaking, ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 is fantastic, and the animations bring the characters to life -- from the competent motion-capture during cutscenes to the way passersby react when a body you threw from a high ledge falls in front of them. The one badly-animated moment that caught my attention was a character lying on the ground and being kicked by others, since the kicks didn't seem to connect at all.

    In the sound department, though, there are practically no shortcomings. It's good to see Nolan North (Nathan Drake from UNCHARTED and the Prince from PRINCE OF PERSIA) playing a character who doesn't try cracking a joke every two seconds, even if that character is Desmond. But it's Roger Craig Smith who stands out as Ezio, giving the character a determined, but eternally young and slightly naive voice, portraying the way Ezio is practically frozen in time by the quest he dedicates his life to; I can't comment on Kristen Bell's work as Lucy Stillman since it's such a boring, cliched love interest that I failed to notice it, and I doubt the actress could have saved it; the excellent and versatile Fred Tatasciore lends a wise yet amusing tone to uncle Mario (who introduces himself as "it's-a me, Mario!", and I can't really blame the developers for not resisting this joke). Finally, Carlos Ferro gives Leonardo Da Vinci a funny enthusiasm, almost child-like. The voice acting is, all in all, homogenously exceptional.

    But it's Jesper Kyd's music that absolutely amazes, surpassing even the high expectations I tend to have toward the composer responsible for the brilliant score in HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY. His soundtrack has an Italian feel to it without going for any cliches, and it's beautiful regardless of whether it's composed for quiet moments of free-roaming or tense action scenes. Allied to good sound effects, it is vital in immersing the player into the game's world.

    Very long but intelligently built to bring something new to the table in every chapter (or, as the game calls them, sequence), ASSASSIN'S CREED 2 is, for its setting alone, a unique experience. How many games immerse you into a plot happening during the Italian Renaissance? It has its flaws, but it's mostly a triumph -- not only an immense improvement over the first game, also a genuinely excellent game on its own. Some people will certainly not enjoy the slow pacing, or some mission objectives, or the underwhelming ending. But it's a game with so many qualities, so many tricky things the developers managed to get right, that the flaws can almost be overlooked.

    Now let's hope that in the next installment Desmond is electrocuted to death by a malfunctioning Animus and the supporting characters have to go look for a replacement protagonist who isn't such a wanker.
  4.  (7747.4)
    Ezio eventually gets a goatee, but Leonardo Da Vinci and the others look the exact same for two decades.

    obv. DaVinci invented the fountain of youth. ;>
  5.  (7747.5)
  6.  (7747.6)
    THe image of him as a really old man was just a good make-up job and a wig. :D