Game Review: Assassin’s Creed II

Stabbing simulator returns.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), MacOS
Available on: Steam

It’s been a few years since I’ve played the original Assassin’s Creed. I initially wanted to play through the entire series up that point and I already had purchased the original, II, Brotherhood and Revelations. But after the first one, I felt severely underwhelmed by what I saw. I initially already started playing the second one but at some point, after around 7 hours I simply lost interest and quit the game entirely.

In any case, I decided to revisit it again and start from square one with the campaign, which basically picks up immediately after the last one ends with an escape from Abstergo. The entire framing device really doesn’t serve anything here, just like it did in the first game. So what if Abstergo is run by Templars? I still have nothing telling me that either of these two groups are worth supporting, because in the end, the Assassins make Desmond do the exact same thing the Templars did, which is reliving the memories of an ancestor, which this time turns out to be an Italian.

Now since I’m half Italian and also able to speak the language, I can tell you that the English voice-acting for this game most certainly wasn’t recorded by Italians who happen to know English, but by Americans who sometimes happen to have an Italian name doing their best impression of what they think Italians might sound like if they’d speak English. Because holy shit does nothing in this game sound good. There are like 12 different pronunciations of the name “Medici” in this game and none are correct. I had to cringe every time they chose to record entire lines of dialogue in Italian because it sounded so unbearably fake. Seriously guys, if you want me to take your “This game was made by a bunch of people from all over the world to prove that we’re not racist, honest”-bullshit seriously, at least hire proper Italians to do the Italian voice-acting.

The gameplay is largely unchanged from the original, which means that I won’t be talking at length here. Suffice it to say that the combat is still reliant entirely only the parry mechanic and as such poses absolutely no challenge to the player and gets boring really fucking fast. The parkour is a carbon copy of the original as well, warts and all. It can still be quite annoying to steer Ezio around, because abso-fucking-lutely everything in this world is contextually interactable and the engine exhibits some indecision at times where you end up doing stuff you never intended.

The mission design is more interesting than previously, since you’re no longer required to do the same missions over and over again to advance the story. Although you do end up doing similar things in most missions, they’re at least structured more in a way that support the narrative itself. There still are certain repeated missions like beating up unfaithful husbands, running around as a courier or the assassination targets but overall, it’s better streamlined than the original.

What I did like overall were the Assassin tombs, since for the most part they’re platforming challenges and thus make the most out of the Parkour system. It’s a little patronizing with the game showing you what route to take and there also being no possible ways you can deviate from the main path, but at least it was a little break from the monotony that’s the regular climbing and fighting.

With this more streamlined approach to missions, it also means that the pacing of the narrative changes. The result unfortunately isn’t all that good. There’s an incredible amount of exposition that gets delivered and even at that, it’s not enough to inform the player about everything in this world, which is why there’s an entire database with background information about these characters. But I could forgive that if the overall pacing of the game were to hold up well. You can already guess that I don’t think it does. At least not over the entire game. I would’ve thought that the way the story is told between Florence, Montereggioni and parts of Tuscany would’ve made for a pretty decent tale that doesn’t outstay its welcome. You get to know the main cast of Templars, are given proper reasons to dislike them and you then proceed to hunt them down.

But unfortunately, they had to tack on another bit in Venice. And I do mean tack on, because it feels like they ran out of ideas and just made another city where you get to do the same things you did in Florence again, almost verbatim with the same events happening again. There’s another group of Templars up to no good and you have to stop them. Only this time, they’re not characterized all that well and your allies get introduced very clumsily and basically start dealing with you right away for no apparent reason. The laziness is even noticeable in the actual architecture of the city. The most memorable bits are, as always, the fucking towers you have to climb to uncover the map. Only in Venice, they’re all the fucking same tower copypasted onto different parts of the city. The only thing worse is the part that directly follows with the shitty siege bit and then the final stretch back in Florence that really started to test my patience, because it introduced real stealth missions and Assassin’s Creed don’t do no stealth. It almost made me rage quit, because in Rome, I manage to reach the fucking gate that lowers itself before it got to the bottom and as a result I failed the mission. Fuck you, Ubisoft. The only bit that I really liked in the late game was actually the ending, since I’m a sucker for recontextualizations of nonsensical conspiracy theories and it did that in an entertaining way, after that shitty final boss fight, though it’s kinda undermined if it’s already preordained that the Assassins win.

Also, why the fuck would the game have me come to Montereggioni every so often to collect money in order to rebuild this town in order to make even more money? And why is the fast-travel spot outside of the walls and not, say right the fuck next to where I need to be (next to the chest, codex pages and Assassin tomb)? It’s just a pointless waste of time, having to come back here every time to pick up money, bring back codex pages or seals.

From a technical side, the game is a mixed bag. Sure, it ran absolutely smoothly at 60fps on my machine, but I’d better hope so for a game that’s been out for 7 years. But there were still some performance problems and I’ve read other PC gamers had the same problems, where the map was really laggy. The performance of the game didn’t actually drop any frames, just the map itself is incredibly sluggish. On the graphical front, it’s clear that Ubisoft really wanted to make this game look good. But they only managed to do that up close. There’s a tremendous amount of pop-in as well as very noticeable level-of-detail adjustments happening only a few feet around Ezio, which is especially noticeable with the shadows turning from jaggedly flickering black splotches to properly rendered shadows. Not to mention that at times the visuals can get really ugly with the color filters.

And while I already mentioned the map, it’s also worth pointing out the ludicrous number of collectibles that are here. Besides the codex pages, glyphs and Assassin seals that are pretty much required to beat the game and get the most out of it, there are also statues you can collect for some money, and you can collect feathers for some unnecessary reward along with tons of loot caches not worth the effort because your villa produces so much money. Is this really the only way we can make these open world games engaging, by littering them with collectibles in the hopes that nobody will notice that your world is utterly generic and not in the least bit memorable?

In the end, Assassin’s Creed II is an improvement over the original, but not by a huge margin and it also doesn’t manage to make the core gameplay more interesting. The story is decidedly “meh” and really, the only definite thing I can say about this series as far as I’ve played it is that it mystifies me how people can laud games that are this insubstantial.

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