We’re only a few days away from finally getting our hands on Ubisoft’s highly anticipated Assassin’s Creed 3, but before we strap ourselves into the Animus once again and relive the life of American assassin Connor Kenway, I thought it’d be pertinent to take a look back at my favorite game in the series, Assassin’s Creed 2.
If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I love Assassin’s Creed. I love the story (yes, even the modern day/sci-fi parts that everybody else seems to hate,) I love the characters, I love the gameplay. I have all of the action figures that NECA released from the series, and one of my prized possessions is an exclusive poster of Ezio from Revelations that Ubisoft only gave to attendees of their E3 2011 press conference.
So the following statement may come as a surprise to some: while I love Assassin’s Creed (the series,) I really, really hated the first game.
I didn’t like Altair, and I couldn’t care less if he managed to climb his way back up the Assassins’ guild ranks. I hated the repetitive structure of the missions. I hated how all of your combat moves except for the counter-attack were useless, and I especially hated how the guards in the game immediately began chasing you the moment you used the game’s much-hyped free running mechanics. I liked the concept behind the game, but to be honest, the execution of the original Assassin’s Creed was just sloppy, and I agreed with most of the negative press reviews that came out when the game was originally released.
I hated the original game so much that when Assassin’s Creed 2 came out, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I felt like I wasted a lot of money on the original game, and I didn’t want to be duped by Ubisoft again, so I ignored the hype, the rave reviews that said it was better than the original, and the massive ad campaign that all accompanied the game on its release. I didn’t give the game a chance until I found it on sale for twenty dollars, and even at that price, I remember walking out of the store wondering if I had just wasted twenty bucks.
I didn’t. In fact, the twenty dollars I spent on Assassin’s Creed 2 might just have been the best bargain I’ve ever experienced in my 20+ year history of collecting games, because AC2 ended up becoming one of my favorite games of all time.
To say that Assassin’s Creed 2 was a huge improvement over the original is a massive understatement: Ubisoft obviously listened to all of the warranted criticisms of the original game, and they actually managed to fix them all: new protagonist Ezio was far more affable and easier to like than his moody predecessor, and the varied locales of Renaissance Italy were far more fun to explore than the samey looking locations of the previous game. While the counter-attack remained overpowered, at least the rest of your combat repertoire wasn’t completely useless, and the guard AI was tweaked so that the whole city wouldn’t automatically turn hostile on you the moment you tried to run somewhere or climb a wall. There were still some minor, niggling flaws, such as the way Ezio would occasionally spaz out and jump in the wrong direction, but otherwise, the game managed to address every issue that made me not like the first game.
But AC2’s biggest and most important improvement came in how it handled mission design: while both games revolve around assassinating a specific group of people over the course of the game, AC2’s manhunt felt a lot more organic and less restrictive. The AC team did away with the original game’s predictable pattern of steal-interrogate-assassinate, and the way Ezio gradually gained information on his targets and slowly but systematically sabotaged their operations felt a lot more natural and exciting. The original game also relied heavily on trial-and-error in order to make the game challenging: assassinations had to be performed exactly the way the designers wanted you to do it, and if you deviated from what you were supposed to do, you were instantly punished for it. AC2’s missions allowed for more freedom, and gave you an almost endless amount of options for how to approach a target. Do you stalk him from the rooftops and dramatically pounce on him from on-high? Or would you rather stealthily hide among the crowd and casually slit his throat as you walk by, unnoticed? Hell, you could even bribe some prostitutes to keep his guards distracted while you brutally beat your unprotected target to death, or if you were feeling extra brave, sometimes it was possible to simply draw your sword and fight your way through his entire escort. A lot of open world games take away the freedom to do whatever you want as soon as you enter a mission, but Assassin’s Creed 2 generally gave you the freedom to handle each objective in the manner that best suited your play style.
A lot of people hate AC’s sci-fi angle, and I admit, I thought that the modern day sections with Desmond were superfluous at first. But as soon as I got to the end of Ezio’s adventure where – SPOILERS – in one of the biggest “WTF” moments in gaming history, it’s revealed that the purpose for Ezio’s journey was to relay a message from an other-worldly being to Desmond, hundreds of years later – I was instantly sold on the series’s overarching, conspiracy-laden back story.
There’s been two pseudo-sequels to AC2 since then, and while I liked both Brotherhood and Revelations well enough, they were definitely iterative sequels that simply gave us more of the same rather than completely reinventing the series like AC2 did. The sequels also made some missteps that kept them from surpassing their numbered predecessor: they both managed to regress to some of the frustrating, trial-and-error based mission design of the original game, and Revelations added in some features, like a tower-defense minigame and some first-person puzzle-platforming segments, that the series didn’t really need and was better off without. With that said, both sequels are still worth playing – their stories tie up Ezio’s story arc in a satisfying manner, both games feature amazing and addictive multiplayer modes, and best of all, at some points they do manage to recapture the fun and glory of AC2’s best moments.
As entertaining as Brotherhood and Revelations were, I can’t wait for Assassin’s Creed 2’s “real” sequel. Both of those “sidestory” games were made by a secondary team at Ubisoft, while the core AC2 team — the people responsible for getting me into the franchise in the first place — spent years developing AC3 concurrently. If Assassin’s Creed 3 manages to be as big of an improvement over 2 as 2 was over the original game, then it may just end up being one of the best games of all time… but topping Assassin’s Creed 2 will definitely be a tough feat to accomplish, because I’m far as I’m concerned, the game is as close to perfect as you can get.