Changing History One Game at A Time
Assassin's Creed II takes place directly after the events of the first game. After seeing subject 16's cryptic message on the wall Lucy breaks Desmond out of the Abstergo building and they find a hideout with two other Assassins, Rebecca Crane and Shaun Hastings, who have set up another Animus for Desmond to use. He needs to enter the Animus so they can find where the other Pieces of Eden are. The individual you get to control in the Animus this time around is Ezio Auditore, a young man in the late 1400s of Renaissance Italy. A close friend betrays his family, in turn Ezio is thrown into the life of an assassin hunting down those responsible for harming his loved ones. Over the course of several years that the game takes place Ezio discovers that there was more to their motives than meets the eye.
The story in this game is more refined and fleshed out than the original. There is a cast of many important, likeable (and unlikeable) characters this time around. Unlike the first game where there seemed to be a lot of time outside of the Animus the majority of Assassin's Creed II is spent inside the Animus which helps keep the story and direction of the game focused. The main character, Ezio, is a lot more charismatic than Altair who seemed to have a colder attitude. As a result you've got a game that is serious when it needs to and humorous and lighthearted other times.
The biggest improvement to the game is in the gameplay department. In the first game you were limited to doing repetitive and tedious tasks in order to unearth your assassination target. In the sequel your assassination targets are all related to the story so you won't be doing the same thing over and over. In fact in this one you don't even need to collect intel because each mission draws you closer to the assassination through the story. The side missions of the first game are still there but they are optional this time around. You can do random assassinations, races, pick pocket, and beat up missions any time you choose. Doing these missions no longer help you perform assassinations they just give you money.
Currency plays a big part in this game. There are a lot of ways to gain money. You can now pick pocket people at will. You can loot dead bodies. You can search for various treasure chests around the city. You get money for completing story missions and side missions. Then you can spend your money on a variety of things, all of them tie into several large gameplay elements introduced to this game.
One element is factions. There are three factions in this game that you can hire. Two are non violent courtesans and thieves. You can hire these people to distract guards allowing you to go places undetected like a true assassin. The third faction are warriors who will help you attack guards, this will eliminate guards to get to what you want although it will bring a lot of attention to you.
Also new to the game are shops. You can buy weapons and repair Ezio's armor. You can dye his clothes and you can buy treasure maps to help you find treasure and paintings that improve the value of your stronghold.
The stronghold is another new element in the game. The stronghold is your base of operations, a bit run down, but functional. You can spend your money to improve the stronghold in turn you can get discounts at shops and improve the value of your stronghold. The more money your stronghold is worth the more money that you can collect from it. Upgrade this and money that isn't really that hard to come by in the first place is even less hard to come by.
Like in the first game there are various things to collect, however, this time around you are rewarded for collecting items. In the first game you collected Assassin Flags and hunted down Templars. This didn't do anything for you. In the second game there are a couple of things you can collect that reward you. You can collect feathers for your mother, when you collect 100 you get something and collecting feathers also adds to your stronghold's value. There are treasure chests in each town. You don't get anything for finding them all but every chest you find gives you money. There are also hidden glyphs in the various cities. You find these by using your eagle vision. They are clues left by subject 16 each one brings you one step closer to finding out about "The Truth". Various codex pages are hidden throughout the city and they are guarded. In order to get inside you'll have to take care of the guards (violently or non violently). The codex pages improve Ezio's health and also upgrade some of his weapons. There are also Assassin's Tombs to raid in the various cities. In these tombs the game plays more like Tomb Raider than it does Assassin's Creed. You enter them to find assassin seals, when you find them all you also unlock something special.
The controls for the most part have stayed the same. The biggest change to the game is the weapon wheel which allows you to quickly select from a variety of different items. You can now fight unarmed which allows you to disarm foes and use their own weapons against them. You can also carry bodies and hide them. There are smoke bombs and guns as well as the ability to throw money on the ground to distract guards and those pesky minstrels that always seem to get in your way.
Gone is the ability to blend at will with the A button. Instead this fast walks. Fast walking allows you to do a couple of things. You can walk fast to sneak up on a guard, they now can hear you if you're running. You can also fast walk into people and this allows you to steal their money. You can still blend in the game but you have to find a group of people. You can blend in with anyone but guards. Blending is most useful for when your notoriety meter is maxed out.
The developers introduced a notoriety system. A meter rises the more high profile assassinations you perform (among other actions). Guards will become suspicious at the sight of you when it's maxed out. To lower the meter you can tear down wanted posters, bribe heralds or assassinate corrupt officials. With all these gameplay tweaks and changes the game feels completely different and fresh and undoubtedly better than the first game.
The graphics in the first game were great even till this day. The graphics in the second game are even better than that. The characters are more detailed. They have faces and have emotions. They look a bit cartoony in comparison to the first game, but it is a reasonable sacrifice for the extra detail they bring to the game. The framerate is smoother than the first game and the textures are much improved, though this could also be by virtue of the game taking place in Italy instead of the middle east. The game now has a night and day cycle and the cities are bigger. They axed the kingdom environment of the first game, a massive environment that was between the three cities in the first game, and instead focused on larger cities and environments around the cities. It was nice in the first game but is not missed in the second game as there really is no reason to have such an environment. The biggest disappointment in an otherwise solid graphical performance are the boat effects. The rowing looks off and the boat looks like it is sliding across the top of the water and does not to appear be floating in the water. Other than that it is a graphically solid game.
With all these improvements it's not hard to make a case that the game is better than the first. The gameplay tweaks are just what this series needed. The game now has variety and is more focused. If you enjoyed the first game you will definitely enjoy this game. If you didn't enjoy the first game you may enjoy this game. It depends on what you didn't like. At it's core Assassin's Creed is still about making assassinations. The core is as solid as ever but now the mantle and crust are worth digging through to get there.