By now, if you haven’t come round to Assassin’s Creeds curious laws of hide and seek you’re not going to be sold on the sequel. The cryptic Altier may have been reduced to ashes centuries prior to Ezio Auditore Da Firenze’s birth, but his spirit lives on, meaning haystacks are still an aspiring assassin’s best friend and murder is a crime punishable by a sequence of counter attacks and cinematic angles. Kind of.
That said Ubisoft have gone to lengths to paper over the painfully overt artificiality with less dubious methods of decreasing Ezio’s notoriety. Heralds can be bribed, officials butchered in the evocative Italian streets and, less homicidally, posters ripped from the walls (although their placement raises the same eyebrows haystack hideaways once did, often plastered at the top of scaffolding or facing out onto a Venetian canal).
And despite a pre-release campaign desperate to underline the disparities between the two games, the sequel begins reeking of all things Assassin’s Creed. A clumsy breakout from the unrecognisable Templar operated Abstergo Industries pioneered by Lucy Stillman – the first games scientist cum love interest – offers little solace to those fearing a repeat of the worst from the former title. Not even Nolan North’s proverbial quips can detract from the apprehension the following fight section instils.
Escape from one prison straight into another apparently, because as soon as you’re free from Abstergo you’re whisked away to a hideout and strapped into an Animus to begin Ezio’s tale. And once it finally has its laces tied things certainly brighten.
Three hours of slyly instructing fetch quests and free-running would be a chore if Florence wasn’t such a wonder, the same to be said for the later visited Venice. When the combat begins to knock at the door of tedium, the platforming tires and the incessant treasure hunting teases suicide, the streets of these marvellous cities rescue everything from ruin. Much in the way Liberty City is heralded with accolades of being alive, the tapered streets of Florence and Venice are equally vibrant. Intermittent circles of courtesans, street sweepers, shop fronts, thieves vaulting skyward with your money in hand, entertainers, builders, doctors, I’m sure I’ve missed a group, align to create tantalisingly vivid environments that thieve hours without effort. Sam Gimigano and Forli are less momentous and their inclusion isn’t entirely obvious. A handful of missions are undertaken between the two, none of which couldn’t have been incorporated into the two bigger cities with a little work. They only serve to offer that detrimental sense of too big plaguing most open-world game to some extent. Part of the joy of Florence is its eventual familiarity. Forli is only dissimilar by aesthetic; everything within is twinned with Venice or Florence.
After playing through Nathan Drake’s second expedition the free-running is tarnished by his fluidity and ease. Ubisoft Montreal have arguably built the better mechanic, more than just a case of pressing A in the right direction and watching Drake play the game and the buildings of Italy aren’t designed to be clambered upon with as much ease as in the previous game. But by the point you’re taught the ways of jumping higher, a case of pressing b at the peak of a vertical leap upward – an unnecessary annoyance – the many irks of the maisonette control scheme are out in plain sight. With both sprint and free-run dictated by the same button, corners are a magnetic nightmare, Ezio never resists the temptation to ascend a wall rather than turn a corner.
Which is an annoyance amplified during the frequent chase missions. Mission variety, or the lack of, was a major criticism of Assassin’s Creed and has been rectified. The routine of eavesdrop – interrogate – pickpocket – assassinate has been erased and replaced with diverse goals. That’s not always a good thing, chase missions weren’t fun in GTA3 and they aren’t here. The fickle switch between high-tempo assassinations and notoriously mundane fetch quests is jarring too. Ezio is an assassin, not a postal worker. And the flying machine Ubisoft Montreal bandied about the internet prior to its release makes two brief yet forgettable appearances.
And Ezio has learned a thing or two about sword play (and gunplay). The brighter days of waiting for guards to attack before executing a swift and brutal counter attack are a fading recollection. The combat is contrived and prolonged in the name of reducing the cinematic edge (or incorporating a challenge, depending on how you felt about the prior combat) that made the Assassin’s Creed combat so fresh. Counter attacks are now only useful with certain enemies, others can only be defeated by strafing and then initiating a stab (an elaborate counter) and others simply take a short age to wear down their armour.
Ubisoft have listened to valid criticisms and so absent are the lengthy unavoidable cut-scenes gracing the start of each DNA sequence, replaced instead by shorter, unavoidable cut scenes gracing the start of each mission. Ubisoft Montreal’s preciousness of their story is as transparent as Ezio’s assassin status but anyone with a double-digit IQ (safe to say, no-one within the games world) will be painfully aware of it before even the first assassination.
That or they’re getting the most out of their acting expenditure because the digital acting is sublime. Roger Craig Smith (notable for his work voicing Chris Redfield – though there’s no resemblance here) leads by example in a cast of distinction. Until you leave the animus anyway where the drones of Lucy’s insufferable co-workers offer a force-fed reminder of just how good the real game is. Luckily the animus’ hold is only broken briefly, although not briefly enough to prevent Ubisoft from beginning a story they can’t finish as Desmond finds time to hallucinate his great great great great great grandfather conceiving his great great, oh you get the idea. It’s a bit strange.
But the greatest achievement here isn’t in remarkable platforming or riveting combat but in fabricating a believable world and weaving into it, albeit perhaps too forcefully at times, a tale of intrigue. And as momentous an achievement as that is, I can’t shake the feeling it’s living in the shadow of huge potential. That or the cinematic aspect so pronounced in the first game was more suited to my tastes because with every successful assassination, slick counter or skyline vista the small child within me dances at an aspiration come true. I’m killing bad guys, surfing rooftops, rescuing pretty ladies and I’m doing it all whilst wearing a cape.