There was one gap in the original Assassin’s Creed that its free-running hero could never make it over: the gap between our expectations and the reality of the game. It’s hard to remember after such a savage backlash, but some aspects of the game were magnificent. The visuals? Undeniably stunning. The recreation of the Holy Land, and of the architecture of Jerusalem and Acre? Incredible. The environment-sensitive, realistic animation? Only bettered by Uncharted and its sequel.
And while not everyone liked the controls – the game practically plays itself is one complaint I’ve heard – they certainly produced a fluid experience of climbing and free-running that made clambering up walls and towers a pleasure, not a chore. Having spent some time this week playing Pandemic’s dumb but fun The Saboteur, I can’t tell you how much Altair’s swift, easy climbing and jumping is missed when it’s not there.
But then you get to the gameplay. The endless repetition. The creaky assassination missions. The tedious pick-pocketing, spying, menacing activities. The boring, frustrating combat. The spectacularly uninvolving modern day framing story. And let’s not forget such golden memories as “You dirty thief, I’ll have your hand for that.” I loved the first two hours, enjoyed the next three, then got progressively less interested as time went on.
Frankly, I wasn’t that excited about this sequel.
Here’s the surprise, then. Assassin’s Creed II is almost the opposite experience of Assassin’s Creed. It starts off looking and feeling like more of the same, hitting you straight up with the continuing adventures of Altair’s modern descendent, Desmond, and the mysterious organization Abstergo – the present incarnation of the Knights Templar.
Fairly quickly Desmond finds himself back in the Animus – the machine that enables him (and us) to relive the experiences of his assassin ancestors – and in the shoes of Ezio Auditore, the young son of a Florentine banking dynasty at the height of the Renaissance.
The depiction of the city is, as you might expect, breath-taking, the game capturing the stonework and tiled roofs we still flock to today with a painterly eye for light and detail. The behaviour of crowds and the general sense of a living world is an improvement on the original. Yet the gameplay still feels – in these early stages – uninspired. For the first hour we’re back in tutorial territory, so it’s fetch quests, simple fights and scavenger hunts all the way. What’s more, the game’s biggest flaw – the tendency of the intelligent controls to decide that you want to do something other than what you intended – rears its head pretty soon.