RETRO – One of the most famous and successful assassin simulators of all time, the Renaissance-era Assassin’s Creed sequel released ten and a half years ago surpassed and complemented the Dark Ages sequel in almost every way. Ezio Auditore da Firenze has endeared himself to almost every gamer, and as a result, further instalments of his adventures have been produced. Now, let’s travel back in time to November 2009 and the birth of the most famous Assassin…
Because that’s how the game started: Ezio cried as a baby, and while his father Giovanni Auditore had just arrived to witness the event, we, the player, had to “boot” him by moving Ezio’s limbs. Then, suddenly, almost two decades later, we could see the now grown-up Ezio, as Desmond joined the Animus to relive Ezio’s adventures through the memories of his new ancestor.
As I mentioned in my introduction, Assassin’s Creed II was a true renaissance in its era and setting and its gameplay. We were introduced to gameplay elements that were only introduced in many later episodes – or not even in those, and much of it was sadly missing in the most recent two episodes. For example, one stage of the game had you driving a horse-drawn carriage to escape, along with Leonardo da Vinci, from the Templar assassins attacking you – something you’d have to wait until 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, where it was a more sophisticated element that was a constant presence on the streets of London.
On another occasion, it was an invention of the Leondardo mentioned above: we had to fly a makeshift medieval glider over Venice and push off the soldiers who were shooting at us or manoeuvre the glider so that we were always flying towards the fires. The heat would make us soar higher. Sadly, we’ve never gotten that experience back in any AC. At most, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey‘s “falcon flying and exploring” resembled it in broad strokes, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Assassin’s Creed II has also thoroughly revamped the first part’s extremely tree-axis combat system. From a particularly late stage in the game (when Ezio, Mario’s uncle, becomes a real Assassin), Ezio and I learned a whole host of combat moves that allowed us to stab and mow down enemies in a much more spectacular and varied way. For example, this is where we introduced the ruthless and elegant ‘double execution’, which instantly stabbed two enemies at once, a technique that has unfortunately disappeared from the last two games and was not very prominent in the previous ones.
You could also use a lot of dirty little tricks, such as grabbing your enemies’ swords and clubs and slashing them, beating them to death, or suddenly stunning them by throwing sand from the ground into their eyes.
The combat system in Assassin’s Creed II was seriously the best, and I say that having played through almost all of it. It was both challenging but not overdone, but at the same time, it was exquisite: you could do an authentic killer dance with your blades and swords as you did your bloody work. It wasn’t overplayed, like in Brotherhood, or the much later Black Flag, where we could slaughter everyone with almost effortless ease, or overly realistic and a little bit tree-axed at the same time, like in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The early gun use was also great for the assassin feel, in contrast to the otherwise also splendid Syndicate, where they overdid it a bit and had such a wild west feel to all the shooting. Summa summarum: looking back, Assassin’s Creed II’s combat system was the best balanced in complexity, challenge and control, and the one I could say was the most “plain fun” to kill, fight and fight in, not to mention the spectacular moves.
Ezio Collection for the complete experience!
I’ve played through the game myself several times: first on Xbox 360, then twice on PC, and now I’m playing it again on PS4 Pro thanks to the Ezio Collection, with textures cranked up to 4K. While HDR was unfortunately neglected in the Ezio Collection, the Ezio Collection itself is pretty fair, using the EBN-like newer lighting familiar from the PC mods, so there’s no need to complain about the AC II light-shadow conditions in this console Ezio Collection, even if the HDR is gone. The visuals, by the way, make the environments quite sumptuous. There was an Italian cathedral that I’m still finding my jaw dropped at (yes, even after pushing through 100+ hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on PS4 Pro), plus certain characters (like Leonardo or many of the Templar leader NPCs) have been reworked. Oddly enough, Ezio and his “future doppelganger” Desmond’s artwork hasn’t changed much, and some of the characters look pretty horrible by today’s standards (like poor Caterina Sforza, who is supposed to be a bombshell in the game). Overall, the Ezio Collection, with 4K TV on PS4 Pro, is a pretty impressive looking thing, even if it’s not the top of the remaster Ubisoft has done with it.
Of course, most people are now going for the free PC version, and the “iron teeth of time” have left their mark on the original PC release (which was a tuned 2010 version of the 2009 Xbox 360 and PS3 versions). This 2.0 “overhaul“, released in 2017, doesn’t do wonders, but it’s an excellent tuning of the textures by the guy who created it. Unfortunately, the improved draw distance is sorely missing from this version too. The other mod is “Assassin’s Creed II Rebirth Reshade“, which improved the light-shadow ratio and shaders. Finally, the “HD Shadow map” mod is worth mentioning, which provides some tremendous dynamic shading instead of the old one. How well these mods work together, I haven’t tried. Still, it’s definitely worth installing the overhaul, as it’s guaranteed to enhance the magical Italian Renaissance experience of Assassin’s Creed II with these improved visuals.
Aside from the graphics, we can’t forget Jesper Kyd’s insanely atmospheric soundtrack, which is still a musical drug for me to this day, with its magical melodies, captivating female vocals, or dynamic interludes when we fight Ezio. It’s no coincidence that the “Ezio’s family” OST, which has become a trademark of the series, was a constant feature in later episodes. Next to The Witcher 3, the music of Assassin’s Creed II is the most magical.
In addition to the music, there are also the sounds of the Italian streets, the voices of passers-by, the cries of the messengers, and the great dubbing voices – all in Italian, of course, because a true connoisseur plays through the events of the past in Italian and only switches to the modern parts!
He started with Vendetta, became a master killer
I haven’t talked about the story of Assassin’s Creed II yet, so it’s time to tell you a bit about it – especially for those of you who haven’t played it yet. It may come as no surprise, but I consider the story of Assassin’s Creed II to be the best in the series, and I say that without being one of the passionate Ezio fans who think Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (the final instalment in the Ezio trilogy) killed the series. On the one hand, it is focused. It tells the story of Ezio’s life and early career as an Assassin in its entirety, not trying to force other threads into it, for example, like Assassin’s Creed III did with the story of the “father”. Ezio’s family drama in his youth and his later vendetta is a true “Italian” story, a little reminiscent of The Godfather, and we fully experience and sympathise with it, without the events that happen to him being too clichéd or lip-service.
Ezio himself is a highly sympathetic, energetic, womanising, sometimes passionate, sometimes ice-cold killer character; perhaps, for this reason, he is still, for many people, THE true Assassin hero in Ubisoft‘s series. Throughout the story, we meet many other characters, real or fictional: Leondardo da Vinci, Caterina Sforza, Lorenzo de’Medici, conspiring doxies, archpriests, nobles, assassins, luxury prostitutes – AC II is almost overflowing with the most compelling characters. A colossal joke in the game is that Uncle Mario introduces himself to Ezio by saying, “It’s a me! Mario, ” a funny reference to Super Mario.
The game’s story is quite simple – if you don’t count the mystical thread behind it or the modern Desmond part. Speaking of which: the Desmond story was relatively tolerable here, only to become redundant in the later part, but that’s just the way AC is: you have to accept that there’s a modern part. The Assassin’s Creed movie’s biggest flaw was also that it overdid the contemporary era. Still, thankfully that’s not so typical of games. While we occasionally have to cavort with Desmond in AC II, it’s not as annoying as the modern section of any of the later episodes.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed II story is captivating, well-focused, not rushed, with lots of interesting characters and the mystical part is well dosed by the developers.
It’s time for a retro renaissance!
I hope I’ve managed to whet your appetite for this great classic, which despite its slightly outdated graphics (which can be helped by PC mods as mentioned), is an excellent experience in every respect. If you’re on console and haven’t already got it, don’t miss out on the Ezio Collection, as you’ll be depriving yourself of a substantial action-adventure experience along with the other two instalments. If you’re on PC and wondering whether this 2009 game is worth diving into, the answer is a resounding yes, as AC II is quite simply the highlight of the series to this day.
+ The best balanced AC gameplay in the entire series so far
+ Great story with great characters
+ Incredibly atmospheric Italian Renaissance setting
– Outdated graphics by today’s standards (mods help on PC)
– On console, the Ezio Collection has its shortcomings even in 4K
– Bugs, glitches are still there
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release date: 17 November 2009 (Xbox 360, PS3), 5 March 2010 (PC), 15 November 2016 (PS4, Xbox One)