“May Death Provide the Peace You Sought.”
These days, Assassin’s Creed is known for its yearly releases. Like clockwork, a new, main, console-based AC story comes out every year, but we’ll get to those when the time comes. Back in the day, however, fans of the original Assassin’s Creed had to wait an impossibly long two years for the sequel.
While Assassin’s Creed was huge, that only made expectations for the sequel exceedingly high. Ubisoft Montreal decided to overhaul the entire experience from top to bottom. While the basics of controlling your character feel nigh on identical to the last game, everything is new and different.
While the original title was much more interested in creating a novel dramatic experience, Assassin’s Creed II delves much more into the history of the era Desmond transposes himself into; this time, the Italian Renaissance. In the present day, Assassin’s Creed II begins right after part one finishes, with Desmond awaiting death while gazing over images written in blood by Subject 16, the previous Animus guinea pig. Fortunately, before Doctor Vidic can get his goon squad to kill poor Desmond, Lucy Stillman (now sleeveless!) shows up to kick some ass and bust him out. Lucy takes Desmond to an Assassin base, where she and fellow Assassins Rebecca and Shawn have a new mission for him: to relive the memories of a new ancestor to gain his skills via the “Bleeding Effect.” As it turns out, the reason Desmond was able to see those strange symbols was because, through his interactions with The Animus, he gained access to Altair’s Eagle Vision. This doesn’t quite explain why Altair had the ability to see in infrared, but the point is that now Desmond can do it as well.
As shown in the first game, the Assassins are losing the war against the Templars, but the plan right now is for Lucy and her pals to turn Desmond into a master operative by having him, in a matter of days, experience an entire lifetime’s worth of training, this turning him into Desmond Miles: Mega-Badass.
Unlike the first game, once Desmond straps into the Animus (2.0!), he doesn’t get out again, save for a brief detour around halfway through the game, in which he experiences, in a dream, the conception of one of his ancestors by Altair and his love, Maria. Yeah, that Maria! Talk about your star-crossed lovers, right? Anyway, this time around, the focus is not on building a universe and creating a film-style narrative, but on reliving the life of an Assassin, from the beginning. That man is Ezio Auditore Da Firenze. The first scene with Ezio is his own birth, and it’s pretty wild, and an immediate hint that the scope of the period story is much larger than it was before.
Lineage & Bloodlines
Assassin’s Creed is a massive series, spanning all sorts of media, from videogames to comics, short films, and, one day soon, Michael Fassbender. The universe, and the way it is delivered to fans, was first experimented with in AC2, which had two companion projects, AC: Lineage and AC: Bloodlines.
Bloodlines was a title released for the PSP. A pint-sized sequel, set one month after the original game, Bloodlines follows Altair as he takes the fight against the weakened-but-regrouping Templars to their home base of Cyprus. There, he meets up with Maria, the lady Templar, who, after the death of her boss, Robert De Sable, is disgraced and excommunicated from the order. Eventually, Altair finds himself of a quest to find the Templar Archive, which he does, only to find it empty, that the Templars have taken its possessions far away. Oh well, at least Altair has this awesome empty cave in the middle of Cyprus to store his record collection and action figures… Oh, and it’s probably a good place to hide that Piece of Eden once he’s done with it.
As a game, it’s pretty decent; while the PSP limits the size of town zones to roughly that of a basketball court, and there are but a handful of pedestrians walking about within them, the combat is all but identical to its older brother, and the mission structure is much more varied, and based on that of AC2. Also, Altair has a middle-eastern accent, which is a nice touch, and an improvement over the original.
Assassin’s Creed: Lineage is a short film (about 35 minutes) which was originally released on the internet before being collected for release on home video. It follows Ezio’s father, Giovanni (played by Romano Orzari, that guy from Punisher: Warzone) as he uncovers the conspiracy which dominates the events of AC2 proper. It uses a lot of green screen with backgrounds based on CGI assets from the game. It doesn’t look precisely realistic, but it doesn’t look dirt-cheap (which the internet-based production surely was), lending an other-worldly feel to the proceedings. All the actors from the film reprise their roles in the game, and were all digitally scanned so that their appearance could be preserved in the game. Even before Giovanni speaks in the game, you recognize him from the short film, and from Punisher: Warzone.
The mastermind behind the events of Lineage and AC2 is initially only known as The Spaniard, but eventually we learn his name, Rodrigo Borgia, whom history buffs, or fans of Showtime’s “The Borgias,” will recognize by his title, Pope Alexander VI, The Asshole Pope. The early stages of his plan involve ordering the assassination of the Duke of Milan, which Giovanni is unable to prevent, as covered in Lineage. By the time AC2 begins, the focus shifts from Giovanni to his second son, Ezio, who is much more concerned with winning street fights and wooing girls than anything else. He is unaware of his father’s status as a master Assassin, and the conspiracy means nothing to him. Unfortunately, his world comes crashing down around him when his father and two brothers are imprisoned and ultimately executed as a result of Giovanni getting too close to discovering the conspiracy.
Escaping Florence with younger sister Claudia and catatonic mother Maria, Ezio retreats to the walled town of Monteriggioni, home of the Villa Auditore, Ezio’s family’s home. There they meet Mario Auditore (who just has to introduce himself with, “It’s-a me, a-Mario!”) who tells Ezio that he’s an Assassin, and points him in the right direction to begin his quest for revenge, a quest which will consume the next twenty years of his life.
“Requiescant in Pace…” It’s not Italian, it’s Latin!
When I said the game was more open than its predecessor, I wasn’t joking; the recon missions from the original games are replaced by more organized missions with varied objectives and more narrative flow. It’s less novel than the circular approach of the original, but it’s also more fun, so… I reckon it’s more than an even trade. In addition, rather than a ton of useless flags to collect for no reason, a variety of side-missions and activities are available. From simple parkour races to one-off assassination missions, to building a fortune by renovating Monteriggioni (yeah, there’s an economy now) and spending it on swords, armor, and other goodies. To attain “Full Synchronization” with Ezio’s memories (and experience the ending), Desmond must collect all thirty pages of Altair’s codex, his journal which he can be seen writing during Bloodlines. After getting them deciphered by Ezio’s best friend, Leonardo Da Vinci, they reveal some of Altair’s musings on life, the world, and the war between Templars and Assassins. They also show some of Altair’s designs for upgrades to the trademark Hidden Blade. Leonardo can use these plans to give Ezio a second hidden blade (because dual wielding is always awesome), to use the blades to deliver poison (an ability the average player will use about once or twice and then forget about), and, eventually, to supplement his arsenal with a hidden gun. While it takes a while to line up a shot, every bullet is a one-hit-kill, and, while it’s not silent, the guards are too dumb to ever find you unless you shoot somebody while being watched, which is also true of the otherwise more silent throwing knives. Fortunately, several of the pages are given to Ezio as the story progresses, and the ones you have to search out are displayed on the map and are never hard to find.
Further, there are glyphs hidden throughout the world by Subject 16, and discovering them unlocks data packets, short and sometimes maddening puzzles which shine a spotlight on the massive depths of the Templar/Assassin conspiracy; from Thomas Edison getting JP Morgan to cut Nikola Tesla’s funding to the “true” origins of WWII, these minigames are the wet dream of every conspiracy theorist or history buff. The reward for finishing all 20 puzzles is a real kicker. Presumably put together from Subject 16’s earliest ancestors, it features a naked man and woman running through a sci-fi city setting, seeing Apples being forged by slaves, and ultimately addressing each other as Adam and Eve. Woah.
On the dark side of the open-world game design, however, there are feathers… Oh, God, the feathers. The bane of every AC2 fan, there are one hundred feathers spread all over the map, and Ezio, in memory of his late younger brother, has to find all of them, without any in-game map to show you where they are, or even how many are in any particular region. If it wasn’t for the maps I found HERE, I never would have collected even a fraction of the feathers. Unfortunately, the reward really isn’t worth it. By the time you get all one hundred feathers, you’re surely near the end of the game, and it’s been at least a decade since Ezio’s mother has spoken. Upon placing the final feathers in the chest, Maria turns to her son and says, “Thank you, Ezio, for not forgetting about me.” Well… Yay! It’s a sweet moment, but it’s really not worth the effort unless you’re a devout completionist or some kind of genius writing a pulitzer-quality piece for a major website, or if you’re me.
“It’s been over ten years since I watched my father and brothers die. Ten years hunting down the men responsible. I’m close to the end now, but no closer to understanding what any of it was for.”
Although Ezio is living the life of an Assassin, he doesn’t give a damn about anything other than his revenge. As the years go by, however, he begins to suspect that the journey he’s taken may not have been worth it. Time and training (and good genes) have turned him into a righteous killing machine, but revenge can only carry a man so far. Ezio’s morale gets a huge shot in the arm, however, when, while tailing The Spaniard, whose men have recovered an Apple of Eden from Cyprus (presumably Altair’s from the original game and Bloodlines) he engages him in combat, prepared to fulfill his revenge after all these years. Unfortunately, Borgia and his guards get the upper hand in the battle and Ezio is defeated. Luckily, a slew of allies, the friends Ezio has made over the years, show up in the nick of time to drive of Borgia and rescue Ezio.
Sure, Ezio knew his father was an Assassin, but he didn’t really understand what that meant beyond the awesome non-racist white robes. With the aid of his Assassin bretheren, including his Uncle Mario and the original realist, Niccolo Machiavelli, Ezio gains new purpose in life, and continues his quest, not for revenge, but for righteous justice.
After being officially made a member of the Assassins, the game jumps forward a decade or so to 1503, with Ezio storming The Vatican, striking down everybody in his way, on his way towards a one-on-one fistfight with Pope Alexander VI. After beating the snot out of the fat bastard, Ezio refuses refuses to kill him, considering his revenge completed, with victory already secured. It’s quite anti-climactic, especially after all the build-up, but that may just be my uncontrollable bloodlust talking…
The Pope had believed himself to be a prophet, and becoming Pope was just a means to gain access to a Staff of Eden, which, when paired with an Apple, would unlock access to The Vault, located under The Vatican. Even after reaching the door, however, The Vault would not open. Then, while he was laid out on the floor, Ezio, the true prophet, found the door opening for him.
I hope you all dropped some LSD before coming to this final cinematic of the game, because it’s a doozy. Confronted by a hologram of a beautiful and other-worldly woman, Minerva, Ezio tries to speak to this goddess, but she shushes him like a child and tells him his role, as prophet, is to be silent, for her message is not for him, but for Desmond. She tells Ezio and Desmond that her people created humans (evolution be damned, I guess? Maybe they just tweaked their DNA and made them more like themselves than dumb apes), and that, in Desmond’s time, the world is in danger. She instructs him to find “The Temples,” as it may the only way to avert destruction. Earlier in the game, Lucy mentions something about a theoretical solar flare that could microwave the planet like a Hot Pocket. Then there’s Abstergo’s pending satellite launch, scheduled for December 21st, 2012…
After hearing Minerva’s speech, the screen goes black, and as the credits are about to roll, Desmond muses, as most players surely did at that moment, “What the fuck?”
But it’s not over yet; while the credits continue to roll, the screen fades back in as the warehouse base is compromised by Abstergo agents led by none other than our old buddy, Doctor Warren Vidic. With his new abilities, Desmond is able to kick the asses of all the agents, but Vidic gets away. With the warehouse base deemed NSFW, so to speak, the Assassin quartet jumps into their van and heads to a new base. The end.
That’s one hell of a cliffhanger, both for Ezio and Desmond, and I could barely stand to wait to pop in the next disc to see what happens next. But first, I have a few musings. While the various mission types are much more broad than in AC1, the actual locomotion of moving your character around is virtually unchanged, save a few bells and whistles. Perhaps to make up for this, the stealth mechanics have changed from “difficult to accomplish” to “almost entirely removed.” This, my friends, is the secret to AC2: it’s not even a stealth game! The combat is nearly as easy as it was before, though a few new enemy types require switching weapons to deal with efficiently. Over time, combat becomes boring and tedious. There are very few, if any missions in which stealth is required, and the focus instead is on exploring the open-world and overly long sword fights. I suppose individual tastes will dictate if stealth should have been abandoned, but I think the reasoning was that the stealth didn’t work as well as they wanted it to, so they cut it in favor of building other elements of the game.
Also, what’s the deal with the DLC? In the story of the game, when Ezio officially becomes an Assassin, the Animus freaks out and Rebecca tells you that the next two memory sequences are glitched and cannot be accessed, and you jump straight to the end. While we all know it’s common for videogames to be frontloaded with gameplay while saving the story for the closing chapters (resulting in the first two-thirds of most games being rising action, with the back half of the narrative rests at the very end of the game, know what I mean?), but it’s a little ridiculous here. Right after the turning point in the story, you are beamed straight to the ending. Even with the DLC (which is very entertaining and informative) installed, the pacing of the narrative is awkward, with a long slog in the middle of the game where it feels like nothing happens, and then it’s suddenly over. Perhaps bringing Desmond out of the Animus more often would have alleviated this; in the original game, while neither Desmond’s nor Altair’s journeys were particularly mind-blowing, the fact that the game switched between the two of them at a consistent and measured pace kept the story moving at a strong pace. In AC2, I was more interested in finding another of Subject 16’s Truth puzzles than tracking down yet another Borgia conspirator.
AC2, like its predecessor, is imperfect. It’s imperfect in entirely different ways, however, which allows AC2 to stand side-by-side with AC1, not head-and-shoulders above it nor in its shadow. It goes in a completely different direction, so it doesn’t replace the original the way some sequels do. They’re both great games, and I’m completely hooked.
Brotherhood is next. Stick around.