Assassin's Creed II (Xbox 360)
Fairly late in Assassin's Creed II, you have to enter a tournament. You're fighting a series of one-on-one battles, mano-a-mano. But then the sponsor cheats and the rules change. Here come four guys at once, and they're using their weapons. In any other game, this would be one of those difficult scripted missions that you have to replay a few times to win. After all, it's late in the game and the developer intends to throw some tough challenges in your way before you get to the end.
Not in Assassin's Creed II. You have come far enough that protagonist Ezio Auditore is the consummate bad-ass. You've brought him from privileged fop to hardened action hero. You know his moves. You know his weapons. You have even dressed him. The fight is over pretty quickly. Maybe you did some sort of fancy assassin-jitsu where you snatched a guy's axe and then buried it in his skull, all in one fell swoop. Worst-case scenario was that you might have had to take a drink of medicine on the way to slaughtering these four guys. Whatever you did, it looked awesome.
A winner is you!
There's a certain lack of dramatic tension in Assassin's Creed II when it comes to these battles, and that's OK. This is not a fighting game. This is no Devil May Cry, built to frustrate you and hone your skills. It's no Batman: Arkham Asylum, where you have to carefully judge threat levels and make tactical choices. It's not even an Assassin's Creed. This is you making an action-movie scene unfettered by too much gameplay. It recalls the heyday of Errol Flynn -- when the good guy won all the fights easily because he was the good guy -- but coupled with the unparalleled thrill of post-"Matrix" fight choreography.
What makes this work is that the fighting is just one piece of Assassin's Creed II. It does not occupy a central place. It exists alongside and equal to the stealth, the climbing, the collecting, the setting, the graphics, the animation, the sound, the artwork and the interface. This is game design at its best because it understands how to combine various elements without giving too little or too much attention to any one of them. It's a balancing act every bit as skilled as Ezio perched atop the crucifix on a cathedral overlooking the majesty of Renaissance Italy. And it's just as awe-inspiring.
Whereas the first game was an amazing tech demo in which the various elements didn't quite gel -- the balancing act was lopsided, unable to find its footing -- this game uses everything in the service of a single admirable goal: to create a generous, forgiving, spectacular, exciting, vast, never-before-seen, unforgettable open world that can and should be recommended to anyone.
Life in Venice
It's also the most vivid virtual living world you can visit. Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV comes close, but it doesn't have the haunting, dreamlike quality of these historical places, like postcards brought to life. Liberty City doesn't have the breathtaking spectacle of grand palaces and delicate cathedrals and simple flooded lowlands. It doesn't have sailing ships and troubadours and the soft plop of your hand on stone or the unmistakable scrape of a boot on a terracotta tile. It doesn't have Venice. I have never in my 20 years of playing videogames visited a virtual place so lovely as Venice.
Part of why Venice is so lovely is that Ubisoft's Montreal studio has once again worked its technical magic. But also part of what makes it so lovely is that the developers know how to move you through the world, methodically unfurling new places, new tricks, new moves, new vistas. It's no coincidence that the opulence of Venice follows a relatively unremarkable coastal village, gorgeous in its own way, but brown and rustic. Assassin's Creed II constantly calculates how best to reveal things. It's a skillfully built action game and platformer that deserves to be mentioned alongside Crackdown, Saints Row, Ratchet & Clank and Super Mario Galaxy. We knew Ubisoft's Montreal studio was full of technical wizards. We didn't know they were this hip to what has made great games so good.
A view to a bunch of kills
As Ezio goes from assassination to assassination, the game doesn't care much whether they hang together. They don't, which is too bad considering the story has such a strong opening. It doesn't help that Ubisoft decided not to heavily script the assassinations like it did in the first game. This means many of the villains don't stand out any more than chasing down some random pickpocket on the street. (There are a few ill-advised scripted sequences. The drive out of Florence is one of the clumsiest things I've had to do all year.) On the plus side, there are very few instances of having to guess what you're supposed to do. It's almost always clear. Just jump on the highlighted guy to kill him and then run from the guards. Assassination for Dummies.
The more memorable bits of Assassin's Creed II's story are easy to miss. As you discover hidden glyphs, which are a great incentive to climb around the game's lovely, lovely landmark recreations, you can solve puzzles that unlock snippets of film. These gradually string together a mysterious short movie about ? well, I only got about half of them by the time I finished the storyline. As near as I can tell, it's like some sort of weird Zapruder take on ancient myth. The bits of info provided in these puzzles are eerie enough that they upstage the actual story. The Pazzi family? Bah. I want to know more of this wacky stuff about Tesla and Houdini!
Then there's the resolution, which is not quite as silly as that in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," but not for lack of trying. The climactic level is atrocious. Simply atrocious. And I really, really, really want to tell you what happens, because it would make you laugh. I want to spell out the bare facts of the end of the game, without embellishment or judgment. I want to say, "You go to W and you do X and then you find Y and you discover Z." Because we would have a grand laugh and you would ask if I was kidding. I would then tell you that I wasn't kidding. I would furthermore tell you that it all ends with the words "What the f*ck?" You would ask again if I was kidding and I would say that I'm not.
And you are??
But I won't spoil it. Ubisoft is clearly enamored of the "Lost" school of storytelling, stringing together vague and vaguely outrageous bits of info that may or may not come together; but we won't know, because by the time it does or doesn't come together, we will have forgotten the bits of info. It can be intriguing, but it doesn't make for much of a story. When a villain from the first game shows up at the end of Assassin's Creed II for a little monologuing, I wanted to interrupt him and ask if he could remind me again who he was. It's a bit embarrassing when you face your nemesis and you can't quite place him.
But an amazing open world with a game in it as good as Assassin's Creed II doesn't necessarily need a good story. This gloriously interactive, breathing marvel is leaps and bounds ahead of other videogames, and it's yet another instance of the geniuses at Ubisoft Montreal schooling the rest of the industry. Until someone else out there can take me to a place as grand as Venice, I shall think of Assassin's Creed II whenever I hear Arthur C. Clarke's axiom that any sufficiently awesome videogame is indistinguishable from magic.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.