The original Assassin’s Creed was an overly ambitious hodgepodge of gameplay ideas that never really cohered into a singular, compelling experience. The sequel gets off to a not-so-promising start, thanks to its dull science-fiction meta-narrative. The gist: the palooka-faced bartender from the first game is once again strapped into a machine called an Animus, which allows him to enter the virtual realities of his assassin ancestors. This meta-narrative largely involves Kristen Bell and Nolan North (Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series) trading self-important lines of dialogue.
But once the game shifts milieus to Renaissance-era Florence and you step into the shoes of Italian cad Ezio, things get far more interesting. You’ll learn how to fight and climb buildings, how to pick pockets and blend in with roaming gaggles of prostitutes. While most videogames tend to repeat the same 30 seconds of gameplay again and again, Assassin’s Creed II feels like it’s forever evolving. After 10 hours of gameplay, you’re still being introduced to new people, places, and gameplay elements. There’s a sense that you’re constantly learning something. This gives the game dramatic momentum, and keeps players involved, though it may frustrate them with the occasionally hinky gameplay mechanics—jumping is still a problem—and sometimes-convoluted mission goals.
Early missions are petty. Ezio must pick something up for his mother; Ezio must confront his sister’s dirtbag boyfriend. But the developers raise the stakes quickly. Before long, Ezio has transformed from a skirt-chasing man-boy into a grizzled, Batman-like vigilante out to assassinate the city’s most corrupt citizens. What’s even more surprising is how utterly organic that transformation feels. Like a boy wearing his father’s suit, most games look silly when trying to adopt a more mature worldview. That isn’t the case here. When Ezio has sex, it isn’t represented in the wolf-whistle/hubba-hubba fashion most videogames adopt. It’s subtle; it’s intimate. Most importantly, it’s germane to the experience.
Ezio feels complex and human. This virtual version of Florence feels vital and real. From the ashes of the overwrought, flawed original comes one of the few videogames that truly qualifies as an adult, mature experience.