I'm not even sure where to start when reviewing Assassin's Creed 2, other than, "Holy Crap, that was impressive."
Since I don't spend crazy amounts of time playing video games, I try to only pick titles that I know I'll enjoy after reading reviews & watching previews. That's why many of the games I've reviewed are 9.0's, because I don't waste my time if I don't think it'll be really good.
The story behind the Assassin's Creed series actually takes place in the modern day. The main character, Desmond Miles, is a descendant of a line of members of a secret historical faction, the Assassins. Their rival faction, The Templars, have been fighting for control of a mysteriously advanced technology over the course of hundreds of years.
Through experimental technology known as "The Animus", memory imprints can somehow be extracted from a person's genetic makeup. This DNA 'memory' is used to mentally re-create the historical experiences of Desmond's ancestors in a virtual reality experience. The player takes the role of Desmond- accessing his ancestors' memories to learn deeper truths about mankind's forgotten history.
I played the first Assassin's Creed a couple years ago. The original game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, as Desmond's ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad. I thought the re-creation of these ancient sites such as Jerusalem were awesome. Despite the fact that I like to try completing a game's side missions, though, they started getting very repetitive. Then, the game kept freezing every time I reached a certain point, & I couldn't continue playing. I sure as hell wasn't starting over, so I said 'screw it' & gave up on it.
Even though I didn't plan on playing any other games in the series after that, one of my brothers had Assassin's Creed 2. It is set in Renaissance Italy (which seemed really interesting) & got overwhelmingly positive reviews, so I decided to give it go. I'm extremely glad I did because it is an amazing game, with a superior level of production value that still has me awe-struck.
The sequel continues with Desmond trying to flee a Templar mega-corporation, Abstergo, that has been using him in experiments with The Animus. After he escapes with the help a small band of collaborators who have their own Animus machine, Desmond begins to recall the genetic memories of his Italian ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
Being a designer & art history scholar, I found the opportunity to virtually explore cities of Renaissance Italy to be enjoyable in itself. Like most games that are produced with this high level of quality, I often found myself just wandering around the expansive locales- observing the meticulous detail of all the costumes, textures, architecture, and atmospheric effects that most people probably take for granted. As someone who has been playing video games since Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, I find the graphic quality of modern games like this to be spectacular.
I couldn't stop marveling at the impressive feat of reconstructing multiple, highly-detailed whole towns in an historically accurate way. Ezio gets to explore the sights & sounds of urban Florence, the country setting of Tuscany, and the canals of Venice. The crazy final sequence also takes you to Rome. The last scene takes place inside the Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling has not yet been painted by Michelangelo.
In addition to the beautiful graphics, Assassin's Creed 2 incorporates some actual art history into the gameplay. Ezio's family estate, Villa Auditore, is initially in disrepair. Throughout the game, items that you aquire help you improve the villa. One way to do this is to buy paintings by contemporary artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, & Titian. By the end of the game, you collect a large gallery of virtual paintings that would be any art lover's dream.
Another aspect of the game which I think is really cool is the deeper thread in the story, concerning the search for the mysterious origins of mankind and ancient knowledge, lost to history. This is a theme that was similarly explored in a book I read over the summer, Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock.
The search in Assassin's Creed revolves around "Pieces of Eden" which are technological devices from a now-extinct civilization of beings who created humans as slave labor. (It's sort of like the Ancient Astronaut Theory, but these beings were from Earth- just older & more advanced than mankind.) Some humans rebelled against their masters & stole one of the artifacts, The Apple, that controls human neurological functions. Using this power, they recruited other humans to wage war against their creators. However, both groups became so caught up in their conflict that they neglected a cosmic threat that nearly destroyed them all. There were enough humans scurrying around like cockroaches to rebuild with the help of the few survivors from the First Civilization, who were now regarded as gods by their primitive creations.
To uncover details of this mystery, you must find clues left by Altaïr & the mysterious 'Subject 16', whose mind has become trapped in the virtual worlds of The Animus. An awesome aspect of this game is that Leonardo da Vinci appears throughout the game to supply equipment upgrades & also to help in deciphering the Codexes left by Altaïr. There are also mysterious 'glyphs' hidden in certain areas that open very challenging puzzle sequences. These make you feel like a genius when you figure them out. I'm proud to say that I figured out all the puzzles without looking up any answers. I did come really close to cheating on a few of the puzzles, after staring at the screen for a 1/2 hour or more trying to figure them out! Unlocking these scattered clues help piece together the story behind the age-old battle between the Assassins & the Templars for the powerful Pieces of Eden, which has occurred behind the scenes of history's major events.
Unlike the first one, Assassin's Creed 2 never lost my interest or seemed repetitive. I was enthralled by the visuals, the gameplay, and the story... all the way to when the end credits rolled, during which there is still a bit more of the game to play!
The only complaint I'd personally voice would be that the targeting and combat can be annoyingly inaccurate at times, but it doesn't hinder the overall experience.
The depth of this game is mind-boggling. Elements as diverse as Renaissance art, ancient mysteries, and ponderous philosophical questions are weaved between the open world free-running & the brutal assassination missions in a masterful way.
I'm planning on writing a post about the idiotic argument over whether video games can be considered works of art. This excellent game is 'Exhibit A' in the assertion that video games can actually represent the pinnacle of creative effort & are indeed artistic masterpieces unto themselves.
• The Monkey Buddha's official rating: 9.0