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Grand Theft Florence: Hands on with 15th-century Italy in Assassin's Creed II

Ubisoft's sequel to their 2007 parkour/virtual reality adventure changes landscapes to Renaissance Italy with great success.


2009's big slate of holiday games got pared down when a lot of titles slipped to 2010, and those that remained have largely been released already. One of the last, Assassin's Creed II, is a sequel to one of 2007's most-hyped original IPs, a game that got good reviews and sold well but was still seen as a bit of a disappointment.

A mysterious story about near-future Templars and virtual-reality access to the memories of 12th-century assassins acted as backdrop to beautiful open-world parkour and stealth. Does the sequel surpass its predecessor? After a week of play, here's how we felt.

Assassin's Creed II is a stealth game that's appropriately crept onto our radar after a lot of far-more hyped titles this year, and it merits some serious attention. The strange plotline of the original continues, but updates the focal setting to Renaissance Italy. Rendered in beautiful detail, Florence and other cities can be climbed around and navigated through--although in self-contained zones--and the characters this time around are a lot more lively and spicy. Famous historical figures, including a young version of Leonardo da Vinci, are great additions to the storyline, and also provide you with inventions to use in-game.

Unfortunately, it's hard to figure out the fragmented storyline, which sometimes feels about as clear as a chapter of Metal Gear Solid, but the game's missions and layout are a lot easier to dive into and play than in the original Assassin's Creed. A funky computer sim-type interface and lack of a true tutorial force players unfamiliar with Assassin's Creed to feel somewhat alienated, which is a shame considering the amount of research that's been poured into this universe.

Assassin's Creed II is, in the end, a sort of open-world game that at times feels like Grand Theft Auto set hundreds of years ago, especially in its mission-focused structure and its roster of quirky side characters. It's one of the most pleasant surprises of the year--a game that's better than its hype. However, its Dan Brown spirit and arcane framing might not be for everybody.

Unlike most of the gaming press, I found the original Assassin's Creed to be a trite and redundant open-world action game that had tons of potential. The cities were beautiful, the climbing mechanic was on point, but the repetition of mostly lame mission objectives almost prevented me from finishing the title.

Assassin's Creed II makes up for most of the shortcomings of its predecessor as the game improves on a lot that was criticized in the original. Beneath the updated interface and improved production value are a lot of the same game play mechanics (viewpoints and side missions), but it's refreshing to see a legitimate sequel in a medium where most just give you more of the same. The addition of weapons and healing doctors is a nice touch, plus a new currency system will have you searching your victim's pockets as well.


Assassin's Creed II takes itself much more seriously this time around, sucking you into a storyline that seems more interesting than ever. The structure here is much more logical than before, and while there are still optional side missions, there is enough diversity among them to warrant a few being played.

If you can get past the fact that everyone in late 15th-century Italy is inexplicably speaking English (yes, we know plenty of stories are guilty of this), Assassin's Creed II definitely delivers. We also noticed that Desmond Miles shares the same voice talent as Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, which because of both titles' recent release is actually a bit strange. It's definitely the first time we instantly recognized the same voice talent in two games, so it's safe to say actor Nolan North is having a good holiday season.

Ambition can be a dangerous thing. The original Assassin's Creed combined historical recreations with sci-fi, and stealth gaming with open-world questing. The end result was a melange of good ideas that felt underdeveloped and at times half-baked. It was fun for the first few hours, then devolved into tedium.

The sequel comes much closer to fulfilling those ambitions, but remains disappointingly off the mark. The 15th-century setting and historical cameos are impressive, as are the high-flying game mechanics, which take you free-running across the rooftops of the city.

But with great building blocks like this, we'd expect a less disjointed overall game experience. Ping-ponging between the past and present (most of the game is a virtual simulation of the past) can be jarring, and each in-game task is accompanied by an "accept this mission?" dialog box that unnecessarily pulls us out of the game experience. Great swaths of the landscape are mysteriously inaccessible at the start of the game, and any chances of freely exploring Florence are dashed by the overwhelming number of supercop-like guards roaming the streets, alleys, and even rooftops.

But despite these shortfalls, Assassin's Creed II was one of those rare games we found hard to put down. The most intriguing aspect is the story within the story uncovered during your explorations. Hidden symbols are decoded via puzzles, revealing a secret computer code that plays out as cryptic video clips of...something...that promises to turn the already complex game world upside down. These fascinating conspiracy theory touches show how much potential this series has.