The first Assassin’s Creed broke all sorts of records. What started as a spin-off of the then still popular Prince Of Persia series sold over eight million copies in 2007-2008, an impressive feat for a new IP even at a major AAA studio.
According to MCV, it debuted at No.1 in the UK charts, snatching the position from under probably the most influential game of the 2000s, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
In November 2008, CEO of Ubisoft, Yves Guillemot, announced as part of Ubisoft’s financial report that the sequel was in development.
Five months later on April 16th, Assassin’s Creed II was officially announced.
With Assassin’s Creed being one of the biggest-selling new IPs in history (it is currently 18th of all time), Ubisoft knew they needed to have a sure-fire hit follow-up. This seems to have been the intention from the beginning, with AC1’s producer Jade Raymond stating in an interview,
“We did ask ourselves the question, you know if we do create a game that is successful, how do we make sure there is a structure, an overarching kind of meta-story that can continue to play out…that was one of our aspirations…” (2:03)
Tripling the size of the team in Ubisoft Montreal, with 75% of the original creators working on the sequel, Ubisoft sure had the pedigree. And with so many features that were missing in AC1 due to development times, the team now had the ability to implement them. Raymond mentioned this in the same interview,
“…we didn’t succeed on all of the fronts and we realised some of the things some of the ideas we tried turned out great and some of the ideas we tried didn’t turn out, and because we were trying to innovate so much we kind of ran out of time to do some of the things we wanted to do.” (4:16)
You have to remember, Assassin’s Creed 1 was built with an entirely new engine, and Raymond said Ubisoft were looking to, “…redefine gameplay…” (1:43). Possibly overly ambitious, but that’s why a sequel seems perfect. Ubisoft wanted a sequel soon, with only two years of development time given compared to the four that the original had got. The first major change would be started with Assassin’s Creed 3, whose production ran concurrently with a second team in Montreal.
But the developers didn’t need a grand vision. They had the perfect base, and now the time and the resources to nail the formula down.
Gameplay and Missions
Even though I just said Ubisoft had the perfect base to create a sequel from, all of it pretty much went out the window from the start. Creative Director Patrice Désilets said in an interview that,
“…we got rid of the entire structure of the first one where we had the investigation part and then the assassination parts. That’s gone.” (0:57).
What the team kept were the missions. The five or six different missions types in AC1 were taken and expanded upon, with Désilets saying there would be around sixteen different mission types for the sequel (0:39). He expanded upon this by saying that missions would be knitted together to create unique scenarios, such as starting with an escort, then a chase, followed by an assassination.
What helped was that in theory they were working from scratch again. Ezio at the start is not an Assassin. Desmond is the exact same. When Lucy breaks him out of Abstergo and takes him to the Assassin hideout, she says,
“We’re going to train you. Turn you into one of us…if you can follow in [Ezio’s] footsteps, you’ll learn everything he did…years of training absorbed in a matter of days. (8:30).
Instead of starting with a Master Assassin like with AC1 before having all your powers taken away, this time the gameplay and the story would work in tandem. The missions evolve as the game goes on.
In Sequence 1 we have a bit of fighting, a bit of chasing, hiding, and climbing. Each mission is self-contained, focusing on a single aspect of gameplay, maybe two. Most of the missions in Sequence 1 are also in service to the narrative. The gameplay is wrapped around either setting up the wider narrative or adding something to the supporting cast e.g. delivering a letter to disguised Assassin spies, or beating up your sister’s unfaithful fiancée.
The first three sequences follow this learning template, only opening up until Sequence 4. The world is shrunk, but not distilled. Sequence 2 (the first sequence with an assassination mission) gives you everything you would need; weapons training, social stealth, traversal, and lets you play. Even if you muck up your inaugural assassination the target does not flee or fight back, allowing you to take the kill without being overwhelmed like if you messed up the first assassination in AC1.
As the game goes on we find more and more intricate missions, just like Désilets mentioned, with several styles of play weaving between each other.
Along with these new mission types, AC2 has added several new moves to the assassin’s repertoire. I believed that AC1’s gameplay state was one of flow, using timing and precision to effectively play the game. AC2’s mission statement has changed to one of speed.
Most of the new moves are directed at making Ezio as nimble as possible. In low profile mode, the previous ‘blend’ button became a fast walk, allowing Ezio to gain ground without sacrificing exposure. In a similar vein, the crowd systems were overhauled, allowing Ezio to blend with any gathering of NPCs and not just specific groups.
Climbing and traversal were also beefed up with Ezio now able to sprint across beams and scale walls quicker with a jump grab ability.
During combat, the A button, previously the dodge button, now allows Ezio to pirouette around his adversaries, allowing him to stab them in the back for a one-hit kill.
The biggest change was to combat, speaking of which…
AC1 had five weapons, four of which were of any use (what was the point of using fists aside from the occasional interrogation?). AC2 expanded with not just new weapons but new fighting styles.
Using the R1/RB button would bring up the weapon wheel, with the four directions of the D-Pad allowing for quick selection. The throwing knives, previously a sub category of the dagger, were given their own slots, as well as new additions of smoke bombs (useful for escaping sticky situations) and a moneybag (for drawing crowds and stalling enemies).
The fists became useful during earlier missions, where Ezio was without a sword or blade. Using a similar counter to the first game, Ezio could now disarm enemies, using their own weapons against them. This extended out to all weapons, allowing Ezio to pick up battleaxes, lances, and, err…sweeping brooms. Any of these larger weapons could be bought from stores across the land, each one with stats making them quicker or more deadly.
The former battleaxes and lances could also be upgraded, allowing Ezio to throw the axe or sweep enemy legs with the lances. Throwing knives were also given a boost, allowing three knives to be thrown simultaneously to disperse crowds of enemies. In a similar vein the fists can be upgraded to throw sand.
More ranged options were developed, with one of the later sequences giving Ezio a hidden gun. While a little preposterous, the dev team balanced it well. It takes a long time to aim a shot, with a long reload time and loud gunshot. This meant it could only be used at the most important moments, rather than a squad-devouring machine like it became in ACB.
The signature Hidden Blades were buffed for the sequel (the most noticeable being that they are now plural). Gone was the counter-only method, allowing the blades to counter, parry and combo into gruesome kills. A poison blade was also added as a distraction method.
But the greatest change were the opportunities now offered to the player. Air assassinations (now helpfully explained in a tutorial), haystack drags, bench reversals, they gave players a large opportunity to experiment and play stealthily.
But with the Hidden Blades becoming top dog, everything else felt like an afterthought. Swords and daggers, so important in the first game, became useless. Hidden Blades could counter kill in one hit whereas other weapons could take two or three counter hits to kill an enemy.
There were times in AC1 where you had to run. In certain sections of the city such as Acre’s Arsenal, it was nearly impossible to clear all enemies from your sight (that’s why the Sibrand assassination mission in the Arsenal was great). AC2 has the opposite issue; it is easier to kill everyone before moving on. Even in the only mission where it is encouraged to flee (Sequence 1, Memory 12), when you are disarmed and cornered after your family have been murdered, you can still fight back using your fists and actually win.
With new weapons came new enemies. While AC1 had different rankings and skills (such as Captains being able to grab the player and throw them), AC2 made these changes more distinct. Agile guards who could out-run Ezio, Brutes with heavy weapons and would not retreat, seekers with the lances and checked haystacks for Ezio hiding in them, these would throw some x-factor into the sequence, making a carefully laid plan have to adapt.
In response to the enemies, Ezio had helpers in the cities he visited. Courtesans who could act as mobile cover and distract guards, thieves that could follow him across roofs and distract guards, and mercenaries that could remove unwanted guards, these became valuable assets that could aid in granting greater access to a target. In the sequel the factions were added to with the Brotherhood coming to assist Ezio in battle, but it is cool to see the germ of an idea here in only the second game.
Overall, the combat was buffed enough to make combat a little more forward. It would be for another game, the next one, where combat went from an advantage to an absurdity.
The setting of Renaissance Italy was a stroke of genius.
Similar to AC1, the game takes place in several cities the player can travel between. These include big cities like Florence and Venice, smaller outposts like Forli and Monteriggioni, and the countryside such as Tuscany, San Gimignano and the Apennine Mountains.
I have previously written about how each place in AC1 has a different tone to them, such as Damascus being bright and cheerful and Acre being grey and depressing. A few of the cities do have this feeling, with Florence (the opening city of the game) having a sense of warmth to it, and Forli looking like Acre 2.0. But I think the cities have moved beyond tone and focus more on player traversal.
While each city in AC1 was distinct, their traversal was very similar. In AC2, each city feels unique in how the player works their way through it. Venice has many tight-knit alleyways. Tuscany and San Gimignano focus on extreme verticality. Forli is flat and low. Florence is the only one that seems so generic, but in a good way. It has a bit of everything, teaching us the mechanics before sending us out into the world.
“Unsurprisingly, the design team talk of long field trips to each location, with artists taking thousands of photos and hours of video footage.”
The designers were so dedicated to representing the cities that they hired Maria Elisa Navarro, a Professor of Architectural History and Theory, as a historical consultant. In a great interview with architect Manuel Saga, Navarro explains how she was brought on board to help not only with architectural inaccuracies, but also with wardrobe and hair styling.
In AC1 the narrative had Altair heading between the three cities and his base in Masyaf, with new parts of the city unlocked as the game progressed. This was to aid non-mini-map design (read the ‘Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map’ section in the AC1 retrospective for more details). From the start of the game, the entire map of the city is open to the player.
While AC2 still included the mini map, the want for accuracy feeds back into the original idea for AC1 to be played without the need for a mini-map. Now with recognisible landmarks such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice or the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) and Giotto’s Campanile in Florence (along with the brilliant database that lists buildings, people and documents), players were able to guide themselves around the city without needing a map.
One of the odd map’s inclusions of AC1 was the Kingdom, a crossroad between the four main cities. AC2 has some countryside, but it is linked with the main cities. It becomes an integral part of the locations (such as the assassination mission of Jacapo De’ Pazzi at the isolated Anitco Teatro Romano, a Roman theatre in the Tuscan countryside), rather than feeling like a timewasting slog during the previous game.
Monteriggioni would take the place of Masyaf, owned by Ezio’s uncle Mario, (yes, they did make a “It’s-a me, Mario!” joke). A safe place outside of Florence, the villa and surrounding town has a few nooks and crannies for curious players, whereas ones who just want to get back to the stabbing can spend as little time there as possible.
The cities were magnificent, each with their own unique quirks and feels. But one thing made them feel extra special…Jepser Kyd. And so it is probably time to turn to his contribution to Assassin’s Creed.
Eight minim notes in 4/4 time in F Major. D, F, G, A, D, F, G, F.
That sequence is imprinted on thousands of gamer’s minds.
Jesper Kyd had worked on quite a few games, notably the Hitman series by IO Interactive. He worked on the soundtrack for first Assassin’s Creed, creating music that evoked the location, using Middle Eastern instruments, percussion, and singing styles, with a hint of synthesizers and reverb to hint at the modern aspect of the game.
With Assassin’s Creed II, he emboldened the score with sweeping strings and operatic style vocals, meshed in with electric guitars and remixes…and in the process created one of the most iconic (real iconic, not Ubisoft iconic) musical scores in gaming.
Just like with the architectural styles are different, each city has its own soundtrack. Florence’s soundtrack is usually light and melodic (reflecting the warm notes in the level design). Even with tracks such as ‘Darkness Falls in Florence,’ it still uses richer instruments that the rest of the OST.
Tuscany is stripped back, with fewer instruments and focusing on small bursts of melody, which feels reminiscent of how the location is wide-open spaces with a few noteworthy constructions dotted in between. Forli is heavy on percussion and deeper notes, evoking the drab and grey surroundings of the wetlands and industry.
And Venice likes to focus on minor keys, starting small in stature before building up with more instruments and higher notes, very much like starting a climb in the city. And ‘Venice Rooftops’ is a kicker of a track, effortlessly rising and falling, feeling almost like the ups and downs of parkour.
But there is one track that stands above them all.
Even now, ten years after AC2 came out, ‘Ezio’s Family’, the track I alluded to at the beginning of the section, is the de-facto theme for the entire series. It is continually referenced in later games in the series, such as Rogue’s ‘Main Theme’, Unity’s ‘Le Roi Est Mort’, Syndicate’s “Frye’s Family” or Origins’ aptly titled ‘Ezio’s Family (Origins Version)’. It’s a beautiful canon style track, effortlessly building, adding anachronistic instruments, getting higher and louder until it quietly returns to the opening notes, simultaneously changing and unchanging at the same time.
Just…if you have never heard this piece before, here it is. Have a listen. And if you are an AC fan, prepare to fall in love again.
This piece opened up the game. Ezio and his brother Frederico admiring the night-sky of Florence from the top of a church, then the camera pulls back, the music swells and the logo indents itself. I think this also started the trend of the series indenting the title with the characters perched somewhere high. Seriously, every game up until Syndicate had the characters looking out over the landscape as the logo popped up.
Anyway, back to ‘Ezio’s Family’…it’s perfect. And while AC1 had some good tracks, none of them have stuck with me like AC2. Every subsequent game’s OST, created by talented composers like Lorne Balfe, Elitsa Alexandrova, Brian Tyler, Austin Wintory, Sarah Schachner, and most recently the composing duo The Flight, is compared to Kyd and his revolutionary work.
I realise writing this section, it is pretty short, but I feel it doesn’t need any more discussion. This is one of the greatest soundtracks that gaming has ever and will ever produce and Jesper Kyd is such a talent.
The Story & The Characters
The story of AC2 is still considered one of the best narratives of the seventh generation and of the series as a whole. Part of that comes down to the main character, Ezio Auditore.
Where previous main character Altair was sour and serious, Ezio was fun and playful. Where we were thrown straight into Altair’s story, we followed Ezio from birth to middle age, filled with both victories and losses. And while Altair’s motives were understandable, Ezio’s connected on a deeper emotional channel.
Aside from an odd birth scene where we control Ezio as he is brought naked and screaming into the world, the narrative really starts on the Ponte Vecchio, with a now 17-year old Ezio before he becomes an Assassin. He is a privileged noble kid, getting into fistfights, boasting of nights spent with wine and women. It’s been thirty seconds and we have learnt the basics of the character; he is charming, he likes a laugh, and when it gets violent he can hold his own.
He is a pastiche of classical literature, part Zorro, part Casanova, and part Monte Cristo, containing all the endearing qualities why we love those characters without any of the downsides.
The narrative drives like a bullet, none of the fluff or side-quests of a latter day Ubisoft game, and I think that’s another reason why the game is loved. Even with fourteen sequences (two as DLC), Ezio only takes until the finale of Sequence 1 to get his hood and Hidden Blade, and is driven to make the men who killed his father and brothers pay. Even though Ezio starts the narrative worried and alone, facing off against a threat too big to comprehend, he gains friends and allies; mercenaries, thieves, and courtesans, who all believe the same creed. The scene at the end of Sequence 11 where all previous allies come to Ezio’s aid and fight alongside him is one of the high points for the level of fan service.
Another of Ezio’s friends is Leonardo Da Vinci. While later games would sometimes bash the player of the head with historical figures here it feels restrained, using the name but not having Ezio comment on the Mona Lisa or reference certain codes involving Jesus’ descendants. Leonardo starts as a lowly painter who Ezio’s mother is patroning, but eventually he turns into something like a quartermaster by supplying our hero with weapons and equipment. He even takes Ezio in when the Auditores are fugitives, seeing it as a sense of duty to help out the lost and scared Ezio. His ever-jovial nature and wide-eyed wonder is always endearing, giving a lot of the early story points levity, and many of the late-game plot points a sense of satisfied contentment.
With Ezio doing most of the heavy lifting narratively, the modern day plot and Desmond got to grow a litter more. Gone are the sterile hallways of Abstergo and monologues of bad guy Warren Vidic, here Desmond is supported by a relatively warm cast of Abstergo turncoat Lucy, tech support Rebecca, and historical consultant and professional sarcasm champion Shaun Hastings, the latter voiced impeccably by Danny Wallace. Apart from one scene halfway through the game showing that Desmond has started to learn the skills passed through the Animus, we don’t really get much else on the main man. Yet the moments where he gets to interact with his Mystery Machine assortment of chums, either in person or through voicemail in the Animus, never fail to bring a smile to my face.
Another modern day addition were the Glyphs. Hidden around the architecture of Italy were symbols (much like those on Desmond’s floor in Abstergo), left in the Animus by a previous Abstergo test subject, #16. Finding all of these Glyphs and deciphering their codes focusing on everything from Tesla to Milton, unlocked a hidden video featuring the Apple and the Ones That Came Before, adding more to the modern day plot line before it became a main thread in the sequel Brotherhood.
While the baddies of AC1 are varied and well-acted during their scenes on screen, many are simple outlines, with stories hinted at in their mannerisms and through half-told whispers in the investigation leading up to the assassination. Most are kept to their occupations; a Slave Trader, a Doctor, a Scribe, a Merchant King. In AC2 we get to spend time with the new bad guys, both in cutscenes well before their assassinations and through the database entries voiced by Danny Wallace. It helps keep us involved by knowing who we are killing and why, a problem that I feel has plagued my enjoyment of other AC games. Here you learn about these characters, how they conduct themselves, how they got to their positions of power, which makes it all the more satisfying to finally take them down.
Speaking of the assassinations, I previously praised the first game’s assassination sequences and said AC2’s are as linear as possible. Nearly every major assassination up until Sequence 7 (when Ezio arrives in Venice) has Ezio chasing his target rather than waiting for the right moment. Even later missions like Sequence 9, set during Carnevale, has only one way to complete it. But I forgive the game because of its uniqueness; having you kill a target during Carnevale using a handcannon, throwing a monk from the tallest tower in San Gimignano, jumping onto a bonfire to ease a target’s suffering, using a hang-glider to enter a target’s palace, these are all completely original ideas that help make the sometimes standard and linear assassinations feel grand in scope and spectacle.
Ezio has had the longest run of all AC series leads, fronting two/three major release (Revelations is different in that he shares it with Altair) as well as featuring in smaller titles like Discovery on Nintendo DS and Rebellion for mobile devices. His legacy spans not just across games, but books and animated short films. As Associate Producer Julien Laferrière said in an interview with Eurogamer,
“We made three games with Ezio because people loved Ezio.”
It was nice to see the Renaissance hunk return after AC2 to stalk his way around Rome and then Constantinople, and during that time see a marked change on the man. We’ve had characters get older as games have gone on, Joel from The Last Of Us and Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid are two that come to mind, but I think AC was different in showing Ezio before and after the change into the hooded killer. He starts as simple spoilt noble kid having to mature beyond his years before becoming an Assassin, then graduating to Master and Mentor, and achieving the rank of Assassin General in Revelations.
Looking back at AC2’s ending, before we knew if we would ever see Ezio again, the final moments in the Vatican Vault are oddly chilling. The Assassins have told Ezio that he is the Prophet, the Chosen One, yet when he enters the First Civilization Vault the goddess Minerva greets him then dismisses him, talking instead to Desmond. Here is a man who has spent his whole life dismantling corruption and evil in the name of a higher cause, finding out that he is merely a pawn, with no greater significance.
Imagine if Ezio’s story stopped here, and the next entry was Connor in AC3. We’ve spent 20+ hours with this character, only to find at the end that he isn’t destined for greatness. At the same time this realisation dawns on him we are pulled away, leaving him in the dark. He has spent over twenty years with one goal in mind and now at what should be the apotheosis of his life, he is scared and alone, just as he was in Sequence 1. That image is haunting.
Altair’s ending in AC1 was much the same, realising there was a world and a story greater than his own. This can be seen by reading in his Codex, unlockable text files hidden throughout AC2. Yet Altair understood his ending, Ezio does not, literally saying to Minerva that he has “so many questions.”
I hated this ending when I first played it, only seeing it as a cliffhanger, rather than the gut-punch existential dread I now see it as ten years on. Many of the games in the series follow this thread, with Connor and the Temple, Edward and the Observatory, Arno and the Sage and the Fryes with the Shroud. These men and women, spanning centuries, who glimpse a story bigger than heaven itself, only to realise that their goal in the grand scheme is to procreate enough so that hopefully one of their descendants becomes the mythical ‘Desmond’. It is only by Revelations, when Ezio is into his fifties that he finally understands that he is nothing but a conduit, a lightning rod that allows Minerva to speak to Desmond.
The last media appearance of Ezio is in Assassin’s Creed: Embers, a short animated film detailing the last days of Ezio’s life. In the film it shows a man withered by old age, trying to aid both his family and Chinese Assassin Shao Jun, who has come to speak with the famous Italian Batman. The ending reinforces Ezio’s final words in Revelations, showing that with time he has settled as a man who knows too much but can never do enough.
One other aspect must be mentioned when it comes to the legacy of AC2, one that still lives to this day. The original run on PC is ‘protected’ by DRM software (digital rights management), an attempt to stop people pirating the game. In an effort to stop this, AC2 was only playable when connected online. No internet connection…you won’t be able to play the product you bought (leading to many frustrated consumers when the company servers go down). Ubisoft still uses these practices today, with AC: Origins doubling-up with two different DRM products. I thankfully never came across these with the console version, but it still needs to be mentioned as it is a very important point of the game’s history.
I will admit, coming back to this game was hard. I had fallen in love with game series before, most notably Timesplitters and the early Lego games. Assassin’s Creed was one of the first major series I played on the seventh generation, and I saw the remarkable jump from AC1 to AC2 in the span of switching out one disc for the other. When I returned after ten years to the first game there was an odd feeling of comfort, settling back in with ease.
I was a little worried that with AC2 I was going to have the reverse. Several games I loved when I was younger have not got better with time. And while I noticed a lot more hand-holding and linearity with the recent playthrough, it still has that charm almost ten years later.
Ezio is one of the biggest draws to replay. I think he is one of the best examples of “people want be him, or people want to be with him”, an all-round top lad whose sense of honour and personal drive keeps us engaged. Another highlight to returning are the locations. The cities are also so much fun to move through and completely different to the Holy Land Of AC1, or the other big-budget open world games like GTAIV‘s Liberty City the previous year, or war-torn Paris in The Saboteur the same year.
The villains are fun, the soundtrack is awe-inspiring, and even poor old Desmond gets to flex his protagonist muscles both in and outside of the Animus. Most of my grumbles are nitpicks; DLC disrupting narrative flow, overpowered attacks, and only a few instances of linear design. None of these spoil the game to any large degree, they can even be a benefit for those more casually inclined, with DLC only being an issue for those that played it in chronological order (I’ve written more about that here).
When I played AC1 for a retrospective I said it felt a lot like a blueprint of games to come. AC2 could almost be the opposite side of the coin, refinement while also laying foundations for later games. While we still have the upgrades and items available for purchase, they don’t swamp out the gameplay.
Assassin’s Creed II took what worked in the first, added its own flavours and tone, and became one of the most adored games of the seventh generation and the series as a whole. It’s a beautiful game and still deserves to be played today.
Banner Photo Source: youtube.com