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Video Game Review: 'Assassin's Creed II'

Fully answers every previous complaint

Posted: December 4, 2009 10:27 a.m.
Updated: December 6, 2009 12:52 a.m.

Ezio soars over the streets of Renaissance Italy in "Assassin's Creed II." The video game has fully addressed all complaints generated by its earlier version.

 
Italian crime families have become a staple of video games over the last few years, starring in such hits as "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," ‘'The Godfather" and "Mafia." And don't get me started on "Mafia Wars," the browser game that's consuming half of my Facebook friends.

"Assassin's Creed II" (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) can be thought of as a prequel to all of those. At times, it feels like what you would get if you took the open-world mayhem and melodrama of "GTA" and transported them to Renaissance Italy. It's one of the year's most fascinating adventures.

You are Ezio Auditore, a young ne'er-do-well living the high life in 15th-century Florence. Soon, however, his father and brothers are falsely accused of treason and executed. Ezio escapes, swearing vengeance on the men who set up his family.

The conspiracy Ezio unravels involves the highest levels of Italian society, all the way up to the Pope. Several historic figures, including Niccolo Macchiavelli and Lorenzo de Medici, figure prominently, and Leonardo da Vinci is delightfully cast as an excitable gadget guru.

Ezio's story, however, is just the surface of an elaborate mythology that Ubisoft has cooked up for this series. It concerns a centuries-long battle between the Templars, who want to control all of humanity, and the Assassins, who are fighting for free will.
The Italy in "ACII" is really just an incredibly detailed computer simulation drawn from the generational memory of one of Ezio's descendants, a 21st-century bartender named Desmond Miles. Using a device called the Animus, Desmond is sent back into the memories of his ancestors to find information that could tip the balance of power between the Templars and Assassins.

In the original "AC," Desmond traveled back to the Holy Land of 1191, where he assumed the role of an assassin named Altair. The first game buckled under the weight of its ambitions: The story was confusing and poorly paced, and the gameplay quickly became repetitious.

"Assassin's Creed II" fully answers every complaint critics had about its predecessor. The vengeance-driven main story zips along nicely, taking some genuinely surprising turns. And there's plenty of other action to distract Ezio - assassination contracts, courier missions, treasure hunting - so you can easily switch gears if you tire of one type of challenge.

The most significant improvement is that every activity, from exploring to fighting to horseback riding, feels smooth and instinctive. That's particularly true whenever Ezio needs to get a higher vantage point: Running across rooftops, leaping across alleys and scaling tall buildings have never felt so exhilarating. And when you find yourself perched on a church steeple, take the time to look around, because the scenery is gorgeous.

I was disappointed when "Assassin's Creed" didn't live up to its potential, so I'm all the more delighted with "ACII," which exceeds expectations in every way. I can't wait to see where - and when - the next chapter takes us.

Four stars out of four.

On the Net:
"Assassin's Creed II" - http://assassinscreed.us.ubi.com/assassins-creed-2/

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