by Matthew Thompson
(I am counting down my 25 favorite games of the last console generation. I explain a little about how I put the list together in this introduction. And you can see a collection of all my articles on the Best of 7th Gen compiled here.)
A new entry in almost every series featured on this list would garner some excitement from me ranging from “Oh my god I need that game right now” to “I will definitely play that”… except for this one. Yearly Assassin’s Creed sequels following the second game, including the particularly disastrous third numbered entry in 2012, led to the worst case of franchise fatigue I have experienced since the Tony Hawk series was run into the ground back in the PS2 days and left me with little interest in Ubisoft’s flagship series going forward. That is quite the shame because with Assassin’s Creed II coming in at number 11 on this list, it is clear that once upon a time it showed the ability to be a top-tier gaming experience.
The original Assassin’s Creed was an ambitious game, but one that fell on its face when it came to executing its grand plans. With the second entry, Ubisoft Montreal delivered the game I had been hoping for when I first heard about the series and in doing so created one of the most improved sequels in gaming history. Just about everything is better here. The free running is smoother with plenty of new moves to help you traverse the game’s large city spaces. Combat and stealth are improved with more weapons at your disposal including the nice touch of a second hidden wristblade allowing for badass double assassinations. Ezio Auditore’s quest for revenge makes for a much more compelling tale than its predecessor contained, one that started with Ezio’s birth and had him cross paths with such historical figures as Leonardo da Vinci (who gives you access to some of his inventions like the flying machine) and the Pope of the time (who you totally get into a fist fight with!). Desmond’s sections are better too allowing you to explore the current-day version of Ezio’s family home in Monteriggioni. Even the “What the fuck?!” ending that ties the two storylines together is a step above the series’ usual output in that department. On top of this, there is there is the way you can upgrade your villa or change up your outfit or actually swim this time along with a bunch of other tiny changes that help make this a huge step forward from the original.
All of those are little ways in which Ubisoft upped their game for this sequel, but most importantly they ditched the repetitive mission structure with its inane investigations that really sunk the first game. The story missions here feature a ton of variety and always manage to keep you on your toes. I think one large reason this is true, and the thing that always stands out to me the most when I think back on Assassin’s Creed II, is its world.
Ubisoft Montreal’s meticulous recreation of Renaissance-era Italy is simply stunning. Looking at comparisons shows the insane attention to detail that went into creating the game world of Assassin’s Creed II. Along with being a beautiful place to explore, it can be an educational experience allowing you to peer into an important time in history and learn about some of the landmarks you discover. The multiple city setup makes it so you never get bored. You’ll start off running across the tiled rooftops of Florence. Soon enough you’re clambering up the towering structures of San Gimignano. Next thing you know you find yourself dashing through the muddy fields of Forlì. And finally you’ll be leaping across the famous waterways of Venice. The game is expertly paced so that once you seem to have had your fill of one city you are whisked off to the next. Naturally in the various sequels since this game released, there have been improvements in some aspects of the series’ gameplay, but I don’t think they have ever come close to matching the brilliant game world they created here. There are other reasons the follow-ups didn’t live up to this game, but I think this combination of intricate European architecture and multiple varied cities is reason number 1 that AC2 stands above the rest.
Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s tombs. Through some truly impressive level design that tasks you with puzzling out how to move around places outside the game’s main sandbox areas, the developers have somehow made AC’s automated platforming work in a handful of linear levels. One of the reasons I was so excited for this series coming into the generation is because it was made by the core team behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, one of my all-time favorites. So these callbacks to that game are more than welcome. They also act as a welcome change of pace from the game’s typical wide-open spaces. Throw in some spectacular locations and these levels, which pop up in all three Ezio games, are among the series’ best moments for me.
Ubisoft’s poor handling of the series since doesn’t take away from the fact that they accomplished something special with Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio’s adventures in Renaissance-era Italy stick with me as one of the high points of the previous generation of gaming, landing it a comfy spot just outside the top ten on my Best of 7th Gen countdown.
A few more things:
- This is the only Assassin’s Creed game I consider truly great and the easy choice for this list. But I do think Brotherhood is very good and right on the cusp of greatness. The other games last gen ranged from solid to, as I mentioned before, full-on disaster.
- I think one area where the first game might still be better than 2 is the assassinations. There was a freedom to them that I’m not sure the second game’s more scripted sequences manage to top. It has been forever since I’ve played these games, so it is tough to say for sure. Though I definitely enjoyed them in both games.
- Finally on to the top ten next!