‘Assassin’s’ back and better than before

If anything can be learned from Assassin’s Creed II, it is that the Pazzi Conspiracy that unfolded in Renaissance Florence is the stuff of great cinema.

Ubisoft’s blockbuster sequel to its stealth action game from 2007, proves once again that the French-Canadian development company has a real flair for the cinematic: despite its almost bloated size, Assassin’s Creed II features some of the best combinations of set-pieces and gameplay since the epic action movie in disguise Call of Duty 4.

Assassin’s Creed II shifts the storyline from the Crusades Era Middle East to Renaissance Italy. Ezio, a member of a fiction Florentine noble family finds himself inserted into the historical feud between the Di’ Medici and Pazzi families — as well as the mythical war between Knights Templar and Assassins.

As with its predecessor, Assassin’s Creed II features a number of historical characters as both targets and allies. Nicolo Machiavelli shows up at a major plot turn, and a strangely handsome Leonardo Da Vinci serves as Ezio’s “Q.” One of the game’s best missions reenacts the Pazzi Conspiracy to kill Lorenzo Di’ Medici on the steps of the Duomo in Florence, with Ezio stepping in to rewrite history in his own image.

As in its predecessor, this main storyline takes place within the larger context of a soft science fiction snoozer about a descendant of assassins forced to play through the memories of his ancestors in order to unlock vital and vague secrets that will end their ancient war with the Knights Templar.

The framing narrative is an unnecessary distraction from the central storyline. While the developers are clearly building toward some sort of epic modern day conclusion, the story ultimately belongs to the hero the player controls, Ezio, whose descent into an ancient cult would be even more involving without the knowledge that he was being controlled by some uninvolving geek in the modern era.

Structurally, the game eschews the Metroid-style narrative of the first game — let the player have all the weapons and abilities for a few mission before stripping them away with a dramatic plot twist — and focuses on the progression of an unassuming and unskilled young protagonist. Reminiscent of the classic protagonist of Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, Ezio is much more identifiable than the solemn Altair of the original Assassin’s Creed.

In game design, the developers also opted to streamline and increase rather than redesign, which the modestly-received original called for. For all its grand cinematic leanings, Assassin’s Creed II possesses the same sandbox-style of gameplay that has a tendency to strip such impact from games such as the Grand Theft Auto series by removing linearity from the storyline.

In this sense, the sheer size of Assassin’s Creed II might actually be its greatest detriment. The story of Ezio’s quest for revenge is fascinating, but in responding the complaints that the original Assassin’s Creed was too short and linear, they removed some of the impetus from the narrative. The sequel features about a hundred side quests, and more random objects to collect and upgrades to buy than the average Nintendo 64 Rare game. If the multiple cities Ezio visits weren’t so varied and beautiful, and his missions so engaging, the game might very well have fallen into the sandbox trap.

Assassin’s Creed II belongs to the Dan Brown School of historical fiction, and the soft science fiction structure lends itself to an obnoxious self-awareness. Each famous figure is introduced with a wink, as if saying “why, that’s Leonardo Da Vinci.” Ezio’s Italy is also practically engorged with secret passageways and codes, each of which the game endeavors to point out obviously on the map. The game overcompensates for its size by holding the player’s hand throughout.

While Assassin’s Creed II features an engaging storyline, the game falls back on cliché gameplay elements that seem to lack pretext – including fetch quests, those random collectibles and numerous instances of Prince of Persia-style platforming. Scaling walls to pick off unsuspecting guards makes sense within the storyline, but climbing the inside of the looking for some arbitrary artifact Duomo — though quite fun as a side-quest — seems somehow out of place within an epic historical narrative.

As with the first game, the control structure is not particularly conducive to platform gaming. The almost revolutionary control structure — each button controls a different part of the body — makes Ezio a natural at scaling walls and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, but by the same token the flow of his motion often has the intrepid assassin leaping blindly without precision input from the player.

Assassin’s Creed II is marked improvement in style and scope — and a marginal improvement in design — over the original Assassin’s Creed. The game might double cross its cinematic leanings on multiple occasions, but the simple fun of leaping from rooftop to rooftop, murdering unsuspecting guards and reenacting some sordid Italian history cannot be denied. Assassin’s Creed II is clumsy and gorgeous, frustrating and breathtaking — and ultimately a lot of fun.