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Back on the Animus

I don’t like to play open-world/sandbox games; I tried Grand Theft Auto: Vice City some years ago, got stuck, and was uninterested enough by the game as a whole that I never bothered picking it up again. However, my husband loves them, and I’ve found these games much more interesting as a spectator. I’ve never watched one all the way through, but have seen a fair amount of the GTA series, The Warriors, The Godfather: Blackhand Edition, and Assassin’s Creed.

In addition to playing open-world games, I didn’t much like Altaïr, the main character of that last game on the list. He’s the Crusades-era ancestor of one Desmond Miles, who lives in the modern age and is cooped up in some sort of lab, where he has to lie down on a device called an Animus, which plugs into his subconscious collective memory or some such. The short of it is that this machine puts him into Altaïr’s shoes, allowing for a believable “gaminess” when it comes to said ancestor’s adventures.

Assassin's Creed II: Ezio impales an enemy on a rooftop in Florence.Anyway, Altaïr struck me as something of an asshole, and not very likable at all. However, the same can’t be said for one of Desmond’s other ancestors, a debonair young man named Ezio who lives in the late 15th Century. Ezio is the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed II, which came out this Tuesday for the PS3 and 360 (a PC version is due next year). My husband had preordered it from Amazon, and it arrived yesterday; he had originally planned to start it after Thanksgiving, but the lure of more historical assassin action was too great to resist. Me, I had been planning to put some more time into Ys: The Ark of Napishtim last night, but ended up watching him galavant across Florentine rooftops until around midnight.

Assassin’s Creed II picks up pretty much right where the last one left off. After certain modern-day details present themselves, Desmond is once again jacked into an ancestor’s world, this time finding himself in Renaissance Italy. Here we first meet Ezio, a banker’s son and ladies’ man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. As the plot moves along, the game’s various moves and features are slowly dripped out to the player, and once Ezio dons the clothes of an assassin, there are even more things to learn. Thus, the first few hours of the game feel like an extended tutorial, but one that the story is elegantly wrapped around.

Many of the distractions from the first game are back, including collectable sidequests, Leaps of Faith, and so forth, but these are put to work, rather that just being things to do for Achievements or Trophies. Some serve a story purpose, while others, like the high vantage points scattered throughout the world, lead to practical benefits. There are also new things to do, ranging from additional ways to earn money, to scattered clues that tie in to the overarching plot.

Aesthetically, the game shines. The script is engaging and sometimes even funny. I won’t spoil it, but there’s one line in particular spoken by one of Ezio’s associates that has us both groaning and smiling. There are a few weird character models, but for the most part, the visuals and animation are stunning. The sound design is fantastic, but if Ezio is ever facing away from a character, even if they are still nearby, the dialogue audio softens considerably. I understand that this approach is to make things more realistic, but it seems a little overdone. And speaking of the dialogue, Tycho is absolutely right in his suggestion to have the subtitles turned on. There is a lot of Italian woven into the dialogue, and unless you know the language, you will want to take advantage of the translations that the subs provide.

So yes, the game is very good, but there are a couple of nitpicks I would be remiss not to point out. First off are some of the early Achievements, which are for doing things that are required to get further into the game anyway; they’re small ones, sure, but still silly. My husband also found the controls a little finicky at times, especially the ones mapped to the ABXY buttons, which can frequently change depending on the situation. At any rate, I know he’ll have a good time with Assassin’s Creed II, and I also know that I’ll continue to watch him play every so often to see where the story goes.