Assassin’s Creed 2 Is The Ultimate Sequel
Ubisoft started working on Assassin's Creed 2 early in 2008. By November 2009 the finished game was on store shelves and spinning in people's disc trays. That's an astonishing time frame for a game of this scale. We're talking multiple cities, cinematic cutscenes, hours of voice acting, and major improvements over the original game—including revamped combat, a new notoriety system, and the ability to hire factions to fight for you. Over 300 developers worked on the game, and I'm sure they were forced to pull some gruelling all-nighters to get it finished. But the result of this effort is one of the best sequels ever made.
A big part of the game's appeal is its protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. We're introduced to him seconds after being born, wiggling the analogue stick to move his arms and legs. Then we skip forward in time to his wild teenage years, where he fights, wise-cracks, and shags his way around Renaissance Florence. Immediately, his charisma is infectious—which makes him the polar opposite of the first game's dour lead, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad. Assassin's Creed can get very self-indulgent and serious at times, which makes Ezio such a breath of fresh air. He's driven by revenge, but takes time to enjoy the finer things in life too.
When designing Assassin's Creed 2, Ubisoft set itself two clear goals: answer every criticism of the first game and repeat its commercial success. Ezio is a prime example of this. Most reviews of the original game criticised its dreary hero, and this spirited new character was a response to that. To this day, most Assassin's Creed fans agree that he's the series' best, most likeable protagonist—although Ubisoft has stepped its game up lately with the likes of Bayek and Kassandra. So beloved was Ezio, in fact, that he starred in two more games, Brotherhood and Revelations: a privilege not many other stars got to enjoy.
In a fascinating GDC talk given by Assassin's Creed 2 designer Patrick Plourde, he reveals that the game was developed at a breakneck pace. In the first six months alone the team had amassed over 200 design documents—only one of which received any kind of follow-up or revision. The speed of the game's development meant there was no time to polish anything, which is impressive when you consider how solid the final game feels. According to Plourde, the save system wasn't even implemented until two weeks before the first code submission. How this game ended up as good as it did is nothing short of a miracle.
Over a decade after it first launched on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, Assassin's Creed 2 is starting to show its age. Spoiled by the smooth, flowing free-running in the modern games, navigating its cities feels a little stiff and sluggish. The missions are repetitive, with too many instant fail states. But the rest of the game is still magnificent. Its vivid Renaissance setting is lavish, immersive, and drenched in fascinating history. The conspiracy-laden plot is full of thrills, twists, and turns, elevated by Ezio's easy wit and charm. The many things the game does well ultimately transcend its technical limitations.
The first Assassin's Creed is still worth playing. The Crusades setting is well realised and it has some standout moments. But it feels very much like a proof of concept: a strong idea that wasn't executed as well as it could have been. Then Assassin's Creed 2 swoops in and makes everything better. The combat, free-running, characters, plot, side content, visuals—even the divisive modern day sections—are all vastly superior. Few sequels are as all-encompassing when it comes to iterating on, and improving, what came before. I don't know how the hell Ubisoft pulled it off with those deadlines bearing down on it.
There's a lot of variety in the setting too, from the canals of Venice and villas of Tuscany, to the walled city of Monteriggioni and a brief visit to the Vatican. The best Assassin's Creed games make you feel like you've been transported to another time and place, and that's something this game does brilliantly. The ornate, towering architecture of this era also makes the larger cities excellent playgrounds for Ezio's free-running skills. It's one of the most vibrant settings in the series' history, and the score is wonderful too. Jesper Kyd mixes orchestral music with modern electronic sounds to hugely atmospheric effect.
Assassin's Creed is in a good place right now, having left its stealth game roots behind and mutated into a series of grand Witcher 3-inspired RPGs. But in terms of sudden, sharp rises in quality, the shift from the first game to Assassin's Creed 2 is still unbeatable. This is arguably the most improved sequel of all time–and even spawned a pair of quality sequels of its own. There are too many remakes around at the moment, but I would love to see the game's elegant, painting-like vision of Renaissance Italy brought back to life with modern technology. It's a setting crying out to be revisited, even if Ezio's story is well and truly over.
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