Though the narrative drive is powerful, the map is crammed with gainful distraction. There are challenging races to beat; beat ups, in which you administer justice on adulterers; couriers, in which you must deliver on time love letters which you can read; and assassinations for the Medicis. And these are aside from random encounters with pickpockets and couriers who can be chased down and killed for cash – or you might want to reduce your notoriety level by tearing down wanted posters, bribing officials and icing witnesses. And isn’t that a treasure box over there, ripe for pillaging?
Assassin’s Creed II’s response to the failings of the original is to provide so much content that you’re still being introduced to new sets of collectibles six hours in. Let’s go over them all: 66 viewpoints, 100 feathers, 330 treasures, 30 codex pages, eight statuettes, 30 paintings, 22 weapons, five sets of armour and six predecessor emblems. The latter are discovered in the game’s most interesting locations, tombs found in both dripping crypts and some of Renaissance Italy’s greatest monuments, each presenting a themed acrobatic and puzzle challenge that recalls Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time and dungeons from the Zelda series.
And then there are 20 glyphs, strange markings to be found on certain buildings which unlock bizarre abstract logic puzzles involving such challenges as finding special markings on photographs of Rasputin, Houdini, Ghandi and the moon landing. The trick the game pulls to prevent collectibles from feeling contrived is to link each with a specific reward, from a very special set of armour to money to further the development of your town.
The storm of things to do is almost enough to distract you from the game’s rough edges, combat being the most obvious. It’s been made easier than it was in the original, the window for all-important counter attacks a little wider, but now it’s hard to read why an otherwise successful counter hasn’t resulted in an expected instant kill. The different weapon types and grab, dodge and disarm moves don’t provide as much tactical difference as you might hope, and fights usually devolve into the distinctly not-fun matter of guarded attrition until everyone’s dead. In a post-Batman: Arkham Asylum world, it doesn’t quite cut it.
Against the elegance of the writing, you encounter the occasional piece of awkward plotting to serve the game – a hastily introduced damsel in distress shoehorned in to teach you how to steer a gondola, and a mission at the end that should have learned lessons from The Wind Waker. And as tightly directed as most assassination missions are (one which we found devolving into a Benny Hill-style race around a quadrangle notwithstanding), the linearity will disappoint those who relished the potential of some of those in the original game, which presented the challenge of a heavily fortified quarry for you to take down yourself with your wits and skills.
Many players immersed in all Assassin’s Creed II has to offer will find these issues nitpicking. Certainly, Ubisoft Montreal has succeeded in welding a game to what once felt like a proof of concept, and without overshadowing its many strengths. Much devolves into mere stuff – one sword is much like another; a painting’s easily bought and just fills a hole in the wall – and once the story is over there’s little reason to replay it. At the end of it all, though, you’re left with that setting, those cities, and Ezio, and they lend the experience a substance that endures.