If Assassin's Creed II offered no mission objectives at all, it would still be worth playing, simply as an interactive travelogue of Renaissance Italy. The stars of the show are sterling renditions of Florence and Venice, with a supporting cast that includes the lesser-known cities of Monteriggioni and Forlí, and the lush Tuscan countryside. Whether the locations are accurate to within the inch is beyond my ken, but they feel as if they were. All the famous landmarks are presented and accounted for. This is a game world you'll want to spend some time in.
|Assassin’s Creed II | for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Ubisoft Montreal | Published by Ubisoft|
As open worlds go, this one is more convincing than most. The streets bustle with activity, from town criers announcing tax increases to wandering minstrels who bug you for a donation. It's just nice to play a game that isn't set in a modern city or a sci-fi dystopia. As the dexterous assassin Ezio, you have free-running as your primary means of travel. We've seen this kind of approach before — earlier this year in InFamous and Prototype — but the setting makes a difference. Go ahead, try to resist the temptation to climb to the top of the Campanile di San Marco. Even so, some of the trappings of the genre are unavoidable. To travel long distances, you commandeer a horse — it's Grand Theft Equus.
At first, the action doesn't measure up to the environment. Glacially paced, Assassin's Creed II saddles you with boring mission objectives and endless tutorials, plus repetitive side tasks that might as well be mandatory. Along the way, you learn new techniques and unlock new mission types, but they feel less like upgrades and more like the restoration of what should have been yours to start with. After you've played Assassin's Creed II for eight to 10 hours — longer than it takes to complete some games — it's still forcing you into tutorials where you learn such highly advanced skills as, uh, dodging. The game spends so much time coming up with new things to teach you that it forgets to let you do them.
Some of the side missions are enjoyable. When you reach a new city, your map is initially shrouded in fog — only by scaling towers for a look around can you fill in the details. Climbing is fun and intuitive once you realize how much of it is automated. After your character has grabbed onto something, you need only to push the control stick in the direction you want him to go. The expansive views from on high are gorgeous, and from each tower you can do a vertigo-inducing swan dive into a bale of hay. But other missions are more cookie-cutter: races, beat-'em-ups, courier jobs. And most of them just delay your progress to the point at which the game will take off the training wheels.
When it finally does, after way too long, the missions become more about fighting a secret war between two factions, Assassins and Templars, and less about carrying things for people. Later on, a new type of side quest becomes available in which you break into tombs to search for ancient armor. These models of tight design are the game's best sections, self-contained levels that combine acrobatic platforming with stealth action. If all of Assassin's Creed II had been like this, it would have been great. Instead, it's like traveling to a far-flung destination: the journey takes so long, you could lose interest by the time you get there.