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Published December 21, 2009

For the first few hours of Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio Auditore da Firenze shares much in common with his fearless ancestor from the first game, Altaïr. Both hide retractable blades under their sleeves and scale incredibly steep architecture in order to track down their targets. Like Altaïr, Ezio becomes hellbent on revenge, taking down an ever-growing conspiracy in order to avenge his family and restore order to the world. But while the shrouded assassin from the Holy Land was a bit of a loner, his Italian cousin has charisma and wit to spare. And like Ezio, the second installment of Assassin’s Creed is more dynamic and exciting than the first.

Even within the first few missions of ACII, we get to really know Ezio – not the cunning swordsman or the stealthy assassin, but the loyal son and the carefree playboy. In other words, we’re introduced to the man under the hood long before he begins to wield his sword. Though much of the protagonist’s motivation is well-trodden territory, spending time with Ezio is much more enjoyable. He’s a swashbuckler that feels much more in line with the Sands of Time Prince of Persia.

But unlike the prince, our hero boundaries are virtually non-existent. With a little patience, any tower can be climbed, and virtual parkour enthusiasts are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Italian cityscapes. This was the greatest thrill in the first game too. But the problem there was that after you eagle-dived into a bale of hay or two, there weren’t many hooks to keep you playing.

It’s a common complaint, and I won’t harp on it. But ACII‘s missions are so much more varied. No longer do you have to skulk about in the shadows, gathering intel before another formulaic assassination. Instead, NPCs dish out everything you need to know before charging into battle. You’ll get to command your own mini-armies, steer gondolas, protect a carriage under siege and try out some of your best bud Leonardo da Vinci’s experimental inventions. Missions will often have you doing these tasks in sequence. You can tail a courier through and above the Venetian canals, only to engage in sword-fight minutes later.

Though these missions push the story forward, I had even more fun with all of the new extracurricular activities. Like a 16th century Crackdown, ACII is littered with feathers, treasures and perches to track down (though all of them can be found on maps, so none are as maddening as the agility orbs). Additionally, there are optional footraces, assassinations, fisticuffs with unfaithful husbands and courier jobs.

However, the two obvious highlights are the Assassin’s Tombs and the city restoration. The tombs are great simply because they dispose of all the silly fighting and just let you climb all over everything. It’s a throwback to the PoP series’ best moments, with some light puzzles and convoluted obstacle courses. Once you’ve completed the tombs, you can bring back your haul to Uncle “It’s-a-Me” Mario’s manor to help restore the surrounding village, Monteriggioni. Buildings and storefronts can be renovated, and with nearly every item you buy, a percentage of the money is invested in the town as well. Like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, your empire accrues a sizable amount of money, which can in turn be used to buy better weapons and armor.

Because the rewards are tangible this time around, you’ll feel compelled to explore every last nook and cranny of each city. While it was fun to move around in the first game, it’s more fun to explore in ACII.

I wish the same could be said about combat, which does open up later on but still feels like a distraction from everything else. Late in the game, enemies will block every single sword strike, and your only effective options are parrying or disarming them. Fights often become dances in which you circle your Templar partners, teasing them to lunge so that you can fool them every time. Though you have ranged weapons, they’re usually rendered useless whenever a guard alerts his comrades.

If you’re familiar with the AC mythology, you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Animus and the 2012 conspiracy that connects all of these historical threads. Quite frankly, I guess I’ve stopped caring by this point. These future moments feature the same wonderful voice acting and some intriguing plot twists, but in the end, they end up hurting the pacing of Ezio’s quest. Long stretches will pass between the Desmond chapters, and it’s hard to remain invested when you never see outside of the tiny lab.

It’s clear that Ubisoft Montreal is building up Desmond as a viable savior, and I would guess that a later installment will actually let him loose in his own time. But the Templar conspiracy at the heart of the story doesn’t feel as deeply rooted as it should. The rebel characters reveal quite a bit, but Ubisoft still needs to build that world in the same way as they did with Italy. Right now, I’m frustrated because Desmond’s less developed plot seems to take precedence over Ezio’s, which leads to an unfortunately abrupt conclusion for both. (For more on that, check out a future spoiler-filled edition of the podcast, but let’s say for now that the dopey sci-fi seems way too convoluted for such a sudden reveal.)

But after the credits roll and the gang concludes that there’s much work to be done, Ezio is brought back to Monteriggioni for more treasure hunting and acrobatics. Lucikly, the always-thrilling leaps of faith will stay with you much longer than the unsatisfying cliffhanger.

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