No major spoilers.
With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on the horizon, what better time to look back at the game that put the series on the map? We are, of course, talking about Assassin’s Creed II!
If you’re unfamiliar, the Assassin’s Creed games are a series of historical action-adventure/stealth games developed and published by Ubisoft. In each game of the main series, you take the role of a different ancestor of Desmond, the main character of the series’ modern-day wraparound story, as you explore historical settings via the Animus, a machine that lets you access the memories of your ancestors (if it sounds hokey, it’s because it is – the present-day elements became severely minimized as the series went along). You are generally a member of a secret order known as the Assassins, who stand as mortal enemies to the Templars, another secret order bent on world domination.
The original Assassin’s Creed, released two years prior, was relatively well-received, but it wasn’t until II that the series skyrocketed to the height of relevancy in video game culture, and it’s still widely considered to be one of the greatest video games of all-time. But, after so many iterations that have come since its release, is there a chance that it holds up today?
Modern Assassin’s Creed titles have held less and less in common with older entries as time has gone on, with the series experiencing several major leaps. The first four games in the series all had very similar gameplay. Assassin’s Creed III, the fifth in the main series, revamped some of the gameplay. The next big advance came with Unity, the eighth (or seventh, since it released alongside Rogue, which was released for the Xbox 360/PS3 generation of consoles) which rebuilt the gameplay from the ground-up. This style persisted into Syndicate, but was revamped even further to the point of being barely recognizable relative to the original game with Origins and Odyssey. Each evolutionary leap came with an engine upgrade as well.
In terms of my bias, I’ve always been a big fan of the series, having played all of the main-series games. There are some that I like more than others, but I generally have a very positive view of the series. That said, it’s been upwards of the decade since I’ve played through this particular game entirely, and probably around half a decade since I last recall putting in the disk at all. In that time, nine main-series titles have come out, so I feel as though my revisit was fairly fresh. I came at my analysis from the perspective of an average modern gamer, at the very least familiar with the series, if not having played some of the more recent entries.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
What Holds Up?
Let’s start with what the series is most known for – its gameplay.
A modern gamer who may have jumped in with Origins or Odyssey, the series’ most recent releases, may find Assassin’s Creed II a bit off-putting at first, given how different the gameplay is compared to the newest entries. The series now has more in line with something like The Witcher III than an early Assassin’s Creed game. In addition, where nearly all of your time is spent in vast, sprawling cityscapes in II, the newest games in the series focus significantly more on the open world.
This difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Remember – this isn’t about whether the game is necessarily good or bad. We’re seeing how a modern gamer might take experiencing the game for the first time. With that said, I would guess that the difference in gameplay would be far from a make-or-break issue.
Despite being different, the gameplay is generally just as enjoyable today as it was in 2009, which is a big plus. That isn’t to say the gameplay is perfect, but the main core – exploring complex historical settings and a gratifying amount of parkour – stood out to me as positive. I tried to divorce myself from my previous experiences with the series as best that I could, and I still felt like the core gameplay is something that a modern gamer will feel right at home with.
While the parkour aspects of the series are no longer the novelty they were back in 2009, the movement generally feels great. If Ubisoft is known for one thing, it’s their solid game design. There are some aspects of the gameplay that I had issues with, but I’ll get into those later.
The main missions are well-designed and keep you engrossed throughout your twenty or so hours with the story. Varied missions and environments keep things from getting too stale. Each major assassination feels like its own set piece, and they’re all pretty interesting and satisfying to pull off.
These are aspects of the game that worked exceptionally in 2009, and will definitely keep a modern gamer engaged as well. In addition, the pacing of doling out additional content and gameplay mechanics is satisfying and keeps you from getting bored. I feel as though this was the main pillar that they focused on improving from the original game, and they succeeded in spades.
I also was impressed by the designs of the cities. This is clearly the second major pillar that the developers focused on. These are painfully accurate depictions of these cities. A keen eye will probably notice a degree of detail missing that’s present in more modern entries, but there’s a lot to appreciate even to this day. I would describe its visuals as solid, especially when you’re just exploring the cities. The buildings, streets, and crowds still look pretty good.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
It’s tough to separate what I’m trying to do with this format and classical review conventions. While Assassin’s Creed II is, for good reason, generally considered to be one of the greatest video games of all-time, it’s not perfect – not in 2009, and certainly not today. Let’s start with the easy stuff.
In terms of visuals, the game doesn’t exactly look modern. There’s just no escaping that. Like I said in some of my other DIHU? pieces, it’s not an ugly game by any means, but it’s starting to show its age. This era of video game graphics, I think, will always be remembered as at least okay. Compared to the SD visuals and graphical prowess of the generation before it, the best visuals of the 360/PS3 era will never look horrible. That said, if you’re generally unfamiliar with the series or skew younger, the graphics might be a genuine turn-off for you.
Even when I was barely paying attention, the poor draw distance, repeated (and sometimes muddy) textures, and lack of detail in certain areas (such as in terms of foliage) stood out to me. I’m not a huge graphics snob, but there are definitely parts of the game that look pretty dated. In addition, in-engine animations were rough in this era of graphics, and Assassin’s Creed II is no exception. Character designs look kind of weird, and the animations are noticeably clunky. There are some positives aspects to the visuals (see the previous section for more info!), but in general, a modern gamer won’t be impressed. Plus, the game is capped at 30 FPS if you’re playing it on console, which, for many gamers, makes the game literally unplayable. For most gamers, it probably won’t be the biggest deal, but the issues are there.
As for the gameplay, there’s not a whole lot that’s problematic. That said, despite being relatively satisfying and well-designed, there were moments where I got frustrated by some of the controls and mechanics. The climbing isn’t always perfect, and tight quarters movement can be a little wonky. These are issues that have been dealt with as the series went along, so someone who has played the recent couple games in the series might be irked by some of its issues.
The combat is a little shallow as well, but there are things to like about it as a whole. There isn’t a lot of variety to the combat, with virtually all encounters being identical. Combat can, for the most part, be skipped. You can then run and hide from the enemies, which adds some depth to your combat experience. Enemy, as well as other NPCs, struggle with some AI issues, but again, nothing remotely close to game-breaking. Despite some issues, I don’t think the gameplay will be an overall dealbreaker for a modern gamer.
The modern-day portions of the game are tedious, but that was a vocal opinion even when the game came out. There’s a pretty solid reason as to why these parts of the game became more and more downplayed as the series went along. Ubisoft are great developers and I like a lot about the games that they make, but their writing and storytelling tend to fall on the weaker side relative to their contemporary competitors. While I generally like Ezio’s story, as well as appreciate a lot about his character, I had many, many issues with a lot of the writing in my most recent playthrough. I think the standards today, ten years later, are generally higher, and people into video game stories might find Assassin’s Creed II a little subpar.
A pretty big issue is the lack of interesting things to do in the open-world. Now, not every open world game needs a cousin to go bowling with, but I found myself mostly just moving from one story mission to the next, ignoring the open world, save for a few things that caught my eye. Nothing particularly drew me in to do in place of moving further along in the main quest. This is another place that a modern RPG player may find the game lacking, and given the direction the most recent games have taken.
Assassin’s Creed II mostly holds up. It’s not the best Assassin’s Creed game in my opinion, but it perhaps remains the most significant. My last couple of articles talked a lot about some games in the series being rough drafts to their significantly better sequels, and I feel as though that idea can apply to this series as well. The original Assassin’s Creed had very little gameplay variety. Every mission involved doing the same three actions to get information on a target, and then a final assassination mission. II hugely expanded the gameplay and set a very high standard for the rest of the series to meet.
Why is this considered to be one of the greatest video games of all-time? If the game were to come out today, there’s no chance that it would have that reputation. It’s the “Seinfeld Is Unfunny” trope. It’s less about whether what it did would have the same impact that it would have today and more about what its impact meant when it came out. You could easily list a dozen major games that have come out since Assassin’s Creed II‘s release that can directly link their influence from the series.
Despite some aspects of the game showing their age, namely in the visuals, writing, and some aspects of the gameplay, the stuff that needs to work well does just that. Exploring the three gorgeous Italian cities is a thrill, and there’s enough mission variety and well-structured sprinkling of new mechanics to keep a modern gamer engaged.
Assassin’s Creed II is on Game Pass, and can usually be found for cheap elsewhere if you do a little digging. Given the game’s history and reputation, I think it’s worth checking out if you haven’t yet. Best of all, it has a sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which I consider to be much better. With Valhalla on the horizon and everyone stuck at home, there’s perhaps no better time to revisit the classics of one of modern gaming’s most important and impactful series of games.
What would you like me to revisit next? Let me know in the comments! I feel like I need to start looking back a little older, given that all of the games I’ve looked back on so far have come out within a six year span. Maybe something in the N64-era…