Sometimes I dream I'm fist-fighting an enemy. My desire to pummel him is real, like he wronged me in the waking world - but I can't do it. My hands literally cannot strike him in any damaging way. My fist moves in slow motion, or my most coiled swing only brushes his shoulder, and either he escapes or I'm beaten up.
“Assassin's Creed 2” is that dream. It paints players into its stunning Renaissance-era Italy setting with remarkable style, but the majesty fades when a kill is foiled by the game's punishing controls. For every fluidly sprung assassination, there's another Keystone Kops-looking sequence of trying, and failing, to persuasively direct the protagonist like a true agent of death.
The protagonist, Ezio Auditore, is an ancestor of Desmond Miles, the “Assassin's Creed” character whose genetic memories were plumbed by the modern-day Knights Templar in their search for powerful artifacts called Pieces of Eden. In the sequel, Miles is brought to a hideaway of Assassins, the Templar's eternal enemy. Through the Assassins' Animus, a machine that allows Miles to virtually relive his ancestors' memories, Miles is tasked with tracking down more Pieces of Eden while also absorbing Auditore's lethal skills. Miles even gets to vicariously meet Leonardo da Vinci and pilot his mythic flying machine.
Auditore starts his path from flirty ruffian to harbinger of death in Florence, and as his memories are unlocked, so too are more parts of Italy, such as Tuscany, Venice and Rome. As an open-world game, “Assassin's Creed 2” permits players to roam about the cobblestone streets, providing muscle to cuckqueaned women or racing thieves on foot. A challenging series of hidden puzzles will plunge players into the equally puzzling lore of the Pieces of Eden. But sometimes it's most satisfying to stop darting through the impressively crowded Italian cities and just soak in the marvelous detail of Ubisoft Montreal's design, from the Florentine chapels to the Venetian docks.
When players select missions to advance “Creed's” story, they progress along a well-varied line of trailing, skill-building, protection and, of course, killing objectives. This diversity marks an improvement upon
the game's more redundant predecessor, but the rough control mechanics of “2” limit the thrills in Auditore's travails.
As a public enemy, Auditore often attracts the hostile eye of Italian soldiers. Crimes like pickpocketing and assault only increase his notoriety. To get around without getting arrested or killed, Auditore can hire mercenaries to watch his back, hire courtesans to distract authorities, tear down “wanted” posters and bribe heralds to diminish his notoriety, or simply hide in plain sight. Each tactic is fun and easy to execute, but the frequency with which Auditore's notoriety spikes means players will often turn fugitive.
Rooftop-hopping is the most reliably stealthy mode of travel for Auditore. It's also where “Assassin's Creed 2's” rigid maneuvering controls make life in Renaissance-era Italy the most difficult. Leaping from lampposts to awnings to shingles en route to a roof in one seamless string of motions often feels accessible and looks awesome. But too often, faulty control responsivity results in gaffes like Auditore taking a deathly leap off a bell tower ledge when players try to shimmy to another grapple point. That such mistakes continued to happen after 20 hours with “Assassin's Creed 2” speaks to a control system in major need of overhaul.
The transition from speedy movement to subtly closing in on one of Ezio's targets is where “Assassin's Creed 2” frustrates most. With a little camera nursing, chasing a corrupt Italian nobleman atop roofs is simple. It's tackling and stabbing him that doesn't always go swiftly. After immobilizing his mark, Ezio might inexplicably stumble backward while the foe regains his footing and takes off again. By the time the blood runs, the clumsiness of the sequence has eroded the sleek assassin's aura for which the game clearly aims.
Combat is similarly awkward. A martyr sequence seems to have been programmed into the enemy AI, as many soldiers draw their swords only to stand peaceably in line while Ezio plunges his blade into their chests. When they do put up a fight, foes can most often be worn down by mashing on the attack button. Dodging or countering their sword slashes - the latter a largely unreliable defense - provides little strategic advantage. Only rarely is scuffling on the vividly realized Italian streets fun, but it's pretty far from a dream.
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If you play.
Game: “Assassin's Creed 2”
Parental rating: Mature for blood, intense violence, sexual content, strong language
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Play: Single player
The final boss: The marvelous design and fun premise of “Assassin's Creed 2” is slightly marred by faulty maneuvering and combat controls.