So I bought Assassin's Creed II on demand yesterday, since it was on sale on Xbox Live (thanks for the free store credit, Bing Rewards!). I'd been thinking about trying an entry in the series out, though I'd heard much better things about the second game than the first. I reasoned that I'd simply start here and look up the story for the first game if necessary, but so far I've had no troubles. At this point I've just completed some of the advanced combat training and reached Tuscany. A very lovely game this is, and while it's not without its flaws, it nonetheless does a bunch of things well:
1) This is one of those games that turns simply getting around into a memorable experience, where navigating the world feels not like a means to an end but an end in itself. Jumping around on things doesn't seem to get old, even after the many times I've gone splat because I hit the wrong button. Climbing to the viewpoints atop overwhelmingly high towers and being treated to gorgeous 360-degree views is absolutely a delight, and making huge dives into conveniently located piles of hay, which thankfully seem unlikely to be moved any time soon, serves as the icing on the cake.
2) Along those lines, the environmental attention to detail is excellent, both on the large scale (the draw distance and the sheer amount of stuff I can view at any one time seem amazing) and the small one (every last windowsill and ornamental decoration is usable and often handy). Oftentimes climbing to every last bell tower feels more engrossing than does completing the actual missions. While building pieces such as windows and handholds will obviously have repetition in terms of how they look, the combinations of those pieces for each building feel unique enough that I rarely feel like I'm climbing the same thing twice.
3) Murdering guards is a guilty pleasure, and leaping onto one for an instant kill is way more fun than it should be. Groups of guards seem a bit too lenient in a "fair" fight, each taking his turn to attack instead of rushing me all at once, but while the combat feels somewhat similar to Arkham's, I do like that the game doesn't seem to have those "this enemy is about to attack!" notifiers pop up over enemies' heads, instead forcing the player to pay attention to the animations of each enemy.
4) The writing seems capable so far, even if what I've seen hasn't been particularly amazing, and the story seems to know well enough how to encourage laughter, sadness, and even anger at the appropriate moments. Some particular portions of dialogue, such as player character Ezio's mother speaking openly and bluntly of his indiscretions with women, seem more embarrassing in my opinion than they are funny. The historical information in the game's database is a lot of fun to read, though, and it makes me want to do some studying in the future.
5) The stealth system is mechanically a stroke of brilliance. Being far more familiar with Ubisoft's own Splinter Cell games than with the Prince of Persia series, I have many fond memories of waiting in shadows for unsuspecting enemies, even for minutes at a time; while that kind of patience-demanding gameplay endears itself to me even to this day, the replacement of shadows for crowds of moving people forces me to stay on my toes and feels like a much more unpredictable kind of stealth, even if I still wonder why the guards can't pick out my conspicuous outfit in a crowd.
Now for a number of things I wish were improved:
1) The weapon choices seem redundant beyond a point. I have a hidden blade for assassinations, and I have a sword to help me deflect attacks when I'm not dodging. I don't really know what I need another dagger for, and I don't know why I need a war hammer, particularly when the combat mechanics don't seem to significantly change between most weapons at this point; contrast the likes of Dark Souls, where attack animations tend to repeat but also to vary widely between weapons and weapon types. In a game that at this point seems to have a fair variety of ways to attack, even as it lacks a complex combo system along the lines of Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox, I'd rather have a few weapons, to be honest, and a wider variety of strategies and uses for the ones I already have.
2) The guard and civilian AI is flat-out dumb most of the time. On several occasions I've literally walked up to a guard, stabbed him in the middle of the street (because it's fun), and gone on my merry way without much in the way of complaints from onlookers, who at that point seemed to be more outraged about my looting the body. Civilians do show intelligence after I've already started a panic, at which point they back away from me, preventing me from being able to blend into a crowd. This is admittedly a nice touch, and I suppose it's better late than never. It's still late.
3) While I'm thankful that the story easily seems simple enough for a series newcomer to understand, the basic plot almost seems too simple: assassins good (relatively speaking, all things considered?), Templars bad, and Ezio is out for vengeance. Hopefully his personal quest and the bigger problems relating to the Templars will intersect more as the story goes on. (Oh, and Desmond talks way too much. He'd never make it at Third Echelon.)
Overall, however, my praises for the game greatly outweigh my complaints. This feels like a blend of pretty much all the right elements of Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia, and I look forward to spending much more time in the future looking for every last waypoint. Completing the story, I mean.