Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of Ubisoft’s Assassin Creed II, curated by Gilles Roy. A history scholar with game design training at Montreal’s INIS, Gilles is also co-editor at Play the Past. You can follow him on Twitter @gillesroy.
“Assassin’s Creed II makes its predecessor look like a tech demo…”
Read this reviewer statement once, it rings out like a truism; twice, it’s a borrowed line; three times, a running gag. But four times… is this a hatching Templar conspiracy? Or were people back in 2009 just sharing notes to ease the burden of writing reviews before the Holidays?
In late 2009, Ubisoft’s second entry into its fastest-selling new IP, Assassin’s Creed II (AC2), garnered immediate praise from (mostly) all quarters. It was, to some degree, par for the course, since highly-anticipated AAA games typically generate a flurry of writerly activity in the industry press and in mass media in the aftermath of a release. In the year or so following AC2’s release, millions continued to play and enjoy the game, but few people wrote seriously about their experience playing Ubisoft’s shiny new toy. Templar intrigue in 15th century Florence and Venice, it seems, may have bewitched a few.
A decade has now passed since AC2’s release. Since 2009, the AC franchise has on the whole gathered an impressive pedigree of critical writings. Bloggers, journalists, game designers and game studies scholars of all creeds have brought welcome nuance to reviewer-speak. AC critics have been particularly fruitful in bringing forth new concepts to describe the maturation of player experience and video games as “expressive media”. What follows is a curated collection of articles, essays and selected quotes, featuring the best of critical writings on this landmark Ubisoft title.
Desmond, Meet Ezio Auditore da Firenze
The introduction of a new protagonist in the franchise’s first sequel was an unusual move after the commercial success that was Assassin’s Creed. After making a public commitment to answering criticisms of AC1, Ubisoft Montreal decided to focus on story for its sequel, and this would require both a new setting, and a new protagonist.
This risky decision, it turns out, paid off – thanks in good part to stellar writing, and the decision to include a full story arc around the new franchise protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Critics raved about the new AC hero, and his strong characterization. Stephen Totilo at Kotaku wrote:
This is a game with a specific story to tell about Ezio, the son of Italian nobility. He is a man whose family and life is demolished before the player’s eyes as events force him to become an assassin who scours Italy for conspiracy clues and rightful victims of his vengeance. It’s an adventure that is told through a weave of exposition and gameplay that defies the usual frayed conventions of story taking turns with interactivity.
Tom Hoggins at the Telegraph chimed in “Charming, confident, eloquent and loyal to a fault, Ezio is expertly fleshed out in these opening hours. When his life is turned upside down by murder and betrayal, you share his thirst for revenge.” For David Clayman at IGN, “Ezio isn’t a wholly likable character, but the game steers us towards a revenge plot that provides the player plenty of motivation to stick with the story.” Comparing Ezio to Altaïr, Kevin Van Ord at Gamespot summarized the core appeal of the new AC2 protagonist:
Assassin’s Creed‘s Altair was an interesting character, but only for the stealthy order he represented, not because you ever got to know the man under the white hood. Ezio is far more appealing, for he’s not just quick with a secret blade, but he’s a fully realized protagonist. He isn’t at the mercy of the plot, but rather, the narrative evolves from his need to uncover the truth behind his sorrows. It’s the personal nature of the narrative that makes Assassin’s Creed II‘s story more compelling than its predecessor’s.
Above all, AC fans loved Ezio. If Altaïr was a badass hood-wearing killing machine on a mission, Ezio gave the iconic (playable) assassin a face and personality. The insouciant Ezio of the early game gained gravitas when his life was turned upside down by tragedy. In AC2, the strong character motivation kept every other fanciful story element grounded. In a word, players “wanted to help Ezio kill the Pope”.
How did the writing work its magic on AC2 players? As GB Burford at Kotaku points out, the introduction of a new protagonist is strongly conveyed to AC2 players through both drama and action. From Ezio’s birth vignette to his youthful street brawl and brotherly parkour race, AC2’s first hour delivers a core mechanics tutorial in a light, carefree, and tightly-focused fashion; Ezio’s charm and man-of-action personality come across loud and clear in this expository episode. In the style of a Renaissance intermedio, AC2’s opening “scene” also quickly turns to drama, as Ezio’s family is targeted by the Templars. As Burford points out, the AC2 story delivers strong character motivation at the right moment.
Within just one short chapter of Assassin’s Creed II, we’ve been introduced to a likable protagonist, learned his motivations, and been taught the basics of the game. It feels as if everything serves multiple purposes–a mission for Ezio’s sister, Claudia, teaches us about a type of mini-game, introduces us to Claudia, and helps us learn more about the kind of person Ezio is. The narrative and story are intertwined beautifully, and all the necessary information is conveyed with an economy not seen in the subsequent sequels.
Intermedii aside, the pacing of AC2’s introduction also makes the game feel like a movie. Thus, in a bloated open-world game market, AC2 is still one of the most story-driven entries out there. Burford:
Good narratives establish good motive, and too many video games fail in this regard. […] Assassin’s Creed II told a story that mattered. The entire game–and its sequel, Brotherhood–was about eliminating the Borgia family and finding justice for the Auditore family.
Good stories also require strong protagonists. While Altaïr was “iconic, badass, and static”, Denis Farr at Vorpal Bunny Ranch found that Ezio contained enough flaws and balderdash to at least be interesting. For Farr, AC2’s strong focus on Ezio leaves “other character […] to languish and be wholly undeveloped.” Farr concludes that the final encounter with Minerva creates a distancing effect toward Ezio, when he is show to be an instrument of the goddess.
Ezio, or Ezia? Proof that cosplayers can also be critics, some players also took their costume design talents to bear on their player experience, offering a female version of AC2’s main protagonist. Central Washington University’s Ashley Baker’s oral presentation of “Ezia’s story”, suggests that creative costume design has played an important part in the game protagonist’s identity. With fond memories of the game Ashley Lynn at Femhype replayed AC2, only to discover that Ezio is “literally a textbook example of a straight white guy power fantasy.” Were it not for his defining quality – passion – Ezio’s fictional existence might linger unredeemed. For Lynn, Ezio’s stylized costume reflects both his individuality, his masculinity and his identity as an Assassin:
Something that Ezio does that no other assassin does is leave the top of his robes open, revealing multiple collars and two necklaces. This leads me to believe that the designers wanted to show that his interpretations of the rules are a little loose, which fits with his fiery attitude.
Analyzing heteronormative tropes in AC2, Denis Farr at Border House blog (archived link) quips that if Ezio himself has “quite a bit of sex […], at no point is he himself sexualized in a visual manner. Surrounded by women with ample cleavage and varying courtesans, his sexuality becomes a matter of performance.” To “win” his sexual conquests, Ezio must time and again “prove his virility” by successfully completing challenges posed by the (female) object of his desire. But as players discover, Ezio is no courtesan: he rarely displays learned or gallant mannerisms. In Farr’s estimation, Ezio’s strong revenge motive encourages players to gloss over his uncouth ways with women, and buy into the “performance model of sex” prevalent in AC2.
Ezio may have stolen the show, but he is not the character that players first play in AC2. This reviewer cannot count the times he has read or heard how the Desmond Saga and the Animus were uselessly clever meta-game and plot devices. Contrivance or not, two interweaving plots in AC2 made for compelling questions. How do the Desmond and Ezio saga fit together? In “Playing with Fiction: Ludology and the Evolution of Narrative in Videogames”, Dawn Stobbart analyzes the narrative technique of the twin Desmond and Ezio sagas. In the AC2 sandbox, the story is “assembled”, step by step, by the player voluntarily stepping into story sequences. The moment-to-moment gameplay compresses time to a “live” frame, while the overall story is told in a series of flashbacks (analepsis). “Structurally, the entire Ezio narrative is a series of external analepsis, as it is dependent on and occurs within the Desmond narrative.”
As Thomas Apperly and Justin Clemens claim, the synchronization mechanic in AC2 directs the player’s attention toward the artificiality of the game world itself. But as Ethan Woods at Haywire Mag notes, if the Animus worked as a narrative device for the franchise, the Ubisoft writing team failed to make the Desmond saga relevant to players. Players tend to invest emotionally in the protagonists they play. Ironically, AC2 drove the proverbial nail of empathy for Desmond in the coffin by making the Ezio story so compelling:
By continuing Ezio’s story with both Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Revelations, as well as a short-film, Assassin’s Creed: Embers, Ubisoft have wasted the fascinating and inherently unsentimental nature of the mechanics of their own narrative, in favor of bleeding a series and character to death.
Plot dissonance hasn’t made much of a dent in Ezio’s enduring appeal. Ezio still looms large with the AC fan base (video with foreign-language subtitles), and in the franchise itself. For example, almost every follow-up AC game provided an unlockable Ezio costume in the protagonist’s wardrobe. For Mariana Ferreira Albuquerque, Ezio’s popularity within the franchise, alongside the great writing and characterization of AC2, can ultimately be attributed to three AC titles carrying his complete story arc. Indeed, Ezio is the only AC protagonist that players follow (and play, accordingly) from birth to death.
Whether he’s or not a player’s favourite Assassin, well that is personal preference. But he is loved and considered the best by most by a reason. We saw this man take his first and last breath. And all that happened in between.
Visit 15th-century Italy
“The thing the franchise does so well is to bring you to place and times that you’re not going to see otherwise […] and making it feel real.” A conversation between Jordan Minor, Alexis Nedd, and Bob Al-Greene on Mashable reminds us that the AC franchise brought historical settings never seen in video games to generations of gamers. Clearly, one of the biggest wins of AC2, was making Renaissance Italy “beautifully rendered and brought to life”.
Did AC2 “invent” virtual historical tourism? Or did it improve on the “virtual time travel” concept offered in the first AC title? The historical places of AC1 were perhaps not the tourist hot spots of modern-day Florence or Venice (excepting Jerusalem, of course). Writing for the New York Times, Seth Schiesel joked how Italian tourism may have experienced a sudden boost from the game industry’s traditional pet demographic: young adult males. Melik Kaylan announced in the Wall Street Journal that video games now made it possible to visit historical locations as “virtual tourists”. Beyond getting the setting right, the writing and design team of AC2 painstakingly recreated a version of 15th-century Italian society that gave texture to daily life, social mores and the politics of the times, albeit in the service of story and gameplay.
Overall, […] Assassin’s Creed II is as close as we’ve managed to get to real time travel. The grown-ups can lap it up as a kind of virtual tourism. For the high schoolers, still the main audience, the video offers a kind of education by stealth. History matters more if your life depends on it, even as Ezio, and even if you’ve got lives to spare.
AC2’s strong sense of place is a testament to the dev team’s love and appreciation of the historical settings themselves. Their achievement was made possible thanks to travel to historic locations and guided study of period literature, artifacts and architecture. Architect Maia Levinshtein reported on Gamasutra that McGill University Architecture PHD Maria Elisa Navarro was hired to consult with urban and character design in AC2. Navarro offered master classes on the Italian Renaissance to the team, prepared briefing documents, and helped with the costume design.
“Assassin’s Creed II‘s sense of place and time isn’t due just to its visuals”, wrote Kevin Van Ord, “Its high-quality sound design is equally responsible, delivering a busy-sounding Florence while still allowing the little quips of citizens commenting on your acrobatics to shine through.” The lively rendition of Italian gesture and social interaction patterns in AC2 may also help one overlook the occasional hammy performance. In “Assassin’s Creed Taught Me Italian […]”, language professor Simone Begni describes how “Anime-like” games like AC2 can be used as tools for language acquisition. “These animated, interactive adventures serve as fully inhabitable environments that enhance language and culture acquisition.” By Begni’s estimation, AC2’s recreation of 15th century Italian social settings and the video game inclination for action remain congruent with “language immersion” pedagogy.
Immersion sometimes has its limits, though. For one, as Michael Abbott at Brainy Gamer notes, in the English-language version of the game, stereotypical Italian accents plague the character performances. Lena Svensson’s master’s thesis at the University of Göteborgs in Sweden (PDF file) explores the limits of adapting AC2 for classroom teaching. Svensson concludes that AC2 is a veritable gold mine of historical information, despite its somewhat shallow presentation of 15th century Italian society. Cautioning against uncritical promotion of games in education, Svensson also warns against dismissive attitudes toward video games as teaching tools: “The risk at hand is that semi-fictionalized accounts are completely framed as being “just” fiction, in other words, the learning potential is ignored instead of acknowledging that games can be history just as well as literature or movies.”
Inspired by his classroom teaching experience, Douglas N. Dow sets out to examine how an open-world historical simulation like AC2 can affect user’s perceptions on the historical locations represented in the game. According to Dow, the detailed simulation of Italian urban environments of the 15th century in AC2 functions like “reality television”, molding the real-world behaviors of its audiences. Players who have experienced Florence and Venice through AC2 are, in Dow’s estimation, conditioned to encounter tourist spots through the prism of simulacra.
Modern tourists did not wait for the advent of video games to arrive at historic destinations with preconceived notions – other media, such as photography, helped cultivate clichés of famous destinations. But simulacra work on us differently than do representations: they abolish the need for reference. Using French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s celebrated trip to Disneyland as example, Dow compares the real-world city of Florence to the Los Angeles of Baudrillard. For Baudrillard, Disneyland sets up the convenient fiction that there is a “real” America outside of its fantasy world. But Los Angeles is itself “hyperreal”, an empire of simulated authenticity. By analogy, Dow replaces Baudrillard’s Disneyland/Los Angeles pair with AC2/Florence: AC2 is a fiction of hyper-real “historic Florence”, the tourist destination. Furthermore, AC2’s “game-within-a-game” structure helps highlight this relationship between the simulated and the hyperreal: because the player is playing the virtual memory of a character (Desmond), she can address her encounter with historical Florence as a simulation.
The Italian Renaissance is also famous for making power a spectacle, and simulacrum. Rob Dwiar at Eurogamer.net delves into the coded language of Renaissance politics via architectural and urban design. The symbolic importance of architectural features was not lost on the AC2 design team, who incorporated them into the game’s semi-fictionalized settings, painted and scored with the tonalities of Renaissance power politics:
The inclusion of such accurate yet multi-layered design throughout Ezio’s Italian travels is beneficial far beyond executing faithful recreations. The spaces benefit the game’s design on a much deeper level. The environments were not only backdrops but design-centred markers and guides, subtle aids exaggerating or reflecting in-game themes, educational and spatial story-tellers and presenters of information. We are immersed in Ezio’s world: the designs giving the environments extra historical, atmospheric and narrative dimensions, and an incredibly strong sense of place. It’s an incredibly pleasing way to experience the past, interact with it and become quasi-active participants in history and historical events, in wonderfully vivid and layered environments.
At Pop Matters, G. Christopher Williams caught a glimpse of the AC2 art direction team standing on the shoulders of giants. Renaissance artists famously revolutionized aesthetics during the quattrocento, as exemplified by the artistic innovations of Italian landscape art. The Renaissance also saw art and politics become inextricably entwined. AC2 expresses this dynamic in Ezio’s relationship to space in the game world. Ezio’s “positional advantage” as a high-flying assassin, in the urban setting, encapsulates the power of the (enhanced) eye, human sight “reconfigured” in the artistic techniques and architectural practice of the times. Ezio’s arch-nemesis, Rodrigo Borgia, also sits atop the papal throne of Rome, in a world in which monumental architecture captures the onlooker’s gaze, and provides a sense of omniscience for political “insiders”. Thus Ezio’s climbing activity on these structures is subversive to the authorities of the day.
[…]Landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game. Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape. […] The mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together. Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.
To Nick Wanserski at AV Club, AC2 also blows off romantic notions of art, by making artworks purchasable in view of their value as capital-bearing investments. Though the game gives lip service to the ennobling task of “curating culture” by framing art purchases in the home gallery setting of the Monteriggioni villa, players do expect investment benefits from these “sumptuary” expenditures. The great art patrons of the period, such as the Medici, belonged to powerful merchant and banking dynasties who invested in art for their political prestige. Thus, the AC2 “economy” underlines the economics that were (and remain) intrinsic to the art world – though perhaps unintentionally so.
Last but not least, the addition of famous historical characters in the story also enhanced immersion in AC2’s simulated Italian Renaissance. Leonardo’s Da Vinci’s inventiveness, for example, was put to good use in AC2’s historical fiction, “fixing up Ezio’s blade and making him a flying (and fire-bombing) machine”. The blending of the AC Assassin-Templar conspiracy with Renaissance political intrigue was pulled off in a convincing way. From costume to carnevale, the game also pays homage to the glamour and folklore of 15th century Italian society. Ultimately, AC2 remains “a European-feeling video game”, in an otherwise very American- or Japanese-centric gaming culture.
Power and Myth in Assassin’s Creed II
Critics have been especially perceptive in their analyses of power as a theme in AC2. On his blog “This Cage Is Words, Cameron Kunzelman states that “Assassin’s Creed 2 invites us to think two ways about control”. Thematically speaking, “control” is the main philosophical bone of contention between the Templars and Assassins, the Templars acting as the foils to the personal liberty ethos of the Assassins. As Kunzelman points out, from AC2 onward, care is given by AC writers to pull a morally ambiguous veil over such issues. Another way control is asserted in AC2 is through direct control of the game avatar, “Ezio”. In Kunzelman’s assessment, the Ezio avatar is designed to be on the move all the time, though this can sometimes give players the impression that they are “watching a movie with a controller in hand”. Kunzelman also feels that the integration of conspiracy history into the fabric of the story, and gameplay is an AC2 strongpoint. Conspiracy is what gives AC2 a pervasive sense of behind-the-social-masks connectedness, the shadows that lurk below…
Of course, discussion re: historical inaccuracies/distortions abound around AC2. Take the game’s depiction of women in Renaissance Italy. As r/badhistory sub-Reddit user Chamboz points out, the “courtesan” database entry airbrushes out the poverty, sexism and humiliations of sex workers’ experiences, making courtesans come across as “emancipated women”. Overall, presentation of female characters in the game avoids showing the real constraints over female sexuality in 15th century Italian society. At Play the Past, David Hussey asks whether female characters in AC go beyond being the foil for the mostly male protagonists of the franchise: in contrast to AC1, the AC2 story contains many female characters.
But as Hussey points out, the series still makes common use of traditional female stereotypes as, for example, resuscitating the “damsel in distress” trope to introduce the Rosa character. Even more jarring is the AC2 story sequence named after this trope. In “Women as Background Decoration (Part 2)” (video excerpt with autocaptions – 9:10 to 10:15), Anita Sarkeesian shines light on the unconscious habits of female-objectification of AC2 mission designers: in the Damsels in Distress mission sequence, courtesan throat-slitting is used as a macabre goad to teach the player to assassinate a target with a pistol.
Critics who have analyzed gender relations in AC2 have helped unveil cultural assumptions embedded in Ubisoft’s virtual recreation of Renaissance Italy. If much (virtual) ink has been spilled around the historical content of AC2, the game has less seldom been analyzed for its mythology. Here, the most in-depth analysis of the AC2 plot comes – perhaps unsurprisingly – from the International Handbook of Semiotics. In “Standing on the shoulders of giants: A semiotic analysis of Assassin’s Creed 2”, D. Compagno examines the plot enigmas, avatar actions, and story/world semes, references and symbols that create a complex web of meaning for the player in AC2. According to Compagno, AC2 is structured around two main enigmas: the apple of Eden as its “object” (what both Assassins and Templars are fighting over) and historical myth on the “motivating forces” behind Ezio’s actions, which drive the plot below the surface of perceivable events. The source of this myth is revealed once Ezio penetrates the vault and “transmits” Minerva’s message about the origins of the Assassin-Templar conflict to Desmond, and the player. Compagno:
This moment of AC2 is a true masterpiece because it creates an indeterminacy between Ezio, Desmond, and the player. The game manages to produce a real sense effect on the player, that is presumably the very same one Desmond could have felt. Desmond is a voyeur, someone who observes without being observed, but Minerva crashes this expectation in the blink of an eye. Desmond’s identity changes, he is now an agent, directly interacting with Minerva. Game designers obtained this effect with much care, using dialogues and above all Minerva’s sudden direct glance to the virtual camera.
For Compagno, Desmond’s dream-like search through his DNA memories “on the couch” of the Animus is akin to a psychoanalytic session with a therapist. The proper sequencing of repressed memories by the player is meant to help Desmond (the ego) “piece himself together”. In Desmond’s unconscious, Ezio (the Id) is experienced as “pure will” (gameplay action for the player). Ezio thus plays out a convoluted drama revolving around the dramatic loss of his father and an unwitting quest for his “real mother” – not Maria, mute and traumatized, but his “true mother”, Minerva, who can restore to humanity the repressed memory of its true origins. Thus, for Ekaterina Galanina and Alexey Salin of the Tomsk Polytechnic University in Russia:
ACII doesn’t just build up the mythology of the Assassins and the Templars confronting each other behind the historical events, but makes it a necessity for the player to think of oneself as of a subject taking part in that struggle. The mythological narrative of ACII makes the player take the position of an actor for the performativity of ACII makes the player play the role close to the role of their avatar. By default, they get the role of someone who receives the message of ancient civilizations through ages, whether they want it or not. That move of ACII opens new opportunities that videogames can use for new [mythological] origination.
Power is perhaps the central story theme in AC2. In this, Emilia Rajala of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) examines the power dynamics between story characters in three key AC2 cut scenes. In the Last Man Standing (video with autocaptions) cutscene, the sources of (legitimated) power are concentrated in the hands of Uberto, who executes Ezio’s family members. In With Friends Like These (video with autocaptions), we witness the dispatching of Jacopo de Pazzi by Rodrigo Borgia, for his failure to deliver on a promise. This scene is rich in body language cues, showing relations between insiders of a group of powerful co-conspirator families.
Rodrigo holds personal power through financial resources that enable him to do what he wants. Rodrigo also holds personal power over Ezio, as he shows knowing the Assassin’s habits and biases. Rodrigo has positional power granted through his position as a Grand Master in Templars […] Rodrigo’s greatest source of power is perhaps potential power, the ability and knowledge of the possibility to inflict damage. Ezio does not hold this power even though he kills the guards at the end of the cutscene. The Templar guards did not believe he could kill them and thus this source of power was not acknowledged.
In Mob Justice (video with autocaptions) Ezio is driven in cold pity to deliver the monk Savonarola from horrific death by burning at the stake, with a classic stabbing assassination. Upon Savonarola’s death gasp, Ezio jumps on the stage to declaim his life story to the angry mob. Cue on the inspirational piano music: Ezio delivers the game’s – and arguably the franchise’s – core message: fight the enemies of freedom, and “follow your own path”.
This (player-mediated) “fight for freedom” is perhaps the foundational myth of the AC franchise. Using the tools of literary and political theory, Aliffaiz Achma Octavideta of the University of Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta (Indonesia), examines the underlying anarchistic assumptions of the factional conflict in AC2. Following the work of Alexander Berkman, Octavideta asserts that the Assassin brotherhood in AC2 function as an “anti-state collective”, driven by the ideology of modern individualism. If Ezio appears to be driven to fight for social justice and against political corruption, the creed he truly serves is the fight for individual freedom against the state, which Octavieda labels “individualist anarchism”, in terms of philosophy and methods.
If players carry the torch of individual freedom with Ezio, the game also shows them that this stance is borderline delusional. In their joint essay “The biopolitics of gaming: avatar-player self-reflexivity in Assassin’s Creed II“, Thomas Apperly and Justin Clemens, assert that AC2 tells its story “through the avatar form” of the player-Desmond-Ezio narrative chain. For Apperly and Clemens, this splitting of the player avatar into active (Ezio) and passive (Desmond) modes functions as “an allegory of biopolitical control”: “playing the game itself integrates the player into the Abstergo-type system of contemporary gaming, which it stages by way of Desmond’s incarceration in the Animus”. Finally, the game itself is produced by an “Abstergo-type entertainment conglomerate” (Ubisoft), in which the development team is presented as “syncretistic”. “More than a game,” write Apperly and Clemens, AC2 operates as “veritable paradigm of contemporary biopolitics”.
At the end of the day, if all this high-minded analysis of the AC2 plot seems a bit rich, perhaps Jordan Minor, Alexis Nedd, and Bob Al-Greene of Mashable will remind readers that the plot of AC2 also provides some good screwball comedy content.
What Works (and What Doesn’t) in AC2
The near-universal praise AC2 has received over the years should not divert us from the many (mostly) constructive criticisms AC2 has received as a game. In this regard, one could say AC2’s gameplay critics have mostly taken on a “corrective” stance with regards to the game’s many design flaws.
First, the negativity. AC2 game devs (and fans) may have found Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s sarcastic take-down of the game amusing; less so a serious thrashing in an official review. By far the lowest review score on Metacritic for AC2 (4.5 out of 10) came from the acerbic pen of Jim Sterling writing for Destructoid. Sterling acknowledged AC2’s attempts to answer complaints about AC1, but felt that AC2’s solutions created new problems in the process. For Sterling, the Animus as narrative device in AC2 ultimately serves to mask sloppy design:
Assassin’s Creed 2 has tried all sorts of tactics to improve upon the original, but none of these attempts have worked. The game’s variety and length come across as nothing more than smoke and mirrors, the endless, grinding busywork that contributes nothing to the overall gameplay is inexcusably plentiful and mind-numbingly repetitive, and to top it all off, the game can’t even compete in the visuals department and somehow looks worse than the original.
In the same angry vein, Stanislav Costiuc at Farlands had fun poking at AC2’s (apparently) most contrived missions, the Carnevale. The artificial constraints in the mission are numerous: Ezio cannot summon Leonardo’s flying machine to reach an unclimbable destination; rather, he must attend a party that the new Doge of Venice – his target – will attend; to do this, he must play a mini-game to win a mask (that could just as easily have been obtained by theft); the mask’s “infiltration” purpose is rendered moot by the fact Ezio must use the crowd cover mechanic of the courtesans to reach his target… located just outside the party.
On his blog “This Cage is Worms”, Cameron Kunzelman offers a critique of AC2 story and gameplay in a series of posts. Kunzelman formulates the core appeal of the franchise as the ability for players to coexist in both micro- and macro-scales of the game, and game world. The “zoomed-out” awareness of playful interaction with the open-world, is peppered with self-contained mission and narrative units, in which the player “zooms-into” the drama and gameplay.
The designers and developers of Assassin’s Creed set up a very specific possibility space for Altair, and that space is explored efficiently and to a greatly “immersive” end in the sense that you really do experience the day-to-day of an assassin in this world. The systematic rocking back and forth between zoom levels becomes a rhythm of life.
On the flip side of the coin, this open-world playground tends to come across as repetitive, because the game cannot impose its story pacing on the player, the way level design can in constrained critical path. Thus, the AC world bristling with life one moment, becomes awash with mechanical objects and behaviors on the next.
Michael Abbott at Game Set Watch felt that the Renaissance cities of AC2 were pretty backdrops to the game’s main story, but fell short in enabling stories to emerge from the player’s encounter with each environment. In “Glitches in the Animus”, Michael Clarkson assessed that AC2 often broke immersion by making classic mistakes: overdrawn cutscenes, bizarre AI and railroading players on critical paths. On Gamasutra, Jason Bakker surmised that AC2’s vast scope and fast story pacing diluted the possibility of strong characterization and compelling storytelling. You do get to “meet” all the “star” historical characters, but you never really get to know them.
Going on the premise that the Ezio story fits the mold of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth, Stanislav Costiuc provided a breakdown of story sequences as they fit the narrative arc of a hero’s journey. For most sequences, the pacing keeps the story arc tight, and coherent. Costiuc also provided counter story directions for sequences 4 to 10 (Florence to Tuscany to Venice) that could better work in favor of plot development. In “How well missions use open-world space in Assassin’s Creed II”, Costiuc also praised AC2 for its smart use of the Renaissance Italy urban space for its missions. His dual-color “heatmaps” of map traversal in missions revealed how AC2 mission design gave affordances to traversal between mission points, and encouraged purposeful exploration of the urban landscape during story sequences.
AC “timing-based” combat systems have often been criticized as either brain-dead simple or too convoluted. Connor Cleary argued on Gamasutra that AC2’s combat system was designed with a “sandbox philosophy” in mind: you need to put some of yourself into “swashbuckling mode” to get satisfying results. According to Darius Kazemi, “combat [in AC2] is almost entirely about expression”. The “block, counterattack, block” approach is simply the most common tactic employed by players of the game. AC2 is meant to emulate the swashbuckling combat of classic action movies – combat as spectacle (instead of combat as challenge) – and allow players to make their own fun with the tactical options made available to them.
Altaïr’s blending mechanic in AC1 served specific purposes: escaping detection of guards, and fleeing overpowering enemies. But the mechanic was primitive in its implementation. As Cameron Kunzelman points out, blending is part of Ezio’s mastery of “social circulations”. Altaïr slipped into ordered groups of monks, Ezio now works the local crowd. In AC2, Ezio’s heroic acumen is given a counterpoint when missions oblige him to blend in to achieve his immediate goal. In AC2, synchronization adds blending to its effect to intimate the player in “the successful way to do things”.
So how is AC2 different from AC1, exactly? For Kunzelman, AC2 is more cinematic than its predecessor, proposing movement and fluidity over repetition and formula. AC2’s story is conveyed mostly through cutscenes, instead of holding players prisoners to in-game dialogue sequences as in AC1. The email “metacommunication” of the Desmond plot of AC1 became the interactive Renaissance Italy database of AC2. Finally, if AC1 provided temporal skips in story sequences, highlighting “the operations of the Animus”, the player spends more time overall “in the Animus” in AC2, in the so-called “memory sequences”.
AC2: the Glorious Meta-Game
Writing for the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds in 2010, Adam Ruch was perhaps the first game critic to fully account for the multifaceted accomplishment that was AC2. Recycling the “AC1 was a tech demo for AC2” line, Ruch proposed that AC2, as a sequel, worked as a refined iteration of AC1. For Ruch, AC2 “introduces no real innovation” but rather “depth of content and polished execution” (an ironic statement, considering the dev team had no time provision for polish).
For one, AC2’s story is markedly more complex than its predecessor. The game sets its intrigue in actual historical events – the Pazzi conspiracy – in order to tell the fictional story of Ezio and the Auditore family, as part of the Assassin lineage fighting against Templar corruption and ambition. As Ruch notes, Machiavelli serves as the “moral interpreter” of the Italian political scene, out of which the AC2 narrative is deployed. Interestingly, “while Ezio is not a historically authentic character, the main antagonist is”: Rodrigo Borgia. Taken together, the fictional elements of AC2 were congruent with common perceptions of Renaissance Italian politics and intrigue. In the end, if AC2 provided a rich environment for refined gameplay, even if Ruch did not consider that it “push[ed] the limits of game design” the way a GTA3 did.
Back in 2007, when Ubisoft blew millions on marketing its hot new IP, “convergence” was the buzzword of the day. Franchise spin-offs were soon to be seen on the AC fan event horizon. Before the expensive dud of Assassin’s Creed, the movie (2016), Ubisoft produced a trilogy of short films timed with the release of AC2. Assassin’s Creed Lineage (video with autocaptions) told the story of Giovanni Auditore, the game protagonist’s father, as a master Assassin set to circumvent Templar intrigue in his hometown of Florence. From a strictly economic standpoint, the AC Lineage trilogy did not make sense. But on Gamasutra, Justin Kranzl assessed that this move from Ubisoft was designed to elevate gaming brands into “entertainment vehicles”, AC2 being a puzzle piece of the larger “transmedia world” of the AC brand.
Storytelling innovation, it turns out, is perhaps the most important contribution of AC2 to the alleged “maturation” of video games. Here, critics of AC2 provide an important contribution in underlining these innovations. For Apperly and Clemens, story themes of freedom and determinism are expressed in the passive/active modes of “the dual avatar form”. This duality allows the player to experience the avatar as a storytelling device, not just as a control mechanism. Andreas Fischer underlines how the narrative twist of “Templar dirty tricks” is used in the Carnevale misson (sequence 9) to highlight “the corruption of an instance of control” (i.e. cheating in a traditional game). The rigged carnevale mini-game is contrasted with the player’s locked progression in the video game, with its embedded rules. Thus, when rules are being broken and remain unbroken at the same time, the player becomes aware of different “game frames” operating at the same time. For Brian Wuest at Mediascape, the Matrix-like narrative device of the Animus in AC2 acts primarily as a “framing interface” that explicitly presents the game world as a simulation. More to the point: the player’s internalization of these limitations serves to further immerse her in the game.
If AC2 was innovative with its narrative form, we’ve also seen how it solidly delivered in the gender stereotypes department. At Polygon, Claire Hosking goes even to suggest that AC2 should be seen as an anti-model for writing female characters in games:
I keep a mental list of games I recommend to people interested in trying out games — easy, beautiful, sophisticated games. But it’s a much shorter list than I’d like. I would love to be able to recommend a game like Assassin’s Creed 2, since it’s got a great mechanic and a lot of character to the world and a nice gentle difficulty curve that’s good for getting people used to the controller — but the portrayal of women is embarrassing and puerile. I worry it’ll put my friend off rather than encourage them.
In both form and content, the theme of passivity runs surprisingly deep in an action-adventure video game such as AC2. To D. Compagno, the Animus motif in AC2 serves to highlight the central illusion of open world video games:
[…] it is not the accuracy of AC2 that matters. It is much more important to notice that the player is there, controlling Desmond as Desmond is controlling Ezio. The game represents within itself the relationship with the real player. […] We can [therefore] talk of AC2 as a meta-game, representing (within its fictional world) gaming itself. AC2 “theorizes” about what it means to play a video game, giving us some hints to think at the very act we are performing. Other arts and languages already produced such meta-representations (we could think at Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 for cinema, or at Marcel Proust’s Recherche for literature), but this is one of the first blockbuster games to do so.
In 2017, Andy Kelly of PC Gamer revisited AC2, and found a gem produced in remarkable circumstances. Now ten years after its original release we find, with Kelly, that some of AC2’s features have aged: graphics textures, video draw distance, contrived stealth and mission design, cartoony combat, the occasionally clunky parkour, not to mention stereotypical gender roles. But the strong protagonist, engaging story, unique sense of place and, above all, strong sense of agency given to the player, all make AC2 a great game to return to, to relive the Renaissance intrigue between Templars and Assassins.
And so, if every new entry into the AC franchise behemoth makes its predecessor “look like a tech demo”, AC2 can rightly be considered today as a landmark title in the series – the giant one whose shoulders every new Animus instance must stand on.
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Disclosure: Cameron Kunzelman has previously written for Critical Distance.