Windows, X360, PS3
ESRB Rating: Mature
In a word: Stunning.
It really does improve on the original in every single conceivable way.
Like the last game, you play as Desmond Miles, a descendant of the ancient Assassin order which is engaged in a millenia-long struggle against the Knights Templar. You are unraveling a mystery by tapping into the "genetic memory" of your ancestors using a McGuffin Machine called the "Animus." I'd like to think the PlayStation will look like this in ten years. The story could have easily come from the mind of Dan Brown. What makes for half-baked pulp novelry also makes for an excellent premise for a video game. Using the Animus machine, you'll relive the memories of Ezio Auditore di Firenze, one of Desmond's ancestors living in 1400's Italy. You'll rub shoulders with Medicis, assassinate Pazzi's, get gadgetry made by Leonardo Da Vinci, and generally be immersed in the rich history of the time. Like Dan Brown, the history here is a little murky, but mostly true to source - although it does serve to advance the farfetched videogame plot for the most part. Still, it's a rich premise for a videogame, captivating and original. Part Matrix, part Deus Ex, part Angels and Demons...this is good stuff for gamers. It's much better writing than we're used to, but even that's getting better all around. Videogames are really coming into their own as unique player-driven storytelling media, and this is amongst the best of the field writing-wise.
Out of the park. Ezio's character model is very well done. The Venetian architecture is on full glorious display here. The palette is somewhat muddy, but consider the source material. Draw distance is very respectable, no texture pop-in noted. Shading and shadows are top-notch. Special recognition for the cutscenes, and the facial animations/body language. It rivals and in some cases exceeds Mass Effect in the realism. Ubisoft obviously spent a lot of time in addressing the inherent Uncanny Valley problems with eliciting emotional responses from CG characters. It works extremely well, and is quite immersive. This is a violent game, too. I don't know if you disable the blood (haven't checked.) Assassination kills involve a lot of neck-stabbing and the arterial spray that comes with it. Oddly enough, I don't think turning off the blood would kill the game for anyone that wanted to experience it. On the downside, ragdoll physics can cause environment collision sometimes, and your sword magically pierces through a bench if you sit on it. Doesn't look like any developer's gotten that perfect yet, and it really doesn't take away from the experience anyhow.
Stellar. The voice acting is fantastic. Unless you understand quite a bit of Italian, I'd recommend leaving on the subtitles. The characters jump back and forth between English and Italian - leave on the titles if for no other reason than to pick up a few choice Italian curses. Soundtrack is very well done, unintrusive and adds to the experience quite effectively. When you're chased by guards or confront them, it changes appropriately.
There are a few core components to this game, all of which are immersive and quite fun. The free-running portion is quite addictive, and it's a joy just to haul ass across the rooftops of Florence or Tuscany with no particular destination. When you run into a surface with a sharp angle change, Ezio can get confused and fall 20 feet to an injury instead of gingerly changing direction. For the most part, you can avoid this if you plan your freerunning path a few seconds ahead of where you are. This is fun.
Assassinations work about like they did in the last game, but they've added some context-sensitive moves that you'd expect a sneaky bastard like Ezio to use, like shanking from concealment in a pile of hay, from the other side of a ledge, or even underwater. A particularly satisfying addition is a second hidden blade, enabling you to assassinate two unwary targets at the same time. Double Prizes!!!!
Open combat mechanics are largely unchanged, but they've beefed up the unarmed portion to allow disarms and utilization of the opponent's weapon. This is a must when you come up against heavily armored foes, and is cool as all hell when you wrench a sledgehammer from a heavily armed Templar and then proceed to crush his legs with it. These animations are freaking sweet. Medieval reenactors take note: these are beautifully captured Western martial arts moves at their best.
This title adds some RPG-lite and collecting elements as well. You have a palatial estate that you upgrade through buying fine art (which is later displayed) upgrading the town to encourage tourism, and all of it feeds a continual income and simple economy system. More money means more sets of armor, more weapons, more fun stuff, more courtesans you can hire. YES! The cool thing about collecting weapons and armor is that it's displayed in your estate later along with all of your other trophies. Your mansion is littered with stuff to upgrade, and these upgrades have tangible gameplay benefits. This is SO much better than the mindless 'fetch the flag' quests of AC1. It's perfectly okay to blow off the main quest and upgrade your digs. It's what I'm doing.
Assassin's Creed 1 turned a few heads when it was released, but was largely written off as an ambitious tech demo. Ubisoft listened to gamer feedback, and have really pinned down what keeps a player coming back. This title is stunning to behold, a joy to look at - and is littered with secrets and unlockables. It's puzzles upon puzzles upon enigmas, and they all serve to either upgrade your character or to advance the narrative. You'll see what I mean when you "unlock" your first hidden glyph. You're going to do it, because no X360 or PS3 gamer should go without playing this game.
Run across the rooftops, assassinate people in line before you if you must, but get your hands on this game as soon as possible.
Four and a Half out of Five Donuts. Damn Near Perfect.