While the game picks up in the moments after the end of Assassin’s Creed Desmond (still Nolan North) and Lucy (again played by Kristen Bell) flee the Abstergo corporate offices taking to the road with Lucy’s cohorts Shaun Hastings (Danny Wallace) a delightfully miserable Englishman who functions as the resident historian and know it all and Rebecca Crane (Eliza Schneider) the resident DIY tech expert who created the “Animus 2.0” a cobbled together version of the Animus used by the Assassins to continue plumbing the depths of Desmond’s past, the actual release of the game took two years to come to market. This time was spent fleshing out the world and creating a new setting to continue Altaïr’s saga.
During this opening scene set in the family’s home of Florence Ezio takes part in a street brawl with a rival family’s scion, this teaches you the fundamentals of combat. Afterwards you race your brother back home and are introduced to the rest of the Auditore family Giovanni the patron and secretly a member of the Assassin Order, a responsible older brother Federico who Giovanni was training to be a member of the order, gentle younger brother Petruccio, the kindly and watchful mother Maria and a sharp witted younger sister Claudia.
Giovanni (the star of the main character of the cross over shorts Lineage) serves as a banker running the Auditore Internatinoal Bank associated with the Medici family this all works as a cover for his work for the Order. Towards the start of the game Giovanni discovers a plot to assassinate the Medicis by “The Spaniard” who we discover is in fact Rodrigo Borgia (aka later as Pope Alexander the VI). That’s right, you’re going up against the man who would one day be the Pope who had his children sleeping together and ordered orgies in the Vatican. This guy is kind of the definition of crazy evil and one of the reasons why there’s a “no kids” rule for priests in the Catholic faith.
Unfortunately Giovanni is rumbled Borgia with one of his servants posing as a confidant to Giovanni and destroying the evidence he had amassed against Borgia. Petruccio, Federico and Giovanni are imprisoned (shortly after Ezio’s introduction to a certain painter/sculptor/OG Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci). Ezio escapes and while unable to save his brothers and father but is able to get his family away and safely to the estate of Giovanni’s brother Mario Auditore (Fred Tatasciore) in his stronghold the town of Monteriggioni.
From Monteriggioni the story starts in earnest with Ezio launching a campaign of redemption building relationships with famous historical figures and parkouring his way around some of the most beautiful cities in the world during the height of their splendor. Assassin’s Creed II is where the series found it’s stride and is arguably the best in the series. You have a generally affable and charming protagonist in Ezio (a nice change from the last entry’s dour hero who could give Batman a run for his money in a glower-off). Add to this a set of cities that include Venice, Florence, Tuscany and Forli during one of the most prolific periods of the Italian Renaissance and a story that makes use of the history while not being overly beholden to it or so weighted under the material that it stops being fun, you even get an obligatory “it’s a me Mario” joke in there.
As you move through the world you continue to use eagle vision and once in a while you’ll see a strange symbol glowing from a wall. Once you engage that symbol you are taken out of the Animus’ regular simulation and dumped in to a puzzle. Cryptic and disturbing audio and riddles set you to a task. It could be decoding a cryptogram, trying to figure out a pattern of pictures, or even decoding morse code or binary. Each of these unlocks a brief snippet of video of what appears to be a male and female fleeing for their lives.
By the end of the game you will have collected all of the glyphs unlocking the flight of Adam and Eve from Eden! Subject 16 reveals the true scope of the Templars and the first people, the race who engineered humans as a slave race which is cool enough on its own but the added fact it uses real life imagery, for example at one point you unlock a picture of Firestone, Ford and Edison playing golf (a real picture) along with it you get them discussing things ancient artifacts. The game seamlessly weaves enough reality through through the story to make the conspiracy feel like it could be real.
The main narrative progresses with you working with characters like Machiavelli and Leonardo to push back against the Borgia family. By the end of the game Rodrigo has been named Pope and is in possession of the Piece of Eden (part of the Papal staff). The climax of the game is you breaking in to the Vatican and taking down the Pope in an a knock down all out fist fight! Yeah, that’s right, a fist fight with Pope! After defeating Borgia you descend in to a strangely lit crypt and are confronted by a hologram of one of the first people named Minerva who is talking not to Ezio but in fact to Desmond warning him of the end of the world event coming in 2012.
Once this cut scene has finished you get a final moment as Desmond (who you have had brief snippets of fun playing testing how he’s learning the skills Ezio and Altaïr were taught by climbing around the warehouse). It would appear the escape from Abstergo wasn’t as good as hoped and Abstergo have tracked the team down to this warehouse. Desmond and Lucy fend off attackers before you all escape in a van which brings us to Brotherhood.
Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood picks up immediately where the first Assassin’s Creed II left off. Fleeing the warehouse the group make their way to Monteriggioni to set up a new base of operations which has a great little bit of back and forth between Lucy and Desmond who appear to be building a fairly strong friendship after two desperate adventures together. Once the Animus is installed we venture deeper in to the mind of Desmond and the past of Ezio who has returned to Monteriggioni for his sister’s wedding. Claudia has been a successful administrator in his absence and pushes back on Ezio not afraid to let Claudia call Ezio out for being a tool, Ezio runs around with Courtesans and thieves but when Claudia takes control of a brothel (later in the game) Claudia lays out for him just how much he has abandoned his mother and sister to complete his quest. While she is not a playable character it’s nice to see a female character with such strong will.
Unfortunately the Borgia clan launch an all-out attack on the town just before the wedding, Mario is killed and the piece of Eden known as the Apple is lost to the Templars. Fleeing to Rome with the help of Machiavelli Ezio assumes leadership of the Roman chapter which has struggled in the heart of Templar territory.
The entire game takes place in and around Rome in an amazingly lavish representation of the city during the close of the 15th century. The different districts and hills are represented and you are able to travel about the city using “quick travel” points via the city’s water fixtures. As you build your representation you wrest control of the city from the Templars by investing in public works like rebuilding aqueducts or repairing historical landmarks that were in notorious states of disrepair during this time.
During the subsequent four years Ezio builds and consolidates power among the Assassin’s Claudia who as I mentioned had assumed control of a Brothel eventually becomes a full-fledged Assassin in her own right and push the Borgia further and further from control of the heart of their empire and in fact one of the most powerful nations in the world at that time.
Ceasere the son of Rodrigo and the individual tasked with taking out Ezio and the Assassins demands more resources and the use of the Apple. Rodrigo is not pleased with his son’s attempts at a power grab (and probably not all too pleased with the fact his son is sleeping with his daughter… this is HISTORY folks, seriously, if you paid attention in High School this stuff is really freaking awesome). Ezio sees this during one of his spying missions and uses it as an opportunity. Pushing Ceasere to the brink he undermines his support and Pope Julius II’s papal army arrest Ceasere. Ezio and the Assassins sweep in and decimate his forces retrieving the apple though Ceasere escapes. Using the apple to track him down Ezio leading to a cinematic confrontation with one of the more trite and reused endings in a video game but it’s not quite over.
Ezio then takes the Apple and hides it under Santa Maria in Aracoeli and we fade on Ezio for the time being. Desmond and team immediately make their way (fearing the Templars may have this information as well) and attempt to retrieve the Apple. Navigating the ruins Desmond picks up the Apple and is this time addressed directly by a precursor. This one naming itself Juno a contemporary of Minerva is not nearly as generous or kind. She refers to humanity as “innocent” and “ignorant” and that they are lacking and are little more than tools run amok morning her people ever uplifting humanity to begin with. This is when she turns full bad guy and takes control of Desmond. Speaking about how he (Desmond) is in fact a descendent (at least in part) of her people he is different and there is a woman will try to accompany him through “the gate” and she must be not allowed. At that point Desmond who is now no longer under your control kills Lucy before collapsing in to a coma. As credits roll you hear Shaun and an unknown (though familiar to Star Trek Next Generation fans) voice talking about sticking Desmond back in the Animus in order to stabilize his brain activity. This gives us the in game reason for being able to finish off the remaining quests and challenges among the various guilds and organizations you can work with but also sets up the next game.
Prior to the next entry in the series we get a brief aside called Assassin’s Creed: Discovery who’s title gives away the plot if you are thinking about the period. Taking place 14 years after Assassin’s Creed II Ezio and his fellow Assassin’s are imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition because nobody expects the Inquisition (sorry I had to it’s in my contract). Setting about saving Christopher Columbus to prevent the Templars from sailing to the “New World” wiping out yet another branch of the Templars and reunites and rebuilds the order once again. Some historical luminaries to make appearances aside from the controversial Columbis are King Muhammad XII, Queen Isabella and Luis de Santángel though this one didn’t leave near as many hanging ends as the previous mobile entries.
Unlike the prior mobile games this received substantially better press with reviews in the 70s and 80s though still some reviews were not quite as kind. The gameplay was far more dynamic than the previous DS entry though not as elaborate as the PSP entry it is a solid little aside in the story.
Making his escape he discovers that there are five disks that were required to unlock the door to the library and one is in the hands of the Templar order and the rest are hidden in Constantinople (by no greater personage than Niccoló Polo father of Marco Polo) and he will need to travel to Constantinople to retrieve them. Slipping away he ends up travelling with a student named Suleiman and an Italian traveler and book collector by the name of Sofia Sartor to whom he develops a close bond and eventually opens up to regarding his history and the order enlisting her help in his cause.
It is worth pointing out at this point Constantinople is rendered in incredible detail with the Grand Bazaar, the Hagia Sophia in it's most resplendent, all the palaces and people all in incredible detail in many ways the cities are as much stars in this series as the people and in this case Constantinople is in the midst of an internal power struggle with Prince Ahmet and his brother Selim fighting over who will inherit the throne, Suleiman reveals to Ezio that he is in fact Selim’s son and Ezio suspects the Templar are behind it (given their watch towers spread throughout the city it would appear this is the case). He with the aid of the charming Yusuf Tazim leader of the Turkish Assassins eventually discovers that the Templar order are attempting to destabilize the region and return it to the Byzantine Empire they played a prominent part in.
Ezio is able to foil these plans and recover the keys which unlock Animus like flash backs for Ezio who starts reliving Altaïr’s history discovering how he expanded the order, grew a family, repelled a Mongol invasion and his eventual downfall.
As he finally recovers the keys he discovers Ahmet has kidnapped Sofia and wants to make a trade, the keys for her life. Ezio who it seems like is finally able to settle down and found someone who is a balance for him is willing to trade it all in for her life but as soon as he’s sure she’s safe he gives chase in an attempt to recover them. Cornering Ahmet he doesn’t get the satisfaction of the kill as Selim arrives and executes Ahmet having been selected as heir to the Sultanate. Ezio and Sofia return to Masyaf unlocking the library but finds it empty but for Altaïr’s body and a final key.
The library is in fact the resting place for an Apple of Eden, Altaïr sealing himself in with it to prevent it falling in to the wrong hands. This is where things truly get strange Ezio drops his weapons apparently forgoing his allegiance to the Brotherhood and talking directly to Desmond who he at this point knows is watching (much like Minerva spoke through him to Desmond in Assassin’s Creed II) and expresses hopes to Desmond he will find the answers that Ezio himself was never able to. This is especially touching because this is one of the few times in video games we've seen a character from his birth to his effective death, or at least a moment that is incredibly life changing. Ezio we saw in the first game as a young man coming in to his prime, in the second game a man grown and having come to terms with his reality and in the third game a man who is old and resigned to the fact there are simply things he will never know. This is a combination that resonates and I found my self connecting with old Ezio in numerous ways. We saw his journey and saw it's conclusion in a satisfying and final way something we never got for Altaïr. Honestly, Ezio will be missed.
Desmond is then approached by Jupter, another member of the First Civilization explaining that the world is littered with vaults they used to try and save the world from a similar event to what is expected in 2012. A massive solar flare is expected that will wipe out all life at which point she pushes him back to consciousness to find Shaun, Rebecca and William standing there. He wastes no time in telling them he knows what they must do.
This game added a few new mechanics like Alchemist’s Fire (a napalm like substance used in ship combat) and increased grenade and smoke bomb advancements. Three controversial features stuck out the most, the first was the in game tower defence missions. Tower defence games were very hot at the time and Ubisoft added a tower defence component to raids against your Assassin strongholds. Basically if you generated enough heat the Templar would figure out where your bases are and attack them. You would then oversee the defence of these structures. All in all it was more nuisance than fun, the next sticking point were strange first person game play stretches. These took place in artificial environments and were narrated by Desmond who was rebuilding his own memories. You learnt about his upbringing on an Assassin compound and the strained relationship between him and his father. While informative they were hardly fun to play. Instead of combat you had the ability to generate different blocks while using the mobility functions of the game to navigate the maze. The final component (and arguably the only successful one) was multiplayer. Considered a terrible addition at first the game took Multiplayer in an entirely different direction. No death matches or horde modes, you were playing against other people trying to blend in with the crowd and stealth kill other players. It was a neat little change from the normal multiplayer regime.
As I mentioned previously, the cities are as much stars as the people populating them and running the narrative during this second instalment. During the first Assassin's Creed it was interesting how they tried to recreate the Holy Land during the Crusades but ultimately the architecture was bland. It was just the nature of the setting, but this time around the architecture was some of Europe and the Near East's finest whilst being built or at it's most spectacular. You got to see chapels now ancient in the course of being built. Armies of historians and consultants were brought on to ensure accuracy and that makes the game truly worth it. In a way Assassin's Creed made a tool equally useful for learning as for playing in. If they could turn these historical recreations in to teaching aides for history classes this would be a great way of engaging children and showing a new generation history in a way that transcends books and could possibly engage children who would otherwise not pay attention.
We bring the story of Ezio to an end here, we will pick up in our next installment recapping both Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag which wraps up Desmond’s story. It’s frustrating in that they didn’t end Desmond’s story alongside Ezios but it’s understandable they wanted a bridging character in to the new game. All in all each of these entries were satisfying and fun with strong rewarding stories as well as creative and elaborate worlds. At the end of the last entry I was very hopeful for the future of the game which falls in to the hands of Connor a Native American thrust in to the heart of the birth of a nation.