Assassin's Creed was kind of heartbreaking; it was daring and creative, filled to brimming with untapped potential, disappointingly bogged down with repetitious and sparse gameplay. But it did succeed in one very important way - it provided a strong and vibrant skeleton upon which its sequel, Assassin's Creed 2 could be built. The result still isn't perfect, but it's a beautiful, smart, and emotionally satisfying experience that makes good on the promises of its predecessor.
Much of Assassin's Creed 2 song remains the same. You're still playing as a guy in the future, strapped into a chair that's letting him virtually live through the life of an assassin in the past. This year's model is Ezio Auditore, who learns the killing trade as he unravels a conspiracy and exacts revenge for wrongs done to his family. The story isn't particularly original, but is told deftly enough to make you emotionally invested in Ezio's quest almost immediately. You'll have to assassinate various characters in order to advance the game, but this time around, you're going to want to kill them. When Ezio takes grim satisfaction in his handiwork, you'll be smiling right along with him.
For a game about an assassin, you spend a surprisingly small amount of time killing, however; exploration is actually a far larger component of the game. Fortunately, you've been given a particularly beautiful area to explore. Ezio's stomping ground of Renaissance Italy is graced with elegantly stunning architecture and colorfully garbed residents, all of which is on glorious display as you wander the streets and free-run your way across rooftops. Everything you see is climbable, and the views afforded from up on high - and especially the game's many sight towers - are marvelous to behold.
As with the first Assassin's Creed, your motivation for exploration is primarily to find the seemingly unending list of collectibles the game has stashed away. Feathers, seals, statues, codex pages, money boxes - some are crucial, others merely helpful, but scouring the streets of Italy to track them all down is curiously addictive. The most intriguing new collectibles are the glyphs, bits of computer code that an outside source has integrated into the virtual environment. Each glyph contains an incredibly brief snippet of a video that this source claims reveals "the truth," but you'll have to solve a puzzle in order to unlock it. You might have to turn rings to reassemble a portrait, find the common theme amongst a selection of paintings, or scour images to find hidden objects. The puzzles are surprisingly challenging, and contain a bevy of secrets (I found Morse Code in one painting, binary in another), while the video of "the truth" is as baffling as it is fascinating. It's a brilliant way to make item collection feel vital and necessary, instead of simple busywork.