A league of hard men haunts my visions. They come in the night, making veiled threats and giving vague demands to captains of industry, subtly altering the course of events along paths predetermined but unfathomable to mere mortals.
I'm not talking about some paramilitary Illuminati here. The unseen movers whose presence I extrapolate from seemingly disconnected coincidences have lived for the last two years in Ubisoft's peripheral vision, manipulating developers whose previous efforts wanted for a certain polish.
That's the only logical explanation I can find for the outright triumph that is Assassin's Creed II. The mediocrity of the first Assassin's Creed has borne fruit so elegant and so rich that the very soil from which it grows cannot help but have been finessed by some sublime gardner.
It's difficult to hyperbolize the sheer magnitude by which Assassin's Creed II outshines its predecessor. My little brother likes to say that a game is only really good when, after its completion, he wishes that he had never played it so he could go back and do it again for the first time. After Assassin's Creed II, I can finally beat that. Not only do I wish I hadn't yet played it, but I also want the first Assassin's Creed to have never been made, and this sequel to have been released in its place.
Assassin's Creed II documents the further adventures of Desmond, the now slightly less-hapless bartender and unwitting man-damsel in distress from the first Assassin's Creed. He is thrust from the evil-yet-protective womb of his shadowy corporate overseers into the care of an equally shadowy counter-operation that aims to piece together the current whereabouts of the Holy MacGuffin uncovered by Altaïr, Desmond's 12th-century counterpart, before Desmond's previous benefactors can find it.
The plan involves the same thing the last guys were doing. Desmond's new friends send him on another Matrix-style adventure through his genetic memories vis-à-vis Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Italian nobleman circa the late 15th century who turns to the family business when the intrigues of Renaissance Florence catch his family in a crossfire between the Medici and the Pazzi families.
Confused yet? Aside from the college-level Western Civ knowledge the backstory requires, Assassin's Creed II isn't all that difficult a read. It's certainly an improvement on the first game's haphazard presentation. Think of it as a reimagining of The Godfather for the Renaissance era and you'll be fine.
Ezio receives a more humanized treatment than Altaïr, who was presented as a spring-loaded Batman robot sent from the future to stab Crusaders. He progresses from a carefree child of luxury to an engine of retaliation and then to his ultimate role as a stealthy-stabby paladin without slipping into caricature territory. No mere killing machine, this Ezio: He buys and sells weapons, changes clothing, upgrades his armor, maintains strategic political relationships, and rebuilds his family's dilapidated manor and the village surrounding it, all while keeping up gameplay appearances as the 15th century's newest go-to guy for reliable, creative executions.
As Ezio needs a complex setting to realize his potential, the attention to detail spreads outward in an endless knot, infusing the gameworld with a sense of life and purpose and fleshing out the ways it and Ezio interact. Where the Holy Land of the 12th century felt like a series of lifeless rooftops given a thin veneer of realism, this version of Italy is lush, vibrant, and as varied as the country on which it is based.
Even the overarching meta-plot feels less tacked-on than the previous attempt, which bookended Assassin's Creed as delicately and effectively as two cats trying to shred their way to the middle of a phone book. It delves a lot further into sci-fi weirdness this time, but with a plot that relies on hallucinatory time-travel and DNA-encoded past lives, a few other fantastic elements aren't exactly out place.
It almost feels backhanded to laud Ubisoft for advances that other developers made years ago, but this kind of top-to-bottom polish is the single keystone that holds Assassin's Creed II together as a stellar game. Lesson learned, it seems, but aside from the obvious segue to an Assassin's Creed III, where will Ubisoft go from here?
The Grand Theft Auto series has taught us that the market will accept game-engine improvements applied toward retroactive "fixes" to previous games in a series. Will Ubisoft take a page from Rockstar and release Assassin's Creed: Episodes from Jerusalem to clean up what could end up being their own flagship title? If they have any sense (and if their invisible masters keep a hand on Ubi's shoulder), they will.