Assassin's Creed II, as the "II" would denote, is a sequel. And a damn good one, at that. The first Assassin's Creed followed a young man named Desmond, who is kidnapped by a large organization known as Abstergo, and forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, starting with a professional assassin named Altair. The player watched Altair as he worked to reclaim his honor after a mishap sees him demoted to the lowest ranks of his order. In the process, both him and Desmond stumble upon a revelation far bigger than they imagined.
At the beginning of Assassin's Creed II, Desmond is rescued from Abstergo, and meets other members of the present-day Assassins. To train Desmond in their ways while simultaneously investigating the information revealed in the first game, this time he relives the memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Much like Desmond, Ezio begins as a regular (albeit mischievous) young man, but the murder of his father and brothers leads him to take up the suit and weaponry of the assassin. What begins as a quest for revenge once again unravels into a plot far larger than him or Desmond.
While the story itself is compelling and well paced, that's only one part of the game. The first Assassin's Creed had a great story, but some will argue that the major pros stopped there. Fortunately, Ubisoft made sure not to repeat this, and went above and beyond to improve every single aspect of the player experience, starting with the Free Run system.
Free Run is an incredibly nifty movement system introduced in the first game that allowed players to traverse almost any type of terrain in a relatively swift and efficient manner. Holding R1 and X while pushing forward on the stick prompts Ezio to sprint forward, automatically climbing or vaulting over any obstacles he encounters. Run into a wall, he'll jump up and immediately start scaling it, continuing to run forward across the rooftop, and automatically leaping across any gaps. All you really have to do is steer, and Ezio will do the rest. However, here's where a slight problem arises. The Free Run system is absolutely great for exploring the cities, but getting much precision out of it for tighter spaces or planned getaways takes more practice than should be necessary. What feels like a slight movement with the stick often translates to a near 90-degree turn in game, which can be annoying at best, and rather frustrating at worst. The other thing is, due to the camera not always giving you the best view of just what you're going to land on when you jump off a roof, eager players will quickly find themselves taking more damage from accidental falls than any enemy's blade. Fortunately, the game rarely seriously penalizes you for movement mistakes outside of the Assassin's Tombs (which are optional). Even the speed run sidequests are often lax on their time goal.
Combat also received a beefy upgrade, as not only does Ezio utilize a few more tools of death than his predecessor, he has a variety of new abilities. Among his new toys are dual hidden blades, a wrist mounted firearm, and poison. The addition of a second hidden blade allows him to perform dual assassinations, killing two targets in one swift motion. Meanwhile, the gauntlet pistol, the last weapon you acquire in the game, allows you to kill targets in one shot. Even with all this new stuff, the game still feels balanced, with each weapon having its pluses and minuses. For example, swords ands hammers are the easiest to parry with, and thus are excellent all-around weapons, though lacking any outstanding attributes. The pistol will kill any target in a single hit, but Ezio requires several seconds to get a perfect bead on the target, and is vulnerable while aiming. It also attracts a lot of attention, and thus isn't usually suited to stealthier kills. Throwing knives, as an alternative, often only do minor damage, but Ezio is quicker on the draw with them, and you can carry far more of them (you can carry up to 20 throwing knives, but only 6 bullets). The hidden blades require far more precise timing to block and parry with than held weapons, and thus aren't suited to all-out combat, but their small size allows Ezio to "kill on the go", quickly stabbing someone from behind or tackling them.
But even with all these new ways to kill people, Ezio still has his fists, potentially the most potent weapon of all. Even with no weapons equipped, you'd be a fool to think he's not dangerous. Upset a villager who wants his pickpocketed money back? With a quick flick of RI and Square, you can counter his clumsily thrown sucker punch and end with a brutally delivered knee to the face, non-lethally defeating him. Beyond regular punches, you can counter almost every attack enemies throw at you. If you are unarmed, fighting an armed opponent, you can even disarm them, wrenching their weapon right out of their hands and, if you so choose, slaughtering them with it. But Ezio's move repertoire still doesn't end there. You can taunt enemies to draw their attention (or just talk smack, of course), dodge and strafe, and, if they are weakened enough, grab opponents by the collar and proceed to punch, headbutt, and/or kick the stuffing out of them. You can even learn how to throw sand/dirt to momentarily blind your enemies.
And let me tell you, the finishers are brutal. The developers once said that they were designed to make you wince when you see them, and it works. I personally unequip any weapons I have when a Brute-type enemy (guards wielding broadswords, battle axes, or spears) is in battle, so I can disarm him and watch one of the finishers for his weapon. Ezio often leaves the weapon stuck in the victim's body, making it even more gruesome to behold. Try hitting an enemy from behind or countering with a sledgehammer or two handed weapon, and you'll see what I mean (though the finishers for ALL the weapons are pretty satisfying). Overall the fighting system is excellently done, but crowd fights (which are pretty much they only fights you'll be in) are unrealistic. Enemies take turns attacking, and simply button mashing reveals how stiff Ezio's regular attacks can be. So while the combat system is still fun, it's not nearly as fluid or believable as, say, the one in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
But sometimes you may find it better to avoid combat altogether. To avoid attention, you can sit on benches, hide in hay bales or wells, or simply blend by walking with crowds and not doing anything conspicuous. Not all guards will be fooled however, and depending on your notoriety (which rises with various spectacular actions and is quelled by bribing heralds and ripping down posters of you), they might be actively searching you. When they're on your tail, like in GTA4 a circle will appear, which indicates the area that they'll be searching for you in. Leave that circle without being seen, and find a place to hide and they'll quickly give up.
As you progress through the game, you'll be constantly invited to engage in various side activities. Minor examples of this include hunting down cheating husbands, small scale assassinations, and foot races. Most of them are actually pretty amusing (I especially enjoy the extra assassinations). There are also more significant side attractions, such as the Assassin Tombs. These are designed to challenge your agility and ability to think on the go, presenting various areas and obstacles courses you must traverse, usually under a strict time limit. Though entirely optional, completing all of the tombs gives you access to the strongest (and coolest looking) armor in the game. And then there's of course the collectables, which come in two flavors: feathers and glyphs. There are 20 glyphs inscribed on various historical structures in each of the cities, and with each glyph comes an accompanying puzzle presented to you by the mysterious Subject 16, another person captured by Abstergo who learned far more than he bargained for during his time in the Animus, and split up his findings into pieces and encrypted them. The feathers (of which there are 100) aren't quite as significant to the plot at large, but you can collect them as a personal monument of sorts to your slain family members.
But once again the developers didn't stop with just a great story, excellent gameplay and impressive replay value. They went on to work on the presentation, graphics and overall performance of the game. Visually, Assassin's Creed II is dazzling. Ubisoft has successfully managed to emulate the same kind of detail and fluidity that Rockstar achieved with Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV. Pickpockets dart in between crowds, various shop owners can be heard from all directions hawking out their wares. Throw money on the ground and people respond in a big way. Get in a fight, and the citizens will form a ring, cheering excitedly as the action unfolds. Men try to woo prostitutes, and guards stay on vigilant patrol (unless distracted by money or whores). Bystanders may cheer you on for defeating guards, but will boo and insult you for being a bully. This is a living, breathing world and it shows.
The cities themselves are also spectacles to behold, with each one having a very unique feel. The devs worked hard to rebuild these cities as replicas of their real life counter parts, and it shows. There are over a dozen historical structures to be found as well. Basically, this is a game with not just a rich fictional backstory, but a rich historical backstory.
The game performs well overall, but there some slowdown, notably with large crowds and when the Animus is reconstructing each city (though that may be intentional). Glitches were few and far between, but the corpse physics are a little weird. There's a mandatory install, but loading times are not only interactive but not overly long or frequent.
Assassin's Creed II is an excellent game. Ubisoft knows it, and hopefully after playing it for a bit most other people will too, even if they also know it's not quite their cup of tea (there's a difference between not liking a game, and it being good). Ezio's tale is one worth hearing, and the story at large, while complex, is interesting (though the ending will break it for some people) and pushes you forward just perfectly, even though it still manages to step around certain tidbits. There's also a lot of replay value to be had here, from collecting the feathers to solving the glyph puzzles (and I didn't even mention the Villa). Plus, it's also fun just roaming around getting in fights and such. A 9.5/10.