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.

Though Assassin’s Creed 2 takes excellent advantage of the foundation laid by its predecessor, it still has its own share of shortcomings. Striking from the shadows with a well-thrown knife or shivving your victim in the back is quite enjoyable, but otherwise combat is laughable. No matter what the situation, simply blocking and countering is almost always a sure-fire path to victory. Should you find yourself surrounded, don’t fret – your opponents are courteous enough to take turns attacking you. It’s like they all went to British boarding schools, or something. After you – oh, no, I couldn’t possibly, after you! Oh, but I insist, after you! Oh, I say, chums, shall I go now?

The free-running works beautifully most of the time, making it incredibly easy to leap from handhold to ledge to rooftop…to mid-air to pavement with an undignified splat. It’s just a bit too easy to miss your mark while you’re bounding around. The speed and liquidity of Ezio’s athleticism add to the sensation of movement and freedom, but a bit of hesitation would be appreciated, especially when a wrong step means you’ll have to spend a few minutes working your way back to your starting point. It’s a minor complaint and easy enough to get around – just take your finger off the A button and you’ll be fine most of the time.

One of the more interesting new features in the game – your family villa – is also sadly a bit broken. Fixing up the villa by buying artwork for it, opening shops, or restoring buildings attracts tourists, which in turn adds gold to your personal coffers. The upgrades don’t come cheap, but they increase your property value to the point that the tourist money begins pouring in, providing you with more than enough cash to fund your nefarious deeds. Restoring your family homestead is in keeping with Ezio’s personality and makes for a nice diversion from finding collectibles and killing folks, but it renders in-game pricing virtually useless. Can’t afford that new bit of armor? Just wait a few minutes for the villa’s bank account to update.

None of these issues are game-breakers, though, especially when balanced against everything Assassin’s Creed 2 has to offer. Sharing Ezio’s journey is emotionally gratifying and more than enough to keep you playing even when you grow weary of trying to track down collectibles or blend in with the crowd to dodge a guard. There’s also just something undeniably cool about hanging out with Leonardo da Vinci. Maybe it’s the accent.

Bottom Line: Assassin’s Creed 2 suffers from a few growing pains here and there, but for the most part takes the franchise in a positive and satisfying direction.

Recommendation: Yeah, the first one was aggravating, I know, but don’t hold that against this one. You’ll find a lot to love, I promise. Assassin’s Creed 2 is the best kind of sequel.

Score: [rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Susan Arendt found it hard not to stab those bloody minstrels square in the face every time they got in her way.

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