Now I did play the first AC installment, but I didn't play it to the end. I gave up on it halfway through because of the monotony of each mission, which is where the nay-sayers really planted their feet. I cannot blame them, because it was not that well executed and that was very obvious. What was working well for the first game was the plot and the over-all game play environment they were trying to achieve. They didn't quite get there with installment number one, but they hit the mark with installment two.
Ubisoft did an amazing and somewhat surprising (to me at least) thing, which was listen. They listened to the fans and the critiques that they got and they applied them. The overall monotony of the missions in installment one was not even present in installment two. And not only were there missions that you had to partake in to move the plot forward, there were also side missions you could do 'just for fun.' A big favorite I have heard people talk about were the Assassin Tombs, which were a huge bundle of puzzles, timed trials, sneaking, and overall fun to be had. There were six in all and only one you had to do to continue on
Besides variety in missions, ACII brought a huge variety in weaponry that really iced the cake. Double hidden blades? Freaking fantastic. Poison, smoke bombs, daggers, swords, pistol??? Need I really go on? While I did feel that some things were unlocked a little too late in the game to actually enjoy them, overall they did a wonderful job putting in each new upgrade and giving you reason to use them all. And unlike some games, there were very few mission in which you had to use one thing over the other and most of the time they left it to your discretion to get the job done the way you wanted to. If some of the weapons had been introduced a little earlier, it would have allowed even more ability to pick and choose as you see fit.
As with any game, there are always downfalls. ACII did have some of the problems I experienced in my foray with ACI, but many things were improved upon. The guard system, as with the first, was not perfect, but it was better. The guard AIs were not as silly as they had been in the first game. The guards did not attack you because you walked by on a horse, nor did they decide you were an assassin because you walked by and looked at them funny. There were some instances I embarked upon that made me WTF, like walking behind guards toward a chest, because wanting to loot free treasure boxes was obviously showing you to be an assassin. For the most part, the guard system was not that bad this time around. I ran right past guards many a time and did not get my face beat in for it. This is a plus, though it was also something that shouldn't have happened in the first place.
Controls are something that are not totally refined, and obviously with a free running game like Assassin's Creed you're going to run into these problems. There are many instances when you are climbing up a huge tower, only to randomly leap from it in a suicidal attempt to purge yourself of your emo tendencies. And yes, sometimes you say go left and the game says 'you said go right!' and takes you were it pleases, but for a game that is this involved, the controls were not nearly as shoddy as they could have been. There is not a game that has been made yet that does not have control issues, so faulting ACII for these minors glitches is not really fair. At most I may have had to redo something five times, but eventually things go the way you want them to. And my being willing to try that many times shows that there has to be something alluring about getting that bit done--something that is worth moving past a few failed attempts.
There were some issues I came across that were fairly ridiculous and I considered to be programming glitches that shouldn't have been overlooked. Missions that placed targets on your mini-map also tended to leave glitched targets stuck to you and around you on your mini-map. I would have to completely restart the game to get them to go away.
The use of the environment was tenfold better than the first installment, in my opinion. Though they returned the 'hiding spots' from the original game, I never really saw myself use them that often, whereas in ACI I had no choice if I wanted to get anything done. In ACII there was not only the ability to hide, there was the ability to hire others to help you throughout your endeavors and that proved to be utterly fantastic. And blending into crowds was improved from the first game of always being a monk; now you could be a random person in any group of people and get through things alive. The ability to lower notoriety was also a great addition, because it wasn't required, but it was something that you could use to make walking on the ground just as easy as walking over rooftops.
I also enjoyed the collectible aspect of the game, not being required but being something fun to do on the side. The glyphs brought about an extra-creepy side quest plus puzzle aspect that really made me freak out. The way they brought together science, religion, and history to a creepy and exciting degree of crazy was a really awesome touch. Other things, however, were a bit useless. The feathers, I found out at the end, gave a fairly pathetic excuse for a reward. In the future if they would make such collectible side-quests that brought about a really useful reward that you did not have to have to play the game, but could have if you were willing to put in the time, they might actually hit the mark. Also the mini-collectible quests were interesting as well, such as the codex pages and the statues at the Villa. The statues didn't give you anything but monetary rewards, but it was a small and unique collectible that I wish they had done in every different city and not just in one place.
As for the strange renovation bit at the Villa, I'm still back and forth on it. It was like a strange bit they put in to prove the age old saying that putting in the money will reward you in the end. And I can see how money could still have been a problem for those who chose not to embark on the Villa renovations, but for those of us who did, money became completely unimportant once the cash started rolling in from the renovations. This part of the game actually played against the optional side missions, which only gave you a reward of cash and achievements/trophies. Had the Villa bit not been in there, people would have had more incentive to collect all the treasure chests and partake in optional missions to get cash. In the beginning I was starving for treasure chests like I'd never get enough, but once I had renovations up, getting chests in Romagna and Venice were practically pointless.
I can see what they were trying to do with the Villa, allowing you to have a 'safe haven' and also implementing changes in the environment depending on the decisions the player makes, but I think that would have been put to better use elsewhere. I would like to see in future installments the ability to choose what sort of assassin you want to be. Obviously assassin's are not entirely warm-hearted considering their choice to fix everything is to kill people. So the stupid message that pops up saying 'Ezio should not be killing civilians' is a bit awkward and annoying at the same time. I know they are trying to show that assassin's aren't killing for the pleasure of killing, but I think that we understand that and we want to be able to choose for ourselves if we want to be warm and fluffy assassins or asshole assassins. If we don't want to kill civilians, fine, that's our choice, but if we do, then don't make us 'feel bad' because we do. Especially when you are always going to put annoying AI civilians in every game. Just as in the first game, with the retards and the beggar women, we were blessed with those pushy AIs that got in your face and wouldn't let up--this time in the form of the bard.
Ubisoft cannot put something that obnoxious into the game and then slap our wrists for wanting to destroy it. With all the time we spend killing guards who probably have nothing at all to do with the conspiracies those they work for get entangled in, you cannot fault us for wanting to kill random citizens as well. And if its ok to kill a pickpocket (which by the way, we as assassins do as well) why is it not ok to poison an annoying bard who refuses to get out of my way and gets indigent if I push him out of the way? Yes they gave us the option to throw our money to get them out of our faces, but sometimes you want the gratification of knowing that the bard will be done singing for good and that requires you not to reproach me for wanting to bitch-slap them.
All in all, the game was a tenfold improvement on the first game, but they do still have some things to work on. I would like to see a bit more freedom in the game allowing us to make our own decisions and reap our own consequences. Possibly allow for the thin line between what a good assassin and a bad assassin are and allow us to cross it on our own discretion. More use of environment changes according to things we do in the game, such as turning a place that was once filled with guards into the new thieves guild headquarters, and stuff like we saw used in the Villa, except implemented everywhere in the game. Maybe allow us to spend our money to improve any city in the game or let us rob food from the rich and give to the poor or steal from the poor and kill the rich and steal from them too. Let us choose how the civilians around us will treat us; this sort of environment in a game is what makes people play it through more than once. People will be more inclined to have different saved games as 'good assassins' and 'bad assassins' and enjoy seeing the differences between the two possibilities.
Yes, that may be asking a lot, but seeing how Ubisoft ran through scores of improvements on the first game, I believe they have the ability to improve things even further. I have faith in them and I can't wait to see how things go for the next game.