Enter Assassin's Creed II's biggest advancement: a story or player-involvement, and by extension player-emotional-investment. People you/Ezio are supposed to care about hand out missions and give instructions. Sometimes they even do things for you. Skipping investigation altogether and being told that the guilty person is holed up in some tower already makes it all so exhilarating. Maybe assassins were really supposed to do all the foot work, sniffing out clues in an effort to uncover someone who deserves to bleed, but players don't really want to be involved in all the sniffing. They want direct control over all of the bleeding, and Assassin's Creed II projects the player right into that.
You can still find all of the pacing and exploration your heart can desire, simply by keeping an eye out for all of the collectible objects. Even the treasure chests, which are actually purely accessory, are given value when they're placed on the minimap by way of a purchased treasure map. You might or might not be motivated to do all of that slinking around, but either way it's there for you if you want it. That's really what the collectible should be, optional, and not the main attraction.
As you're racing from mission to mission, building an entire society of assassins around (a society the first game said was there but never ever illustrated to the player), there's some beautiful scenery to take in. I didn't think there could be a lot more squeezed into this engine, but some engineer at Ubisoft is wringing the towel dry, and it shows. Everything is beautiful, bright, vivid, and Florence and Venice especially are jewels of design and graphical craftsmanship. There's just so much to interact with, and those damn crazies are replaced with marginally less frustrating musicians. They're a bit more manageable in that you can actually pick them up and throw them off a bridge or whatever you'd delight more in.
Everything about Assassin's Creed II has been improved, and where the game is tethering itself to is obvious. It's channelling Legend of Zelda games in the way it has the player collect and complete challenges to upgrade weapons, but it's removed all of the obvious gating and filled it in with more and more story. The story is channeling Grand Theft Auto, not in the parodic lampooning sense GTA IV has made a mainstay of the series, but in the sense that the main character has some motivations and frustrations, successes and setbacks, not to mention that the primary goal is almost always to travel, gather, and kill.
And when the curtain is pulled back and even more is further revealed to the player, you just sit back and say "huh..." knowing full well that you're going to be kept wondering again, until the next installment comes. I haven't even said anything about how great the music is, how powerful of a relationship you build with Leonardo, how fun and varied the missions make themselves, how effectively the team learned from the efforts on Prince of Persia, or how Jenna watched the story are from start to finish and was entertained all the way through. If I mentioned all of that would it help to justify my opinion of the game? Whatever, chalk it up to how deeply I enjoyed Assassin's Creed II. I don't think I'm the only one either, and little touches do a great deal toward creating that deep sense of enjoyment.
A reference to Mario is a more out and out way of leading the player in, but a more subtle way is the progression of the plot through time, or the establishment of an enemy force through the boyhood conflict with a rival family's young man (channeling Pokemon's motivation in the direct linking of two people pitted at odds by "fate" or whatever you want to call it, devine, developer hand-holding maybe).
I could keep going, but there really is no need. I haven't played every game that came out this year (and there are some I know could at least contend ACII for this), but I am comfortable saying that Assassin's Creed II is PLAY READ WRITE's Game of the year.
Thoughts? Questions? Contentions? Let me and any of your fellow PRW readers know in the comments.
PLAY READ WRITE / REVIEW SCORE: 5 OUT OF 5