If you believe Metacritic, Assassin’s Creed II is a major improvement over its predecessor. The Metascore jumped 10 points between games, which would seem to suggest it solves a major problem, or at least a good number of smaller ones. I played the games out of order, going through Ezio Auditore’s adventures in the sequel before I experienced Altaïr’s adventure in the original Assassin’s Creed. I can clearly see some areas where the latter game improved on the former, but I wouldn’t say that the quality was dramatically greater. In some ways, it felt like the series lost as much as it gained going from one game to the other.
One thing missing from the sequel is the first game’s sense of moral ambiguity. It is immediately apparent from the opening scenes of Assassin’s Creed that Altaïr is not a nice person and that he doesn’t necessarily do admirable things. We first see him murdering an innocent man and spouting off about his superior skills and rank, and while he becomes a better man eventually he never shows any real kindness or charity. As for the men he kills, well, some of them are monsters who clearly deserve death, but their ultimate goal is the same as Altaïr’s own. Both sides desire peace in the Holy Land, but the Templars wish to achieve it by force. Ultimately, it turns out that al-Mualim, the man who sent Altaïr to kill these people, was himself one of the conspirators, and used Altaïr to eliminate the competition. Altaïr is clearly morally compromised.
Assassin’s Creed II skates by pretty much all of this. Ezio himself is a bit of an impetuous cad, but he’s never a full-bore ass like Altaïr. Ezio’s quest for vengeance never really has any morally complex dimension: the game’s villains get painted pure black very quickly, when they execute a sickly thirteen-year-old boy, and never take on any real shades of gray after that. The first game seemed to ask a question about what ends justify which means, but the sequel glibly pushes this question aside. Assassin’s Creed argues that the Assassins are morally upstanding despite the murders they commit; the sequel suggests they are morally upstanding because of them.
Additionally, I felt like each game might have benefited from using the other’s gameplay loop. Altaïr belongs to a far-reaching organization with an extensive support network, but every time he starts hunting a target he has to go through a series of investigations to locate the man’s hideout and find ways in and out of his location. By contrast, Ezio starts out almost alone, yet he rarely needs to do any work to even track down his foes.
I actually enjoyed most of Altaïr’s investigations quite a bit, but after his first few successes the idea that he would continue them, especially when some of the tasks were so insulting, strained credulity. Having allies report to Altaïr, even in exchange for favors, would have done more to emphasize that he was part of a large organization rather than just a lone killer. Having a progressive decrease (rather than an increase) in the number of investigations required would also have helped to realize Altaïr’s progression in the ranks of the organization through gameplay. Moreover, the idea that al-Mualim would send Altaïr on this course of self-improvement seemed at odds with his true intentions. Better to keep Altaïr aggressive, blind, and alienated from his fellows, I would think, than to let him become enlightened.
By contrast, Ezio has little need to gather information, despite the fact that he seems to have no formal organization backing him up. Figuring out who to kill seems almost easy, and finding targets never really poses any difficulty. There’s a feeling of discomfort that comes from being ignorant that I got in spades from the original Assassin’s Creed, but it was never really present in Assassin’s Creed II even though Ezio undoubtedly felt that way. Forcing the player to perform more of the investigation-type missions would have served both the narrative and the characterization in the second game.
This is not to say that Assassin’s Creed II was not at all improved over its predecessor. The handling of guards, the usefulness of the map, and the nature of blending were all dramatically better in the sequel. In addition to these technical advances, the design of the second game seems to have a greater commitment to the idea of being a game about an assassin. Altaïr is as much a warrior as he is an assassin; the first game essentially requires you to get in a large number of swordfights. Scholars and women must be rescued from groups of guards in order to bypass checkpoints or hinder Altaïr’s enemies during chases, and particularly late in the game these fights can involve ten or more guards. Moreover, the chases become a fact of life in the game due to the mandatory stealth loss that results from every assassination. While Assassin’s Creed II has its own fair share of brawls, the action generally felt more focused on Ezio’s role as a killer, particularly in the numerous assassination-based sidequests.
Nonetheless, Ezio’s story seems to be a step backwards from Altaïr’s, mainly because of the latter game’s oversimplified take on the moral dimensions of the battle between the Templars and Assassins. The elimination of the original’s gameplay loop streamlines the experience, but this may actually be to the game’s detriment. Assassin’s Creed II may well be a better game about being an assassin, but I ultimately felt it was not a better story about that.