Despite its tepid entertainment value, swordplay remains a crucial stress-release valve whenever the roof-hopping and mob-infiltration grow stale. The all-conquering counter-kill has been de-fanged, with armored or more agile foes able to block it or retaliate in kind, and there’s an eyewatering new selection of scripted finishing moves, throws and disarms. Fighting is still a grind, though, when you’re surrounded by multiple specimens of one enemy type, and the grander battles that attend on the presence of ready-for-hire mercenaries and thieves are a confusing mash-fest, the AI getting its wires somewhat crossed in the press of bodies.
The option to buy new weapons and armor lends spice to the proceedings, but the effects are rarely more than visual and statistical: a mace handles much like a sword, and a stiletto much like a run-of-the-mill dagger. Similar things might be said of the in-game economy at large, which centres on an upgradeable villa and township Ezio takes possession of after his family’s escape from Florence.
Oil paintings of your victims deck the villa’s halls, together with any passable facsimiles of real-life artworks you might have purchased in your travels. The town is chock-a-block with dilapidated businesses like brothels and blacksmiths, revived with a cash injection or two, and you can lease properties to swell the population.
It’s a good laugh for half an hour, redolent of the lightweight sim-management games which find a ready following on Facebook, but almost completely peripheral, and no competition in any case for the personality-crammed house-keeping antics of Fable II. It’s hard not to wish the developer had given the requisite time and energy over to greater mission depth and variety: this is, or should be, a game about assassination, not treating the local bank to a new coat of paint.
However tighter its act, however convincingly it integrates player-imposed logic with a pulsing, subversively organic 15th century milieu, Assassin’s Creed 2 feels a little vacant. The second game in the series is palpably its best, but it trades too heavily on prior successes and introduces comparatively little of actual worth. Despite the poise and purposefulness of the core mechanics, it’s an experiment, tending very noticeably towards a sequel – a sequel in which Ubisoft Montreal can once again sweep out the dross, hone the worthwhile bits and, just perhaps, finally deliver the utterly remarkable experience we were promised back in 2007.