I have finished Assassin's Creed 2. Not completed it. I need to get 5 more trophies, which will be a grind, but at least I have my trusty walkthrough.
So I'll get some initial thoughts out of the way. I enjoyed the Italian voices, kudos to Ubisoft for including them. Jesper Kyd's soundtrack was brilliant as usual. I found the final boss anticlimactic: it came down to a fist-fight, which was how you did combat throughout the first chapter (sorry, DNA sequence) anyway so I'd become rather good at it and defeated Borgia before his monologue even ended (lolz!). Assassin's Creed 1 had the better final fight and, ultimately, climax.
Now the good thing about AC2 was that Ubisoft really combed through all the problems that the first game had and dealt with them. I thank them heartily, in fact it's what people expect with a sequel: get the problems of the first game cleared up. Gone are the annoying street crazies and beggars, replaced by bards (most of whom can't sing). Now they are hilarious, just chuck some florins on the ground and they'll immediately drop the lute and lunge for the coins. The guards are more logical; if you're being chased and you run by a new group of guards they don't immediately know you're a criminal. Saying that, I find it almost too easy to escape guards now, especially in Venice: to escape the 'alert zone' I just jump into a river and swim away. One problem I had though was I could never get used to the new fighting controls, dunno what the problem was.
Now before I go on, I need to briefly mention the plot. This time, Desmond is reliving the memories of his ancestor, Ezio, who lived in the Italian Rennaissance. Now the very first time you meet Ezio he's just been born. Quick intro to his parents or what? When you start playing with him you meet him as a naïve, irresponsible 17-year-old. He's forced to learn to become an assassin, since his father never told him that his key job was as an assassin and after he's executed, his uncle has to. Ezio starts out as an assassin in order to avenge the murders of his father and brothers.
The reason I mention all this is that Ezio's and Altaïr's situations are so different. Altaïr lived at Masyaf, which was basically Assassin HQ and every mission was formulaic and up to the actual assassination of the target it's such a laborious chore. Ezio grew up in a public front, with family and friends, follows the man behind the murder of his father and brothers, assassinates him and then realises he's part of a wider network. So he follows a trail. So the fact that he travels around to vastly different places, meets up with friends of old and new, doing favours and sidequests that all vary, means that levels and the make-up of cities are so different and unexpected. (Venice is HUGE!) One minute I might be treasure-hunting, then chasing after a pick-pocket, then following a Templar to a secret meeting. Even the people (or factions) that help you are related to the story and Ezio. Altaïr was able to rely on scholars as a moving hiding spot or as an infiltration tool. Sometimes they appeared when he saved a scholar from being beaten up by guards, but the ones that waited for you to join them in order to enter a city made little sense. Prostitutes, thieves and mercenaries are people that help Ezio and Ezio helps in return, so asking them for favours like distracting guards make perfect sense (granted it's a paid service). What I'm trying to get at is that the cities Ezio visits, the jams he gets friends out of, the objectives he carries out, they're all levels and objectives directly steered by the game and Ezio as a character with motivations. That's basic video game storytelling.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is due for Autumn release, so I think it fair to share my opinions on Assassin's Creed as a franchise. The key reason I even played the 2 Assassin's Creed games was Nathan. He and I have held the Metal Gear Solid franchise as the hallmark of video gaming for the longest time. Every installment has cutting-edge graphics (upon release anyway), great story, great characters, awesome gameplay, even introduces new gameplay mechanics. (An exception to this would be The Twin Snakes, which was a remake of the first game made for the Gamecube as a cash cow.) Now Nathan said to me during Easter that he thought the story of Assassin's Creed was way more epic than in Metal Gear Solid. Well, yes, I agree with that. Upon learning what I was playing Sajida expressed the opinion that Altaïr was a better protagonist that Ezio. I agree with that too. Now I don't know Nathan's opinion on this but if I was to choose which franchise was better, Metal Gear Solid still wins easily, as a game and as a stand-alone story. The biggest problem with the Assassin's Creed story is that I don't care about the characters. Are they unlikeable? No. Are they blandly designed? No, certainly not. Did they develop properly? I don't think they did. You literally see Ezio grow up but it's rather irregular and it's difficult to know his internal struggles. It certainly doesn't help that at no point in the story does the character bare his soul in any way (unlike in MGS).
The character that stands out the most in the franchise is, ironically, Altaïr. In the first game he was pretty 2D (like everyone else) and the character that stole the show (as it were) was Malik, a bitter member of the Brotherhood who was critical of Altaïr with good reason. His foolish actions at the very beginning of the game cost Malik an arm and the life of his brother (whether he was biologically his brother or not is hard to tell, but the point is, he was near and dear). But Malik had strong principles and was a wise character, even proving to be Altaïr's greatest ally in the end. A perfect portrayal. The irony here is that Altaïr becomes much more developed in Ezio's memories. One of Ezio's objectives is to gather 30 pieces of the Codex, which in actual fact are Altaïr's writings (which are a mixture of his journal and Guidebook for Assassins, like many old texts the intention is a bit confused). They give much insight into his mindset after the first game ends, including the allusion to a lover and the final page is what he wrote before he died, the weary yet sharp writings of an old man. Half way through the game Desmond relives another memory of Altaïr's in a dream, in which we find out his lover was a female Templar (ooh conflict!). I think her name was Maria, but I'm not completely sure, she did appear in the first game. The way he held her hand as he left (after conceiving a child with her) shows how intense a romantic he is. The way he refers to his "sons" in a codex page implies she eventually came to live with him.
Needless to say, Altaïr is the most interesting character hands down. But there's something else that bugs me. For some reason Ubisoft decided to make each main character look the same. Why does so much media make ancestors look exactly like their descendants? It's annoying, it doesn't happen, it's impossible, so stop it! In Assassin's Creed 1 Altaïr did look too similar to Desmond for my liking but at least he had a different voice, bushier eyebrows and didn't have a noticeable scar on his mouth. And he didn't look so friendly. In Assassin's Creed 2 Ezio has Desmond's face and you even see how he gets the scar, so when Altaïr gate crashed the plot (refusing to be ignored no doubt) the first thing I did was look at his face. Why's the scar there and what happened to his eyebrows? Grrr!