Even when it comes to talking about your favourite game, there’s no forgiving a self-indulgent intro, is there? The kind of paragraph that a good editor immediately deletes before circling the one below in red pen and scrawling ‘this is where you actually start.’ But, hopefully, everyone can try and forgive this one because when it comes to my relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, there’s now just a part of my brain that’s permanently made up of Animus fragments.
Case in point, when I was discussing with a friend recently that I just followed a small number of ‘life things’ on Instagram. I listed friends, tattoos, food, coffee, and “oh, Assassin’s Creed.” And it’s all Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s fault.
Ageing us all rapidly, Assassin’s Creed 2 was released twelve years ago in 2009 to happily surprised critical acclaim. While the original had impressed technically with its journey to the Crusades via genetic time travel device the Animus, Altair’s adventure felt a little flat. This was an ambitious world and Eagle diving into haycarts was heart-in-mouth fun, but assassination missions and – painful memory alert – flag collecting quickly became rote.
Assassin’s Creed 2’s fast-forward to Renaissance Italy though, was, quite literally, a game changer. This was an introduction to young Florentine nobleman Ezio whose reputation as a ladies man was far more interesting than Altair’s hooded stoicism. Teach us to use hiding spots while freerunning away from the guards of a woman’s irate father the morning after the night before? Cart chases? Flying machines designed by Leonardo Da Vinci? Oh go on then…
In tandem with this murderous action smorgasbord, Ezio’s emotional journey is masterful. Except that bit where, y’know, he beats up the Pope with his bare hands but we won’t talk about that… While thousands of words could be written on the appeal of the individual Italian cities, each with their own unique soundtrack by Jesper Kyd – I know, I’ve written them – it’s Ezio’s story arc that elevates Assassin’s Creed 2. That this is constantly effortlessly reflected in our ever-increasing abilities, means that Ezio’s origin story becomes our own.
It means that whether we’re witnessing the death of his family, building a friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, upgrading a home far away from Florence, or gradually learning the ways of the Assassin order, we’re born into this world alongside Ezio. Quite literally, kicking and screaming if you remember. Donning the traditional hooded garb of the order before learning to use a hidden blade for the first time feels revelatory in a way that the original just wasn’t.
And those who remember the grim satisfaction of double assassinations might recall that it takes hours to earn that second hidden blade from Da Vinci. My first dramatic aerial assassination on two guards protecting a chest was seared into my imagination in a way that has never really left. It doesn’t matter that I have done it thousands of times in the decade since – don’t tell my therapist – Ezio and I truly earned that moment.
With Ezio at its heart then, the sprawling sandbox of Renaissance Italy feels like a test of your shared abilities. The exploration of dank dripping tombs beneath Venice or reaching new heights with a hard-earned climb leap, are endless delightful loops of making the most of new skills and feeling like a 15th century Batman. AC2, of course, wasn’t the first game to perfect a rich dopamine loop but it was one in 2009 that delivered an emotional journey wrapped in a beautiful world that told me what games could be. All while running across the sun-dappled rooftops of Florence, guards hurling both projectiles and insults.
It’s this emotional connection that’s why the destruction of Monteriggioni at the start of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood feels like someone kicked you in the teeth. Our gradual building and upgrading of the walled town in AC2 is a true joy. Taking a look at the list – I dare you not to hear it in that accent – and upgrading the mines, church or bank is innately linked to our experience of becoming a Master Assassin. We earn every single one of those upgrades as Ezio’s star climbs through the decades. The inevitable tearing down of everything we had built in order to do it all again in Brotherhood’s Rome was an agonising but necessary test of Ezio’s and our mettle.
Ezio’s arc across Brotherhood and Revelations was elegantly satisfying with a kicker of an emotional conclusion tying back to AC1, but we’re still feeling the echoes of AC2 through the franchise now. Most recently, there have been more subtle references such as the sound of the tiles beneath Kassandra and Alexios’ feet in Odyssey’s Ancient Greece not dissimilar to those of Florence or Venice, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is packed with far more solid links.
The gradual upgrading of Ravensthorpe, the presence of the Assassin’s Guild, and the reappearance of social stealth and cloaked blending are no accidents. It’s now a full action RPG across an intimidatingly huge map, and thankfully no one is ever just waiting with an exclamation mark over their heads, but Ezio’s experiences still echo softly across the centuries within the Animus. The reintroduction of composer Jesper Kyd too for the first time since the Ezio trilogy is no accident. Head to Spotify and listen to Silent Ambush for an explanation of why approaching an encampment with your cloak delivers an immediate rush of nostalgia.
And hey, it’s not perfect to go back to now. Yes, it’s a stealth series that took years to add a crouch button, and you either love or hate the magical aliens subplot, but the draw of Assassin’s Creed 2 is still potent for me. I recently loaded up the newly upgraded 60fps version of the remastered trilogy on Xbox Series X and it wasn’t the uncomfortable freerunning ‘claw’ or my apparent lack of climbing skills that stopped me from playing.
I simply knew that if I loaded up even one more impressively smooth sequence I would be in Italy for the long haul. Unfortunately, six hundred years in the past, Eivor’s axe is itching for the Siege of Paris and I’m on another journey now. Honestly though, Ezio? I’m still thinking of you the whole time.
Louise Blain is a freelance writer and presenter that you can find at NME, but also on BBC Radio, Netflix and others. Read the rest of the Remastered series here