[Review] Assassin’s Creed 2

December 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm Leave a comment

Title: Assassin’s Creed 2
Media: Video Game (Xbox 360, PS3, PC coming soon)
Primary Subject: Renaissance History
Secondary Subject: Art History

Assassin’s Creed 2 by Ubisoft has received incredible praise from critics since it was released just over a month ago. It has been on my radar as a possible teaching tool since it was revealed at E3 earlier this year. The original Assassin’s Creed had many educational elements to it but I personally found the game boring to the point of being unplayable. That made finding the history in it a chore. AC2, however, is a joy to play and more than any other experience with media I’ve had truly embeds you into history.

The game takes place in Renaissance Italy – primarily in the city-states of Florence and Venice. It is set late in the 1400s and begins just prior to the assassination attempt on Lorenzo de’ Medici. The game developers have recreated Renaissance Italy in absolutely astounding detail. Of course, I’ve never been to Renaissance Italy but I imagine if I could time travel I’m quite sure it would look, sound and feel remarkably like the game world. Many critics have commented on how it feels very much like when they actually visited Florence for the first time. It is that accurate. All of the key buildings are there from the incredible Duoma in Florence to the waterfront in Venice. The towns are vibrant, busy and truly feel alive. The game can even be played in Italian to further enhance the experience.

That alone would have made for an incredible teaching experience. Ubisoft, however, took it miles further. Throughout the game whenever you visit a new location, buy a new piece of art or find a new historical figure the game adds an entry to a data base. This data base is, quite frankly, a textbook on the Renaissance. There are hundreds of entries providing accurate historical information on the items. They are easily accessed at any point in the game. What is most appealing to me as a teacher though is how they first appear. When the entries are “unlocked” the first time a box appears in the corner of the screen showing the items name and a small picture of it. A simple tap of the A button at that time brings up the new information. This is not like the encyclopedia in Civilization IV which had to be hunted down. This is history right at the fingertips of the player. It is clear the developers wanted their players to learn this history.

However, even if you never touch the data base there is much to appreciate here. The doctors in the game all, for example, wear the beak-like Black Death masks we’ve all seen. You can buy period specific art at galleries throughout the game that are then put on the wall in your virtual house to be viewed at any time. On top of that, key Renaissance figures play roles throughout the storyline of the game. The Medici Assassination provides the setting for the first third of the game, Leonardo da Vinci plays the role of “Q” (the scientist from the James Bond series who provides new gadgets) and in the upcoming add-on pack none other than Niccolo Machiavelli serves as your guide. Even the game’s final boss is a very important Renaissance figure whom I will not spoil here.

Beyond all this is the series’ main storyline. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll be vague. The first game of the series takes place during the Crusades with the idea that the Knights Templar are the main enemy. We’ll keep it simple and say they are. That enemy continues into the second game and will assuredly into the third. What is extremely cool is how the second game starts to show how the Templar have had their hand in various events throughout history. While this is all fictional it certainly adds a great level to intrigue to history in a very da Vinci Code-like manner. By exploring this completely optional aspect of the game you’ll find how players as varied as Gandhi and Houdini have been affected by the Templar conspiracy. Very cool, very history.

Motivational Potential:
The game is about assassin’s – what more needs be said? It suffers from none of the boredom of the first in the series. It is incredibly well paced, looks great and exudes cool in every way. This is no obscure edu-game either. AC2 was nominated for Game of the Year by many large publications this year including Spike TV’s Video Game Awards. It is a huge selling game. It would not be hard to convince students to play it. Plus, as I said above, the game is drowning in history. Not only is it unavoidable it will almost certainly make most players want to learn more. This game is everything an educational game should be in terms of motivation.

Educational Potential:
The game is, however, rated M and therefore will be only truly useful for college – where I wouldn’t hesitate to assign it in an art history or Renaissance history course. I would without hesitation call this a perfect educational game if not for the rating (which is definitely earned.) Still, the game is not gratuitous in my opinion. There are a couple scenes early in the game that show off the main character’s “adult” pursuits that certainly could have been cut but to say that the Renaissance was Puritanical historically would be a lie anyway. There are “courtesans” throughout the city as well though in only one scene is there any real indication of what they truly are for.

The violence is consistent throughout the game (again, you’re an assassin after all…) but it is always done within context. If you, as the player, choose to kill innocents you are told that it is out of line for your character and if you continue you effectively “die” and have to restart your mission. While it would be nice if this wasn’t there, to portray the Renaissance as a time of peace would simply not be accurate. The Medici Assassination is a historical event after all. Not much you can do to ignore that.

If you have an age-appropriate group you have to play this. It is everything a game-as-education should be. I’m begging game devs who make games like this to release an educational version. It would not be hard to remake the game exactly as is just without the attack button and story line. Just drop my kids into this recreated historical world and let them wander around finding new entries for the database. I’ve played in virtual worlds before but none as wondrous as the one found here and I wish I could have my middle schoolers player it.


Entry filed under: Video Games.

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