- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2010

2009 was quite a year for the video game player. With an abundance of first-rate titles, not limited to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Halo: ODST, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Left 4 Dead 2 and Resident Evil 5, what possibly could top them all?

Well, for me, a sequel to one of the most popular titles of 2008 did. It offered a cinematic blend of action and exploration and still consumes my interest.

Through a plot that mixes elements of a Dan Brown-style historical conspiracy novel with a dose of “The Matrix,” Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft, rated M for mature, $59.99) quickly became my favorite game of the year.

The third-person adventure, supported by an intriguing war between an Assassin organization and the Templar Knights, combines a bloody romp through the Renaissance with a history lesson.

The story picks up from the previous title and finds a character named Desmond Miles escaping from a modern-day secret Templar facility. Assisted by Lucy Stillman, he plugs into a device called the Animus and virtually travels to 15th-century Italy. There, he taps into the memories of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an assassin in training who is prepping to exact revenge for his dishonored family.

My fascination with the game hit its peak about the time I took a massive plunge from the rooftop of a cathedral in Florence, landed in a hay cart, grabbed an unsuspecting herald standing next to it, plunged a blade in his back and pulled him into the hay. I then quietly got out of the hay, pickpocketed some unsuspecting citizens and went on my merry way.

It’s a discreet, stealthy kill, dramatic and awe-inspiring to be sure, and netted a couple of bucks to spend at the blacksmith, tailor, art dealer or doctor to boot. Not bad for a couple of minutes of action.

The stealth factor gets even better when Ezio can hide among crowds, sneak underwater, pay certain folks to misdirect his pursuers and toss coins on the ground to start a small riot. Many times, however, the best stealth is simply climbing like Spider-Man up to and across rooftops or using Leonardo’s famed flight machine to avoid detection.

If a fight is required, or welcomed, Ezio can use a foe’s dropped weapon or choose from among the swords and knives he has acquired. Most effective are those legendary dual blades attached to gauntlets — even Wolverine would admire them.

The player will further savor time-consuming elements such as finding codex pieces and bringing them to a young Leonardo da Vinci to translate (for weapon upgrades), renovating the city of Monteriggioni and the Auditori family’s villa (reap healthy discounts from the shopkeepers) and maintaining a low profile by ripping down “wanted” posters and bribing officials.

An equally great joy of Assassin’s Creed II resides in its clever options to educate the player, who is constantly rewarded for his curiosity.

Stuck in gorgeously designed open-ended environments in Florence, Tuscany, Venice and Rome, each further comes to life through an incredible amount of information. Just walking around or looking at objects moves its history to a knowledge database, which includes famous landmarks and cities as well as types of people.

For example, after bumping into an oddly dressed physician in the streets, players learn that after the plague ravaged Europe in 1350, many doctors dressed in special gear to treat patients. To prevent contamination, they wore a cape coated in wax and a primitive gas mask shaped like a beak.

Or, learn that the city of San Gimignano was named after Saint Geminianus, who supposedly conjured up a dense fog to save the locale from Attila the Hun.

A mix of fact with fiction does exist, especially with character biographies, but inquisitive types can take the information offered and do their own research away from the game. Teased with a bit of background on da Vinci or Machiavelli and taking the time to learn about them and others should not be missed.

In fact, the database is just the tip of the resources. As Ezio purchases artwork and returns to his family’s villa, the art can be viewed in special rooms while the player appreciates and learns a bit about Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Baptism of Christ” or Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro.

Assassin’s Creed II shines for its depth and beauty, much like some of the age-old masterpieces of art and architecture it showcases. Unfortunately, the mature nature of the game will limit its wealth of knowledge and ever-evolving action to a select demographic.

Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Communities pages (communties.washingtontimes.com).

• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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