I finished the second Assassin’s Creed game sometime last week, and now that I’m working my way through Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I think I can safely say that the series is becoming one of my favorites. I loved the first game, despite its faults, and the same is true here. Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed II attempted to fix a lot of the problems from the first game, such as the lack of female characters. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still pretty enjoyable.
Spoilers up ahead.
The story picks up in the present day, with Desmond still being held against his will by Abstergo, which plans to launch a Piece of Eden into orbit with a satellite in a few months. The Piece of Eden will then allow the Templars to control the world, and thanks to Altaïr’s memories, they now know where several are. Thankfully, Lucy single-handedly rescues Desmond, something that a whole group of Assassins failed to do in the first game. So I guess I got my wish—she beat the shit out of a bunch of Templars.
Lucy takes Desmond to a warehouse to meet up with a few other Assassins. There’s Shaun, a history buff, and Rebecca, a computer expert and engineer. Rebecca built her own version of the Animus, and they plug Desmond right into it so he can relive the memories of his ancestor Ezio. They hope that through Ezio, the Bleeding Effect will kick in and Desmond will gain all of Ezio’s super awesome Assassin skills in the course of a few days.
Ezio’s story begins in mid-1400s Italy while he’s in his late teens. He starts off as a rich playboy who doesn’t take much seriously and spends his days fooling around. This all changes, however, when his father and two brothers are framed for treason and executed. Ezio manages to escape with his sister and mother to his Uncle Mario’s place. It’s there that Ezio learns about the war between Assassins and Templars and that his father was an Assassin. Over the next two decades, Ezio hunts down the people responsible for his family’s murder and becomes a Master Assassin himself. Eventually, he comes into possession of the Apple, the Piece of Eden Altaïr found during the third crusade. Ezio then communes with a hologram of Minerva, one of the highly advanced people Who Came Before and used to rule the world. Her people created regular humans and enslaved them with the Pieces of Eden. This eventually resulted in a war, but while everyone was so busy killing each other, a random solar flare hit the Earth and nearly wiped out all life on it. Minerva’s people went extinct shortly afterward. Minerva’s hologram speaks to Desmond through Ezio and warns that another solar flare is about to happen. Ezio is naturally confused by all of this, and the game ends before he gets any answers.
Assassin’s Creed II is flawed, specifically with its female characters, but it’s also less flawed than the first game, if only because it has female characters. I wouldn’t say that these characters are the most well-written—the game is about Ezio and doesn’t spend massive amounts of time with them—but I certainly appreciate the diversity it attempts to show in their characterization.
First, we’ve got Claudia, Ezio’s younger sister. She lives a life of luxury and little hardship until the execution. Mario puts her to work around his villa, something she is unaccustomed to, but she soon gets used to it. Claudia takes care of an entire town’s finances and pretty much runs shit for twenty years while Ezio’s off doing things. And she’s actually really proficient at it. The village of Monteriggioni thrives under her care. Then there’s their mother, Maria. It’s heavily implied that she’s sexually assaulted when her husband and sons are arrested. Her story is one of trauma and mental illness. She spends the better part of the game completely mute, and only speaks again when Ezio brings her a bunch of feathers—collecting feathers was her youngest son’s pastime. Even then, her pain doesn’t disappear. She thanks Ezio for not forgetting about her, but then she goes back to silence and we don’t see her again until Brotherhood. From what little I’ve played of Brotherhood, I can safely say that she seems angrier than she did previously, but while I like that the game attempted to do this kind of storyline justice, we really needed to see more of Maria for that to happen. As it stands, it unfortunately falls into the “background misogyny” camp.
Another prominent character is Caterina Sforza, the Countess of Forlì. She has her Templar husband murdered, and then uses her resources to help the Assassins. Like many other Assassin’s Creed characters, she’s also a real person who existed, and her character ended up being really interesting. Seriously, go read up on her. Personality-wise, she’s straightforward and takes no shit, but we also get to see her being vulnerable when her children are threatened. That was not something I expected, because the game spends the first part of her introduction really hounding in the “strong independent woman” thing to the point that I thought she was going to be a stock character.
When we add in Lucy and Rebecca, Assassin’s Creed II ended up with more female characters than I expected, and it was a pleasant surprise. Despite the game’s occasional shortcomings with them, they are all unique and irreplaceable. Where the game starts to fall apart here is with Paola and Sister Teodora, two Assassins in Ezio’s time. I understand that the world back then really sucked for women and that they had fewer options than they do today, but part of me questioned why the female Assassins all had to be brothel owners. Sister Teodora’s character is especially bad.
Nun-run brothels were and are a thing, and sex work was definitely really common during Ezio’s time. To that extent, the game is accurate. Unfortunately, the story is told through a modern lens, and if sensitive material isn’t handled correctly, it can send a bad message. Teodora runs a brothel because men’s souls need more than just spiritual guidance—in other words, she is driven by what men want and their needs. Again, this is way back in the day when both institutional and internalized sexism had a much bigger impact on people, but the game doesn’t show that here. Teodora is just the heterosexual male ideal of a sexually empowered woman, instead of an actually sexually empowered woman. For those of you who want a better idea of what a sexually empowered female character should be like, I direct you back to Caterina Sforza—because her sexual exploits aren’t her defining character trait.
There’s not a lot of racial diversity in the game—most everyone is white-passing—and I do question this. After all, people of color weren’t invented recently. They did live in Europe during the Renaissance, but Europe’s racial problems are very different from America’s, and what we consider white is not quite the same as what Europeans consider white. People who are white or white-passing in America do not necessarily have white privilege in Europe. Assassin’s Creed II was developed by Ubisoft’s Montreal division, and I’m sure they also have their own cultural distinctions concerning race. Due to all this, I don’t want to declare that this game’s racial representation is as awesome and groundbreaking as the first one, but I wouldn’t want to write it off entirely either. In this particular case, though, colorism is still an issue. Every once in a while, we see an NPC with slightly darker skin, but that’s not really saying much. Ubisoft still could have done more to add visible people of color, even as just background characters and NPCs, because not everyone in 1400s Italy was white-passing.
Nostalgia-wise, though, it was fun to run around Venice and visit all the places I actually used to visit when I lived in Italy, so there’s that. We do get to see Leonardo da Vinci, Ezio’s best friend, and his summary page takes the time and effort to point out that he was probably gay, even though we don’t see him engage in any kind of relationship. Any representation here is simple acknowledgement and not an actual exploration, which was a little disappointing. Still, though, Leonardo is one of the more prominent characters in the story, and also one of the more developed.
My other big problem with the game is a personal one. I love the mechanics, but there’s been more than a few times I’ve forgotten my character isn’t Batman and that I can’t just grapple to safety when I jump off a building. I accidentally killed both Ezio and Altaïr more than a few times because of this. On the bright side, though, unlike Altaïr who’s deathly afraid of water, Ezio can actually swim and doesn’t drown the very minute he touches it. For me, the game was also less glitch-y than the first one, and as Ezio has a few skills Altaïr didn’t, the gameplay itself was a bit more fun. In terms of story, I think I prefer the first game, but in terms of gender representation at least, I definitely favor the second. This was yet another really fun experience, and I recommend the game to anyone who hasn’t played it. Or, if you don’t have time, there’s a YouTube walkthrough series for this installment as well.