You don't need to play the first Assassin's Creed. It's a very mediocre game that has some high points and a lot of repetitive drudgery. You absolutely do have to play Assassin's Creed 2, which is one of the best games of the year. So go here or somewhere else on-line to get the basics of the first game and then jump right end. You might miss a bit of nuance about the centuries long secret war between Templars and Assassins, but only a little, and that's not the most interesting part of this game. The most interesting part of Assassin's Creed 2 is everything else.
Although technically the story takes place in the modern day, with you playing someone named Desmond who's using a sort of virtual reality machine to explore the genetically encoded memories of his assassin ancestors, in all the important ways you play Ezio, a 15th century Italian from a wealthy family in Florence who soon gets caught up in the battle between Medicis and Borgias, which is itself just an echo of grander conspiracies. Ezio is an immediately likable Italian rogue in the best tradition, mischievous but passionate, devoted to his family and heedless of risk. He has a penchant for scaling Florence's beautifully rendered architecture, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and getting into brawls with rival families. For a moment or two you might feel like you've dropped into Romeo and Juliet, The Game, but soon the body count outstrips even the bloodiest of Shakespeare's tragedies.
Ezio is the star, but Renaissance Italy is the bight and shining stage on which Assassin's Creed 2's epic tale unfolds. Having been to three out of the four locations featured prominently in the game, I yearned for nothing more than to travel back to Florence, Venice, and San Gimignano. With its focus on real-world, really famous locales like The Duomo in Florence or Piazza San Marco in Venice and historical figures like Lorenzo di Medici and Leonardo da Vinci, this game offers a wondrous setting more evocative than a dozen made-up fantasy kingdoms or space stations. Ezio is free to roam throughout these cities, using an intuitive and fun climbing and free running system that offers just the right challenge. As he climbs, jumps, fights, and assassinates his way through the story, Ezio's missions provide plenty of the variety that was lacking in the first game.
From picking pockets to hiring courtesans to distract guards to outfitting your villa with real classics of Renaissance art to finding and decoding secret glyphs to scaling the tallest structures in each neighborhood, there's always something else for Ezio to do, and it's almost always fun. The core combat and assassination mechanics work well too, with either heavy sword, quick dagger, or hidden blades to do battle with. Even unarmed Ezio's a force to be reckoned with, especially if he poisons a foe first, leaving him delirious and swinging wildly. The game's central missions seldom repeat exactly, and there are new challenges and surprises right through to the end. There are also some fairly difficult jump-puzzle sequences that would feel right at home in Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Even I, who am not a fan of this particular game design trope, enjoyed these largely because they took place inside famous cathedrals. Still, I do think it's about time to put a moratorium on that stone grinding on stone sound effect used to indicate ancient, impossible to actually make architecture shifting to reveal hidden paths only a gymnast could ever access.
Although the difficulty level of Assassin's Creed 2 isn't very high, it offers plenty of challenge and just a ton of fun, both in exploring the world and watching the complex plots within plots unfold. The ultimate secret revealed by decoding all the glyphs did surprise me, and definitely sheds a crazy new light on the series' meta-plot. It's a testament that even though I broke my 42 HD TV in the one moment the game really stymied me, the first thing I did once I got a new TV was to put it back in and keep on playing (and I cleared the frustrating bit with relative ease sometimes it pays to take a break and come back with fresh, poorer eyes). I played through it in about 15 hours and kind of want to start all over again. Not enough to go play the original again though.
Assassin's Creed 2 gets 5 stars and is available now for around $60 on Playstation 3 and X-Box 360, with a PC version scheduled for early next year.