After news broke that Ubisoft would not be releasing an Assassin's Creed title this year, it wasn't a surprise that a remaster was coming to fill the gap in the company's annual release schedule. The Ezio Collection is a smart choice for a do-over, as the trilogy's titular protagonist Ezio Auditore is a favourite among the vast majority of AC fans, and many believe his escapades represent peak Creed.
Indeed, Assassin's Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations hold a special place in my gaming memory. ACII was the first platinum I ever got on my flash new PlayStation 3, while Brotherhood is still my personal favourite from the entire franchise. Naturally, I was eager to see how these games held up almost a decade after release.
First things first: if you've never played an Assassin's Creed title and you're looking to get into the series, The Ezio Collection is a perfect gateway. You'll miss a bit of the over-arching storyline regarding Abstergo, Desmond, and what an Animus is, but that has been and always will be background noise to the real narrative contained within each game. There are signs Ubisoft will drop those meta-elements from the franchise in next year's release anyway, and in this reviewer's opinion, that can't happen a moment too soon.
So who is Ezio and what makes him such a big deal? An ancestor of the very first game's protagonist, Ezio is a Florentine nobleman living during the Renaissance. After witnessing the betrayal and hanging of his father and brothers, he sets out to exact revenge, and unwittingly become a member of the Assassin's order. His transition from cocky teenager to charming, intelligent, nuanced leader via great loss makes Ezio a fantastic leading character. Alongside a list of strong supporting characters, he's the reason the narratives of ACII, Brotherhood, and Revelations are some of the strongest of the franchise.
A notable change with the remasters is the exclusion of multiplayer that was introduced in Brotherhood and became a staple for the franchise and point of difference from other online multiplayer games. For me, it wasn't until Black Flag that I really got into the online aspects of the game, and there were some entries in the series that could have done without multiplayer elements altogether – a lesson Ubisoft seemed to learn by the time Syndicate was released. With that in mind, I don't think a lack of multiplayer in these titles is that detrimental, especially since their strength is in their single player narratives.
Diving into Assassin's Creed II, the remastered touches are certainly noticeable. There are the increased draw distances and improved graphics that are essential to any remaster, but the power of current-gen consoles also results in significantly reduced loading times. There have been reports that some background characters have been made far uglier by the game's overhaul, but I didn't notice anything major when playing on PS4. There were certainly some very muddy faces, and animation that really showed its age, but after a few hours of playing, those details fade into the background.
While the visuals of Ezio's world have been given a brush up, the gameplay mechanics haven't seen any attention – something series veterans will find jarring after playing more modern entries whose parkour, combat, and tracking systems are more fully realised. If you're returning to the trilogy after playing Syndicate or Unity, controlling Ezio is like being a character in a body-swap movie: you've got all the skill and ability of an experienced assassin, yet you're stuck in the body of an awkward teenager who lacks the motor skills or control to do what you want. It certainly was a trip down memory lane as I cursed out Ezio on the numerous occasions he decided not to continue his ascent up a tower, but instead leapt off the side to his death.
Still, it's hard to stay mad at a game like Assassin's Creed. Amongst all the murder, betrayal, and intrigue, there's a great deal of humour, and fantastic moments arise when you throw the script out the window. While a lot of the game is about stealth, it's fun to barge in with all guns blazing from time to time. The end result is typically a pile of bodies and a stampede of fleeing citizens, and it's easy to overextend and find yourself fleeing for your life, but the urge to repeat the experience rarely wavers.
The mentality of "less is more" that made collectibles a lot less daunting in later games wasn't worked into the remaster either, and nor was the ability to track them. The novelty of discovering all the feathers in the game wears off after 20, and there's 100 to collect. Even the fun of scaling each tower to unlock an area on your map gets pretty tiresome when you have to do it 73 times. It's a great indication of how well the series has adapted and improved through the years, but certainly not the way I'd want to be reminded of it.
Beyond the outdated systems that really leave you exasperated, there are a number of elements that are hilarious to see again. I had honestly forgotten how much I hated the minstrels in Assassin's Creed II, and how much I delighted in punching, poisoning, and outright killing them. Sure, you're not allowed to kill innocents in the game, and you'll fail out if you kill too many… but minstrels aren't really innocent, are they?
While the above complaints extend to the remastered versions of Brotherhood and Revelations, those games do improve on II in several ways. The fantastic combo system of Brotherhood still sees you leaping from enemy to enemy with chain takedowns, while the fun hook-blade featured in Revelations allows zip-lining that makes movement through the worlds a lot more fun.
At the heart of the Ezio trilogy is a character and narrative that still stands the test of time, even as the mechanics start to show their age. Some less forgiving players will find their nostalgia for these early AC games is due to the ol' rose-tinted glasses effect, but I expect most will enjoy a second stabby romp through the Italian Renaissance. Matter of fact, I was planning to just play through Assassin's Creed II, but I'm having enough of a good time I'm going to give all three games a thorough revisit and go for those platinum trophies.