The next game Xbox Gold subscribers can look forward to picking up for free as part of Microsoft's new Games With Gold initiative is Assassin's Creed II. You can download it from Xbox Live starting this Tuesday (July 16th, 2013).
While AC2 was a very well-received game in its time, "its time" was quite a while ago (there are already three direct sequels on the used game shelves, and a fourth sequel on the way), and many gamers are disappointed that Xbox's selection of free games is not measuring up to the PS3's counterpart "Instant Game Collection" for paying PSPlus subscribers (a rotating list of twelve PS3 and six PS Vita games which currently includes, to name a few of the bigger titles, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Saints Row: The Third, and Uncharted 3).
But is it worth the time and bandwidth to download anyway? Read on to find out.
Assassin's Creed II was the entry that really made the series what it is today. The first AC game had some interesting ideas and fun mechanics, but, beyond gaining access to new cities, the experience never really evolved as the player progressed, and, unless you like hunting down dozens of small collectibles that offer no reward, it got repetitive pretty quickly.
AC2, on the other hand, added a lot more to do -- there's now some equipment progression, gradually unlocking new abilities and types of weaponry. There's also a whole lot of collecting to do. There are quite a few different completion percentages to raise, and this game will really appeal to your completionist side. There are a huge number of closed stores throughout the game world that you can purchase and restore. For every one that you own, you'll get more periodic income, allowing you to buy more stores. The stores -- once renovated -- will, in turn, sell you a variety of items -- like weaponry, maps, outfits, or art -- most of which can be collected for display in your home base, as well as a bit of bonus income.
Beyond the item collection, there's also a variety of short side missions you can undertake for various factions. These are simple and get very repetitive, and it's usually not worthwhile to bother with these unless you're striving for 100% completion, as the shop/item income ends up being more than enough to keep you in riches. Then there are the secret "Glyphs" you can find on various landmarks. You'll need to solve a series of puzzles to complete each one and unlock bits of a plot-relevant video. Then there are the Templar lairs, the hidden feather collectibles, the small treasure chests... and it goes on like this. Long story short, some of the completion objectives are fun and rewarding, but many are not, and it would be quite a slog to tick every box the game presents you with. The one consolation is that the Art shops will eventually sell you maps to lead you directly to every hidden collectible or chest.
The overarching story and setting will be familiar to anyone who's played any of the other AC games, and I won't go into it deeply here. Suffice it to say that the story deals with two different time periods -- Desmond is in the modern day, reliving the times of his Assassin ancestor Ezio Auditore through a machine that unlocks genetically-stored memories. The Desmond-level story is intriguing and exciting, and includes by far the best plot reveals that we've seen in any game of the series. The Ezio-level story, however, is not nearly as engrossing, and is actually quite difficult to follow. There are too many unnecessary characters that the player never really has a chance to connect with or understand, and if you play through the game in distributed bursts over time, you'll likely find yourself struggling to remember whether (or why) you're supposed to remember who some of these people are.
The gameplay is great fun. You'll use Ezio's Assassin-trained skills to free run around the environment and scale buildings while attempting to keep a low profile to avoid pursuit by guards. If they do notice you, though, there's no cause for concern -- no matter how large the group, they'll only attack you one at a time, and can be dispatched easily with a few well-timed attacks. Combat is always easy and, beyond the inconvenience, is not much of a deterant from messing up a stealthy approach. There is challenge in playing the game well and killing targets undetected, but it's a goal that goes largely unrewarded. Also, you'll eventually acquire some weapons which allow you to kill from a distance, and make the whole thing that much easier. So this is in no way a difficult game, but there's still a lot of visceral fun to be had in a well executed assassination -- particularly if you're willing to challenge yourself and resist the temptation to take the easy way out. There's also a lot to be said for the fact that you can tackle most challenges in a variety of ways. It's an open world, and you're usually free to find an obscure path to creep in silently over the rooftops or just barge in the front door with your sword out.
In the way of recommendations, I'd say that if you haven't already worn yourself out on all the sequels, AC2 is definitely worth a look. However, if you're familiar with the following games, then you've experienced everything AC2 has to offer. If you enjoyed anything about them, then I would still recommend you go back and check out AC2 while it's free -- there's a lot less "clutter" than the following games, allowing you to experience the more enjoyable gameplay concepts and mechanics without many of the pointless newer ones getting in the way. It is definitely the peak of the series thus far.