With no new game in the main series this year, Ubisoft has instead served up a returning favourite.
If, a few months ago, you'd asked a group of Assassin's Creed fans which game/s they'd like to see revisited, you'd more than likely have seen an overwhelming majority ask for the Assassin's Creed II trilogy to get the remaster treatment. For many, the games starring Ezio Auditore da Firenze are the pinnacle of the series. Indeed, it's not hard to argue the case; the skills Ubisoft honed making them would go on to define much of the publisher's future output, and the refinement they offered over the popular but limited original established the series as one of the biggest franchises in gaming.
And so here we are, it's the month of November and we're once again revisiting the adventures of Ezio, stabbing guards and running on rooftops through Renaissance Italy and then 16th century Constantinople. This trilogy of titles spans the life and times of its charismatic leading man, from fresh-faced youth to grizzled old timer who's seen it all before. As Ezio gets older and the games evolve we're treated to an increasingly complex set of mechanics. New features are bolted on as the story twists and turns, not only through the annals of an alternate history, but in the present day as Desmond and friends take on the modern face of the Templars, Abstergo Industries.
The story itself is a real selling point. Both Ezio and Desmond have proved popular with fans, and the story picks up from where we left off with Altair in the first game, running to its eventual conclusion at the end of Revelations (after which Desmond returns in Assassin's Creed III, which offers a more definitive ending to his story arc). Alas you won't get a complete story from The Ezio Collection, you'll have to either dig up the first game or re-familiarise yourself with the story as it stands before Ezio's introduction, and the overall conclusion to Desmond's modern day narrative doesn't come until the end of ACIII. You do get a self-contained adventure, though, exploring the life and times of Ezio and his family. There are primers available to get you up to speed, too. Live action feature Lineage sets the scene brilliantly and gives context to everything that takes place in ACII, and stylish animated short Embers wraps up Ezio's story very nicely indeed.
While it may still entertain, the narrative is only one part of the package, and ultimately you're going to spend most of your time trying not to mess up your attempts at graceful parkour, stopping either to climb towers or string together murderous blows against packs of guards. There's elements that still stand up to this day, but at the same time almost everything has been done better in subsequent entries. ACII was a landmark for the series, such was the size of the step forward taken after the first, and both Brotherhood and Revelations built on that by adding refinements to the formula. You could argue, though, that by the time they got to Revelations, things were starting to get a little bloated.
Additions like the painfully slow real-time strategy segments and a management system that has you sending underlings off on assignment still feel a lot like filler, and neither hugely benefitted the overall experience other than to prolong it. Then, when you walk around the city of Constantinople and see groups of women dancing in the street for no meaningful reason, it dawns on you just how far open-world game design and construction has come since. Revelations was the point that Ubisoft really needed to freshen things up (arguably more than they did with Assassin's Creed III, but that's a different matter). You can also start to see cracks that weren't so prominent before; the AI, for example, is terrible even in the third game, and guards will forget they've seen you seconds after you run past them looking dodgy as hell. The silver lining of the clunky AI is that it helped ease some of the stealth sections, a side of the game that has been improved of late, but that has always felt like something Assassin's Creed in general should do better.
While it hasn't all aged brilliantly, there's still plenty of fun stuff to do, nothing more so than pulling off an audacious escape or taking out a large group of enemies with flair and skill. Again, both traversal and combat have since been refined, and what's here is very of its time and not what you'd consider polished by today's standards, but it's still playable, and increasingly enjoyable as you move through the trilogy. Those who like keeping busy won't be disappointed either, as these games are all overflowing with things to collect and upgrade, almost to a fault. Brotherhood expanded the scale of the series in terms of map size, and Revelation continued that theme, while traversal also improved over time, culminating in the last game with the addition of the Hookblade. More depth was added via the inclusion of a detailed crafting system, a late addition to the plethora of mechanics introduced at regular intervals in order to keep the player busy.
The remaster isn't flawless, but nonetheless the visuals still stand up to this day. It runs at a solid 30 frames-per-second, 1080p, and loading times have been improved. By the time we get to Revelations the movement of characters and their facial animations start to convince. Still, the sandbox worlds themselves look angular and dated, even if they've been fleshed out a little for this release and the draw distance is improved. As the trilogy progresses (and as you'd expect), it looks increasingly modern and more detailed, but ACII has not been updated to the same standard as Revelations, which is a shame as that's the one that needed the most love due to some tired looking textures and jerky animations. On the other hand, the voice acting is decent across all three, with Nolan North, Danny Wallace, Kristen Bell, Roger Craig Smith, and John de Lancie all putting plenty of life into their performances, giving the overall presentation an extra layer of polish.
But you probably know all this, and the question you really want answered is whether Assassin's Creed: The Ezio Collection is worth picking up today, in 2016? The answer, however, isn't a straightforward one, because it very much depends on you. For example, if you played the original trilogy on PS3 or Xbox 360 and want to relive those moments, now you can, but that's weighted with the caveat that the games in The Ezio Collection haven't aged entirely gracefully, and there's outdated gameplay design in there that makes certain sections hard to enjoy the second time around. On the other hand, if you never played the original trilogy, there's more incentive, but it's important to go in with low expectations as Ubisoft has bettered these games many times over since then, at least from a mechanical and visual perspective.
Remaster aside, we should probably wrap things up by talking about the man with his name in the title, because Ezio is still a great character (and for some reason some of you like Desmond too, though we're not sure why), and much of our enjoyment of this collection stemmed from him and his charismatic attitude to adventure. Even though the multiplayer from the originals is missing, the underlying story told across the three single-player campaigns is decent, which makes returning to Renaissance Italy an enjoyable experience even to this day. We're still convinced that Ubisoft could and should have made this two games and not three, trimming the fat from the campaigns and making it a meaner, leaner two-part experience that packed more punch. But they didn't, and Assassin's Creed: The Ezio Collection is what it is and no more: a fairly standard remaster of three very good games that haven't aged brilliantly, but that still offer entertainment if you can see past a few wrinkles.
6 / 10
Ezio's story arc told in full, three good games with some great moments.
Not enough attention paid to ACII, mechanics and design showing their age, could have done with more extras to entice returning players.