Assassin's Creed 2 Preview (Xbox360)

Despite the cacophony of whinging gamers who couldn’t help but dislike Assassin’s Creed for its inherently repetitious mission structure, the game still broke records for being the biggest and best selling new IP of all time. Essentially though, the first Assassin’s Creed laid the groundwork for a truly amazing follow up, its sublime free-running movement and hugely evocative, authentic setting married to a narrative that managed to both entertain and intrigue in spades.

Even though there’s no disputing the first game’s success and overall accomplishment, the fact remained that there was acres of room for improvement. We all knew it and apparently so did the development team, as they’ve taken the Assassin’s Creed franchise and really gone to town in rolling out the big guns for the massive forthcoming sequel.

Italy's architecture is both attractive and diverse, presenting new challenges in travelling around the vertiginous rooftops. Domes are particularly tough to climb.
Yes, Ezio can swim like a fish, but he can also ride a gondola too. Singing “just one Cornetto” is of course entirely optional.

Normally, we wouldn’t be writing a preview for a game three weeks prior to release when we’d usually be gearing up for review, but then Assassin’s Creed II isn’t just any game - it’s going to blow your expectations right out of the water.

We went along to Ubisoft’s Montreal studio to get extended hands-on time with the final build, playing from the very beginning, cramming as much gameplay into our allotted time period. Opening with a prologue that brings new players up to speed on the events that took place during Assassin’s Creed with a quick recap of Altair’s story, Assassin’s Creed II pretty much picks up where you left off, back in the Abstergo laboratories with Desmond and Lucy. To reveal any more would be a major plot spoiler, so we’ll simply say that incidents conspire that lead you back into the Animus where instead of finding Altair back in Jerusalem and Damascus, you find yourself donning the finery of a well-to-do nobleman in Renaissance Italy, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.

This shift in character means that ACII is tinged with humour and innuendo, establishing a far lighter tone than the original Assassin’s Creed. When in the first hour you’ve wooed a naked girl telling her “ a minute is all I need” and heard Ezio’s mother casually drop the word ‘vagina’ into conversation with her son, you know you’re in for an altogether different style of dialogue.

Unlike Altair, Ezio is a far less enigmatic character, possessing a swaggering charm that makes him a hit with the ladies – as one early QTE demonstrates. Whether he’ll prove to be a hit with players however is another matter. Initially cocksure and brash, we personally found Ezio to be initially unsympathetic, but as the narrative slowly unfolded, he gradually develops into a genuinely well-drawn character; his personality aided no end by the fantastically expressive facial animation.

Ezio’s path leads him towards having to embrace life as an assassin and once he dons the iconic robes only to later witness the moment a horrifying family tragedy occurs, proceedings gradually descend further into darkness.

As a setting, Renaissance Italy is markedly different too, the beautifully sun-kissed, terracotta tiled rooftops and labyrinthine streets of Florence and Venice brilliantly recreated in authentic, intricate detail. Once you end up at Ezio’s uncle Mario’s dilapidated villa however, the palette changes drastically, the decrepit town painted in drab greens and greys.

If Ezio becomes overwhelmed, he can run away from a fight, hire mercs to lend a hand or stand his ground and pick off guards one by one.
While the old E3 build seemed a bit flaky, playing the full game has put our concerns to bed. ACII looks amazing.

Using the in-game economy, you can consult with an architect to help in rejuvenating the premises and surrounding township, but we’ll save the juicy details for the review. This is just one component of Assassin’s Creed II’s renewed effort to inject the game with masses of depth and longevity, addressing the criticisms levelled at the first game for being too repetitive.

Ubisoft has actually listened to and taken on board these comments, but rather than simply adding a few extra mission types to silence the critics, the development team has fleshed out the game experience far beyond anything we could have imagined. There are light RPG elements dispersed throughout the entire game, with chests and bodies to loot for cash, which you can then spend on medical aid, weapons and armour upgrades that visibly alter the appearance of Ezio’s attire. You’re seldom short of cash and never short of things to lavish your money upon it seems.

You can use your florins to acquire other things too, such as help from various factions scattered throughout the bustling streets. Mercenaries can be hired to help you fight larger groups or you can call upon courtesans to flirt with guards, distracting them long enough to let you slip by unnoticed. There’re so many options available to Ezio in orchestrating the perfect assassination that no missions will ever play out in the same way.

As you progress, you’ll also gain new abilities such as aerial assassinations and dual kills, enhancing Ezio’s repertoire while granting you added opportunities and strategies to dispatch your targets in increasingly elaborate ways. The core combat has been subtly improved too, so while the mechanics remain much the same, there’s now the ability to grab and rough up enemies, disarm them or stick your concealed daggers into their eyes.

Having only played for roughly three and a half of what will reportedly be 30-40 hours, there’re still a long list of features such as the Da Vinci inspired flying machine to encounter, but in a relatively short space of time we we’re able to get a feel for a narrative that moves with a real sense of propulsion somewhat lacking from the previous game. The entire experience feels more organic than before, shorn of interruptions from the present day for starters.

The result appears to be less of a connection to Desmond’s story, but a greater sense of immersion in Ezio’s world, which is arguably preferable to the original game’s more fragmented structure. Assassin’s Creed II is no longer divided into discernable missions punctuated by assassinations. Instead the narrative feels like one seamless whole - or at least the first three and a half hours do.

Anyone doubting whether Assassin’s Creed II can possibly live up to the lofty expectations can rest easy. ACII is looking utterly stunning in every conceivable department. The repetition of the previous title has been well and truly ousted, making for a game that should effortlessly impress.

Think of the climbing opportunities…
Occasionally you’ll come across more linear moments like Tomb Raider levels where you have to navigate your way through an enclosed area.

Comparisons to the recent Batman game and the Hitman series are completely spurious too - Ezio’s Eagle Vision highlights hidden glyphs for you to decipher and picks out important targets, but that’s where the Batman (detective mode) comparison ends. Assassin’s Creed II has an identity all of its own.

We could ramble on for hours about how thrilled we are about Assassin’s Creed II based upon what we’ve played so far, but we don’t want to step on the toes of our upcoming review which is lurking just around the corner, sharpening it’s sword, ready to deliver a fatal strike to your jugular. All you need to know is that it’s time to get excited - Assassin’s Creed II looks utterly spectacular.

Keep your Eagle Vision switched on for our forthcoming interview with Assassin's Creed II's producer, Sebastien Puel.

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By melzerith (SI Core) on Jun 30, 2009
Well he finally learned to swim. Next he'll learn how to swing a sword faster, and make the game worth playing not just for the scenery!
By Jake_SI (SI Elite) on Nov 04, 2009
AC1 was an epic game, played it til the very end and I never understood why people called it repetitive, since the way you undertake your missions and assassinations was quite literally up to the player, so if you did them all the same, it's your own fault.

Very much looking forward to AC2! :)