It's hard not to love this time of year. The nights may be getting darker now, and the VideoGamer.com office may be colder than a penguin's ballbag, but every day seems to bring some new form of gaming delight. In the past week alone I've wet my whistle with Modern Warfare 2, Chinatown Wars, Borderlands, and now, after a morning at BAFTA's HQ on Piccadilly, Assassin's Creed 2. I know that a few big name releases have slipped to next year, but there's still plenty to get excited about in the run up to Christmas.
While I certainly enjoyed my first hands-on with Assassin's Creed 2, this second outing proved to be a far deeper, more rewarding experience. Whereas last time I simply dived into the game and started messing about with all the wonderful moves and mechanics, on this occasion I was allowed to start at the very beginning of the game. The preview that follows will naturally contain a few spoilers from the early parts of AC2's plot, but where possible I want to focus on other aspects - specifically the structure of the first act.
Assassin's Creed 2 kicks off mere seconds after the end of the first game, with Desmond Miles still trapped in a maze of high-tech laboratories belonging to the sinister Abstergo Industries. Within seconds he's been busted out by Lucy Stillman - the super-sexy Abstergo researcher who eventually turned out to his secret ally, and together the pair flee to join up with a small group of rebels who are taking on the evil corporation. There's more than a touch of J.J. Abrams to these opening moments: there's nutty sci-fi technology, there's grisly violence, there's smouldering sex appeal - and none of it will make much sense to you if you didn't play the last entry in the series.
After this somewhat madcap introduction, AC2 swiftly settles down into its core setting of Renaissance era Italy. I'm not going to explain the full plot of the game, but in a nutshell the idea is that Desmond has the power to recall memories of his ancestors - many of whom were deadly assassins. In this sequel our true hero is Ezio Auditore, a spirited young man living in 15th Century Florence. We first meet Ezio during the first seconds of his life: Desmond's first flashback occurs moments after Ezio's birth, a scene that takes the form of a brief but undeniably clever tutorial.
As Ezio's mother cradles her newborn son, the game first asks us to move his feet, then each of his arms, and then finally his head. Each of these actions requires the player to tap one of the four face buttons, immediately cementing what each button will do throughout the game: One controls your feet - allowing you to run, jump and climb; two more govern your hands - one for attacks, another for more general interactions. Finally, the fourth button controls your vision. There are a great many moves at your disposal in AC2, but thanks to this smart introduction you should rarely forget the commands to summon these options.
The second time we encounter Ezio, he's a passionate young man with a hot head and an eye for the ladies. As soon as you take control of him you'll be steering him through a Renaissance era street rumble, fighting alongside his beloved brother, Federico. Your first in-game assignments are clearly there to teach you the game's many mechanics, but they also introduce you to the hero and his world. You'll pick up the unbelievably fluid climbing and free-running controls, and then you'll put them to good use. You'll race your older brother to the top of a church; you'll pay a night-time visit to your high society girlfriend; you'll slip off her clothes, and eventually flee from her angry father.
You'll also run errands for the various members of your family, and in each case you'll be taught about one of the game's many side attractions. After delivering messages for your dad, you'll unlock the optional courier missions; after duffing up your sister's scumbag boyfriend (something that every older brother secretly wants to do), you'll open up the similar hand-to-hand combat assignments. There's going to be a huge amount to do in AC2, but thanks to to this careful structure you shouldn't be left feeling too overwhelmed by it all.