Running might not sound like a terribly thrilling thing to do in a video game, but few games make it as fun as it is in Assassin's Creed 2. The Parkour-inspired system of the original is back, meaning Ezio can leap across rooftops, skip across beams and clamber up walls, and all you need to do is point him in the right direction. It's initially easy to get carried away and run full pelt at all times. Doing this is a recipe for disaster, though, as Ezio has no regard for his own safety when you've got the sprint button held down. Reach a sheer drop and he'll gladly leap off, more than likely to his death. It pays to hold back on top-speed manoeuvring until you know you want to leap across a gap, as medium speed Ezio will prevent himself from blindly jumping off into oblivion. Once you've got this mastered, running about the cities is incredible fun and one of the game's defining features - something Ubisoft should be very proud of.
When you do get into a fight, and it'll happen often, the counter-based melee combat of the original game returns - and it's just as satisfying as before. It won't be for everyone, and certainly lacks some of the depth found in the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum, but you'll need to use different techniques on the more advanced guards, make use of your new disarm ability, and use the various new weapons hidden under your outfit - dual hidden blades are always a thrill to use. Inventor Leonardo da Vinci becomes a friend early on, and he puts his skills to creating new tools and gizmos for Ezio - including the brilliant flying machine that Ubisoft showed off at E3 earlier in the year. The combat here is improved over the first title, yet still accessible for gamers who aren't experts with combos and hugely difficult timing. There are more weapons, new items (the smoke bombs are brilliant if you're in a tight spot), and a brand new damage system - repairs must be carried out on your weapons and armour by visiting blacksmiths.
Assassin's Creed 2 is a massive game. Even if you skip the vast majority of the secondary missions you're looking at roughly 20 hours of gameplay. But you'll want to spend more time in the world because you're rewarded for collecting hidden items. The flags seen in the first game have been replaced by feathers (100 of them), there are 330 treasures to collect and, best of all, Prince of Persia-style catacombs to find and explore. These Assassin tombs feature some of the most challenging platforming gameplay the game has to offer, yet once you've completed the first the rest are completely optional. The reward for finishing them is worth it though, especially for fans of the previous game's hero, Altair.
Your uncle's villa is located in the run-down town of Monteriggioni, a settlement you can rejuvenate with refurbished buildings and by using the various shops and services. Do so and you'll earn money from the increased business traffic, giving you a steady income to use on repairs, new tools, health services and the frequent need to bribe people. If you want to, you can spend an obscene amount of money collecting art. It's never forced on you, but it's something certain players could spend hours doing. The same is true for the glyphs drawn on buildings in the cities: Decipher them by completing puzzles and you'll unlock what the game calls 'The Truth', but ignore them and you'll be able to carry on with the game regardless. This is one of Assassin's Creed 2's biggest strengths. While the main storyline is predominantly linear, everyone will play through the game in a different way, and never will you feel like you're being forced to carry out repeated tasks.
This complicated, hugely ambitious game is wrapped up quite gloriously by some of the best presentation seen on the current generation of systems. The cities are the stars, modelled with such attention to detail that you could lose hours sightseeing, but Ezio and the other key characters are equally impressive. If there's a slight blip it comes from the occasional odd-looking animation, and a bit of frame rate trouble here and there (more prevalent, along with screen tearing, in the PS3 version) and plenty of pop-in, but you can't help but be impressed by what Ubisoft has created here. Voice acting is top quality, too, with the assembled cast all putting in believable performances that run the gambit from emotional to downright funny. The game world feels alive and adds an immeasurable amount to the experience as a whole.
Coming out so close to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was risky for a number of reasons. MW2 is a quality product, so any weaknesses in games released so soon after would stick out like a sore thumb, and critical responses could have had a negative impact on sales. With the original game coming up short in a few key areas, any slips by Ubisoft would have been flagged up for all to see. Almost all of these causes for concern have been addressed, either reworked or replaced by something better. The storyline is intricate, there's depth beyond the main quest, the presentation is wonderful, and the action is incredible at times. We've had some stunning single-player experiences this year, and Ubisoft has given us another gem to add to the list.