There are dozens of nice touches that help to make combat a gratifying experience. Arrows that find their mark will visibly protrude from their target; guards swear in Italian as they circle and swipe at you, while melee combat is pleasingly heavy and solid in its sound and animation. But there's a similar level of detail in your more subtle actions, too. AC1's Altair had the ability to hide within groups of scholars, but Ezio can blend into any group of people that are heading in the same direction - just move slowly within the gaggle of bodies, and his outline will turn white, indicate his near-invisibility.
If you need to get past a particular foe and you don't want to kill him, you might need a bit of hired help. For a small fee, Ezio can hire a band of courtesans to accompany him around the city. While he's surrounded by these beautiful ladies, our hero is once again hidden from suspicious eyes. When you need a distraction, you can then send in the gals to flirt with a specific guard - an action that triggers some brilliantly expressive reactions from your target. Alternatively, you might want to hire a gang of thieves to lend a hand. These dastardly blaggards can fight alongside you, or cause a ruckus by robbing nearby civilians, drawing the attention of the local authorities.
As it happens, you might want to do a bit of thieving yourself - because it seems that money will play a fairly significant role in Assassins Creed 2. In addition to upgrading your weapons and equipment, you'll be able to use your funds to customise Ezio's villa, which you can visit between missions. I've not seen anything of this yet, but apparently this location will act as a kind of interactive trophy room. You'll be able to inspect items retrieved from your victims, and furthermore you'll be able to purchase decorative works of art - including digitised versions of real, renaissance-era artworks. If you've ever wanted to own an original painting by Botticelli, now's your chance.
There will be 130 missions in the full game, including a hefty dose of side quests, divided across 15 different types of assignment. Ubisoft is well aware that a lack of variety was one of the biggest criticisms last time around, but this time it's promised to keep things changeable. You'll also be able to revisit missions at any time you like by accessing a bank of Ezio's memories, and there's also a sort of in-game encyclopedia that offers detailed information on gameplay mechanics and the places you visit.
Above all else, however, I'm looking forward to just fooling around in 15th Century Italy. Towards the end of my hands-on with the game, I murdered a guard and dumped his body over the edge of a roof. The civilians on the ground below started to panic, so I whipped out my wallet and started throwing money down onto the body. People started rushing to pick up the coins I'd dropped, and were so distracted that they failed to notice when I dropped down and started pick pocketing everyone in sight. Eventually, about five people realised they had been robbed at exactly the same time, leading to a chase in which I was pursued by half of Venice. If messing about for five minutes can yield that much chaos, I can't wait to find out what can be done in the full game.
Assassins Creed 2 will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 20, with the PC version to follow in 2010.