Some people can't understand the appeal of running. Despite what enthusiasts may tell them, they'll always see it as a hideous form of exercise, a strenuous and tedious undertaking that leaves you in a panting, sweaty heap. At the same time, there are also people who are baffled by the popularity of video games. Why, they wonder, would anyone want to spend an entire day cramped up inside, hammering on a plastic joypad? Do they not feel the need to go outside, to get their heart pumping and to feel the sun on their face?
Assassins Creed 2 understands both these pleasures. It is a game that celebrates the joy of physical activity, of running and jumping and climbing to the top of the highest building. At the same time, it also knows that video games primarily exist to give us experiences that we could not access in real life. Very few of us could scale the side of a castle with our bare hands; even fewer of us would then be able to murder a prominent Italian merchant and his guards using our incredible hand-to-hand combat skills.
Enough preamble. My point is that AC2 is one of those games that revels in escapism, offering us massive playgrounds to fool about in. I'm increasingly forming the opinion that the Creed series is this generation's Tomb Raider, in the sense that its huge levels immediately create an irresistible urge to go off and explore. As before, you can climb to the top of pretty much any structure you can see. Our new assassin, Ezio, is a brilliantly nimble hero, and it's so easy to move him around that there's plenty of fun to be had in ignoring your objectives and just going on the prowl, toying around with the many mechanics on offer. Of course, this was equally true of the last game. From what we've seen so far, it seems that much of the core gameplay will be very similar to the first Assassin's Creed, but Ezio's new abilities certainly bring new options to the table - and as the screenshots show, the level of graphical detail is nothing short of incredible.
Ubisoft's latest demo, now showing at the Tokyo Games Show, finds Ezio prowling the busy streets of Renaissance-era Venice. The mission on display is familiar in its structure: Ezio starts by climbing to the top of the highest building in the city so that he can "synchronise" with his surroundings - the process that reveals important data on the map and radar. Like the first game, the concept here is that we're playing through a memory of Ezio's activities as they are recalled by his present-day ancestor, a chap named Desmond. Once the syncing is complete the player heads off to meet an ally, Antonio, who then gives us some important information about the target - a villainous merchant named Emilio. It turns out that this victim-to-be is being protected by five archers who are hanging around the city's rooftops, so Ezio has to take out these watchdogs before he can progress. Once the archers are dead, Antonio's henchmen will steal their clothes and take their place - allowing Ezio to proceed to the target. Once you're inside Emilio's courtyard, you'll have a limited amount of time to find and kill him- either by sneaking up on him, or by battling your way through his bodyguards.
Naturally, you're given quite a bit of freedom in terms of how you approach these goals. Clearly you'll have to climb up high to get at the archers, but it's up to you whether you want to be stealthy and sneak up on the Robin Hood-wannabes, or whether you'd rather dash straight at them like a psychopathic parkour expert. Ezio is a remarkably versatile killer, so either approach will work. If you can get yourself into a position directly above a guard, you can easily drop down and execute them with an efficient stab - and in fact Ezio is so good that he can wipe out two opponents at once in this manner. On the other hand, there are wealth of options should you find yourself in direct combat. You can strafe, counter, or dodge incoming blows - and if you're fighting bare-handed, you can easily snatch a weapon from your enemy's grasp. Grabbing an enemy allows you to head butt them, to hurl them over the nearest rooftop or, best of all, to steer them into the path of enemy attacks. At one point in the demo, I swung an archer around so that he was punctured by an incoming arrow from one of his mates - a hugely satisfying way to dispose of an enemy.