On the other hand, you may be surprised by how long the game takes to set out its stall: You may have never felt a particularly big connection to Altair, the hero of the previous game, but you'll spend so much time with Ezio before he even becomes an assassin that you'll probably feel quite bad for him when tragedy inevitably strikes. I won't spoil exactly what happens, but suffice to say it's not nice - and the impact is all the greater because you have a feel for the life that Ezio loses. Only at the very end of the first section of the game, after some 90 minutes of play, will you eventually don your distinctive hooded armour. By this point, you'll be thirsty for some bloody payback.
Shortly after reaching this pivotal moment, a Ubisoft rep stepped in to skip me ahead. The next section I got to play was far more linear: a sort of self-contained mini-level that found Ezio pursuing his enemies through the ancient halls of Santa Maria Novella's Catacombs. By this point in the campaign you'll be used to freely skipping across Italian rooftops as you please, but here the gameplay is more strictly channelled. You'll have to use your acrobatic skills to find you way through collapsed stairwells and ruined chambers, and you'll find yourself actively scanning your surroundings for the vital platforms and handholds that will let you progress. It's all very reminiscent of Tomb Raider, or perhaps Ubi's own Prince of Persia; since this section was designed by the Singapore-based team that made the latter, perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise.
In addition to a spot of climbing-based puzzling, the catacombs section also forces you to deal with a number of patrolling guards. By this stage in the campaign Ezio has learned quite a few new killing skills, including the ability to throw knives and to assassinate enemies as you hang from a ledge beneath them, so it wasn't exactly a challenge to dispatch these hapless fools. Towards the end of this level, you'll also have to chase a guard who spots you and then runs off to inform his mates. As your victim-to-be scurries away on foot he'll shut large gates and unstable scenery to block your path, forcing you to seek an alternate route. It's a big change of pace from what comes before, hopefully suggesting that Ubisoft really has listened to all those complaints about the first game being too repetitive.
There are actually six of these secret tombs to explore, but you'll only ever be forced to visit the first one. However, it's certainly well worth your while to seek out the other five, as each one contains a hidden assassin's seal (by which I mean a stone tablet, rather than a psychotic sea mammal). If you manage to collect the whole set, you'll unlock the armour that Altair used during the last game. It's an exciting prize, but the seals are only one of several collectables up for grabs: you'll also have to hunt for feathers ('cause feathers are the new flags, y'know?), secret codes that can be decoded by Leonardo DaVinci to upgrade your gear, and treasure chests hidden all over the world - you can even buy treasure maps to help you find the latter.
All of these items are showcased in the Auditore family villa. As I briefly mentioned in my last preview, Ezio has a private mansion located in Monteriggioni in Tuscany, a sort of private safehouse that can be visited between assignments. Having briefly seen the villa for myself, I can tell you that this place is a lot larger than what you might have been expecting. The house itself is massive, with entire rooms dedicated to the weapons you've collected, artworks you've bought and trophies from the people you've killed, but in addition there's also a small town that's sprung up around the grounds. The shops here are cheaper than in any of the other cities throughout AC2's world, since the locals are more than happy to give you a discount, and in addition you'll also take a cut of their profits: every 20 minutes or so you'll automatically receive a small quantity of cash, Fable 2 style.
As it happens, this isn't the only similarity to Peter Molyneux's fantasy epic. Once you start accumulating large volumes of cash you'll be able to invest it in the town, upgrading the 11 local amenities and businesses. When you first come to the town everything will look a bit shabby, but as soon as you upgrade a building, it'll transform into something grander and smarter than before. Once this happens you'll get a better discount, but since the new structures are also larger, they'll also let you do more exploring of the town. Upgrading the brothel, for example, might let let you climb to the top of a previously inaccessible tower, allowing you to grab another feather or whatever else is stashed there. Everything you collect or upgrade in AC2 will increase your cashflow, from the value of your art collection to the size of your armoury. The more you spend, the more you ultimately receive.
It's a smart arrangement, one that should encourage players to seek out all the many activities and diversions available. As I say, there's going to be a lot to do in this game, but I like the fact that Ubisoft is trying to tie all the various elements together. And on a separate note, the game itself is looking stunning. The code I played this week wasn't final, but it's already looking genuinely beautiful. This is the kind of game where you'll occasionally stop what you're doing just so that you can have look around and appreciate everything around you - it's that good-looking. The game's architecture is stunning in its detail, but the audio work is also superb; as you walk through the busy streets you'll hear street vendors shouting in Italian about the fresh produce they have for sale, or someone announcing the cancellation of a church mass due to an outbreak of plague. It adds up to an incredibly vibrant game world, and I for one can't wait to see more.
Assassin's Creed 2 is scheduled for release on November 20 for Xbox 360 and PS3. A PC version will follow in 2010.