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.
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.