Lots of things were written about the original Assassin's Creed. Sadly, amongst the moaning about the repetition and the slightly clumsy timing-based sword-play, the fact that Ubisoft Montreal's ambitious project was actually a very good game seemed to be overlooked by many. Not that this affected sales - the game went on to be one of the highest selling titles of the current console generation. After an impressive E3 2009 gameplay debut we caught up with producer Patrice Desilets to run through the latest build of the game - this was no pre-built demo, but a portion taken from during the game, giving us a real taste of what to expect from Assassin's Creed 2 this November.
Our gameplay presentation using the Xbox 360 build of the game began with new boy Ezio perched on a beam high above the city of Florence. It's a scene in all but location that might as well be from the original game - even the context sensitive button info is displayed in the upper right corner of the screen, with Y activating Eagle Vision, X punching and B dropping from the platform. The city itself looks gorgeous, complete with architecture from the era, circa 1478. After surveying the scene Ezio falls down to the ground, landing in a cart of hay, just as Altair was able to in the original. It's not just as it was, though, with Ezio able to grab people wandering by.
Pickpocketing was possible in the first game, but in the sequel it's been handled far better. You're able to steal money from anyone simply by holding down X while walking close to an NPC - the longer you hold it the more money you'll steal, but the more chance you'll have of raising suspicion and alerting some guards. As in the previous game, do something in an obvious way or be seen doing something illegal and you'll get all the nearby guards after you on a high-speed chase through the city.
Another area that's been hugely improved and built upon is blending. The previous game allowed Altair to mix in with groups of monks (his outfit looks very similar in the eyes of panicking guards), letting him evade his pursuers. This was a perfectly decent mechanic, but it always seemed a little set up and a bit gimmicky. In Assassin's Creed 2 you're able to blend in with any small group of people. Patrice compared the new system to moving from shadow to shadow in a stealth game - it's not only more realistic, but also gives you more options as a player. There are guards that will be able to flush you out from within a crowd so it's essential you move from one group to another quite frequently if possible.
Assassin's Creed 2 will feature shops that sell various useful in-game items as well as health upgrades. Patrice walked Ezio over to a doctor, ignored the option to replenish his health, instead buying some poison for use in our first taste of a side mission in Florence. Side missions are accessed through carrier pigeon stations on roof tops, with Ezio being given the task of killing a rich man without anyone noticing - a task that soon sounded pretty hard given the bodyguard the man had following him around. Patrice used Eagle Vision to identify the target (with the man glowing red in the special vision mode), and followed him to his final destination - in Assassin's Creed II you can move while using Eagle Vision, which is a much needed improvement.
Once in sight it was time to put the poison on Ezio's hidden blade - the weapon able to take out enemies silently. This isn't any ordinary poison, though, with this stuff sending the unfortunate infected chap completely bonkers. With the bodyguard stood close to the target it seemed impossible to take out the man without being noticed, but there was a way that didn't even involve directly killing him. By sneaking up behind the bodyguard Ezio was able to stab the guard in the back with the poison, then retreat to a safe distance. With the poison running through his veins the bodyguard flipped and started swinging his weapon uncontrollably - it wasn't long until he'd slashed straight through the rich man, achieving your mission objective.
New to Assassin's Creed II is the ability to pick up weapons from fallen enemies and loot their bodies for cash, with cash playing a bigger role than simply buying new items from stores. Money can even be used to get people to fight for you, with our presentation showing Ezio hiring a group of mercenaries to take out a trio of guards. There's also a more dynamic feel to combat, with Ezio moving far more freely than Altair did in the first game. It's still counter-based, so God of War fans are likely to be unimpressed, but from what we've seen it certainly looks more exciting. While the menus are still a work in progress, as is much of the game, there is a brand new weapon selection system, which uses a wheel similar to that seen in the Ratchet and Clank games. It's hard to say how this will work in the game having not played it, but it seems perfectly suited to the job and the multitude of new weapons on offer.
A big part of Assassin's Creed's appeal no doubt stemmed from the use of Parkour in the game and the growing popularity of the activity in real life. Ezio moves throughout the streets and rooftops in a similar way to how Altair did before him, although Ubisoft has tried to make it easier to link together leaps and grabs and runs in long chains, rather than the stopping and starting seen in the original. A new addition seen in Florence is the hanging garden, a plant pot which allows Ezio to swing around the corner of buildings and continue his high speed running.
Parkour will also play a large part in a brand new series of challenges set in catacombs. Patrice revealed that there will be 4-5 hours of catacomb gameplay sections, each giving the player a linear level to work through and with an emphasis on Prince of Persia-style gameplay. While the first of these levels, set under a Church in Florence, is built into the story and is essential if you want to complete the game, all the rest are completely optional and can be ignored if you don't fancy them. They look like great fun, though, offering the kind of platforming thrills that the main adventure is only able to deliver now and again. You'll also be handsomely rewarded should you collect all of the treasures hidden at the end of each course, so it sounds like they will be worth your while.
We didn't get to see any Animus action or any gameplay in the lab from the original room where Desmond is (the modern day man who lives the memories of his assassin ancestors), but Patrice did confirm that the game will pick up exactly where the first game ended. Desmond is still in the room and uses the Animus, but he'll be able to do more than just walk around - although no further details were given. Who knows, maybe he'll get to leave the lab and do some free running around a modern city, but perhaps that's too much wishful thinking.
Our demonstration ended with Patrice leaping from the streets of Florence and into the river. If you didn't already know, Ezio can swim in Assassin's Creed 2, although how that will tie into the gameplay remains to be seen. All we've seen him do is take a dive and not die - something that became hugely annoying in the original. This aside, our extended gameplay demo showed the extent to which Ubisoft has tweaked and refined the original formula, answering the critics and adding a few new things all of its own. While the French publisher may have hoped the first game could have scooped some game of the year awards, the sequel stands a very good chance.
Assassin's Creed 2 will be released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on November 20.