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Assassin's Creed II

Steve Hogarty climbs a tower, doesn't know how to get back down again, and screams for help

Venice, Italy, the 15th century. In reality this seemingly picturesque town is an overcrowded, plague-ridden pit. A hairy miasma-hole perched on the rudest bit of long-legged Italy's suggestive coastline. You wouldn't go there if you could help it, you'd probably go to the far prettier Florence to do your wine shopping. Sure, there was a Renaissance happening and Senora Vespucci down the way says that hot young thing Da Vinci is zipping about the city streets in a hello-copter - but the place smelled like poo. No amount of culture can waft away a poo smell.

Thankfully Ubisoft are downplaying the reality slightly, if only to give the new Altair the ability to dive into crystal-clear Venetian canals instead of plodding between bloated corpses and turdy sandbanks. In fact, Ubisoft's vision of a Renaissance-era Italy is a beautiful one, from the shimmering waterways of Venice to the chapels and architecture of Florence. Where the original went some ways towards highlighting the sparse beauty of the ramshackle Middle Eastern cities of the Third Crusade, Assassin's Creed II's art direction collides head-on with the most creative period in human history, resulting in some visually astounding scenes.

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This isn't Altair either. The wacky futuristic subplot to Assassin's Creed tells the story of an unwitting descendent of an assassin's guild forced to relive the memories of his ancestors in a magical genetic memory machine. No doubt that for the sequel the machine's been recalibrated, and the memories you're now re-enacting are those of a different ancestor, one called Ezio Auditore di Firenze. As he's part of the same legion of assassins, and of the same blood as Altair, he'll look vaguely similar and sport that all-important white hood.

Da Vinci, who's very much a character in Assassin's Creed II, is claimed to have invented dual wristblades - a weapon remarkably similar to the hidden blade used by Altair, except mounted on both wrists instead of just one (what a genius). Ezio's been gifted with this innovative new invention, as well as the newfound ability to disarm guards and use their weapons against them. Polearms and poleaxes were the tools of choice for many in this age, and each weapon purloined opens up a variety of new moves and abilities for Ezio, namely great big swipes and rude, thrusting pokes.

Some clues to potential new weapons lie within the presentation we were given. Da Vinci's sketchbook was a trove of ideas for Ubisoft's design team, featuring mad contraptions like a wooden tank and bomb arrows (a boss fight in any level designer's books), as well as the flying machine shown in the game's artwork. In Ubisoft's universe, Da Vinci is a friend to the assassins, and his workshop acts as a mission hub as well as a dispenser of useful equipment with which to surprise pursuing guards.

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As ever, combat is intended to be the assassin's last resort. The point here is to avoid scraps by clambering to the tops of buildings and bounding over rooftops or slinking into a crowd to evade detection. That was the original's selling point: the fluidity of your character's motion as he skips from beam to bar, from ledge to sill, sprinting through the urban environment in a finely tuned, accurate-to-the-pixel display of agility.

That's still the case, and much of the architecture seems familiar in terms of game mechanics. This is after all the same engine, though it leads us to wonder how many criticisms have been addressed since the first game.

The ability to thread Altair through the city was lauded for being stylish and spectacular, but it was heavily automated, with the player choosing where to go, rather than choosing how.

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