Assassin's Creed II Hands-On Preview
21st Oct 2009 | 15:53
When Ubisoft says it's looking to fix the niggles of the first Assassin's Creed, it's not joking. Assassin's Creed II oozes choices and check boxes to keep the preferences of fans and critics in check. You can turn off each item on the HUD, switch historically inaccurate English into full Italian, opt not to accept that mission collecting feathers on the rooftops and even adjust the frequency of fancy killing move camera angles.
Overall, in our play through of the sequel's opening hours it's obvious it's a much better understood and well-presented product than the first game.
Assassin's II kicks off exactly where it left you - staring at a mysterious, complex glyph that only this feature could properly unravel. With a bang Abstergo helper Lucy comes clattering at Desmond's cell door. Lost for breath and with blood down her shirt, she tells our hero to shut up and take the opportunity to escape while he can - and so fixing even more of the first game's issues, an action-packed chase through the mega-corporation's sterile walls ensues.
What a contrast this opening is to the first Assassin's boring and text-filled chatter-fest, where the closest you got to a rush is flicking the camera angles really quickly with the face buttons (and those have been axed as well). Lucy and Desmond scramble through a Matrix-esque office space, dodging gun fire and getting into a scuffle with the reception security guards on the way out.
Eventually Desmond is introduced to a group of Abstergo rebels - lead by the cringe-worthily out of place Danny Wallace - who hook him up to their own home-built Animus with the purpose of beating the modern day Templars at their own game.
And so our second historical stab-fest begins; Ubisoft - as you've probably guessed from the number of feedback-fuelled changes we've mentioned so far - have decided to shake up the linear structure of our last flashback, and it couldn't have swayed much further than from repetitive pick pocket missions than with a newborn baby QTE sequence.
You take control of Desmond's 15th century relative, Ezio Auditore, literally as he's exiting the womb. The sequence introduces you to Ezio's father - who's Assassin story is fleshed out in the upcoming Lineage live-action shorts - as well as his mother, while establishing the control setup of 'X = left hand, B = right hand, A = legs and Y = head' (and yes you can wiggle baby Ezio's toes).
Jumping between different stages of Ezio's life is one way Ubisoft's beating the repetitiveness of the first game, and the sequel's tasks - in the early stages at least - are all-round more imaginative.
As your memories fast-forward to Ezio's late teens, early missions and tutorials see you racing your brother Federico across the Florence rooftops, beating up your sister's cheating boyfriend and helping the neighbour (Leonardo Da Vinci) carry some paintings across the street.
Again, it's a far cry from the relentless text tutorials of the first game and there's also a much greater sense of story and character in the second game's opening. Sure, the trademark wooden Ubisoft acting occasionally pops up in a cut-scene, but the game's so immersive in other areas it's easily overlooked.
Fun time over and tragedy devastating the Auditore family, Ezio soon finds himself wearing the assassin robes of his father - and the real game begins.
Sneaking, blending and escaping through the city streets have all seen gameplay improvements since we visited the Holy Land, most notably the way the in-game HUD displays social danger.
With the bloody annoying 'you've been spotted' alarm from the original binned, foes are clearly displayed on your radar as large red dots. When you're spotted, yellow meters appear above enemies' heads, steadily filling until finally turning red and the alert being sounded.
In your escape it's now easier to see where your enemies are (thanks to the hud arrows above their heads), where the nearest hiding spots lie (they're indicated by big blue dots on the radar) and where you shouldn't stroll when the guards are only partially aware of your presence (think GTA).
Platforming's been bolstered too by the introduction of the 'grasp' ability. Once Ezio's initiated a jump towards a brick or ledge, you can 'grasp' it more quickly by pressing the B button at the height of your leep. This, at the very least, lessons some of the 'on-rails' aspect of Creed's parkour.
The hide-and-seek gameplay is boosted further by the introduction of a really interesting 'notoriety system'. Killing guards and taking out assassination targets will raise Ezio's notoriety, making guards spot you faster and come charging quicker sword in hand.
Once Ezio is notorious new mission arcs will open up, allowing him to tear down wanted posters, assassinate witnesses and bribe guards, eventually causing the guards to pay you less attention.
The latter's just one option opened up by the sequel's new money system, which has Ezio pick-pocketing strangers, visiting a tailor or merchant and even owning his own house. There are a mind-boggling amount of weapons, armour, items and moves to be unlocked in Assassin's Creed II - so much so that two more Ubisoft studios including Singapore have been recruited for content creation.
To demonstrate the staggering scope of content in the sequel, Ubisoft booted up Ezio's private villa, which is more like a castle fort than a Spanish holiday home.
The villa we visited was rather damp and dingy, with a surround village housing a few shops and poor looking villagers roaming outside Ezio's crib. As you progress in the game and in wealth you can invest your own money in improving the villa town, building shops and renovating dodgy brickwork. The boosted income will attract more people to your little town, thus putting more income in your pocket - similar to Fable II.
Inside Ezio's massive house the breadth of detail goes even further; you can buy renaissance-era paintings and hang them on the wall, store all of your weapons and equipment and visit your sister's book keeping room to view a mammoth amount of statistics about your town and game.
Our favourite room though - and one that's going to send fans barmy - is a secret basement littered with the statues of the Auditore family's assassin ancestors. A host of possible Assassin's Creed III heroes decorate the room; there's a snake-carrying Egyptian, a Roman assassin, a Greek and in the middle, Altair himself.
It's pure fan service, as are most of the promising changes we've seen in the game so far. Hopefully, Ubisoft can silence its critics.