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TVG scampers about the rooftops of Florence to give you our second impressions of Assasin's Creeed II...
Since its release in 2007, the original Assassin's Creed has gone on to sell eight million copies (at the last count) thanks to its unique setting and often breathtaking gameplay. That said, the game also disappointed critics and gamers alike with its lack of variety and repetitive gameplay. For Assassin's Creed II, Ubisoft Montreal has listened to feedback and tried to address these flaws, making the sequel a very tantalising prospect indeed.
However, last month at our first hands-on opportunity with the game, AC II felt disappointingly similar to the original. At this early stage, slight improvements here and there didn't seem to solve the fundamental problems of its predecessor. Eager to be proven wrong, we spent a few hours going hands-on with a few of the new missions and levels to see how Ubisoft Montreal has solved the original's problems.
Their first solution has been to fit more types of mission (15 in total) into the solid 27 hours of gameplay (that's an average according to Ubi's early playtesting). Our latest hands-on introduced us to a few of these mission types at an early stage of the game - before the story really starts to get going. This included racing Ezio's brother to the top of a church, working as a glorified delivery boy, and the familiar 'escape your pursuers' mission. However, these three missions, at least, essentially boil down to the same gameplay mechanic: running from A to B.
That's not to say that there weren't any other missions - one involved doling out some street justice to a rival Venetian family and another required us to defend Ezio's sister's honour by beating down on the aptly named "Douchio" - but there just doesn't seem to be the sort of variety required of a game that boasts this kind of length. Even so, we're still hopeful that this is just a symptom of the early stages of the story, and that Ezio will have a lot more to do later in the game.
Nevertheless, a significant amount of the gameplay inevitably involved getting from one place to another via the rooftops of Florence. It's a good thing then that Ubisoft Montreal seems to have nailed the free-running aspect of AC II. The improvements made are very subtle. So subtle, in fact, that they're hard to notice at first, but the overall effect is that navigating the rooftops is a real thrill again. Climbing buildings has been made much quicker while a lot of the nagging bugs that used to occasionally interrupt the flow of running have been smoothed over, making the entire experience more fun and more fluid than before. Furthermore, Ubisoft Montreal has included swings, which you can grab onto to fly round corners with ease. Ezio can also now grab at nearby ledges as he falls, which makes the entire process of traversing cities much more pain-free.
The combat has also had a face-lift. There are no major changes to the dynamic of the fights, but the visuals have been upgraded with more violent kills and new weapons (including dual-wield, concealed spikes). Ezio can also jump from vantage points to rain down death from above on unsuspecting targets within range - the manner in which you do so varies on the weapon you're carrying and the number of guards passing by. Impressively and entirely by accident, I managed to pull off a gratifying takedown using the sleeve spikes on two passing guards. Unfortunately, there is the worrying feeling that these delicate improvements will be for nothing if the variety promised isn't delivered in the final product.
Just as we were starting to feel slightly let down by the overall familiarity of AC II, we were then shown the new 'secret' levels. Ubisoft Montreal tasked their team in Singapore, who worked on the latest Prince of Persia, to come up with some stand-alone levels for the game. The result is six, hour-long, linear missions set indoors, five of which are entirely optional. Away from the sandbox environment, the game takes on an entirely different form. Inside these areas, with no timer or pursuer to chase you down, the jumps are much trickier so that every move you make is far more deliberate than when you're skipping between rooftops at breakneck speeds. Chase sequences also benefit from the claustrophobic surroundings, as focusing on only one possible route, rather than choosing between dozens, is a welcome change of pace that makes the whole event more dramatic. These sections play very much like, well, Prince of Persia, unsurprisingly, but it definitely goes some way to solving the original game's repetitiveness.
When killing off various members of Italian high society becomes too much for Ezio, he can retire to his Villa (pity none of his many enemies thought to look for him there). This is essentially the centre-point for the game's economy. The money that you get from missions, looting corpses and chests can be invested into the villa to get a moderate return.
More small village than villa, when you first acquire it the majority of its buildings are decrepit, but by splashing some cash you can renovate buildings and open up any of the shops that are in the outside world (such as tailors, blacksmiths, brothels etc.) in your own home. As well as providing you with discounted goods and your very own sex trade, repairing these buildings will increase the population of the villa and, by extension, your income via taxes that you must regularly collect from the town coffer. Repairing the buildings also allows you to access certain areas with hidden goodies for Ezio to acrobatically discover.
The Villa also functions as a safehouse, the walls of which you can adorn with portraits of your victims (what better way to start your day?) and the gear you've collected throughout the game. Notably, one wall was waiting for the ultimate armour in the game dubbed 'Altaire's Armour'. Essentially, almost everything done in the game feeds back into here and turns into more money for Ezio.
This finally brings us to the most enjoyable part of the game by far: the story. The originality of having a game set in 15th century Italy is refreshing and while some may have been apprehensive about a frill-loving protagonist, Ubisoft Montreal have clearly put some love into recreating the costumes and scenery of the era. Without giving away any spoilers, the games starts right where the previous game left off, immediately throwing you back into the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. Meanwhile Ezio has an engaging new story of his own, unravelling a conspiracy against all of Italy.
As Dan Brown can testify, stories involving secret societies like the Templars are a sure-fire hit and AC II is likely to follow the success of the original. However, this time fans will not be as forgiving if the flaws that marred the original are still present. There are welcome improvements to the game so far, although we still can't say for certain whether these have remedied the repetitiveness. Few single-player games offer 27 hours of gameplay as a ballpark figure and with its setting, story and free-running looking first class, the stage is set for AC II to be a great game. It just has to deliver the variety that gamers crave.