Game Console was recently invited on a trip across the ditch to visit Ubisoft Australia. We had a yarn with the creative folks over from Ubisoft Montreal and checked out a few of their impending heavy-hitters. Top on the list was a hands-on with the latest build of Assassin’s Creed 2. Guided by the soft-spoken Gallic tones of Mr. Assassin’s Creed himself, creative director Patrice Desilets, I got to take to the rooftops and alleyways of renaissance-era Italy.
Set almost 300 years after Assassin’s Creed, the action moves from King Richard’s crusades in the holy land to Leonardo da Vinci’s Italy. You control Ezio Auditore da Firenze, nobleman, scholar and the titular assassin; the descendant of Altaïr from the first game. As before, the game’s historic setting is encompassed in a science-fiction wrapper, the events being drawn from the genetic memory of the assassin’s descendant, Desmond, using a machine called the Animus.
The main criticism of Assassin’s Creed was that, whilst the cities were beautifully realised, the game itself became quite repetitive. I spoke to Patrice about this, and he acknowledged the issue and told me that they have sought to engage the player with a deeper level of immersion this time around. Patrice admitted that the first game perhaps revealed too much too soon. Things will be less transparent for the player in Assassin’s Creed II.
Ubisoft has added several new layers to the gameplay for Assassin’s Creed II, allowing players to better interact with the game environment. This time your character, Ezio, can steal money from passers-by, which can be spent on equipment and upgrades purchased from vendors (including the great Leonardo da Vinci himself). Hired help is available in the form of seductive courtesans and thieves, which the player can use to distract guards.
The signature Assassin’s Creed gameplay of climbing buildings, running across rooftops and executing historic figures returns, and again we have been treated to meticulously detailed living, breathing cities. As the game started, Ezio climbed a tower and perched high above the city, the moonlit tiled rooftops of Florence stretching out into the distance.
The first part of my mission was to dispatch two archers guarding the rooftops above the target. This is a departure from the first game, with the lead-up to the assassinations now being more structured. Instead of throwing caution to the wind and tearing your way in, killing the target and running away, players are tasked to prepare the scenario before carrying out the actual assassination.
As I played, Patrice was getting increasingly animated. Having got out of his seat beside me, he stood there and gestured my next move. The pressure of playing in front of the game’s creative director got too much for me and, like an amateur, I dropped the assassin down in full sight of the guards. A frantic button mash caused Ezio to throw a smoke bomb, allowing me time to run up the stairs and assassinate my target with Ezio’s concealed knife.
I didn’t have the energy to participate in the inevitable chase from the guards, which could last a good few minutes in the first game, so I handed the gamepad back to Patrice. He was pleased to see that my knowledge of Assassin’s Creed had filled me with false expectations. Instead of a predictable rooftop chase, your allies surrounded the guards, their bows poised, allowing Ezio to flee.
In another sequence, Ezio, overwhelmed by guards, dropped a smoke bomb in the hope of escaping to safety. When Ezio was almost in the clear, a guard spied the fleeing assassin. With the guards hot on his heels, Ezio dove into a canal – your assassin can swim this time. Waiting against the steep canal wall, the guards ran by. Safe, Ezio climbed onto a nearby gondola and punted off into the night.
Ubisoft has tweaked the guard’s detection abilities. No longer will you spend five to 10 minutes running across rooftops trying to find somewhere to hide from the superhuman gaze of the guards. Simply stay out of the guards’ line of sight for 30 seconds and they will break off the chase. Icons above the guards’ heads indicate their alert level.
New for Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio’s actions increase his notoriety, eventually to the point that guards will actively hunt him. Notoriety can also be affected by bribes and killing witnesses. Tearing down wanted posters from the walls will reduce notoriety. Ezio’s eagle vision, which highlights enemies and targets, is actually useful this time around, allowing you to move around in the third person view rather than switching to the narrow first person camera as in the previous game.
There are many more ways in which Ezio can take down opponents in Assassin’s Creed II. You can jump down upon opponents from a great height, performing a death-from-above move. You can reach up over balconies, as you dangle below, pulling guards over the side and to their death. The infamous straw bales from the first game return, but this time you can drag unsuspecting guards into the hay for a stealthy takedown.
Assassin’s Creed redefined the level of detail we should expect from a sandbox game. It was a bold and ambitious undertaking by Ubisoft; perhaps too ambitious. With Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft has taken the gameplay of the original and given us new places to explore and the promise of a lot more interaction with the environment.
I’m confident enough to say that if you liked the first game, you’ll like Assassin’s Creed II. Throughout my visit, the Ubisoft team emphasised its desire to provide an immersive emotional experience for the player. If they have been successful in removing the formulaic elements of the first game, then Assassin’s Creed II might just be the game of the year. From what I’ve seen, I think they have created something pretty special.