Assassin's Creed II: Hands-on

We know we don’t need to convince you guys of the joys buried with Assassin’s Creed II. You already appreciate the exquisite design of the in-game architecture, a genuine historical setting where static buildings can encompass an entire level’s worth of legwork, and a player-to-environment interaction that makes for one of, if not the most enjoyable platforming experiences of the current console generation. But you guys still have some goodies to look forward to.

Animus 2.0

The game begins the very moment the last game ends, with Desmond staring into cryptic glyphs appearing on his wall. But there’s no time to reflect, since within seconds, Lucy (voiced once again by the adorable Kristen Bell) runs in, covered in blood, and helps him escape the frighteningly futuristic Abstergo headquarters. And if the physical prowess he shows in fleeing a heavily guarded facility, seemingly built for the sole purpose of kidnapping unaware assassins, weren’t enough to get you excited about Desmond’s unique heritage… the dude can see fingerprints now!

Above: Yay, horseys are back!

Enticing for sure, however, we’re told there are only a scant handful of Desmond levels, and he’s quickly whisked into an enhanced Animus, piloted by a new crew of renegade scientists whose motivation runs counter to that of the folks you met in the previous game. Enter Ezio Auditore da Firenze…

Beautiful New Setting

You say you left your heart in Damascus? Well, if the classical architecture of Renaissance Italy weren’t a breathtaking sight to behold, it probably wouldn’t still be generating billions of dollars in tourist revenue each and every year. And now we get to play in it! It’s more colorful and more alive than in the previous game, plus most of you have some frame of reference for the architecture painstakingly recreated in ACII because the buildings are still standing today.

Above: That white bar in the middle represents six centuries

Even though certain places have been removed at the behest of a smoother player experience, you’re still looking at a remarkable design feat that’s above and beyond what most historical games (not set in World War II) ever even bother to attempt. Period-perfect cities like Florence, Venice, and San Gimignano are the product of several years of development, thousands of photographed textures, and the consultation of historians. Thus, the dedication and care invested in recreating these timeless landmarks is impressive to say the least.

Perhaps it does take an older gamer to appreciate the level of detail found in environments that don’t take place on other planets, but it’s still undeniably cool that the ability of history buffs to visually fact check ACII’s landmarks is just a Google image search away.

Above: Pretty, no?

New People

Although Ubi is playing coy about any appearance from Altair, there’s still some assurance that his legacy will be acknowledged somehow, somewhere, in Assassin’s Creed II. But he’s off on his own PSP adventure, and it’s all about Ezio, who’s actually a much more interesting character, if only because his motivation for murder is more personal, and not entirely based on orders from a shadowy organization. However, it’s the people and things that surround him that will catch the attention of anyone who stayed awake during Humanities 101.

Above: Meet the cast of your new favorite game!

Ezio’s family has been created for the game out of respect for history, but the events and people that surround them are very real. You begin the game in Florence during the time of an actual conspiracy involving the Medici and Pazzi family that went as high as the Pope. History isn’t being rewritten, it’s just that Ezio is now an involved silent figure and you get to fill in the gaps. We’ll leave the historians to speculate as to how Lorenzo de’ Medici escaped his assassination attempt - gamers will know it was Ezio.

Best of all, the man you’ve all read about, Leonardo Da Vinci, plays a crucial role in the game and it’s nowhere near as stuffy and bearded as you’d expect. You meet Da Vinci at the age of 25, and he’s characterized as an exuberant, mad genius or sorts, filled with humor, ideas and a zest for helping Ezio. You’ll find plans, bring ‘em back to Leo, and he’ll whip up new weapons and equipment for you. And yes, even his prototype Flying Machine is yours to use… Or crash.

New Tools of the Trade

Hell yes, you get to fly the most unwieldy of batwings, kicking guards in the face all the while. But it’s the dual hidden blades that proved to be every bit as wonderful as we’d anticipated. Need to stealthily take out two guards in your way. Walkup between them and show them your best Jesus Christ pose:

Above: Schnikt!

And that’s to say nothing of delivering a series of spiked Bruce Lee Dragon Punches to the sternum. In case you’re bored by the historical nods, know that this is where the game’s “Mature” label takes on the most contemporary of meanings: Gore by the bucketful. There’s also some new targeting in the mix as well. And it’s pretty similar to the kickass stuff we’ve seen from Splinter Cell: Conviction thus far. Target a dude from jumping distance, wait until the most opportune moment, then POUNCE! Seriously, cool shit.

And what’s this? A gun! Sort of, but you don’t have to worry about firearms pushing aside AC’s stabtacular blade work. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A Hand Cannon, a focused explosion fired from the wrist. It’s great for a one-off long shot, but this thing is loud and reloads are a bitch! So yeah, you may want to use it sparingly.

Above: The Renaissance’s version of The Force

What’s Yours is Yours

It’s not just you: Assassin’s Creed II really is starting to share more similarities with open-world games like GTA. With ACII’s in-game economy comes the ability to, duh, own stuff. Take a break from city life and head to the Villa Auditore, a Monteriggoni getaway left to Ezio by his grandfather. This is where you can showcase your arsenal, train to increase skills, and hang purchased paintings to brighten up your surroundings.

Above: To the Villa!

It’s not just about accumulating stuff. Ezio can apparently invest in renovations to restore the area to the city it once was. We didn’t have the time to see it in action, but we’re told the player’s contributions can increase the Villa’s value, population, and reveal more than its share of secrets.

Above: Just beyond the killing is some really gorgeous fresco work

By now you should know where we stand on Assassin’s Creed II. We received an uncharacteristically lengthy demo with the game, yet we’ve barely scratched the surface and we’re still hungry for more. Assassin’s Creed II drops in a few weeks, so if you’re like us, you’re going to want to hurry and clear out your gaming backlog in time for November 17th.

Oct 22, 2009