Ah Ubisoft. Saviour of the art of bringing art
back into videogames. After being blown away by the next Sam Fischer chapter, I had equally high hopes the next instalment in the Assassin's Creed franchise would be just as forward-thinking. Thankfully I wasn't disappointed, though it's worth initially pointing out everything we saw was still in a controlled hands-off demo, so it's going to be a hard slog fully trusting that Ubisoft Montreal have addressed the concerns of gamers everywhere in the game's structure and progressive nature, crafting an experience that doesn't become tediously repetitive.
In saying that, admitting you have a problem is always the first step to fixing that problem, and Ubisoft Montreal have been very forthcoming in acknowledging those issues Assassin's Creed faced.
Like the first game though, the most immediately striking thing about Assassin's Creed II is its visual flair. Venice has been fully recreated here, and the gameplay sequence we're looking at is based during raucous festivities replete with NPCs dancing around in masks and costume while fireworks cascade the night sky.
The architecture is instantly jaw-dropping, and Ezio's athletic abilities bring fond memories of Altair flooding back. The animations are a little different - more bridged than before (which is really saying a lot), with a host of new movements coming to the fray thanks to various new abilities available to Ezio such as flying (more on this shortly), new combat moves and, of course, the much touted swimming aspect (a feature we broke right here at AusGamers from last year's Tokyo Game Show).
Our demo began though, with Ezio sitting down on a bench. He's caught in mid conversation with a seminal resistance movement who'll act similarly to the Assassin's Guild of the first game. A guard moves over to the bench and with the speed of a striking snake, Ezio impales the guard and nonchalantly moves into the crowd who're all too distracted by the aforementioned celebration.
Things quickly move into familiar territory as our demoer, Associate Producer, Vincent Ponbriand, scales a nearby building to give Ezio refuge high above the murder scene. Apparently the discussion Ezio was having on the bench pertained to a new contraption his friend, Leonardo da Vinci, had crafted for him which was waiting on top of a nearby tower.
Scaling the structure, Ponbriand tells us the building heights in Assassin's Creed II are much larger than those of Assassin's Creed. This is then realised in real-time as Ezio simply continues to scale and scale and scale. Almost at the top we come across an unsuspecting guard and we're given a demo of one of Ezio's new moves, which is to grab enemies from a ledge-holding position and pull them over to fall to their deaths. A few more meters and we're finally at our destination, with da Vinci's flying contraption waiting our eager hands.
A small cut-scene shows the highly detailed character strapping himself in and away we go - no fuss. There are various fire pits cleverly spread about the immediate game-world, and flying over these gives Ezio a boost thanks to the hot air. So you're essentially gliding about the game, but the freedom and control demonstrated looked pretty spot-on. It was also great to see the game-world from this vantage point, because it's not only bigger than that of Assassin's Creed, but far more detailed.
Along his flight path, Ponbriand also showed us a gliding kick which was easily delivered to a guard situated on a bridge, giving rise to the idea flying won't just be a singular experience, but in fact an integral part of thorough gameplay throughout. Which then lead to a question of disposability when Ezio's landing revealed no other way to escape da Vinci's contraption than by letting it crash (which had guards proclaiming it to be a "flying devil" on a count of it being on fire while crashing to its inevitable destruction.
The purpose of this flight was to breach the walls of Ezio's next victim, whose fortress was always deemed impenetrable. Prior to making his presence known however, Ponbriand also gives us a glimpse at a new stealth kill, as well as shows off some of the new dynamic camera work. The first being the use of double retractable blades which he uses to kill two guards in silence at the same time - very impressive. The second is the awesome retractable blade leap assassination, which now comes with a stylish, cinematic camera view to really make you feel like you're the goods.
From here, an old mainstay reared its head in the form the haystack leap of faith, however, new to this feature is the advent of the paranoid guard, who may have his suspicion aroused enough to not
simply shrug and give up. The counter to this though, saw Ezio being fully aware of the guard's curiosity... and well, we all know what said curiosity did to the cat.
All of this was just pretext to a bigger fight sequence as countless guards descended upon our new hero, blades at the ready. New features include a more stylised fighting system where Ezio is actually capable of not only disarming enemies, but also using their weapons against them. He's not as hard edged a killer as Altair was, and so relies almost entirely on a superior form of hand-to-hand fighting that essentially makes him look cool, and his victims like bumbling oafs.
Of course what Assassin's Creed tale would be complete without a key target to take down, and in this instance it was indeed business as usual as Ezio did finish his victim off and we were whisked into the Animus segment of the series where a single deathblow offers a full revelation of narrative and story to flesh out the characters and game-world.
In all, this painted a picture of Ubi maintaining the strongest elements of the first game, while removing repetition in place of a variety of elements such as a more dynamic crowd system, different levels of guard reactions, curiosity and alarm, as well as all-new gadgets and ways in which to approach the game-world overall - demonstrated in finality as our demo ended with Ponbriand escaping more guards chasing him by diving - tantalisingly
- into a Venice water canal, sans the game's new swimming system (apparently we'll be waiting for that).
After our demo, we most certainly walked away renewed with faith for the game, but there are some key things that need to be revealed in full before all the promises can be embraced. We need to experience Ezio's purported socialisation skills as well as his brazen nature. Mission and assassination structures need to be experienced in full to see if we're going to be looking at a more organic approach to things or if it's still somewhat systematic, regardless. And just what progressive role da Vinci plays, beyond supplying gadgets, is also something we're incredibly keen on.
For now though, it really is looking good. A bigger game-world, more forward-thinking elements of combat, traversing and a clearly revamped and tweaked game-engine replete with tighter, more bridging animations as well as a day/night cycle and a far more richly detailed city (or cities) make for a great start. We also grilled Ponbriand about a host of other gameplay ideas, misgivings and scenarios - so stay tuned for our full video interview very soon. For now, check out more info on the game from our Assassin's Creed II game page