After two years in the development oven, Assassin's Creed II is finally ready to be served next month. To celebrate the game's completion, the development team from Ubisoft Montreal flew out to meet with us in Florence, which is the first city featured in the game. It was a no-holds-barred gameplay session--they let us tear through the first few hours of the game while remaining on hand to answer questions. The game is looking very impressive, with the new locations and the historically accurate setting, and the hours flew by as we played. But, before we begin our preview, here's a substantial SPOILER ALERT: This preview contains some major plot reveals from the beginning of the game.
As has already been revealed, ACII starts out almost immediately after the first game. You take control of Desmond moments after Assassin's Creed ends, and he's lying in his room when Lucy enters in a panic, covered in blood. She has just minutes to get Desmond onto the Animus, the machine that can visualise his genetic memories. This time, though, instead of heading back to the Third Crusade, he wakes up in Renaissance-era Italy. He is literally born as the new character Ezio Auditore, at which point you have to use the face buttons to kick your feet and shake your hands. Just as your father enters the room to meet his new son, Lucy is interrupted and you both have to escape from the lab.
After running to a nearby warehouse, you meet the new team that Lucy has been working with, who are armed with the new Animus 2.0. She introduces you to Shaun Hastings, the spitting image of actor Danny Wallace, and a brand new Animus machine. Using intel that Lucy has stolen, the team uses the new Animus on Desmond to explore more of Ezio's life, so you jump in the machine to rejoin Ezio as a young adult.
The first proper action sequence is apparently an homage to Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Ezio and his friends get into a fight with a rival family, allowing you to get to grips with the combat mechanics in the game. In the Xbox 360 version we played, you can strike with X and grab with B, which allows you to string basic combos together. You can combine the two to hold enemies while punching, kneeing, or head-butting them, or you can just throw them over a nearby bridge or into other enemies. You can also block, and counter incoming attacks with some brutal combos.
With our adversaries dispatched, our brother arrived to find that we had taken a bit of a beating. He instructed us to raid the bodies for cash so that we could pay a doctor. By going over the bodies and holding B, you can rob people for cash, which is important as money plays a big part in the game. You follow your brother to the doctor, who will heal you completely for 50 Fiorinis. However, he'll also sell you healing vials for a premium of 75F, meaning that you don't have to find a doctor if you're in the middle of a battle.
Once we were healed, the next hour of the game was spent getting to know the family. Your brother challenges you to a rooftop race, your sister asks you to beat up her cheating lover, and your father gets you to deliver important letters. In between, you also perform more perfunctory tasks, such as collecting feathers from the rooftops, which will act as the new hidden collectibles in the game, and visiting your girlfriend, where you press buttons in order to kiss her and undress her.
These introductory missions merely act as tutorials for the fighting and exploring in the game. The real thrust of the story is the framing of your family for treason, which results in your father and brothers being taken away to prison. Once you learn of this, you climb to the top of the Palazzo della Signoria (do a Google image search for this incredibly impressive building) to consult with your father. He instructs you to deliver evidence of your family's innocence to a judge called Uberto. However, the next day, you witness Uberto's betrayal as he leads the public execution of your family, and you see firsthand the horrifying sight of your brothers and father hung to die.
Thankfully, by this point you've picked up your father's assassin equipment--the familiar hooded cape, his armour, and his trusty sword. It's not enough to cope with the huge guards that chase you after the execution, but it's enough to give you some protection from regular enemies, who are stronger than the street thugs from before. Combat looks to be a big part of ACII, but there's always the option of running and hiding, as there was before.
At this point, producer Sebastien Puel jumped a little further into the story to show us the fist "dungeon" area from the game. These dungeons will be optional side quests, but they will extend the life of the game considerably, making this a much larger experience than the first Assassin's Creed. These areas are made up of complex physical exercises--the sorts of things you might see in Uncharted or Tomb Raider--where you have to explore the environment and occasionally beat up a guard. In the first secret dungeon, which is the only one in the game that's compulsory, you make your way down to a sarcophagus and find out Uberto's secret plans to assassinate other prominent Italian families.
Jumping forward through the game again, Sebastien Puel showed off another important feature--your villa. This will act as your home space, but it will grow out to be a home for many other people as you progress. Basically, you can build shops, churches, and even brothels, which will attract non-playable characters who will in turn pay a tax to stay there. This will encourage you to improve the area over time, which will increase your income--proving the old business adage that you need to spend money to make money.
While Ezio may be a wanted man, he still manages to run a pretty pimped-out house at the villa. He has rooms where you can install the best art, show off your weaponry and armour, and fight it out in practice arenas to unlock new special moves. This guy sure isn't modest--his bedroom is decorated with portraits of all the major people he has killed, and his immense basement is filled with statues of famous assassins through the ages. You'll be able to install plaques on each of these statues by playing the aforementioned dungeon missions, which will unlock the statue at the centre of the hall--that of Altair, the character from the original game. Your reward will be access to his armour, which is the most powerful in Assassin's Creed II.
The villa is certainly an interesting new twist to the game. You'll be able to ride your horse there if you desire, but acknowledging the complaints of excessive traveling in the first game, the developer has included travel shops around each city that will take you there for 100F--a relatively small amount of in-game currency. We particularly liked the way your family continues to play an important role--your mother is distraught by the death of your father, while your sister takes up residence in the library, where she handles the finances. The developer also explained to us about your uncle, Mario, who will introduce himself to you by saying, "It's-a-me, a-Mario!"
Our final experience was of Venice, but sadly we're prevented from reporting on most of it. The city looks stunning though, and you can steal a gondola on the huge canal--Grand Theft Ezio, as someone joked. We also got to play around with the different groups of people in the city--hiring thieves to distract enemies or stabbing an incredibly annoying guitar player using our concealed blades.
Much has been made about the new setting of ACII, and as anyone who played the first game would expect, the environments look stunning. More than 30,000 images were taken of the real buildings in Italy, many of which have made it as textures in the finished game. The buildings are also much bigger than before, such as the Duomo in Florence, and many of the characters actually existed in the time the game is set. No attempt has been made to hide the seedier side of 15th-century life, either. Characters swear at each other and use extremely crass terminology, and you can hire prostitutes to distract enemies if you so desire.
Assassin's Creed II is set for release on November 20 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in the UK, November 17 in the states, and 2010 on the PC. We'll have a full review for you in the coming weeks.