When we first saw Assassin's Creed II back at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, it wowed us with its sumptuous graphics and slick Renaissance-inspired storyline. We finally got a chance to return to the world of Italian assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze at GamesCom 2009 in Cologne, Germany, and checked out the brand-new city of Florence.
Assassin's Creed II creative director Patrice Desilets was again on hand to guide us through 15th-century Italy, and our demo began on the Florentine rooftops. The environment looked stunning in the late afternoon, with a soft haze obscuring the nearby hillside. The skyline was filled with orange terracotta roof tiles and soft pastel and cream colours. Gazing around, we could see numerous towers, domed churches, villas, and plenty of other buildings with rustic charm. Ezio walked up to a nearby guard and used his concealed pistol--first seen in the E3 announcement trailer to dramatic effect--to execute him. When you aim the pistol, a grey line will show where you're pointing, and this should improve aiming with the third-person camera. After a few moments, Desilets jumped off the rooftop into a hay bale on the street below. He then approached a street merchant who sold him a bottle of poison to use for an assassination mission. These missions are delivered to Ezio through carrier pigeons, which you can find scattered around Florence's rooftops. The heads-up displays have been slightly updated, while the controls look the same as before and are again contextually mapped to your head and limbs. The Y button is assigned to eagle vision, B is for tackles or gentle pushes, and A is used to sprint, free-run, jump, or steal.
While you could blend only with scholars in the original game, you can now do so with pretty much any group of people, and this is illustrated by an abstract pattern of criss-crossing lines on the ground when you approach them. Desilets used eagle vision--the ability to single out friends, foes, and targets in a crowd--to locate his target and then blended into a crowd to get a bit closer. Rather than going in for a bold kill, you can use other characters to do your dirty work. In this case, he infected the target's guard with poison, and within a few moments the guard started having a fit. Slashing his lance around from the pain, the guard was able to pierce the man he was meant to protect, thereby fulfilling Ezio's mission. This looks like just one example of some of the new ways to carry out such missions, and we look forward to seeing more examples at a later date.
Following this mission, the day began to disappear and night fell upon the city. Dark, grey clouds covered the sky, and the Florentine skyline was bathed in the dying moments of twilight. Desilets led us on to a nearby alley, which was blocked by some guards. He enlisted the help of some nearby mercenaries, and after exchanging some money, they agreed to kill the guards. Being able to get others to do your dirty work seems like an interesting idea, but because you have to pay them, you will probably need to save their resources for special occasions. The alley revealed a hidden trapdoor, indicated by the assassin's symbol, which surrounded a skull set into a fountain. Ezio pushed his fingers into the eye sockets, activating the hidden door, and jumped down into a new area below: the catacombs beneath Florence.
We're told by Desilets that there will be numerous underground areas to expose in the game. However, they're all optional besides this particular one. The reason this one is mandatory is that it involves the discovery of a secret meeting of the Assassins' sworn enemies, the Templars. The catacombs offered a fresh landscape to what we'd already seen, and the chipped, worn brickwork was bathed in a soft candlelight, accented by painted artwork, ornate, classical architecture, scattered debris, and even human bones. Desilets used Ezio's acrobatic skills to make his way down to the bottom of a central shaft just after the Templars moved into a huge hall, sealing off the entrance with a heavy stone door. Using some acrobatics, he was able to climb up to an area above the sealed room and found a secret level that opened the door, triggering a cutscene featuring the Templars.
Despite their lavishly decorated armour, the Templars seemed as deadly as ever and quickly set out to find Ezio. Desilets demonstrated a cool new "death from above" move that lets you execute an enemy by jumping from above and stabbing him with your knife. After taking care of one soldier, he used a smoke bomb to distract two more and chase after a final one, who made a hasty retreat. The Templar was intent on warning his cohorts, and this section features the new chase gameplay. Your aim is to stop him before he can call for reinforcements, by any means possible. These areas don't appear to be linear, and you can use alternative paths when an enemy creates an obstacle, in this case blocking our way to a terraced balcony by locking a gate. Desilets used a chandelier to swing around the outside of the balcony and through a gap in the wall to kill the Templar, which resulted in another cutscene where Ezio eavesdrops on the meeting. Inspired by real events, the cutscene shows the Pazzi conspirators who planned an assassination on the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, co-rulers of the Florentine Republic. There were a number of conspirators named, including the pope, who apparently approved of the Templars' plot.
Our demo concluded with Ezio finding a chest of money and opening a sarcophagus marked with the Assassin's logo, and we found a ceramic seal inside. Collecting these, we're told, will result in big rewards later on. Opening a nearby door, Desilets exited the catacombs and popped back into the world through a sewer grate near a canal. Assassin's Creed II is dropping onto the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on November 17 in North America and on November 20 in Europe. For all of our coverage from Cologne, visit gamescom.gamespot.com.