Within the first 10 minutes of playing this game, you realise that Ubisoft has fixed a lot of the issues that were wrong with the first game. Straight away, the characters seem much more likeable and the story has more substance. There's cut-scenes with subtitles! Damien walks faster and can run! Combat is more varied and now features combos! Missions are more varied and interesting. There's even an option to quit the game and return to the desktop!
The modern-day story is a continuation of the first game, although you're not missing much if this is your entry-point to the series. Lucy helps Desmond escape the Abstergo research facility and makes their way to an Assassin hideout. After a quick introduction to Shaun and Rebecca, Desmond enters Rebecca's Animus 2.0 which allows him to learn the abilities of assassin's from his memories. Desmond views the life of Ezio Auditore who lives in Renaissance Italy, who becomes an assassin in order to seek revenge on the Templars that killed his family. The voice acting has improved; Ezio has a authentic Italian accent, and the dialog often slips in Italian words (with translations in the subtitles) to add more authenticity to it.
Once Ezio begins life as an assassin, your Uncle's Villa becomes your headquarters. This Villa and the surrounding town can be invested in to reap financial rewards over time. Investing in shops allow you to purchase weapons, armour and medical supplies at a discount. Although the system sounds good, the amount of money the game throws at you means you will have purchased all the upgrades by midway through the game.
Controlling Ezio is very much like controlling Altair in the original game. Each of the basic abilities are mapped to a specific limb; feet, head, free hand, weapon hand. Jumping over obstacles is automatic, and the impressive climbing animations allow you to traverse most buildings as there is always something for Ezio to cling onto.
The 'Blend' mechanic has changed since now you have to walk close to a group of people rather than simply holding a button and giving guards a wide-berth. I rarely used this feature, only really making use of it during the missions where you need to follow someone.
Committing crimes in a city increases your notoriety bar which determines how much attention the guards will pay to you. The lower the meter, then the closer you can walk to the guards. At a low level, they may be curious and walk towards you, but if you have high notoriety, they will begin chasing at first sight. You can lower the notoriety by ripping wanted-posters from the walls, killing officials or bribing the heralds. It's an overly simplistic system which means you don't really need to care about your actions since it's easy just to revert the situation back to normal. When guards give chase, you also have the option of running out of a set area to evade them. This means it's no longer necessary to hide in the hay, bench, or roof-top shacks; meaning you don't really get those tense, epic chases from the first game.
The exploration element of Assassin's Creed remains the same. There's a large environment to explore, and scaling buildings is easy. Your map lacks detail unless you climb the tallest buildings and 'synchronize'. At this point, points of interest such as quests, shops and notoriety-reducing-elements are marked on your map.
The quests are mixed up more which makes them far more satisfying than the original game. There's still time-trial based events such as races and package delivery, Interrogation-style missions in the form of 'beat the cheating husband', and Assassination where you have to take out a few targets.
The health system is overhauled with the addition of doctors and medicine. You start off with far less health, and your health only regenerates if the health gauge is fractional (half a health point will generate). You can only replenish full health points by using the medicine items, or visiting a doctor. I found the 5 medicine vials you can carry to be rather generous, and this limit can be extended by purchasing better pouches. You can increase your health points by purchasing better armour which can also be temporarily broken until repaired at the Armourer. These elements actually makes the game easier than before since the system is overly generous in every aspect.
The combat has been tweaked to add more variety. There's a decent range of weapons you can purchase, with various daggers, swords and axes to play with. You can also customise the theme of Ezio's clothing by dyeing his clothes via the Tailor. There's now a basic combo system to the combat, but the counter-attack move still remains the most effective and easiest option. The enemy variety does result in different strategies, but ultimately it resorts to similar behaviour to the first game where each character takes turns in attacking, allowing you to pick them off easily. Assassinations have improved since you now can kill from hiding places, ledges and rooftops for some satisfying and strategical kills.
Scattered around towns are groups of Warriors, Thieves or Courtesans which you can hire. Warriors can fight but are limited to the ground, Thieves are weaker fighters but can follow you over rooftops, and Courtesans give you a moving group to blend with, and will distract guards with their charm. Although this sounds like a good idea, just like all the other ideas; it's overly simple. It means getting past guards or escaping from them is too easy, given that you can just run a short distance, press a button to hire them and let your hired group deal with the guards whilst you just flee the scene. The cost to hire these groups is far too low. Given you often get a few thousand for completing a mission, paying 150 to make the combat easier just seems silly.
There's a good amount of collectibles. Instead of flags, you now have feathers which Ezio's little brother collected. There are also many chests which contain money or tomes. Finding the money chests is easier if you purchase a map from the merchants. The tomes are essential in order to complete the game. These tomes can be decrypted by taking them to famous painter/inventor Leonardo Da Vinci who befriends Ezio and features prominently in the plot.
As a side-quest, Ezio can recover Altair's armour from the Assassin Tombs. These are small Prince Of Persia style areas where you will be climbing and jumping around structures, possibly taking on a few guards in the process. It doesn't quite reach the complexity of Prince Of Persia, or even match its design, but it's a nice change of pace.
You can find glyphs on the sides of important buildings. These glyphs will contain various puzzles which will give you extra history of the battles between Assassins and Templars.
There's new ideas, lots of improvements and tweaks to the formula which makes Assassin’s Creed 2 feel like a huge step forward. The game is still too easy though. Even though they have removed some of the tedious nature of the combat, and made the chases much less frantic, it's become even easier than the first game; and that wasn't exactly difficult. It is definitely a better experience though but still drags on for far too long. Expect to rack up 20 hours or so, when 12 hours would have sufficed.