In the two years since Assassin's Creed was shipped, the team has been working full steam on the sequel and this time with the benefit of a proven engine. It's one thing to address complaints from the first game, to maybe add a few new features, but Assassin's Creed II does quite a bit more than this. We're talking about new additions like upgradeable armor, a notoriety system, tons of weapons, and an entire villa to restore complete with shops and a brothel. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
That's not to say there haven't been technological improvements. You'll notice straight away that Assassin's Creed II (ACII) runs slightly more smoothly than its predecessor, with less noticeable frames dropped and a very cool new effect where environments spring forth from a three dimensional matrix. But having seen the trailers and the walkthroughs you already know that Assassin's Creed II visually recreates the renaissance. But how does it play? Will it silence the critics of the first installment? I sat down with the game for numerous hours and we're here to answer all of these pressing questions and more.
Disclaimer: The following discusses the ending of the first game. If you have yet to play it, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.
You may remember the ending of the first Assassin's Creed raising more questions than it answered. Desmond, the main character in present-day, was still trapped by the evil company Abstergo in a sterile lab. The company had forced Desmond to relive his genetic memories in hopes of finding an ancient relic known as a Piece of Eden. By the end of the game you were trapped seemingly indefinitely, but also able to use your "eagle vision" to read a series of codes and glyphs written on the walls of your cell.
Without ruining the story, I can tell you that the writings on the wall and their mysterious author come into play throughout Assassin's Creed II. Hidden glyphs imprinted on Desmond's memories can be found throughout the game. The glyphs lead to picture puzzles showing pivotal points in history, which in turn lead to clues revealing the motives of Abstergo and the secret behind the Pieces of Eden. This is called "The Truth" and is a thread that runs throughout the story of Assassin's Creed II. Needless to say, anyone who loved the conspiracy theories and historical references of the first game won't be disappointed.
Assassin's Creed II starts with a bang. Following the "disturbance" that distracted his captors at the end of the first game, Desmond is busted out of the lab by Lucy, the attractive Abstergo employee who was missing her ring finger -- rightly indicating that she was an Assassin and on your side all along. Desmond and Lucy run through the futuristic office complex passing hundreds of work stations containing the same technology that allowed Desmond to relive the adventures of the Master Assassin from Assassin's Creed I.
The duo make it to the parking garage, fight off a pack of guards, and Lucy is able to escape with Desmond hiding in the trunk of her car. They arrive at a loft apartment where Lucy introduces Desmond to the modern day Assassins and convinces him to help them in their fight against Abstergo, the modern-day Templars. Desmond agrees, and enters the Assassin's version of the Animus to train for the inevitable battle. In the first game Desmond was forced to live as Altair for reasons beyond his understanding, now he is reliving the life of Ezio Auditore da Firenze to learn from him -- to become a master assassin.
As Desmond re-enters the animus, we're introduced to Ezio's life from the very beginning. Players are birthed into a tutorial where they tap corresponding buttons to wiggle baby's Ezio's limbs, only then does he issue his first cry. The Assassin's have an improved animus, they refer to it as version 2.0, and it allows Desmond to communicate with people outside of his genetic memory. From what I played, which was extensive, I never left Ezio's body. Although it's certainly likely that other segments take place back in modern times, the glyph hunting and puzzles I mentioned above keep players rooted in Ezio's life.
After birth the story jumps ahead to Ezio's exploits as a young man, a shiftless lay about who makes the Italian city-state of Florence his playground in the late 1400s. Players learn hand-to-hand combat in a street brawl where Ezio beats down and then loots his opponents. The hand-to-hand combat is similar to the first game if a bit more "punchy." It wasn't until I jumped ahead in the game, to Venice, where the true highlights of the refined combat system revealed themselves.