Format: 360, PS3 (version tested)
Release: Out now (US), November 20 (Euro)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
A warning for those beguiled by the lethal grace of the man adorning the box: you don’t get to be him for a good two hours of play. But though you’ll be stewed in a sequence of exposition and gentle tutoring in some of Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s many talents, those first hours certainly move at a clip.
Picking up directly at the point the previous game ended, gazing at eldritch markings on the concrete of Desmond’s designer cell, we’re off into the Animus and the chance to witness the birth of Ezio and a cute QTE in which you tap his tiny limbs into life. Then it’s flight out of incarceration and into the hands of a plucky new cadre of Animus proprietors, including a geek-chic technician and an English history buff with a sneering drawl, before joining Ezio and his brother indulging in hijinks on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. Finally, after much murder, intrigue and family strife, Ezio is granted his assassin’s garb. But it’s not until three hours in that he’s allowed a sword.
Ezio is an immensely likeable lead – strong, sensible and quiet – his bold features and enviable skill in cursing matched only by his style in clothing, its flowing fabric articulating his powerful, graceful movement. Controlled identically to his forebear, Altaïr, he’s a pleasure to direct throughout the game’s ensuing minimum of 15 hours’ play.
The other delights are the cities, tourist sights washed with period atmosphere that also serve as playgrounds for Ezio’s agility. Comprising two main locations, Venice and Florence, and three towns with surrounding countryside, they feature more unique detail and variation than the original game’s attractions. Rooftops are more dynamic, following winding lines of pitched tiles, while street-level alleys and thoroughfares are even more thickly thronged with passers-by as they twist and turn naturalistically.
It’s not as if Assassin’s Creed II had to prove itself with these considerable achievements. Its biggest challenge was to provide its cities with a game for its assassin to play, and Ubisoft Montreal has responded with an abundance of riches. Ezio’s fate is diverse and ascribed by a tightly controlled plot, which speeds through each location and offers a great deal of variety, even if missions are built from the same essential blocks as those in the first – straight assassinations, tailing targets, freeing prisoners, clearing guards, infiltration. The secret’s in their pacing, forever mixing elements around or leading you into new areas of the city, and each is short and sharp.
A succession of snappy cutscenes drives the story’s progression, boasting excellent voice acting, albeit against animation and facial art of a much lesser pedigree. Though it lacks the original’s musings on the folly of fixed ideologies, Assassin’s Creed II’s sprawling and slightly incoherent tale of conspiracy and murder is entertaining. In fact, the writing throughout the game is excellent – a database, dryly written by our sarcastic limey, describes the history of many locations, buildings and characters with unabashed pleasure in the setting. And why not? Renaissance Italy was a crucible of cultural revolution and political intrigue, and Ubisoft Montreal makes the most of it. Indulging in a spot of virtual tourism, it’s hard not to share in its evident passion.