Assassin's Creed II Hands-On

Master new weapons, learn new secrets, and own an entire town. Prepare to be overwhelmed.

by David Clayman

October 21, 2009 - 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 Needless to say, anyone who loved the conspiracy theories and historical references of the first game won't be disappointed.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.

In Venice you'll be helped by a band of thieves.
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.

Not only does Ezio gain access to a huge arsenal of weapons (stilettos, hammers, spears, many different swords, and even a small gun), but he's also fitted with dual assassin blades. These tools don't just look cool in the game's concept art, but they can be used to pull off dual assassinations, a move I ripped off consecutively to kill four armed guards in a matter of seconds. With each new weapon comes a set of brutal new animations.. You haven't lived until you've brutalized an aggressor with the sledgehammer with crushing blows that will make you wince at the screen.

Some guards can adapt to the environment, just like you.
There are three types of enemy: a brute, a seeker that actively searchers for Ezio, and an agile type that can free-run just like Ezio. Weapons aren't just bought, you can also disarm opponents and each of the three guard types have special weapons to steal. While Ezio will never take down a brute with just a sword, if he disarms a guard of his battle axe or halberd he'll have a fighting chance. It makes combat more of a strategic affair than just mashing X or spamming the counter action like in the first game.

But the advanced combat doesn't appear until later. In Ezio's first fight the biggest new component is looting a downed enemy. This introduces players to the brand new monetary system that plays a huge part in ACII.

The initial brawl leaves Ezio roughed up, and he has to visit a doctor to heal his wounds. Health is finite in Assassin's Creed II; it doesn't regenerate automatically. When hurt you must use medicine or visit a doctor. The treatment costs money, and it's at this point that you realize the various stalls and shops in Assassin's Creed II will all eventually be accessible. Ezio will be able to purchase and upgrade weapons and strengthen his armor from leather, to Helmschmied, to metal which provides a welcome boost to his health meter. Armor also becomes damaged in battle and needs to be repaired to be effective. Oh, and if you tire of the white assassin garb you can always dye it one of 15 different colors.

Since everything costs money, the player has a legitimate reason to pick pocket his targets. There are also hidden stashes of money everywhere giving you a better reason to explore than the hundreds of flags strewn about the environments of the first game. Ezio can also toss coins in the street, a great way to disperse of annoying gypsies or cause a commotion that puts bodies between him and an enemy.

Early in Assassin's Creed II, Ezio seems to lead a carefree life of leisure. Besides the street brawl and a race over the rooftops, players also seduce a young lady (press X to remove her dress) and escape through the window in the morning. But soon Ezio is sent running errands for his family that add some significance to his existence and introduce us to the new mission structure. These include beating up a cheating lover for Ezio's sister and finding hidden feathers for his little brother by running across rooftops, and you can pick which order you complete them in.

The feathers have replaced the flags of Assassin's Creed I. There are 100 feathers and they are placed along the main quest areas of the game -- unlike the flags which appeared seemingly randomly throughout the world. Collecting these items will also lead to tangible rewards within the game. I'm not going to spoil what it is, but it's something Ezio could use in his quest for revenge.

Missions that are critical to the story are always marked on the map with an exclamation point. Side quests are also indicated on the map, but unlike the first game players aren't required to rack up these minor activities to access the next segment of the main story. When running through Florence there are plenty of high points to access and "sync" by surveying the landscape. Reaching these points unlocks other missions but none of them are necessary to advance the game.

After a few early missions Ezio unveils a plot to disgrace and murder his family, but only after his father and brothers are betrayed and imprisoned. It is then that Ezio learns of his father's double life as a master Assassin and gains access to the white veil and armor we know so well from the cover art. The death of his family members and protection of his mother and sister set up a revenge plot that's far more personal than anything Altair faced in the early stages of Assassin's Creed.

At this point he begins his training and receives his first codex, an item that is of great value when presented to a fledgling artist and close family friend, Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci reconstructs Ezio's hidden Assassin blade, and throughout the game he'll use more hidden codex to build and improve your arsenal.

Kill them with their own weapons.
You also become friends with a woman named Paula, a madame, who teaches you the arts of blending into a crowd. Simply walking up to a clustered group of people in a city blends Ezio into the masses, which is indicated by slight a flash of white over his surroundings. Ezio's targets now have awareness icons over the heads that let players know exactly how close they are to being discovered.
Ezio can also hire three types of people to assist him in a city. Whores can be hired to surround Ezio and divert attention as he walks through a city. They'll break off and distract guards who near Ezio. Mercenaries are straight brawlers that can be unleashed to beat the tar out of a targeted enemy. Thieves can also be directed at targets as distractions but they are agile enough to follow Ezio through the city and over the rooftops.

Most importantly, in response to the outcry against the "sitting on a bench" missions from the first game, the stealth elements of Assassin's Creed have been streamlined and incorporated into the gameplay. Crowds and benches act as safe zones as you track your targets through a city, and you'll mix hiding and hiring help as you try to maintain a close proximity without being noticed.

Outside of structured missions there is also a notoriety meter that indicates how aware of Ezio a city's guards have become. This appears near his health meter and works similar to the stars in Grand Theft Auto. Ezio however, can tear down wanted posters strewn about town to lower his notoriety and lessen the chances that guards will sound the alarm when he's walking about town.

We already know that Ezio travels from Florence, to Venice, Rome, Tuscany, and various locations in the Italian countryside. Ezio can travel by horse, or steer a gondola in Venice, or to save time he can hire transportation and fast travel to locations on the map. Eventually his exploits take him to the Villa Auditore in Monteriggioni which was built by his great-grandfather.

In these times a villa of this size wasn't just a home in the countryside, it was an entire walled city complete with its own populace and economy. Unfortunately, Ezio's villa starts off in ruin and it's up to him to restore it to glory. By investing the money he collects in the villa, Ezio is able to rebuild and improve a Blacksmith, Taylor, Brothel, Doctor, Barracks, Bank, Art Merchant, Church, Mines, Wells, and Thieves Guild.

As elements of the town improve, its inhabitants go from peasants to upper class citizens and they start to bring in tax money. Ezio can return to the town treasurer from time to time to collect these earnings. He can also reap the benefits of improved shops and services. For example, an upgraded blacksmith gives players a discount on weapons purchased there and upgrading the wells allows Ezio access to an underground aqueduct with hidden treasures.

The villa becomes a playground of sorts with a fighting ring that allows Ezio to practice advanced combat like counter kills and disarms. Here he can also purchase training to upgrade his abilities. There are also numerous hidden areas that become accessible as the game progresses and buildings are upgraded. Inside the main house there is a trophy room that displays items Ezio has collected, earned, or stolen along with a gallery to hang precious works of art.

The most intriguing part of the trophy room is a secret entrance that leads down to a vault filled with statues dedicated to famous past assassins. Among the statues I recognized garb that resembles Genghis Khan's attire and a special statue dedicated to Altair. Let the speculation begin on where the next installment of Assassin's Creed will take us.

I could continue for pages describing the numerous ways Assassin's Creed II has been improved and added to from the first installment in the series. I have yet to touch upon the hidden platforming puzzles a la Prince of Persia that have been sprinkled throughout an adventure that has been described as lasting about 25 hours. So far Assassin's Creed II is a lot more than anyone expected, and we'll be sure to share all of it with you in the coming weeks before its release.


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