Assassin’s Creed II Eyes-On Preview

The Ubisoft presenter didn’t hide his agenda as he raced through the Assassin’s Creed II demo. While dispatching foes with all of the skill that hours of repeating the same demo have afforded him, he ran through every major qualm of the first game with bulleted-list efficiency: the game is repetitive, systematic, predictable, and pedantic. He addressed each of these, and then highlighted how ACII remedied them. I can’t say anything definite without getting some hands-on time with the game, but it appears as if Ubisoft’s heart is in the right place and that ACII might be worth another look from gamers displeased with the original.

The demo opens during the Carnevale di Venezia, an event that highlights the seemingly magical essence of Renaissance Venice. Fireworks and torches illuminate the night (yes that’s right, ACII has a day/night cycle), casting foreboding orange light across masked dancers in a town square. ACII is gorgeous, and hopefully the rest of the game looks as magical as moonlit-bathed Venice. The game’s protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, chills on a bench – seemingly oblivious to the festivities. Before long, a guard wanders up and recognizes young Ezio.

"Hiding spots are not hiding spots forever," our presenter explained, contrasting with the first game. The guard could barely proclaim his knowledge of Ezio’s identity before receiving a special assassin bro-hug. Ezio smoothly trades places with the now-deceased guard and sets off to recover a gift from Leonardo DaVinci. The assassin then demonstrates the series’ hallmark free running by hopping up a few platforms and effortlessly scaling the side of a building. While hanging from a ledge, Ezio employs the first of a number of new ways to silence patrolmen: yanking a curious guard over the edge of the building, Splinter Cell style. Upon reaching the roof, Ezio finds his inconspicuous gift – a large bird-shaped glider.

After donning the glider, Ezio sets off towards his target, participating in what looked like the hang gliding segments from Pilotwings. Gliding entails a tradeoff between height and speed, as the player must dive to pick up velocity and fly over pyres to regain altitude from the rising hot air. Hitting the water, ground, or buildings aren’t the only concern though, as local guards will demonstrate their cool heads under pressure by screaming "shoot the flying demon!" and firing wildly into the sky. Dodging the arrows and piloting the glider seemed fairly simple, but the presenter warned that this process requires a degree of mastery.

After landing, we saw a short cutscene of Ezio’s target – an aristocrat that stabs the first lackey he sees just to prove how evil he is. Now that the target’s nefarious nature had been established, the presenter proceeded towards him to demonstrate some of the new killing techniques. Aerial assassinations–those cool looking ones where Altair/Ezio leaps through the air and lands on the guy blade-first–are now much easier to do. Additionally, Ezio can use his two wrist blades to simultaneously drop two guards – a move that I have dubbed the double-shank.

The presenter then entered a full-on fight – the sort that drew a lot of criticism in the first Assassin’s Creed. While dispatching a trio of guards, the presenter explained that ACII has three unique enemy types: seekers, brutes, and guards. Each will have different attacks and a matching disarm / kill animation. What’s more, Ezio can pick up and use approximately ten different weapons. This implies that combat in ACII will be more than just the counter and defend process from the first game, but the jury’s out for me until I actually get to play it.

After laying waste to the poor guards (I bet it was their last day before retirement), Ezio mounts a flight of stairs and dutifully stabs his target. All the walls fold away in what was–no joke–the coolest looking moment of the whole demo. Another white room scene follows, in which Ezio and the recently assassinated aristocrat trade ominous quips. Gamers annoyed by these dialogue-heavy sequences will enjoy the fact that they are abbreviated in the second game – this one lasting between ten and fifteen seconds. Once everything folds back into existence, all hell breaks loose. Ezio makes like a ninja, dropping a smoke bomb and diving off the nearest ledge into the canal below to swim to his freedom. The demo ended there.

This presentation made it clear that Ubisoft Montreal wanted to tackle the systematic nature of the first game head-on. They’ve added glider segments, more assassination methods, impermanent hiding spots, and even missions that change based on the player’s style (an excess of Rambo-styled strategy will prompt missions to reduce Ezio’s infamy). Whether or not these additions will truly remedy the issues that some gamers had with the first game is still up in the air, though Ubisoft made a very strong case at E3. At least one thing’s certain – Ubisoft Montreal isn’t pulling a Warrior Within, as the essence of the first game remains unchanged so that fans can safely look forward to this imminent sequel.

Assassin’s Creed II ships on November 17th in North America and on November 20th in Europe. The game will be released on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

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