Repetition. Beggars. Dawdling present sections. Repetition. A combat-crazy ending. No swimming. Getting chased through the Kingdom. Repetition. Forced plot developments. Little creative incentive during key kills. Did we mention repetition?
We're still proud to call ourselves huge fans of the original (a recent return to the Holy Land reaffirmed our love for the first game), but that doesn't mean we're blinded to its obvious shortcomings. Assassin's Creed had many, and nobody knows this more than the team in Ubisoft Montreal. For two years they've been working to weed out all of the first game's problems, and the result is one of the most shocking sequel turnarounds in memory. Hold on tight, because Assassin's Creed II isn't what you expected...
The game begins with a bang. Two years ago we predicted Desmond would eventually use the bleeding effect (the phenomenon of past assassin powers 'bleeding' into Desmond's abilities) to break out of Abstergo's base and fight back. He does. In the opening five minutes. Both Desmond and Lucy escape the base (yes, running now exists in 2012), meet up with new characters Shaun Hastings (historian) and Rebecca Crane (tech expert) and relocate to a hi-tech assassins' hideout. There a plan is formed: relive Ezio's life to teach Desmond the art of an assassin via the bleeding effect, and then fight Abstergo once he's all ninja-ed up. That's the story, but the real motivation behind the explosive beginning is something quite different. It's all about introducing a feature which changes everything. The Animus 2.0.
This new piece of kit, pride of the assassins' den, is the perfect excuse for many of the sequel's updates. "We wanted to make adjustments to the game structure, and to do that we needed a new Animus; one that's on your side," reveals Creative Director Patrice Desilets as we stare at the bastard cross between a dentist's chair and a jacking station from The Matrix. The new Animus is Ubi Montreal's ticket to wholesale changes: the perfect excuse to redesign the entire database, and the chance to blend both timelines into one larger story. You'll be returning to present day much less this time as the ability to communicate with Lucy and co from within the Animus negates the need to leave the DNA memories.
Our favourite Animus 2.0 feature has to be its encyclopaedia. Every important building has extra information tucked away in the database; find the building and hit the back button to access this info. More than simply a history lesson, the text and videos often provide clues to future hits.
Sit down, strap up, travel back: it's time to rewind. In what appears to be a nod to Fallout 3, life as Ezio begins as a baby cradled in the arms of his father. Thankfully this is a brief quirk more to do with narration than the actual gameplay, and time soon fast-forwards to 1476 where a teenage Ezio is roaming the streets of Florence. Responding to criticisms of the first's structure, Ubisoft Montreal has created the very antithesis. Assassin's Creed II spans three decades of Ezio's life (four counting the playable baby section), from troubled teen to forty-something, and the plot development is now comparable to the narrative structure of Grand Theft Auto IV, which the team admits is a major influence.
Gone are the nine targets, the investigation stages, the lectures and anything that even resembles a familiar pattern: that's all been bundled up and dropped off the side of a gondola. In their place are naturally systemic missions which do much more than just pad out the time in between assassinations - they form a coherent tale in a rich and diverse world. The lengthy build-up to each kill is binned, as are the camera-swapping walkabout scenes (cut-scenes in ACII are either QTEs or the bog-standard sit-and-watch type). In fact, the only returning idea from AC's assassinations are the death rattle chats.