In the beginning...
Back in gaming's 8-bit heyday, storylines were kept simple: 'Plumber leaps over barrels and twats ape to appease princess.' That sort of thing. These days, that's all changed, with Hollywood¹s top scribes often called in to flesh out throwaway timewasters into weekend-devouring epics. But as Ubisoft learned with the first Assassin's Creed, spend too much time developing an amazing story and you risk overlooking the gameplay.
Confident that this month's much talked-about follow-up nails both style and substance, the games giant invited FHM to its Montreal HQ for an exclusive demo of Assassin's Creed.
Thankfully, with the first game laying the groundwork, the storyline's a lot easier to follow this time around. The action takes place in 15th century Italy, taking in locations including Rome, Venice and Tuscany. But here's the thing. You're actually in a scientific research facility in the present day, plugged into a machine that allows you to recall the memories of deceased family members. Specifically, an ancestor called Ezio, a Florentine nobleman. Who, like Altair from the original game, earns a crust by killing people.
Except that now, thanks to a few simple tweaks, it's roughly twice as much fun as before. From within a locked room, inches away from coders busily sorting out the game's final touches, Creative Director Patrice Desilets talks us through the big new features. "We listened to the fans and we listened to ourselves, too. There were a load of things we wanted to fix. We knew what we wanted to do."
Hated the uninspired, 'bash X until dead' combat of the first AC? That's been sorted. You'll now use a lot more of the controller to pull off combos and perform counter-attacks. "It's a lot quicker and more dynamic. We also needed enemies that ask a lot more from the player," says Desilets. The armoured, axe-wielding 'brutes', for example. "Don't try to steal their weapon or do counters it won't work. You need to use other tools at your disposal to get rid of them." Throw a handful of coins on the floor and pedestrians will swarm round and distract your foes, providing the perfect cover for you to slip through unnoticed. Or, sneak up and prick them with your poisoned needle, then, using improved free-running mechanics, flee to a nearby rooftop and snigger as they go mental and hack bystanders to death.
Play the long game
Missions are less repetitive, too. And if you do get bored, there's plenty to do besides sneaking and killing. Like taking down wanted posters to cover your back, or hiring mercenaries to take out witnesses. In terms of scale and detail, it's ambitious.
Assassin's Creed II is an accomplished, engrossing and epic game everything its predecessor should've been. The only drawback being that, with an estimated completion time of 25 hours, only the unemployed, socially inept or medically incapacitated will be able to devote the required attention. Call us morbid, but we're praying for swine flu.
Assassin's Creed II, from £40, is out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on November 20