Assassin's Creed II

Renaissance spawns modern masterpiece

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Every traditional 'gaming' moment ironically makes you feel more like Desmond Miles. Smart then, but a game is for playing, not just technical willy-waving. Thankfully, Assassin's Creed 2 delivers confidently and consistently throughout its epic story. Although the action will be familiar to anyone who tackled the original, it's both more varied and better paced this time around. You're not just dumped into Ezio's shoes and told to get out there and kill - you don't even start out as an assassin. Your interactions with the members of Ezio's family slowly introduce the basics like climbing, interacting with the world and fighting, and as events unfold you learn new skills. This gentle approach works extremely well, keeping you in control of your actions and confined within manageable portions of the vast game world without shattering the illusion of freedom or the believability of the story. You don't even get your hidden blade - the series' trademark weapon - until about two to three hours in, but you never miss it.

Free-running and climbing is still responsive (one of the few aspects the original did well), and each city feels unique and inviting to explore. Occasional awkward moments aside, when Ezio takes the wrong angle off a building and ends up leaping like a lemming to certain death, the platforming is easily on a par with Uncharted 2. The distribution of enemy AI is spot on too - you're never hassled too much for roof-running - as is the temperament of the enemies. In the original, walking at street level usually meant a fight with a bunch of hyper sensitive guards, but in AC2 unless you've been raising hell and not covering your tracks, you can stroll the alleys of Florence, San Gimignano, Venice or other parts of renaissance Italy (spoilers dodged) without fear of undue violence.

If things do get nasty, Ezio has several new moves to bring to a fight including the ability to blind attackers by throwing dust in their face (handy if you want to back out of conflict). Combine this with the much wider array of weapons, and the ability to counter and disarm enemies, and combat becomes something of a playground for your skills. Sure, you could hammer r, or counter until everyone drops dead, but there's more satisfaction to be had in grabbing your enemy's axe mid-swing, yanking it off him, and using it to split his skull. Get it just right and you can string together counters, blows and special moves like Batman in Arkham Asylum. It takes practice, but there's no shortage of fights to be had on your adventure.

As the game progresses it opens up, inviting you to explore and experiment with the skills you've learned. Just when you feel you've mastered them, it feeds you a few more tricks, giving you scope to approach scenarios in a whole new way. Eight hours in, when we'd be watching the end credits in most adventure games, we're still learning fresh techniques that allow us to explore more of the game's beautiful renaissance cities and kill their inhabitants in ever more fiendish and creative ways. The more you learn, the more creative you can be with your main kills. Once fully kitted up, you have a Hitman-like freedom to carry out hits and, thanks to the considered build up where you learn not just how to murder but how to distract, each kill feels like a real event; a mental puzzle you can conquer in so many satisfying ways.

In all this game is 30 hours long and (unlike the original) very little of it feels like filler. Even the traditionally mundane side-quests, like letter deliveries, are spiced up by AC2's characters and scenarios. Want an example? One of the first courier missions sees you delivering letters for Casanova (who looks like an old letch) to rich ladies who have been put under armed guard by their fathers. Again, these little incidentals really give you the feeling that everything in Assassin's Creed 2 is there for a reason.

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