Oh, this is a clever, clever game. It may not have the immediate, explosive impact of Uncharted 2, the beautifully manicured cut-scenes of MGS4, or the insane depth of Fallout 3, but in terms of the way it hooks you in and delivers its epic story of conspiracy, betrayal and love, Assassin's Creed 2 is unmatched - not even by GTA IV. Now, once you've finished reeling in puzzlement and disbelief, read on and we'll tell you why that is.
It starts at the end: of the first game that is. Desmond Miles is stood in his cell at Abstergo, staring the strange glyphs left on his wall by the mysterious Subject 16. If you didn't play the original - don't worry - there's a recap of what happened, done as a flashback (or you can check out Assassin's Creed: Explained). He's forced back into the Animus by Lucy where he synchronises with the memory of new character, and star of the show, Ezio. This first scene sees Ezio being born and your first action as the player is to wiggle his limbs with the face buttons.
X controls your legs, square your right arm, cirlce the left, and triangle your head. Why are we discussing the movements of a baby in such bizarre detail? Because these buttons directly translate to all your abilities later in the game. So, X is run (legs), square is action (assassinate etc.), circle handles your secondary hand actions (interacting with objects) and triangle handles targeting and eagle vision. It's a simple trick, but right from the off it makes you feel part of Ezio, engaged with his story.
This level of smart presentation and clever little narrative tricks continues throughout the rest of the 30 hour game. Amazingly we didn't find one wobbly moment where immersion was sacrificed for a convenient gaming mechanic, or an inconsistent plot device. Everything in Ezio's (and Desmond's) world feels natural, even the voice acting - no rubbish accents here - and plot lines are largely free from the usual ham and madness that runs through games. However, what really impresses is the way Assassin's Creed 2 puts it all together and weaves this world in with the action.
birth of Ezio inside the Animus, Desmond and Lucy flee the Abstergo building. Here we're treated to our first taste of combat, as the pair punch, kick and headbutt their way through a shambling selection of guards to reach the underground car park and freedom. The simple combos feel satisfying and brutal.
One quick cut-scene later and Desmond is rubbing shoulders with a new cast of friendly characters and being ushered into a modified version of the Animus where the game begins in earnest. Ezio is now a young man leading a bunch of friends and followers across the Ponte Veccio in Florence to start a fight with a rival family. It starts with boyish name-calling, escalates with stone throwing and culminates in a bloody brawl where you learn the basics of fist-fighting. But hang on a minute: haven't we already done scrapping when Desmond left Abstergo? Yes, but now we're in the Animus. We have a HUD, we have tutorial pop-ups, we have button prompts: we are Desmond, literally learning to fight as Ezio.
This is the key to AC2's story-telling success. It constantly reminds you that you are a man inside a machine, and feels no shame in giving you intrusive prompts like glowing doors, information flashing up in little boxes, and tingling noises every time you're near a collectible. In fact, it makes an event of these usually mood-killing conventions.
Glowing, collectible glyphs? They are hacked parts of the Animus software left by Subject 16. Loading screens? Here you see the city you're visiting being created building-by-building by the Animus. Intrusive information flashes that pop up whenever Ezio spots a famous landmark? These are snippets of info fed to Desmond by Shaun Hastings, one of the support team, to help him navigate the city.