Assassin's Creed II seems to do a better job of blending together its elements then its predecessor did, and adds a healthy dose of the unexpected to cut through what could become another repetitive game.
After sitting through a presentation of the upcoming title by Patrice Desilets and his beard, I was handed the controller for a chance to run around inside the game. I ended up not only surprising myself, but the developers during my short time with the game.
During his presentation at the Tokyo Game Show, Desilets walked us through a mission in the game. In Assassin's Creed II gamers take on the role of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a nobleman who becomes an assassin after the death of his father.
Ezio, the ancestor of Desmond Miles and descendant of the first game's Altair, is out for revenge in the cities of 15th century Italy, including Florence, Venice, Rome and the Tuscan countryside.
The game seems to feature much more subtlety than the original. You can, for instance, purchase different outfits from local merchants to disguise yourself. Because of the importance of clothing during the Renaissance, capes and dyes help you pull off different looks. You can also purchase weapons, armour and even pouches to hold more equipment.
The game allows you to assassinate or bribe witnesses to keep them from talking about you and increasing your notoriety in a city. And of course, there is now the ability to swim through the many canals of the game. You can also use small boats to navigate the canals.
Desilets pointed out that missions in Assassin's Creed II aren't as succinct as they were in the first game. This time around you may need to accomplish other tasks before getting to the target.
In the mission we saw, Ezio had to take out five archers and return to a contact before being given his assassination target.
During the mission, Ezio had to find some cover to help him get closer to his target. Instead of being limited to hanging out with a group of monks, like in the first game, Assassin's Creed II has several options for distraction and moving group cover.
You can hire a group of thieves, mercenaries or even courtesans to help you through missions. Each offer their own spin on distraction.
The thieves can follow you just about anywhere, including rooftops and will protect you if you're attacked. While the mercenaries can't follow you across the roofs of buildings, they are more armoured and armed and will more actively attack enemies. They are, Desilets said referencing Mario Kart, the blue turtle shell of Assassin's Creed II. Finally, the courtesans are the least confrontational of the bunch.
The inspiration for the group of distracting women came from the movie Catch Me If You Can, Desilets said. In the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. used pretty flight stewardesses to help distract security as he made his way through airports disguised as a pilot.
I was intrigued by the game's concept of hiring underlings to sort of hang-out with you, so when I got the chance to play one of the first things I did was find a group of mercenaries to hire.
They certainly made rampaging through Venice much easier. With the hired guards by my side, I came upon a group of enemies on a bridge. Not only can Ezio take down an enemy with his hidden dagger, he's also quite good at disarming foes. I used this ability to remove a halberd from a heavily armoured guard and then bashed him to death with it.
While I worked on my guard, the mercenaries fanned out and took on the rest of the group on their own. By the time I was done with the fatal pummelling so were they.
Group in tow, I ran back across the tiny bridge and into a pack of pedestrians, attacking them in an attempt to attract more guards. It took a few minutes of rampaging before more guards showed up, which we quickly dispatched.
After making short work of the guards in the area, I decided to trot over to a merchant's stall to check out their good. The stall had a number of interesting weapons to purchase and some flashy clothing. I spent a few minutes looking through the merchant's selection before landing on a nicely constructed dueling sword.
Armed with a new sword, I walked away from the shop to discover my mercenaries in full battle...with pedestrians. They had, for some reason, decided that in my absence it was a good idea to start pillaging the town. People were running around while the mercenaries hewed into them with weapons. No guards seemed to be present.
I asked a nearby developer if he knew why they were attacking unarmed civilians. Had they, perhaps, picked up my bad habits?
"I've never seen that happen before," he said. "It might be a bug."
I think that's the kind of bug they need to keep in the game.