Gamersyde Preview: Assassin's Creed 2
Assassin's Creed 2 will be released very soon now and this week, we were invited to play the preview code of the game for four full hours. Well aware that the first game did not offer enough variety, the guys at Ubisoft Montreal knew they would have to deliver a good-looking game packed with a lot more content this time around. To find out if they have a good chance of succeeding, follow me inside.
For the past few weeks, people have had some concerns about Assassin's Creed 2, fearing that the game might turn out to be somehow downgraded, graphics-wise. It is true that some of the trailers shown did not help as they were not particularly well-encoded. As a result, I must confess that, even though I had seen the E3 demo in Cologne, I was a bit tensed when I sat down in front of the 58-inch plasma TV with a PS3 controller in my hands.
A bit of his story
The game starts exactly where Assassin's Creed ends, with Desmond Miles discovering strange symbols everywhere on the walls and the floor. The very first minutes will have you try to escape the Abstergo building in a playable introductory scene. This sequence is merely just about going through a bunch of corridors and computer rooms but it is at least a lot more dynamic than the sequences involving Desmond from the previous game. By the way, it is important to mention that it is the only present-related sequence I played in the first four hours, which tends to prove that the leaps between the past and the present will be fewer.
The adventure truly begins with the introduction of Desmond's new ancestor, Ezio Auditore Da Firenze, a young and irresponsible young noble who would clearly benefit from a few slaps in the face if you ask me. Contrary to Assassin's Creed where the player was thrown into the story in medias res, here things are a bit smoother since the main character is presented to us through a series of different sequences - playable or not. All this obviously aims at introducing the player with the main protagonist's personal background as well as the historical context of the story. As I'm not the spoiler kind of guy, I will not get into details but suffice to say that the way Ubisoft handled this long introductory scene is a lot more efficient and cinematic than before. Some work still needs to be done as I find the dramatization of the main event that will affect Ezio's life a bit awkward. It is however much easier to feel involved in what is going on, which is a major improvement to me anyway.
It belongs in a museum
Now is the right time for relief folks, Assassin's Creed 2 is definitely a very good-looking game. As soon as I saw Florence, the last remaining pieces of concerns I had just vanished. Some will probably bitch about the fact that some of the backgrounds - or NPCs - lack details but it would be unfair not to praise the amount of work that has been done with the rendering of all the beauty and delicacy of Italian architecture. Whether you are walking in the street among the crowd or jumping from one rooftop to another, it really feels like being back in the fifteenth century. As you discover all the marvels of the Italian Renaissance, you can learn more about the places you visit. Say you pass near a beautiful church or a famous palace for example, the game's data base is updated and gives you some information about the nearby monument. Would Assassin's Creed 2 be the first game to reconcile a true gaming experience with the content of an encyclopedia? Well, maybe not entirely but it is as close to it as it can get I guess. It makes wandering around even more interesting and is, to me, a very nice feature.
Another nice addition is the fact that there is now a full day and night cycle. Some may think it is not much but, not only does it bring a lot in terms of atmosphere, but it also ads much variety to the game. On the down side tough, sometimes, after completing a mission at night, you can find yourself in the daytime even though Ezio has not moved a finger. It is not that big a deal but with such attention to details, you would expect everything to be perfect, wouldn't you? It is all the more true as time flows in a totally normal way in other instances. Maybe it will be different in the retail version or maybe the Animus is to blame, who knows?
If there is one area where there have been real improvements, it is in the way the emotions of the different characters are conveyed through their eyes. True, there are certainly many games out there in which the facial modelisation is a lot more impressive and sophisticated and some might find that in Assassin's Creed 2, it is a bit too... simplistic. The fact remains though, that the characters look a lot more human than in many other games. In some way, it reminds me of Valve's impressive work on the characters of the Half Life² series, the proof that you do not always need the highest number of polygons to render emotion.
As far as framerate and animations are concerned, once again, nothing to be picky about. The game's framerate is overall very smooth when simply walking around the city. Of course, when things get a little hectic and a bunch of guards are after you, it tends to slow down a bit but nothing too serious - at least nothing worse than in the previous game. In the smaller town of Monteriggioni, it is even 100% smooth whether you run at full speed or jump around everywhere. We will have to wait and see to find out if the review code and the retail version will show some improvements in that area but it should as I have been told the game has been optimized since the preview build. Ezio's animations are very close to Altaïr's but you will soon notice that they are a bit faster, another way of adding more pace to the game.
Crime never pays, or does it?
Truth be told, Assassin's Creed revealed about everything about its gameplay in the first couple of hours but this time, I can assure you that, after four hours, you will only have scratched the surface of the game's possibilities. Obviously, all that has to do with the free running aspect of the game has not changed much since the first episode. The character can climb about anything and if you can see something to grab, you can be certain you can do it. So, provided you find the right "path" it is pretty natural to climb on top of a tower, though not always as easy as you might think.
So as to satisfy the frustrated players who felt they did not have enough control over what was going on in the first game, it is now impossible to hide in a group of monks by the simple press of a button. In Assassin's Creed 2, you really have to stick with the passers-by and follow them as they walk. Given that their moves are not scripted anymore, it also means that they will not necessarily go exactly where you intend to go. Hence the necessity to use different groups of people to move past the guards and be a lot more cautious if you do not want to be spotted. It is however possible to make things a little easier by taking the heat off you: to lower your wanted level, you can rip down the wanted posters on the walls of the city you are in or you can also kill certain optional targets.
Hopefully, it is also possible to pay a group of prostitutes so they divert the guards' attention for a little while or you can choose to throw some coins in the street to create a bit of turmoil. That's why finding and making money has become an important part of gameplay. Some safes are actually hidden all around the different cities and, contrary to the flags of the first game, they really are worth looking for. Talking about collectibles, there are also 20 symbols to discover, each of them unlocking a short video. Once you have found them all, the full video should give you hints as to where the storyline is headed. With each symbol also comes an audio log as well as a small puzzle, like, for example, finding the common element between several paintings. In Monteriggioni, you can also collect statues which will have to be put back where they belong in order to get some interesting reward, or so I have been told. As a matter of fact, all this is purely optional but there is a lot more incentive to find all the collectibles - and there are many others - when you know it's not just for a trophy/achievement.
The addition of a money system is then a very important feature of Assassin's Creed 2. It will allow the player to buy weapons or upgrades, clothes and even a whole village (!) but money will also be required to get some medical care or buy health potions from the local doctor. Which brings me to another great departure from the first Assassin's Creed: in the sequel, the player's health does not simply regenerate with time anymore, so you can't just rush into things without thinking it through first. Since I'm mentioning the things that have been removed from the previous game, I should also tell you that there are no more necessary investigations before killing a target, which comes as a great relief as these sequences were both boring and pointless. The missions will also be more unpredictable and varied with more ways to complete them and it really seemed so during my first hours of play. If Assassin's creed 2 can live up to its promises, it will not only make fans happy, it might also convince the disappointed ones, and hopefully, it will. There are still so many things I could tell you about - most of which I have not even had time to see for myself - like for example the platforming sequences ala Prince of Persia, the weapon schematics you have to find in order for Leonardo Da Vinci to build them for you, or the new moves that you can learn to have access to new areas etc. A whole bunch of stuff we will be glad to come back on if we get the game in time for a full review.
After four hours with Ezio, one thing is sure, I could have kept playing all day long. Assassin's Creed 2 seems to make up for all its big brother's mistake two years ago, while keeping all the original game's strength. The preview code ran very well, with very little aliasing considering the size of the screen, which is a good omen for the retail version. And well, even if the small pop-up and framerate issues I saw made it to the final game, I would not be any less excited about it. Not a bad sign, is it?
About the game
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