That’s the bad news over, because if Assassin’s Creed II starts off being merely okay, it gets better and better and better the more you play. Ubisoft Montreal has done a great job of tightening up the core game mechanics, and an even better job of developing a structure that really works, pulling you more and more into the game as time goes on.
The free-running, for example, works much as it did in the first game, but now the environment seems better tuned for it, making a race across the Florentine rooftops a really fluid, exhilarating experience. Combat, meanwhile, seems to have been tweaked to make countering easier and ensure that you can take on more men without hitting a nasty end.
It’s easier to hide yourself in groups and so evade the notice of the local guards, while prostitutes can now be hired to mask your activities and distract your enemies from their posts. Assassin’s Creed was always at its best when it gave you an interesting challenge and a solid set of tools, then let you get on and do it your way. In Assassin’s Creed II your tools are more numerous and effective, and there’s always more than one way to skin a cat (or introduce some weasely Florentine merchant to his innards).
Better still, the sequel has found the right balance between freeform, open-world gameplay and an engaging mission structure. There’s no more of the ‘fulfil these four tasks then kill this bloke’ malarkey. Instead, you’re given a string of missions that build up towards the next major beat of the story, and the gameplay feels a lot more varied and interesting as a result.
One minute you’re sneaking up the Palazzo Vecchio to visit your imprisoned father, the next you’re escaping the scene of treachery, infiltrating a secret meeting or enacting the next stage of your bloody revenge. As in all the best games, it’s not so much that the core experience is always changing – climbing, free-running, stealth and combat remain to the fore throughout – but that there’s always some new twist, and a sense that your skills are being added to, pushed and tested.