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In a way, this is virtual tourism at its best, though a more bloodthirsty Grand Tour than most culture vultures (bar Hannibal Lecter) would have in mind. It’s also great to see missions that make the most of these environments, with one where you eliminate archers on the streets and rooftops as a gondola crawls through the Venetian canals a real stand-out.
Beyond killing and clambering and following the latest twist of the plot, the game has a couple of other hooks to keep you going. Firstly, a previous occupant of the Animus had left his mark on the game world in the form of glyphs; weird diagrams that Ezio can read in the past, and that can then be interpreted by Desmond’s new assassin colleagues in the future. These give you further glimpses into the back-story, complete with a weird video that slowly unfolds the more you collect. If you like your Da Vinci code claptrap, you’ll love this.
Secondly, with the end of the game’s first act Ezio gets his own Tuscan hill-town to govern, and money earned through assassination can be spent on upgrading its facilities and making it a nicer place to live (and a cheaper place to buy arms, armour and supplies). To be honest, the last is a little bit wasted – once you reach Venice there’s not really much compulsion to go back, but it shows how far Ubisoft has gone this time to ensure that AC2 has real depth.
I’ll admit that there are still times when – like an episode of Neighbours - the scenery shakes to remind you that it’s all not real. You’ll see guards who fail to react to a comrade getting murdered nearby, or chuckle as nobody in a crowded square responds to the sight of a man diving hundreds of feet into a haystack.
You’re guaranteed to witness at least once chase that descends into a knockabout farce, your quarry waiting for you to catch up while you continually fluff a simple jump. The oft-repeated background dialogue is back as well, though much less obtrusively and annoyingly this time around. Some of these issues, I suspect, will only be resolved when Ubisoft has sufficient hardware to realise the extent of its ambition.
All in all, however, Assassin’s Creed II has narrowed the gap between expectation and reality to the point where it’s really more of a crack. It’s a game that has bought me from a slight sneer to the point of obsession, and the sort of game I can happily play for four or five hours in a single stint without looking down at my watch. If you liked Assassin’s Creed, this is better. If you felt disappointed by Assassin’s Creed, this will restore your faith. And if you mocked Assassin’s Creed, stop laughing. Assassin’s Creed II deserves respect.
A storming historical thriller that comprehensively deals with the weaknesses of its disappointing forebear. Not quite a renaissance masterpiece, but very, very close.