Version tested: PlayStation 3
"Nothing is true," said Al Mualim. "Everything is permitted." The point of Assassin's Creed - apart from establishing a hugely successful new IP for Ubisoft - was to avoid taking the old man's words literally, and to begin with you may wish you'd done the same with the pre-release hype for the sequel.
For months we've been told that Assassin's Creed II will be much better because, not unlike Desmond Miles strapped to the curvy Animus machine, it will be defined by the lessons of its ancestor. Yet the sequel begins as messily as anything I can remember, as friendly lab-tech Lucy helps Desmond escape from the Abstergo facility where he's being held.
Abstergo, of course, is a futuristic front for the Templar Knights (do keep up), and she's busting him out so they can no longer use the Animus to ransack his genetic memories for the location of super-powerful objects called Pieces of Eden (seriously, keep up). Lucy and Desmond escape by running down corridors, doing clunky stealth and having an awful fight in a carpark. When they get where they're going, it turns out Lucy's fellow Assassins are rejects from Scooby Doo, who live in a snazzy loft conversion at a warehouse. And then they strap Desmond in an Animus anyway.
Desmond is reborn inside the Animus as another of his ancestors, Ezio Auditore, who lived in Florence in the 15th century, and your first experience of him is as a baby in his father's arms, wiggling your legs, arms and head to make sure you remember how the slightly pretentious "marionette" control system is laid out.
Once you're done as a baby, the game nannies you through several hours of awkward tutorials, falteringly entwined with scripted sequences built to establish Ezio. When the young nobleman - not yet an assassin - and his brother sit down on top of a Florentine church and the Assassin's Creed II title card appears suspended in the sky, it's evidently meant to be a well-placed breather during a classy opening, and yet it falls flat.
But things quickly improve. For a start, Assassin's Creed II is freed from the burden of narrative expectation, because there's no longer any mystery about those weird graphical effects in the Middle Ages. We know you're a man in a machine, there's a war between Assassins and Templars, and the Templars want Pieces of Eden so they can enslave humanity. There's still lots more to find out, but once you've met Freddie and Velma (or whoever they are) you won't be so bothered about that, so the game has to stand on its own merits.
So it does. You're still an assassin, of course. You still plan for kills by completing little missions within huge cities, and you still spend most of your time clambering over rooftops using a parkour-inspired platform move-set. You get a few new attacks, the range of possible assassinations is better defined, and you learn a new platforming trick or two, but your actions are rarely different to Altair's in the first game. The difference is that the sequel puts them to proper use.
Assassin's Creed was a game where there was little you would go out of your way to do, so you rarely went out of your way. The biggest and most important change is that the sequel is completely the opposite. It's actually really difficult to steel yourself to focus on the story missions, because the cities of Florence, Rome and Venice, and the surrounding countryside, are so rammed full of desirable collectables that you can scarcely travel more than a couple of rooftops without diverting to take care of that tempting icon on the mini-map.
You collect money now. You receive it in payment for certain missions, but you can also gather it by locating glittering treasure boxes all over the country. You can buy maps that show where they are, and rather than cheapening the experience by giving the locations away, this drives you in their direction.
What steers your path is that the money can be spent on things you want. It powers character development by allowing you to purchase new armour and weapons, increasing your health and combat effectiveness. It also upgrades your home town, Monteriggioni. This is where Ezio ends up after the Pazzi Conspiracy first ensnares the Auditores, and he literally rebuilds it, feeding money to a local architect to renovate commerce and infrastructure. The town then starts to produce an income, which feeds back into character development, and the renovations also unearth secret areas where you can jump around to find more money.
Monteriggioni is also where you start to care about what's happening to Ezio, as your uncle Mario tells you a few home truths. You end up on all sorts of extra-curricular hunts. There are feathers. They're the flags from the first game, in effect, but now there's a compelling back-story to them. Then there are codex pages - the enciphered scribblings of Altair, which reveal a grand secret. Not only do they provide upgrades for your spring-loaded hidden blade once you pass them to your friend Leonardo da Vinci, but they can be rearranged like a jigsaw puzzle back at home base. You want to know what the jigsaw shows, so when you see an icon on the map you go after it.
The Scooby Gang, meanwhile, justify themselves with the glyphs, and these are the most exciting bits of all. They're little snippets of video hidden behind simple riddles and puzzles, and when you've unlocked all of them they promise they will tell you "The Truth" about the Animus and the whole goddamn conspiracy. They've been encrypted and hidden on the sides of buildings throughout the Animus' digital version of Italy by a former test subject who went a bit mad and seems to be dead.
There's more about him, too, and Altair, and as it crosses over into the present you're hooked again. The layers gradually coalesce until you've gone from thinking you know everything at the outset to realising you know almost nothing, and that every detour and extra collectable is another step towards finding out what's really going on. Like the first game, Ubisoft makes sure that there are big mysteries in the past and the present, but unlike the first game it uses those mysteries to make the things you do most often more meaningful and fun.
When you do eventually get where you're going, being an assassin is structured more like a Grand Theft Auto game. You go to mission icons on the map and receive instructions, and most of the tasks you perform are unpredictable, imaginative and often slick, even when they resemble things you used to do in the first game and even though the mechanics are roughly the same.
You might be asked to eavesdrop on some plotting, for example. This was rubbish in the first game, but now you might need to follow plotters through the streets, keeping them in sight as you navigate rooftops, or hiring courtesans to mask your pursuit or thugs to distract guards. Unlike Altair, Ezio is a witting participant in local politics, too, providing it suits his own goals, so he ends up helping local freedom fighters, stealing uniforms and gondolas in Venice and releasing prisoners.
He also does lots of actual assassinating. Many of these kills are structured like elaborate versions of the ones from the first game - there's a man on top of a tower covered by archers on neighbouring buildings, for example - but the difference is that there are so many of them that when one or two go wrong and you end up in a boring old fight, you can live with that. When they go right, and you sneak past an entire garrison, creep into a bedchamber and stick a concealed blade through a Templar's back before he even knows you're there, it all seems worth it.
The missions are often excellent, and not all are story-specific. There are six assassin tombs to uncover, for instance, and each is a self-contained, linear episode, comprising Prince of Persia-style platform puzzles and stealth action. They aren't all brilliant, but the calm, beautiful basilica levels in Florence and Venice are probably Ubisoft's best platform-game work since The Sands of Time.
It's also in these areas that you're reminded just how much love has gone into the locations. Florence or Venice may have the same sort of hand-holds and convenient ledges, boxes and cranes as Acre or Jerusalem, but the architecture is distinct and lovingly compiled from extensive research, and when you first see a new landmark, Ubisoft even offers to show you a database entry which explains its heritage from the present-day perspective of the Scooby Gang. Like the first game, the viewpoints - towers marked by eagle icons - are the first things you seek out, partly to get a grip on your surroundings, but mostly to stare out over the city.
Doing so proved to be the highlight of the first game, but it's a footnote in the second. Assassin's Creed II is a much more broadly enjoyable game, and after a dodgy start it rarely loses its way. When it does - in the odd silly side mission, shocking bit of dialogue or enduring quirk of the imperfect controls - it's forgivable next to the whole in a way it never was before. The only big criticism is the AI within the Animus, which sometimes undermines the entire Templar organisation with its idiocy. No wonder Desmond escaped!
Ubisoft Montreal has never been afraid to try new things, but after a few missteps with games like last year's Prince of Persia, perhaps the bravest thing it could have done with Assassin's Creed II was simply to make a classic open-world adventure, filled to the brim with things you want to do and the narrative motivation to continue doing them. The fact it's done so suggests we really should trust the studio when it says it's taken its lesson, and fills me with hope for the third game in the trilogy. In the meantime, we not only have the Assassin's Creed game we'd hoped for in the first place to play with, but one of the best open-world games of the year.
9 / 10