Some years back, I had a condition, which began to affect the way in which I lived. I know, I know, "get a blog", but bear with me. This was during university. Being a philosophy graduate, I had plenty of spare time. I also had a good friend, and fellow philosopher, with a "PlayStation", as it was those days, and a copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Given the choice of extracting a semblance of meaning from Kant or chucking Rodney Mullen around half-pipes and down stairwells, we often (read: always) took the later option.
We got rather good, eventually nailing every single gap in the game except one. Eventually we called off our hunt - committing yet another unfulfilled dream to the locker of bitter disappointment. Something curious had happened, however. Outside, I found myself looking at a different world - a world of lines and runs, grinding routes, flippable gaps and transfers. Every object took on a new meaning, began to be interpreted through the medium of Hawk. Being a non-skater, this was endlessly frustrating, even if it eventually helped me to understand some of the finer points of objects, properties and labelling for the third semester.
After a mere 15 minutes with Assassin's Creed II, this curious condition is partly back. Returning to Piccadilly Circus station after Ubisoft's hands-on event, I'm struck by how many of the buildings feature large Portland Stone blocks at their bases, separated with ample space for footholds. My eyes are drawn up drainpipes toward high ledges, along the crests of roofs and crenellated precipices - could I make that jump, onto that flagpole, forgoing this tiresome wait for the traffic lights on Regent St?
The answer, as it always was in the days of my Hawk-eye affliction, is no. Even climbing the stairs a bit too quickly usually results in a face-plant or a stubbed toe, but main character Ezio's movement around the Venice streets and skyline in the demo, which is the same code being shown off at this week's Tokyo Game Show, is so smoothly infectious that it's hard to believe I haven't inherited at least a little of his agility.
Ezio's forerunner, the first game's Altair, was one of the most nimble characters we'd ever seen in a game, pulling off incredible feats of parkour with accomplished aplomb. This time around, movement is even quicker. Holding down the right bumper to activate 'high visibility' mode means that Ezio will throw caution to the wind, flinging himself up walls and around overhangs like a particularly angry and dangerous spider.
Doing so will attract a little more attention, however, sacrificing some of his characteristic stealth for speed. It's incredibly fluid, and produces a few unexpected results for the incautious - occasionally I found myself flying onto a ledge or architectural outcrop which I hadn't been aiming for, although re-routing never proved a problem. On the flip-side of this is the increased complexity of some climbs, game director Benoit Lambert even calling some of them "puzzles". The first game only really came close to that once, with the massive church in Acre.
It's further evidence that Ubisoft has been listening carefully to criticism: there seems to be little of the snagging many players experienced on the scenery and masonry of the ancient Middle East. Lambert is also very keen to get across the message that the variety of missions has been increased - there are now 130 missions of 15 different types, hopefully meaning less of the repetition which marred Altair's adventures. Of these 130 missions, Lambert tells us that playtesters spend roughly 27 hours on the main quest, with a further five hours gallivanting around the non-essential objectives.
A pleasing variety of murderous methods are also available to the hooded terror - straightforward melee engagements with the many weapons available being the most obvious, spiced up with countering and combo mechanics. Particularly satisfying are the grab combos - there's something innately liberating about headbutting an authority figure, kneeing him in the specials then chucking him off a roof [it's a good job that you're both weak and uncoordinated in real life -Ed]. I even manage to disarm a couple of opponents, leaving them flailing before kicking them to their watery doom in one of the canals below.
Grabbing enemies whilst dangling from the ledges they stand on and pulling them over to their doom also proves both effective and popular, as do the elegant 'death from above' moves. These swooping kills, furthering the bird-of-prey analogy echoed elsewhere, are a synergy of grace and brutality - particularly when two victims are targeted for execution at once. It feels, as Mr Bleszinski might have it, badass. Dropping 20 feet to plant your wristblades between the upper vertebrae of two presumably godfearing and socially responsible guards is a great deal more enjoyable than it perhaps should be.
The particular mission on show involves clearing some Venetian rooftops of bow-wielding snipers, thus eliminating the threat they pose to a clean take-down of my eventual target. The rooftop setting means there is little room for blending with crowds, although the eaves and gables are surprisingly well-populated by groups of employable thieves. Receiving orders from a shadowy contact in the city, Ezio is dispatched onwards and upwards, murder in mind.
Reaching the rooftops is no real challenge - almost every vertical surface is scalable thanks to the Venetian fondness for elaborate windows, fascias and joists. Once aloft, the actual meat in the murder sandwich is fairly straightforward too, as none of the stationed bowmen offer a great deal of resistance. It all adds to the sensation of being a killer though, and it's only in fights where you're outnumbered or up against someone particularly tough that Ezio's likely to suffer.
The common-or-garden henchmen I'm up against today are a puny lot, though, and it's not long before they're disposed of and I'm dragged away from the Xbox 360 before I wander too far past the mission end and stumble onto something I'm not supposed to see yet (which is itself classic Assassin's Creed). Booted outside into the real world again, and negotiating the foot and vehicular traffic of Piccadilly, I feel the lack of Ezio's skills keenly. Wouldn't a pair of wristblades work wonders on the tube?
Assassin's Creed II is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 20th November.