Non-linearity may be everywhere these days (with the option of being everywhere else), but as inFamous suggested and Assassin's Creed II now hopes to prove, a bit of linearity goes a long way too. Sucker Punch's PS3 game had those underground bits where you collected new powers, and they were some of the best and most focused bits of the game. Ubisoft Montreal's second crack at Assassins-versus-Templars pulls the same trick, hiding self-contained, Prince of Persia-style platform levels around the open world, virtually none of which is obligatory, but each of which rewards you with a special metal seal, which together will add up to a great, unidentified reward.
Assassin's Creed II, announced just before E3, is fundamentally similar to its predecessor, but thanks to the Animus concept of replaying a young man's genetic memories, it transplants the action completely from the Middle East to Renaissance Italy, where young nobleman Ezio Auditore da Firenze is out for revenge on the people who killed his father, and falls in with the assassins in the process. He also pairs up with Leonardo da Vinci, who creates various gizmos for him including a flying machine, and who solves previous star Altair's uncomfortable problem of having a finger lopped off to make room for his stealth blade, thus saving Ezio a couple of digits, since he has two of the knives at his wrist-activated disposal.
There are lots of other tweaks and changes, and Ubisoft Montreal is anxious to atone for the first game's repetitive structure, but the linear side-mission levels being shown off at gamescom using the Florence setting are arguably one of the biggest changes. The specific one we're shown is the first, and the only one you have to play. It's accessed through a church. After paying a few NPCs to stir up trouble at the entrance, distracting the armed guards, Ezio ducks inside and sneaks up on two Templars admiring a silver skull-shaped switch, planting his twin blades simultaneously in the backs of their heads.
With the skull-shaped switch pressed, Ezio descends into the catacombs for a level called Novella's Secret. Dusty boxes and sarcophagi are scattered all around, and as Ezio moves towards an opening ahead the game switches camera and pans around the room beyond - a huge space with various beams, trapezes, ledges and grab-holds positioned at various points throughout. The process echoes Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which producer Patrice Desilets points out to everyone with a smile. We've missed it too! Desilets guides Ezio fluidly across the maze in the sky, navigating to various levers, which open doors and remove ledges so that Ezio can dive safely down into a trademark bale of hay.
Here he can spy on some of those scheming Templars, who bar his way by absently closing a gate behind them. In opening it again, Ezio attracts their attention, but he's better equipped to sort them out this time, as Ubisoft has improved the jumping assassination system so you can mark targets from above and then leap down a great distance to finish them. Ezio can't help alerting a nearby guard in the process, but thanks to a smoke pellet he can lay down some covering fumes and make his way through.
Then he gives chase to a fleeing Templar, who does all sorts to try and throw the young assassin off his tail, creating an impromptu obstacle course in the process. When the Templar pulls down a rope bridge, Ezio has to climb the walls and leap between slim hand-holds; when the Templar slams a gate shut, he has to jump from a nearby window ledge out over a sheer expanse to reach a wooden beam, and then leap onward to another opening to continue the chase. Just a few feet from the Templar's objective, Ezio races up a series of small posts onto a raised platform parallel to the Templar's route, and leaps off the end just in time to land and sink one of his trademark blades into his prey. Phew. Desilets says that if Ezio can't catch up, he gets into a big fight at the end of this sequence, and if the player still fancies one, he can get into it either way. Biff.
Having fought his way through, then, Ezio is able to spy on a Templar meeting deep within the catacombs, where naughty men plan the Pazzi Conspiracy - a real-life attempt to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici, one of the rulers of Florence. As with the original Assassin's Creed, real historical people and events figure prominently in the game fiction, and Desilets says that the Pazzi Conspiracy is one such event. With the knowledge of their plot in the bag, Ezio exits, but not before stopping off at a special white sarcophagus containing the promised seal.