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Hands-on: 'Assassin's Creed II'

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Assassin's Creed II was one of the most popular titles at the Leeds dates of the Eurogamer Expo, and that is no surprise based on the hype surrounding Ubisoft's renaissance-set sequel. After braving the crowds, DS went hands-on with the game, and early evidence points to this one being a real fan-pleaser.

It's clear from the off that Assassin's Creed II has made significant gains over the original. As you might expect, it has been given quite the graphical overhaul and a number of stylistic refinements have been applied. Switching the action from the dust-coated towns of old Jerusalem to renaissance-era Italy gives the game a more vibrant feel than its predecessor, but aesthetic enhancement is only the beginning.

After playing for a matter of minutes, it's evident that our protagonist Ezio Auditore da Firenze is a notable improvement on the original's Altair. The control system remains largely unchanged but the new hitman feels more agile and moves with greater fluidity than his Crusade-era ancestor. Whether free-running across Italian rooftops in Prince Of Persia or swimming through the canals of Venice, the subtle tweaks that the developers have applied to character movement have made all the difference.

Combat remains largely unaltered, although a greater array of weapons gives it a grander feel. It's still heavily dependent on split-second counterstrokes and combos, so anyone who didn't care for skirmishes the first time around is unlikely to be swayed by an extended arsenal.

A lot of time and creativity has gone into fleshing out its gameplay. Gone is the linear mission structure, leaving the player to integrate themselves in the immersive recreation of 15th century Italy. You can tackle what are known as critical objectives at will, and these eventually point you towards your assassination targets, but there is plenty of opportunity for off-the-beaten-track exploration - and it's frequently rewarded.

In addition to their visual splendour, the in-game environments are thoroughly engrossing and offer considerably more opportunities for interactivity than those in the original. Among the crowd that throngs the streets are vendors peddling their wares, vagrants begging for a handout and prostitutes plying their dubious trade. You'll even find mercenaries lurking in the back alleys, waiting for you to enlist their services for a hefty price. These are all nice touches that breathe life into the game and plant the player feet-first into its historical backdrop.

There is a greater emphasis on role-playing elements this time around, too. As well as character customisation, you can even invest in the surrounding area, helping local amenities develop to further your own ends. Like Grand Theft Auto IV and InFamous before it, there are plenty of side-quests to keep you busy, which lends the game the kind of variety that the original so sorely lacked.

As you can probably imagine, there's a lot to take on board, even for those familiar with its predecessor. But thanks to its gradual pacing and shrewd structure, you'll never feel completely overwhelmed. Picking it up from the start whisks you back to the advent of Ezio's life, in similar fashion to Fallout 3, to integrate the player with the game's unique mechanics from the ground up.

Based on early impressions of Assassin's Creed II, it appears that Ubisoft has avoided the pitfalls that the first game landed in and delivered what could potentially be one of the games of the year. It looks, feels and handles better than its forerunner, but captures the stealthy atmosphere just as effectively. Expect to see this one giving the likes of Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 2 a run for their money come the end of the year.

Assassin's Creed II is released for Xbox 360 and PC on November 17 in North America and November 20 in the UK. A PC version will follow in 2010.

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