Let me tell you about developers and publishers.
Developers are the people who design, write and build videogames. They're the ones who have the ideas, the creativity, the little spark of genius that makes all those ones and zeroes into something beautiful and absorbing.
Publishers are the people who hold the purse strings, the ones who provide the developers with their budget. They're also the ones who hope to make the big profit from us, the consumers.
Pretty simple model, really. But I imagine that it's not only me who can see that there may be potential for a certain degree of friction between the two spheres. Like the cigar-chewing corporate fatcat who (presumably) read the original script to Spielberg's dark masterpiece "AI", and decided that it'd be made a lot better if aliens invaded at the end and made everyone happy.
For the purposes of this review, and to illustrate my respect for the developers' work, I'm going to score Assassin's Creed twice: Once on the merits of the game itself, and a final score for the 'Overall Experience'.
Because that's what you're paying for. An 'experience'. Not, I hasten to add, an actual product. The experience in question is this: The opportunity to play Assassins Creed 2 whenever Ubisoft choose to allow you to play it, assuming they're even capable of enabling you to play it, for as long as they deem it appropriate. When this turbulent experience is no longer fun for Ubisoft, it's all over.
That's the deal. That's the 'experience'. It's like owning a game, only significantly more rubbish. See, your saved games are stored by Ubisoft, and you need to connect to their servers in order to play it. If their servers aren't available... how about a nice game of chess instead? If you somehow displease Ubisoft, they're taking their ball and going home, leaving you out of pocket. If you just want to play a single-player videogame on your own, at home, with no interruption from anyone else - Sorry, but you're out of luck.
My 'experience' of Assassin's Creed 2 consisted in a large part of repeatedly clicking the connect button, only to be told that my username and password were wrong, then that I didn't have an internet connection, then that I had no saved games. It was a string of excuses that I knew to all be provably untrue. Connecting to Assassin's Creed 2 is an 'experience' not unlike trying to contact customer services for a phone company.
It seems that the general consensus of opinion is that the Ubisoft servers are being deliberately knocked over by hackers at the moment. This may well be true, but it's not an acceptable excuse. Ubisoft are responsible for the access gamers have to the game - they've chosen to take that responsibility on themselves - and they've failed to meet those requirements. Oh, the hackers are doing it just to prove a point? I'd say it's a point well made: this new DRM is not something the gaming world can or should tolerate.
All of this venom - I'd not be offended if you went so far as to call it hatred - is aimed squarely on the shoulders of the Publishers. Remember them? These are different people from the people who write the game. And it's an important distinction in this case for one, critical reason: Assassin's Creed 2 is a wonderful, wonderful game.
Set in fascinating and original Renaissance Italy, you play the part of Ezio, a Florentine noble with a way with the women and a predilection for parkour that is centuries ahead of its time. As in the original Assassin's Creed, the aim is to carry out hits on important enemies by any means at your disposal, then melt into the crowd before the town guard get your number.
What it does, it does sublimely well. While the freerunning and assassination will be familiar to players of the original, there is a lot less of the restrictive structure that made it feel like a chore. You can still take part in a whole range of side missions, but the emphasis is a lot more on just doing whatever you want to do. Many of the side missions will, eventually, open up new options such as new armour - the basic model seems to be inspired by the sanboxy antics of the likes of GTA.
The much-maligned combat system has been given a complete overhaul - Ezio could kick Altair's ass, and bust his chops while he's at it. Enemies frequently attack in groups of four or more, and the intuitive combat system tips these kind of odds so much in your favour that choosing how to destroy your foes in as stylish a way as possible is your main concern. Frequently switching between weapons in the heat of the moment is simplicity itself and sometimes escaping from enemies is preferrable to killing them simply because it looks cool to disappear in a puff of smoke.
The bolted-on 'future retrospective' storytelling angle of the first game is still present but is delivered in a far less invasive way. You can leave the game without having to go through forty different menus, and the storyline doesn't feel disjointed or interrupted. In fact, the story is told in a dramatic way, and cycles seamlessly between eerie, funny, mysterious, breathlessly exciting and fascinating.
And the levels! My word, the levels. When you've clambered to one of the many sightseeing spots at the top of some famous cathedral or other, and you see the city arrayed below you, it's easy to appreciate the work that's gone into the sprawling scope of the game world. Turn around though, and look at one of the statues atop said cathedral, and it's impossible not to feel admiration for the design team for their attention to intimate detail. Renaissance Italy is a videogame setting that hasn't seen a lot of action over the years, and Ubisoft have captured it perfectly from the gondolas drifting placidly along the Venetian canals to the outraged cries of craftsmen when you jostle their boxes of wares from their arms.
This is a game that clearly deserves a very high mark. For the game alone I'd be stingy to give it below a 9. However, in a way the greatness of the game makes it even worse that Ubisoft are incapable of adequately providing it to their paying customers. If this is the future of PC gaming, we're doomed as a gaming platform. If that happens, make no mistake: the same thing is possible on consoles, and will happen there too. It's idiocy like this that ruins the fun for everyone.
Everyone, that is, except the pirates.