Assassins Creed 2: the pride of Montreal

Assassin's Creed 2, designed almost entirely by Ubisoft Montreal, is expected to be one of the biggest video games of the holiday season.

Forget Rocket Richard or poutine, the pride of Montreal may just be a video game featuring a medieval-era assassin.

Next week, Ubisoft releases Assassin's Creed 2, the sequel to the 2007 title that smashed the company's expectations and became the game industry's fastest-selling original property in years. This time, it's a different story. While Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 is expected to be the biggest selling game of the season, Ubisoft's could be a close second. For Canadians, Assassins Creed might be more compelling given that the game was developed here. 

The lion's share of both Assassin's Creed titles was designed at Ubisoft Montreal, the French company's biggest and most important branch. With 2,000 employees, most of which are designers, it's one of the largest games studios in the world — a status it expects to claim outright by 2013 after the planned addition of 1,000 more employees.

Aside from Assassin's Creed, the studio also handles many of Ubisoft's flagship franchises, including all of the Tom Clancy games. The next one, Splinter Cell: Conviction — slated for a February release — is also a guaranteed hit.

The studio's size and importance, spurred by more than $19 million in investment from the Quebec government, has over the past decade transformed Montreal into a hotbed of games development. Other global game publishers, including Electronic Arts and Eidos, have in recent years set up shop in the city, resulting in brisk competition that has created thousands of jobs.

From game to film

Ubisoft has made good on its 2008 acquisition of Quebec's Hybride Technologies, a company that helped develop several special effects-laden movies, including Sin City and 300, along with Assassin's Creed: Lineage, a short film that fills in the back story of the new game.

The first part of the film, at 14 minutes long, was released on YouTube on Oct. 27, with the other two segments scheduled to hit the website on Nov. 13. The movie tells the story of  Giovanni Auditore, the father of Assassin Creed 2 protagonist Ezio, and features live-action actors performing in a computer-generated version of Renaissance Italy.

The first clip garnered 1.7 million views in its first day of release, making it the most-watched YouTube video that day, Ubisoft said.

An assassin named Altair can take some credit for that. The original Assassin's Creed, set in the Middle East in the 12th century, garnered universal acclaim for establishing a new level of aural and visual immersion. Players controlled the assassin, who shunned his chosen profession more often than not by saving innocent people and acting like a hero in general.

Altair could climb dizzyingly tall church spires to take in breathtaking vistas of painstakingly crafted Crusades-era towns and cities. Those places, meanwhile, were populated by thousands of seemingly free-thinking citizens, each going about their daily lives. As review site put it, Assassin's Creed featured a "huge, gorgeous world that feels wholly alive."

Where the game fell down, however, was with its repetitive missions and fights. After getting into a handful of skirmishes and taking out the first half-dozen or so targets, many players and critics found there wasn't much more to the game — the "repetitive quests tend to grow tiresome," as put it.

The best way to silence those critics, the designers say, is to overwhelm them. In an advance preview with last week, Ubisoft Montreal showed off a game that will blow its precursor away with deep gameplay.

The second game picks up on similar ground — players control Ezio Auditore, a descendent of Altair, in Rennaissance Europe — and features the same level of immersion. Two history professors from McGill University were brought in to ensure realism. They helped prevent anachronisms by pointing out the little things — buildings and structures that were only half-completed in the late 15th century, like the Ponte di Rialto bridge in Venice for example, are accurately depicted in the game.

Variety injection

Where the sequel differs from the original is in the variety of gameplay it offers.

"The idea was to challenge ourselves on the weaknesses of AC1. We worked on not only adding and refining things, but also rebuilding part of the game," says Benoit Lambert, the game's director. "The big thing in that was the mission system, which was very repetitive. People were very frustrated with that. We really scrapped everything on that side."

The new game presents players with a number of different mission scenarios. Aside from straight-up fights and assassinations, there are also races, escort and stealth missions. Mixing and blending those elements means that each of the 150 missions in the game is different, Lambert says.

The variety is necessary given that the main storyline takes about 20 hours to complete, with side missions and exploration easily extending that to 40 hours.

Assassin's Creed 2 also adds a host of character customization options — again, something that was lacking in the first title. A new economic system lets players earn money, which can be spent on new clothes, weapons or armour.

The system also allows for Grand Theft Auto or Sim City-like customization in that players can also spend on upgrading a "villa," or small city, that Ezio presides over. The villa starts out pretty desolate and dumpy looking, but players can improve it by investing in a new blacksmith shop, church or well, or even Botticelli paintings for Ezio's private keep.

"The city will change as a whole, the streets will no longer be muddy, the people will come back, which means more money for you," Lambert says. "This is going to increase the customization I have for my own character and make him mine, which was not the case in AC1."

The game also features a host of hidden "glyphs" that unlock treasures when found, as well as numerous secret locations and mini-games that further spice up the gameplay and distract from the main mission.

The first Assassin's Creed sold more than six million copies worldwide during the 2007 holiday season, a feat the sequel will be expected to match and improve on this year.

Assassin's Creed 2 is going toe-to-toe with several other big games, most notably Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a first-person shooter aimed at a similar audience: the core video gamers.