According to Project Manager Jean-Francois Boivin, whom I spoke with for this preview, it wasn't until after Assassin's Creed was complete that they settled on the location for the next installment, Assassin's Creed 2. Knowing that Desmond and the Animus was going to be a seriously expansive story, they had kicked a few ideas around the campfire, but after the proper deliberation, a clear winner emerged: Venice, Italy, in the time of the Renaissance.
The era and location was selected specifically due to the fact that so many of the world's important thinkers and decision-makers were alive and actively reshaping society. Reshaping often for the better, but also for the worse -- hence, the need for assassins.
Assassin's Creed 2 has Desmond re-entering the Animus to explore the life of another ancestor: Ezio Auditore di Firenze. The game begins with Ezio, a noble, experiencing a tragic loss and discovering that the "family business" wasn't what he thought. Following in Dad's footsteps, he undertakes the questionably-noble profession of assassin, and the killing begins.
Immediately from the beginning of the guided demo I received (which is identical to the one played at Sony's E3 press conference), Boivin was adamant that Ubisoft Montreal was addressing all the major complaints of the critically-divisive first game. To sum it up in a word, the most appropriate would be "variety." Lively crowds in the alleyways overlooking the canals celebrate the Carnival of Venice, while Ezio watches on a bench flanked by two thief buddies keeping guard. (Though it wasn't explicitly shown or detailed, AC2 introduces a new faction system that allows you to curry favor with certain locals in exchange for certain services.)
You can watch the demo for yourself, but there are a few more things Boivin elaborated upon during my guided tour. First, the game does take you through different neighborhoods in Venice, but they're not so rigidly defined as poor/middle/rich like we saw in the Middle East cities. It's more of a natural flow from different regions of mixed development. Secondly, the abrupt switch from night to dawn you notice in the video is just for the sake of the E3 demo -- the game does have a proper day/night cycle.
They're also revisiting certain trouble spots with the combat, including the air assassinations. As soon as Boivin said this, I flashed back to frustrated times when I would leap from my perch and Altair would completely miss his intended target. I saw that Ezio is definitely more accurate when dealing death from above.
Oh, and Ezio can swim. I saw it with my own eyes and smiled approvingly.
The last thing that convinced me they were making the right (and slight, really) corrections was when he told me that in addition to the stealth you feel like you're supposed to be using, the game will also have a framework for the less subtle type of player -- a "notoriety" mechanic was implied, with Ezio having the ability to tear down wanted posters that are requesting his capture.
So how optimistic is Ubisoft, and how optimistic should we be? Well, according to Boivin, this is "the game we wanted the original to be." That ought to work.