Assassin's Creed II is definitely one of my favourite games of the last 12 months. It was a meaty gaming meal that took several steps towards fulfilling the promise of the original, with new mechanics, more variety in gameplay, and an alluring new setting: renaissance Italy. It was a big leap, in other words: a worthy sequel in all regards.
Brotherhood, on the other hand, will have a slightly harder time proving its worth. Rather than moving to a new time period, it continues directly on from the events of Assassin's Creed II, only with the action shifting almost entirely to Rome. Like previous titles, there's also a modern-day component. The game is once again framed by the on-going battle between the Templars and Assassins, and players are actually assuming the role of Desmond, who lives in the present day and is able to experience the memories of his ancestor Ezio using a device called the animus. The game cuts between the two time periods but the bulk of the gameplay occurs in renaissance Rome.
Ubisoft Montreal has stressed that Brotherhood has a number of innovations and evolutions designed to keep the experience fresh, and we can certainly tell you that there's easily as much content here as in Assassin's Creed II, but will it be enough to really help this title distinguish itself from last year's stellar outing? Let's find out.
After confronting Rodrigo Borgia and having his mind blown far beneath the Vatican at the end of Assassin's Creed II (and no, that's not a euphemism), the story picks up with Ezio ready for some well-earned R&R. It's not to be. Cesare Borgia – Rodrigo Borgia's son – is ticked off, and mounts a full scale attack on the assassins. The villa in Monteriggioni is destroyed and Ezio loses everything. Yes, after 20+ hours working towards all that bad-ass armour and weaponry, it's lost in a moment and players must begin again. Such is the fickle nature of videogames.
In any case, Ezio travels to Rome determined to take his revenge against Cesare. The city is divided into 12 districts, each of which is overseen by a Borgia tower, representing the Borgia's control of the area. As long as the tower stands, soldiers are out in force, shops remain closed and the people oppressed. Assassinate the tower's Captain and burn it to the ground, however, and the area will open up for business. Ezio is then able to renovate blacksmiths, banks, stables and more, and these all add to his income, in much the same way renovating Monteriggioni did in the last game. The more shops that are open, the more items will be available and perks Ezio will get. For instance, the more tailors you have, the more pouches for carrying knives and other items will be available, whereas the more banks are open the more money Ezio can store before his account is full. Each defeated tower also opens up an assassin apprentice slot, but more on that later.
It's important to note that while the Borgia towers are a key element of the game's structure, they're not actually central to taking down Cesare. You can actually finish Brotherhood without destroying all the towers. Instead, they're about earning income, unlocking items, gaining apprentice assassins and reducing the presence of Borgia guards across the city. By destroying a tower, players can make missions in that region easier for themselves by ensuring there'll be less guards around. How to get to each Captain? Well, that's up to you. Each tower is surrounded by a compound where the guards are on high alert, so it's up to players to work out the best path to the Captain. Easier compounds allow astute players to clinically execute the Captain with little-to-no danger, while more difficult ones will inevitably result in a huge confrontation, or have a more difficult path to the end goal.
As fans of open-world games would expect, a lot of the player's time will be occupied with missions and activities that don't necessarily advance the plot. It's easy to get sidetracked for hours finding treasure chests, taking on assassination contracts, doing missions for the various guilds or trying to level up your relationship with them, exploring the world or climbing landmarks like the Coliseum. Subterranean environments return too, in the guise of Sons of Romulus missions. These make for a nice change of pace, as the focus is very much on movement puzzles over combat.
Leonardo da Vinci is back as an ally too, and once again provides weapons for Ezio. Turns out he's also been pressured into creating war machines for Cesare, so it's up to Ezio to destroy the plans and prototypes. These see you wielding a chain gun mounted to a horse and cart, piloting a boat with a naval cannon, gliding about in Leo's paraglider – modified to fire bombs, and manning a renaissance-era tank. They're not actually that exciting, but at least inject a little variety into the gameplay.
And honestly? That's something Brotherhood needs. The gameplay on offer here is solid, but by and large the bulk of the missions are pretty similar in nature to those we've already experienced in depth in Assassin's Creed II. It really feels like treading the same old ground, without great improvements. The missions where Ezio must tail a target are still frustrating, for instance, thanks to the small sweet spot at which the player must stay away in order to follow - but not alert – his target.
There are three major changes that try to switch things up: the assassins' guild, the tweaks to combat and the ability to ride your horse anywhere. Recruiting assassins who can be called upon with the press of a button is obviously the big one, and it works very much as advertised. With each Borgia tower destroyed a new slot opens up, allowing Ezio to rescue and recruit an ordinary citizen of Rome. Calling on an assassin is as simple as targeting an enemy and hitting L1/Left trigger on PS3/360 respectively. Depending on the location and the level of your assassin, he or she might run or ride up to the target, or drop down from above. It's cool to watch, and once you have six assassins you have three groups that can be called, with a cool-down time of a few minutes for each.
Assassins gain experience through combat, but they can also be sent off to complete contracts around Europe. The greater the difficulty of a mission, the higher the XP and cash reward, and players prepared to gamble can quickly level up their assassins by assigning them difficult contracts with a lower chance of success. These missions only take five to ten minutes each and the interface is easy to use. With each level gained, you can boost either armour or weaponry, and as assassins rise through the ranks, they'll also unlock more advanced options, such as the ability to use smoke bombs. As a side note, your assassin recruits can die, but you'll likely only lose a couple in the entirety of the game.
The point of the assassin recruits is that Ezio is now a leader of men. The scale of the fight has changed – it's no longer just one man against his enemies; it's now one man trying to rally the support of a city against a tyrant. The assassins work in that sense, but when it comes to gameplay they actually just serve to make the game less challenging. Assassin's Creed II was far from hard, but at least in that game players had to work for their kills. Here it's a simple matter of directing the Death From Above. With a single button press you'll unleash a kill which, while cool, is also a little hollow.
It's not like utilizing the assassins is a genuinely new mechanic either. Ezio can already hire thieves, mercenaries or courtesans to distract or kill targets, and this is just an evolution of that concept. Whereas players couldn't rely on the guilds in ACII, however, the assassins in this game can easily become a crutch – a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It's not the only aspect that makes Brotherhood less challenging – and ultimately less enjoyable – than it should be. The inclusion of the crossbow, while fun, means that you no longer have to watch your step on rooftops. Once upon a time, the best tactic was to sneak up on guards for a blade kill or hang from the edge of the building and pull them off. No more. Just target them from the next rooftop over with the crossbow and they're dead. No fuss, and no real skill required.
It's also worth mentioning that looting dead guards' bodies now yields far more valuable items than it did in ACII. You can top up on smoke bombs, crossbow bolts, poison, bullets and medicine with relative ease. Compare this to the significant financial investment and effort required to stay topped up in the first game, and the balance of gameplay shifts even further towards being too easy.
Hand to hand combat is undeniably entertaining, however. In addition to dodging and countering, Ezio can now kick an enemy to open him up for a hit, while stringing together successive attacks allows him to dispatch enemies even more efficiently than before. The highlight, however, would have to be the sub-weapon system. Why just run a guy through with a sword when you can slash him then shoot him in the face? These new combo kills are brutal and satisfying, and you won't tire of seeing the many and varied animations on offer.
Combat's not without its issues, however. I still found the lock-on finicky, while there are still glitches, such as Ezio's unfortunate habit of occasionally leaping from on high for a kill, only to bump a pole or something similar on the way down and land flat on his face in front of the guards he's meant to be skewering. Surely if there's an obstruction the player shouldn't be given the option to choose "assassinate"?
Ezio's abilities on horseback have also been expanded for Brotherhood. Not only can he take a horse almost anywhere in the city (and summon one with a press of the Y/triangle button), but he can leap from one horse to another for a kill, and he can stand on horseback and use it as a jumping off point for free running. It's a neat inclusion but I didn't really find myself using the horses in that way much – it's a little fiddlier than simply attacking. In fact, I mostly used horses for getting around, so it's a shame that the gallop button has been lost to make room for the ability to stand on horseback. Trying to get from point A to point B now feels more like a leisurely Sunday afternoon trot than a mad dash.
Rome is a dynamic and interesting world, with all sorts of systems that can impact upon Ezio and be used by players. Run around killing fools in public, for instance, and your notoriety goes up. Guards will instantly pay closer attention to you. Want to lower it? You can do that by ripping down wanted posters, bribing heralds or killing witnesses. Mind you, you could always avoid attention altogether by disappearing into crowds. While it's still a little less seamless than I'd like, Ezio can blend in with groups walking through Rome, plus he can hide in plain sight by sitting on a bench or standing with a group. These elements are an integral part of the game's rich playground, and will be a source of delight for new players, but anyone who played Assassin's Creed II will know all about them.
One element that is new, however, is the fact that Ezio now has an additional objective or challenge in order to achieve full synchronisation in a mission. These range from time-based challenges: complete this mission in under 8 minutes, to combat-related challenges: don't take damage, only kill your target, and beyond. They're a good inclusion for the hardcore fans as they'll be the ones replaying missions in order to get 100% sync. For the more casual players, however, it's actually a little disheartening to beat a mission only to be told you only achieved 50% synchronisation.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Brotherhood package is the multiplayer, which is refreshing and inventive. In a neat twist, you're actually playing as the bad guys: as Abstergo agents – the modern day Templars. Turns out this is how they're training to hunt the assassins.
The basic idea is that you're given a target to locate and kill, while also being hunted by another player. The radar helps you track your foe, but the games take place in bustling locations full of NPCs, so it's entirely possible for your target to blend in with the crowd. Literally so, in some cases. One of the special abilities transforms all the people around the player into your character model, while another lets you change character models altogether.
Brotherhood has four multiplayer modes. Wanted and Advance Wanted are free-for-alls, with the latter being a more challenging version of Wanted with tweaked rules. By way of example, the radar is far less accurate in this mode. You'll only ever be able to narrow down your opponent's location to the general vicinity, leading to a tense game of observation – looking for the tell that reveals your target. Alliance, on the other hand, sees the players split into pairs, and as you'd imagine, coordinated hunting is key, while Manhunt divides players into two teams. One team hunts, while one team hides. The hiding team earns points for remaining undetected, and the closer they stay to one another, the more points.
Overall, this is excellent stuff, and turns the usual adversarial frag-fest on its head. Forget being the guy who runs the fastest and racks up the most kills – Brotherhood rewards being a true assassin. Players are awarded points on a sliding scale, so an overt kill will net a whole lot less than a stealthy assassination while hidden. In this multiplayer contest it's the gamers who learn to be patient that will ultimately prevail. Plus, the ranking system means that the contests continue to evolve as you play, with tactical depth increasing the more abilities are unlocked.