November 16, 2010
Where do you go after Assassin's Creed II? How can you top a game that took an established formula and expanded it in every conceivable direction? The answer is to expand it even further, adding new mechanics and features, while continuing the same story where it left off. So, anyone worried that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is just Assassin's Creed 2.5 can leave their preconceptions at the door, as labelling it as such is an insult that undermines the clear effort that has gone into making the game a more than worthy sequel.
Having tracked down the Borgia to Rome, Ezio is older and wiser; his carefree days as a noble gadabout a distant memory and now, he's out for revenge. As such, Ezio is a serious character with vengeance on his mind as his life in retirement is shattered and the Borgia mount an all-out attack to wipe Ezio and the Auditore name with it, off the map completely. What follows is a sweeping narrative played out across nine sequences, with set-pieces varying from lone infiltration missions into the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo for a daring rescue, to a stealthy Hitman-style mission where you don disguises to get close to your target. Variety is still the spice of life in Assassin's Creed, since the last game shook up the rigid formula, and Brotherhood feels consistently fresh, even if there is some occasional overlap in your objectives. The deeply involving story moves at a fair pace though, surrounded by masses of side missions that span the whole of Rome, which is a stunning location.
Meanwhile, while Ezio is off cleaning the streets of Rome, ridding it of Borgia scum, it’s worth nothing that Desmond is still learning through the bleeding effect, living out Ezio's experiences via the Animus. Picking up exactly where the last game left off at the end of Assassin’s Creed II, we get to see more of his story unfolding back in 2012 and despite not having a 3 at the end of the name, Brotherhood is very much a key stepping stone in the franchise’s overarching story.
In ACII, we only had a glimpse of Rome, but in Brotherhood, the city is the backdrop for the entire game and after Ezio's Monteriggioni villa and the entire village itself by extension is laid to waste, it's where you set up your new base of operations. And when in Rome, you don't want to do as the Romans do. Instead, you want to rebuild the dozens of dilapidated storefronts and win the hearts and minds of the people while putting an end to the violent reign of the omnipresent Borgia army that patrol the labyrinthine alleyways and open piazzas, as looming Borgia towers cast an intimidating shadow over all of Rome and Templar agents ply their trade from the shadows.
Fixing Rome piece by piece is just part of Ezio's new quest however, and as the old adage goes, it wasn't built in day. As a location, Rome is every bit as evocative and atmospheric as Florence, Venice and Firenze before it, but as a seamless environment, unimpeded by loading screens, it feels like a more cohesive whole and this feeling is enhanced by the ability to ride your horse anywhere, including within the city limits for the first time. That's not to say that there aren't opportunities to take sojourns outside of the city, as there are plenty, not only for Ezio, but also for his band of assassins, more on which later.
Before you really get to the meat of the Brotherhood experience, you're put to work regrouping with the thieves, mercenaries and courtesans, meaning that you'll become reacquainted with a few familiar faces like LaVolpe, Bartolomeo and his faithful sword Bianca, Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. Once you've built yourself a platform by uniting the guilds, it's then down to Ezio to recruit a fraternity of killers by rescuing rebellious citizens fighting against Borgia oppression. Upon enlisting their services, you can visit any pigeon coop in the city and send your burgeoning assassins on contracts all over the world, with each successfully completed assignment granting florins and XP to upgrade their armour and weapons.
Once they reach level 10, they'll become fully-fledged assassins who you'll initiate into the brotherhood and they'll be kitted out in the same Auditore robes that Ezio sports. Ezio can also summon them when the indicator is red, and depending on how many assassins you have under your wing, you can even call in an arrow storm, which sends a volley of crossbow bolts zipping through the air to execute any enemy infantry in the vicinity. Couple all of this extra help with Ezio's increased skill in combat and things sound pretty easy, right? Not exactly.
Although Ezio is now ruthlessly efficient in a swordfight, able to chain together brutally quick kills, the sheer number of Borgia forces that you come up against counteract his proficiency in battle and you never feel like you're breezing through any part of the game. Of course, Ezio can always administer some medicine when things get hairy for a quick health boost, so you'll rarely die at the edge of a Borgia blade. Failure often comes during Brotherhood's stealth missions though where detection results in instant desynchronisation. Some of these instances can be incredibly frustrating, highlighting some occasionally skittish enemy AI that seems able to detect you for apparently no reason. This rarely happens, but when it does, it's infuriating.
When you're not playing out the massive core storyline, which spans 9 huge DNA sequences, there are faction challenges to complete, virtual training challenges to hone your skills and earn medals, several secret tombs to explore or you can leave the Animus at any time to learn more about Desmond's plight. Or not. It's entirely up to you. Whatever route you decide to take, there's plenty to soak up and do, including missions outside Rome to destroy Leonardo's Borgia war machines or clearing out the hidden tombs inhabited by the savage Followers of Romulus.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's single-player is predictably fantastic, with a great narrative covering all of the bases with murder, betrayal, intrigue all at its centre, but that's only half of the story. Multiplayer is now a substantial part of the Assassin's Creed franchise, with this the first outing for online stabby action, and rest assured, it's no lazily tacked-on addition. In fact, it's quite surprising just how cogent it all feels; coming on a fair bit since we last played the beta. The entirety of the multiplayer experience is just as well presented and put together as the rest of the game and the fundamentals work perfectly.
The premise of multiplayer is that you're a member of the Templar order working under the tutelage of series antagonist Vidic. As such, you're going through training in the Animus, which explains the mechanics of multiple cloned characters wandering around the maps. All of the core assassin skills are put to the test, as you'll need to blend into crowds, tail your target and try to elude pursuers. Silent kills while you're incognito are rewarded with high scores, and as you level up, you'll unlock perks to enhance your assassin and give yourself more options for losing a tail like smoke bombs and faster sprinting, or for becoming harder to detect when you're homing in on a target.
There are several modes to tackle, with Wanted being essentially Brotherhood's straight-up deathmatch. Alliance meanwhile – unlocked at level 5 - is a team version in which you're partnered up with a twin and you must work together if you want to best the other teams and outwit them. It's a real thinking man's (or woman's) multiplayer, and the Manhunt mode is no different. Two teams of assassins face off against one another, while one team is cast as the hunter and one is the hunted. Things can get pretty hectic, but never frustratingly so, as often your demise is a result of your own lack of awareness or slow reaction time. There's talk of more modes to come and as you progress through the levels, you'll unlock more treats and additions that'll encourage you to keep going back for more. We can only hope that it finds the audience it deserves, as it all works remarkably well.
Brotherhood's achievements are a decent enough bunch, with ten predictably set aside for multiplayer and the other forty committed to the story. There's the usual mix of the funny (kill a guard with a broom), the outrageous (leap off the top of Castel Sant'Angelo with a parachute) and the easily obtainable story-driven ones (almost all of the others). As you'd expect, there are things to collect, but nothing too out of the ordinary. 10 feathers and 101 Borgia flags can be a grind to track down and the fact that some are buried deep in some of the cavernous tombs is a pain, but then you can purchase maps from any art dealer to ease the burden. All in all, it's not the most difficult 1000 you'll ever go for, although the level 50 multiplayer is going to suck up many hours, but it’s certainly still a relatively enjoyable one.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is about as far from being a cynical quick-fix cash cow as you can get. It's every bit as detailed, beautiful and sublime as its predecessor, but with the added bonus of multiplayer, which in itself is effortlessly compulsive and huge fun. If multiplayer isn’t your bag though, Brotherhood still has a typically expansive Assassin’s Creed single player experience to get your claws into, with plenty of new mechanics, toys and tools of the trade – the crossbow for instance – to make life as a master assassin as rewarding as it’s ever been.
Jesper Kyd's glorious choral and orchestral score is back in full force, imbuing Brotherhood with the same majestic qualities that made ACII so haunting and memorable. The sound in general is immersive and almost takes you right back to what you imagine Renaissance Rome might have been like.
There's the occasional instance of tearing and the odd glitching NPC does pop suddenly into view, but hey, we blame the Animus. And besides, these relatively small niggles are infrequent and hardly take anything away from the sheer jaw-dropping beauty of the rest of the game, which is just dripping with intricate detail.
Assassin's Creed is still exemplary, and Ubisoft Montreal has added a few new tricks to Ezio's arsenal. The combat is a real joy and makes you feel truly empowered, while being able to call upon your faithful legion of killers is always a thrill.
If multiplayer manages to hook you, you'll be inexorably engaged for hours. If it's not your bag however, there's still a good 10-15 hours of story to indulge in, with additional hours of side quests and other activities to get lost in. Nothing in Brotherhood is an afterthought and there's real depth to be found.
A fresh set of cheevos to tackle and they're all good fun for the most part. Burning Borgia towers is always satisfying, as is navigating the secret Romulus tombs. The truth is, you'll probably want to do everything anyway. The fact that there's achievements attached is a big bonus. Also, you'll be happy to know that the multiplayer cheevos aren't too difficult, but may require some grinding to reach level 50.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is an unmitigated triumph, taking the superlative groundwork laid by its forebear and building upon it. That you're confined to Rome is never an issue, as it's a vast and seamlessly sprawling, cohesive environment. Rebuilding the city and driving out the Borgia is about as compulsive as gaming gets and chances are, you'll sit glued to the game throughout and feverishly complete every Subject 16 puzzle, collect every item and refurbish every shop, aqueduct, faction building and underground tunnel you come across. Achingly beautiful to behold and incredible to play, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood will be the best Roman holiday you'll ever have.