Employing a machine called the Animus that allows users to relive past moments from their ancestors' lives, Desmond went back through Ezio's memories in an effort to determine where the Apple had been hidden. Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Ubisoft's latest console entry in the series, picks up immediately following those events in the second game. It's also the first game in the series to include multiplayer.
Assassin's Creed 2 (AC2) ended with a crazy cliffhanger, and Brotherhood begins by trying to bring players up to speed with a cinematic recap of the action. The events from the first and second Assassin's Creed games are retold succinctly, but the story has just enough science-fiction twists and turns that those coming to Brotherhood without having played AC2 might find themselves more than a bit confused keeping track of it all. A host of returning characters from the second game also appear throughout Brotherhood's story (Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli), which is great for returning fans, but could compound things for newcomers.
In Brotherhood, Ezio goes to Rome to bring about the fall of the Borgia family-- the powerful Italian clan that assisted the antagonistic Pazzi family in AC2. Since it's only been a year since the prior game was released, it's fair to wonder if Brotherhood delivers as complete of an experience. That concern gets handily dismissed; Brotherhood is another full-fledged installment in the series that manages to embellish and refine many of the series' signature game mechanics. Most of the action takes place in post-Renaissance Rome, but there are a few scenes where players take control of Desmond in the dark-future setting.
Despite those similarities, Brotherhood manages to slightly edge out Assassin's Creed 2 in presentation. Both are gorgeous games with an impressive sense of scale, but Brotherhood takes place in the series' biggest city yet: Rome. Far from being the tiny snippet playable in part 2, Rome is a fully realized city that dwarfs the individual cities from the previous games. Save for some foliage pop-in when Ezio rides through the more open areas on horseback, the engine does a fantastic job of creating a living, breathing version of historic Rome. Improved lip-synching and facial animations make the in-engine cut-scenes better looking than they've been in the past as well.
Combat in Brotherhood has also received its fair share of improvements. All of the series' previous weapons make an appearance, alongside new offerings like the crossbow and poison darts. Many weapons also have a cool special attack option and each has their own set of unique attacks and finishing moves. For example, while fighting with a sword, you can hold down the attack button and Ezio will fire a round from his concealed hand cannon. Players can also chain instant-kills together by simply targeting a new enemy and attacking while in the process of finishing off the initial target. There's a bit more variety to enemy attacks, but it's not a particularly difficult affair. Combat in Assassin's Creed has always taken a more paced approach designed to give it stylish flair as opposed to the frantic button-pressing of other action games like Ninja Gaiden.
In Assassin's Creed 2, Ezio obtained his very own villa (Monteriggioni). Shops in that villa could be upgraded with cash. In Brotherhood, this upgrading concept extends throughout Rome. Shops around the city can be purchased, and famous structures and aqueducts can be repaired, with each restored structure adding to the total cash deposited in Ezio's "bank account" every twenty minutes. There are a ton of locations to upgrade, including entrances to a subterranean "fast-travel" system that Ezio can use to get around the city, and structures where Ezio can set up bases of operations for the various factions he befriends. The game economy isn't perfect, but it's a significant improvement over AC2, where you could pretty much amass more cash than you needed fairly early-on.
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Brotherhood's primary story missions also present players with an optional objective to complete, and the much-requested ability to replay specific missions. These optional objectives range in difficulty and include assignments like completing a task in a certain time or killing a target using a specific method. It's a welcome addition that adds replay value that was missing from previous Assassin's Creed games.
The game also brings a lot of optional side-quest content to the table. Collectible flags and feathers return, but this time, when one is spotted, it will be marked on your map. Faction missions (courtesans, mercenaries, thieves), and Templar Agent missions also become available, and there is a new special suit of armor to find. Collectible video clues can again be obtained by viewing glyphs on certain buildings, and shops have special items that can be unlocked by collecting laundry lists of ingredients found in chests scattered around the city. Your personal interest in each type of side-quest may vary, but they're all fit into the game world fairly well.
Portions of the game's map are still uncovered by climbing to the top of various viewpoints, though this time around, some of these towers are guarded by Borgia soldiers. Surrounding shops and structures often fall under the influence of these "Borgia Towers." They function like regular viewpoints, with the addition of a guard captain (perhaps courageous, perhaps cowardly) who must be assassinated at each tower (and the tower destroyed) before locations in the surrounding area can be upgraded. It's an idea that works well, though there was a particularly frustrating captain that kept locking himself behind a door as soon as Ezio appeared, necessitating several attempts.
Each Borgia tower you destroy also gives Ezio the ability to recruit a citizen into the Assassin's Guild. Ezio can then send his hired killers on missions by interacting with Assassin Towers or pigeon coops. Dispatching assassins is done via a fairly basic strategy game in which players select missions across Europe and assign killers based on the mission difficulty and assassin skill-level. Each assassin receives experience from completing these that can be used to upgrade their attributes. The system is free of bells and whistles, but is a fun diversion that helps support Ezio's rise in power. As an added bonus that I affectionately call the "Assassin Air-Strike," assassins can be called in to help Ezio in battle as well. Selecting a target and tapping a button causes hooded assassins to leap from behind cover, kill the target, and then assist Ezio in battle. It's a blast to use, even though you'll have to replace any of your compatriots that are killed with new recruits.
I only got to spend a couple of hours with Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's multiplayer so far, but what I played, I enjoyed. There are eight different maps and four different game modes, each focused on stealth gameplay. Players accrue experience to unlock new characters, abilities, and perks. There are ten different characters to choose from (17 when pre-order bonuses and unlockables are included), and each multiplayer mode requires 6-8 participants.
In "Wanted" mode, each player is given a target to stalk and kill, while avoiding another player who is trying to stalk and kill them. The on-screen hud tells you things like how close you are to your target, and whether your pursuer is in view. "Advanced Wanted" mode is the same as wanted, except your tools of detection are much weaker, making it harder to spot or be spotted. "Alliance" mode is basically team-based "Wanted" mode, and "Man Hunt" is a mode where teams take turns being the hunter and hunted.
In practice, it works very well to get the feel of being an assassin in that time period. Sitting casually on a bench as my target walked in front of me, only to jump out and shank them produced a cackle-worthy satisfaction rare to most multiplayer gaming. That said, it's definitely a niche mode that likely won't appeal to those looking for a more reflex-based experience.
Though released only one short year after the series' second game, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood provides a full-featured single-player experience with a staggering amount of gameplay systems, and is sure to please fans of the series with both its story and gameplay. Individually, each part of it may not be incredibly deep, but they all coalesce to effectively enhance the core story, which is a worthy chapter in the Assassin's Creed franchise. Assassin's Creed 2 is probably still a better place for series newcomers to start than Brotherhood, but fans are in for another great and stabby ride.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood released on November 16, 2010 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Review based on a near-final build for Xbox 360.