Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Assassin’s Creed II was one of the best games of last year. Lavishly presented, gloriously rendered, vast in scope and epic draw distance, it was period parkour pièce de résistance that trumped the original game in virtually every capacity and set Ubisoft’s Templar-bashing series up as true triple-A material.
To consider Assassin’s Creed II’s pedigree is to be somewhat surprised that Brotherhood has emerged so quickly, a mere year later. I sidelined the game to the apathetic corners of my mind, the various preview events rather more intent on showing off a quirky new multiplayer mode (something I’d never been sure the series needed...more on that later) than progressing the singleplayer freedom of Desmond and his ancestors. I assumed that Brotherhood – much like ODST had been for the Halo series (which, ironically, I loved) – would simply be a stopgap in between ‘proper’ games.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Brotherhood picks up right where Assassin’s Creed II left off – lots of patting of backs, a joyous family reunion, Ezio charming random townspeople, and everyone swooning over the shiny old MacGuffin that is the Apple of Eden. Of course, it’s not long before the Borgia family come knocking at Ezio’s door, clearly ticked off at the young Florentine’s actions in the last game, trashing his town and nicking all of his stuff.
So it’s off to Rome for Ezio as he tries to rebuild, both his own power and the pomp and prestige of a city overrun by a sinister militia. So it’s back to working behind the scenes, skipping once more across gorgeously rendered rooftops, sneaking up on guards and dispatching them in a myriad of different ways.
Combat this time around has been expanded upon subtly even more. Always my least favourite part of the series it’s still not quite the rhythmic bliss exhibited by, say, Arkham Asylum, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Time your strikes right and you can chain together swift, balletic executions. Hold down the action button and each weapon will allow for a special attack. There are more counter-attacking animations, unarmed Bourne-esque takedowns, hops, skips and jumps than ever before. Open combat, previously a blip in my book for the series, is now a real joy, and Ubisoft know it.
The move to one big city, rather than three or so slightly smaller ones, shouldn’t put you off either. Rome is huge, separated into districts that each have their own distinct flavours and, if you were a fan of decking out Monteriggioni in the first game or if you enjoy your sandbox games with a little bit of empire building (GTA: Vice City Stories anyone?), you’ll be pleased know that Ezio’s now thinking bigger than merely pimping a villa...he’s renovating Rome.
Each district is overseen by a Borgia tower and militia, directed by a captain. Taking down these miniature garrisons is an exercise in freeform gaming. Want to storm in through the front door armed with smoke bombs and a massive axe? You can do that. Want to sneak in unobserved? You can do that too, and mix and match everything and anything in between. The new crossbow is particularly delicious for stealthy kills. Once the captain is dealt with it’s a case of shimmying up to the tower’s peak and burning it down.
Reducing the Borgia’s influence over the city will open up new possibilities. Previously closed buildings will become available for renovation and Ezio can start purchasing and restoring blacksmiths, tailors, art dealers and banks, all adding to the revenue stream. Moreover, he can also invest in some serious real estate by purchasing landmarks. Ever wanted to own the Colosseum? You can now.
Eliminating the towers will also pave the way for the more rebellious factions in Rome’s public to reveal themselves and, when they do, you can step in to whisk them away from the spear tips of the guards and train them up as assassins. Yes, that’s right...you can train your own assassins! Managing your stable of would-be murderers is pretty much all a text-based affair, you can send them on missions to raise their stats and win skill points that can then be used to trick them out with better weapons and armour. Better still, you can call on your trainees for support when it comes to taking down targets. A quick tap of the left bumper and, one eagle screech later, and a whole bunch of Mediterranean ninjas swoop in to save the day. It’s intensely satisfying. It’s genuinely distressing when your first protégés snuff it, especially if they’ve been approaching the tenth level that’ll see them don the Auditore cape and attain the rank of Assassin. But you can always go and pinch another troublemaker off of the streets.
If there are faults to the Brotherhood singleplayer mode it’s that it’s hardly the most welcoming game to newbies. Sure, there’s an opening cinematic that recaps the story so far, but unless you’ve played through the first two games, it sounds utterly nonsensical. There’s no way to jump into this game and become emotionally invested in any of the characters unless you’ve brought some of that over with you. This is a sticking point because it’s clear that Ubisoft love their Italian protagonist and the historical world in which they’ve dunked him. There’s so much here for the fan, so much information, twisting plot arcs and well scripted and acted, but it’s still pretty confusing for someone who’s never heard of the Animus or Abstergo or Subject 16.
There’s no such obstacle to the brand new half of this particular instalment – everyone’s a newcomer to the multiplayer side of things. Imagine this...a massive sandbox populated by NPCs into which you and seven other disguised players are flung to engage in a delightful series of excellent games of cat and mouse. Wanted essentially is essentially a take on the classic Deathmatch formula, Alliance assigns you a wingman for your murderous exploits and Manhunt is twisting, cerebral , team-based affair. It’s a multiplayer that’s really based on patience and concentration, the NPCs will never sprint off or scale walls, you’re constantly on the lookout for anomalies, always looking over your own shoulder and questioning your surroundings. Add to that mix some persistent levelling up, bonuses for silent assassinations, unlockable upgrades and perks like more speed, useful bits and pieces and even more disguises, and it becomes swiftly apparent that this is no tacked-on gimmick, but an incredibly rewarding multiplayer experience that’s quite unlike anything else out there. Time will tell if it becomes a firm favourite and there’s scope for expansions here to be sure, but I can’t wait to fire it up when there are more people around.
If reaching the end of Assassin’s Creed II was like bidding farewell to a partner who’s just taken on an amazing job on the other side of the world, then playing Brotherhood is like them turning up on your birthday as a surprise present. Everything you loved about the previous game is still there – the freedom, the adult adventure playgrounds, pimping out your Renaissance ‘hood’. But it’s all better than before, and augmented with new upgrades, improvements, additions and an incredibly rich multiplayer experience. No, it might not be a definitive next chapter in the series, but don’t let the lack of a number in the title fool you. Brotherhood is an astoundingly good game, and possibly the finest title we’ve seen this year.
- Fantastic singleplayer experience
- Renovating Rome and building a stable of assassins
- Awesome multiplayer!
- Potentially confusing for the newcomer
- It won't answer any of your questions, only create more
- Not sure we can wait for Ass Creed III
The Short Version: Forget your cynicism, put down your worries and leave all doubts behind. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood manages to top its predecessor in virtually every way and also find space for a whole bunch of new stuff too including a cracking multiplayer mode. No, it's not the big leap that might accompany a '3' in the title, but for any fan of the series, or sandbox games in general, this is an absolutely essential purchase and certainly in the running for game of the year.