On paper, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood doesn’t make a particularly compelling proposition. Released just a year after the previous instalment, the game features the same characters in the same setting, performing the same tasks.
Everything about it smacked of milking a successful franchise, of propping what might otherwise be a lacklustre quarterly financial report for publisher Ubisoft. Small wonder it was written off long ago by some specialist media as Assassin’s Creed 2.5, and smaller wonder that the publisher focused as much of the pre-release coverage as it could on what was touted as the game’s most noteworthy addition: Multiplayer.
Dyed in the wool naysayers will feel vindicated in one regard at least: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is an extremely familiar experience. Ezio’s character doesn’t develop in any consequential way and there’s a woeful lack of intrigue to the historical plot.
Following immediately from the events of last year’s game, assassin Ezio Auditore returns to Monteriggioni only to be besieged by the Templars, headed by the Borgia family. When the town falls, so too does the order of assassins. Moreover, the Borgia take back the assassins’ Piece of Eden. Now Ezio must depart for the Templar seat of power in Rome to recover the artefact, rebuild the order and put the Borgia down once and for all.
Rome and the immediate countryside is a vast stage. If it’s occasionally lacking in variety, it makes up for it in spades with character. The benefit of this singular setting is that the city is witness to your activities from start to finish, and can refer back without ever appearing contrived.
The city is broken into twelve districts, each dominated by a central Borgia tower and overseen by a Borgia captain who can be eliminated.
These are more than satisfying, carefully constructed vignettes of the game’s fundamental submission – stealth and daylight homicide – the Borgia towers also control commerce in the immediate district. Once a tower has been burned, Ezio will be able to renovate nearby shops as he could in Monteriggioni, thus securing a much-need revenue stream for the order. Additionally, each tower destroyed will allow Ezio to recruit a new assassin.
There’s allure to scaling the corporate ladder of any commercial enterprise, whether your business is selling leashes for children or quietly slipping stilettos into the necks of corrupt renaissance era officials. But the reality is that as you rise you become further removed from the reason you got into the industry in the first place – be it a sanctioned outlet for your latent murderous tendencies or a burning desire to emotionally scar other people’s toddlers.
It’s no different for Ezio who spends increasing amounts of his time balancing the financial spreadsheets, managing the human resources of the order and, we can only presume, getting his Hawaiian shirts Friday initiative off the ground. Happily, Brotherhood turns these mundane activities into delightful mini-games and feeds their outcomes into the core gameplay so elegantly, you’ll find you invest hours scouring menus and seeking statistical advantages.
Ezio’s acolytes are characters that grow. To increase their rank, they must either be set upon targets at Ezio’s command in Rome or sent around Europe to complete contracts. If they’re on tour, Ezio won’t be able to call on their sanguine skillset. As they gain ranks, Ezio can make upgrades to their skill and armour. Should they die, Ezio will need to recruit another assassin and begin the process anew. The system means you’ll quickly become invested in your assassins – anxious of sending them on perilous missions or using them against powerful targets.
Nonetheless, highly skilled assassins quickly become indispensible, often most necessary when deposing well-guarded Borgia captains. And so the virtuous cycle continues.
It doesn’t stop there. Rome is so packed full of tangential offerings that at times, the experience can be overwhelming. If you’re careless when walking across town to a mission launch you’ll easily be led astray and if you are inclined to indulge the game you’ll lose hours.
Nothing expresses this more (or less) concisely than the game’s map, which isn’t so much a depiction of city streets and buildings as it is a cluster of icons overlapping one another and competing for your attention.
Among them are the dens of the followers of Romulus, ancient subterranean gymnastics courses that supersede the previous game’s Master Assassin tombs. The reward for completing them is Romulus’ armour – your own legendary armour from Assassin’s Creed II was lost when Monteriggioni fell.
The game’s multiplayer is conceptually interesting. Alliance, Wanted and Advanced Wanted are all based on the same concept. You’re given a target to assassinate, and their approximate location is marked as an area on your minimap. Be aware that other players are hunting you. It means that you need to blend amongst the NPCs – performing the rooftop acrobatics of the singleplayer will give you away in a heart beat.
The result is the kind of head to head and team-based competition seen in first-person shooters but with none of the intense action. Brotherhood’s online gameplay is more about consideration, seeping suspense and watchfulness than it is about frenetic combat.
Together these elements make Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood the most polished experience the series has created yet. It’s one that will exonerate fans and hush doubters, even if Ezio’s swarthy charms are starting to run as thin as an Italian waiter shamelessly flirting with your date.