Format: 360 (Version tested), PC, PS3
Release: November 19
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
If we are to believe Brotherhood, foremost among the tenets of the Assassin’s Creed is “thou shalt do up thy house”. The game’s rendition of 16th century Rome is spotted with dilapidated buildings – from banks to brothels – each studded with crenellations and footholds for an easy climb, and each requiring the purse and persuasion of returning lead Ezio. Brotherhood has you playing property developer, snapping up useful locations to return them to their former glory.
Little effort is required: Brotherhood’s Rome is already glorious. As a series, Assassin’s Creed nailed believable locales on the first try, and although this time around we’ve had the customary three cities trimmed to one, the environment we’re left with is delightful. A playground for a man with Ezio’s parkour talents, Rome feels lived-in and loved. Stalk the streets with your neck craned up and you’ll spot beams and scaffolds poking across narrow streets; hop up to roof level and that seemingly random assortment of skeletal architectural remnants syncs up to form a flowing path, no matter the direction you choose to travel. The city’s seven hills are a cause for mild consternation, particularly when an objective sits at the top of an impassable cliff – but that’s frustration born of entitlement. For a man who can get anywhere in a heartbeat, the long way round – even on horseback – is anathema.
Ezio himself has changed little since his last job – indeed, he’s fresh off the back of his confrontation with Pope Alexander (née Borgia, Brotherhood’s returning familial antagonists). His skillset largely unchanged, there’s little to distinguish him from his prior form. That’s no issue when traversing the sprawling city, but ensures that armed scraps remain too rigid and stilted. Escaping unwanted attention is an option – leaping into hay carts is still the most effective method – but without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the streets, it’s usually best to stand and fight. From there, it’s a short set of button presses – a new, flowing counter-combo attack allowing the chaining of perfect kill-stabs – before you’ve offed a tower’s worth of guards. There’s a fine line between assassin and psychopath, and Brotherhood’s mass-murder sessions yank the game occasionally into tiresome territory.
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Multiplayer has a better line in death. Each player is assigned another as their target, and minutes of stalking are rewarded with either a satisfyingly clean kill or a knife in your spine. The second outcome is especially underwhelming, particularly when your assigned foe’s steel hits your back inches from your own target. As such, multiplayer sessions are a high-tension game of cat-and-more-lethal-cat, the balance between protecting your own neck and snapping another’s tough to weigh. In forcing you to make life-ending decisions – break from cover, kill in the open – Ubisoft Montreal has created a shifty, paranoid experience, one that has a more palpable sense of mortality than most online arenas.
Singleplayer adds another layer to the equation of death: rather than one man versus a guard rotation, the fraternity of the title are available to help. As in Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio gains the trust of the city’s underclasses – thieves, courtesans, mercenaries – all of whom wander Rome in groups. Engage a gang in conversation and you can hire them. Firing them off at a set of opponents distracts them long enough for Ezio to get in position – and a set of flirtatious courtesans is sure to keep a guard’s back turned on a creeping assassin.
But later, as the city rises to join your social crusade against the Borgia family, Ezio can also recruit fellow assassins – mini versions of himself that seem to hover like drones above the world until they’re needed. Locking on to a target and whistling for your new friends gets you a set of allies to fight with. Even better, when Ezio’s got the jump on his foe, the first strike from these unseen stars is an immensely rewarding guaranteed kill. There’s a compulsive metagame to managing your gaggle of troops: choosing to send them out on missions across Europe will boost their stats and weapon-sets, but mean they can’t be used in battle for a short time. Aside from the obvious strength increases these missions grant, there’s a simple pleasure in managing a squadron of trans-European badasses, a process which never becomes overly demanding.
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That’s a design ethos that pervades Brotherhood. A central story runs through the game, following present-day Desmond Miles as well as ancestor Ezio, but it’s not the riptide Assassin’s Creed II’s plotline was. Bring up Brotherhood’s map screen, and on full zoom it’s near impossible to make out landmarks through the sub- and side-quest icons. Like the assassin management minigame, the experience is broken into vignettes – chunks of play that don’t outstay their welcome and, if played in a jumbled order, flit between concepts with pleasing regularity. An hour of play is varied, perhaps beginning with a fight-heavy central story mission, encompassing a repressed memory of Ezio’s lady-chasing youth and ending with an aerial romp around a Roman tomb. The setup keeps the game fresh and light, with the story never threatening to get caught up in its own Dan Brownisms.
But this is also Brotherhood’s weakness. The game’s parts are by turns novel and enjoyable, but when played in longer bursts feel repetitive. Brotherhood is Assassin’s Creed II 2, its new mechanics feeling more like extensions of an existing form than innovations. It’s a greatest hits disc, then, a weighty, good-value deal that plays the series’ best bits – but there’s the constant danger that you’ve heard them before.