Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
16th Nov 2010 | 17:01
Brotherhood isn't Assassin's Creed 3. For that, we'd be looking for a brand new cast of characters, a radically different time period and game systems rebuilt from the ground up.
Instead, we get last year's brilliant formula improved with 12 months of knowledge, depth and masterful sandbox action. Ubisoft's used its experience (and success) with AC II and come up with something more creative, more daring and believe it or not, even bigger than any instalment before. But is it a better game? That one's up for debate...
Brotherhood kicks off exactly where the last game started - sci-fi headscrews and all. Our Renaissance-era protagonist Ezio Auditore strolls out of the Roman Vatican scratching his head and wondering what on Earth went on before AC2's credits.
For a while all seems conclusive for Ezio; he's dealt with the Templars, obtained a mythical Piece of Eden and managed to become the biggest hard-nut in circa-1500 Italy. That is until part way through the first sequence, when his Villa is besieged and destroyed by the army of Cesare Borgia - son of the Pope - and the assassin is back to doing what he knows best: seeking revenge.
Ezio's anger leads him to Rome, where, wounded and humiliated, he takes aim at the Borgia family currently ruling the city with an iron grip.
The town's not in a good shape. Buildings are crumbling, peasants are begging in the streets and a no-exception lockdown has been enforced on any business not approved by Cesare himself.
Much of Brotherhood's main story will see you building up your forces in preparation to finally kill Pope Alexander VI, Cesare and the rest of the Borgia corrupting Rome.
With a cast of established characters (Machiavelli, Da Vinci etc. see a return - plus there are extensive modern day sections) the writing is, overall, improved from ACII.
However, the very personal story lacks the epic feel of the numbered sequels, and those expecting an ACII-equivalent scale of narrative will be in for a disappointment (ending excluded).
The plot may feel a bit 'side story' then, but the gameplay certainly doesn't. As a sandbox, Brotherhood is a much better game than Assassin's Creed 2. The enjoyable Villa economy from the last game has been absorbed into all of Rome, and it's no effort at all to lose yourself reclaiming turf, rebuilding shops or recruiting new assassins into your Brotherhood.
Ezio can now liberate areas of the city and upgrade buildings, whilst horses can be used to navigate and blend through the streets. Occasionally, bandits will rob Ezio at nightfall, and there are a number of hidden glyphs, flags and a small number of feathers waiting to be discovered.
In addition, the missions - as previously mentioned - are more creatively designed and take risks, for good and bad.
A fantastic example of this experimentation is Leonardo Da Vinci's new War Machine missions, which have Ezio taking charge of some rather OTT inventions the real man "actually" drew plans for (we're taking Ubisoft's word for it on the "actually" bit - we suspect they've been a little flexible with the truth).
Throughout the campaign you'll be taking charge of chariot-mounted machine guns, naval cannons and yes, an armoured tank.Of course, you'll destroy each of them after use - keeping them out of the hands of the Borgia and, conveniently, the history books. (We don't think 15th century France could've done much about a tank, after all...)
HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
Brotherhood's biggest bullet point, however, is the erm, Brotherhood. Recruiting and training up your own Assassin army and dispatching them on missions around Europe to enhance their skills is a genuinely immersive and enjoyable gameplay addition.
As you rebuild Rome you'll have the option to rescue and recruit street outlaws into your brotherhood, eventually customising them with specific outfits, armour and weapons to boost your cause.
As you recruit novice assassins, Ezio will be able to train them up by sending them out on assignments around Europe, via a unique animus interface. This is a real gem for fans of the conspiracy narrative hidden throughout the last game's glyphs, and offers plenty of nods at real historical occurrences.
One mission, for example, has you helping Henry VII deal with a Templar conspirator, Margaret of York. Due to her ties to the Pope the English King can't have her killed - but your assassins will promise to make her "disappear".
Assassins will gain experience with each mission completed, and the animus displays a helpful percentage meter - which shows your chance of completion based on the ability of the members you've tasked to the mission. Basically, it's like a miniature strategy game within Brotherhood.
When you're not micro-managing your foot soldiers and looking at stats, your trained Assassins can be called on at any time with the press of the right shoulder button - an ability you can only call on when one of several 'tokens' are cooled down and ready for use.
This changes the way you approach missions in a big way. In one sequence, you're tasked with quietly tailing and assassinating a templar banker, Juan Borgia, as he strolls through a Pagan party. As Ezio scrambles over walls and hides in the shadows, you can use your Assassins to stealthily remove enemies from your path, or even start a fight so you can sneak past undetected.
The assassins inject a whole new layer of strategy into missions. They feel like a powerful and valuable weapon, especially considering that when they die, they're dead for good - not a small loss when you've given your all to train them into deadly warriors.
The Brotherhood system is just one example of the quality and scope you can expect from Rome, which is massive, varied and simply a joy to explore.
The sandbox is what AC: Brotherhood does best. Ubisoft claims you could spend even more time exploring 2010's game than last year's big sequel - no small claim when you're talking 20-plus hours of solid gameplay - and it's telling no lies.
Rome - a predictably beautiful and epic metropolis three times the size of AC2's Florence - is split into districts, each occupied by an intimidating Borgia Tower. These represent of the Borgia's stranglehold over the city, and before you can start rebuilding shops and recruiting assassins you'll have to destroy them as a statement to the people.
You do this by first taking out each tower's Borgia leader. Sometimes they're strolling carefree along a patrol route, other times they'll be sat snug indoors flanked by a group of axe-wielding protectors - it depends what mood they're in at the time.
Either way, once they're put to the business end of your blade you're off for a quick climb - and spot of arson - at the top of the tower, following which the surrounding area is tactically transformed in your favour and you can start rebuilding Rome.
It's a bit like GTA: San Andreas' turf wars - and just as satisfying. Reclaiming Roman districts and rebuilding their shops (which in turn earns you a regular stream of income) is compelling in the same way that PS3's InFamous successfully layered strategic turf wars over the usual side quests and hidden collectibles.
And it's not as if Broterhood is lacking in the latter either, with guild missions (of mercenary, courtesan and thief varieties), shop quests, Templar targets, flags and the aforementioned Brotherhood management filling the streets.
We'll stick our neck out and say that it's even more fun to explore and uncover Rome's secrets than it is to play through the main single-player story. The Romulus platforming missions - new Assassin's Tombs - are absolutely fantastic, while flashback quests detailing Ezio's relationship with Cristina in Florence (she's the one you do at the beginning of the last game) add awesome fan service.
LIVE BY THE SWORD
Yet while Brotherhood's creative risks bear new and exciting gameplay mechanics, they also bring frustrations.
Ubisoft's adopted a new model that issues Ezio secondary objectives, often encouraging stealth and speed rather than offering out every guard in sight. Complete the given secondary objective ('only use your hidden blade', 'don't swim' etc.) and you'll be rewarded with a 100 per cent synched mission, eventually unlocking hidden memories in the form of the previously mentioned flashback scenes.
This isn't a problem, as those who don't give a monkey's about story can simply ignore the secondary objectives and stab away. The system also results in some genuinely brilliant sequences when obeyed - including one which has you scaling the huge Castello Sant'Angelo stealthily avoiding and assassinating guards, Splinter Cell-style.
It's when these demands to tackle objectives in a certain way seep into the primary missions that things take a turn for the worse. Towards the end of the story, it often feels like Ubisoft Montreal is barking out your orders.
The number of ultra-strict stealth missions has grown substantially in Brotherhood, which means repeatedly failing a mission thanks to an unseen eagle-eyed guard or simply killing an enemy you apparently weren't supposed to, can become a problem. There were more than a few occasions when we used our most creative swear words in annoyance.
We say this not as a large, gaping criticism however - more an occasional bugbear.
There are so many brilliant steps taken and ideas introduced in Brotherhood that we feel we absolutely must see them again in Assassin's Creed 3. The Brotherhood system works brilliantly, the sandbox is more enjoyable than ever and a sped-up combat system is a very welcome addition.
That's without even mentioning the slick VR missions and promising multiplayer mode - which naturally we haven't had a fully extensive session with yet (we're waiting for you lot to come online first), but certainly shows great potential.
Overall, Brotherhood is an awesome package with enough new content to kill the competition this Christmas.
Story limitations and a few failed mission experiments cement our statement that it's not Assassin's Creed 3 - but with a lick of paint it would've come dangerously close.
There's enough quality and scope here to put Brotherhood in the running not just as a top festive purchase, but one of the best action games of the year.