The wind catches under your cape, roof tiles slipping slightly beneath your feet as you sprint towards the Basilica di San Pietro. Your white-peaked hood is pulled low, covering your face. Greaves, vambraces, pauldrons and chest plate are all freshly repaired and glinting in the rising sun. You feel your Milanese sword gently patting against your hip with each footstep as you run and the crossbow on your back is reassuringly weighty. You stop, alerted to the danger nearby and throw a couple of knives into a patrolling archer. He crumples silently to a rest on the edge of his rooftop and your sprint begins again, atop ridges, across high-wires and along protruding beams. You reach the edge of the rooftop at full speed. Heart pounding, you leap into the air.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is an experience like no other. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Brotherhood is very similar to the Assassin’s Creed II experience. You return as Ezio Auditore di Firenze, master assassin and new unofficial leader of the Assassin’s Guild. Brotherhood starts literally seconds after the ending of ACII, that massive plot climax still hanging in the air of this well-imagined universe.
The Assassin’s Creed series is almost without compare in the world of video games – part action, part free-running platformer, part stealth and part puzzler. Each section can be reasonably compared to something else. For example, the streamlined, free-flowing combat system present in Brotherhood, slightly improved on ACII’s, puts you in mind of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The platforming sections are reminiscent of Uncharted. The puzzles brings back the older Tomb Raiders. The stealth aspects feed off Metal Gear Solid and Ubisoft’s other stealth action title – Splinter Cell. But nothing puts it all together like this.
Brotherhood is similar in style, look and feel to Assassin’s Creed II. On the surface you might ask whether this could be called a large-scale expansion pack rather than a full game in its own right. That would be a fair assumption to make on surface evidence but a couple of hours in the company of Ezio (and Desmond, for far more time is given to the modern counter-balance in the narrative) will completely dispel that notion. What Brotherhood has successfully accomplished is what every sequel should strive for: a growth and refinement of the things its predecessor got right and solutions for as much of what it got wrong as possible.
There are still repetitive elements to some tasks within the mission structure but the tedious labours that started to drag a little in the previous iteration have, for the most part, been eradicated. This is thanks mostly to new systems in place for regenerating the city and rebuilding your underground network.
Each area of the city must be liberated from the oppressive overview of the Borgia family by assassinating their captain in the area and then igniting the watchtower. Once this is done you will be able to purchase the shops, utilities and buildings in that area. Later in the game you will also be able to rescue and recruit citizens to join the Assassin’s Guild and aid your cause. These recruited assassins are then manageable via the city’s pigeon lofts where you can send them to major European cities on missions of their own. Each recruit levels up individually to obtain better armour and weaponry and each mission they go on gains you money and items to sell in the shops (or use to complete shop quests and unlock new goods).
It’s a wonderful system that really makes you feel like you’re the mastermind behind a network of assassins stretching across Europe. Recruited assassins can also be used, when they’re not away on a mission, to attack your foes remotely. You simply target an enemy soldier and hit the left trigger. Your recruits will leap from the nearest concealed spot and rain down death without you ever getting your hands dirty – or your face seen.
The main story of the game is set in Roma. There are short sections in other cities which are delivered via flashbacks and optional side missions but for the most part this is a one-city game. That’s not to say that this game is short or limited in scope, far from it. Brotherhood is slightly more focussed and streamlined but there is still an awful lot of content here. The city is much larger than any one area in the previous game and staying largely in one location makes sense to the position this game takes in the overall narrative.
The sheer volume of side missions and optional puzzle rooms will keep you entrenched in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood for a very long time. Despite stalling somewhat in the final stretch, the main story has a pace and an energy to it that is rare in this medium. None of the side missions are essential but completing them will make the main story easier to accomplish. In this way the player is rewarded for engaging in the optional content but not unnecessarily punished for just wanting to experience the central narrative.
Character models and facial textures and animations are much improved over ACII but they’re still not quite up to the industry’s leaders in that respect. The voice acting is top-notch though, mostly, and the wealth of information that the game gives you is incredible. What the Assassin’s Creed series has always excelled at, though, is the narrative. Brotherhood doesn’t disappoint here either with one of the most intelligent, well plotted and cleverly presented narratives yet seen in the medium.
There are still occasional quirks of control, with very rare instances when it wasn’t as consistently easy to make a jump as it had been to make previous ones of a similar nature. It’s nothing to worry about and very rare but it’s worth mentioning so there are no surprises. The decision to allow horses into the city streets is also something of a mistake. They are too cumbersome to turn and too large in the narrow streets to make the experience of riding through Roma an enduring one. They also look faintly ridiculous when they walk up or down steps. It just appears that the urban maps weren’t designed with horses in mind.
Let’s not get bogged down in the very minor niggles though. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is an exceptionally compelling game that gets so much perfectly correct. If you’ve played and enjoyed the previous games then this is an essential purchase. If you’re late to the series you really are missing out on one of modern gaming’s best franchises. The single player story is so rich and deep and there is clearly still a lot to discover in future instalments in this series. Certainly, the truth behind the conspiracy plot from the modern world setting seems to be as far away as ever.
The addition of multiplayer was initially a worry to some but it has been done with aplomb. The feel of the series is retained thanks to the interesting hunter/hunted mechanism in place. You are assigned a target and guided towards them but there is often another assassin who has you as their target. This provides something of a first for online multiplayer: a system which is in keeping with the narrative and doesn’t just rely on the traditional game modes like deathmatch. There is a levelling system with perks and streaks in place to keep you coming back and it all seems to fit brilliantly within the world of Assassins, Templars and Animi.
- Utterly engaging narrative.
- Compelling pacing and character growth.
- Streamlined mechanisms to put you in charge much more.
- Multiplayer feels unique and intelligent.
- Builds on previous iterations but leaves you wanting more.
- Horses feel cumbersome and look out of place on narrow city streets.
- Very occasional control inconsistencies.
Brotherhood is not perfect but it’s difficult to imagine how it could be improved upon. It could be called a perfect sequel, even if it is just a branched-off stop-gap after Assassin’s Creed II rather than a fully-fledged Assassin’s Creed III. The mistakes in game design from ACII have been addressed and there are a few other improvements, particularly to make the combat flow more naturally. All while building on the parts of Assassin’s Creed that make you feel powerful, deadly and silent. Without question, this is one of the best games of 2010.