Caught in a moment of passion with an attractive young lady, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s time-traveling hero, Ezio, is rudely interrupted by the sound of gunfire. News reaches him quick that the papal army are descending on Moneteriggioni in their thousands, hell bent on destroying the familiar site of the Villa Auditore, which was used for refuge in Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio leaps out of bed to support the defending army, fighting for survival as legions of enemy soldiers descend on the base and attempt to break through the gates, scale the ramparts and destroy any signs of life. You take to the battlements and try relentlessly to stem the onslaught with cannon fire as the masses approach the front gates, but there’s just too many of them to contend with.
Soldiers break through the entrance and clamber over the castle walls. Moneteriggioni has been infiltrated and its people are vulnerable. You leave the cannon, realising that you’ll be more help in the city fighting off the foot soldiers. You run around the outer and upper walls of the stronghold, kick the lever of the merchandise lift and zip up to the tower roof, before jumping down the other side of the rampart – which has now been heavily breached. You whip out your sword and muster together all of your fighting skills in order to dispatch the enemy, thrusting swords through their midriffs and knocking them off the perimeter wall to their death far below.
Buildings catch on fire. The city is going down in flames and you need to get out before you go down with it. You jump on your horse and navigate the crumbling buildings, jumping over debris to escape the carnage in an action-packed sequence that really gets the adrenaline pumping as you race to the exit. It’s no use helping to defend Moneteriggioni any more, the city has been destroyed. The Borgia dynasty, behind the attacks, has crossed the mark and took many lives. Ezio is sparked into life on a journey to save humanity and crumble the grip that the Borgia now has on society.
This is most explosive and exciting start to an Assassin’s Creed game to date, and it fits in perfectly with the new aggressive tone of this third title where lots of lives are at stake. Not only does this action-packed sequence give you the opportunity to get to grips with the subtle, yet game-enhancing tweaks that have been made to the combat system — as you chain together assassination combos and send soldiers tumbling to their bloody deaths — but it also sets a benchmark for the whole production moving forward; at no point does Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood ever disappoint in that department.
Picking up where Assassin’s Creed II left off, former bartender, Desmond Morris steps into the Animus 2.0 again to relive the memories of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. This time, he’s off to Rome (Roma) where the likes of the Vatican, Tiber and Antique await – all places where disillusioned city folk need a new hero that will stand up to the Borgia bigwigs. The Assassin’s Creed series as a whole is swamped in fascinating, historically accurate content, but it also has a so-crazy-it’s-entertaining, fantasy-fuelled back-story, which is too complicated to re-cap on now. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood once again takes place in a sandbox environment, a playground for an agile assassin who is seeking answers and revenge. To sum up the gameplay as a whole: there’s a lot of killing and a lot of sneaking around; a bit of skulduggery and plenty of horse riding. Oh, and a lot of burning towers.
If you’re coming at this Assassin’s Creed without playing any of the previous games, you’ll probably be lost and puzzled by the mere existence of the Animus 2.0, the machine that allows Ezio to connect genetically with his ancestors. This really is a game that builds on the existing titles storylines and the Assassin’s Creed’s lore, with many meaningful references. But even if this is your first Assassin’s Creed experience, it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the gameplay. A decent job has been done at recapping the events in bite-sized chunks; so if you have played Assassin’s Creed before, it’s nice to be able to recap on those dangerous trips you had through the Holy Land and Renaissance Italy – and it’s equally as important to remember that events kick off straight after Assassin’s Creed II, where you learned that the fate of humanity hangs by a thread.
The storyline in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is such an integral and enjoyable part of the experience that you’ll want to sit through and listen to the cut-scenes, which kick in quite frequently but rarely feel intrusive. These well-produced scenes help to flesh out the game’s characters and further add to the historical time-line of the series impressively. Indeed, this is a strong script told well through a cast of believable voice actors. These scenes drip-feed you with information about the plot, which is well-paced, and they also add a cinematic, movie-like quality to the game, thanks to the high-quality production. It’s a testament to the quality of these cut-scenes that we’ve been totally engrossed in the plot and not once thought about skipping a scene, even when things do get a little crazy and occasionally complicated. It’s also a nice touch that you can move back and forward between the Animus 2.0 and step back into Desmond’s shoes during the game and talk to your colleagues to further build on that back story, as well as take part in some enjoyable sections where you get to play as Desmond himself.
Like the other two games in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is just as much about the glorious sandbox environment and the high quality production as it is the gameplay. And it’s clear to see that this latest game has grown in stature in all departments — incorporating the high quality graphics that are synonymous with the series, but also implementing new ideas that make Roma the ultimate Assassin’s playground. Standing on top of one of the many viewpoints across the city is still a sight to behold, with buildings and scenery sweeping into the distance as far as the eye can see. On a few occasions scenery – usually rocks and trees – crudely pops-up in the not-too-far distance, but considering the scale of Roma and the high attention to detail around ever corner, it’s still refreshingly impressive looking out across the miles of rooftops, or wandering through the bustling squares.
On firm ground, the people on the streets bring the game to life. Crowds gather in town squares to listen to prophets as flocks of birds scatter as you breeze past. Courtesans chatter, as smoke bellows out of chimneys, while locals barter with shopkeepers and pickpockets ply their trade, blending into the crowds to steal and flee in the blink of an eye. The setting is made more authentic by architecture that is typical to the era, none that is more impressive than the iconic structure of the Coliseum. The atmosphere in the bustling streets and across the rooftops is amplified impressively by the haunting blend of natural sounds that are complemented by string-based orchestral music and delightful choral flavours that echo with the religious tones of that period. Quite simply, it’s the quintessential Assassin’s Creed environment that we know and love, but this time around it feels grander than ever before and designed in a way that makes it as easy and enjoyable to move around the districts.
Each location not only looks stunning but also is designed with freedom of movement in mind, crafted specifically so you can explore the areas from many different angles and reach different parts of the city in a variety of ways. Ornately designed buildings, where ladders, platforms, and the new merchandise lift lead to rooftops, offer gateways to a world that begs to be explored. The design of the environment seems to have been handled better than previous Assassin’s Creed games to make the most out of Ezio’s movement and flexible animation, with more ways to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ made possible through even more platforms, poles and ways to get across the roof-tops. The merchandise lifts, which provide a swift escape as you tap the lever with your foot and shoot up the pulley system to the rooftops, adds another means of fleeing from the city guards, and comes as an impressive new addition that works well alongside other familiar means of escape such as bales of hay, or rooftop hideaways.
The parkour side of the gameplay has never felt so smooth and intuitive; the control scheme of Ezio feels that little bit tighter and forgiving. When the series first began it took a while to master the intricacies of the main man’s moves, which required a great degree of timing and environmental awareness to flow smoothly. This is still the case to a certain degree, but it’s just not as frustrating — Ezio doesn’t bounce back off walls as much, for instance — he just seems to flow fluidly from one platform or pole to the next. The animation seems much smoother. Whether you’re climbing a Borgia Tower, or leaping across a huge gap, our hero responds well and looks great to boot.
The same applies to combat. Though a core part of the game involves fighting and conducting assassination attempts, fighting guards and conducting assassinations rarely feels repetitive due to the satisfying move-set and the enjoyment of the fight. You can grab, or head-butt and knee your enemy; you can kick to break a defence, or parry, or counter-act and then ram your sword right through his mid-riff – needless to say, button mashing just doesn’t win the day. Meanwhile, enemy A.I. is sharp so fighting a large group of soldiers can be very challenging. You can also chain together assassination combos for the first time, which are like watching a carefully choreographed dance routine. Similarly, kills gained from diving off a rooftop, or leaping boldly from horse to horse, or getting up close and personal are just as satisfying. The addition of a hidden pistol also adds a new animation to the executions, which is fun to use. Later on during the game, you’ll get to use the likes of Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute, which is even better than the many "leaps of faith" that you’ll be carrying out throughout the course of the adventure.
While core gameplay in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood remains largely the same as the last two games (Tomb Raider-like platform play, stealth, combat-based missions and free-running) there are a number of new additions that really help to propel the series forward to another level. Money plays a significant part in the game, more so than previous installments, and you earn it for almost everything you do – whether you’re pick-pocketing through the streets or beating up the local thugs trying to control the courtesan operation. Shops have shut down in Rome after the Borgia took control, but you can move around the city and re-open them. Each district is controlled by the Borgia. The guards and captain wander around a certain area that you’re not supposed to enter, guarding treasures and establishing their influence in the city. You have to kill the captain and set light to the towers, sending them crumbling down to the floor and thus taking away their control of the area. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not easy. Each captain has a difficulty grade and is guarded heavily and flees when you’re spotted. Tackling the tougher captains comes with experience and equipping your character with the right weapons for a blend of stealth play and combat is essential.
Kill the captain and you can then open up the shops with the money that you earn from various other tasks and treasure that you may pick up and sell on. Renovating the city and seeing it come to life is very rewarding and being able to sneak into a Borgia base, stab the captain, sneak out undetected, and then set light to their tower never gets boring. And this is really just a side game to the main missions. As the shops re-open you get richer, creaming in profits from the shopkeepers, and all of a sudden people want to fight by your side. For every tower that you topple you can recruit, train and send out assassins on missions, assign them skills along the way and even call them in for assistance if you’re in trouble. Indeed, it’s another feather in the bow of Assassin’s Creed. Not only are you carrying out your own assassinations, but also there’s now an element of strategy thrown in too, as you pick and choose who to send, where to send them to and try and build up their stats effectively. If they die on a mission, you can’t help but feel totally responsible.
Just those two new features alone demonstrate the wealth of choice that you’re given in the game. There’s a lot more to do than any previous Assassin’s Creed games and as a result the experience feels a lot deeper and more engrossing. Quests are scattered about freely and there’s plenty of choice available so that you can pick and choose your favourite mission type, or simply follow the markers to the next new Memory. There’s tons to do, including hunting for collectibles and treasures, but the biggest new feature is needing to complete side objectives if you want to achieve Full Synchronisation in each main mission. It might be a timed mission, for example, or you might be tasked with carrying out the whole mission while remaining undetected. Once again it adds something extra to the Assassins’ Creed single player experience, where you’re rewarded with more memories if you complete them. Though the time-frame between this game and the last is relatively short in game development terms, it feels like the series has incorporated everything that is good from the previous games, but fine-tuned it and really evolved it; more than we imagined was possible.
And if that wasn’t enough, we then have the all-new multiplayer mode. The good news just gets better. We’re hard pressed to think of a better looking online multiplayer game, but more importantly the gameplay feels totally different to anything we’ve played before and makes such a refreshing change from getting head-shot every few seconds. The process of sneaking around and assassinating enemies is intense and very exciting.
Catering for up to eight players, the Wanted mode is the solo multiplayer experience. You get the choice of a range of characters, including a Courtesan, a Priest, a Doctor, and an Executioner. Each of these characters boasts different weapons, for example, the Doctor uses a syringe as his main weapon, whereas the Executioner users an Axe. Similarly, they also have different abilities which you gain access to through the leveling up system; for example, the banker can use poison and has a hidden gun if you need to use it, whereas the executioner can use the brilliant disguise ability to blend in with the crowds.
This particular mode is a cat and mouse game of assassination, where you hunt for assassination targets while others hunt for you. Maps are exquisitely designed based on ones from the series, such as the busy streets of Rome of the confines of Castel Gandolofo, and it’s all about using stealth and keeping your wits about you to take out players and earn points in the process which you can use to improve your abilities. It’s a rewarding mechanic that encourages you to use the variety of abilities and skills at your disposal.
You can blend in with citizens in the street, or use abilities such as the decoy where you can fool enemies into thinking that you’ve moved in another direction. Ubisoft has obviously thought long and hard about how to make this blend of combat and stealth effective and the combination of the compass and score meter works extremely well. While the compass points you in the right direction of the target, without revealing the exact position, and fills up when you are close, the score meter indicates how many points you’ll achieve if you opt to assassinate at that precise moment. Conversely, you lose points for giving your position away and being detected. The typical Assassin’s Creed gameplay of hiding in hay bales, breaking the line of sight and dashing across the roof-tops comes into play, but there’s also some neat ideas that give you a fighting chance as well, such as platforms that collapse once you’ve jumped on them, so enemies have to find another way to get to you.
Alliance Mode caters for team play, three teams of two players to be precise. Once again, you are assassins chasing down other killers, while they chase you, but this time — with the addition of a team-mate — you can really pull some great tactics out the bag, assassinating targets simultaneously, or perhaps setting a trap to lure them in so the other guy can jump out on them from the shadows. Hunter Mode, in which one team takes the part of the Assassin and has to reach a target while guards hunt him down, is equally compelling and captures the mood of the single player campaign, while delivering something that feels totally fresh. While the hunter gains points for assassinations, the hunted gain from escaping and staying undercover. Smoke bombs, the ability to morph or throw firecrackers to create a distraction come into play also, alongside other abilities that we’ll not spoil for you here. Overall, we’re very excited about multiplayer. It seems very well balanced, and as long as the servers hold up when people jump on board we could be playing this for a long time to come.
And there we have it. This review is on the long side — one of our longest ones this year, in fact — and we could easily go on and on singing the praises about Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and evangelise about how the other two games have merely been stepping stones on the way to creating this, the ultimate Assassin’s Creed game. It’s a measure of how great a game is that you have to fish around for something to say that is even remotely negative. Aside from some scenery popping up, and the fact that we’d like to see the radial weapon wheel use better and bolder symbols for identifying weapons, there really is nothing to say. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is everything we wanted it to be and more. It’s not just the most epic, focused and action-packed Assassin’s Creed game yet, but it’s a real contender for Game of the Year.