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Ezio swoops-in on the TVG offices with his wrist blade extended and we offer him a nice cup of tea...
Ezio Auditore da Firenze – one cool name for one cool character who is, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood would have us believe, the inspiration for Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic work, The Prince. This makes up just one of the many historical in-jokes that Ubisoft drops like a whimsical university professor in its latest epic from the Assassin’s Creed series. Three years ago we’d have balked at the suggestion that a videogame could be successful while looking like a BBC period drama. Ubisoft Montreal’s series has now proved us wrong twice in succession, selling roughly 20 million units altogether over the past three years and putting itself firmly into the Call of Duty league of modern blockbuster games.
It’s also one of the very few stealth games on the market these days. With Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid coming over all action-oriented on the current-gen consoles, your one-stop shop for stealth these days is a game that rarely features guns – a truly remarkable achievement in itself. This is admittedly less the case in AC: Brotherhood now that Ezio has a single-shot pistol hidden up his sleeve, but the stress remains on melee combat nonetheless with ranged options once again set as a preferential alternative to close-quarter kills. In this latest instalment then, as with its two predecessors, Assassins Creed remains a highly original proposition. Just try and put your finger on another open-world game that successfully focuses the vast majority of its gameplay around stealth, let alone one that’s set during the time of Leonardo Da Vinci.
It’s also the undisputed heavyweight champion of the gaming world when it comes to side-missions. AC: Brotherhood is nothing short of a colossal time sink. Over the past few days we’ve sat down for sessions with the express intention of tackling the campaign, only to be side-tracked for hours at a time by optional extras without even making a single iota’s progress through the 12-15 hour story. Ubisoft Montreal does an incredibly good job of teasing you onto alternative missions as you walk around its interpretation of Rome at the turn of the 16th century. It really doesn’t bear mentioning the amount of times we’ve been sucked into scaling a Borgia Tower, assassinating a Borgia Guard, tackling some of the faction challenges and VR training missions, or rebuilding Rome from the ground up by purchasing buildings and renovating shops to build a personal income as if we were playing a colossal game of Monopoly: Renaissance Edition.
And these are just the newly added side-objectives, we might hastily add. AC: Brotherhood still has the multitude of extras that made last year’s game such an appealing proposition: the Challenge Rooms, Assassination side missions, and ‘The Truth’ meta-games all make a welcome return to the fold from their appearances in AC II. By far and away the most enjoyable addition to Brotherhood, though, is teased in the game’s title. Ezio can now build up a Brotherhood of assassins by firstly saving them from city guards as he travels the streets of Rome, and then training them up in a menu-based mini-game that’s a bit like Football Manager-meets-Thief, providing the recruits with valuable XP to level-up their abilities in the process. This Brotherhood of Assassins can then be called upon during the game to drop out of the sky and take-out targets without Ezio even lifting a finger. It’s yet another tool to aid him in combat and stealth, similar to the Courtesans, Thieves, and Mercenaries of AC II (which, again, all return in Brotherhood).
It perhaps won’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the whole of Rome fills a huge map (as opposed to the tiny corner of it we saw a year ago) and is considerably larger as a whole than any of the individual locations in AC II (Venice, Tuscany etc.). In terms of sheer bulk then, AC: Brotherhood does have a full sequel feel to it despite the one year dev cycle – Ubisoft has clearly got its ducks in a row with the various dev teams that have been working in parallel on these last two games. Perhaps where it does feel like a spin-off in parts is through the main storyline, which comes across like an extension of the events in ACII to a degree rather than a standalone plot.
Once you subtract the various main campaign missions that are used to introduce you to new features and abilities, the vein of plot running through it all is admittedly a touch thin. Revisited characters and themes then leave a familiar feel to the events, while the core elements of Brotherhood’s gameplay remain largely unchanged. There are helpful new additions, such as chained executions during combat and a few more options when it comes to actually performing assassinations (did we mention the single-shot pistol?), but playing as Ezio in Brotherhood is largely the same experience as it was a year ago. With this in mind, it is a combat system that still feels a touch shallow despite its various improvements. Similarly, the stealth gameplay, although streets ahead of that seen in any other open-world game, still shows room for improvement. The game’s various rules of stealth perhaps remain a touch fussy at times, even though they’ve improved in leaps and bounds from the shambles that they were in 2007.
Despite a good deal of variation in the story missions throughout and some quite sublime set-pieces at times, Brotherhood’s closing sequences sadly turn out to be something of an anti-climax. One particularly grating chase to the Vatican and a largely irritating Apple of Eden weapon in the final missions, as well as a disappointing final showdown with Cesare Borgia, do leave a sour taste in the mouth. It’s sadly a far cry from the pace and exhilaration of the gameplay in Brotherhood’s quite sublime opening gambit. Nonetheless, when you tally up all of the additional content in the single-player game as well as a sizeable multiplayer component, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is an Assassin’s Creed: 2.9 if you will – a game that’s desperately close to playing out like a full sequel but, ultimately, just feels a bit too much like its predecessor.
It’s the multiplayer, though, that’s the real star of the show for us. Admittedly it’s a bit of a one trick pony, but that trick is a pretty darn cool one as far as we’re concerned. Utilising a novel radar system that constantly tracks an assigned target for each player during deathmatches, the maps are then littered with NPCs to confuse players by making it hard to pick out their target character. This fundamental concept is then embellished with nifty Abilities, such as disguising yourself as a different character to dupe opponents or merging into a crowd and turning the surrounding NPCs into the same character as you. If your assigned assassin then kills a civilian NPC instead of you, they lose the ‘contract’ and have to start over.
An extensive Call of Duty-style levelling-up system also grants access to Perks and Streaks, leveraging a simple stealthy concept into tens of gameplay hours should you become hooked. More importantly though, Ubisoft has actually nailed a multiplayer stealth experience here, which is no mean feat given the amount of games that have tried and failed to do the same in the past. Admittedly the principles underpinning Brotherhood’s multiplayer don’t quite have the depth of a Call of Duty title, despite the similarities in style, but it’s still a very strong addition to a game that’s already packed with content in the single-player.