Assassin's Creed II is definitely one of my favourite games of the last 12 months. It was a meaty gaming meal that took several steps towards fulfilling the promise of the original, with new mechanics, more variety in gameplay, and an alluring new setting: renaissance Italy. It was a big leap, in other words: a worthy sequel in all regards.
Brotherhood, on the other hand, will have a slightly harder time proving its worth. Rather than moving to a new time period, it continues directly on from the events of Assassin's Creed II, only with the action shifting almost entirely to Rome. Like previous titles, there's also a modern-day component. The game is once again framed by the on-going battle between the Templars and Assassins, and players are actually assuming the role of Desmond, who lives in the present day and is able to experience the memories of his ancestor Ezio using a device called the animus. The game cuts between the two time periods but the bulk of the gameplay occurs in renaissance Rome.
Ubisoft Montreal has stressed that Brotherhood has a number of innovations and evolutions designed to keep the experience fresh, and we can certainly tell you that there's easily as much content here as in Assassin's Creed II, but will it be enough to really help this title distinguish itself from last year's stellar outing? Let's find out.
After confronting Rodrigo Borgia and having his mind blown far beneath the Vatican at the end of Assassin's Creed II (and no, that's not a euphemism), the story picks up with Ezio ready for some well-earned R&R. It's not to be. Cesare Borgia – Rodrigo Borgia's son – is ticked off, and mounts a full scale attack on the assassins. The villa in Monteriggioni is destroyed and Ezio loses everything. Yes, after 20+ hours working towards all that bad-ass armour and weaponry, it's lost in a moment and players must begin again. Such is the fickle nature of videogames.
In any case, Ezio travels to Rome determined to take his revenge against Cesare. The city is divided into 12 districts, each of which is overseen by a Borgia tower, representing the Borgia's control of the area. As long as the tower stands, soldiers are out in force, shops remain closed and the people oppressed. Assassinate the tower's Captain and burn it to the ground, however, and the area will open up for business. Ezio is then able to renovate blacksmiths, banks, stables and more, and these all add to his income, in much the same way renovating Monteriggioni did in the last game. The more shops that are open, the more items will be available and perks Ezio will get. For instance, the more tailors you have, the more pouches for carrying knives and other items will be available, whereas the more banks are open the more money Ezio can store before his account is full. Each defeated tower also opens up an assassin apprentice slot, but more on that later.
It's important to note that while the Borgia towers are a key element of the game's structure, they're not actually central to taking down Cesare. You can actually finish Brotherhood without destroying all the towers. Instead, they're about earning income, unlocking items, gaining apprentice assassins and reducing the presence of Borgia guards across the city. By destroying a tower, players can make missions in that region easier for themselves by ensuring there'll be less guards around. How to get to each Captain? Well, that's up to you. Each tower is surrounded by a compound where the guards are on high alert, so it's up to players to work out the best path to the Captain. Easier compounds allow astute players to clinically execute the Captain with little-to-no danger, while more difficult ones will inevitably result in a huge confrontation, or have a more difficult path to the end goal.
As fans of open-world games would expect, a lot of the player's time will be occupied with missions and activities that don't necessarily advance the plot. It's easy to get sidetracked for hours finding treasure chests, taking on assassination contracts, doing missions for the various guilds or trying to level up your relationship with them, exploring the world or climbing landmarks like the Coliseum. Subterranean environments return too, in the guise of Sons of Romulus missions. These make for a nice change of pace, as the focus is very much on movement puzzles over combat.
Leonardo da Vinci is back as an ally too, and once again provides weapons for Ezio. Turns out he's also been pressured into creating war machines for Cesare, so it's up to Ezio to destroy the plans and prototypes. These see you wielding a chain gun mounted to a horse and cart, piloting a boat with a naval cannon, gliding about in Leo's paraglider – modified to fire bombs, and manning a renaissance-era tank. They're not actually that exciting, but at least inject a little variety into the gameplay.
And honestly? That's something Brotherhood needs. The gameplay on offer here is solid, but by and large the bulk of the missions are pretty similar in nature to those we've already experienced in depth in Assassin's Creed II. It really feels like treading the same old ground, without great improvements. The missions where Ezio must tail a target are still frustrating, for instance, thanks to the small sweet spot at which the player must stay away in order to follow - but not alert – his target.
There are three major changes that try to switch things up: the assassins' guild, the tweaks to combat and the ability to ride your horse anywhere. Recruiting assassins who can be called upon with the press of a button is obviously the big one, and it works very much as advertised. With each Borgia tower destroyed a new slot opens up, allowing Ezio to rescue and recruit an ordinary citizen of Rome. Calling on an assassin is as simple as targeting an enemy and hitting L1/Left trigger on PS3/360 respectively. Depending on the location and the level of your assassin, he or she might run or ride up to the target, or drop down from above. It's cool to watch, and once you have six assassins you have three groups that can be called, with a cool-down time of a few minutes for each.