Does Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood really need an introduction? After all, this is the latest iteration in the most successful new franchise of the last five years – with total sales somewhere in the region of 26 million units – and the console versions have been stabbing throats and taking names since last November. If you care about games at all you almost certainly know the basics, but you can never be too careful, so here’s a quick refresher course.
You play Desmond Miles, a seemingly ordinary man who is actually the last in a long line of fleet-footed assassins – a fact he doesn’t realise until he finds himself caught in the middle of an ancient war with the Templars over ancient artefacts known as “Pieces of Eden.” With the help of a motley crew of rebel scientists Desmond is hooked up to a machine called the “Animus”, which allows him to relive the experiences of his ancestors through the genetic memories encoded in his DNA.
After two full games the plot is now far more detailed than the cursory description above, but in truth the story is the least of the many reasons to play Assassin’s Creed. Granted, Brotherhood begins mere minutes after the second game’s climactic punch-up with the Pope, but for long periods the underlying conspiracy driving the narrative forward barely registers. The Assassin’s Creed series is about free-form gameplay in lavishly detailed historical settings, and in that sense Brotherhood is its crowning achievement to date.
Many fans expressed concern when it was announced that Brotherhood would once again focus on Ezio Auditore da Firenze and stay in Renaissance Italy, moving only as far as Rome. “Assassin’s Creed 2.5!” cried the cynics, but those people were swiftly proved wrong. Indeed, Brotherhood’s setting is the most compelling of the series so far, with every corner revealing a new landmark, every mission weaving another historical figure or event into the Assassin’s Creed mythology.
In a sense, Brotherhood is an excellent history lesson, but that does nothing to detract from the fluid, parkour-inspired movement mechanics, and incredible breadth and depth of things to do. Ezio is at war with the Borgias, so at the beginning a significant portion of the map is hostile to your presence. You can change that by locating the Borgia Captain in each district, killing him, and then climbing a central lookout tower before burning it down. Doing so allows Ezio to buy shops and buildings in that area, thereby boosting his income.
This strategic flavour is also present in another new feature: the Assassin’s Guild. As more Borgia towers go up in flames, Ezio can recruit citizens to join his guild, who can then be sent on hits all over Europe. As your assassins complete assignments they earn experience, giving them access to new weapons, outfits and techniques. Of course, all of this is managed through what are effectively spreadsheets, but you can summon the assassins to assist Ezio in the game world at any time.
Unwitting guards are pulled into hay-carts, Borgia soldiers are chopped down by assailants on horse-back, and entire platoons perish in a hail of arrows – all with a single button press. The Assassin’s Guild completely changes the texture of the game, and provides some spectacularly empowering moments.
And the fun doesn’t stop there: there are assignments associated with thieves, mercenaries and courtesans; a series of playable flashbacks to Ezio’s youth; extended platforming sections through the strongholds of a cult operating beneath the streets of Rome; a brilliant string of missions that task Ezio with recovering weapon designs for Leonardo da Vinci, all of which culminate with memorably idiosyncratic vehicle sections; oh, and around 20 hours of story missions and a multiplayer component that truly embraces the game’s underlying ethos. Videogames are rarely this generous, particularly when the quality is so consistently high.
However, as in Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood is weakest when the story demands that Desmond leave the Animus. There are a few brief passages of gameplay and numerous cut-scenes that take place in the real world, but Ubisoft has yet to find a way to make either compelling. Ultimately, the nature of the plot means that virtually every second away from Rome feels like wasted time, and the characters you find there range from bland (Lucy) to irritating (Shaun).
However, that’s a tiny drop of disappointment in a frothing ocean of quality. From the art direction to the mission design to the gameplay mechanics, everything about Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood suggests a team at the very top of its game. Is the best still to come? Well, the provocative narrative climax certainly points towards a stronger story for the next game, but improving on something so comprehensive and assured will be no small feat.
But if Assassin’s Creed III turns out to be a disappointment it really won’t matter; in Brotherhood, the series already has its masterpiece.
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