Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood may be the third game in the main series, but don't call this one Assassin's Creed III. Rather than take off in its own direction with a new character, Brotherhood is instead a direct sequel to Assassin's Creed II.
Starting off immediately after the ending of the second game, Brotherhood continues the intertwining stories of both Desmond (in the near future) and Ezio (in the mid-15th century). As before, Desmond is more of a filler character, serving merely as a bookend to Ezio's adventures in Rome.
After successfully defeating his foes and accessing the digital image of Minerva, one of those "who came before," Ezio returns home to share what he has learned and revel in a victory celebration. Unfortunately, the celebration is short-lived. Cesare Borgia attacks, kills many of the townsfolk and steals the Apple of Eden. Ezio vows revenge and heads to Rome to clear his enemies from the world.
Starting off slow, Brotherhood really doesn't hit its stride until an hour or two into the game, when you land in Rome and the open world aspects come into play. Before that, the game is all about setup and laying the groundwork for the upcoming portion of the story. The gameplay in the first section can easily be summed up as "do this one quick thing," "watch a cut scene," "do this one quick thing," "watch a cut scene," etc., repeated over and over.
Those who manage to get past the early bits will find a well realized, if somewhat familiar, experience waiting for them.
Brotherhood is at its best when you are exploring as Ezio. Whether it is racing along the rooftops in Rome or exploring the underground lairs of the followers of Romulus, Ezio's parkour-based move set is ideal for making you feel like the ultimate athlete. With that said, there are times when the context-based control system goes a bit whack and Ezio does exactly the opposite of what you'd expect, but those moments are fairly few and far between.
Combat in the game is straightforward, with the focus being on rhythm-based swordplay. If you can master the timing, it's possible to wipe out an entire crowd in seconds with a series of immediate kills. If not, well, there's no shame in button-mashing your way to freedom. The only hiccup here is the inability to cut-and-run if you want to make a quick exit. Again, it is an issue with the context-based controls system, as the button for run is also the button to shift your command set during a fight. Any attempt to jet results not in a running Ezio, but rather a character who stops and shifts into a fighting stance. It's not good when you're low on health.
The economy is an unsung hero in Brotherhood, as it helps drive the desire to explore Rome and work to rebuild the city. While Rome serves as the backdrop for the primary missions, it also features the secondary objectives of clearing out the 12 Borgia towers and rebuilding all of the merchants.
Clearing out the towers is a two-step process, one that involves first killing a guard and then burning the tower to the ground. Doing so removes the Borgia influence from the immediate area, making some missions easier as well as allowing for more rebuilding. Rebuilding is important because it allows you to create more shops and construct a tunnel system for instant point-to-point travel. Shops are there for convenience, but they also earn money for the city as a whole. Getting everything unlocked in Rome is completely optional, but it can be quite addicting.
After eliminating the Borgia, you also have the option to start training your own assassin followers. This is a nifty add-on, but it doesn't really impact the outcome of the game in any meaningful way. Leveling up your fighters is nothing more than picking options from a menu, and by the time they're ready to hold their own and join your side, you don't really need them.
Visually, Brotherhood shines. Assuming you can overlook the screen tearing that occurs during fast action scenes, the world of ancient Rome is a sight to behold. Ubisoft Montreal has done an exquisite job with the graphics engine, giving players something that is impressive simply as a piece of visual art. Every time you reach one of the game's high vantage points (used for synchronizing and unlocking the map), you're pretty much guaranteed to stop and just take in the landscape. The game's sound design is equally impressive, with sound effects, voice acting and the orchestral score all earning high marks.
Brotherhood introduces multiplayer gameplay to the franchise, and it turns out to be one of the more unique and engaging modes on the market. Wanted and Wanted Advanced are straightforward one-on-one modes. Alliance has a team working together to defeat its enemies, and Manhunt switches between one team being the hunter and the other team being the hunted.
At the start of a round, players choose a character from a fairly robust selection of archetypes, such as the courtesan and or the doctor. Once the round starts, you're thrown into a section of the city and tasked with assassinating one of your counterparts while one of the other assassins is also hunting you. You've got to hunt down your target before getting shivved. You can't kill the assassin hunting you, but you can stun him if you're careful or notice him coming toward you.
It's all about assassinations and stealth, not hand-to-hand combat, and the winner of a match is determined by points, not the number of kills. Getting five quick-and-dirty kills is much less effective than one well-planned and well-executed assassination. Running up and stabbing a foe will only net you a few points. If you stalk him until he's about to kill his target and you burst out from a hiding place to kill him and save his victim, you'll get a huge amount of points.
As you level up in the multiplayer portion, you'll earn new perks, kill streaks and abilities, such as disguises, smoke bombs or a hidden gun. This could be intimidating for latecomers to the game when everyone is changing shape and throwing smoke bombs and they're just starting out. It could be tough if you pick up Brotherhood after it's been on shelves for a few months.
Ultimately, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a game that was designed with its fans front and center. If you've played the prior games, then yes, Brotherhood is going to feel much like Assassin's Creed 2.5, but you're still going to love every minute of it. The gameplay has been polished, the story expands on what you already know and the multiplayer component brings a fresh twist to the series. For those who have never played an Assassin's Creed title, however, it's harder to recommend straight out. While you could probably pass on the first game, playing Assassin's Creed II is more or less a prerequisite if you want to get full enjoyment from this one.
Chris "Atom" DeAngelus also contributed to this review.
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