In precisely the same way that anyone with a keen interest in cinema will instantly cite both The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back when the old argument about the non-existence of superior movie sequels comes around, gamers are now likely to cite Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood when the current hot-potato topic about yearly development cycles crops up for the millionth time. Because of its swift turnaround, fans of the franchise expressed worry as soon as it was announced, anticipating something rushed, watered-down and threadbare.
And yet, Brotherhood couldn’t feel any less like any of those things. Its plotting is much more focused and concise and it has the completely uncynical flavour of fully-realised vision about it, feeling at all times like the work of a bunch of dedicated artists who were all genuinely excited about the story that they were telling, as well as the new legacy that they were helping to create. Because there aren’t any new visual flourishes or significant gameplay shifts it never quite feels like Assassin’s Creed 3, but it is so, so much more than the tiresome 2.5 model that some were expecting.
There’s also something to be said for the way that it packs the bulk of its exposition into the opening couple of minutes. A brief ‘Previously on Assassin’s Creed’ cutscene brings new players broadly up to speed whilst refreshing the memories of everyone else, and it’s a technique that not only works, but also doesn’t devalue the property by a single jot. Returning to Ezio and Desmond’s twinned universes already feels like putting on a pair of very comfortable slippers, and this TV-inflected opening recap (one that hasn’t really been used effectively outside of this and Remedy’s Alan Wake) is surely destined to become more prevalent in games from hereon in.
Despite the fact that it’s an immediate, Quantum Of Solace-style sequel, Brotherhood’s storytelling is more confident and easier to follow than its predecessors, and is appropriately reminiscent of a big-budget movie; with adrenalised action sequences punctuating the quieter stuff at perfectly chosen intervals. If you get totally wrapped up in this tale (which relocates proceedings to Rome) it’s now much easier to avoid side-missions and other distractions, giving you the option to play through it in a far more linear fashion if that’s the kind of experience that you’re after.
The one dynamic that makes Brotherhood stand apart from (and above) its two predecessors is the new ability to recruit susceptible townsfolk as apprentice assassins. These minions are initially used merely to make you money, as you send them out on jobs that also net you modest batches of XP, that you can then use to level up their attributes. But as the difficulty accelerates in the second half, you’ll find yourself using them to help you out of some pretty dicey encounters, where they can either fight alongside you or be used as an enemy distraction. It’s a satisfying new system that makes everything feel taut and distinctive, particularly during that second half.
The online multiplayer component is an unusual proposition to be sure, and one that you may feel has yet to be fully-realised, but during a period in which the best adult multiplayer games involve either kicking footballs, driving at absurd speeds or endlessly shooting other people in the face, it does make for a very inviting change of pace. It’s essentially all about observing player behaviour, and all modes involve mild alterations of the same scenario; you’re tasked with taking someone down, at the same time as someone is trying to assassinate you. Take out an innocent and you lose your contract; run from an assailant and you’ll alert everyone around you to the fact that you most definitely aren’t an idling NPC.
As all matches take place in highly populated areas (and with only a tiny passport photo-style picture of your quarry available to you) you have to be extremely careful that you don’t dispatch an innocent party, and need to dedicate as much concentration to your kill as to evading your killer. It’s slightly odd at first when you realise that you can’t really defend yourself against an attack, but the frantic chases that result when you spot someone gunning for you are absurdly tense, and the COD-style perk system feels extremely well balanced. It doesn’t feel perfect yet, but it’s solidly compelling, and fresh, regardless.
But for all the fun you’ll have in multiplayer, it’s the satisfyingly lengthy campaign that makes Brotherhood an essential purchase. It may not re-write its own rules in the way that many people demand of a sequel, but anyone who doesn’t experience Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is missing out. Its story is so ruthlessly structured and executed that it stands on its own even more effectively than the last game did, but if laid-back sandbox play is your cup of tea, rest assured that Rome is every bit as enjoyable to get lost in as the cities of its predecessor were. In all, it’s quite an achievement.
Watch the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood trailer here: