It’s been an interesting process watching Ubisoft figure out the Assassin’s Creed games. The first was a bold, if not entirely sure footed venture that, while hampered by an eventually laborious lack of variety and an abundance of rough edges, still established an interesting sci-fi premise and showed the promise of the fluid, stealth-driven open-world mechanics beneath it all. Things really started to click with Assassin’s Creed II, which sanded those rough edges smooth. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, while so dependent on the story, setting, and basic technology of ACII that I have repeatedly insisted Ubisoft made a mistake in not calling it Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood, is the most assured entry in the series so far, even if it’s not the most evolutionary.
If you finished Assassin’s Creed II, you no doubt have some burning questions about just what in the holy hot hell is going on in this universe, which has pretty rapidly escalated its already tripped-out, high-concept premise of ancient, clandestine groups of Templars and assassins using genetic memories to hunt down powerful artifacts of mysterious, even more ancient origin. Picking up right where ACII left off, Brotherhood sees Ezio doing a victory lap of sorts after recovering the Pieces of Eden and learning a bit about their true nature. While he finds some time for the ladies, it’s not long before a new Templar threat, in the form of the categorically creepy Borgia family, is literally knocking on his door, stealing the Apple of Eden, destroying his country villa, and further shattering the remains of the Auditore family, all in dramatic fashion. With the Apple in their possession, and the backing of the Pope himself, the Borgia have absolute power over Rome, and Ezio spends the grand majority of the game systematically sabotaging their power structure while also gaining the support of the people of Rome for his own chapter of the assassin’s guild.
Several key supporting characters from Assassin’s Creed II return here, including Ezio’s sister Claudia and his love interest Caterina Sforza, as well as the historically unfettered caricatures of Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, all of whom are given room to develop. Though you’ll spend more meaningful time here playing as Desmond than in the first two games combined, his story mostly bookends the main narrative, exploring his burgeoning relationship with his ragtag team of modern assassins and hinting further at just what in the holy hot hell is going on in this universe. Frankly, I found myself so engrossed in the nuts and bolts of the world itself that a lot of the specific story beats were kind of a blur--I was less interested in the specific whos and the whys of my murderous pursuits than I was the actual execution. In a way, the predestined nature of Ezio’s story makes it not really matter in the grand scheme, though the final moments with Desmond left me feeling baffled by the mop of loose ends it rather deliberately leaves cliff-hung.
A quick intro video recaps the big bullet points of the story so far for those who haven’t kept up or simply forgot. Similarly, the first several hours of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood are uncharacteristically linear, spending ample time easing you into the particular feel of the Assassin’s Creed movement and combat, while also introducing you to the new stuff. The basic handling no different from Assassin’s Creed II, and by and large, you’re performing the same types of tasks--sneaking through the dense streets and gymnastic rooftops, coolly tracking and assassinating specific targets, and juggling groups of enemy combatants. The group combat has never been Assassin’s Creed’s strongest point, though Brotherhood streamlines it in a way that makes stringing together one-hit kills an absolute breeze. This allows you to chew through your enemies, which, in kind, lets the game throw more enemies at you. It doesn’t really address the fundamentally shallow feel, but the satisfaction of watching Ezio fluidly conduct his dark business certainly helps take some of the edge off.
A lot of the activities introduced in Assassin’s Creed II are expanded on, or at the very least, multiplied. The real-estate angle from ACII has been opened up to let you purchase dozens of blacksmiths, art dealers, banks, and clothing stores, all the way up to actual Roman landmarks like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, with each purchase increasing your periodic income. Before you can start getting your Monopoly on, you need to rid the area of the Borgias' corrupting influence by destroying their tower in the district, a task which adds a little assassination mission to the tower-climbing business that has been an Assassin’s Creed staple. Unlike Assassin’s Creed II, you can now replay any story mission out of order, and each mission now has a secondary win condition, such as never breaking stealth or executing enemies in a specific fashion. There are side missions and challenges to be taken from thieves, mercenaries, and courtesans, a fun series of missions tasking you with stealing, using, and destroying some fantastical da Vinci-built war machines that the Borgia have in their possession, pickpockets and Borgia agents to chase around the city, shop-specific collection goals, and just a load of posters, feathers, flags, and treasure chests to be collected. At a certain point, the world of Brotherhood opens up, and it kind of never stops blossoming, and it constantly introduces something new to do. When you pull up the map to try and decide what you’re going to do next, it can be downright overwhelming. This is not a short game, and while I didn’t stick to the critical path, I probably spent a good 20 hours with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and the mad completionists out there will surely put that number to shame.
Depending on your play style and how much time you spend on all the stuff outside the main story missions, it might be a while before you get to start recruiting and training your own brotherhood of assassins, something that’s new to Brotherhood and easily my favorite addition. As you’re running your vicious errands around Rome, you’ll find citizens fighting it out with the corrupt city guards, and if you rescue them, they’ll pledge allegiance to your cause. Once recruited, you can earn more money and build up the experience of your individual assassins by sending them out on jobs across Europe. Any assassins that aren’t out on assignment, though, can be used to take care of any enemies you don’t want to dirty your hands with, simply by targeting the enemies in question and tapping a button. It really compounds the cool confidence Ezio has when you watch him raise his hand and then calmly stroll by as his minions appear out of nowhere and explore his enemies’ head and body cavities with various razor-sharp implements. Through the entire game, it never failed to elicit a satisfied chuckle from me when an assassin would just hop out of the nearest haystack or simply fall from the sky ready to do some pro-grade stabbin’, but there are a number of missions designed to necessitate their use. The only adjustment in Brotherhood that cut the wrong way for me was the decision to put horses inside the city limits. Rome is a massive city with significant tracts of open space that are well-suited for short bursts of the kind of horseback riding seen in the previous games, but they just don’t fit in the dense alleys and abundant staircases of the city’s urban centers. There’s even a new fast-travel system that doesn’t shrink the city too much, but which makes the horses feel at least somewhat redundant.
The biggest gamble in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is the new multiplayer mode, which goes to some pretty clever lengths to adopt something recognizable as the Assassin’s Creed gameplay into a player-versus-player experience. The premise here is that all of the players are Abstergo trainees being taught in the ways of the assassins with networked Animus scenarios designed to help them better understand their enemy. This makes room for the biggest contrivance in the multiplayer, albeit a necessary one. Games can support up to eight players, and as such, there are eight different player models to choose from, and only one player can use one of those models in any given game. The levels are then populated exclusively with benign AI versions of the models, providing you with crowds of pedestrians to blend in with. There are a few different free-for-all and team-based configurations, but the basic idea is that everyone is given a specific player to assassinate, making everyone both hunter and hunted, creating this cat-and-mouse Mobius strip of sorts. In addition to your target’s face, you’re also provided with a simple directional compass that provides a general idea of where and how far away they are, though at a certain point you have to use your skills of observation to figure out who’s a real person and who’s AI.
That you’re constantly looking over your shoulder creates a terrific sense of tension, and there’s an interesting dynamic of balancing how quickly to approach your target without betraying yourself as a live target to whoever’s hunting you. The whole thing’s outfitted with a persistent experience system that grants you rechargeable abilities like a brief sprinting boost and additional slots to have multiple abilities active at once. It probably ends up working better than it really ought to, and I’ll admit that I found it particularly satisfying to be able to shout “UH!” at my live opponent as I slipped a dagger into his ribcage, though it’s still more of a novelty than a serious multiplayer contender. There’s good variety in the small number of maps included, but there’s not many of them, and the four modes don’t cover much ground. More importantly, with the tools provided, it’s remarkably easier to hunt down your targets than it is to evade assassination, and it makes the experience feel a little lopsided.
Brotherhood lacks that generational leap we saw from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II, but it more than makes up for that with a full-bodied single-player experience teeming with interesting gameplay additions and a risky multiplayer component. Even more surprising than the single-player experience is the addition of a competitive multiplayer game that, through some downright acrobatic contrivances, manages to make the cat-and-mouse core of the single-player work with live opponents. For fans of the series Brotherhood is no optional sidebar; this is as significant an entry as either of its predecessors. It’s also about as fun as Assassin’s Creed has ever been.