Now that Ezio has a base of operations—secured in Assassin's Creed II—it's now time to take the fight straight to the Templars. Well … not quite. In a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you moment that is so typical in gaming, Brotherhood doesn't open up with Ezio at the top of his game. Although handled in a more exciting manner than most titles, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the efforts in the second release are largely undone at the beginning of Brotherhood. But that doesn't mean that Ezio is backing down. Instead, with powerful friends and a clear target, he continues on his quest to topple the Templars and their Papal allies in the very heart of their territory: Rome.
Rome won't be an easy target. Ezio must not only continue to conduct the epoch-spanning war between Templar and Assassin but also liberate the eternal city from the Borgia family. With all factions intertwining and colluding in an effort to consolidate and expand their power, things won't be easy for Ezio—at least in the beginning. It doesn't take long for the ball to get rolling, cash to start flowing in, and bodies to drop. With the cash comes new weapons, armor, gadgets, and investments. The investments are in the form of purchased buildings, whether they be ironsmiths, tailors, art merchants, banks, aqueducts, or landmarks. Not only does each location bring in extra revenue every 20 minutes, but they also serve as ways for you to enhance both Ezio and his headquarters: ironsmiths repair and sell armor and weapons, banks hold investment deposits and allow for withdrawals, tailors customize Ezio's threads, art merchants' wares deck out the base, etc. Each location renovated enhances that district of Rome as well as reduces the Borgia's influence.
It's not that the buildings affect the Borgia in and of themselves, but that the family's influence must be negated before renovations can be undertaken; their presence marks an area as liberated because you've liberated it. Each district has a number of Borgia-controlled towers, from which small bases ran by captains are operated. By killing the captains and destroying the towers, by scaling the walls and igniting gunpowder stock stored at the top, their soldiers will fall back to safer grounds. Borgia soldiers will still patrol, but in far fewer numbers, making them more manageable for when things kick off. But the wandering foot soldier will be the least of your worries once the French get involved, friends are kidnapped, and traitors emerge.
Before you know it, murmurs of intrigue and approaching armies will have you going in every direction as Ezio gets his operation going with a network of buildings housing members from the Thieves Guild, Mercenaries Guild, and Courtesans Guild. Similar to the second release, each faction offers units that can be hired to follow Ezio and either distract or fight nearby enemies. New to Brotherhood is the Assassins Guild. Now that Ezio is a master, he can recruit and call upon his brothers and sisters to render aid at crucial moments. By rescuing marked citizens from the bullying of the Borgia, they will agree to join the cause and enlist as Assassins. As a raw recruit, they are only suitable for low-end, one- to two-star difficulty missions. As they gain experience, they will gain points that can be put towards armor and weapons, allowing them to wear heavier protection and carry more weapons, making them ever more dangerous.
By sending out instructions via liberally placed pigeon coops, fellow Assassins can be sent to rob, steal, threaten, and kill those who come up on the business end of a contract. In addition to money, contracts also offer experience to those who make it back alive and, in some cases, prized items that can be exchanged at shops for special goods. While there is a chance that an Assassin can die, it never happened on my watch. Thanks to the ability to send multiple members on a single contract, it's easy to add enough killers onto a job for its success rate to hit 100% and ensure everyone's safe return. There is a limit as to how many can be sent and total number of guild members, but the units rank quickly and will be ready for even the toughest of challenges by the end. They can even perform a special attack once the guild has been built up enough. Even newcomers are useful in combat as they can still be called upon to lend a hand. Assassins are fast and deadly, and they are often gone from the scene before other patrols arrive. What is especially nice is that they will also fight any reinforcements that do make their way to the area, making for a very effective fighting force. By the end of the game, with Assassins and faction hires, Ezio is a force to be reckoned with.
The addition of Assassins might not seem like much of an inclusion due to the Mercenaries faction, and to an extent the availability of both do dilute their impact, but the Assassins are still incredibly useful because of their ability to strike nearly anywhere. In fact, the end-game is almost too easy because of them and the new long-range, incredibly accurate and silent crossbow – with both, it’s hard to lose. Having such power at your fingertips can either be looked at as the result of an unbalanced design or that, after nearly two games' worth of building up his powerbase and skills, Ezio really is that much of a tough hombre. It takes a while for both to really come into play, though, and until then you will have to fend off plenty of enemies using the daggers, single-shot wrist pistols, and swords at Ezio's disposal. There is plenty to do as well, from the random events (chasing down a thief); to missions for Leonardo Da Vinci, which involve flying and shooting as well as being rewarded with enhanced gear; guild-specific missions; assassin contracts; story missions; hunting down Followers of Romulus for special loot; and there are even some nice background memories as Ezio relives wooing his former love and dealing with the loss of his family. If you're too loose with Ezio's blades, you will also have to reduce his notoriety, less you wish to fight hordes of guards every few minutes. To keep him off the guards' radar, you can remove wanted posters, bribe heralds, and taking down important political figures. The game is simply packed with things to do, and it will be several hours before the crossbow and Assassins start to tip the scales in your favor.
With that said, the crossbow really does require a significant amount of self-restraint. While the Assassins are handy for killing that elusive captain who's hiding out with a horde of armored bodyguards—having to scale yet another puzzle-like tower is groan worthy by itself—they aren't always available. However, the crossbow is. I've killed up to six guards, including the toughest variants, before they reached me with it. Despite a short reload time, and a very stiff aiming system, it's like someone handed you a sniper rifle with a wink and a nod – use it, but not too much! So while it's nice to catch a few breaks—after all, some patrols just do not cooperate—using the crossbow too much can definitely throw off the challenge if used indiscriminately. (Not that that stopped me.)
Combat has been slightly upgraded from II, with the biggest addition being the ability to take down opponents while on horseback. A horseback takedown and double-blade kill looks very nice, but I rarely found myself having to do so; it may just be my style of play, but such stylish kills were only done out of the novelty rather than out of necessity. Swordplay continues to use an interesting block and counter system with the characters responding appropriately to the force behind blows, light swords allowing for quick slashes and heavy swords seeming as if they literally weigh a dozen pounds, which is great when it works but a pain when things fall apart. Like the platforming, combat requires smooth transitions from both your input and the game itself. Unfortunately, as also with the platforming, sometimes the smooth transitions don't occur, be it your fault or the game's, and things get rather messy.
Ideally, an encounter will have Ezio parry an attack, follow up with a deathblow, and then link the kill with several other one-hit kills by highlighting a surrounding unit as he finishes the last one off. That is often the case, but it's also common for the others to attack, knocking you off balance, and then a struggle filled with awkward knockbacks and missed swipes ensues, sometimes with a few weird camera angles thrown in for good measure. Likewise, as you climb a tower, you might know the right way to go and be heading that way, but due to a camera shuffle or the game not recognizing a trigger, you're stuck in place to either repeat until something clicks or lunge in frustration and fall five stories. As taxing as these moments are, they won't be a surprise to long-time fans. Fortunately, the city itself makes for a wonderful playground to fight and jump around in. Few cities have looked as good as Brotherhood's Rome, and it's a treat just jumping from rooftop to rooftop, checking out the sights and sounds. While some niggling technical issues remain, the series continues to impress.
The single-player portion is reminiscent of its predecessors, flaws and all, offering a wide variety of missions, an interesting story that wedges in as many historical figures as possible, and a recreation of Renaissance Rome that results in jaws hitting floors. The overall storyline, with the contemporary cast, doesn't progress too much, but that's all secondary to me at this point. All of this alone would get a hearty thumbs-up, but Brotherhood has another perk, a massive ace up its sleeve: multiplayer.
Had I not played multiplayer, I wouldn't think that the series had any real place for it. Unless the design could be significantly retweaked to allow for more than one prominent assassin, there's just no way it could seamlessly fit into the universe. Well, happily, I was wrong. Instead of being with Ezio, you're with the Templars, and instead of reliving the lives of your ancestors, you're training at an Abstergo complex. Up to eight players can join in on one of six modes – though two are just 'advanced' (re: tougher) versions of other modes. Each are just slight variations of the other, with players either hunting in teams or solo with one, a team, or all other players trying to stop the assassin. All of the modes are surprisingly fun, and very tense.
Each player gets to pick a character—doctor, priest, merchant, assassin, etc.—to inhabit, and through successfully killing targets and evading death, they will level up and gain new skills. It's nice to have persistent skills across the different character models, though most stick with a favorite. The maps, set in Florence and Rome among other locals, are packed with similarly looking computer-controlled character models. What you have to do is sneak up to your target without giving away a tell that you're hunting them, all while avoiding being killed yourself. Contracts are lost by either killing a non-playable character, one of the roaming models, your target being killed, or if you give your position away and the target escapes during the short chase sequence that follows.
Trying to play it cool while right behind your target is exciting, but doing so while you're being informed that your killer is nearby is downright nerve racking. My only complaint is that, aside from the ability to stun a pursuer, there are no real defense moves available; often, even if I spotted them and went to stun, nothing would happen and I would die anyway. Getting a successful kill is immensely satisfying, though, as is seeing a group of players flee a scene once a target is hit—a thrill that is unique to Brotherhood. It's a wonderful first go, especially with the environmental obstacles that can be used to evade, but a more effective defensive measure would've made it just right.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood is a wonderful title that is packed to the brim. In truth, it is more of a lateral release than a true step forward, as it doesn't really advance the series' core mechanics beyond a few token additions (horseback takedowns) while not eliminating some of the more frustrating aspects (uneven platform trigger recognition). While the two primary new features are excellent additions—multiplayer and the Assassin Guild—it doesn't represent the same leap forward as Assassin's Creed II did from the first. Even so, Brotherhood is a great game that is filled with an array of side missions that allow you to delve deep into Rome for hours on end, making for a lengthy adventure, and a tense multiplayer component that is as addictive as it is exciting. Now then, on to Assassin's Creed III!
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)