For the longest time before I played it, I was completely unsure of what Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood actually was. Sure, I knew it was a follow-up to Ubisoft’s hit historical stealth action-adventure sequel Assassin’s Creed II, but such strong emphasis was placed on the multiplayer elements of Brotherhood that I’d assumed it was merely a collection of standalone multiplayer content with little in the way of a new single player story. Chalk it up to a misguided early marketing campaign or ignorance on my part, but as soon as I started playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and it began stealing days and weeks of my life, it quickly became apparent that Ubisoft hadn’t just shoved a light, story-free stop-gap between sequels onto shelves – they’d crafted one of the most tight, expansive, and unputdownable single player sequels in a good long while and just happened to include a fantastic multiplayer game to boot.
The game picks up seconds after Assassin’s Creed II, and while you’ll certainly get the most out of it if you’ve played the previous titles, a rather effective little opening recap does a great job at bringing you up to speed if you’ve forgotten the events of the last game or just never played it. The story is a complex one, so I’ll stick with the Cliff Notes recap: You’re Desmond Miles, part of a small group of modern-day Assassins using a high-tech device called the Animus to explore the lives of your ancestors. Dropped into Miles’ genetic memory of Ezio Auditore, a skilled Assassin in 1499, you’ll use the city as your proverbial playground, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with building-scaling dexterity that’d put Peter Parker to shame, stealthily skewering those in your path and destroying the ranks of the villainous Borgia as you strive to reclaim and rebuild the city of Rome and track down the mythical Apple of Eden.
The first thing that becomes apparent when jumping into the game proper is that Ubisoft Montreal didn’t skimp on the activities and missions for you to tackle. Bringing up the map presents you with a gigantic city to explore, utterly swamped with mysterious icons. Further investigation confirms that each little icon represents a mission, treasure, contact or shop, all of which lead to side missions galore. Secret lairs offer rather epic Tomb Raider-esque platforming temple missions, shops and banks can be bought all over the city, giving you a wider range of weapons and equipment, a more exponential income and access to exclusive shop quests (which, in turn, unlock even more weapons, armour and items) and contacts dotted around offer all manner of assassination contracts and quests. They’re almost entirely optional but nothing on the map feels like extraneous collectible filler, everything rewarding in its own way.
The aforementioned shop renovation system plays a huge part in the game as things progress. As the game begins, the Borgia control the entire city, leaving storefronts abandoned and boarded up and enemy goons patrolling the streets. Slicing or sneaking your way to one of the numerous Borgia towers that govern control of each area, you can take out the resident enemy general (an engaging little mini-boss mission in its own right) and burn the tower to the ground, returning the district to Rome and allowing you to buy up and renovate shops and landmarks as you see fit, bestowing you with cash, new quests and handier access to stores across the city.
It’s addictive stuff, but things progress from real estate hijinks to a full assassin management sim soon enough; rescue and recruit downtrodden citizens dotted around and you can train them up to ninja-like killing machines and, most importantly, use them for your own nefarious gain around Rome. Provided you have at least one assassin recruited, you can target an enemy or group and press the shoulder button, only to have your minion emerge from the shadows and kill those who oppose you. Access Assassin pigeon coops and you’ll be greeted with a management menu through which you can send your trained murderers on global missions of varying difficulty, earning them experience points, new skills and equipment and making them more efficient, unstoppable killers. There’s an overwhelmingly gleeful feeling of godlike power as you stand around inconspicuously and order a swift rain of arrows upon nearby guards, or let out a quiet whistle and see your stealthy kill-army descend from the shadows, silently destroy a squad of oblivious soldiers, only to vanish just as quickly.
Of course, all the added bells, whistles and side missions would be for naught if the core mechanics weren’t up to scratch, and thankfully Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood presents the tightest, most intuitive gameplay experience in the series. The joy of scaling walls and leaping across buildings is still present, but feels fine-tuned and more natural than in previous games, with less awkward camera angles and finicky “But I didn’t jump that way! I was pointing the other way!” platforming snafus. The one caveat is that the horse riding mechanics feel rather clumsy and unwieldy, especially when trying to manoeuvre through city streets. That said, mission-based horsey hi-jinks are rare, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever choose to travel on horseback – the parkour platforming is so fast and fun that there’s little incentive to use normal transportation when you can traverse the city like a medieval Batman. Combat, too, is refined and perfected, leaving you with a warm glow of murderous satisfaction when you manage to string together an epic line of one-hit assassinations before disappearing into a crowd.
The multiplayer content – the primary mode of which has you tracking down and offing other players in crowded streets with nothing but a picture of their face and a directional radar, while simultaneously outrunning a player hunting you – is fantastic, and inventive enough to prove incredibly addictive even for someone like me, who usually skips the online deathmatch stuff. While that’ll keep you incredibly busy and entertained when you’re done with the game, it’s the core single player content that’s the main attraction; deep, lengthy and immensely fun, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t just the most polished, entertaining and expansive entry in the free-roam freerunner series yet, but simply one of the greatest games this year.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is available to buy on PS3 and Xbox 360 now.
Click here to order the game from Amazon.co.uk.