Ezio Auditore da Firenze is crouched on a roof-edge, watching his prey pass by just below through a bustling 16th century street, who is completely unaware of the fate prepared for him. Now, if this were Assassin's Creed 2, Ezio would be springing from his perch, clicking his hidden blade into position and having a meet-n-greet with the victim's skull. This, however, is Brotherhood - and with the simple press of a button, Ezio can now watch his own army of assassins jump out from the shadows and do his dirty work for him.
This is just one of numerous exciting additions to the AC series, allowing Brotherhood to feel far more than simply version 2.5. While there's no denying that this second venture into Ezio's world feels very much more of the same, it's impossible to see that as a bad thing - and once you've thrown in oodles of extra personality, the largest city in an AC game yet and that multiplayer, you've quite easily got one of this year's greatest gaming experiences.
Horse-to-horse assassinations: All in a day's work for Ezio
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood continues on from number two, providing what you could call a 'real' sequel this time around. If you haven't finished Assassin's Creed 2 yet, then prepare for some spoilers: Ezio has just finished his work in the Vatican, and returns home to celebrate his success. The hoo-rars are rather short-lived, however, as a new and rather violent army come literally crashing through his walls. Escaping to Roma, Ezio swears to find those responsible and end their lives.
Business as usual then, and for the first few hours it's difficult to shake the feeling that Brotherhood is simply Assassin's Creed 2: Reloaded. You're presented with a new city, but all Ezio's weapons, missions and acrobatic skills are present and willing. Even the little touches are taken straight from the previous release - the tutorial plays out via simple tasks for your family, and you'll find yourself collecting feathers, climbing to eagle perches to 'sync' areas and following targets in certain missions.
Then sequence three loads up, and changes EVERYTHING. The game goes 'boom' and you realise that there is far more to do in this game than you could have possibly imagined. From the minor new features like riding your horse through town, to the huge game-changing elements such as taking over the city by burning towers down and completing guild quests, this is not a journey you'll complete over a weekend. After ten hours of play, our progress meter stated we were 40% of the way through. Yikes.
Let's talk about what has been improved first. Brotherhood is set mainly in Rome - quite possibly the most beautifully crafted environment ever conceived in a video game. It's huge, and contains lots of different areas all connected together that feel completely different from the rest of the city. You've got the dark and dinghy places, where beggars will tail you with their arms out until you throw a little change their way, then as a contrast there are glorious palaces and walkways where decorated guards and important figures roam. There are, of course, real-life monuments and buildings too, to follow on from the previous AC games.
There's always something going on around, and each new area you enter oozes personality and charm. The rich gallop around on horses, while guards beat the weak in the streets. Gangs congregate in dark corners, and couples stand on cliff faces, staring out at the stars. You'd be forgiven for believing that every single one of these people was controlled by a human player.
Once you've gotten over how gorgeous it all looks and feels, then the new content begins to seep in. If we were to talk about each addition individually, we'd be here until Christmas (2011), so instead we'll introduce you to the meaty bits. Huge towers are situated around Rome, and killing captains before burning these towers to the ground will give you access to renovation options, adding to Rome's value and pushing the enemy back just that little bit more. There's a real sense of accomplishment when completing these tasks, as parts of the map will shine different colours to show which areas are still under enemy influence.
A little later into the game, you can recruit other assassins to your cause. These assassins can be customized to your liking, and sent out on missions to gain experience and level up. You can also bring them along on your own quests, and get them to do tasks for you, allowing you to stay out of the limelight. Your friends can die, however, so keeping them alive and well is recommended. We found ourselves growing attached to our guys, and rushing to their aid whenever they were knocked down. Lovely idea, great execution.
Rome is quite easily one of the most gorgeous game cities we've had the pleasure of roaming (ha!) around
You've also got a variety of guilds this time around that will offer side missions and challenges. There are so many challenges to complete, we found ourselves wondering if we'd ever even come close to completing them all - the sheer amount of tasks and content is staggering. With every new set of challenges discovered, we were completely taken aback - after eight hours, we were still unlocking whole new aspects of the game.
Now imagine all this as the finest three course meal you've ever had. You're sitting back, feeling very satisfied indeed, belly bulging - and suddenly the waiter pops out from behind a nearby curtain and shouts SURPRIIIISE! before dishing out a fourth, extra special course. You eye it up suspiciously, have a quick nibble... then proceed to wolf the entire plate down. Welcome to the Brotherhood multiplayer mode - quite possibly the greatest gaming surprise 2010 has thrown our way.
The multiplayer has its own story line - you are one of Ezio's enemies, and you're being trained to stay hidden and become the ultimate killing machine as part of the Abstergo Animus Project. There are multiple game types that revolve around one core idea - you have a target which you must kill, but you also have a predator who is after your blood. Hence, while it's all about sneaking up and putting the knife in your victim, you also need to keep your eyes peeled for your pursuer too.
There's the option to go it alone or play in teams, and both are as nerve-racking and utterly exciting as each other. Your prey has no idea who you are unless you run at them, so it's entirely possible to blend into the crowd and pretend to be an NPC, then stab them in the back as you pass by. Give the game away, however, and a chase will start - if your target manages to escape from your view, they gain points and you end up feeling very silly.
To accompany the thrill of the chase, there are tons of multiplayer options and settings to play with. It's all set out in a very Call of Duty style manner with profiles, perks and abilities to set up and challenges to unlock. There's a full leveling system too, with players able to reach the grand height of level 50, unlocking features and new weapons along the way. We can already see ourselves playing the Brotherhood multiplayer well into the new year.
So then, if we love Brotherhood so damn much, why not award it full marks? There are a number of niggles that barely take away from the experience, but are still difficult to overlook, mainly to do with restriction. Early on in the game, huge walls of noise will stop you from venturing into every part of Rome. This wouldn't be too bad, except that a number of the towers are located just out of reach - hence, you'll begin a tower side-mission, but halfway through it discover that the tower itself isn't available yet. This can be quite frustrating.
Even when your victim is executed, you've still got your pursuer to worry about...
Brotherhood also suffers from a number of Assassin's Creed 2's problems, including the sometimes infuriating controls. On plenty of occasions we'd be chasing a target, and Ezio would decide that we clearly wanted to climb on that box at the side of the path, or jump into complete nothingness and die, even though we obviously meant to leap a different way. It's those moments where you find yourself shouting 'No, not that way you moron!', and each is just as annoying as the last.
Forget those last two paragraphs though - the scales are most definitely tipping in favour of 'BUY THIS NOW'. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is one of this year's finest releases, and improves on everything we loved about the previous title, while adding plenty of its own excellent features. Get this now, and kiss your life goodbye.
ASSASSIN'S CREED: BROTHERHOOD VERDICT
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Following your prey for several seconds in multiplayer, before putting the knife in their back.