Ezio Auditore has quickly become one of this generations defining characters. With a more interesting back-story and eminently more likeable personality, Assassin’s Creed 2’s leading man has endeared himself to fans of the series in a way that Altaire never managed.
Of course, this is likely due in large part to the superior quality of the sequel over the original; providing a much improved mission structure, world to explore and moveset to exploit.
It’s clear that the team at Ubisoft are happy with what AC2 achieved and, instead of reworking the fundamentals, have opted to tweak the details and provide a new chapter of the Assassins versus Templars story within an almost identical framework. Ezio, for example, feels almost unchanged; those who had mastered his abilities in the last game will not need any help in slipping straight in and performing like an expert.
Fighting is still largely a case of timing your counter attacks correctly or using stealth to end potential skirmishes before they start. Free-running is as slick, polished and intuitive as always, simply requiring you to direct Ezio in the desired direction and watching as he nimbly makes light work of scaling vertical surfaces and leaping from one rooftop to the next. Other skills you’ve picked up throughout the series, such as using groups of civilians for cover, stalking important targets and making good use of ‘Eagle Vision’, serve you equally well here.
It’s not all simply a mirror image though, not by a long-shot. As mentioned above, the tweaks have come in the details and, though fairly minor in terms of their affect on gameplay, change the feel of the overall experience in a marked manner.
Within the first couple of hours you’re charged with taking control of Desmond (a modern day descendant of Ezio) in a section which – unlike the largely plot advancing scenes of the previous game – has you performing feats of agility Ezio himself would be proud of; clambering up walls, activating switches, jumping across gaps and working together with your assassin companion, Lucy, to advance through an underground network of tunnels.
Despite the similarity in terms of gameplay, this portion of our preview session felt very different from those featuring Ezio. Desmond is continuously haunted by ghostlike images of Ezio and friends running through the same area as he struggles to differentiate between his own reality and the memories he continuously lives through in an attempt to learn the assassin’s secrets. It’s a haunting technique that highlights the psychological pressures Desmond is under and his fear that he’s slowly going crazy. This weight of emotional baggage stands in stark contrast, both visually and emotionally, to anything you’re charged to accomplish with Ezio.
Playing as Ezio sees a few new additions, most notable of which is the ability to hire and train a personal band of assassins to assist you with the dispatching of hostile guards and assassination targets. Your squad of assassins can be instructed to silently take out a target at the press of a button while you watch on from a safe distance. Not only fun to watch, this can be used to provide a vital distraction as you sneak into a patrolled area as well as giving some insightful tips as to how to go about pulling off a slick assassination for yourself.
Your team can also be called in to help you if you’re coming unstuck in a brawl. It may just be that we were suffering from a bit of ring rust but, playing through the early to mid portions of the game on show in the preview code, the guards in Brotherhood seem to pack more of punch than those in the last game and our troupe came in handy on more than one occasion. As we found out very quickly though, if you call in your friends to situations beyond their skill then they will quickly falter and die – preventing them from becoming an overpowered get-out-jail-free-card and forcing you to think about how to implement their skills tactically.
The number of assassins you can recruit is linked to the number of Borgia Towers you’ve claimed across the vast, wonderfully realised metropolis that is Renaissance-era Rome. Taking over Borgia Towers rids the Borgia’s iron fisted control over the surrounding area, makes you a hero of the local populace and grants you the option to reopen shops in the area who repay the favour by offering you merchandise at a reduced rate.
However, making it to the top of the towers and setting them aflame (signifying that you’ve successfully wrestled control of it away from the abusive guards) is no easy task. They are extremely well guarded by very numerous, very powerful opponents that require a great deal of skill and determination to overcome; each one housing a commander that must be eliminated before scaling the tower.
It’s during these moments that the new execution streak ability comes in especially handy. While performing an execution on an enemy you can immediately perform another on a nearby target by simply aiming in their direction and hitting the button. It not only feels great to be able to wipe out a bunch of guys in a matter of moments but it looks incredibly stylish, adding another feather to an already stacked style cap and making even the most novice of players look like a seasoned pro.
From what we’ve played, Brotherhood has a wonderful – if familiar – feel to everything that takes place. The developers have clearly had a good time creating new ways for players to make use of the existing mechanics, safe in the knowledge that the skeleton they’re working around already works.
In a campaign that supposedly lasts 19 hours (not including the numerous side missions and assignments) the true test is always going to be whether what’s delivered in the final game can sustain our interest throughout its entire length, especially for those of us who have already played at least that long in completing AC2.