If there’s a lesson to be learned from playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it’s that there’s more to being a sword-for-hire in Renaissance Italy than the contract killings. In this epic period piece, the player spends as much time developing property, liaising with philosophers, and uncovering lost treasure as they do executing crooked politicians and warmongering nobles. Indeed, the streets of Rome are littered with side-quests, and this bustling city is a joy to explore. At ground level, you’re rubbing shoulders with vigilantes, courtesans, and Templar infantry, but the main course is served on the rooftops with Ezio Auditore’s phenomenal parkour skills and the fully interactive environments he traverses.
The story continues almost exactly where we left Ezio at the end of Assassin’s Creed II, having seized the Apple of Eden and returning home to whatever’s left of his happy family. For virgins to the franchise, this latest instalment may be a slightly forbidding starting point despite the initial fit of flashbacks and recaps. Suffice to say our protagonist’s life of leisure in Monterrigioni is cut short, and the player is soon thrust headfirst into another crusade against the Templars.
Brotherhood may feel smaller than its predecessors in that we only explore one city, but Rome ranks among the series’s most handsomely decorated to date. In addition to visiting famous landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, Rome’s more affluent areas are festooned with countless lavish structures for Ezio to scale. And as has been the case with every Assassin’s Creed title, these environments aren’t just a part of the scenery, for every ledge can be hung from and every small fracture becomes a useful climbing tool. To simply travel across this beautifully designed terrain is a pleasure in itself, sprinting through crowds of Roman townsfolk or soaring above them as Ezio leaps across the city’s mile-high buildings: Getting from A to B has never been so much fun.
Moreover, there’s plenty of features in the nooks and crannies of this teeming locale. Those looking to give their Parkour skills a rigorous test can hunt for the hidden treasures buried deep in the labyrinthine catacombs, while those who pride themselves on their stealthy approach can turn to Leonardo Da Vinci’s infiltration missions. The first of these side-quests, which invariably involve sneaking into Borgian camps undetected and pilfering blueprints to Da Vinci’s inventions, tasks us with commandeering a machine gun and using it to make your escape while being pursued by a small army on horseback. It’s the closest Brotherhood ever gets to a first-person shooter, and in many ways the crudest mission on offer, but this is a wildly entertaining number all the same.
The battle mechanics in Brotherhood have also had a few very-necessary tweaks, which makes for far more fluid encounters. Rather than waiting patiently for opportunities to counter-attack and then engaging in a Mexican standoff for an uncomfortable length of time, Ubisoft Montreal have livened up the combat sequences with chain attacks that allow Ezio to bounce off each of his enemies with one-hit kills. And when the more robust adversaries are still proving tricky to break down, a quick kick to the gut might lower their defences and provide that opening you’ve been looking for. However improved, though, these sequences are still not without their faults. The camera angles often compromise your view of the action, be it obscured by an awkwardly placed tree or somehow shifting to an inadvertent first-person view when Ezio is backed against the wall. These problems may not rear their head too often, but if these sloppy errors ever happen to end with blood on those fetching white robes, they are sure to frustrate.
As Ezio begins to fashion a goatee and starts becoming wiser with age (much like the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself), he also tries his hand at redeveloping the city and rebuilding the Brotherhood of assassins. After wrestling each district back from the control of the Borgia, which involves snuffing out each district’s specific Borgia captain before torching their tower, shops and amenities can be renovated and begin to generate a steady source of florins. When you’ve hit the very top of the property ladder, your map will be saturated with blacksmiths, tailors, fast-travel markers, doctors, and banks. And in what is certainly the most absorbing of Brotherhood’s newest features, the player can recruit vigilantes from around Rome to join the fight against the Templars. Not only can they be despatched on cross-continental escapades for a monetary gain, but they can also be deployed in your own skirmishes whenever the tables need turning. One particularly satisfying way to employ these fledgling assassins is on missions where one must remain undetected, taking cover beneath haystacks or concealed in a crowd of people and signalling for your minions to do your dirty work without jeopardising your anonymity.
If the sheer length of this review is any indication, Brotherhood is a remarkably meaty game stuffed with an exhausting amount of mini-games and optional side-quests. And though the online arena never feels as rich as the single-player mode, it really doesn’t matter, longevity is simply not an issue here. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is another glorious bout of time travel, filled with bountiful features and finished with an intriguing story and enchanting characters. This is without doubt the most enthralling history lesson you could ever hope for, just be sure not to credit Ezio Auditore for the entire Italian renaissance on your exams.