Horses must've been hated in Renaissance Rome. In the time between Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, our equine pals have become brave enough to enter large cities and clop around the old alleys and roads with impunity. Previously they'd rear up and whinny at the mere thought of entering an urban thoroughfare - now they proudly march through the streets, knocking pedestrians in every direction and generally being a total nuisance. Horses, you see, play a larger role in Brotherhood than ever before. You can now start freerunning from horseback, with Ezio standing on his saddle and leaping to nearby ledges mid-trot. You can also assassinate from horseback, or assassinate enemies on horseback, stealing their ride in the process. But horseplay's not all that's been introduced in Brotherhood - we had the chance to sit down with the sequel's singleplayer mode, playing through the game's first two chapters in their entirety.
A quick recap on where the plot's taken us, with particular care not to spoil anything: Brotherhood picks up immediately after the end of Assassin's Creed 2, with Ezio having just witnessed something rather shocking (which he'll cutely describe later as a "moving painting"). Returning to Monterrigioni, and the Auditore Villa, everything's sweet as peaches for Ezio's friends until disaster strikes in the form of a violent Borgia siege. Monteriggioni is smashed, and an angry Ezio - conveniently having lost most of his cool Assassin's Creed 2 toys in the attack - heads to Roma to take the fight to the Borgia.
Meanwhile, in present day, Desmond and the Assassins arrive at their last safe haven, set in the modern day ruins of the Auditore Villa, specifically inside the sanctuary discovered by Ezio hundreds of years previously. Finding your way here involves Desmond using his increasingly Ezio-like abilities to find his way though the caverns beneath the villa, with sidekick Lucy barking conversations and quips your way - not at all unlike Uncharted 2, in fact.
You'll also be investigating the town, now a tourist site, to find fuseboxes required to reroute power to the Animus, but the bulk of the new content is found back in Rome, where Ezio's fight against the Borgia revolves around his forming a new assassin's guild. This a surprisingly in-depth operation: as you destroy Borgia towers throughout Rome (itself a massive city, larger than anything else seen in Assassin's Creed so far) you unlock "assassin slots" in your guild. Rookie assassins can be hired by tracking down troubled citizens, helping them out and offering them the chance to fight back against Borgia rule. At pigeon coops and guild hideouts you can manage your current assassins, sending them out on contracts across Europe, thereby increasing their level through experience, and advancing them in either weapons or armour.
Every contract carries a percentage chance of success, with more experienced assassins having a greater chance of carrying out the contract. Teaming up your assassins is typically the best way to ensure success - it's also a way of rapidly training up low level assassins. All of this is managed through a handful of menu screens, and the ultimate aim of guild management is to create skilled assassins which you can call upon in battle. The left bumper will command a pair of assassins to emerge from a nearby hiding place and murder your target without question - and the abilities they've earned through completing contracts will determine how effective they are in actual, in-game fights. They are, in effect, another weapon - and hinted at is a powerful technique unlocked once you've employed six assassins: arrow storm obliterates all enemies within a certain radius, raining down, as the name suggests, volley after volley of lethal arrows on those unfortunate enough to be standing near you.
Your own personal combat options have been subtly tweaked too, to great effect. Throwing knives and the wrist cannon are now secondary abilities of swords of daggers, meaning you can use them simply by holding down the attack button. Attacks can also now be strung together following a successful kill, by pointing at the person you want to die next Ezio will flit from enemy to enemy, delivering fatal one-hit kills for until he misses, is attacked, or runs out of blood to shed. During these combos, the cannon can be used simultaneously with the sword to take out more than one enemy at a time, resulting in some seriously stylish and fluid attacks patterns. This added flourish to Assassin's Creed's combat transforms it almost completely, turning each fight into a combo-chasing minigame in itself.
To this end, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood includes Virtual Training. Accessible at any time via the menu, Virtual Training offers a series of combat and stealth challenges, with bronze, silver and gold medals awarded for success. High scores are posted on the game's public leaderboards, meaning the newfound combat mechanic of stringing together combos becomes an online challenge between you and your friends.
What else does Roma offer? The Borgia towers aren't just for unlocking new positions in the assassin's guild, they're mini-challenges in themselves. Each is protected by a Borgia captain, who must be identified and assassinated. The tower itself is a typical Assassin's Creed climbing puzzle, and once destroyed, all shops in the vicinity become available for restoration. With no Monteriggioni to pile your florins into, Ezio instead purchases and refurbishes weaponsmiths, armorsmiths, clothiers, banks, stables and other stores to increase the worth of Rome itself. In this manner you'll earn an income in a similar fashion to Assassin's Creed II, with the number of banks you've refurbished increasing the total amount of dosh you can put away.
Also introduced are trade items - dozens of seemingly random collectible objects such as jars of leeches and bolts of cloth. These are found in chests, while looting bodies, and (rarer ones) brought
back by your assassin's after contracts. Some store owners will request a series of rare trade items from you, eventually rewarding you with unique weapons and armour. That's right, fetch quests have come to Assassin's Creed, make of that what you will.
Every story mission now carries a "full sychronisation" completion bonus, awarded for fulfilling a certain secondary objective - the ones we played offered rewards for assassinating a target using a specific weapon, or completing a fight without losing any health. Success here rewards you with access to one of Ezio's many "repressed memories", which we're promised aren't nearly as rude as they sound.
And as far as final titbits and speculation goes - a coy peek at the game's map revealed Viana, Spain as a (presumable playable) location. Tellingly, Wikipedia reveals the Spanish town to be the final resting place of the game's antagonist, Cesare Borgia - but in what capacity we'll be visiting the location is unknown. Already it's been confirmed that the game won't take place entirely in Rome. And cannons - you defend Monterrigioni in Brotherhood's opening mission using huge cannons as the Borgia forces approach in menacing siege towers, no doubt that sort of firepower will return later in the game.
Otherwise, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a frighteningly comprehensive addition to the series. The entirely new and exciting multiplayer mode aside, the only criticism we can level against Brotherhood is the familiarity surrounding almost every element of gameplay. Teeth will be gritted should we dare call it Assassin's Creed 2.5, but it's a fitting title, despite the many additions. Still, we're not about to turn our nose up at more Assassin's Creed - the highly original guild management options alone make singleplayer worth your attention. And if that doesn't grab you, you can always ride a horse down a busy Roman boulevard. Whatever floats your boat.
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