Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood has over 400 people working on it, spread across a number of different studios in Ubisoft's global network - and it took one simple push of the 'back' button to see where the work had gone. The incredible amount of icons on the game map, and the variety of the tasks, is testament to the work Ubisoft has put into this sequel.
If you thought Assassin's Creed 2 was loaded with distractions, a seemingly infinite amount of sub-missions, then wait till you get a load of Brotherhood.
"I took the game home with me over the weekend," claims Philippe Bergeron, Level Design Content Director on Brotherhood. "And I didn't touch the main story once."
We believe him. Brotherhood is a fully fledged title. It's not a cash-in, it's not a glorified expansion pack - it's an evolution of the Assassin's Creed franchise and, post an extensive hands on demo, it has rocketed directly to the top of our most anticipated list.
Playing through Brotherhood is a familiar experience. In a good way. Shimmying up buildings with ease, finding finger holds, speed running across the rooftops - in a strange way it felt good to be playing Assassin's Creed again. With a tactile control system and animations that enhance that experience, the Assassin's Creed franchise is probably the best example of game that places you firmly within a universe you can interact with completely and believably - that's what makes it such a rewarding game to interact with.
So far so similar. It's only a slight slipup that initially introduces us to one of the newest mechanics - the assisted assassinations.
While fumbling our way back towards familiarity, we pushed the right bumper button. Before we knew it two junior assassins had leapt from a hidden position, lodging their hidden blades into the throats of two guards in the vicinity. It's an interesting mechanic - Ezio has access to these assassins, and can call on them at any time. They proved particularly useful during intense battles, or situations that demanded a stealthy approach. They can be called upon to do your bidding whenever, wherever.
And, typically, this mechanic is tied directly to a new meta-game, expanding from the village management system in Assassin's Creed 2. As Ezio, you can train and build up the strengths of these assassins by sending them on mini-missions, which increase in difficulty throughout the game. It's similar to the team management system in MGS: Peace Walker. Building the strength and skills of your team will increase their ability to help you in battle, allowing them to tackle more difficult foes within the game world.
'Meta' is probably the word that best describes most of the improvements in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Players can manage their assassins but also take control of sections of the city, and subsequently build them up in the same manner you could your home base in Assassin's Creed 2. This allows you greater access to stores, fast travel options, and unlocks certain sub-missions. There's a real sense of progress in Brotherhood. The world responds to your presence - your actions have real consequences.
And tied into this meta-game is the concept of the Borgia towers, which play like a game of Risk smelted down and reformed to suit the unique mechanics of Assassin's Creed. In order to gain control of an area, and gain access to new stores, among other things, you must take control of Borgia towers within the area. Taking control of these towers involves climbing to the top, taking care of the leaders (via a swift and very painful death) and burning said towers to the ground.
It's almost like a twist on the original concept of the viewpoints, where climbing to the top unlocks new areas and missions. Only this time round the Borgia towers combine stealth, combat and climbing into one free form mission that can be approached in a non-linear manner. It really captures the free-form flow of Assassin's Creed as a video game and, so far at least, stands out as our favourite addition to this sequel.
It's difficult to explain but, despite the numerous disparate mechanics and meta-dynamics that make up the game's structure, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood hangs together brilliantly, creating a universe that genuinely feels like a living, breathing world. Assassin's Creed has always excelled in making the player feel like he had a place within the game universe - every building can be scaled, every area explored - but Brotherhood gives players the means with which to transform it. And that evolves the Assassin's Creed franchise in ways we didn't expect.
We can't wait to see more. In a sense our demo was a little overwhelming, with Philippe Bergeron shouting out an endless list of new mechanics and improvements as we played - the scope has expanded massively. But one thing is for sure: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a genuine sequel, and a game that demands to be played.