Ezio might have a few underlings helping him out in his second outing, but the the video game reviewers in the Assassin's Creed Brotherhood Frankenreview are legion.
Ezio's back and he's heading to Rome to do some strategic killing in the name of all that isn't Templar in the world, and he's brought friends along for the ride. You can bring friends along as well, and kill them at your leisure in the game's new multiplayer component. There's plenty of killing going around, so we thought we'd let the assembled game reviewers take their turn.
I'm of two minds about Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, released Tuesday for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. On the one hand, I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone held in absolute thrall by last year's game. Stealthily clambering over the rooftops of 15th-century Italy and assassinating your political enemies is still a potent gameplay formula, and Brotherhood's new multiplayer mode puts a unique spin on things by adding a unique factor: human intelligence. On the other hand, this is the laziest cashed-in, churned-out sequel (without the name Guitar Hero on it) of the year. The whole thing feels like it should have been a downloadable add-on. In essence, it's just a pack of new levels for Assassin's Creed II - same characters, same moves, same everything. The new features Ubisoft grafted onto the game are largely inelegant.
Fans of Ezio's time-straddling storyline may initially worry that all the action is now set in Rome, rather than the three distinctive city architectures of the previous game. And indeed, things do start slowly, with the Siege of Monteriggioni lulling you into a false sense of security as you get used to new abilities – from being able to ride horses, to two-handed combat against enemies that will happily gang up on you rather than waiting politely for their turn. Finally, when all hell breaks loose (courtesy of a cannonball crashing through your wall), the real story begins and you'll find that things move at a speedier pace.
While the story's hit-or-miss, the number of sidequests available to Ezio are just mind-boggling. There's the usual object hunt for flags, treasures, feathers, viewpoints and secret messages from the still-cabalistic Subject 16. There are platforming-centric "Lairs of Romulus," basically the Assassin's Tombs from AC2. There are Borgia towers to find and destroy, allowing you to renovate businesses and tunnel entrances around Roma and giving you quicker access to important parts of the city. You'll also have a more active role in the upkeep of the four guilds: Courtesans, Mercenaries, Thieves and Assassins. The first three can be strengthened by purchasing empty lots for them to settle in, doing missions or completing Guild Quests - a type of levelling system which you scale by performing a certain number of stealth or combat maneuvers, and that grant you discounts when hiring these groups in the future.
Even without these new brothers and sisters, Ubisoft addressed one of my biggest complaints from the last game – combat. The satisfying action strikes the perfect balance between careful defensive counters of the past games and the new, lethal offensive capabilities. The ability to chain kills gives Ezio an edge that's hard to beat, but it still takes skill and timing to master. One-strike executions string together in a vicious dance, and combining taps and holds of the attack button let you mix different weapons in one flurry. Every weapon is fun to wield; I found myself changing up my loadout just to see the masterful animations that accompanied each implement.
That you're constantly looking over your shoulder (in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood multiplayer) creates a terrific sense of tension, and there's an interesting dynamic of balancing how quickly to approach your target without betraying yourself as a live target to whoever's hunting you. The whole thing's outfitted with a persistent experience system that grants you rechargeable abilities like a brief sprinting boost and additional slots to have multiple abilities active at once. It probably ends up working better than it really ought to, and I'll admit that I found it particularly satisfying to be able to shout "UH!" at my live opponent as I slipped a dagger into his ribcage, though it's still more of a novelty than a serious multiplayer contender. There's good variety in the small number of maps included, but there's not many of them, and the four modes don't cover much ground. More importantly, with the tools provided, it's remarkably easier to hunt down your targets than it is to evade assassination, and it makes the experience feel a little lopsided.
The game that comes to mind while playing Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Not since Rockstar's potent crime drama has a game so massive, so polished, so impressively improved from its predecessor been released just a year after the prior installment. But people won't remember how long Brotherhood took to make. They are likely to remember its quality. Ezio's new adventure may be less personal than his previous one, but it is as interesting and as mischievously manipulative of real history as the series has ever been. Nearly bloated with fun things to do Brotherhood is Assassin's Creed in peak form.
Bloated with fun is the best way to be bloated.