Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood preview
Previously on Assassin’s Creed – the maddest shit you've ever seen. Last time we checked on fifteenth century Italian badass Ezio – who was actually partly controlled by a man lying on a special kind of bed in the future called Desmond – he was having a fistfight with the Pope. As soon as he'd laid out God's representative with a right hook, a strange floaty alien woman appeared and told him that she was one of the super-powerful species that used to inhabit the Earth, before staring straight at the game's camera like Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and talking to the player directly.
Understandably, Brotherhood picks up with Ezio more than a little confused. But he's a practical guy. Rather than fussing too much with any existential trauma, his first priority is to escape from the Vatican before the Pope's underlings realise what's gone down. Cue a tutorial-flavoured recap of Ezio's free-running skills, and a rapid-fire introduction to his family. Foremost among these is Uncle Mario, reprising his role from Assassin's Creed II as Ezio's partner in crime, and similarly blessed with his nephew's predilection for climbing junk. It must be in the genes. Together, they beat a hasty retreat from the Pope's house, the path to freedom conveniently littered with rooftops for jumping and men for stabbing.
I spent much of that retreat wrangling my rangey Ezio, trying to keep him on course and not leap off a roof to a pair of smashed shins. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's free-running system doesn't rely on split second button presses, but successfully navigating the high-wire routes across the game's locations means players have to hold three buttons at once. With a keyboard, this feels clunky. The best solution I could come up with demanded some careful control customisation, and even then I dabbed the windows key a few maddening times. The mouse, too, isn't built for steering a man with quite so much momentum. Flip it backwards for a quick 180 turn and Ezio begins a ponderous curve, making split-second course changes tough.
Plug in a pad and the issues mostly dissipate. The right trigger on a 360 controller turns Ezio 'high-profile' (the 'run' button, in shorthand); holding A at the same time makes him try to climb any surface he's pointed at. It engenders an exhilarating sense of freedom: once you hit the game's meat in the city of Rome, there are few barriers to exploration. Want to see the ancient city from the top of the Colosseum? Aim Ezio upward and begin climbing. Want to climb onto someone's house, wait until they come out to go to the shops, and leap onto their back for no real reason? Get ready for bastardry!
That aerial stabbing is still Brotherhood's most satisfying portion. Setting up a successful murder can take time and planning, or extreme luck and a quick trigger finger. Brotherhood gets its name from Ezio's chums – recruited off the street from Rome's disenfranchised poor and bullied, the player ends up with a gang of roving toughs, ready to descend onto the field whenever you're overwhelmed. A personal murder's still fun, whispering in your target's ear as you plunge a knife into their neck, but utilising your new pals to off a victim yields just as much pleasure. Point out a man, make a hand gesture, and four killers in hoodies descend from the sky to jab him with as many pointy things as they're carrying. It's like walking around London with your iPhone out.
Once they've done the deed, you'll need to help your personal army. If they go down, they're dead forever, leaving a space in the roster and potentially wasting hours of training. Gang members can be levelled via a neat little hands-off meta-game. Head to a pigeon-roost and you'll get in contact with your friends. From there you can post them off around medieval Europe on missions, getting up to mischief and getting even better at indiscriminate killing.
It's tough to see what's taken Brotherhood so long to make the leap between platform rooftops to the PC. Still, turned up to mega-resolution and with a wide array of control options, at least we can be sure we're getting the best version of the best Assassin's Creed yet.