The most important thing you need to know before starting Assassin's Creed Brotherhood is that, after the first hour, you're never forced to man any more asinine cannons. Don't be discouraged by the frustratingly pointless, cinematic-heavy introduction, because everything after that is compelling. I couldn't stay mad at the game for long—not after nimbly scaling Rome's famous Coliseum and flicking my blade into the necks of three hapless gunmen, all entirely undetected. Brotherhood's massive and complex open world is an engrossing, blood-soaked playground.
Brotherhood picks up where Assassin's Creed II left off, with late-fifteenth-century master assassin Ezio having just defeated a sickeningly corrupt pope. He returns home safely, but is inexplicably surprised the next day when the pope's son interrupts his awkwardly animated sex scene with an army. Cue the awful cannons!
After a tedious segment outside of the Animus (a sci-fi device through which the series' true protagonist relives his assassin ancestors' memories), Ezio travels to Rome to dislodge the tyrannical establishment. It's here that the open-world game starts for real, and the plot congeals.
As in AC2, the story progresses through a series of Ezio's memories. The missions are varied sequences of stealth, combat, and story-driving dialog, and even the seemingly garden-variety escort missions are well done. It's hard to be bored while leaping across rooftops with knives.
The free-running and combat do take effort to master. Early in the game I was tasked with chasing down and tackling a pickpocket, so I sprinted into a crowd, fell over, jumped into a pile of hay, and stuck my hidden blade through the throat of a woman carrying her groceries. The more I played, though, the more impressive (and less unintentionally amusing) my acrobatics became. They'd have been a little more impressive, though, without the game's few irksome graphical glitches—like pop-ins that once warped a hostile guard directly in front of me while I was being sneaky.
Aside from the story missions, Brotherhood builds on AC2's huge list of optional things to do: violently taking over enemy territory, recruiting and managing ally assassins, investing in property—I got happily lost in its time-sink vortex for hours, and more hours still were spent amusing myself by free-running through Rome and beating up guards for no reason. The single-player offers at least 15 hours of quality assassinatin'—and if you tire of that, there's also the brand-new multiplayer modes.
These multiplayer matches are simple but challenging stealth manhunts, either as lone-wolf assassins or teams of killers (you're given a target to assassinate, while another player hunts you). You know what your target looks like and their general direction, but the catch is that maps are populated with look-alike civilians; the trick is to lose your pursuer in the crowd while watching for unusual activity from your target, making this well-designed, paranoia-inducing cat-and-mouse game far more than just a bullet point on the box. I did experience occasional, inexplicable crashes, however.
Overshadowing even that, Brotherhood's biggest improvement is that it requires only one-time activation, as opposed to AC2's “always-online” DRM. The game itself isn't notably superior (especially in terms of story), but all of its additions put it at least on par with the last, and it's a hugely entertaining sequel.