Assassin's Creed Brotherhood preview: cutting

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What was the deal with the end of Assassin’s Creed 2 anyway? It left almost as many questions unanswered as the finale of Lost. The story of Ezio and Desmond concluded with a “¿Que?” or a “Quoi?” or perhaps a “Cosa?” So it’s just as well that Ubisoft are preparing the answers to those questions in a full sequel, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, which moves the action to Rome and introduces an inventive new multiplayer mode.

The singleplayer story still predominates, picking up right where Assassin’s Creed II ended. According to creative director Patrice Desilets, the start of Brotherhood will re-tell that conclusion, to enable a smooth transition as Ezio moves on to Rome. “We’ll have a cross-reference – the beginning of the game is the end of Assassin’s Creed II, which finished underneath the Vatican in a strange vault, talking to the goddess Nirvana, and you’re thinking ‘What the hell?’ So this is where we start.”

While you’re still playing master assassin Ezio, your motivation has changed. This game isn’t about revenge, it’s about power – creating your own power centre in Rome, and taking on the Pope’s son, the infamous Cesare Borgia.

“You have to build your guild – your brotherhood – so you’re recruiting assassins by helping citizens in the city,” explains Desilets. “Those rebels without a cause will become assassins, and you can send them on missions. It’s a little bit of Mafia War-type gameplay inside Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.”

Sprawling and full of bustle and local colour, the city of Rome is a character in its own right, much as the cities of Florence and Venice were in the previous game. The Rome of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, however, is lagging a little behind the cultural sophistication of those more advanced city states. The conceit of Brotherhood is that it is Ezio who brings the Renaissance to Rome.

Unlike AC2, which took us from town to town, all the action in Brotherhood takes place in this one locale. But this is no mere expansion to the existing game: Desilets estimates that the size of their Rome is about three-to-four times that of Assassin’s Creed II’s Florence. Such is its size, horses will be usable within the city limits, and a fast travel system has been provided to enable us to quickly jump from place to place.

Your old buddy Leonardo da Vinci remains in the picture, providing you with useful inventions and ensuring you can still take his flying machine for an aerial tour of the city. The young Machiavelli, meanwhile, will play a more prominent role in pushing along the singleplayer plot.

“Ezio has matured,” says scriptwriter Jeffrey Yohalem. “He is more than 40 years old, he sees a much bigger picture. Ezio will become a leader, someone who unites the struggling Assassin order against the forces of the Borgia and the Templars.”

This leadership role, becoming the controller of a band of assassins, will lead to a new kind of assassination mission for the series.

This time around you’ll send members of your team to perform hits, choosing from among various characters with unique skills, equipped to your specification. Give a recruit a crossbow and he will attack from distance, hand him a sword and he’ll get up close and oh-so personal on the targets you assign.

Personalising the experience in this way adds a layer of ownership to the story, something that will develop further as you build property in Rome, making the city our own.

The combat is also getting an overhaul, putting more emphasis on offensive, rather than defensive action. To enable larger encounters with multiple attackers, Ezio will be able to link range and melee attacks, perform kicks, and unload combos. “Our motto is strike first, strike fast,” says lead game designer Patrick Plourde.

Predator and prey

No doubt it will be entertaining to explore 16th-century Rome alongside the familiar cast of characters, perform the usual assassinations and lead your own empire of assassins. But introducing an online multiplayer angle is a questionable step for a series that has made its name on its carefully crafted story. According to Desilets, the team in France has worked on prototypes for multiplayer modes for the past two years, trying to solve the problem of how you take the established loop of approaching a target, performing the assassination and escaping, and bring it in to the multiplayer arena.

The result I played was Wanted mode (other modes will be revealed later). It worked surprisingly well. I may have raised a querying eyebrow at the wisdom of bringing AC’s lone wolf action online, but those two years of prototyping have been well spent.