For a title that initially appeared to either be built on an abundance of Assassin’s Creed 2 cutting-room floor ideas or as a way to bridge the gap between AC2 and the eventual AC3, we were surprised to find that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is anything but. Built with the same long, beautiful brushstrokes as its predecessors, this isn’t another cheap downloadable content pack riding on the coattails of its forbearer with hopes of sucking the dollars directly out of your wallet as you await a sequel.
We’ve already posted our extensive thoughts on our latest hands-on with the game here, but we felt a few aspects of gameplay warranted closer inspection and in some cases explanation. Our demo gave us over an hour of play, showing off the initial reintroduction of Ezio and Mario and picking up where Assassin’s Creed 2 ended. This early part of the game takes place in the Vatican vault and later Ezio’s villa and serves as a loose tutorial zone as you either reacquaint yourself with the famed Italian or--if it’s your first time with the series--learn climbing, quest navigation, and how to protect yourself.
One of the newest, and most interesting, game mechanics being introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is the Borgia towers. These structures, which are controlled by the Borgia family, act as a control hub for the townspeople of the area and hamper Ezio’s progress as he travels. Removing a Borgia leader from control and destroying the towers (burning them to the ground, though we’ve been told there will be multiple ways of demolishing them) loosened the stranglehold on the zone. This will allow you to purchase goods from previously unavailable retailers, buy higher quality items from merchants previously able to be traded with, and put a serious dent in the military forces in the area. Money no longer suffers from an artificial cap as it did in AC2, meaning that if you want to keep earning, you’ll need more places to store your loot, like banks, which are also under the Borgia grip. There ain’t no digital banking here.
Assuming control of the towers sounds simple enough but brings with it its own challenges. Each has its own guarded local celebrity; in our case, it was a captain. Leaders will each have their own distinctive personalities. Some will stay and fight, summoning guards around them; others will flee for safety, necessitating you to chase them down and end their lives. Failing to secure the area, such as letting them escape while giving chase, means you will be forced to wait the equivalent of an in-game guard’s patrol cycle, 24 hours, or between one and two real-world hours before the target will return to his post. Once captured and destroyed, Borgia towers remain uncontested, so you won’t ever need to chase your tail, re-securing settlements you have already cleared. Our guide explained that with the exception of the Vatican and the Antique section, around 75 percent of the available towers in the game will be available to conquer from the outset. This means you’ll be able to take them by force at your leisure as you explore new areas of the map or make them the focus of your attention early on to build currency as you buy into retailers and reap the rewards of owning a share of their business.
Having control of the towers brings with it a wealth of opportunities, including giving Ezio the option to recruit and manage his underlings--pairs of summonable assassins that earn him currency and do his brutal bidding at a moment’s notice. Each Borgia tower destroyed unlocks a recruitment slot. Icons marked on the minimap as you traverse the city show recruits in a range of situations and in need of a hand. Most of the ones we saw revolved around saving a non-player character when cornered and outnumbered, with Ezio sweeping in from the rooftops, blades blazing, and evening the odds. Indebted to you, they join your cause and you’re able to call on them as reinforcements.
Each of your minions can be sent off on missions, locally and further abroad, to gain experience, level up, and earn their keep. Objectives are randomly generated and will need to be weighed up against the risk and the associated reward. You’ll want to treat them with kid gloves initially because if a subordinate is killed in action, whether lending a hand in combat alongside you or away on tour, the subordinate will remain dead. New assassins can be recruited in the event of a loss, but you’ll need to build them up from scratch each time, molding them to your liking. There’s an element of micromanagement to the Brotherhood because while an allies are away earning, they’re unavailable to be called on as support in battle.
For each two members of Brotherhood recruited, you will be rewarded a BAM (Brotherhood Assist Move) token. Once six towers are in your possession, you’ll have earned enough tokens to call in a team strike. Activating it via the left shoulder button unleashes a volley of arrow fire, drenching targets in steel-tipped wood. BAM tokens recharge over time, and as each squad member’s levels is earned, you can spend skill points to improve their weapon loadouts, health, armour, and mess with their aesthetic. Female assassins will also be available for the first time in the series, allowing for, if you wish, an entire harem of dedicated lady ninjas.
Missed out on the first two Assassin’s Creed games but want to join the army of shadow dwellers? A new virtual training arena in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has been designed to get you up to speed on the flashier tricks in Ezio’s movement and attack repertoire. The range of minigames include keeping stealth, maintaining a one-hit kill combo streak, finding all of the flags in an allocated amount of time, and more traditional free running checkpoint races. Each is tied to an online leaderboard, tracking progress and giving you the chance to best friends and strangers at the deadly arts.
Fans of more modern action will be pleased to hear that while Desmond (Ezio’s modern day cousin) will again be featured, he plays a much more active role beyond the animus. The game will feature several hours of gameplay outside of the renaissance setting, putting his skills to work as he performs the same jumping, swinging, and climbing as the spirits he’s tuning.
From our hands-on time with the title, we’re looking forward to once again exploring the richness of the game's world and climbing every available surface. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood will be swinging and stabbing its way onto the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this month, with the PC version sneaking onto shelves in early 2011. Keep an eye out for our full review soon.