Traditionally, the Assassin's Creed series has been a story-driven single-player experience, but with the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Ubisoft is introducing a full-blown multiplayer mode for the first time. While the stealth-driven gameplay might not immediately come across as multiplayer friendly, a number of tweaks have been introduced to the combat to try to ensure matches remain fair, balanced, and, most importantly, fun. Ubisoft will be road-testing the new online modes in an upcoming beta for the PlayStation 3, and we got an early peek at the content to see what players can expect.
Unlike many multiplayer experiences, Brotherhood's is set up with a narrative, albeit a brief one. You play as an agent at Abstergo Industries who has been handpicked to take on the Assassins. You're placed into an Animus training program, which sends you into reconstructed training areas to practice your skills against other agents. It's in those training areas that the multiplayer takes place, which conveniently lets you play in areas from both the first and second games, as well as all-new locations. There are two maps unlocked from the start in the beta: Rome and Castle Gandolfo. Rome is what Ubisoft calls a "neutral" map, because it contains indoor and outdoor sections, as well as a ton of tall buildings to climb up. Castle Gandolfo is much more enclosed, with most of the action taking place indoors. An additional map located in Sienna isn't available from the start of the beta, but players will be able to unlock it later. Details for the unlocking haven't yet been finalised, but it will likely revolve around a certain number of matches taking place or a certain number of kills being reached.
Before jumping into a match, we played through a brief tutorial section, which introduced us to the unique gameplay mechanics behind the multiplayer. Rather than a free-for-all deathmatch where everybody is a target, Brotherhood's multiplayer allows you to kill only those enemies that you're specifically assigned to. A picture on your HUD lets you know who your target is, and a compass at the bottom of the screen tells you where he's located. As you get closer to your target, the compass turns blue, gradually getting brighter until you are at close range. There is also a detection meter to worry about, which decreases if you execute visible actions, such as sprinting through crowds or killing civilians. Once the meter drops below a certain point, your target is alerted, and you then have a limited amount of time to chase him before you lose the mission. However, all the usual assassination tricks from the single-player game can be used to sneak around, including blending in with the many non-player characters, hiding in hay bales, sitting on benches, or assassinating from rooftops. The tutorial had us practice sneaking up on targets in the city of Florence, and once we had killed three targets, we were able to jump into a proper match.
The beta will launch with two modes: Wanted and Alliance. Wanted is the simplest mode, with players all fighting against each other deathmatch-style, albeit with the aforementioned targeting system. You can play with up to eight players, each of whom is assigned a target from the group. This means that while you are attempting to assassinate someone, another player is attempting to assassinate you. This unique twist constantly keeps you on your toes, and we found we had to juggle our stealthy attacks while attempting to hide from our pursuer. Each kill nets you experience points, the number of which vary depending on how stealthy your kill was. You also net XP for more dramatic kills, such as leaping from a rooftop, or by flanking your victim.
XP is used to level up your character in a progression tree similar to that of first-person shooters like Modern Warfare. There are 50 levels in total to work toward, though only 20 are present in the beta. Reaching a certain level unlocks a number of bonuses, which can be used to upgrade your character. These fit into one of three categories: abilities, perks, and streaks. Abilities are tools that you can use, such as disguises, smoke bombs, and poison. There are also more physical abilities, such as sprint boosts and morph, which transforms NPCs into clones of your character. There is a cooldown time attached to abilities, so you can't just spam them at opponents during combat. Perks act like modifiers for each ability but have no cooldown attached, meaning they are active throughout each match. Examples include enhanced auto-bash, which increases the number of NPCs you can bash through, and blender, which automatically morphs one NPC into a clone of your character when you blend with a group.
The final set of upgrades are streak bonuses. These give you a reward depending on the number of kills or deaths you have in a match. For example, you can choose to receive 100 points if you kill three players in a row, or you can choose to receive 300 if you kill all three using stealth. The reverse also applies, so you can receive a temporary skill, such as extra compass sensitivity, if you die more than three times in a row. As well as ability upgrades, gaining XP unlocks character customisations, including new costumes and accessories. However, these customisations are purely cosmetic and do not affect the strength or skills of your character.
The second gameplay mode is Alliance, which is played cooperatively. There are three teams of six players who are assigned each other's team as a target for the entire five-minute round. You have to assassinate your target while evading death from an opposing team. At the end of the round, the targets switch, ensuring that everyone gets a turn at assassinating each other. Like in Wanted mode, you're awarded with XP for killing targets, using stealth, and escaping. However, there are additional points up for grabs by helping a teammate with a kill. This can take the form of distracting your target while your teammate takes the kill, or you can simultaneously kill the opposing team's players. We found this mode to be a lot of fun, and by working with our teammate we were able to execute some amazing-looking kills. By using the height of buildings, we could sneak up on our target and take them down in one swift move without their knowing what hit them. However, this did make us more vulnerable to being seen after the kill, and often we found ourselves being killed instantly afterwards by our pursuer. At times we were also too eager to attack, which gave our position away. This meant our targets had the ability to stun us, giving them a 10-second head start before we could chase them.
Of course, that is also incredibly useful when on the receiving end of an attack, and the extra 10 seconds made all the difference between surviving and being killed. To help with escaping, each map had active elements, such as doors and gates, which shut behind us when we sprinted through them. Later, we were able to exact our revenge on our would-be assassins, which made the kills all the more satisfying. Speaking of kills, there are a number of gruesome death animations, which are unique to each character. Some of them involved the slitting of throats, while others showed knives going right through our victim's body. One of the more hilarious kills involved a stunned character. After we recognised one of our pursuers, we stunned him, only to find that his pursuers were right behind him. They proceeded to kill their target by simply kicking him in the head once and running off--the most humiliating of deaths.
Though we had fun, we did find some niggles with the beta build of the multiplayer. At times it was difficult to see who our targets were, even after we had identified them, meaning we often killed civilians by mistake. It was also impossible to escape assassination once our opponent had hit the button on his controller, meaning that even if we spotted him just before, there was no way to avoid our death with a timely button press. Despite this, Brotherhood’s multiplayer is a lot more fleshed out than we expected. A full levelling system, along with customisable abilities and characters means there's a lot to get stuck into. It also shares its single-player counterpart's good looks, with a large amount of detail on show in each location. Also impressive is the number of NPC characters on each map, which makes each locale feel like a living, breathing place, and without any significant amount of lag.
The Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer beta launches on September 27 for PlayStation Network Plus users only. Players who preorder the game from select retailers will be able to get access to the beta on October 4. The full game is due for release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on November 19, with the PC following in 2011.