The Assassin's Creed series has always blended the historical with the fictional to great effect, and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - The Da Vinci Disappearance is no exception. This downloadable add-on introduces a great new character in Salai, Leonardo da Vinci's assistant. It's clear, though, that Salai is more than an errand boy--he's Leonardo's beloved. Not only is this view of the relationship historically accurate, but the game's version of Salai also looks much like the real Salai, at least as modeled in famous da Vinci paintings like John the Baptist. In The Da Vinci Disappearance, Salai is a loudmouthed, flamboyant, and utterly likeable rascal that points you in the right direction when Leonardo goes missing. Apparently, the great thinker is the victim of a kidnapping motivated by his own mystical research. The ensuing adventure starts well and comes to a great finish, though it suffers from some frustrations that cause it to lag in the middle. It is, however, the best downloadable content for an Assassin's Creed game yet, and its intriguing ending makes it a good fit for a franchise steeped in conspiracy.
Salai is the most notable new character, though as hero Ezio Auditore, you also consort with two strong, familiar characters: Leonardo da Vinci (of course) and the inimitable Lucrezia Borgia. Leonardo is smart, scatterbrained, and loveable; Lucrezia is ambitious, manipulative, and shamelessly sexual. An exchange between Ezio and Lucrezia is one of most delightful scenes in the series, and it perfectly sets up the escape that follows. As always, superb voice acting makes all of these characters burst from the screen, but the main players stand out even more here, thanks to the the mischievous ways they interact. That isn't to say that all is fun and games, however. You eventually learn of the mysteries driving Leonardo's disappearance, though uncovering them may lead to some head-scratching moments. Sharing specifics would risk spoiling important plot points, but there are unexplained inconsistencies that occur near the end, which make little sense and come across as mere conveniences meant to bring the story to an easy conclusion. On the bright side, the finale offers a tantalizing morsel of what the series might hold next. It's the kind of vague abstraction that franchise fans love, even if it does little to wrap up what came before.
The escapades surrounding this setup are fun, if inconsistent, and range from superb to annoying. The best missions occur at the beginning and the end. An early platforming sequence has you leaping and swinging across rafters while guards and citizens mill beneath you. It's great fun, especially if you try to stick to the secondary objective of not killing a single guard during the mission. The final stretch raises the standards even higher and easily compares with the best lairs and tombs of previous games. The platforming puzzles here are cleverly crafted, and an air of the supernatural makes the environments a joy to navigate. Other tasks are by-the-book series tropes; for example, you beat up an old nemesis and his cronies, leap across rooftops with Salai, and sneak your way past a bunch of guards. These aren't much different from what you normally would see in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, but they add variety and are perfectly fine on their own terms.
A few other objectives don't work out as well. Assassin's Creed is never at its best when it requires precision because its controls are geared toward fluid parkour--not making exact jumps and using scrupulous stealth. Several missions give you limited time to finish them, such as one in which you must pursue an escaping adversary and tackle him; should he get to a certain point before you succeed, you fail the mission. Chase-and-tackle tasks have rarely been fun in the series, and the timer and large crowd that obstructs you here make this one particularly frustrating. In a similar but untimed mission, you chase a leaping target across rooftops, and doing so is hardly enjoyable. There are trail missions as well, including one in which the character you follow might double back toward you. This mission would be perfectly fine were it not for its extended length; it just goes on and on and on some more, as if it were meant to pad the length of this two- to three-hour journey.
The Da Vinci Disappearance isn't just a set of single-player missions. It also adds content to the multiplayer suite in the form of a new map, new characters, and two new modes: Assassinate and Escort. In Escort, one team protects computer-controlled characters as they wander from checkpoint to checkpoint, while the other team tries to assassinate those non-player characters. Each team takes turns in offensive and defensive roles; the team earning the most points at the end of the match comes out on top. Escort doesn't significantly change the nature of Brotherhood's online play, in which careful observation earns you rewards, and sudden movement makes you a target. But it isn't as satisfying as other modes, in part because assassinating a target NPC causes opposing players to descend on you--your kill turning into a sacrifice that benefits the enemy.
Assassinate is a free-for-all in which the interface gives you only a rough idea of where your nearest competitors are, challenging you to pick them out of the crowd. It takes a short while to get accustomed to this mode's slightly different dynamic; you aren't given an assassination contract that assigns you a single target. However, it's still remarkably tense, eliciting momentary panic when the game indicates that another player has locked on to you. If you didn't take to Brotherhood's online play, this new mode won't inspire you, but regular players will appreciate getting new context in which to exercise their shadowing skills.
The Da Vinci Disappearance is a varied journey, in which you assassinate dockside sentries, make a quick escape from a palatial villa, and mingle at an art show (listen for a shrewd bit of dialogue poking fun at pretentious art lovers). The quality of the content is also varied, but overall, this is a good, affordable (800 Microsoft points/$10) way to revisit Rome. And if you haven't yet abandoned your Italian retreat, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - The Da Vinci Disappearance integrates nicely into the existing content. Either way, the charm of its lead characters, the thrill of its best moments, and the additional online content are enough to make this add-on a winner.