Not a lot has changed in Renaissance Italy since “Assassin’s Creed 2.”
Rodrigo Borgia, the Templar who rose to the papacy in Ubisoft’s 2009 open-world stealth platformer, steps into the background as his vile son, Cesare, seizes political and military control of Rome. Players return to the memories of Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who penetrates the Italian capital to revive its infrastructure (aqueducts, shops, stables) and repel the Borgia regime. For both Auditore and his present-day ancestor, Desmond Miles, the true object of all the killing and urban renewal is locating the Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact coveted by the Templars and Assassins.
New “Creed” players bewildered by the series’ “Matrix”-but-with-memories premise will benefit from a short, introductory recap of the first two games. Anyone who has played them, however, may not find much drama in “Brotherhood’s” story, which is basically a long denouement. Thankfully, not that long - the main arc clocks in at about 10 to 12 hours.
Though “Brotherhood” returns to the same setting of “2,” it does so with a refreshed palette of sneaky violence. The jagged combat of the last game has been smoothed out with a kill-chain system that, mid-stabbing, lets players pick their next victim and immediately plunge their daggers into his eyeballs as the last body hits the ground. Cutting down groups of guards this way can feel a bit passive, but it’s preferable to the endless parrying of the previous games.
As its name hints, “Brotherhood” also allows players to recruit new Assassins and call them in for back-up, or scatter them to missions in Europe and Asia. In heavy combat they’re a handy asset, and a source of cool visuals when they pounce on the enemies surrounding Ezio as he saunters by.
Some new adventures are thrown into the series’ traditional mission structure of killing, following, killing, escorting, and killing. A side story about Leonardo da Vinci’s creation of crude tanks and machine guns during forced servitude to the Borgia is the basis for a few fun sequences that introduce vehicular combat and rail shooting into the series. (Though, in the early-1500s Italy of “Brotherhood,” an absurd amount of foot soldiers have access to guns and cannons.)
Borgia towers add a strategic dimension to the viewpoint system, a staple of the series in which the character “synchs” the surrounding area with Desmond’s memory from a tall perch. In “Brotherhood,” Ezio must assassinate the Borgia official who lords over the area and run off the guards before scaling the tower and torching it. Doing so drives the oppressors out of the area, and unlocks its landmarks for repair.
For all the innovation in “Brotherhood,” the influence of its predecessors is still felt in ways that weaken the game play. In combat, Ezio enters an “on guard” mode that enables him to parry, and makes his current, illuminated opponent the axis of the camera. But the only way to initiate the mode is to attack. Even if Ezio is repeatedly struck by enemies, the player can’t block unless they take a swing. If they’re aware of this quirk in Ubisoft’s control scheme it’s only a minor problem, but until then, the parry command appears quite fickle. Also, if the current opponent flees, the camera usually stays tethered to him, keeping the player from looking ahead until the guard runs far away.
The AI is once again awful at points in “Brotherhood.” Dozens of guards just stand there with their weapons drawn, watching as Ezio walks up to them and shoves his blade in their stomach. And sometimes, the enemy is actually supposed to be stupid. A late-game mission in which Ezio infiltrates St. Peter’s Basilica to kill a cardinal requires that he “blend in” by walking among the holy crowd. But to any reasonably sighted individual, the Assassin looks ridiculously out of place.
The controls behind the parkour platforming of “Assassin’s Creed” are once again a blessing and a curse in “Brotherhood.” Exciting as it can be to vault atop the ruins of the Colisseum or dive into haystacks from church towers, sometimes simply turning and gripping a nearby ledge can halt the fluidity of Ezio’s movements. Try to do so speedily, and he’ll likely leap backward, potentially off a high ledge.
“Creed’s” often-unwieldy platform controls also factor into the series’ biggest addition in “Brotherhood,” which involves neither Ezio nor Desmond: multiplayer. It’s a thrilling change of pace from the blitzkrieg that is the first-person shooter online deathmatch.
The core premise is the same: Players kill each other and try not to die. But in “Assassin’s Creed’s” crowded town squares and marketplaces, the M.O. is radically different. Players who try running after a target or taking to the rooftops will be spotted and avoided. Even if they chase the mark down, they’ll receive a measly 100 points. But if they calmly approach their target, weave through the clustered townsfolk and pop out of a hay bale, they’ll claim a bounty of several hundred.
Though it lacks the bluster of online shooters, “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer is every bit as full-bodied in features. Between matches, players can choose from about a dozen period avatars, such as the courtesan and artist. A 50-max leveling system lets players customize perks like sprint speed and targeting precision, unlock guns and poisons, and create multiple profiles.
Players may question the quick return of the “Assassin’s Creed” series to Renaissance Italy. But once they’re introduced to the addictive subtlety of the online play in “Brotherhood,” they’ll never want to leave.