Ubisoft recently put a load of games journalists up in Rome to see the first few hours of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. We didn’t get invited. But we did get to play the game in London just afterwards. Read on for hands-on impressions from the first few hours of the game.
Warning: may contain minor spoilers about the opening. But trust me, it’s better than watching me try to talk about the game without actually talking about the game for a thousand words.
Brotherhood definitely follows the Assassin’s Creed series’ established trajectory. Ubisoft started out with a beautiful world in the first game, but forgot to actually put a game in it. The sequel had considerably more trinkets and things to do, and that a bizarre, obsessive city-management game-within-a-game. Bloodlines has more again. The mini-map is ablaze with enticing icons of inscrutable function. And there’s a whole new meta-game to distract your attention from the fifteen-hour story.
In addition to everything – literally everything – that was present in Assassin’s Creed 2, there’s a squad of novice assassin recruits to train. This is the Brotherhood of the title. Once they’re recruited, Ezio can look at someone, whistle, and one of them will appear from nowhere, stab the target in the neck and disappear. Mildly terrifying, but certainly efficient. These disciples can be sent out on missions to gain experience via a mini-map, increasing their usefulness to you. That’s as far as managing them seems to go, though – you don’t get to play their missions yourself.
When in Rome
It’s a while before the Brotherhood aspect opens up, of course. The game picks up just after Assassin’s Creed 2 finishes, with master assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze in a hidden part of the Vatican, watching a hologram message intended for his descendant Desmond. After getting all angry and confused, his uncle arrives to rescue him, and off they run back to Monteriggioni, escaping papal fury.
Following that brief epilogue, the opening is a pleasant series of little narrative events. Riding up to the city on horseback, Ezio and his uncle chat amiably away, and once they get there, I’m given forty minutes to take up some mini-quests and absorb the atmosphere. A polygonal strumpet offers to reward me with sex for carrying a box of flowers up a hill for her (well, not in those words, exactly, but Ezio certainly doesn’t object), letting slip that there’s a party planned for Ezio in the meantime. Just outside the city walls, someone’s horse has escaped, and I have to run after it and ride it back home.
Up on the city walls, some soldiers are testing cannons, with little success. After finding the supercilious and evidently rather drunk cannon engineer asleep behind a battlement, I get to test out the weapon on the landscape, aiming at cardboard troops. Every time the cannon fires a round, one of the soldiers sneaks around the front to load it with another ball. The sun is setting by this point, casting yellowing light over the ancient buildings of the city as fires and lights go on inside. It looks just lovely, more so than ever.
It’s time to head indoors and meet up with Ezio’s mother, his sister, his uncle, and Caterina Sforza from Assassin’s Creed 2. After relating what he’s been up to – “I went to assassinate the Pope and then a hologram talked nonsense at me for a while”, in brief – he retires upstairs and strips off that fancy armour for a bath. Caterina shows up to join him.
Unfortunately their morning sexy times are interrupted by a cannonball flying through the wall. Now we’re into the E3 demo, with Ezio riding at full pelt through the crumbling city, losing his horse to falling masonry and mounting the wall cannons in his nightshirt to hold off the invaders until everyone has escaped from the city. Turns out all that cannon practice wasn’t for nothing, then.
“Rome is absolutely massive, and breathtakingly pretty”
At this point I’m allowed to skip several hours ahead to a mid-section of the game so that I can play around with my fellow assassins and see how the game develops. Rome is absolutely massive, and breathtakingly pretty, with busy plazas and narrow side-streets that can now be ridden down on horseback; whistle for your horse, and it comes trotting up to your side. More enemies now arrive on horseback, and you can perform horse-to-horse kills.
There are flashback episodes hidden around the city – I encounter one that relates the tale of Ezio’s first meeting with Assassin’s Creed 2 romantic interest, Cristina. The first story mission I find involves escorting a corrupt senator to safety after watching him get beaten up by his debtors. It’s easy to get disorientated in the narrow streets when you can’t simply climb over any obstacles.
Typically, the Senator gets himself spotted by the officials swarming the streets approximately every forty seconds, leaving Ezio to stab his way through six or seven of them before we can move on. The basics of the combat are entirely unchanged (you can still win everything all the time with counter moves), but there are new weapons – most significantly, a crossbow, which deals instant death. He also has a hidden pistol up his sleeve, discharged with a strong attack, that makes the poor guards rather mismatched opponents.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood hasn’t changed much about Assassin’s Creed. Recruiting your own assassins might be new, but it seems like a metagame rather than something that changes the focus of play. This is still all about clambering around sumptuous historical cities whilst trying (and failing) not to be noticed, about getting into scraps with guards in the middle of crowded squares, and about six-inch blades concealed up sleeves.
It’s also still a weird juxtaposition of costume-drama setting and characters and science-fiction-Da-Vinci-Code plot. Who knows where Brotherhood will take us, in that respect. There’s also that interesting multiplayer, which wasn’t part of our playtest, but which has been getting a very positive reception whenever it’s been seen out in the wild.