Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed games are the video game world's version of period pieces. They have splendidly realized historical locations, stunning costume design, a bit of class-driven drama, and a healthy dash of bloody murder.
Well, more than a dash, really. This is a video game about assassins, after all.
But there's good reason for the violence. Players assume the role of a modern-day man named Desmond who, through a device called an "animus," is able to remember and relive the experiences of his long-dead ancestors, many of whom were part of an ancient order of assassins dedicated to battling the Templars, a rival sect focused on controlling human civilization. There's more to it than that – the wider story serves up weird twists and cliff-hanger endings on par with Lost – but suffice to say we're fighting to save humanity.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, sequel to the series' second entry, picks up where its predecessor left off, with Desmond remembering the life of Ezio, a charming 15th-century Italian assassin in Rome. With its stunning architecture and sophisticated culture, the Eternal City makes an ideal setting for an Assassin's Creed game. Ubisoft's gifted artists have painstakingly recreated her landmarks as well as the elaborate styles of the time, and the studio's writers use the city's fertile political ground to continue growing their quasi-historical myth.
- The Goods Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC The good: Original and compelling online multiplayer mode makes players each other’s assassination targets. Recruiting, training, and deploying assassins adds a completely new dimension to the story mode. Combat much improved through proactive offensive capabilities. Less repetitive than previous entries. The bad: The single-player campaign doesn’t last quite as long as its predecessors. The verdict: This Renaissance-era sequel-to-a-sequel fixes its predecessors’ problems and incorporates satisfying new elements, making for one of the very best action-adventure games of 2010.
Enchanting as it may be, this virtual Rome takes a back seat to the action. Our protagonist's parkour-like movement remains intact, but the series' blade-based battles have received a significant overhaul. The guard-and-counter philosophy of games past has been usurped by a new combat paradigm that favours proactive offence. Fights are now fun, not tedious.
We also have a new ability to create a fraternity of assassins. The civilians Ezio helps in the streets flock to his banner, and we can send them on missions throughout Europe to hone their skills. Once trained, they become invaluable assets. Simply target an enemy and tap a button to have them descend. They're a satisfying addition. What's more, they create a genuine sense of widespread revolt that makes the notion of Rome's civil rebellion much more plausible than if just one man were doing all the work.
Then there's online play – a first for the franchise. Here's how it works: Players casually walk through busy mezzanines trying to blend in with the crowd. They're all assassins on the hunt for a specific target – another player. The catch: Other players may be stalking them. It's an exercise in healthy paranoia. You need to scan faces to find your mark, but you must also watch the crowd for unusual activity. Is that really just a courtesan sitting quietly on a bench, or another player lying in wait? Get jittery and you'll likely be identified by both your prey and pursuers.
It's completely original and devilishly habit-forming. The only thing keeping me from jumping online right now is that I have work left in the equally engaging story mode. Indeed, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a complete package; a double threat of single- and multi-player gaming, and among of the very best interactive experiences of 2010.
Special to The Globe and Mail