Picking up directly where the superb Assassin's Creed 2 left off, Brotherhood is a weird sort of semi-sequel. With mostly the same cast, the same technology and the same period setting, it is not quite different enough to be the third episode in the series, yet it is much, much more than a glorified expansion pack. By honing and intelligently adding to the style and gameplay of its Renaissance masterpiece, Ubisoft has created the best Assassin's Creed yet.
For fear of spoilers we won't go too far into the plot, but Brotherhood takes our hero, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, to the Eternal City, Rome, where he once again finds himself in conflict with the Templers, and their public manifestation in the ruthless Borgia family. Meanwhile, in the present day his descendent, Desmond, is on the run from Aspergo, the corporate front for the modern Templers, using the Assassin's rogue Animus machine to plug into his Italian ancestor's memories and - maybe - save the world.
What follows won't be too unfamiliar to fans of the series, as Ezio explores Rome, clambering up famous landmarks, taking on missions and slaying Borgia targets, conspirators and hapless lackeys by their dozens. The basic mix of clambering, free-running, stealth and hand-to-hand combat really hasn't changed all that much. The controls, which make the business of climbing, killing and leaping from turret to chimney to window ledge ridiculously simple, are pretty much unaltered. If you played and loved Assassin's Creed 2, then Brotherhood is going to seem as comfortable and familiar as an old T-Shirt.
That's all great, but we're still not too far from a straight expansion. Has anything changed? Well, the missions are even more streamlined and well-designed than they were in Assassin's Creed 2, meaning that this is one open-world adventure that's incredibly low on down-time, and that there's enough variety in the missions to get and keep you hooked. Ubisoft has even achieved a minor miracle: making the modern day sequences with Desmond interesting, and Brotherhood feels more like two related stories running in tandem rather than one meaty tale and one tedious framing story. Brotherhood even gives you a certain amount of control over where and when you flick between Ezio's and Desmond's stories, which actually makes the game seem a more unified whole.
Plus, after a slightly slow start, Rome reveals itself as a brilliant location, significantly larger than Venice and Florence in Assassin's Creed 2, and surprisingly varied, with its packed urban neighbourhoods, wide open spaces, crumbling Imperial ruins and luxurious palazzi. As before, playing Brotherhood will be an even bigger treat if you've actually been to the Italian capital, and climbing up the Coliseum or infiltrating the Castel Sant'Angelo is as big a thrill here as clambering around on the Campanile or the Doge's palace was last time around.
Once again, the blurring of historical fact with fantasy works brilliantly, and while scholars might tut at the representation of the Borgias, Da Vinci and Machiavelli, the game still skilfully weaves real events and people in with fictional ones, while delivering likeable heroes, hissable villains and a strong supporting cast. History might not record a catfight between Lucrezia Borghia and Caterina Sforza, but Ubisoft knows that this is how you make (a nutty, fictionalised version of) the past come to life. What's more, the Borgia goons, innocent bystanders and crowds are even more believable than they were in Assassin's Creed 2. There's still some repetition of dialogue, but the days of "I'll have your hand for that" now seem long ago.
Most of all, however, Brotherhood delights because there is just so much to do. Beyond the basic missions we still get the item collecting, assassination and thievery bonus missions we saw in Assassin's Creed 2, but on top of them the new game adds a whole range of activities which fit in seamlessly with the experience as a whole. For a start, you can take Rome district by district from the Borgias, which involves slaying their local captain then climbing their tower of power and setting it alight. You don't have to do it, but you'll find it easier to get through open districts than Borgia controlled ones, and getting rid of the local Borgia bigwig will give you leeway to re-open pharmacies, blacksmiths and other operations. Not only can you use these to heal and resupply, but they'll bring in money, functioning much as the town improvements did in Assassin's Creed 2.
What's more, Rome has a particularly nasty secret society - the Brotherhood of Romulus - which is secreting ancient treasures in the temples and catacombs around the city. Each of these lairs is a new platforming challenge, taking Assassin's Creed further into Prince of Persia territory than it has ever gone before. Again, you don't have to do every one, but the more you do, the more equipment and benefits you'll gain.
And finally, Brotherhood does introduce one major new element: the Assassin's Guild. It turns out that by intervening in fights between Borgia thugs and stout-hearted rebels, Ezio can recruit them into the brotherhood of Assassins. Your new recruits can then be called upon to take down targets for Ezio at a tap of a button, or if Ezio visits his local pigeon coop, they can also be sent off on missions. Here, your assassins are despatched to various European locations, taking on various espionage, defence and hitman missions, thus earning experience for themselves and money for the brotherhood. The experience can be used to develop their skills, adding a simple element of strategy to the action.
All of this can be overwhelming, but Brotherhood takes its own time to remind you of the existing game mechanics and drip feed in the new ones, and it has to be said that it's a very expansive game that will take you days to complete. As if the various bonus objectives weren't enough, Ubisoft has also boosted the replay value with optional goals that ask you to complete a mission without being discovered or wounded, or dispatch an enemy in a specific way. As we said, this isn't some half-arsed expansion.
The icing on the cake is the multiplayer mode, with Templar's undergoing Animus training as assassins, working alone or in teams to hunt down specific targets. The more targets you kill, and the more stealthily and stylishly you do it, the more experience points you get, and these can be spent on perks to improve your chances. It's a unique and interesting cat-and-mouse experience, and a million miles away from the lazy deathmatch game we might have expected. If you're growing tired of military shooters it comes highly recommended.
Being picky, we'd say that the main storyline isn't quite as compelling as Assassin Creed 2's, and that some of that game's sense of wonder has been lost with familiarity. As an overall package, however, Brotherhood is actually the better game, with its tighter mission design, magnificent setting and a fantastic array of things to do. Amazingly, what we had down as a slightly unnecessary, glorified expansion turns out to be one of the must-have games of the winter.