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There are a number of key differences between Assassin’s Creed II and its follow-up, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, but if there’s one that some PC enthusiasts will appreciate the most, it’s that Ubisoft’s stringent copy-protection scheme has been jettisoned. This is cause for celebration in itself, though it’s the captivating beauty and joyous exploration that make Brotherhood another standout in this ever-evolving franchise. The Assassin’s Creed games have gone to great lengths to depict their environments and circumstances with painstaking historical authenticity, and Brotherhood is no exception. Its stunning re-creation of Rome will have you occasionally gasping at its beauty–the sun so bright, you can almost feel it warming your skin. A disappointing story, some audiovisual glitches, and a few other missteps might occasionally yank you from your reverie. But if you worried that a direct sequel released so soon after Assassin’s Creed II would feel rushed or incomplete, then rest your mind: Brotherhood is a big, high-quality sequel deserving of both your time and money.
6305818This heartbreaking circumstance is one Ezio understands all too well.None
Brotherhood doesn’t quite have the same emotional impact as its fantastic predecessor, however. Once again, you don the robes of master assassin Ezio Auditore. After a battle at the family’s villa in Monteriggioni, Ezio’s nemesis, Cesare Borgia, steals the all-important artifact known as the Apple of Eden. With the help of Caterina and other old friends, Ezio heads to Rome to retrieve the Apple and rid the city of Borgia influence. There’s a bit of drama when an associate is accused of betrayal, but for the most part, Brotherhood’s plot is the most straightforward in the series, and because Ezio exhibits little personal growth, there’s a hint of staleness to his escapades. You don’t play just as Ezio, however: you once again take on the role of Desmond, the modern-day bartender-turned-lab-rat who relives Ezio’s memories inside a machine called an animus. He has a greater role to play in Brotherhood than in the previous two games combined, and his endgame actions lead to an astounding finale that rivals Assassin’s Creed II’s for pure shock value.
The plot may not be intricate, but a cast of excellent characters makes it easy to stay invested. One of them is Salai, Leonardo da Vinci’s assistant and a mischievous rascal who enjoys flirting with Ezio as much as he does playing dice. You meet him in a set of missions called The Da Vinci Disappearance, which were released as premium downloadable content for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. Salai’s impish grin and cascading curls make him an excellent addition; however, most of Brotherhood’s leading players are returning ones. You once again spend time with Caterina Sforza, Nicolo Machiavelli, and Ezio’s sister Claudia, though the game’s most memorable presence is that of a new character: Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare’s sister–and lover. Lucrezia’s sharp tongue is matched by her severe, almost vampiric appearance, and she isn’t afraid to test the boundaries of human decency in the pursuit of power. Wonderful voice acting brings all of these characters to life. When Claudia stands up to her overbearing brother, you hear the strength in her voice and appreciate how much she has grown. Salai’s overt lustfulness might make you squirm, but a charming voice-over gives him too much clever twinkle for you to ever lose patience.
While Brotherhood’s story falls short of series standards, its sense of place and time is as impeccable as fans could possibly hope for. You spend the majority of the time in Rome, and while you may miss exploring multiple cities, the city is nevertheless huge and gorgeous, brimming with so much visual variety and exquisite detail that Brotherhood feels as consequential as its forebears. You might roam into a cathedral to discover a palatial view punctuated by red tapestries and golden candelabras. Citizens wandering the streets munch on apples, carry lanterns in the evening, and flirt with each other behind pillars. The music enhances the atmosphere with operatic soprano warbles and French horn melodies. The production values are unfortunately undercut by occasional bugs. Combat might go eerily silent, or the music might not kick in when you scan the city from atop a perch. Button prompts may not appear when they’re supposed to, and on some machines, menu text may not display. The way citizens might suddenly pop into view can be distracting–as can occasional frame rate hitches during cutscenes. There is also a series of missions framed as flashbacks in which Ezio is to appear in different clothing. However, if you don the special armor set included with this version, he might not be shown in the proper clothes in these missions. These are minor but noticeable blemishes in a game that otherwise looks and sounds superb.
Within this grand world is a ton of stuff to do. The staples of the series–rooftop platforming, blending with crowds, silent assassinations, rhythmic swordplay–have all returned, and most have been enhanced or adjusted in some way. It’s as joyous as ever to bound across roofs and climb to the tops of towers. Lifts that rapidly fling you to a rooftop are a great new addition and provide a second of high-speed thrills, though the movement mechanics are generally the same as before–it’s the architecture and level design that have been altered for the better. As in Assassin’s Creed II, you may search for glyphs hidden on walls and on rooftops, and they are perceptible only when you activate eagle vision. Finding one allows you to solve a puzzle, which in turn unlocks a small hint of a larger mystery. While most of these glyphs took only a modicum of effort to find before, many are now hidden on sizable landmarks with tons of nooks and crannies to explore. Expect to put in more effort if you hope to uncover more of the conspiracy that drives the series. Luckily, it isn’t wasted effort: ledges and outcroppings are carefully and intelligently placed, which makes it a pleasure to climb these structures, whether you opt for a keyboard and mouse, or prefer to plug in a controller.
Many towers you climb don’t allow you to simply ascend with little care; they require more conscientious navigation. In fact, numerous towers not only require climbing, but must be burned to the ground as well. The Borgias have spread their influence around Rome, and to undermine their rule, you destroy their edifices. Before you can do that, you must assassinate a commander in the vicinity. Often, your target will flee if you directly engage the guards that surround him, so you will want to approach carefully. In many cases, this gives you a chance to put a new weapon, the crossbow, to good use. Not only is it handy for picking off one of these key figures, but it’s also useful should a number of enemies charge you on horseback. In any case, once you have offed the key officer, you may climb to the top of the nearby tower and torch it. Afterward, you automatically take a leap of faith into a hay bale or wagon of leaves conveniently placed beneath, while melodramatic organ chords signal the importance of your endeavor.
Eliminating Borgia influence is important because you then gain access to local vendors, though this access isn’t immediate. The economy, an interesting but messy feature in last year’s installment, has been fleshed out in smart ways. As before, you must spend money to make money, but Brotherhood’s catalog contains a lot of big-ticket items. If you want access to blacksmiths, doctors, tailors, and so on, you first must purchase and renovate their shops. Not only does renovating an empty storefront give you access to supplies, but it also begins to generate income. As you bring in money, you eventually purchase landmarks, which cost a tidy sum. In addition, the PC version includes an online investment feature. By holding the space bar on the map screen, you can see where other players are investing their money. Investing in a popular business increases the amount of cash you earn from it, and you earn specialty items when you reach certain investment milestones. You also find such items (prayer beads, diamonds, jars of leeches) when looting corpses and treasure chests, and when tackling escaping pickpockets. These items can be offered to designated vendors in return for high-quality weapons, tougher armor, and the like.