'Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood'

With only a year in between "Assassin's Creed II" and "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood," it's truly amazing just how much Ubisoft Montreal was able to refine this franchise's gameplay. But improvements don't just stop at gameplay. There's more depth in Ezio's world, from setting to side quests, and a new element of dynamism breathes grandeur into this title that was lacking in "ACII."

The "AC" combat system has always been a blotch on these otherwise great games, but Ubisoft remedied that problem. "AC:B" introduces a new chaining system similar to that found in "Batman: Arkham Asylum." When in combat, you can bat away at opponents with your weapons until their armor finally gives way, or you can counter. In the past, this was the go-to strategy, but now is system is more dynamic. Once you perform your first counter, by aiming the left stick towards another enemy and pressing the attack button, you'll lunge at that enemy and perform a quick-kill, and so on. It does vary because guards frequently attack in the middle of a chain. Yet you can continue the chain by countering, or dodging said attack. Sub-weapons also zest up chaining. Particular weapons, like the sword and knife, automatically bring sub-weapons, like the pistol and throwing knives. After any counter or dodge in your chain, if you hold the attack button instead of just pressing it, you'll activate your sub-weapon. So after a sword counter, you can quickly aim your pistol and fire. Sometimes, if you're close enough to your next target, you can even impale them with the hidden blade to drag them in line with another enemy, thus taking out multiple guards with a single shot (this is with the sword/pistol configuration only). The result is the sort of graceful and lethal flourish in combat you would expect from Ezio, truly a splendor to witness.

As a vivid and thorough set piece, Rome really lends itself to the "Assassin's Creed" experience. Over millennia in age during Ezio's time, there's plenty of architecture in ruins from the empire that's perfect for free-running. Plus, old cities like Rome are brimming with secret areas and ruins to be discovered, and "AC:B" takes full advantage of that. The Romulus armor side quest involves free-running puzzles set within the ancient bowels of the city. But instead of just static free-running, you also face-off with Romulus cultists in these lairs, adding another layer of strategy to these puzzles. And if you're really up for a challenge, you can take on the full synchronization time limits. All missions in "AC:B" have half- and full-synchronization conditions. Sometimes it involves going an entire mission without being detected, or assassinating with a particular method, and if you accomplish the requirement, you gain 100 percent synchronization as opposed to only half. With the Romulus lair puzzles, it's always a time limit. Winding crypts and bottomless pits, paired with ill-tempered cultists provides challenging gameplay. Rome also curbs the fact that the game only takes place in one city. Rome's geography varies so drastically from one quarter to another, that you frequently forget you're still in the same city. One moment you're winding down narrow alleyways on your horse, only to turn a corner and find yourself in a huge open field. And that's not even taking the monuments into account, and yes, you do get a Coliseum and Pantheon mission.

And overall, there's just much more to do than in its successor's. "AC II" gave us assassination-contract hits and races next to the main story and that was about it. Along with the Romulus armor quest, there are also challenges and missions specific to the courtesan, thief, and mercenary guilds, which may involve anything from gaining so-many stealth kills, or performing, so-many disarms. In the fight to liberate Rome from Borgia hegemony, you have to take on mini-district bosses. You have to stealthily approach many of these captains of the Borgia guard deep in their towers. Several troops that can sound the alarm are also in your way to the captains which do run from you and can escape. Then there's also the Leonardo war-machine missions. These require you to infiltrate Borgia camps, then steal, and destroy the machines, such as a rudimentary gatling gun and gun-boat. The result is some of the most thrilling and Bay-esque explosive action Ezio will ever face. Simply put, you'll have plenty to do and hours of gameplay. Plus, take into account that you can replay any mission, you really have a generous helping of assassin action.

"Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood" really defied expectations with such a short turn-around time. The sort of full-bodied, satisfying experience that seemed lacking in "AC II," now gluts players with the sheer mass of missions and side quests. And not just throw-away missions either, but quality ones where tact and planning always leads to thrilling gameplay. This franchise has finally hit the point where it's truly catching its stride, blossoming into the better half of its potential. Marauding about Rome like an Italian ninja, hidden blades, friends like Leonardo Da Vinci, and that really sweet outfit; "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood" really provides one of the most unique experiences in gaming today. If this is just a corollary to "AC II," I can't wait to see what waits for us in the next full Assassin's Creed chapter.

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Video Games: 'Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood'

Article: Copyright © Tribune Media Services