A good assassin benefits from having minions. That's what I learned watching some of the single-player portion of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood this week.
At a PlayStation press event in New York, I sat beside Ubisoft brand manager Eric Gallant as he played two few-minute bits of Brotherhood and explained how the life and abilities of Assassin's Creed II hero Ezio Auditore da Firenze changes in the new game.
I'll describe the two sections in reverse order so that Assassin's Creed fans who want to avoid plot spoilers can eagle-dive their way out of this story before having Brotherhood plot details ruined.
Most of Brotherhood's single-player campaign is in set in Rome, which Gallant said is three times larger than ACII's Florence and more dense with interior locations. The year for this scene was 1503. Somewhere in Rome, Ezio was scampering over rooftops. Nearby, a guard stood on a rooftop, watching for trouble. He hadn't seen Ezio yet. There was a higher rooftop near the guard, about a story or two up from hs position. With a press of a controller button Gallant had Ezio raise a fist. Suddenly another assassin appeared on that highest rooftop and jumped down onto the guard for the kill.
Gallant brought Ezio down to street level and had him walk toward a church. In Ezio's way stood a wall of armored guards. Gallant raised the fist. Arrows from unseen helpers rained onto the guards.
The demo moved into the church where I learned that Brotherhood's designers have no greater hesitation about having you kill evil clergy than ACII's did. Gallant showed off Ezio's new crossbow by aiming and firing at some wicked priest. This scene was a showdown. Ezio's helper assassins had run around the inside of the church's dome before descending to help the fight. They were effective fighters and helped clean the room of evildoers.
Ezio will have to work to recruit and train his assassin squad, Gallant told me. A player won't always have minions and could find themselves in that church mission with fewer helpers. Having minions handy could make a mission easier, so there is incentive to keep some at the ready. I wasn't shown how you do this training nor was it clear how often Ezio can summon help. The effect of bringing in the other assassins seemed similar to being able to call in artillery strikes in a military game, an interesting tactical addition to the Assassin's Creed formula.
Having picked Assassin's Creed II as my favorite game of last year I had more than a professional interest in finding out more about Brotherhood. I was curious if Desmond, the modern era real protagonist of the series, would be back in Brotherhood. He will be, Gallant said, but that part of the game is secret.
There will be more city-building in the new game, an expansion of the upgrading of the villa in Assassin's Creed. Gallant didn't show me this but said that players will be rebuilding parts of Rome.
And will the campaign compare in scale to the previous game, despite Brotherhood appearing to be developed in a shorter time frame? Gallant said there will be the "same depth to the campaign," at the very least. He said development of some parts of Brotherhood, such as the multiplayer, has been going on for two years.
Gallant broke down the division of labor among the five Ubisoft studios working on the game. Ubisoft Montreal is again leading the effort, though no longer with departed Assassin's Creed director Patrice Desilets (series writer Corey May's involvement does continue). A team in Annecy, France, that worked on the multiplayer of Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is doing the multiplayer. Ubi's Singapore studio, which made the popular platforming-based "secret locations" in ACII is back to do the same in Brotherhood. The company's Quebec Studio is designing "special missions" for the game and a team in Bucharest is doing "technical" work.
The first thing that Gallant showed me, the part you don't want to read about if you want Brotherhood's plot to surprise you, involved an early scene in the game. As this scene opens Ezio is asleep with a woman in his bed, back in the villa players developed in ACII. Ezio is awoken by an attack. Cesare Borgia, the son of the pope Ezio fights near the end of ACII, is laying siege to the expansive walled villa and surrounding town.
Ezio's uncle Mario tries to rally Ezio, who is soon leaping from bed, out of his home, running across rooftops and onto a horse which he can ride in the town. Soon he is running to the top of the walls surrounding his vast villa. Borgia's army, siege towers and all, is amassed outside. Briefly, Ezio can use a cannon to fire at Borgia's forces.
On the walls Ezio can also tangle with enemy foot soldiers. During that scuffle, Gallant told me combat would be more complex in the new game. What I saw didn't look all that different from previous AC games, but Gallant pointed out that animations transitioned more quickly, that enemies didn't wait as long for their turn to rush in and attack and that Ezio could combine two-handed blade and gun attacks to punishing effect (he could also throw an axe he took from an enemy). The scene climaxed with the villa in ruins. Borgia was triumphant, and Mario was dead.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood looked technically impressive and sports some interesting new gameplay elements. What drew me in most to the last AC game, though, was the fiction, the intertwining mysteries and conspiracies of the assassin's guild and its centuries-spanning enemies. That's the kind of stuff Ubisoft has never shown in advance of the release of an Assassin's Creed game and it's not something I expect to see now. Brotherhood could be a less relevant off-shoot or a key advance in Assassin's Creed's master plot. It's impossible to say.
It's only possible to say that it looks like Brotherhood will play well and look as architecturally impressive as the last Assassin's Creed. The game ships this November on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.