Last year saw the arrival of Assassinâ€™s Creed 2. A classy and beautiful game, it delivered on the promise of 2007s original take on the world of ancestral memories, scaling buildings and stealth kills. With Assassinâ€™s Creed: Brotherhood due out later this year, Ubisoft Montreal have opened an online beta to give us another taste of what Renaissance Italy would have been like if it was packed full of cold blooded killers all looking to slit your throat.
Brotherhood continues the story of Desmond Miles, following him back into the minds and bodies of his murderous forefathers. Returning again as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Desmond lives the life and learns the skills of the Italian Nobleman as he builds his own brotherhood of assassins. This time, included with the singleplayer storyline, is an innovative take on online multiplayer combat.
The premise for the online multiplayer is that the Templars, through Abstergo Industries, have developed Animi to download assassin skills into their own agents. Once the skills have been gathered, the Templars enter training grounds to practice. So, you are a part of a group of Templars preparing to take on the Assassins, honing your newly acquired abilities against each other in a brutal game of kill or be killed.
In the opening menu you get to choose from eight different characters. There is the Noble with his cape making him look like an evil hunchbacked Richard the third, the beautiful Courtesan, and the blood smeared Executioner. While all of them play exactly the same, each has a wonderfully unique look and their own deadly, and trade appropriate tools to perform their kills. For example, the bespectacled Engineer, walking straight out of an episode of Blackadder, is very quick to stab an opponent through the head with his large drafting compass. Alternatively, The Doctor, in an insane bird-like mask and carrying an enormous black syringe, makes you wonder why anyone back in the fifteenth century would seek medical help for anything.
Once you choose your character you can play through the quick tutorial. You are placed on the cobbled streets of Rome. Everything looks great, all the textures are sharp and detailed and the streets are bustling with NPCs. On one side of the HUD you have a small picture of your target, while centred near the bottom of the screen is your circular compass. As you search for your target the compass indicates what direction they are and how close. Once you find them it is a matter of hitting the square button when the icon appears over your targetâ€™s head, and your mulletted Barber goes to work with his straight razor. After a couple more training kills, focusing on chasing down targets and getting close to them undetected, you are ready to play the game proper.
While the Beta has the options to start your own session and invite your friends, there is a quick play option to take you straight to the action. Once you have found a session and a full compliment of players, the game gets very interesting, and pretty tricky, rather quickly. You are dropped onto either the streets of Rome, in and around Castel Gandolfo, or into the night time setting of Siena, and assigned a target to find and kill. The streets, wherever the location, are packed with NPCs all using the same skins as the playable characters. So among all this activity you have to find your target, try to identify the other playable agents and kill them all, while trying not to make it too obvious who you are.
To be ranked first at the end of the session you have two playing styles to choose from.
You can run around franticaly, bumping into NPCs, climbing up buildings, killing innocents, all the time hunting down your target. However, doing this makes it easy for other agents to identify you. When they do, they can target you. Fortunately, your HUD shows how many agents have targeted you. Once theyâ€™re after you, you need to keep running to stay ahead of them, hide in the various alleys, crowds or hay stacks, or outflank them and stun them.
The other way to play is to take it slowly, carefully, and blend in. You can walk around in crowds keeping an eye out for other agents as they run around, climbing walls or performing their own kills. Then itâ€™s your turn to deal out some Renaissance style death.
For every kill you get rewarded with XP. Hidden kills, acrobatic kills and discreet kills all earn you XP bonuses. Escaping and stunning agents will also rack up the points. Because of the gameâ€™s levelling system, the XP is vital to doing well. In the beta you canâ€™t limit the session searches so you are always coming up against more skilful agents who have gained various abilities and rewards. Early on you can get a speed burst while later you can activate the kill streak bonus that awards you XP for chaining kills. There are defensive abilities like smoke bombs and offensive abilities such as the hidden gun for ranged kills and poison. With poison, you can walk past an agent, kill them, and then fade into the crowd. When they drop dead no one in the game has the faintest idea who did it. A very satisfying assassin style kill.
Assassinâ€™s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer looks very promising, and, like the whole series, is an inventive twist on a familiar formula. In the beta you can play either the eight-player ten minute Wanted Mode or the cooperative Alliance Mode where three two-player teams battle it out over eight frantic minutes. While the beta had some issues with characters dropping in and out and freezing, along with a few sound glitches, it looked gorgeous. The character design is very engaging and the pakour climbing animations are fluid and effortless to master. While the maps aren't huge, each has its own aesthetic, with the tall buildings of Rome contrasting with the lavish interiors of Castel Gandolfo. The night time market in Siena looks especially good, but in the beta the location you end up in is randomly selected, so I killed mainly in Rome.
In the multiplayer mode of Assassinâ€™s Creed: Brotherhood there are no combat controls other then the square or circle icons that appear over a characterâ€™s head. So there can be a lot of frustration if the icons donâ€™t appear for one reason or another. This is especially true when you are left standing there wondering why you canâ€™t kill the agent youâ€™ve had in your sights for five minutes, as some smoking hot, level twenty Courtesan drops from above, flips over your back and slashes open your throat with her bladed fan. But then if you have to die, that might just be the way to go.
The Good: Dozens of hot Courtesans
The Bad: Being chased by level 20 assassins
The Ugly: 15th Century Italian medical services