Ah, middle management. If you're good at something, sooner or later you get promoted out of it and have to admire it from above while you do something less innocent. As Ezio Auditore is discovering in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, it happens to the best of us.
Fortunately for the player, however, Ezio is an assassin, and while Brotherhood makes a big deal out of recruiting, developing and deploying a band of brother assassins, he's not averse to a bit of micromanagement either. This is to say he still likes climbing around cities - in this case Rome, three times the size of the last game's Florence - and stabbing people to death while peering out from under that iconic eagle-head hoodie.
Recruitment is done in a few ways. One of them is to help rebellious citizens who are taking the fight to the Borgia - the bullying Templars who have the city under their control - by diving in and mashing up guards who are threatening them. Once a rebel is liberated he kneels and swears allegiance to Ezio.
Ezio can organise his minions from pigeon coops, sending individuals on contract missions around the world - to poison the food of a German monk, for example. The game shows you their odds of success and if they do make it back then they earn money and experience points which you can invest in their growth. If the odds are too long though they may die, even if they're level 10, and that will mean recruiting a replacement and starting over.
The more recruits you have, the more you can deploy in gameplay. In the demo we're shown, Ezio finds himself in front of a boarded-up shopfront guarded by a pair of Borgia soldiers. He whistles and the two assassins indicated by the two segments on his assassin bar in the top left appear on a nearby rooftop, pause, then rain down from above, assassinating the two guards with simultaneous knife attacks to the throat - that telltale blade noise left ringing in the air.
You can recruit new assassins by getting rid of Borgia towers too. There are 12 such towers around the city and each has a zone of influence, which suppresses local trade (like our boarded-up shop) and regulates the citizenry. The one we're worried about at the moment is visible up on a ridge. To reach it Ezio has to clamber up crumbling columns in a pleasingly puzzly, circuitous platform approach that eventually hurls him into the catacombs beneath the tower.
The familiar Restricted Area notice appears on the screen - a reminder that we're still within the framed narrative of the Animus - and the map shows us deep within its red boundaries, meaning that guards will attack on sight. In this case there's one just up ahead at the top of a ladder, facing away. Ezio climbs up and pulls him backwards over the edge, leaving him in a pile at the bottom.
A couple of nearby guards at the foot of the ladder are alerted by the commotion and wander over to investigate their colleague, but before they decide to look up Ezio is already on the way down - leaping through the air to assassinate them both simultaneously.
Further inside, however, a Borgia leader spots Ezio and decides to leg it. Ezio has to chase him down and take him out, or else he will need to wait until the changing of the guard at dusk or dawn to try this approach again. So naturally he makes haste, swerving around guards who block his path, hopping athletically over obstacles and eventually pouncing on his prey in trademark fashion.
Now he's almost in the tower. There are more guards to deal with using Brotherhood's refined combat system, which puts the emphasis on striking first and striking fast. Skills beget kills, and if you make a few successive kills then more will follow in fluid fashion - so long as your button input is sufficiently fluent.
Of course Ezio is never alone now, so once the crowd becomes a little large for his liking he whistles and his fellow assassins emerge, pouncing this way and that to dispense with the Borgia minions. There's a cool-down period attached to assassin usage, perhaps because the effect of fighting alongside these fast-moving, balletic death machines is almost as beguiling as Ezio's effortless charm.
Each Borgia tower involves a tricky final ascent, like the viewpoints in previous games. Once Ezio has killed everyone and made it to the top the final step is the tower's destruction, which sends a message to the local citizenry that the Borgia's grip on that area is broken. Ezio torches the building in a cut-scene and it's left burning as he makes his escape - not by diving into a bale of hay, for once, but by using another of Leonardo da Vinci's helpful inventions: the parachute.
The parachute, which looks precarious but does what you'd expect, is manoeuvrable enough that Ezio is even able to land directly on a horse. They can now be used in cities and we see some other good horsey actions too. At one point Ezio leaps from a rooftop to assassinate a Borgia soldier on horseback, taking his ride in the process, and elsewhere he finds an armoured horse. As he passes under some wooden beams he swings himself upwards to land on a nearby ledge.
With the Borgia tower gone the people will be friendlier to Ezio, and he can also take advantage of the reopened shops. It will also be possible to upgrade buildings you liberate. After Assassin's Creed II's wonderful cities, full to the brim with collectables, expect Rome to offer many such diversions - and we're also told to expect moneyboxes again, along with collectable flags.
Collectables will appear in eagle vision and have better marking on the map, so it should be easier to gather the remaining view, rather than having to go painstakingly to every location using a walkthrough. Feathers, eh?
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On top of that you can expect variations on other popular themes. The assassin tombs from ACII won't be replicated exactly, but similar linear platform puzzle sequences will make it in, and Ubisoft hopes to ramp up the replay value in other ways.
You will have the option to replay missions you've completed, and you will also be able to read how Ezio did it - perhaps by pure stealth rather than confrontation. If you can match his feat then the Animus will give you 100 per cent synchronisation with that memory.
Customisation will also feature - whether it's choosing outfit colours for your assassin recruits, or buying specific weapons and upgrades from Leonardo to suit your play style. Coupled with the combat system refinements, hopefully this will encourage a bit more experimentation and variation in battle as well - throwing spears, for example. How many people who completed ACII ever learned how to kick sand in an enemy's face or trip them with a pike?
At the end of the demo, the camera pulls back and shows us the city of Rome sprawling before us. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood may not be Assassin's Creed III, but Ubisoft has undoubtedly built a huge playground again - and that's to say nothing of the multiplayer modes, either.
Whether fans of the series will accept it as a stopgap remains to be seen, but if this is what Ezio's like when he steps up to a corner office, we can't wait to see how Desmond fares when he eventually brings his skills to bear on the present day after all these years in the incubator.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 19th November 2010, with a PC version to follow next spring.