Let's play a word association game. If I was wearing a loud shirt, sporting silly glasses and holding a giant foam hammer, and I shouted 'Assassin's Creed multiplayer!' at you, what would be the words that instinctively tumbled from your mouth? I strongly suspect they'd be 'needless', 'pointless' and 'futile', possibly followed up with, 'Where am I? What's going on?'
You couldn't be blamed for this. There's a grand history of rubbish multiplayer modes built as an afterthought, for the sake of emblazoning the game box. There have also been plenty of decent stabs at online play sent out to die at the hands of monolithic competition and under-populated servers.
What's more, when games like Assassin's Creed and Dead Space - both famed for strong solo narrative experiences - suddenly get lumbered with multiplayer, it all seems ever more frivolous and unnecessary.
I can't speak for Dead Space 2. But having experienced the multiplayer aspect of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I can only apologise for imagining those cynical associations popping into your head. This is an interesting, engaging and welcome addition to the series, and it's quite different to anything already available on consoles.
You play as an Abstergo agent honing your assassin-murdering skills within the original Animus - not the one Desmond's merged with in AC2 and Brotherhood single-player. Because you're no longer inside the rather ramshackle affair maintained by Danny "bloody" Wallace, the UI and menu screens within the MP contingent feature the sleek white colours and stark geometry of the first game.
The primary multiplayer mode is called Wanted. It's a cat and mouse affair where everyone is the cat, yet simultaneously the mouse. Each of the eight players chooses their character's appearance – sultry Courtesan, hook-masked doctor or hooded executioner - before entering the map. The trick is that each castle and city is flooded with the familiar NPC crowds, and many of these aimless wanderers are direct doppelgangers of you and your prey.
Upon spawning, you're given a target and an approximate compass bearing. You then head off to make a killing, knowing any non-NPC-like behaviour will make it obvious to your own pursuer that it's slow-motion stabbystab-stab-stab time.
It's a gameplay idea that's already been used to middling effect on PC in The Ship, but here the action has a faster pace and a greater feeling of consistency. Indeed, just to pre-empt the comments thread, it's worth noting that the developers at Ubisoft Annecy claim to have come across The Ship long after they'd come up with their own premise.
That idea was inspired by the real-world people-hunting game Assassin (as detailed on Wikipedia). The Ubi boss types decided it wasn't a strong enough concept to merit the launch of new IP, so it was merged into ongoing Assassin's Creed battleplans instead.
As pursuer in Brotherhood, however, you won't be an annoying student armed with eggs and water. Every character has a unique hidden melee weapon with which to take down targets.
You'll find yourself in the general location of your prey and scanning the crowd for unusual behaviour. Anyone climbing walls, dashing over rooftops or diving gracefully into a hay cart is clearly another player and perhaps your target – but subtler activities like running or even walking a little too confidently will also give the game away.
Once you're certain you've identified your contract (or have accidentally targeted a pedestrian in a tragic case of mistaken identity), you can take them down with an automated attack from street-level or rooftop vantage point. You could also use some of the assassin paraphernalia you've unlocked and brought into the arena.
The less ruckus you make in your assault, the more points you'll score. Run in the line of sight of your target and he'll be alerted to your presence, and told to high-tail it out of there.
When you're being chased by an attacker, human versions of familiar AC rules apply. Once out of sight you can hide in hay-bales, merge with crowds or sit on benches and hope you've lost your nemesis. There are various chase-breaking mechanics in the environment to help you on your madcap dash – doors that slam behind you, for example, along with dangling ropes you can grab at for a swashbuckling ascent to the rooftops.
On top of all this, if you notice your stalker before he attacks and manage to stun him he'll be left prostrate on the floor - and often to the mercy of his own pursuer.
As is the fashion with anything that involves the simulated murder of your fellow man, AC: Brotherhood works on a system of level-unlocked abilities, perks and killstreaks – and you can take two of each into the fray.
Abilities are active affairs that respond with the tap of a button and then recharge with a cool-down. They're available in a choice of offensive and defensive shades. If you've got someone on your tail you can use Disguise to change your appearance, make like an NPC and get out of there, for example. Morph will change nearby crowd members into duplicates of yourself and Smoke Bomb will stun all and sundry.
If you're on the offence, Hidden Gun will let you take out your target from a distance. Poison will let you make your kill without making yourself obvious, leaving the poor sap you've nailed to collapse in a heap after you've slunk back into the crowds.
If you've played any multiplayer game released since Infinity Ward coughed up Modern Warfare, you'll know the perks ambiently improve things like your speed, your wall-climbing and how many pedestrians you can barge into without being unsteady on your feet. A sizeable killstreak, meanwhile, will give you score bonuses.
The PS3 beta will initially give you access to two maps; one a lump of Rome outside the Pantheon, the other an enclosed map based within Castle Gandolfo (a papal residence that's heavy on railings to dangle from and balconies from which to pounce).
Once enough games have been played, Ubisoft will open up another of the full game's eight maps – a tightly-woven affair based in and around the Palio horse race in Siena.
Another game mode, Alliance, provides some co-op thrills as three teams of two compete for the prestigious title of the most efficient murdering bastards around – with two more promised for download post-release.
It's great fun, but from a few hours of play it's hard to imagine Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer capturing your heart in the long term. Its rule-set is too strict and its games are too samey for that.
The automated nature of the takedowns do tend to jar with online play, too; this isn't twitch gaming. Sometimes you'll see your attacker approach and ready his strike, but there will be nothing you can do to prevent your imminent demise – the relevant button will have been slammed seconds ago, sealing your fate.
Putting these niggles to one side, there are plenty of elements which feel original and new. It's the people-watching which makes the game: who is a player and who is a mindless automaton? If the solo contingent of Brotherhood shines through this could be quite the package –one which offers far easier access than Ubisoft's more recent multiplayer efforts in Splinter Cell: Conviction.
What's more, if you're a PS3 owner subscribed to PS Plus, as of now you can play a decent slab of the game by signing up for the beta. The floodgates will then open to those who've preordered the PS3 version on October 4th.
As for the rest of you: you're courteously invited to join me online come November. I'll be the one dressed as a renaissance prostitute, slitting your throat with a fan.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is released 19th November for PS3 and Xbox 360, and will be available early next year for PC.