Rome wasn't built in a day. It was built in 365. While the multiplayer component to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood has been in development for years now, the single-player game has been pieced together in just 12 months by much the same team as built the second game. And how they've used that time. When you first step into the Roman colosseum, it's another Damascene moment. The sense of awesome scale and craftsmanship that's gone into recreating this ancient monument is comparable to the first time you rode over the crest of the hill and saw Jerusalem laid out on the horizon of the first game.
It's in ruins, of course. By Renaissance Rome the colosseum was a tourist attraction, much as it is today, the sand once stained by the blood of so many martyred Christians now overgrown with tall grass, the tiered seating worn and crumbled by time and the footfall of a hundred thousand sightseers. The result is a strange feeling of virtual tourism within tourism, as you marvel at the hustle and bustle of 16th Century Italy and marvel again at the remains of a Rome 1200 years older still visible through the cracks of the Catholic architecture now built upon it.
The year's work hasn't all been architectural, though. Brotherhood opens moments after the second game closed, implying that, for its writers, the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze was planned in full long before Ubisoft Montreal split it into two separate games. But the game systems that the story and setting dress have been tweaked and added to in exciting, meaningful ways that run deeper than the tweaks to the combat system.
The Brotherhood of the title is more than a narrative congregation, though it is that too. At the start of the game Ezio arrives at the Villa Auditore from Florence still a young man. He has a boastful swagger, the sort of braggadocio any twenty-something who had single-handedly thwarted a circle of Templars and confronted the Pope within the Vatican itself would exhibit. Moments later, his lovemaking interrupted, his villa decimated by cannon fire, his friends and family dead and his torso sporting a deep wound, he escapes a grown man, finally understanding that a war that cannot be won singlehandedly.
In mechanical terms, this realisation translates to a kind of management metagame overlay to the now well-established Assassin's Creed template. In between chasing the story missions, clambering over architecture and killing in silence, Ezio can find and recruit assassins, men and women sympathetic to freedom's cause, who join his ranks on principle. You have up to eight slots in your assassin's guild, and can dress and equip each as you see fit. These fighters can then be called upon during the normal flow of play to, for example, stealthily take down a target you mark, or create a distraction allowing you to move through the world undetected.
You can also send your guild members off on missions around Europe, choosing tasks of suitable difficulty in order to earn experience points that, in time, level their abilities. In much the same way as, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, these guild missions have a time cost, removing your assassins from play till their mission is completed, either through victory or defeat. This management RPG component reinforces Ezio's newfound stature as a leader by giving you, the player, a sense of responsibility for your charges, inspiring pride at their victories and keen regret at their death.
For the first time, Brotherhood introduces gunpowder to the treason, plot and parkour that has defined the series so far. Ezio's villa is now kitted out with cannons, used to defend it against Borgia retribution in the game's opening moments. More than that, Ezio also carries a firearm, a pistol concealed in his sleeve that can be used to shoot soldiers from their horses, or quietly headshot targets from behind. For a game based upon the art of the blade, ballistic weaponry (later in the game there are supposedly tanks and machine guns) feels incongruous.
While the first game in the series was criticised for being environmentally rich but mechanically repetitive, Assassin's Creed II introduced a host of objectives to add variety and interest to the game's exquisite cities. Brotherhood piles on yet more interest to keep you busy. The map screams with blinking icons, each one representing a different interactive opportunity, encouraging you to recruit new assassins, capture towers to increase your influence, take on side missions and aid those in need around you.
The compelling villa management aspect to the second game has been upgraded again for Brotherhood. Now, as Borgia power weakens in Rome, you will be able to rebuild, renovate and upgrade many assets of the city. Shops, faction headquarters and the fast travel system are all subject to upgrades while rebuilding and renovating buildings within a district increases its value, bringing prosperity and wealth to the people who live there. Before you can renovate a particular part of the city, you'll need to locate the Borgia tower in the district, defeat the captain who lives there, and burn the construction down, lending the game a redemptive overlay as you combat control with freedom and work to change the lives of Rome's citizens.
Similar to the first two games, there are many modern-day interludes in which you play as Ezio's descendent Desmond who, alongside his love interest and Da Vinci Code-style team of archaeologists, traces his ancestors through modern-day Italy. By setting these sections in the same locations as those being explored by Ezio, they are more successful than they have been in the past, adding diversity and a different perspective on the closely familiar historical free-running elsewhere in the game.
That said, all of the additions are just that: add-ons that do little to alter the nature of play in the Assassin's Creed universe. Even guns haven't upset the fine, if curious, balance of the previous game. The question then is whether the fresh seasoning does enough maintain interest across a 15-hour campaign that, storyline aside, remains relatively unchanged. If not, Rome may once again fall.