An assassin's work - a bit like a postman's perhaps - is never done. Ezio Auditore's only just got back to his villa after prosecuting that whole blood-soaked vengeance deal at the end of Assassin's Creed II, and all of us a sudden there's cannon-fire shredding his bedroom as he tries to enjoy himself with a friendly lady. What a drag.
Luckily, it means that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood kicks off in astonishing style, with Ezio staggering out onto the roof of his mansion to see 30,000 NPCs (full-disclosure: that's what the producer said; I didn't have time to count them) flocking over the hill. It's the Templars, out in force, and ready to do a little home-wrecking.
Not before a few mechanical tweaks have been introduced, mind you. The first few minutes of Brotherhood are filled with frantic spectacle as you're flung into Ezio's fancy boots just in time to receive orders from Uncle Mario - that still sounds weird - to hold off the attackers long enough to give the villa's staff time to get to safety.
That means using a cannon on the battlements to break up the advancing siege towers - and that, in turn, means an on-horseback dash through the streets surrounding the villa while Renaissance architecture comes toppling down all around you. If you spent a lot of time in the last game making your home look pretty, Ubisoft only needs 30 seconds or so to reduce it to rubble again.
Horses will be a big feature of Brotherhood, as it happens. You'll be able to use them inside cities for the first time - racing through narrow streets looks reassuringly brilliant - and there's plenty of horse-based combat, as you use melee and ranged attacks from the saddle, and sample the pleasures offered by cutting an enemy's ride out from under them with a flash of steel.
Combat's been retooled even when you're on foot, as Ezio's eventual arrival on the battlements reveals. After the heavily counters-based focus of first two games, the team's mantra for Brotherhood is "Strike first, strike fast".
What this translates to in terms of swordplay is enemies who don't wait for their moment to attack you (unlike the previous game's villains, who would loiter politely, as though they were queuing up at a Waitrose cheese counter) and a much stronger emphasis on running people through the gut before they've laid a hand on you. Meanwhile, the animation, as ever with this series, can turn even the lamest of street scraps into something that looks thrilling and dramatic.
Before the introduction fades, you'll have had time to try out new cannons - you select a distant target and then watch with pleasure as a siege tower (or unfortunate barn) splinters cinematically under the force of your blow - and then an old friend is killed by Brotherhood's main villain, Ceasare, and the game starts for real.
At the moment, Ubisoft is only offering the tiniest glimpse of the game lurking beyond the hectic opener, but it seems, above all else, to be a genuine companion piece to Assassin's Creed II. Ezio may be back, but this is a fascinating variation on his earlier adventures, and while the trappings are familiar, the emphasis is all new. So if the earlier game was all about becoming a master assassin, this one's about what it's like to actually be one; if the last one was concerned with revenge, the second revolves around justice.
It also revolves around squads, but you'll rarely find yourself thinking about them that way. The latest game's main storyline quickly dumps you into a Rome made tatty by Templar rule. It's 1503, there's fear in streets and disco in the clubs, and Ezio's job is to form his own assassin's guild - a brotherhood that will clean up the city and bring hope to the populace in the process.
Ubisoft's gone a lot deeper with this one than the short turnaround time might lead you to expect. While the adventure may be primarily focused on a single city, Rome is enormous - three times the size of Florence in the last game, apparently - and the guild you're slowly piecing together is far more exciting than a limp meta-game to break up the drainpipe scampering.
Brotherhood members are recruited by winning over likely candidates in the city who need your help, and from there you'll have to send these NPCs out throughout Europe on contract assignments to train them up. It's a mixture of RPG levelling and gambling, by the looks of it, as you're always running the risk of getting promising recruits killed if you become impatient and send someone out to do a task they're not ready for yet.
Once they're fully levelled-up, the fun really kicks in, and you can start using your assassins in-game as Ezio goes about his own business. It's a stylish twist on special attacks for the most part, if a mission we're shown, drawn from later in the game, is to be trusted: Ezio's making his way into enemy territory, and after scoping out the perimeter defences, a whistle is all it takes to bring his brotherhood in to clear off gunmen lurking on the rooftops.
Hitting the streets, he can then call in an airstrike of arrows to take out perimeter guards, before ducking into a church to pull off an assassination using a crossbow, just one of the game's new weapons. (The crossbow works like a charm, too, seamlessly pulling the camera in close for over-the-shoulder targeting, and relying on a silvery line-of-sight reticule.)
Once outside again, a third and final whistle brings assassins dropping out of the sky to take on the Swiss guards that have cornered you, and it's only as Ezio saunters away through the fighting that you'll probably realise he only personally killed one man during the entire mission. When you're the best, it would seem, you can sit back and get other people to do your dirty work for you.
Calling in the brotherhood is currently mapped to the bumpers, and its implementation looks to be fairly contextual. It promises to tie into the puzzling aspects of the earlier game's assassinations, as you scope out your targets, look for weak points to exploit in the security, and then move in as elegantly as you can, and it adds a real touch of class to proceedings.
Rather than being the trainee, forever proving yourself, Brotherhood promises to deliver on the fantasy of being the man in charge - the person at the centre of it all who gets jobs done without ever breaking his cool. You'll have to build up your guild quite a bit to get to this level of omnipotence, however, and it's worth remembering that the brotherhood is merely a new tool amongst all the old reliable stuff, too.
It's a fascinating way to evolve the series, and I'd be tempted to say that the only way the people at Ubisoft could make Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood any better at the moment would be to slap an irritating embargo on all details of the game's excellent new multiplayer stuff until later in the week.
Happily, that's exactly what they've done. But while it's annoying not to be able to talk about the self-assurance with which this free-roaming single-player game has ventured online just yet, it's still nice to know that another chance to iterate on the main campaign mode has left the series looking smarter - and sharper - than ever before.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is due out on 16th November for PS3 and Xbox 360.