"Assassin's Creed Brotherhood" a fellowship worth having

I had serious doubts about "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood," given that its predecessor was released just last year.

Surely, I thought, this release would be more akin to an expansion pack than a full game, a storyless excuse to make a quick buck and test out an idea for a multiplayer game.

But my expectations couldn't have been more wrong.

"Assassin's Creed Brotherhood" is a truly worthy successor to the stellar "Assassin's Creed 2." The single-player campaign advances the story greatly, and in unexpected directions; the combat system has been refined in ways that make it less of a cakewalk; and the multiplayer mode is one of the most refreshingly original things I've played in quite a while.

Taken as a whole, it's one of the best games of the year.

If you're unfamiliar with the series, the "Assassin's Creed" games are a unique blend of science fiction and historical fiction. You fill the shoes of Desmond Miles, a modern man living in our near future. The descendant of an ancient order of assassins, he's using a high-tech device called an Animus to relive the memories of his ancestors, locked away in his DNA, in order to uncover where they hid artifacts that may be the key to saving the planet.

It is through Miles that we step into the life of Ezio Auditore, an assassin in 15th Century Italy, who is locked in a desperate struggle against the despotic Borgia family. Yes, that would include Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, his illegitimate son Cesare and his illegitimate daughter Lucrezia. Ezio's story in fact picks up right after the strange event that concluded "Assassin's Creed 2," seamlessly dropping previous players into a familiar narrative.

Our adventures in "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood" are set largely within the confines of the sweeping city of Rome, recreated in loving detail, from the Vatican to the ruins of the Colosseum. And given Ezio's free-running abilities, the city is a playground, replete with walls to clamber up and roofs to race across.

And finally — finally! — for the first time in the series, horses can be ridden within city confines, shortening travel times in some cases and creating opportunities for mounted combat.

And speaking of combat, this latest game fixes one of the few weaknesses of the earlier games. Previously, it was all too easy to massacre veritable armies of enemy soldiers. One would attack while the others stood back; you'd counter and kill that enthusiast with one hit. And you'd repeat that ad nauseaum, until the few remaining opponents would quail, drop their swords and run for their lives. The only troublesome opponents were the few heavies, who wielded weapons too heavy for your sword to parry.

But in "Brotherhood," several changes have been made. Soldiers are as a group much more aggressive; no longer will they take turns on the attack. In fact, now they'll try to grapple with you, pinning your arms at your side so another can try to strike a fatal blow. And far more heavily armed soldiers are in evidence.

But not every change is to your disadvantage. For one thing, after you manage to kill one soldier, you've got a chance to set up a quick chain of kills, mowing down any unfortunate in range in a brutal display of martial skill.

And more importantly, you can recruit aggrieved Romans into your brotherhood of assassins, summoning them briefly to your side in battle. They'll strike from cover initially, taking out unsuspecting foes efficiently, then engage in more mundane attacks until they get the opportunity to run off. They can be killed in battle, however, especially if you haven't beefed up their abilities by sending them off on contract missions. And any out on missions aren't available for your use.

Despite being focused almost entirely on Rome, the single-player game is pretty vast — if you take your time and take advantage of the numerous side missions available, all of which follow one basic theme: weakening the Borgias' hold on Italy. All told, you'll easily get more than 20 hours of playtime from this part of the game alone.

And when you add in the multiplayer experience, I can't even begin to calculate the kind of time you'll spend.

I've really got to congratulate Ubisoft on the multiplayer aspect.

For one thing, they've actually integrated the concept into the overarching story of "Assassin's Creed." When you play online, you're undergoing virtual-reality training as an agent of Abstergo, a power-crazed conglomerate that's been dogging Desmond Miles and the Brotherhood of Assassins.

But mostly I'm in love with the game-play itself, a version of hide-and-seek where death is on the line (not a good time to bet against a Sicilian).

In the most basic mode, you play as both hunter and hunted. You and the other players (up to eight of you total) pick from one of several personas, and are dropped into a cityscape filled with duplicates of yourselves. You are given a contract to hunt one of the other players, and one or more of them is given a contract to hunt you.

Two things I should mention: First, while you can — and want to — kill your target, you can't kill the person hunting you; you have small chance of stunning them, if you strike while they are vulnerable, but the better bet is to flee for your life. And the best bet is to trick them into attacking one of your "civilian" duplicates, which will cost them your contract. Second, everyone has a radar sense that will help guide them in the hunt, so finding your target isn't exactly pure guesswork.

How matches play out can vary widely, depending on the playing styles of the individuals involved. In some games, both predators and prey try to keep low profiles, depending on clever use of decoys to stay safe, and swift surprise attacks to maximize scores. But in others, everyone drops all pretensions of using camoflague, sparking frantic forays across the rooftops as everyone attempts to catch and avoid capture. Scoring tends to be lower in such matches, however, as discretion counts greatly toward points earned.

The purpose of the points is to level up within the game, which unlocks helpful abilities. The first such, for instance, is the ability to temporarily disguise your character as another type. Another is the use of smoke bombs, which are helpful in briefly disabling nearby opponents.

A second game mode is "manhunt," where two teams of up to four players each take turns as hunters and hunted. In other words, one team tries to keep hidden, while the other goes seeking with deadly intent. And every member of your team has the same appearance.

If teammates actually bother to communicate over headsets, pack techniques can quickly come into play, with hunters purposely herding opponents toward hidden danger, or prey forming a loose-knit mutual assistance network.

Two other modes, unlocked as you level up, also play with the team concept, and a fifth one will be available for free download on Dec. 14, according to Ubisoft, as well as a new multiplayer map, set in Mont Saint-Michel, an incredibly tiered French island city.

All told, there's a lot to love in "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood."

"Assassin's Creed Brotherhood"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. (PC release in 2011.) Review on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Ubisoft.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: Definitely worth a purchase.

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Images courtesy of Ubisoft
First image: Desmond Miles, center, talks with his comrades while he relaxes on the Animus memory device.
Second image: Ezio Auditore signals to his recruits to fill Borgia's men with arrows.
Third image: Two deadly doctors hunt a monk together in the multiplayer "Alliance" mode.

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