Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood single player preview: Welcome back, friend

We all have those friends that we see maybe once a year. We catch up, have a great time and depart, wondering why we meet so infrequently. During my first few hours with the single-player component of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I couldn't help but feel like that. Since 2007, spending time with Assassin's Creed has been a mixture of expectancy and reassurance. It's a dependable companion.

And jumping into Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, that familiar feeling washed over me. This was primarily the same experience I've been enjoying the last few years. The game picks up right where Assassin's Creed 2 left us, showing the consequences of Ezio's actions during the finale. As it turns out, not killing that one prominent figure was a bad move -- hindsight being 20/2 and all that.
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Brotherhood is definitely a proper sequel, but Ubisoft's Gaelec Simard, mission director on the single-player side of the game, said the company didn't want to slap a "3" on there. To them, that would signify the next step in the series; this is more the conclusion of Ezio's story. "It really is Assassin's Creed 3, in a sense, but for us the number represents a new ancestor and a new era," Simard said. "That's why we went with 'Brotherhood' instead of '3' -- it also fits well with the new multiplayer, of course."

Sequence 1 picks up right after Ezio' receives the enigmatic message at the end of the second game and offers Ezio and his uncle Mario a brief time of peace back at the Villa. As the town prepares for his sister's birthday party, Ezio does a couple of tutorial-like missions -- for example, he helps a woman carry a box of flowers and another mission has him tracking down Mario's escaped horse.

Catherine also makes an appearance, but it's not long after that everything goes to hell. The Borgia have amassed a giant army and lay into the Villa with cannons. Following that is a very chaotic horseback sequence, where Ezio races to the ramparts to man defensive cannons, enabling the townsfolk to make a clean getaway. After that, Ezio makes an escape on horseback, but only after seeing a main character die, another taken captive and taking injury himself. Eventually Ezio passes out on his horse and the Sequence concludes. This all happened within the span of little over an hour, and I had yet to see Desmond come into the picture.

Thankfully, my impatience was rewarded immediately: it was now time to see where Desmond, Lucy and the rest of the gang had wound up. Apparently, they drove their truck all the way to Italy (ocean-spanning bridges are the future, folks!) and Desmond, still seeing those apparition-like remnants of his time in the Animus, had to locate a suitable hideout -- in Ezio's Villa, no less. Here I was given a taste of how far along Desmond had come.

We'd seen it in AC2, but Desmond is quite the assassin now. Traipsing through the dank catacombs and sewers of the Villa, him and Lucy did the co-op thing, looking for the back door into the Sanctuary. The whole time, they exchanged playful banter -- their relationship is developing in this game and Simard, without going too much into the story, promised it would only grow more as the game went on.

"Their relationship begins to get more concrete. There is another segment at the end that's just as long, if not longer, than the section you played today where we get to develop this relationship even more and you get to see Desmond's role in the Assassins in the present even more. I can't say more than that without spoiling it."

So after loading the Animus and completing a brief go-for quest involving circuit breakers, the crew now had a new place to set up shop and Desmond assumed his position: lying down in the Animus. Before embarking onward to Sequence 2, I was briefed on some of the new capabilities of the Animus -- specifically, the Virtual Training section, which would replace the Arena training area of the previous two games. Here, players could compete in a variety of challenges which not only aimed at developing Ezio's skills, but offered a competitive leaderboard for online friends.

Once Sequence 2 started, I found Ezio in the outskirts of Rome, the city which houses the majority of the game's events. Here, I healed up from the events of Sequence 1 -- Ezio was taken in by a strange woman and nursed back to consciousness, a woman who could only tell him Machiavelli was waiting to see him -- and set out for Rome.

I wasn't given much time here in Rome during Sequence 2. Aside from a guided tour with Machiavelli (which was more a walking conversation than anything else) and one generic assassination mission, I didn't get to see much. I did check out the map, however, which showed a city much larger than any other locale in the series so far. It was then that an Ubisoft rep took me forward a bit, on to Sequence 5.

Around here, the game becomes less linear. While you must tackle memory Sequences in sequential order, there are a variety of different mission types from which you can freely choose. These missions are pretty much the standard fare for the series, with the exception of razing Borgia towers in the game's new district liberation mechanic. By assassinating a Borgia higher-up in each of these towers, Ezio can then set the structure on fire, proving to the people of Rome he means business and thus earning their allegiance. Oh, and there are more tombs to explore as well, if you didn't get enough of those environmental exploration segments in AC2.

The combat's also been given another layer of depth thanks to offensive kill streak chains -- no, you can't drop a nuke. Instead, when Ezio performs a counter move, he can freely transition into an attack towards a different enemy. It really quickens the battle segments, which in the past have really had a stop-and-go feel to them. Watching Ezio stab a guy in the neck only to roll to his side and stab another guy in the heart feels more natural given, well, his amazing propensity to murder dudes. Honestly, I can't believe this was never in an Assassin's Creed game before.

Despite launching only a year after AC2, the quality of Brotherhood seems consistent with the previous games, and the story has only become more thrilling and complex with each new installment. Finally, the prospect of Desmond playing a greater role in Brotherhood and coming to the forefront of this saga has me most excited for where this game is headed.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.