Perched like a ballet dancer atop the giant, majestic flagpole rising from the pinnacle of Castel Sant' Angelo, I survey the seven hills of the ancient city rolling to the horizon before me. In the distance below, beyond streets teeming with merchants and thieves, beggars, and courtesans, I spy the Colosseum and the Pantheon. Directly beneath me, in the dungeons of the debased Rodrigo Borgia (also known as Pope Alexander VI), the Countess of Forli, Caterina Sforza, languishes as I plot her rescue.
This is Rome in 1500, the expansive, captivating and stylish world of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. A swashbuckling revenge tale set amid otherworldly conspiracies, Brotherhood is a fine historical adventure brimming with wit and flair.
With Brotherhood, the Assassin's Creed series takes a clear spot as one of the most interesting and important game franchises on the market today. That is because it recently has become clear that the best games usually have a strong relation to the real world. For instance, the most successful and appealing dimension of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption games have been their settings in modern urbanism and the Old West. But no other series creates such enjoyably evocative renderings of the ancient and medieval worlds as Assassin's Creed, published by Ubisoft of France.
As in the previous games in the series, your character is still a member of the Assassins, a cryptic order devoted over the millenniums to battling a rival cult known as the Templars over nothing less than the soul of humanity. In Renaissance Italy the Assassins, led by Machiavelli and aided by Leonardo, are at war with the Templars, led by the Borgia. Here in the early 21st century, you are actually a modern Assassin named Desmond Miles who is strapped into a machine that gives him access to the memories of his ancestors, in this case Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a nobleman and Assassin whose family and holdings have been ravaged by the Borgia clan.
The previous game in the series, Assassin's Creed II, was set in the north of Italy, in Florence and Venice. Now Brotherhood lays wide the great metropolis of Western antiquity. A fabulously detailed and lovingly produced version of the entire city of Rome is open for your exploration. You can't go inside many buildings, but dozens of historically accurate landmarks are set amid thousands of structures. Of course not every street and avenue is created, but the overall impression is as gorgeous and coherent as Rockstar's New York City in Grand Theft Auto IV, which means it simply feels real.
As in all Assassin's Creed games, your preferred method of locomotion is a fanciful and sleek version of parkour, meaning that you can flit from rooftop to rooftop, run along clotheslines, and generally scale any tall building, if not with a single bound, then at least with grace and some nimble fingering with the controls by you, the player. As in any great open-world game, you can explore the city at your leisure, taking part in minor side quests or simply enjoying the sights, but there is always the main story line available to pursue in scripted set pieces.
The big innovation in gameplay beyond Assassin's Creed II is the incorporation of a henchman system, allowing you to recruit an elite cadre of disaffected citizens to the Assassins' ranks. Then as you're sneaking along the next palazzo trying to avoid the papal guards, you can deploy your trainees to swoop out of the shadows, like the killers they are, to skewer the bad guys. By the time your team is fully trained, you can practically outsource all combat to them if you like, leaving the climbing and jumping to you.
My only real regret about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is that so many millions of people who would probably love to explore the concept of such a game simply won't have the dexterity and gaming skills to play it successfully. Brotherhood, developed by Ubisoft's Montreal studio, provides at least 30 hours of entertainment on either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 (I played mostly PS3) but on either system requires some fairly serious chops with a traditional two-hand console controller.
A PC version is scheduled for early next year, but that will be a fairly precise mouse-and-keyboard affair. I'm hoping that in the years to come Ubisoft and other publishers figure out how to create meaningful and expansive historical worlds that can be explored readily with more accessible systems like the Wii, the PlayStation Move and the Xbox Kinect.
That will open up historical adventure games for a broad new mass audience that now contents itself with linear, noninteractive novels and films. Of course one day we may end up like Desmond Miles himself, able to project our consciousness through technology to another time and place.
For better or worse, we're not there yet.