There are several different character skins to choose, including nobles, doctors in beaked masks and podgy inventors wearing anachronistic John Lennon spectacles. Despite their different physical appearances (and a varying set of execution animations), each of these characters has exactly the same basic abilities. With hindsight, this is a smart design choice on Ubisoft's part; while the setup might seem to be crying out for some kind of class system, this would invariably have led to situation where one character was favoured over all others. As it is, there's no advantage to choosing any one skin - and so hopefully this should ensure a broad mix of avatars when the game finally launches.
While each of the character models has the same basic moves as their peers, each player also has to pick from one of several ability loadouts. There are two skills in each of these sets, ranging from hidden wrist-guns to temporary crowd-blending moves. At the moment, it's the defensive options that seem to hold the most value: if you're close enough to shoot someone, you're probably close enough to push your blade through one of their lungs - although it admittedly feels great to blast someone as they attempt to clamber up the side of a building. On the other hand, when your nemesis finally reveals themselves and is about to pull out all your important squidgy bits, it's a huge relief to have some way of setting up an escape. Botched assassination attempts result in brief, heart-pumping chase sequences where the victim-to-be must flee their rival; if they manage to evade their pursuer for long enough then the contract on their life will be cancelled. At this point the failed killer is given a new contract, and the game carries on as before.
Even outside of these chases, acrobatics and free-running play just as big a role as they have done in previous Creeds; the big difference now is that you have to be very careful about when and where you exercise your talents. Your personal radar only gives you a rough idea of where your target is and how far away they are, so it pays to get yourself into a spot where you can keep a close eye on your surroundings. If you climb up onto a roof then you'll have an excellent view of the map, but you'll also stand out like a sore thumb - in fact you may as well hold up a sign saying, "Kill me now!" There's a peculiar thrill when you spot a human-controlled character scrambling up a wall. Even when the player in question isn't your current target, there's something pleasing about suddenly spotting a "real" person emerging from the sea of anonymous drones. And of course, if the player in question is the object of your homicidal intentions, there's a clear dilemma: do you give chase subtly, on the ground, or do you climb up and go after them over the rooftops - exposing yourself to similar levels of risk?
It all adds up to a dynamic and rather refreshing alternative to the common or garden deathmatch. There's a pleasing emphasis on skill here: the game rewards careful assassins and punishes those who go on frantic, stab-happy rampages. At the moment, the only real problem I can foresee is that there may not be much scope for gameplay variations - and in the long-term, that's one of the key ingredients that keeps people coming back for more. Beyond that, there's a risk that the masses will ignore Brotherhood's multiplayer simply because it's different and not easily categorised. That would be a pity, because I've certainly really liked what I've played of it so far. Still, there'll be plenty of people picking up the game for the single-player campaign, and I'd imagine that most of them will be prepared to at least give it a try. It's bound to do better than The Ship, at any rate.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on November 19.