"Don't muck this up!"
So says the strange bearded man, leaning into your field of vision. No, it's not your Dad, your teacher, or your psychotherapist. It's the Man From Abstergo, and he say, "Yes!"
As in, "Yes, I want you to climb into this ludicrously expensive machine and then violently murder people in a pseudo-simulated historical setting that doesn't actually exist. Please."
Assassin's Creed multiplayer is back, and this time - Heaven forefend - it's actually got a proper plot, one with cutscenes and everything. The narrative in question may turn out to be punishingly obtuse, what with this being an Assassin's Creed game, but appropriately enough the setup here is that you're on a quest for knowledge. As with last year's 9/10 scoring Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, you play as a villainous Templar-in-training, with your progress up the multiplayer ranks equating to your rise through the conspiratorial organisation. Get to the top, and beardy-man promises that "your eyes will be opened" as you see the world for what it really is.
Spoiler alert: it's a pyramid scheme based on treating people like s**t.
While the case for multiplayer-with-plot has yet to be properly made (BioShock 2, anyone?), Ubisoft's increased efforts at least show a renewed commitment to the template they set up in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the basic ingredients of play have largely gone unchanged, with just the odd revision thrown in to refine the game's rhythm.
For anyone who spent significant time with Brotherhood's multiplayer, the most important alteration lies with the Detection meter, which governs both how noticeable you are, and in turn the number of points awarded for a successful kill. In last year's game players started at the maximum scoring level, with the potential bonus falling as you drew attention to yourself through 'high profile' actions. Now the game starts you off with a 'Discreet' rating, so to score big you'll to have to use stealthy actions to build up your meter.
In theory, this arrangement encourages players to play the game properly, rather than simply dashing about and bashing people's heads in. In practice, if feels like the reverse may be true - that with no immediate bonus to lose, players won't feel punished when they turn into a 16th Century version of Patrick Bateman ("Do you like Johann Walter?").
Less ambiguously, the stun mechanic has been tweaked to be more forgiving in its timing, affording you a greater opportunity to get away in those painfully tense moments when you just know that your hunter is right on top of you. Ubisoft Montreal has also introduced what it's calling Contested Kills, which only kick in when you try to stun someone at the very moment that they're assassinating you. Under these circumstances you'll still get merked but you'll also gain points for your efforts, while your murderer will be left weakened for a brief spell.
Aside from the new setting (Constantinople) and a fresh set of player skins, that's the meat of the upgrades to Assassin's Creed multiplayer. There's at least one new cooldown ability on offer, allowing you to throw out an ancient proximity mine, but on face value this still seems less valuable than the crowd-morphing skills we had last year. A more welcome addition arrives in the form of taunts, allowing you to rub salt into the wound after you gut your rivals in the street.
It could be argued that Assassin's Creed's multiplayer didn't really need a massive overhaul. A handful of rounds in Team Manhunt is enough to convince that the basic stalk-and-hide is still fresh and engaging. In a good round, with a handful of players who are also taking the game seriously, there's a level of tension and paranoia that you rarely get in faster-paced online games. It's fair to say that there were initial doubts over Assassin's Creed's ability to make the jump to multiplayer, but Brotherhood proved us wrong. The formula works, and if Ubisoft continues to refine it, there's every chance the series could gain a substantial online community.