Following a widely popular title such as "Assassin's Creed II" in a year's time inevitably leads to murmured worries about whether a company is trying to rush out a sequel or repackage what should be add-on content as a new game.
Ubisoft thrusts an ancient sword into those doubts with "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood," which offers a remarkably rich single-player experience while adding an innovative multiplayer mode that strays from a simple kill-fest.
For the single-player campaign, you once again take on the role of Renaissance nobleman-turned-killer Ezio Auditore, who has matured into a goateed master assassin.
The new installment picks up where "Assassin's Creed II" left off, with Ezio escaping from the Vatican and returning to his villa in Monteriggioni for some supposed downtime. His rest, relaxation and romance are quickly interrupted by Cesare Borgia, son of corrupt Pope Rodrigo Borgia, who unleashes scores of armies to destroy the city and capture an ancient artifact called the Apple of Eden.
Eyeing revenge and justice, Ezio sets off for Rome, which is a vast, beautifully created landscape featuring distinct and varied architecture.
Much of Ezio's climbing and jumping between rooftops or executing a gaggle of guards feels just like "Assassin's Creed II," and that's OK. It all feels new and exciting in Rome.
The city is broken into a dozen sections, each centered on a Borgia tower controlled by a captain. Kill the captain, set the tower ablaze and you'll free the section's residents from Borgia's economic grip.
Rebuilding the local economy not only gives you better access to goods and services, but it also opens the opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and earn some cash.
And, in "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood," Ezio doesn't have to go it alone. As a master assassin, Ezio can now recruit and train apprentice assassins for some of the dirty work.
Also helping rid Rome of pervasive greed and corruption are historic figures such as Niccolo Machiavelli and gadget-happy Leonardo da Vinci, who in this game series acts as the Renaissance's answer to James Bond's "Q."
It's so easy to get engrossed in the old country that you might be thrown for a loop when you're returned to modern day and reminded that you're technically playing a computer simulation as Desmond Miles, one of Ezio's descendants.
Desmond experiences Ezio's memories through a device called the Animus, and you'll actually get to play as the modern-day warrior in several well-done scenes.
Although "Brotherhood" thrives in its single-player conquests, this installment adds an innovative multiplayer element that avoids the trap of simply copycatting first-person shooters.
Choose from a cadre of characters, each with its own signature weapon and assassination method, and slowly and deliberately hunt down a contract kill while being secretly pursued by another player. The twist is you'll encounter numerous similar-looking characters meandering through the maps, so you're better off blending in before striking rather than overtly chasing someone down.
The radar can get you close to your kill, but it's easy to unleash your wrath on the wrong person.
The slow, deliberate pace might be a turnoff to those who enjoy the rush of "Call of Duty," "Gears of War" or "Halo," but give it a chance and it may grow on you.
This new take on multiplayer combined with Ezio's spectacular continuing quest make "Assassin's Creed Brotherhood" a must-have for the holiday season.
$59.99 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3