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- Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
- CLR [rating:3]
Release Date: November 16th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version Reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: Ubisoft Inc.
Publisher: Ubisoft Inc.
Genre: Open World Assassination Simulation
ESRB: M for Mature
Another Dive into a Renaissance that’s a Bit Too Fair
Ironically enough, the Assassin’s Creed series has struggled with the basic elements of execution. While each game has certainly delivered interesting narratives and bold scenarios using real-life history as a starting point for the conspiracy-theory filled plots to follow, the core gameplay has always lagged behind for one reason or another. It’s not that they aren’t well-crafted games; it’s just that they’ve always had far greater ideas contained in them than refined gameplay.
Yet this hasn’t seemed to turn anyone away from them. It seems plenty of games these days, such the Phoenix Wright series or Heavy Rain, focus more on the story or characters and as long as these are compelling, a lack of strong gameplay can be forgiven. In the latest entry, Brotherhood, the international developers at Ubisoft have pushed the plot a little more into the background in favor of a focus on pure gameplay, primarily in a new online multiplayer mode. Unfortunately though, this change of focus has resulted in many problems of iterations past becoming even more obvious and harder to ignore without a compelling plot to reinforce them. The result is, oddly enough, both the best and worst example of the franchise so far.
But hey, at least there’s multiplayer!
Though this is going to be awkward to summarize for the uninitiated, I’m going to do my best to boil down the convoluted plot. It might sound a bit ridiculous, because it kind of is, but trust me; it’s far more compelling when you’re actually playing it.
Once again you’ll step into the role of Desmond Miles in the near future (2012 to be exact), a man caught in an international conspiracy between two ancient orders: the Assassins and the Knights Templar. Desmond and a team of quirky characters use a device called the Animus that allows him to delve into his own genetic memory and relive the events of his ancestors in order to find clues and artifacts in the present (future?) day. In the first game, this put him into the body of Altair ibn La-Ahad, an assassin in the midst of the 3rd Crusade, while in AC2 he delved into the life of his similarly long named relative Ezio Auditore da Firenze, during the height of the Italian Renaissance. Brotherhood again goes into Ezio’s life, which allows for plenty of new alternate takes on historical figures such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, but also for this story arc to finally receive a proper conclusion.
Not that the end of AC2 was terrible, but the game definitely had a shortened third act, and absolutely nothing in the way of dénouement. Players spent most of their time concerning themselves with the travails of the Italian proto-hitman as he trained in order to enact revenge on those that destroyed his life. Sort of medieval Rocky; the eventual goal was a confrontation with the most historically corrupt leader of Catholicism himself, Pope Alexander VI. But when the game finally reached its exciting climax, an actual fistfight with the Pope in the Sistine Chapel (again, it’s a bit ridiculous), it rushed a mess of new information at the player and wrapped up faster than Scott Pilgrim puts on a flap hat if you notice his hair.
This might lead some to wonder how Brotherhood fits in. Well, it’s definitely not a true sequel, or it would be entitled Assassin’s Creed 3, but it’s not simply a spin-off either, as the narrative does extend to Desmond’s story and there are almost as many missions as Ezio’s original adventure. So it’s more an expansion pack in line with Starcraft’s epic Brood War, as the new content is copious, if perhaps more of the same.
As with the rest of the series, it’s all quite beautiful to look at in both an architectural and animation sense, and it’s easy to get caught up gazing around the game’s main city (Rome circa 1503) from a high vantage point as residents go about their daily lives. It’s an expansive locale and easily the biggest and best realized in the series, full of twisting corridors at its center and expansive hills and ruins in the outlying fields. The music, by long-time game composer Jesper Kyd, is also a wonder, elegantly capturing the tones of the time period while bringing modern cinematic sensibilities to the fore. On top of that is the sheer technical achievement of keeping all of these elements running together with nary a hitch or load to keep the sensation of a living world alive, even if there are moments of unpolished animations or skipping sounds here or there.
While the folks at Ubisoft are certainly skilled at creating gorgeous virtual worlds, with Brotherhood the cracks in their abilities as designers are really starting to show. At its core, Assassin’s Creed has been about playing with the idea of “social stealth” and the predatory hunting of men. Blending in with crowds of people before striking a target and then fleeing in the ensuing chaos through alleys and rooftops has been the concept from the very first entry. But the biggest problem in Brotherhood, carried over from AC2, is that Ezio is far too powerful a character, and many elements that should make the game more interesting in other ways only exacerbate this issue.
Oddly enough, it seems that developers were aware of this problem from past iterations and so attempted a few things to fix it. The level of aggressiveness on all of the average enemy guards has been tweaked so they no longer stand around attacking one at a time like a bad 80’s ninja movie, and they mix their enemy types more so you might actually have to vary your strategy in a swordfight. They’ve included a “Perfect Synch” system that adds much harder to achieve, though optional objectives to every mission in the game. They’ve even attempted to add another limiting factor on the economic meta-game by restricting growth until you assault enemy towers and burn them down.
But none of these changes matter since you’re given too much help in every other way. Improved sword fighting AI is useless when you can be like Indiana Jones and just fire a pistol from twenty feet! A new crossbow instantly and silently takes down most rooftop resistance on the path to your targets, and to top everything else, you can call in other Assassins to kill enemies for you, essentially asking the game to play itself. This assassin recruitment is a new feature, and as with the economic simulation, is just far too simple to make too powerful. It’s also frustrating because it does make sense in context to the story, and isn’t a bad idea but due to poor implementation (primarily with a too short cool down) it ultimately drains enjoyment from actually playing the game.
The best case study for baffling balancing lies in the notoriety system cribbed from AC2. As you kill guards and commit crime’s Ezio’s notoriety goes up, if it fills up completely he becomes “Notorious” and the entire city guard will then actively hunt for you. This makes perfect sense, but you have to kill a multitude of soldiers to raise the meter fully, and until then guards show no escalating change in behavior. Counteracting a full meter can be done in about a minute; remove one poster and kill one official (again with minimal effort) and boom, no one knows who you are anymore! It leads to a game world that is just baffling in its lack of memory. If you knew a murderer was wandering around town, and suddenly the lead detective on the case was found dead, you’d probably worry about him more, not less.
These overly shallow economic, recruitment, and notoriety systems are needless additions to a game focused on skulking about and stabbing folks. If only there were a more focused and refined version of this game somewhere. . . oh wait, there is: in Brotherhood’s own online multiplayer mode!
Here you can step into the shoes of one of several Templar agents using the Animus to train against each other. This game mode strips the series down to its bare essentials: you’ll stalk city streets hunting for targets, strike quickly out of a crowd of onlookers, and then flee wildly from those pursuing you. In each match you never directly know who is after you and so you have to rely on your abilities of subterfuge and observation immensely. It’s sort of very dangerous virtual version of schoolyard classics hide & seek and tag. Because of this it’s both simple to understand, yet has a surprising depth not found in the main game.
In fact, I’m hard pressed to not recommend Brotherhood on its multiplayer alone. It’s really a lot of fun, and it’s a very refreshing new idea in the online scene. It takes a couple of matches of getting stabbed in the back while in total confusion as a result of Ubisoft not including a proper manual or instruction, but once you pick it up, it becomes very addictive, and seems to have a decent progression to it to keep you playing for a bit of time too.
Oddly enough, it’s this great multiplayer mode that most throws the rest of the game into a negative light! After you play a few rounds where tensions are high, paranoia is rampant and death comes quickly, you’ll step back into Ezio’s retirement saga, and everything becomes a major bore. You’ll miss the thrill of the hunt that comes from seeking intelligent adversaries who are every bit as lethal as yourself, and go back to slaughtering entire legions of soldiers with your guns, knives, smoke bombs, mercenaries and arrow storms, all in the pursuit of. . . the same MacGuffin from the last game. Oh.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh here. Some players will only want a simple power fantasy, and who am I to say that they’re wrong? For myself, the lack of risk drains many missions of excitement, and it becomes antithetical to a game where you take on the persona of a dangerous man living in a dangerous age. Many other developers get around this split audience expectation by offering difficulty selections, but again Ubisoft doesn’t have that because this would be what, too convenient a solution? This has only been the common method to resolve this for the last twenty years of gaming!
These issues all add up to give the impression that only a few years after its inception, Assassin’s Creed may have no idea where it’s going. It’s become far too bloated with content that won’t challenge people who’ve been in it from the beginning, and the plot is so complex that jumping in now seems impossible. The shallowness is countered with attempts to create the illusion of depth with variety, but it’s like going to beauty pageant: sure there are a lot of models to ogle, but all of them are just as equally vacuous as the last.
If it weren’t for the multiplayer, this would be easy to dismiss as pure spectacle with a synopsis you should read before you try the next “real” installment. But since it’s there I’m going to have to begrudgingly recommend the game for those who want to try something a bit different. For the next installment though, the developers need to take a hidden blade to their own series and cut out all of the fat, rather than keep adding new layers of glitter and gold.