Assassin’s Creed is fast becoming Ubisoft’s very own Call of Duty. The series has become their main core games
bread winner, it has the ability to shift time-periods with every iteration, and despite Ubi’s comments to contrary, it was even revealed that Assassin’s Creed III would
ship in 2011, meaning we currently receive a new update in the series annually, and even in the same release window (ACIII will probably
release in November, 2011).
Moreover, like the CoD franchise, Assassin’s Creed’s original mastermind, one Patrice Desilets, departed ways with his long-time French employer for seemingly greener pastures at a hungry publisher looking to regain marketshare with a renewed focus on original and new IPs (of which his poaching is a prime example of); a situation not at all unlike that which we saw play out between two ex-Infinity Ward heads who left Activision to partner with EA (though in Patrice and Ubi’s case, it was much quieter and seemingly mutual affair).
Hell, Assassin’s Creed now even has a multiplayer.
But these similarities only run as deep as those mentioned above. By and large, the games are obviously much different, we just worry that Ubisoft might be heading towards Assassin’s Creed fatigue, and the last thing anyone wants to deal with is a lethargic assassin.
It’s important to point out that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is not
the next chapter in the AC universe. It’s a tangent story that continues the plight of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and his rise to leader of men; men who will become soldiers in the Assassin’s Guild. And with that in mind, it’s also another tale starring Desmond Miles, the hapless kidnapee from the first game, who in turn became the elective controller of the animus, a device that allows him to access genetic memories from his lineage, which it turns out is rife with assassins.
You’ll spend most of Brotherhood as Ezio though, with only surface banter happening between Miles and co in the modern era (ie the future). There’re plenty of new pieces of information that flow from your comrades; unlocking more of the full Assassin’s Creed universe, but much like the baseline for this game as whole, it’s tangent information at best - filler.
None of this is to say that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t a strong game in its own right, because it is, it’s just that in the grand scheme of what the previous two games were trying to do, it’s almost like taking a break from the real task at-hand. The story for Brotherhood sees all of your hard work in ACII stripped from you, in contextual and literal form. Like some gameplay segment written into a Metroid game, Ezio’s fortune, his armour and pretty clothes, have all been torn away from him by the Borgia, the Templars of his world, lead by Cesare Borgia – Rodrigo Borgia's son - who is pissed at Ezio and the Assassins for the events portrayed and played out in ACII. Obviously this means, in true videogame fashion, it’s time to suit up and do it all over again.
So Brotherhood focuses entirely within Rome, and the recreation of the city in renaissance form is spectacular. It’s by far the most robust we’ve seen the game-engine yet, and while I’ll continue to reiterate a need for Ubi to give it a big overhaul, there are moments of purely breathtaking beauty found within.
Rome has been split into 12 districts, and each district is ominously guarded by a Borgia tower. Found within these towers are high-ranking Borgia you must assassinate before being able to tear down the tower in a fiery inferno, thereby freeing the district of Borgia control; allowing Ezio to micro-manage their way back into free-flowing commerce, and true renaissance beauty.
Beyond the 12 districts is the villa in Monteriggioni, which was also destroyed in the Borgia backlash, and so once again you set about bringing it back to life; returning Ezio and co to financial security and true strength in numbers.
While that might sound cut and dry, the game allows you to approach these tasks in any way you see fit, and there have been a number of gameplay mechanics tweaked for a more accessible conflict, alongside the addition of new and much welcome gameplay tools. For one, you now recruit assassins by saving citizens threatened by the Borgia. Each tower you bring down opens up a new recruit spot and each new recruit must be levelled up. This can happen in two ways; you can send your assassins on missions throughout Europe in a meta-game where you work around a number of factors that offer you a percentage chance of success. Each time an assassin, or team of assassins completes a mission, they level up, making them stronger and giving them access to perks. Or, you can utilise them in the field with you, where Ezio now has a single button call-in for his loyal followers who can often turn the tide of battle, or at the very least clear the way of enemy impediments so you can tackle your main target marginally unhindered.
You’re equally not locked into having to clear each tower, as the game can be finished in other ways, but for completionists, they’re a great addition, while each one requires a tactical and usually unique approach. On paper they sound like repetitive requirements, but in action, they’re anything but.
However, that brings me to another point. While the game is definitely free-form and sandbox in its own right, there’s still a clinical feel to the way in which the city works. Fail a tower, and it resets over time. Upgrade shops and they remain upgraded. Murder people in plain sight, kill a single witness or remove bounties and you’re free to roam about unhindered. The denizens all move around the city like clockwork - they appear to have no destination in mind, nor do they ultimately feel alive. You can blend in with groups once again, but this also feels black and white; there’s just no sense of organic life to the richness of this game-world, and filling it with as many NPCs as possible doesn’t change that - a game set in this city, in this era, following the exploits of a master assassin and his followers needs to feel alive, and in all honesty, it doesn’t. It feels like a videogame, which in a kind of irony, based on the fact Desmond is ‘playing’ the memories of his ancestors, it kind of is. But it’s the series’ biggest downfall to-date, and something I desperately want to see broached in ACIII.
Where the game does flow, however, is in Ezio himself. His combat has been much improved, with more options to approach each conflict, and singled out enemies within, with tactical precision. Kick an enemy and you’ll open him up for a two-pronged finisher now, in full bloodied glory. String together stronger combos without making any slip-ups and you’re rewarded with a single button push to eliminate other enemies nearby. Mastering the new and improved combat was one of my favourite aspects of playing, and utilising a solid stand-off between you and a herd of baddies by bringing in your own levelled up and well-managed back-up really was utterly satisfying.
Parkour has also seen a few new additions, such as the ability to vault from horseback to another horse (to assassinate its rider), or just reach new seemingly out-of-reach ledges, walls or buildings. The truly gifted will likely try to incorporate the horse into their full gaming experience, because ultimately their new found freedom is just there to help make you feel awesome, and cool, but to be honest, I didn’t use them that much. I found them a bit cumbersome, but I’m a rooftop player, and so they didn’t hold much for my play-style.
There are, of course, new weapons as well, such as the crossbow (though I’d argue it made the game a bit too easy), as well as a few new tools from Leonardo da Vinci. Largely these are used at your own discretion, particularly the new parachute, but for some reason, even though they’re designed by the guy who basically created the helicopter and tank, they felt a bit out-of-place - but then again, I’m still a bigger fan of Altair and the era in which the original Assassin’s Creed is set, so I’m probably just a little biased in that regard.
Probably the biggest addition to the series though, and one for the better, is multiplayer. Here you’re tasked with truly living out the work of an assassin, and my gripe earlier with the clinical feel of the game is set aside here, because you’re not taking down canned AI, you’re facing humans, which is a whole new experience.
From a contextual level, you’re actually playing as Abstergo, the Templars of the future who initially kidnapped Desmond, and the animus is their training ground, or in real-world terms, multiplayer is their training grounds. There are four basic modes of play; two built around free-for-all deathmatch modes, and two around team deathmatch/co-op. Wanted and Advanced Wanted are the two former, with Advanced Wanted just throwing in a deeper rule-set by which to win, while Alliance (my favourite) splits teams into pairs - the two of you then need to work together and communicate in order to take out the other pairs. The same can be said of Manhunt, though it’s more just a team deathmatch mode.
The beauty of all of this is anyone can be anywhere, and no one the wiser. You need a keen eye to see who’s moving out of sync with the rest of population and perks that allow players to turn into one of a whole group of moving NPCs, or different player models altogether make it that much more difficult. There’s no run-and-gun concept here, and in fact you’re rewarded for staying out of sight - even if that means taking a bench and not moving the entire round. It’s an entirely new way of playing multiplayer, and is one of the most refreshing gameplay modes I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s difficult to relay here, but patient, competitive players are going to get the absolute most out of it.
Without the multiplayer addition, Brotherhood probably wouldn’t have scored as high for me. It’s an excellent entrant in the series, but lacks the innovation we’d all like to see, and if you’ve played ACII, by and large, you’ve played this. It’s a minor evolution in terms of tweaked gameplay and a few new gameplay additions, but as a fan of the entire AC concept, I really would rather all the resources be poured into an entirely new chapter, in a new era with a new assassin. And hopefully that’s what we get in a year’s time.