Review: Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
Why does the Assassin’s Creed series keep pulling me back? It is a question that I pick my brains attempting to answer. By rights, I should be disillusioned with the series by now, as after the second game in a series subsequent sequels don't usually interest me, instead passing me by. With Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, the third title in Ubisoft's series, however, I’m still drawn back as though by an invisible hand. There’s something unexplainably enamouring about everything that Assassin’s Creed is.
Therefore, it was with both that question and a sort of reckless confidence that I tore the cellophane packaging from my copy of Ezio’s latest adventure. Brotherhood, a direct sequel to 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II, picks up the plot on the nail biting cliffhanger provided by the previous title. As the prequel's protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, you spend your time largely in Rome, where the Borgia - under the order of the Pope and his son, Cesare - oppress the city's people through their military presence.
The gameplay mechanic is essentially identical to Assassin's Creed II, and whilst those who have played the previous game will find this wonderfully familiar (it allows immediate access into this new iteration), players may find themselves questioning the £40-50 price tag for what, at first glance, seems like a large-scale expansion pack to its prequel. Whilst not enough is changed from Assassin's Creed II to win any innovation awards, after a few hours with the game players will realise that both the technical and interactive aspects of the title are polished and refined compared to the previous title, and those issues which were present in ACII have been (for the most part) solved. The similarity of the controls and mechanic to ACII means that combat can pose very little challenge to veterans of the series. Brotherhood is undoubtedly more than an expansion pack - it's everything ACII was and more, bundled into what definitely qualifies as a sequel.
Along with the return of Ezio as main protagonist, the entire cast of Assassin's Creed II make their second appearance in Brotherhood. Caterina Sforza, La Volpe, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Mario Auditore (and the Auditore family, except Ezio's younger brother) and the 'enemy' family of the Borgia all return from the previous installment. Fans of Brotherhood's prequel will feel immediately at home with this familiar cast, meaning that Brotherhood forgoes the character development sequences at the opening of the story which Assassin's Creed and ACII both used, instead jumping straight into the action. Although excellent for series veterans, newcomers to the series may struggle to understand the characters, as the explanation afforded in previous games is ommited.
Ezio isn't the only leading man here either, as his modern-day counterpart, Subject #17 - or, as we know him, Desmond Miles - is more prominently featured than he was in the previous installments. Whilst periods out of the Animus (the machine used to tap into ancestral memories contained within human DNA) are still rare, they serve more of a purpose in this latest game and actually involve some level of compelling gameplay. Far from being limited to walking about a single room, Desmond gets to explore outdoor, indoor and even underground locations, including some explored by his ancestor, Ezio, in the main campaign. He also exhibits many of the athletic and combat-based abilities of Ezio - gained through the 'bleeding effect' - which allow him to scale structures and buildings much as Ezio can. The balance of the game is much less biased towards the historical aspect (instead there's more of an equality of distribution between the historical and modern-day sequences), and the more prominent sections in the modern world allow players to relate more to Desmond as a character whilst increasing realism, engrossing players further. The juxtapositioning of the modern-day technology and characters in the ancient Roman ruins creates a truly fantastic atmosphere, and gives a feeling of adventure distinctly similar to the ruin-exploration sequences in series such as Uncharted or Lara Croft.
The ability to enter and leave the Animus at will through the (newly redesigned and very slick) pause menu, however, is largely superfluous and serves very little purpose. Leaving the Animus will provide the player with very few options other than to get right back in; other than where forced to by the storyline, players should avoid leaving the Animus and stay within Renaissance Italy. Whilst the story-based modern sequences are effective, returning to the modern day through the pause menu without reason yields very little reward.
The campaign is immersive and exciting for the most part, and the addition of specific achievements in missions to gain 100% synchronisation adds replay incentive. Missions are fun but there are still ocassionally issues with repetition, and some missions can be too easy whilst some can be incredibly difficult (particularly missions in which you must not be detected). It can be much more tactically demanding than ACII at times too which, whilst not necessarily bad, may drive some away. Outside missions, the aim is to liberate areas of the city from Borgia influence by assassinating a Templar overseer before destroying that area's 'Borgia Tower'. This process varies in difficulty depending on the military prowess and capacity of the troops and their overseer, and the overseer's tactics vary too: some will stay and fight whilst some will flee, and the player must vary their approach to each overseer in order to compensate. Combat is slightly improved on that in ACII; it is as streamlined as ever, but with a larger, much more satisfyingly brutal range of moves which makes swordplay much less repetitive and much more exciting, and the addition of the 'kill streak' feature is very welcome. Weaponry can once again be purchased through the game's economy system (which is also improved on and is effective as ever) and the range of weaponry is great too, with the welcome addition of a better, faster-firing pistol and a crossbow. The new weaponry doesn't fit in with the canon of the game, though; in ACII, pistols, rifles and crossbows were almost non-existent, whilst in Brotherhood (a direct sequel, remember) they're about as common as the horses (more on that later).
Rome, centre of power for the Borgia and the Templar Order, has a major role in Brotherhood, being the major locale for the game's action. Whilst previous locations are playable, such as Monteriggioni and Florence, they're only featured very briefly. The single setting limits the game's variety somewhat, but it is a flaw which is made up for by the sheer size of the city - it is three times the size of the largest city in Assassin's Creed II, meaning that travel between objectives or landmarks on foot is largely replaced with a horseback commute. The city is also more vibrant and varied, with different areas having entirely opposite personalities and appearances. Some areas are ruined, some are run down and others - particularly those around Borgia strongholds - are more lah-di-dah. Whilst there's enough uniqueness to each area to make you feel that the map designers haven't just copied and pasted a small area a thousand times, the many unique cities of Assassin's Creed II were better at avoiding the overwhelming feeling of déja vu that pne can get when riding around Rome.
Rome looks wonderful, principally due to the marked graphical improvement on even last year's title. The characters no longer look like poor plastic recreations of human beings, but instead are far more believable and three-dimensional. Facial animation and rendering is far improved: the first facial closeups are enough to wow players who experienced ACII's dismal faces. Cities are much improved and the colour range seems to be wider, helping to make the game seem much more vibrant. Simply put, Brotherhood is nicer to look at than its younger sibling. Howbeit, in spite of the graphical improvements in some areas the draw distance for scenery is surprisingly short, and gamers should expect to experience a fair deal of 'popping' scenery whilst exploring Rome. Other technical areas are slightly lacking, too: I experienced sound issues during playing, lip-synch is quite obviously out at various points and loading times, where they occur, are lengthy.
The 'brotherhood' of the title refers to Ezio's campaign in the game to collect together a band of Assassin recruits to counter the army built by Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia. It's an interesting plot point and the Assassin recruits can come in useful in battles (due to the ability to call them in as extra reinforcements). However, the process of recruiting new Assassins is far too simple; kill a few relatively unskilled guards and the new recruit is yours. It poses very little challenge at all. Furthermore, the ability to send recruits off on missions across Europe through pigeon coops is an interesting concept but it isn't fantastically realised: there isn't any real incentive to send recruits on missions as it isn't tied into the main plot. Really, the brotherhood could be far better implemented to both be a part of the campaign's plot, and give some incentive to use the recruits via the pigeon coops rather than just as human killing machines in a fight.
Horseback riding hasn't just been further implemented in terms of commute, either. They're much more common, and horses can now be taken inside the city walls, which is both a much welcome improvement on Assassin's Creed II and a necessity considering the outright enormity of the game world. You'll often find yourself calling your horse to get to your next objective, as going on foot would take far too long. Horses are also classified now; citizens might ride common horses, Assassins ride white ones whilst guards and other Borgia members ride dark armoured horses. Whilst this is a nice addition in terms of the game's depth, and helps the game to be even more immersive, the different horse types are only for aesthetic and have no impact on the outcome of a horse chase or mounted battle. Horseback combat has also been greatly improved; targeting on a horse is now possible, meaning the player can use the pistol or crossbow for long-range kills, whilst horseback swordplay is much more enjoyable and much less hit-and-miss than it previously was in Assassin's Creed II. Additionally, guards will also mount horses to aid on-foot infantry troops, making fights more varied and unpredictable.
Online multiplayer brings a new component to the series which was previously missing from the Assassin's Creed series but has been long demanded by long-time fans. The concept of the online multiplayer is impressively creative: stealthily hunt down your target whilst avoiding being assassinated yourself. The amount of points gained from each kill varies according to how stealthy you've been. You also have to escape your own pursuers: if you spot the person assigned to kill you, you'll be told to flee and either hide from, or outrun, your pursuer. It's cleverly implemented and the stealth and parkour aspects of the main game are well carried over from the campaign mode. Due to the high level of stealth it takes real tactic to play well, and it's not uncommon to see the players with the highest points in a game playing very, very tactically, instead of running in, all blades... blading.
The amount of game modes, however, are very few, with only four available to play. Not only that, but at the beginning of your online campaign, only two game modes will be available to you, with the others becoming unlocked as you progress through the online campaign. That said, the ability to choose your character at the beginning of a game is a really nice touch, and the online maps are nicely done and feature some locations which aren't playable in the main game (Siena being a personal favourite). The same few levels seem to crop up alot, with some only being played very rarely, though (at least in my experience). Players aren't allocated to games in terms of skill either, which can cause matches to be extremely one-sided, particularly if a level eight player tries to take on a level fifty Assassin.
The multiplayer function is interesting and works better than some online systems. The servers are stable and, though it often takes a while to find players, you barely ever experience the 'host disconnection' problems which other onlines offer up in large quantities (ahem, Call of Duty). The online is enjoyable and is a departure from the unoriginal internet-based play of late, giving something which is likely to be an experience entirely dissimilar to those players are used to. The only issue is that the online function just doesn't give that same feeling of military badass which the main game offers - you have only one weapon and the online is very much killing one target after another, with nothing to split it up or offer any sort of context for your actions. Whilst I know that online modes rarely have a plot - and I'm not asking for Asassin's Creed Brotherhood's online to have a storyline - somehow the blend of narrative and combat which is so polished in the main game is Assassin's Creed's hallmark; without it, you have a fun renaissance combat experience, but it loses that feeling of being everything Assassin's Creed is.
On a side note, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's soundtrack - composed by the excellent Jesper Kyd - is as wonderfully immersive and vibrant as his previous work on Assassin's Creed II, and really helps give the player a sense of atmosphere and immersion.
So, as I asked at the beginning: why does the Assassin's Creed series keep pulling me back? With Brotherhood, at least, I put it down to the fact that I just wanted more Ezio. The story just wasn't finished, and Brotherhood offered me a plot which is posed just on the line between a good, compelling mystery and hours of ridiculousness - it's the perfect balance between being immersive and fun. Brotherhood is exactly what a sequel should be: it improves on its predecessor whilst retaining the familiarity of the previous title. Whilst previous Assassin's Creed players will feel right at home with this iteration, and should be struck by the combat improvements and additions to the game, there's no doubting that for those new to the series there should be very little difficulty in enjoying this as a stand-alone experience.
I would say, though, that perhaps the Ezio experience is coming to a close now, and when Assassin's Creed returns I'll be looking for a new character, a new setting and a new timeframe blended with the same trademark Assassin's Creed feel. Whilst I'm all for a feeling of familiarity, for me another Ezio storyline would begin to make the series feel bland. Assassin's Creed Brotherhood has been a fantastic way to spend my time over the last couple of weeks, but if Ezio returns again I think that - as with other sequels - I'll allow it to pass me by. Bring back Assassin's Creed with a new innovation and compelling storyline, however, and I'll be right back like a dog with a stick.
- Linford Butler
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