The Assassins are who we thought they were
Without a doubt, the original game was consistently riddled with dissonant-feeling side missions that relegated the spirit of the game into a series of boring ‘go-here-go-there’ missions. As ambitious as the original idea was, there were clearly some things to iron out, namely, the repetitive mission structure. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood doesn’t necessarily try to reinvent the established formula, but brings forth some interesting modifications that help blend the game’s structure with its overall narrative aspirations.
As always, the open-world, cities created by Ubisoft remain both beautiful and historically inspired. The many districts of Rome are populated with lavish landmarks and a sparkling countryside. Rather unfortunately, certain sections are holed off during early game sequences, meaning that Brotherhood had to resort to cheap parlor tricks via the Animus rather than interesting level design to keep players away from areas where the narrative didn’t want them to go. Nonetheless, players are again treated to the same high quality, quasi-historical, quasi-science fiction vision featured in the previous games.
Speaking of the science fiction angle, we are once again graced with the presence of Desmond Miles, the subject who is reliving the memories of his ancestors and acquiring assassin abilities through the device they call the Animus. Though they are more prevalent in Brotherhood, Desmond’s story sequences feel a bit less obtrusive than in previous games (though by the endgame his adventures are getting a little odd). I’ve never been a huge fan of the sci-fi angle of the storyline, but Brotherhood makes a more concerted effort into making Desmond and friends a bit less annoying. By the time Desmond finally comes of age (whenever that may be), we may have just grown to like him.
Synchronization is at an all-time high
The basic controls are virtually unchanged from Assassin’s Creed 2 – free-running sequences execute with the deftness and ease that returning players will instantly recognize. Although there’s little difference in the control scheme, movement (free-running especially) feels a notch or two more fluid, and unintended movements seemed less frequent than in previous Assassin’s Creed games. All in all, the game’s movement mechanics needed little refinement, save for the combat mechanics themselves.
Aside from an occasional targeting or physics malfunction, stealth assassinations via Ezio’s hidden blade are once again performed quite easily. New to Brotherhood, the crossbow is a welcome addition for those who like to keep things quiet. In melee combat, the basic mechanics of the previous game favored counterattacks, relegating battles into a slow-paced waiting game. Brotherhood’s combat has become a faster and more fluid experience.
It all starts after landing a brutal finishing blow to an enemy: Ezio can bounce directly the next enemy to land another finisher. When feisty enemies try to interrupt the kill streak, you can seamlessly switch into a counter attack to continue the maim-fest. These improvements are exactly what the Assassin’s Creed series needed – the newfound absence of laboriousness gives way to a satisfying and choreographed-feeling combat system. The smoothness of the execution purely depends on the player, the more attentive you are, the more empowered you will feel.
Tower of influence, economies of scale
Brotherhood picks up shortly after the oddball conclusion of Assassin’s Creed 2. The first fifteen to twenty percent of the campaign reintroduces the player to Ezio, his past, his future, and his old tricks. Scaling buildings to find viewpoints to reveal the surrounding map is still standard fare, as well as taking on additional assassination contracts to raise funds and eliminate enemy influence. Early pacing may lean to the dreadful side of the scale for those who’ve scoured a building or a rooftop recently, but it’s a solid setup for what is to come in the majority of the game.
While Assassin’s Creed has always tinkered with the ‘choose your own way of assassinating this dude’ method as its primary style of play, the sequel dabbled in the mild management and upgrading assassins’ base of operation. In doing so, Assassin Creed 2 allowed players to establish a simple economy that yielded clear-cut benefits to the player, such as an influx of income, discounts, and item upgrades. Brotherhood tries to take it a step further – instead of managing a single stronghold, Ezio is charged with rebuilding the economic infrastructure of Rome.
The game doesn’t waste time in getting players acquainted to Brotherhood’s new world structure. Since the Borgia has gained significant influence over the boroughs and districts of Rome, Ezio cannot invest in the various landmarks and locales until he takes out the enemy captains and razes their stronghold’s towers. By repairing (and thus funding) businesses such as the banks, blacksmiths, and tailors, the Assassin’s Guild gains access to shops, discounts, and a cut of the revenue. This system, while not perfect, creates an air of influence around the Assassin’s Guild. As Borgia influence falters and Assassin influence swells across Rome, you can almost feel the tides turning, thus turning these systems into effective gameplay and narrative devices.
My eternally spawning empowered homies
Most of Ezio’s activities in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood never seem to conflict with its overall narrative purpose. Most impressively, nearly every interaction and every side-mission supports the game’s narrative ideals. Faction quests received from the Mercenaries, Thieves, or Courtesans factions fall in line with the fiction, though the occasional silly race pops up from time to time. Rarely did I feel that I was simply completing tasks for completion’s sake.
Some of the more impressive side-missions don’t feel like side-missions at all. A three-part series of quests features Ezio’s best bud, Leonardo Da Vinci, and tasks the assassins with commandeering and destroying the war machines that the Borgia have captured. Each mission features its own unique level outside of Rome, but unfortunately the actual piloting of the machines at the end of the sequences feels like a loose, shoehorned-in arcade minigame that breaks pacing and simply isn’t fun.
But no feature is more important in fostering a congruent narrative within the game experience than the inclusion of the assassin recruits. If Ezio rescues a dissenting citizen from the Borgia guard, he will recruit him or her into the Assassin’s Guild. Once his forces are recruited, Ezio can summon his underlings to assault his targets. Sometimes they’ll come on horseback, sometimes they’ll sneak from behind, and if requested, they’ll take down all their targets from afar with a storm of arrows. As they gain experience, they’ll gain access to more equipment, such as smoke bombs and guns. Without a doubt, the option of using the Brotherhood’s assassins to carry out your plans is again another empowering addition.
By sending carrier pigeons, Ezio can also send his forces on contract missions that yield experience, items, and finances. After reaching the highest rank, the recruit will be inducted as a full-fledged Assassin, complete with cool uniform. Certainly, there could have been more ways in which Ezio recruits into his brotherhood or employs their services, but the sense of ownership and expansion of the Assassins’ influence is well-captured nonetheless. While certainly a welcome addition, I’ll be interested to see if Ubisoft can overhaul the recruit system in future installments of the series to make it a bit more varied and in-depth experience.
The curse of creativity (or lack thereof)
Most of the time, Brotherhood doesn’t force players to execute assassinations using a predetermined or coached method (though it rewards you for finishing missions in specific manners) – it allows the player to take his own approach to his own madness. But when it does try to limit the way in which Ezio can go about a mission, Brotherhood can be frustrating. Given so many interesting tools to utilize, it can often become difficult to be expressive in your killing methods within the main story missions.
Even with all of the key improvements to the game’s overall structure, Brotherhood still manages to falter from time to time through this constraining use of unnecessary mission objectives on the micro-level. One minor slip up in tracking a target or killing a guy before the UI tells you to so will earn you a quick desynchronization and a handful of frustration. This doesn’t even come off as an attempt to be cinematic – it simply feels like unforgivably bad mission and objective design.
At times, Brotherhood doesn’t seem to understand how to punish a player’s faults; therefore, it relies on dishing out a quick ‘game over’. Simply put, players should not be punished for being discovered by enemy troops by defaulting to a ‘game over’ sequence without good reason. A bit of sensibility in the mission design process or more forgiving objectives may have solved some of the more annoying occurrences.
On a whole, missions are generally satisfying, but unfortunately, Brotherhood sometimes doesn’t give the player enough reign to exercise creativity in some of the story missions – most game experiences will be nearly identical simply because the game forces them to be. There’s nothing wrong with being an entirely focused experienced, but the game is unquestionably at its best when creativity is encouraged, which seems to be the norm.
And the weird killing simulator
In what many of us thought was the main draw of Brotherhood, the multiplayer component bears mixed results. Essentially, the multiplayer mode puts you in the shoes of one of a few avatars in a populated area featuring gobs of non-player characters and around eight opponents. You’ll randomly be assigned a ‘contract’ that you must identify, stalk, and kill without being detected. It’s a simple setup with a few spicy elements that add a relative amount of depth. The full array of standard mechanics from the main game are available: blending in crowds, climbing buildings, and stabbing dudes in the back (the animation from the ‘barber’ character is my personal favorite). Additionally, you’ll be granted abilities and perks (such as disguises, smoke bombs, and speed bursts) as you level up and achieve kill streaks.
It’s a very compelling idea, and it is certainly well-executed. That being said, the multiplayer is not a game-seller and is best enjoyed in small doses – multiplayer in Brotherhood is entertaining, but may not have the draw that will keep players coming back for more. It is a notable attempt at something different in the online multiplayer space, but seems likely to wear thin past the release window.