Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood: Less Polish, More Desmond
If there is one thing Ubisoft can’t be described as, it’s slow. By using several different studios and hundreds of developers, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was blasted out in 12 months. This short schedule surprised me considering the two-year gap between the first and second games and, to be honest, I didn’t really think a quick release would do the game any favors. I liked that Ubisoft Montreal took two years to polish and refine Assassin’s Creed II, and the change to flamboyant, colorful Renaissance Italy was a fantastic choice compared to the washed out, gray tenements of the first title’s Middle Eastern setting. Despite my worries about the game’s development cycle, AC: Brotherhood continues both Ezio and Desmond’s stories literally right after the last game. This continuation is made more exciting by a few key additions to the combat, but the level design, control, and mission parameters lack the same polish that made its predecessor so great.
The triumphant return of Ezio and Desmond is easily the best part of Brotherhood. The story’s first act commences directly after Ezio’s conversation with the otherworldly Minerva. He plans to take a break from the assassin gig to get some T&A, but unfortunately the Borgias cut Ezio’s lady-killing act short. This Templar family of evildoers has come for the Pieces of Eden that Ezio repossessed. Despite his efforts to repel Cesare Borgia—Rodrigo’s son—the Auditore family’s fortress is destroyed and our garish assassin master must relocate Rome to end the templar rule. He plans to do this by liberating the city from the complete rule and intense corruption that has been inflicted. Meanwhile, Desmond is a real, playable character—at least more than he was before—and you can leave the animus at any time to play as him. Truth be told, there still isn’t much to do whenever you voluntarily play as Desmond; most of the important revelations in his story happen during the course of the main missions. The Truth puzzles make their sophomore appearances in Brotherhood as well, and while you could conceivably solve them on your own, you’ll probably have to use an FAQ for some of the harder puzzles. Even if you do have to cheat, it is worth it to get some more glimpses into Subject 16’s crazy, labyrinthine mind. Fans of the series will love the new conspiracy theories that seem to exist just to fuel conversations and forum threads, and the cliff hanger ending is unexpected and nothing short of astounding.
Even with Desmond as more direct participant, this is still very much Ezio’s show. You’ll spend much of the game doing mostly what you did in Assassin’s Creed II: pursuing and assassinating smaller targets in order to pursue and assassinate larger targets. If you played the last game, you’ve done most of what is here before but there is one large new addition that is both a good and bad thing: Borgia towers. In order to gain support from the Roman citizens, you must take down these towers that are surrounded by guards and a captain. Devising ways to stealthily kill the captain is really fun and often very challenging. Once you kill the head honcho, the tower is open to burn down which will relieve the denizens around it and allow you to purchase shops. This functions the same as Monteriggioni did in the last game, with revenue slowly growing over time as you accrue more property. The only problem is that the massive Roman landscape feels less personal than Monteriggioni did. I never felt as if any of my renovated blacksmiths, brothels, or art trades were anything more than a cog in a money machine.
Fortunately, destroying the Borgia towers does allow you to recruit assassins for Ezio’s cause. They can be sent on missions across Europe and Asia to gain experience and add to the assassin treasury, and while I ended up not caring about the money, sending my young greenhorns to cut their teeth on a Russian assassination plot sent my imagination whirling. After your recruits have some experience and an upgraded arsenal, calling upon them is both comical and useful. Once you whistle for them, they’ll often pop out of the nearest haystack to quickly eliminate the selected target. It is amusing from start to finish and alleviates some pressure you might have during a mission. Killing enemies by yourself is also made easier by execution combos, which allow you to dispatch enemies even faster than before. You start a combo by countering one enemy and then taking the momentum from that first kill through to other enemies. Essentially, it is a one hit kill combo that may sound over powered, but it makes sense because Ezio is a master assassin with several hundred kills under his belt. Another fun repurposing is the Romulus Lairs, which are just refined versions of the Assassin Tombs from AC II. Running through all of these catacombs heavily reminded me of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and a significant bonus is given for completing them all.
Unfortunately, these slick additions and refinements fail to compensate for several key issues. Brotherhood has more instant fail missions than the first and second games combined. If you are detected just once—and Borgia guards often manage to scream bloody murder just before you shank them, alerting all their friends to your presence—many missions kick you right back to the last checkpoint, loading screen included. This punitive design wouldn’t be unbearable if the game also didn’t have some weak platforming to compound it. Ezio just doesn’t control quite as well, and many indoor sections feel like they weren’t play tested. I often couldn’t see where to jump next which meant a lot of blind jumps. And even when I could see the next jump, Ezio sometimes would opt for a face plant six stories down. I got the feeling that certain areas were designed by another studio and weren’t revised before the game went gold. Assassin’s Creed II was such a comprehensively refined experience that it really sticks out when Brotherhood doesn’t meet the same established quality. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it makes me wonder what six months more development could’ve done for this game.
I don’t want to sound completely down on the game because Brotherhood is not a failure. Hell, just continuing the storyline is a great reason to pick this game up. If you are a fan of the series you’ll be sucked back into the canon immediately, just be warned that actually playing the game can be tedious and it doesn’t exude polish like Assassins Creed II. What I really hope is that the next game—which is slated for a release sometime between late 2011 and early 2012—gets enough development time to match the series’ high polish mark. After playing Brotherhood though, color me worried for the future.
Note: I did play some multiplayer, and I’m happy to say that it is pretty fun. The customization helps out the basic multiplayer modes, which are quite exciting on their own. I still view this series as a single player one, but there is a lot worth seeing in this game’s competitive mode.