My landlord, the assassin
So lets start this review for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood by talking about the end of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. And I won’t spoil the ending, except to say the ending sucks. Then again, the ending for every Assassin’s Creed game sucks. All of the games end with a horrible cliffhanger, asking players to pipe over $60 to find out what happens in the next game (and presumably to be left with another horrible cliffhanger, forever caught in a cycle of cliffhangers.) I begrudgingly accept that every video game of this generation must be designed with a sequel in mind, but there are other ways to pique interest without depriving players of a complete story arc. Look to the Mass Effect games for lessons on how to create an ending that is both satisfactory and leaves intrigue for future iterations.
Moving on to the rest of the game. I’ll go on a limb and say that everything you liked and disliked about Assassin’s Creed 2 is in full effect for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. For me, things I hate include “the present day, Desmond, the conspiracy theories, the 2012 bullshit” and things I like include “pretty much everything to do with Ezio Auditore de Firenze.” So I walked out of Brotherhood still hating the present day conspiracy storyline, and still thinking that Desmond is the boring lackey of Nathan Drake, surrounded by a crew of outcasts that still haven’t gotten over Firefly’s cancellation. And likewise, I still came out of Brotherhood thinking that Ezio is the most interesting being in that entire universe. He nails a checklist of likable traits in a lead hero; charming, moralistic, experienced, confident, badass with a soft side. Many of his supporting characters return from Assassin’s Creed 2, bringing with them their passionate Italian bravado and affection for profanity.
There is no big moment in this game where the villain, the bitter noble Cesare, mucks your rebellion over with some strange plot twist. The game gives you a constant sense of progression; you are gradually chipping away at Cesare’s grip on Rome while amassing great amounts of power yourself. A lot of that sense of increased influence over Rome comes from the many, many, many, many sandbox-ish side quests you can indulge in over your play experience. First, you can enter “Borgia territory”, and burn down their Borgia towers to magically remove the Borgia “influence” in that area. How destroying a single tower removes Borgia influence is beyond me; am I destroying the Borgia family poker rooms? Do the Borgia guards leave the area due to their lost bro-out area? After that, you can invest money into renovating and restoring any of the shops, banks and blacksmiths in the area and accumulating rent over a period of time. It’s similar to the property system from the Fable games, but with the reassurance that you are making a positive contribution to your Italian heritage. You can pay large sums of money to purchase monuments like the Coliseum or the Pantheon, but neither provide any kind of benefit besides the same minor rent increase you get for renovating a clothing shop.
Many, many other sidequests manifest themselves as you progress. You can take assassination missions, of course. You can improve relations with the guilds of thieves, mercenaries or female entertainers with side missions. You can venture into a series of side missions built around taking down a feral cult or destroying such legendary Roman weapons as the ancient Roman wooden tank. (Not one of Leonardo’s better inventions.) You will spend an inordinate amount of time not progressing the main storyline in favour of doing your part to rescue Italia, one pizza pie at a time. There comes a point, very early in the game, where you can look at the user map and panic at the sheer quantity of things in the world to address. And if you’re like me, you’ll begin to pick and choose the ones of interest to you and neglect the others (yes to the cult missions and assassination contracts, no to the courtesan or shopkeep missions.)
Though you’ll have to be patient, for the game is very slow to reveal itself. A friend of mine, someone who is very adept at Prince of Persia, was considerably frustrated at long it took for Assassin’s Creed 2 to introduce its concepts. Brotherhood moves at just as slow a pace. I was considerably annoyed every time I was told I could not access certain Borgia regions or unlock the next cult missions because I needed to advance the storyline. Equally as frustrating, albeit perhaps it shouldn’t, was how long it took to Ezio to regain his second hidden blade. You can’t access it until after a specific point in the story, and there were many an instance where I would have loved to stab multiple enemy temples at once.
Mind you, the story missions are mostly solid affairs. They are about as distinct and interesting as the ones you saw in Assassin’s Creed 2. Though I was very frustrated at the occasional forced stealth sequence that would fail you if you were spotted. Part of my frustration comes from how the game considers it a failure if a guard sees you just as you begin slicing their eyeballs out. Otherwise, all of the similar gameplay mechanics from Assassin’s Creed 2 are here; you are still running around rooftops, running away from guards, hiding in bales of hay and stabbing people while hiding in bales of hay. The swordplay is more timing-based; you are still timing button presses to attack enemies or block attacks, but the game rewards proper timing by letting you slaughter enemies one after the other. It doesn’t have the same visual impact of the Batman game, but I understand. I doubt Ezio would stand much of a chance fighting Batman anyways.
There does become something of a turning point several hours in, when Ezio decides to take a stab at running his own Assassination guild. First you help a disgruntled citizen beat up some Borgia goons, and then they swear their lives in servitude to the almighty Ezio. These goons are so devoted to your sexy accent that they follow you everywhere, and will pounce at any guard you point at if you so choose. While on the surface, you would think that doing so would make the game a little too easy, and well, you would be a tad right…and then you will be decidedly frustrated during the stealth-only moments of the game where you can’t use your students. You can also send your assassins on international contracts to accrue cash and experience points, and it does become worth your while to level up your goons with better armour and weapons.
The end result is a game that is feels conceptually heavy. Property buying, assassinating, helping the escorts, giving your pupils training exercises in Lisbon and Paris, upgrading Ezio with weapons and armor, the ten trillion other sidequests, buying a nice wine-coloured robe to match your Azure cape…the kind of player that struggles with concepts like “navigating menus in a video game” or “pressing the run button in Super Mario Bros” will suffer a minor stroke playing Brotherhood. Inversely, if you ignore side quests and focus on hunting down the one villain, then I would guesstimate the game lasting about 4-5 hours. But immersing yourself in the whole culture of subversively taking over Roma, I lost myself within the game for about 20 hours. ‘Tis a big game.
One more complaint; there’s a point of no return at the start of sequence 8. After which begins a long string of missions; you can still access the rest of Rome after completing these missions, but some kind of “hey, you should buy some nice equipment for this potentially lengthy stretch of the game” message would have been much appreciated.
Oh and by the by, there’s a multiplayer mode buried within this massive game too. You may have heard about it since it seemed to take up more of the pre-release advertising than the whole lengthy 20 hour campaign bit. So you and a posse of 6-8 colourful characters are in a world populated by civilians dressed as the other 6-8 colourful characters. In this elaborate game of hide and seek, you must seek out a single other assassin, while blending in with the populace and not killing any of the civilians. Your first few sessions will result in you getting repeatedly splayed on the floor as you get a feel for what is and isn’t a good idea. (Hiding in the hay pile isn’t quite the safe haven as it used to be.) But once you get a grip of the more methodical styling, then there’s a real sense of gratification that comes with sneaking up on an unsuspecting dude and breaking their darned neck. While it more or less borrows its core idea from The Boat, I feel like this is one of the most creative multiplayer experiences I’ve had in many a moon.
So I sit here, thinking to myself that I will probably never bother to revisit the campaign again. Not because it’s a particularly bad campaign, but because I don’t think I can bring myself to redo all of those assorted sidequests over again in the name of a bad cliffhanger ending. Mind you, I was borderline addicted to the main quest during my time revisiting Ezio. That was a good 20 hours of entertainment while it lasted. And I’m a good deal more interested in the multiplayer than I would have anticipated. So I would consider that something of an endorsement. If you liked Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood offers a compressed and very dense rendition of that experience for your consumption.