Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood feels like an unnecessary Direct to Video sequel to ACII

I went into Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood thinking it was the last good one before IV, a final really solid game in a franchise that quickly nosedived after. I remember it getting a lot of attention during 2010 game of the year proceedings, a five star review from one Ryan Davis (R.I.P. big fella), and a generally positive reputation among gamers to this day. While in the end I, on balance, enjoyed the game, I thought it was incredibly uneven and a big step back from AC II in a number of areas.

ACB is a violent game with some dynamic camera angles at time. It's more Assassin's Creed for better and worse.
ACB is a violent game with some dynamic camera angles at time. It's more Assassin's Creed for better and worse.

ACB wore on me as I played on, though. I did not end up liking the Rome map nearly as much as the maps in ACII, which were more varied and brighter and more colorful. Rome under the Borgia is an oppressive place, with a depressed populace and lots of death and misery. Much of the city lies in ruins and it didn’t have the impressive buildings of AC II’s Florence and Venice. This might be historically accurate but took away some of the best climbing, though climbing in ACB is also improved in some ways, including having more variety in the visual representation of handholds and often requiring some backtracking and dropping down rather than just having straightforward routes to the top. I also thought that Rome was more of a pain to navigate in the built up areas, with a less intuitive street layout and more annoying rooftops, and it has massive stretches of open rural land where there’s nothing to do but ride your horse and pick up the occasional treasure chest. Thankfully this is the first AC game where horses can be ridden on city streets, and random civilians sometimes have them too, which was another neat addition, and along with the much needed fast travel system within the map (using a set of tunnel entrances throughout the city) helped make navigating the new map not so bad.

Desmond and Lucy share a moment at Mario's villa. They flirt and climb around much like Nathan and Chloe in Uncharted II, a game that clearly influenced this one.
Desmond and Lucy share a moment at Mario's villa. They flirt and climb around much like Nathan and Chloe in Uncharted II, a game that clearly influenced this one.

My opinion of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood swung wildly from one pole to the other as I played through its twenty or so hours. I liked the initial segment in Mario’s villa and enjoyed Ezio’s planning for some peace and recreation even as I knew it would never happen (just when he thought he was out…) The cut scenes were more dramatic than they had been in II, with off kilter camera angles and dynamic events, and Mario’s death was more emotional than the deaths of Ezio’s father and brothers in ACII because we’d spent so much time with him in the previous game. I also liked that the game continued to try to establish some gameplay for Desmond, and while I wasn’t wild about Lucy being repurposed yet again from badass mentor to wise-cracking love interest, I like Uncharted and ACB’s off-brand Uncharted vibe worked for me. Setting Desmond and crew set up in the modern day version of the villa strengthened the emotional connection between Desmond and Ezio, and it all seemed to be going somewhere good. Then Ezio got to Rome. I really liked the first couple hours I spent in Rome even though I wasn’t super into the darker tone the game took. The first mission you do upon getting there is killing an executioner who killed a woman unjustly and the quest giver makes sure to tell you that the people who watched her grow up spat in her face as she was dragged to the gallows. That, along with the fact that the civilians in Brotherhood seem generally poorer and less happy than the rather spirited NPCs in Florence and Venice from II set Brotherhood up to be darker game than ACII, which had dark themes but also a spirit of youthful adventure. Brotherhood continues this darkness throughout its run, with Ezio’s best friend Leonardo working for his hated enemies the Borgia and then being kidnapped, and Ezio’s allies on the ropes and at each others’ throats. But despite missing the tone of the prior game, I enjoyed exploring the new map and coming to grips with the new systems, including an expanded loot system, buying and opening shops after you free areas from Borgia control, and, a little later, being able to hire and deploy assassins. I also really liked some of the early missions, with the first lair of the followers of Romulus being a particular favorite, again dipping ACB into off-brand Uncharted territory, and providing a change of pace from the open world just like the tombs did in II.

Horses play a bigger role in this game than the last one. So does following people. So much following.
Horses play a bigger role in this game than the last one. So does following people. So much following.

The issues weren’t restricted to just tone and map, though. The property buying and assassin management stuff becomes more of a chore than a pleasure after a while, with dozens of shops to track down and open if you want to raise your income, and constantly having to find pigeon coops and mess around in menus to level up and upgrade your assassins. There’s less interesting equipment to buy than in ACII (though you do have to buy back some of your equipment from that game, which is…it’s a video game sequel so fine) so the investments feel less meaningful than they did in II, and as far as I could tell there was no real benefit to renovating the landmarks (apparently you get something if you buy them all, which would take a long time.) Liberating the Borgia towers was great, though, and led to some really good random open world encounters, such as when I ran into a captain at the edge of his territory, shot him, got attacked by a huge wave of guards, summoned my assassins and fought through a massive melee to the base of the tower, which I eventually climbed and blew up. That was honestly some of the most thrilling open world gameplay I can remember, and was better than any story mission in the game.

Leo and Ezio share one of their few moments in the game. The friendship between the two of them barely factors into ACB, and Leo is depressed and harried rather than fun and cheerful.
Leo and Ezio share one of their few moments in the game. The friendship between the two of them barely factors into ACB, and Leo is depressed and harried rather than fun and cheerful.

The story missions are another area where the game falls short of its predecessor. ACII didn’t have a great plot but it had fun characters and a light, campy, tone that made it breezy fun most of the time. Brotherhood is more serious and suffers for it. It brings back many of the characters from ACII, but they tend to be more muted and brooding. Machiavelli, who was a minor figure at the end of II, especially if you didn’t play the DLC sequence 13, is now Ezio’s main contact and mission giver. Leonardo is hardly in the game, and is miserably working for the Borgia, only able to meet with Ezio in secret. Caterina shows up long enough to have sex with Ezio, get kidnapped, and then run off back to Forli never to be seen again. Volpe suspects Machiavelli of betrayal and urges Ezio to eliminate him. The Borgia villains are evil, but in a more generic way than the various villains from AC II, all scheming with and against each other to take over Italy and/or kill Ezio. Nobody is particularly likeable and none of the stories are great. Ezio has also changed significantly from his prior incarnation, being presented as a more serious leader type, which is not nearly as fun. He’s still a good character, but not nearly as good as he was in II, and while the liberation of Rome seems like an important theme at times, it’s also something that Ezio doesn’t seem all that interested in compared to his feud with the Borgia and desire to get the apple back. The game wants to be about rebellion but doesn’t spend enough time on the rebellion part for it to really land.

Burning the Borja towers is the best part of the game. The open world antics are great, as opposed to many of the scripted missions which feel constrained and too reliant on trial and error.
Burning the Borja towers is the best part of the game. The open world antics are great, as opposed to many of the scripted missions which feel constrained and too reliant on trial and error.

If the plot and characters are a step back, the main story missions are often flat out bad. I liked some of the early stuff, but by the mid-game point where you have to carry Lucrezia Borgia down to Caterina’s cell to free her, and then carry Caterina out of the castle, I was flat out irritated with the game. Not only did I keep getting lost on the confusingly laid out map, but these missions eliminated much of what makes Assassin’s Creed fun, in favor of watching Ezio walk down hallways carrying women with his ridiculous prancing animation when he’s holding someone. Other missions involving tailing people or infiltrating areas were either flat out buggy or just annoying and unfun. One midgame mission has Ezio dressed up as a guard and carrying a lockbox to a target without knowing the route. Your fellow guards verbally correct you when you go in the wrong direction so you have to navigate by audio cues, with guards saying “isn’t it the other way?” when you go the wrong route and “we’ll be there soon” when you’re going the right way. This is awful and whoever decided it would make a good mission in the middle of a game about stabbing people in the throat should not be designing game missions. In general the game often wants you to approach things in one particular way, and punishes you for deviating, but while that can be okay in the handcrafted areas it is a bad philosophy of mission design for an open world game. Open world games are about improvisation and making your own fun, and when Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is doing that it’s pretty good, but when you’re following a script in an open world area it feels constraining and frustrating. Sequences 8 and 9 were particular low points for me. I hated everything about Sequence 8, and Sequence 9 was saved only by the fact that it was pretty short and straightforward. I can honestly say that by the end of the game I was not having any fun and thought I might actively dislike ACB as a whole.

I hope you like map icons because this game has a lot of them.
I hope you like map icons because this game has a lot of them.

But I kept playing after the end because I hadn’t done some of the optional Leonardo and Romulus lair missions, and I found those to be much better than the mainline story stuff. They involve handcrafted Uncharted style locations and some fun sequences like chasing a cardinal through the rafters of a cathedral, or exploring areas outside of Rome where Leonardo’s designs are being tested. Using the Leonardo weapons themselves is pretty bad (except for the tank, which was fun) but the handcrafted levels were well designed and focused on sneaking around and murdering bad guys rather than following Borgia stooges halfway across Rome or random fetch quests. The Leonardo Is Missing DLC was also decently entertaining, though not at the level of the weapons or lairs, and a couple missions where Ezio remembers his old flame Christina and returns to small sections of Florence as young Ezio were short diversions. My post-game experience redeemed the game in my eyes and reminded me of its good aspects despite its terrible main story ending.

The levels where you control Leo's machines are another area that feels rushed. This machine gun level is not fun (though sneaking in to get it is) and you kill so many innocent horses. If PETA cared about video games they would have protested this one.
The levels where you control Leo's machines are another area that feels rushed. This machine gun level is not fun (though sneaking in to get it is) and you kill so many innocent horses. If PETA cared about video games they would have protested this one.

On the whole, Brotherhood feels rushed and uneven. The map is not as carefully constructed as II’s were, even though it’s far from bad and the fast travel options are appreciated. Everything feels less hand made. There are still treasure chests throughout the world but there aren’t guarded chests in courtyards anymore, they’re just in random places, often pretty much in the open. Overall the world is just blander and worse, with lots of activities but not as much moment to moment fun. There are some good additions to the gameplay, including the assassin management minigame and the ability to call assassins in to assist Ezio, but they aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. Lots of assets are clearly reused from Assassin’s Creed II, including things like comments from the crowd when they see you climbing about the city. The additions of a crossbow and poison darts mean that Ezio can now kill from a range stealthily, which helps a lot on the rooftops, but it also means that there is less risk/reward to the stealth because you can sneak around and snipe people. The graphics have a kind of PS2 quality to them, at least in some of the geometry, lighting, and camera movement when showing the route the game wants you to take. That’s not to say it looks like a PS2 game; it is clearly from the PS3/360 era, but it doesn’t look as good as II does, at least to me. The music was great though. Best in the series that I’ve played, and among the best open world soundtracks I can remember. I also thought the day night cycle and detail was pretty impressive.

The aftermath of my favorite moment in the game. The open world battles with aggressive guards can be a ton of fun.
The aftermath of my favorite moment in the game. The open world battles with aggressive guards can be a ton of fun.

The serious tone of the game is at odds with some of the mechanics, including the fact that while guards will attack your summoned assassins in combat they will otherwise be ignored, even though they fight with guns and smoke bombs. There were several sequences where my assassins were shooting guards around me and fighting with axes in platemail while the target I was following wandered about his business, ignoring them altogether. The game feels stitched together from disparate parts, which is likely how it was developed given Ubisoft’s studio structure and quick timeline, but not enough time was taken to make it all fit properly. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, there are lots of enjoyable parts and even though there’s not a big upgrade over II’s gameplay. But playing it now, especially back to back with the second game, it feels inessential in a way II did not. Ultimately the story of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood just rehashes the same story that II told, but with worse characters, less interesting locations, and much less impact the second time around. The same could be said for the gameplay. It’s more Ezio in Italy but with a lower budget and a few decent twists in the form of the management elements and assassin summoning. It is the first Assassin’s Creed game that felt B-tier to me.

And now some end-game spoilers:

The levels where you had to use the Apple of Eden all felt broken to me. In the level where you have to defeat Cesare’s bodyguards the apple actually did not work well and one of them was left alive, but I had no means of attack so I had to lure the last guard (who was the only combatant left standing after the fight) to a rooftop and nudge him off twice to finish the mission. Fortunately these levels are short and other than that dumb one they were all easy, but it makes sequence 8 a fractured mess, including weird time skipping and a story that makes no sense. It was by far the worst part of the game and I’m positive they ran out of time. Sequence 9 was also a mess. My armor broke (because of the damage inflicted on me when I used the apple) and there was no place to fix it, which makes it fortunate that the end fight is so easy and bad, but still. The last quarter of this game was horribly rushed and just not at all fun or satisfying. The less said about the final Desmond sequence the better. The parkour stuff was okay but killing Lucy off just to raise the stakes compounded the problems with women that this series has had since its beginning. It’s a baffling decision, especially considered how its handled in later games, and it removed the only interesting character from the Desmond part of the games.

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