Review: Assassin’s Creed – Brotherhood

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Brotherhood isn’t some ‘multiplayer only’ experiment: the kind of game where it wants to rely on only one online trick to convince customers to part with their hard-earned money because it uses ‘multiplayer’ like a magic word.

When Ubisoft began to talk up Brotherhood in the past year, it was hard to ignore how much of a tease they were making of its multiplayer but not so much of its single-player. The reason, it turns out, is because the single-player is alive and well and needs no introduction.

Instead of simply patching something together in the past year to test the online waters with, they went all the way with a full sequel packed with enough single-player mayhem stretched out across thirty or more hours as the baddest assassin this side of the Tiber River.

Using the opening years of the 16th century as a blood soaked backdrop to Ezio’s continuing pursuit of the Templars while rubbing shoulders with historical figures ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to uber villain, Cesare Borgia, it’s literally the second half of AC2 that Ubisoft didn’t have time to stuff into its already massive scope. Brotherhood is required playing if, at the very least, you have any interest in AC’s continuing saga.

This is also a game aimed squarely at its fans; newcomers will probably wonder just what is going on in the first hour or so since it does little to explain its own past before jumping right into the last minutes of AC2. While it won’t exactly punish new players with unending confusion of the kind that missing an a season of Lost or 24 might have done, those that have been with the series since the start will get a lot more out of it.

Ubisoft’s sandbox history cobbles together conspiracies tipped with a mix of sci-fi and the edged weapons of medieval persuasion in a thrilling ride. The player is cast as Ezio Auditore who belongs to the Assassins – a secret order waging a shadowy war against the Templars in Renaissance-era Italy. Both groups are in a race to attain a relic known only as a Piece of Eden. But the real twist is that Ezio isn’t “real”, even though most of the game is seen through his perspective.

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Ezio lives only in the head of Desmond Miles in the near future, an ordinary guy who was abducted for the genetic memories of his ancestors by modern-day Templars who sifted through his genes to force him to relive their pasts. Rescued by the Assassins, he now works with them to stop the Templars before they can control the world. It’s the kind of fantastic, hard-to-believe kind of crazy that makes a conspiratorial thriller like this so intriguing, but it’s also an amazing excuse to send players into the past for parkour poisonings and virtual haystack diving as Desmond relives his past lives.

Seeing the older and wiser Ezio alongside enemies and new friends also lends a strong sense of continuity to the series, much of it helped by the polished voice acting giving plenty of weight to all of the major characters in whatever role they serve. Ubisoft’s Renaissance-flavored fiction also takes full advantage of the period thanks mostly to compelling characterizations via its well planned missions and asides and the dramatic scenes that make the best use of them – and what you can lead Ezio into with Jesper Kyd’s stirring soundtrack keeping pace.

Ubisoft’s eye for detail in both within its storytelling extends into the lush visuals that bring its worlds to vivid life and Renaissance-era. Rome is no exception. This is the mother of all AC’s cityscapes dwarfing anything else in series before it.

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It’s so vast, it incorporates both rural and urban areas all within Rome’s walls complete with a collection of famous churches and landmarks that still exist today making it as close to the Italian Renaissance that many players may ever get to without actually being there. You can use horses to ride across the city, or utilize tunnel entrances that you can fix up to zip from one section of the city to the other in seconds to help keep the running down. You’ll pretty much have to given how much space there is to cover. As for accuracy, it’s not quite done to scale nor is every street and building mapped down to the cobblestone. But as a sandbox for the player to explore, every corner and storefront feel as if they could be potential places in which to find trouble or avoid it.

Gameplay is still very much parkour with knives with Ezio – and modern-day Desmond – flowing over obstacles with jumps, climbs, and nimble tiptoes across beams with enough safety features put into place to make it feel comfortable in the hands of both veterans and newcomers. It’s hard to fall off of edges thanks to Ezio’s ability to stop himself short when needed, but that doesn’t mean that finding the right path across a yawning chasm while attempting to keep up with someone means that it’s on autopilot, either.

Fighting is still a simple affair and with the right timing, allows anyone to easily pull off moves that make Ezio a nigh invincible killing machine. Tutorial exercises have also been added with leaderboard support to practice fighting and in getting around, posting results online for everyone to compare against.

But the real meat is the variety of missions with their own set of quirks, such as remaining undetected until the final kill. In addition to what the missions ask, there are also ‘synchronization’ challenges for added incentives such as unlocking cheat codes. These ask the player to do things such as suffer no damage or kill only their target even when an army of guards are chasing them down. No problem, right?

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Side missions round out even more of the activities that Ezio can polish off outside of the main story, such as rebuilding parts of the city by investing cash to open up shops and fix up aqueducts, and each job feels fleshed out enough to feel as if each were still an important part of it. There are even lootable goodies from the victims you leave behind such as gold ingots or silk that can be collected and traded in for more coins, or to complete shop quests to unlock special items. The biggest change to all of Ezio’s activities, however, is the Brotherhood: the cadre of assassins that Ezio can instantly call upon to wreak havoc on whoever dares cross his path.

As you lead Ezio against the Borgia in Rome, opportunities eventually open up to rescue citizens of the city. These former victims can then be recruited to Ezio’s Brotherhood and assigned quests to earn experience and cash. As they go up in level, players can upgrade their armor and weapons and eventually induct them as full Assassins. Though you can’t participate in the missions you send them on – and which also remove them from being available for a certain amount of time until they’re done – they’re the deadliest weapons in Ezio’s arsenal.

Calling them in is as simple as hitting the left bumper button and they’ll literally swarm over their foes by leaping out from haystacks, from the rooftops, horseback, or side alleys. It’s like having a guild in your pocket that can be used to wipe out whoever is in your way and when you have trained enough of your recruits to the level of Assassin, there’s almost nothing that they can’t kill. And once you have enough, you can call in an Arrow Storm that literally kills everything in sight. Balancing this out is a cooldown period after calling them in and not every mission or location will allow you to use them. But for the most part, it’s incredibly handy to have – and just watch – for those times when a little extra help is needed.

Multiplayer is also a big component and although a big deal was made of its introduction to the series, it doesn’t feel as weighty as its single-player which has always been the main focus. That doesn’t mean that it’s not as fun, because it can be, but with as huge as the main game is it’s hard not to wish that there could have been more done with it in the same way.

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This mode pits groups of potential assassins against each other in four modes: Wanted, Manhunt, Alliance, and Advanced Wanted. Wanted is basically a free-for-all and Manhunt pits two teams – each with a maximum of four – against each other. Alliance splits players up into three teams with a maximum of two players each to hunt each other down and Advanced Wanted tweaks the gameplay to make it a little harder to find your targets. Unlike Wanted and Manhunt, Alliance and Advanced Wanted are unlocked only with enough experience.

Experience is earned with every kill, or escape, with bonuses awarded for things such as taking out your target from a beam or doing it incognito. It also levels your character up with additional perks and skills that can also be added to your profile, such as being able to use a disguise for a limited amount of time or smoke bombs to help shake off pursuers.

It’s exactly what you’d expect with single-player, except that your targets are other players with everyone armed with an arsenal of potential skills and advantages. Players can also, depending on the mode, select from a number of player models to represent themselves before heading off into the maps to try and stay alive or pull off the perfect kill. It has a very different feel from any other multiplayer experience because of its deliberately low-key nature: even though a player may look like one of the many other NPCs milling along the streets, someone running and jumping along is quite obviously easy prey to everyone else who doesn’t care to be covert. Patience is definitely rewarded.

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That said, it can be a lot of fun, but there are also certain balance issues when facing off against higher leveled assassins who have greater access to certain toys and perks that make it easier for them to pick off their targets. There doesn’t seem to be any balancing set up to match up players within a certain level range during matchmaking. That is, if you’re able to get into a game in the first place. When it worked, it worked fine with little to no lag. But the inconsistent connection problems of trying to get into a game only encouraged me to jump back into the single-player.

Even going solo, Brotherhood also came across the the most unpolished Assassin’s Creed that I’ve seen yet. One or two misspellings in the actual text cropped up, a few scripted events failed to run until I restarted a mission, sections of the city wouldn’t ‘appear’ on occasion, pop ins were common, the music would simply not start when restarting a mission, and at one point, Ezio flew into the sky like Superman giving me an incredible view of Rome – with no way down until I restarted.

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At another point, I completed a part of one mission only to never be given a marker to my next destination. This happened twice in a row. Ezio’s movement controls could have also used a bit more polish, such as when he sticks to a ladder that he passes a little too close too when running down a street, along with the annoying tendency for the camera’s shifting perspective to throw off the direction that you want Ezio to leap in on occasion.

Despite these shortcomings, stepping through a Renaissance mystery steeped in betrayal, cutthroat action, and with a band of assassins at Ezio’s side easily demonstrates why Ubisoft’s series is still as sharp as ever – a remarkable sandbox sequel that tweaks its own formula just enough to show that you don’t need so many changes to tell both a compelling story and keep players engaged. Reaching the end left only more unanswered questions, but for the series, casts aside any doubt that Brotherhood is anything less than a fine sequel.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Ubisoft / Ubisoft Montreal / Ubisoft Annecy
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature