Assassin’s Creed has quickly become one of my favorite gaming franchises. Though there have only been a handful of entries in the series thus far, the developers have woven a rich tapestry of a narrative of which I can’t wait to see the next installment. Teamed with some intuitive (if a bit too easy at times) gameplay, Assassin’s Creed continually raises the bar for what gamers can expect from a video game. I was skeptical about the latest title, Brotherhood, being nothing more than a quick cash-in that didn’t add anything to franchise. Fortunately, I was wrong, and with a list of new improvements, as well as a strong multiplayer component, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood makes a strong case to be one of the best titles of the year.
Picking up mere moments from the conclusion of Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood finds Ezio Auditore di Firenze returning home to Monteriggioni with the Apple of Eden. Once there, he reunites with his family and Machiavelli to decide the next course of action for the Assassins. Ezio isn’t back for long before the Borgias attack the homestead, and the Apple is stolen. As his town crumbles around him, Ezio aids his family in fleeing to Rome, where he plans to meet up with them after making sure they’re safe. Once in Rome, Ezio meets back up with Machiavelli, and plots not just how to get the Apple back, but also his revenge on the Borgias. The game takes place primarily in Rome, and many a familiar face from Assassin’s Creed II returns. There are also some small segments with Desmond and the gang that take place in 2012, but that particular storyline amounts to nothing more than the four Abstergo refugees hiding out in Ezio’s now decrepit mansion. It’s a shame the overarching narrative established in the very first Assassin’s Creed isn’t explored more in this game, but I enjoyed the depth added to Ezio’s story regardless of the fact that Desmond’s tale hadn’t progressed much farther.
Not much has changed from the basic game mechanics in Assassin’s Creed II, but there are some interesting modifications to what was done before. Ezio still has a wealth of tools at his disposal, and doesn’t get depowered too greatly at the start of the game. In fact, the only real loss you have is the equipment and armor, which you can upgrade by restoring blacksmiths around town. You can still accomplish a great deal with the default weapons thanks to how easy and smooth the game’s combat is, but like the previous titles, that aspect can work against Brotherhood. For some, the combat controls may seem a little too easy, and the game can feel like you’re not really contributing to the fight at times. However, I enjoy the simplicity of it all. Without having to worry about learning combos or perfecting long attack strings, I’m able to enjoy myself a bit more when taking on Borgia soldiers.
The same could be said about Brotherhood’s parkour aspects. All you really have to do to climb anything is jump at it, and Ezio will scale virtually any building as long as there are enough handholds. Sure, it makes traversing the city’s rooftops incredibly easy for anyone to do, but I do still find myself falling quite often due to Ezio jumping one too many times, or leaping off a ledge because I held the buttons down too long. I appreciate the fact that Ubisoft wanted to create a game where you didn’t have to worry about complicated climbing mechanics, but for every building I climb effortlessly, there are two that I fall off completely. The same thing would probably happen if Brotherhood utilized a scheme like Mirror’s Edge, but even after three games I still find myself dropping from great heights because Ezio is too good at climbing. It is really cool to climb to the top of the Coliseum, as well as all the other classic landmarks, and the vistas look really great when perched atop a viewpoint. I just wish Ezio controlled a bit more concisely.
There are some interesting new mission types to take on this time around. Leonardo is back, though this time you’ll actually be infiltrating Borgia strongholds to destroy his inventions. Each of these missions starts off with you finding the project overseer, then heading to the build site to trash the blueprints, and finally locating the war machine itself for destruction. The missions vary greatly, and will take you on wild horseback rides through the countryside, to the open oceans to take down a naval fleet, or even to the skies in a reworked flying machine. All of the DaVinci segments are pretty interesting, but the flying machine level had me cursing a storm up at my television. The device controls so poorly, and the actual portion of the level where you’re using it constricts the airspace. Ubisoft made sure to include a great checkpoint system, so you won’t have to replay too much of the same level over again if you die. Completing these objectives opens up new weapons for you to buy new items from DaVinci, and adds some much needed depth to the optional missions.
Borgia towers are scattered throughout the world, and influence whether or not you can purchase buildings or aqueducts for fast travel. Taking down a tower is as simple as killing the highest ranking guard in that location, then climbing to the top to burn the tower down. Depending on how many guards are on duty, some of these segments are a bit more difficult, but they’re never impossible. Once you remove the Borgia influence from a section of Rome, you can purchase blacksmiths, doctors, landmarks, and more, to restore for use and income. Though I thought restoring Monteriggioni was a great time waster in Assassin’s Creed II, restoring the city of Rome to its former glory has a bit more substance to it. Plus, it’s way more awesome to own the Coliseum than a bordello. Eventually, you’ll also be able to build bases for the various factions (courtesans, thieves, mercenaries) working for you as well, and there’s a bit of strategy involved there. Wherever you decide to furnish a home for a particular faction, they will populate that area more than other sections of Rome. Knowing where you’re going to need courtesans to distract guards, or mercenaries to come to your aide in battle, is a big help when you’re facing off against hordes of Borgia forces.
In the last game, players had the option of hunting down former assassin Altair’s weapons and armor. This time around, Ezio can search the hideouts of the Sons of Romulus for keys that will unlock a very special suit of armor. While the tombs in Assassin’s Creed II were nothing more than platforming exercises, the lairs where the Sons of Romulus treasures are mix platforming with combat, chases on horseback, mazes, and more. These secret locations are much more fun to attempt to complete simply due to the variety of gameplay that they offer. Finishing all six will allow you to get the Armor of Brutus, which is super-strong and unbreakable. The Subject 16 secrets return as well, and are just as addictive to try and find. The puzzles this time around share much in common with those that came previously, but the addition of a chess mini-game, as well as some new brain teasers to spice things up, make solving them much more satisfying.
The biggest new addition to the single-player portion of the game comes in the form of recruiting, and then training, new assassins. Once you reach a certain point in the story, Ezio is able to enlist to his cause the help of like-minded people he rescues in the game. The assassins are used for side-missions, very similarly to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and they can also be called to aid you in a fight. There are three tiers of help available, ranging from the AI assassins flying in from off-screen to kill someone, or hailing a rainstorm of arrows from the skies to eliminate larger groups of Borgia forces. I used their aide quite often, especially when trying to take down Borgia towers, and couldn’t be happier with the inclusion of a feature like this. The side-missions you can send them on have the assassins traveling all around Europe completing tasks similar to what Ezio does in the regular game. Some challenges require multiple assassins to be sent in order to fulfill them, and finishing any given mission will give them experience to level up. As they gain experience, the AI assassins earn new armor and weapons, which greatly improve their chances for completing more difficult assignments later in the game. It’s a nice, and addictive, addition to the core game, and provides yet another new wrinkle to help differentiate and improve upon what came before.
As engaging as the single-player game is, most of the hype behind Brotherhood has been for the multiplayer portion. Online, you’ll be competing with or against up to seven other players in various modes where the objective always boils down to assassination. “Wanted,” which is my favorite, is a mode where you are contracted to kill another assassin playing the game. There are about ten different character models to choose from, and in addition to the person playing as that avatar, the NPCs all use the same avatars as the players, which makes hunting a real person down more challenging. Fortunately, there is a radar which helps you locate the person amidst the crowds, but human players can level up to earn perks and advantages like disguises and smoke bombs to aid them in escaping, or killing, you. All of the other game modes, save for an advanced version of “Wanted,” utilize teams. “Alliance” pits teams of two against one another, and gives bonuses for teamwork. “Manhunt” has you working with up to three other players on a team to track down an opposing team of four. The roles switch after the time, or lives, run out, and the hunter becomes the hunted. There’s also “Hunter,” where one assassin takes on a team of guards in order to complete a contract. Though the other game types are fun to play, I found myself going back to “Wanted” again and again because it’s a perfectly paced multiplayer type. All of the modes do play similarly, and really feel like the test stages of a much larger multiplayer component coming down the line. I hope the future sees a bit more variation in what’s available online, but for now I’m more than content with what’s been offered.
Since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood uses the same graphical engine the last game did, not much has changed. Rome looks absolutely fantastic, and attention to architectural detail is quite impressive. I’ve never believed the character models in Assassin’s Creed games have looked that great up close, but the animations and collision detection are among the best in gaming right now. Ezio moves so fluidly that you wonder why more developers haven’t called Ubisoft to find out how they do it. Every transition is seamless, and even when moving at high speeds the game never skips a beat. The soundtrack is just as wonderful and epic as it was in the first two games, and Assassin’s Creed’s score is slowly becoming one of the most consistent and robust musical works in gaming. One thing that’s always bothered me about the Assassin’s Creed games is how the NPCs, other than Ezio’s family and friends, don’t ever look as good as Ezio. That holds true in this version as well, and is a bit disappointing, especially considering how terrific everything else in the world looks.
If you didn’t actually play Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it would be easy to write the game off as nothing more than Assassin’s Creed 2.5. While the narrative doesn’t progress the overall story at all, the actual game packs more than enough content in to make it a worthy addition to the fast-growing franchise. The multiplayer modes are a blast to play, and open up a world of possibilities for future installments. Though I hope the next Assassin’s Creed actually progresses the narrative as a whole a bit more than Brotherhood did, I had a great time with this game, and I can’t wait to get back to Rome to finish Ezio’s journey.