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Review: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Assassins Creed: Brotherhood

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a follow-up to 2009’s popular Assassin’s Creed II. Has Ubisoft Montreal crafted a worthy successor though, or is it just a half-hearted attempt to cash in on a popular franchise?

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was billed as a side-story in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  The premise, as with the previous games, is that the player controls Desmond Miles who is helping a group of near-future (2012) Assassins in their battle against the evil Templars.  The Assassins have Desmond in a machine called the Animus which allows him to relive the genetic memories of his ancestors.  They are attempting to use his ancestors’ memories to locate Pieces of Eden, ancient artifacts which will help the Assassins in ways which are not yet clear.  The specific piece being sought right now is the Apple of Eden.

Ubisoft intends to follow a different ancestor during each numbered title in the series; in this installation, however, the story continues to follow Ezio Auditore, the ancestor from Assassin’s Creed II, an Assassin in early 1500s Italy.

When the player starts a new game they are presented with a short video that explains the story so far.  The presentation is very cheesy, reminiscent of the introduction sequences from early 1990s cartoons, but is a helpful addition for players new to the series.

After the intro video, the game itself opens with disjointed memories from a battle, and it is difficult for the player to determine what is going on before it shifts to the next memory.  Suddenly the memories drop away, and the player is presented with just the Animus’s loading screen, and the voice of one of the modern-day Assassins explaining that there’s a problem with the Animus.  It seems that trying to jump straight to Ezio’s memory of hiding the Apple is causing problems, and Desmond will have to work his way up gradually through older memories in order to be “synchronized” enough with Ezio to view the later memory.

Once that gets sorted out, the game picks up right where Assassin’s Creed II left off, even repeating the last few seconds of the previous game’s final cutscene.  There’s a short climbing sequence which is clearly intended to reacquaint players with the game’s mechanics.  Once that’s done, the player returns to the Auditore Villa, where the game spends some time showing us that Ezio believes his mission is done and he can retire in peace.

A game about Ezio’s peaceful life in the Villa would be boring though, and we can’t have that. So of course the Villa is attacked by the Templars, specifically the Borgia family of Rome.  During the attack Ezio must defend the Villa to allow the civilians to escape; however, the Borgia still manage to kill Ezio’s uncle Mario and capture the Apple of Eden, providing the central conflict of the game.  Once the Villa is overrun, Ezio and the other Assassins escape through a hidden passage and he sets off for Rome to exact revenge on the Borgia and to recover the lost Apple.

The singleplayer campaign is rich and full.  This is definitely not Assassin’s Creed: Multiplayer Edition, with the singleplayer being only an afterthought.  The missions in the main storyline are varied and interesting, and there is plenty to keep players engaged.  My playthrough took about 27 hours, and while I am more of a completionist than many players, I didn’t do everything there is to do.  Even a player who powers straight through the story and ignores everything else can expect at least 15 hours or so of gameplay here, and that’s not even counting the multiplayer.

When the player leaves for Rome they finally get into the real meat of the game, and it’s oh so familiar and tasty.  Mechanically the game is basically identical to Assassin’s Creed II, with a few tweaks here and there and a few new things added, but nothing fundamentally game-changing.  Enough to keep the game feeling fresh, but not change the core experience.  If you liked the previous game then you will probably like this one, but if you didn’t then there’s not really anything new here to draw you in.

The combat system has been altered from Assassin’s Creed II’s system to put more of an emphasis on action.  There’s now a kick attack that can be used to break a blocking enemy’s defense, allowing you to attack for actual damage, and after several consecutive hits on a target the player can hold down the attack button to perform an execution.  The counter system has also be overhauled, brought back to and then exceeding the glory of that system in the first game in the series.  I found myself favoring the hidden blades (which can now block effectively too) in combat, waiting to counter the enemies to get one-hit kills, but a player could just as easily use heavy weapons exclusively and simply bash the enemies into submission if they were so inclined.  There are a few instances, mostly boss-type characters, that counters won’t work on, but for the majority of the game the player can choose whichever technique they prefer.

With that ability to choose, Ubisoft seems to have finally gotten the combat system down right; in the first game there was too much of an emphasis on countering, making it the only effective combat strategy, then in the second they went too far the other way and gutted the counter system, forcing the player to go on the offensive; now they seem to have found a good balance of allowing the player to be defensive and wait for the counters if they choose, or go on the offensive and beat the living crap out of every enemy they encounter.

Other familiar mechanics return as well.  There are assassination contracts which the player collects from pigeon coops, as well as side missions for each of the three friendly factions in the game, the mercenaries, thieves, and courtesans.  There are hidden lairs of the Followers of Romulus which are, for the most part, climbing puzzles similar to the secret locations in Assassin’s Creed II, and once the player completes all six of the lairs it unlocks a special set of armor and a weapon.  Also returning are the secret messages from Subject 16, found on buildings scattered throughout Rome, which require the player to solve puzzles to unlock segments of The Truth video, and collectathons in the form of feathers and Templar flags.  While some of the side missions do get a little repetitive, they’re all entirely optional, and usually their only reward is some money; so the player who finds them tedious and skips them entirely won’t suffer for that decision.

There are also a few new sets of missions.  One new set comes in the form of assignments from Leonardo da Vinci to destroy some of his inventions he was forced to build for the Borgia.  These include machines like his tank, a war boat, and a new version of his flying machine fitted with a cannon.  While the structure of these missions gets pretty repetitive (it’s essentially break in to fortress, burn the plans for the device, steal the device and use it to destroy a bunch of stuff, then destroy the device), the novelty of the machines themselves keeps the missions entertaining.

There are also Borgia towers scattered throughout the city which the player can burn to lessen the Borgia influence, which makes missions in that area less difficult and also allows the player to recruit new Assassins, and to renovate that part of the city.  More on renovations later.

Probably the biggest change from Assassin’s Creed II to Brotherhood is the addition of Assassin recruits.  Once this mechanic has been unlocked, by progressing to a certain point in the main story, the player can find citizens under attack by Borgia guards in different parts of the city.  Protecting these citizens from the guards recruits them into the Assassin’s order (some of the lines they say are pretty silly, “You have saved me.  My life is yours to command.”) and then the player can send them on missions through the Animus menu.  Each successfully completed mission earns the recruits experience, which the player can use to upgrade their armor and weapons, and allows them to take on more difficult missions.

The gameplay benefit of all this is that Ezio can call on the recruited Assassins to help him when he wants, provided they’re not all already assigned to missions.  Help can come in the form of assassinating specific targets, aiding in combat, or even an arrow storm that kills all enemies in the area.  Certain missions require the player to use recruits as a condition for success, but for the most part it’s an entirely optional, though fun mechanic.

It’s impossible to review an Assassin’s Creed game without discussing the architecture, and in this respect Brotherhood delivers.  Though unlike the previous games in Brotherhood the player is confined to a single city, Rome, it’s a much larger and more varied one than has ever been seen in an Assassin’s Creed game before.  There are dense urban areas, ancient Roman ruins, open fields, canals, everything you might expect to see in 1503 Rome, and it’s all wonderfully designed.  Buildings, even the ancient ruins, look natural while still working well with the game’s climbing system.  Even though they only had a year for development since Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft certainly didn’t cut any corners when it came to designing the environments of Brotherhood.

Ubisoft also expanded on the renovation concept that was introduced for the Villa in Assassin’s Creed II.  By destroying Borgia towers, Ezio frees up areas from their influence, allowing him to spend money to install shops, which in turn increases the income he receives.  Upgrading parts of the city not only increases the player’s income, but it revitalizes it, causing more NPCs to wander around, as well as granting discounts at shops and new items available for purchase.  Comparisons will be drawn to the landlord mechanic in Fable III, and Brotherhood survives the comparison looking quite nice indeed.

Gone are the segments from previous games where Desmond was forced to leave the Animus and do things in the modern day, though the player can leave the Animus any time they choose, and there is some background information to be gained from time to time for those who are interested, and there are a few collectibles to gather as well.  It’s all entirely optional, however, and the player won’t be punished for electing to stay in the Animus through the entire game.

The singleplayer campaign isn’t all sunshine and cookies, however, as there are still some problems, most of them inherited from Assassin’s Creed II; but these are by far overshadowed by the game’s strengths.  The death speeches made by assassination targets are mostly gone, but that just makes them stand out all the more when they do rear their head.  I just stabbed you in the neck and we’re surrounded by your guards, how do we have time for a minute-long conversation?  The graphics are competent, though nothing to write home about, but the facial animations are pretty bad, sometimes to the point of being laughable.  While ordinarily this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, so much of this game revolves around the story and characters that the bad facial animations really stand out, especially when compared to the excellent body animations of the characters during cutscenes.

The second to last memory sequence, Sequence 8, is also pretty weak.  I don’t want to give any spoilers, but essentially there’s a change that takes all the fun out of combat.  Thankfully, the final sequence makes up for it and we leave Ezio on a high note.  Once the player enters Sequence 8 they get railroaded through to the end of the memories, with no warning that this is going to happen.  While that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that after the end of the game the player can go back and do any sidequests that they missed during the main game, the player cannot leave the Animus once this happens, which means that if the player still wanted to do some exploring as Desmond then they have to start a new game altogether.

The game is also peppered with frequent and excruciatingly long load times, and for some reason the menus often take forever to load as well.

Ultimately, however, these are all minor complaints, and on the whole Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s singleplayer campaign meets or even exceeds the quality of its predecessors, and is a worthy continuation of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

The multiplayer, on the other hand, is a different story.

The multiplayer component of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was developed by Ubisoft Annecy, a different studio than the one responsible for the singleplayer.  The premise underlying the Brotherhood multiplayer is that the Abstergo corporation, a front for the modern-day Templars, has built many Animuses (Animi?) and is using them, along with recorded memories from captured Assassins, to train its agents in the Assassins’ methods.

There are several gametypes, but the core mechanics are the same as singleplayer: try to stalk and kill your target without being detected.  There is the added complication, however, that you yourself are also being hunted by another player.  The multiplayer sounds fun on paper, and it shows a lot of promise, but the execution is severely lacking.

When the player first enters the multiplayer mode they have access to two gametypes, Manhunt and Wanted, with Alliance and Advanced Wanted unlocked once the player has earned enough experience to reach certain levels.  Like many multiplayer games, there is a progression system; the player has an overall “level” rating, which is increased as the player gains experience in matches.  New abilities, such as disguise and sprint boost, are unlocked as the player reaches higher levels.  The abilities can be combined into Profiles, and the player can select which profile they want to use each time they join a game or respawn.

At the beginning of each game the player can also choose their persona, which basically amounts to a skin.  In team gametypes the first player on each team chooses that team’s persona.  The game is populated with NPCs, some of which are all skinned with the same skins the player can choose from, which allows the player to hide in plain sight in the crowds.  In all modes the player has a compass which leads towards their target, the indicator getting wider the closer the player gets, until the player is very close and the indicator fills the whole compass.

Wanted is the game’s free-for-all gametype, in which each player is assigned another player as a target.  The goal is to kill your target without being killed yourself.  Killing civilians (NPCs) causes the player to lose points, while points are gained for killing your target, and bonus points awarded for doing so while concealed, from above, etc.

Manhunt is one of two team modes, in which the players are divided into two teams of four, with one team hiding and the other team trying to assassinate them, with scoring the same as Wanted.  Each Manhunt match is divided into two rounds, so each team gets a chance to be both the hider and the seeker.

The other team mode is Alliance, in which the players are divided into three teams of two players each, with each team seeking one of the other teams.  Again the match is divided into two rounds, and in the second round the targets for each team switch.

There are some major problems with these gametypes.  The most obvious is that because there are NPCs who are identical to the players a player can easily just stand right next to an identical NPC.  Then even when their hunter locates them there is no way to tell which of the two or three identical people is the player, and which are the NPCs.  The targeting system is also far too imprecise, and on numerous occasions I had located my target, but when I hit the button to assassinate him my character instead assassinated a random NPC next to him.  There is also a time limit on how often the player can assassinate a target, which makes this problem even more frustrating than it needs to be.

I also had immense trouble connecting to games, with it frequently taking 10 to 15 minutes to join a game.  At first I thought that it was my network connection, but after trying it at my parents’ while visiting them I still had the problems.  I now believe that the problem is caused by a low player base, as when I was able to get into games I kept seeing the same names appearing over and over again.

That problem I believe to be caused by the multiplayer’s most glaring flaw: it’s simply not fun.  The ideas sound good, but due to technical problems the outcome of games is just a crapshoot.  It doesn’t matter if I can track down my target to that group of people, if 3 of them all look exactly the same, and the game punishes me for picking the wrong one, or worse I pick the right one but the game decides to assassinate a different one anyway.

Despite the multiplayer’s severe flaws, however, it doesn’t hurt my opinion of the game as a whole.  Assassin’s Creed I and II were both singleplayer-only games, and Brotherhood’s singleplayer campaign holds its own when compared to them, so the multiplayer is just a bonus.  Sure, it’s a crappy bonus, but it doesn’t detract from the main dish, which is the singleplayer campaign.  There are good ideas to be glimpsed underneath the problems, which gives me hope that Assassin’s Creed III will learn from Brotherhood’s mistakes, and give us a multiplayer mode that is truly worth playing.

For the player who enjoyed Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood is a worthy follow-up.  Ubisoft didn’t cut any corners on the singleplayer campaign, and actually polished over some of the flaws the previous game had.  For the player who didn’t like previous games in the series, this entry, though an improvement on the past, is not going to change your mind.  Although the multiplayer isn’t terribly compelling or even fun, there are good ideas there, which just need some more work to bring to the surface, and the singleplayer has enough value to make this game a satisfying purchase even if you never set foot in a multiplayer match.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal (singleplayer), Ubisoft Annecy (multiplayer)

Genre: Action-Adventure

Time: 15-40 hours for the campaign, depending on completion, theoretically unlimited for the multiplayer (though you probably won’t want to spend much time in there)

Gripes: Painfully long load times, unfun multiplayer

Get it for the: Tweaked and improved Assassin’s Creed singleplayer you know and love

3 Comments

  1. […] The trailer sets the stage for the singleplayer campaign as a story of vengeance.  As in Assassin’s Creed II, the player takes on the role of Ezio Auditore.  This side story begins with the destruction of Ezio’s villa, which the player spent so much time and effort building and improving in Assassin’s Creed II.  With his home and forces destroyed, Ezio must venture to Rome to rebuild the order of the Assassins and take revenge on his enemies, presumably, the Templars.  Familiar faces return and new characters are introduced in what will hopefully be an exciting and satisfying follow-up in the Assassin’s Creed series.  Stay tuned for our review of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood following the North American launch on November 16th. Update: Our review has arrived. […]

  2. scottymuser says:

    I just saw your blog on kotaku and thought i’d check it out. Excellently written review of a stunning game which has probably (if I go through with it this time) helped me decide on where I should set up a blog – as I had to sign up for one to comment here!
    Anyway, I just have one majore problem with your review and that is ecapsulated in the following sentences
    “There are some major problems with these gametypes. The most obvious is that because there are NPCs who are identical to the players a player can easily just stand right next to an identical NPC.”
    “It doesn’t matter if I can track down my target to that group of people, if 3 of them all look exactly the same, and the game punishes me for picking the wrong one”

    The WHOLE point of the game is that it is like this, and that the game isn’t about merely tracking the target to a group of people, its working out *which* one isn’t the NPC. Sentences like the ones above actually explain what is great and refreshing about the MP to me, as they show the game is (an d should be) a combination of stealth and pyschological warfare, NOT merely killing – and that hiding in crowds whilst trying to pick out your target by their actions exemplifies this. The radar already guides you pretty much to which group of NPCs the target is in, so thats not the challenge, and the game shouldn’t reward you for managing, effeectively, to follow an arrow (as you seemed to suggest it should). The challenge IS 2 fold:
    1) To track down your target by *their* actions, or lack of them, when compared to NPCs that look like them, pitting you in a battle of wiots with said person
    2) To mimic NPC actions whilst doing so so you don’t stand out in the crowd, attempting to trick the other person into doing what you described as “picking the wrong one”, whilest doing 1)

    As to your other 2 points – the conection one isn’t as bad as I have seen you describe, so it probably depends on when you are goingonline. hwoever ALL online games like this have this problem, and AC:Bs genuine originality in a sea of mediocre FPS run-fests I hope will stand it in good stead in the coming months. And secondly to the point about the targetting in MP – I bave not noticed any such occurences in the few games I have tried, nor have I heard any other comments about this problem being any worse than it is in SP. If this does becomemore widespread then I’d agree it is a flaw, but other then that I the Mp has got the balance almost exactly right.

    It even has, for me, the balance between hunter and hunted right as those of you who have plaed Assassins in real life (there are numerous University societies across UK/US that do exactly this) will know that you get a target’s name, and someone else gets yours, but you both don’t know who is hunting you, often without the ability to fight back until they attempt the assasination or make themselves known – much like in this game. The only issue I’d have is they have leaned slightly too far to the edge of hard when looking at stuns – but of course the escape method which usually isn’t present in the real life version probably balances this out.

    I also think that players interested in the modern day side should definitely search out the truth glyphs, and try to take in as much information that is given in these (as well as search out more obscure hidden bits, such as hidden ciphers that you can decrypt if you know how) as this gives a HUGE amount of story to the modern day templar vs assasin war

    • Ethan Oliver says:

      Thank you for commenting! I would have replied sooner, but I didn’t realize anyone had commented on this.

      I understand your disagreement with what I wrote, and I believe it stems from a misunderstanding. My fault for not communicating what I meant clearly enough.

      I do understand that the point is to hide among the crowd, attempting to track your target without being detected yourself. Essentially the entire multiplayer game is a Turing test, and I love that about it, which is why I say that I’m excited to see what they do with it in AC3.

      However, as it stands now, that Turing test is broken. It’s possible the playstyle of people has evolved since I wrote my review, but at the time of publishing my experience was that people would stand in a group with identical NPCs, indefinitely, and do nothing. It’s impossible for me to determine by your actions whether your an NPC or a player if you take literally no actions, simply blending with identical NPCs. That is what is broken about it. The players who behave that way will likely lose, because they won’t score any points themselves, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it damages the gameplay.

      This game shows lots of promise in the multiplayer, but I don’t think it’s there yet. I still do look forward to seeing how they might tweak it in AC3.