Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. In which not much happens, then everything happens.

03Jan11

First, a quick note on the way I’ll write about games on this blog. Essentially, I’ll do it in an untimely fashion. I play games fairly often but I don’t tend to pick them up on the first day of release and, because life happens all around me, I don’t often complete them all in one sitting. So, if you’re looking for a review for a new title, you’re in the wrong place. I’ll write about games here because they constitute a big part of my life but gaming isn’t the only thing I’m interested in.

End of disclaimer.

Moments ago, I completed the story section of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010), the third part of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series . I played the Xbox 360 version of this game and I’ve been a fan of the series since the release of the original Assassin’s Creed back in 2007. The first game was a surprisingly enjoyable sandbox style historical adventure set in Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus during the Crusades. While the story specific and side missions in Assassin’s Creed were highly repetitive, there was a real beauty inherent in these stunningly recreated cities as well as in the ability to traverse these ancient cityscapes using a compelling parkour mechanic.

If you’ve never seen any parkour before or demos of the game series in question, the following video provides a good example:

Video uploaded to YouTube by EleanorDZ

Assassin’s Creed II (2009) built upon the success of its predecessor by essentially provided more. More sumptuous landscapes, better visuals, a bigger, much bigger, world in which to play, as well as providing more depth to the Assassins vs. Templars narrative that was set up in the first game. I won’t go into the story here, as it becomes quite complicated and, let’s face it, Wikipedia would do a better job. Think ‘historic struggle between good and evil’, ‘past live regression therapy’ and ‘every conspiracy ever dreamed up ever’ and you’re already halfway there. The second game moved the action from the Crusade era Holy Lands to Renaissance Italy and the player character shifts from the first game’s Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad to his descendant Ezio Auditore da Firenz. In all three games, the player also controls the assassins’ modern day descendant Desmond, whose final role in the saga unfolds with each new release.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood picks up where the last game left off, meaning that the player character remains Ezio/Desmond and the story still takes place in Renaissance Italy. However, the geographical focus is Rome, a city only briefly encountered in the last game. Because of this, and because of the relatively quick turnover between Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, I had believed that Brotherhood would be more like an expansion of the last game rather than a fully fledged title in itself. However, reviews like this one by Dan Howdle at 360 magazine quickly changed my mind:

All of my assumptions have been quashed. How big is it? Much bigger than AC2. How’s the gameplay? Much better than AC2. Visually? Superior to AC2. Aurally? Warmer and heartier than AC2. Narratively? Far more engrossing than AC2. Atmospherically? Perhaps one of the finest examples of consistent atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a videogame (full article here)

So now I’ve completed the game, how do I feel about it? To be honest, a little bit disappointed. I’m just not sure it lived up to the external hype or the promise of its own visual design. Please don’t misunderstand, it is an excellent game and although I’ve completed the story section, I have actually only completed 49.5% of the entire game, something I intend to rectify soon as I am a total completion fiend. Brotherhood adds an interesting spin on completion, enabling you to complete each major mission in one of two ways. Each mission block is essentially a past life memory belonging to Ezio that Desmond is reliving. You can go for 50% synchronisation, which means you complete the task but not exactly how Ezio did it, or you can shoot for 100% synchronisation, completing the mission exactly how Desmond’s former self did. For instance, you might have to get to the other side of the city but not swim, or assassinate a key figure without being detected. I enjoyed this element of the game. It functions as a difficulty setting, but weaves it into the game’s internal narrative and therefore helps maintain the game world’s consistency.

The other welcome addition to this game was the soft RPG elements it brought in. As well as buying weapons, armour, paintings, and items of clothing, Ezio can also choose to rebuild parts of Rome, adding value to the city and increasing the income Rome generates which he can then (mystically) withdraw from its banks. Ok, this aspect seemed a little pointless but fun if you’re into collecting, which I am. The more intriguing RPG aspect was the ability to recruit new assassins from the populace and then to utilise them during combat and to send them on a various quests which enabled them to level up their experience (XP). These quests were graded in difficulty and the less experienced an assassin, the less likely they would be to live through the assignment. I enjoyed this aspect of the game perhaps more than any other single element and would love to see more in future titles, possibly with the inclusion of an XP level for the player character too.

And yet I have mentioned that I felt ultimately disappointed in Brotherhood. I suppose the reasons singularly are not that significant to gameplay and enjoyment but collectively, I feel they may have just overwhelmed it.

First, combat. Combat has remained the same across all three titles. It’s not very hard. The only time you are in any real danger of defeat is when enemy numbers overwhelm you. The attack-counter attack system that combat operates on all seems very nice in principle but the fighting is tedious to play and, I’ve been informed, to watch. My method was to wait until attacked (you can tell which enemy will be about to swipe at you as an icon above them starts to flash) then press the button to counter. That would usually finish them off. If not, a quick kick would unbalance them and I could dispatch the unlucky soul. Any other enemies – and there would usually be at least three – would wait patiently and politely until I’m ready for them before attacking. One at a time. The twist that Brotherhood introduces is the ‘kill streak’. This allows a player to press X plus a direction during a kill and Ezio automatically kills the next appropriate enemy. This can be repeated ad infinitum, presumably, until all enemies are dead. Simply put, the combat is far too easy. I never once got sweaty palms.

My second issue of contention was the collectible element. It seemed that in the first two games, collectibles were tied to story in some way. In Brotherhood, they just seem pointless. Maybe that’s to enable players who do or do not like those kind of game elements to play Brotherhood in the style they choose. For me, I like more weighty narrative rewards for the collection of such items. OCD only takes you so far.

My third issue is that in actuality, the game didn’t really seem that big. It didn’t appear to be as groundbreakingly huge as I had expected and it didn’t take as long. I completed the story element in 18 hours and 38 mins. This would have been a far lower figure if I had just blasted straight through it but I was taking the scenic route. Granted, there are many side missions I have still to complete and there is the added dimension of aiming for 100% synchronisation for those that I have, but as nice as those additional gameplay opportunities are, retrospectively it feels a little bit like padding.

Finally, the pace of the game felt odd. Admittedly I had a long break between starting the game and completing it (a little festivity called Christmas got in the way). However, it seemed that in levels – or memory sequences – 1-7, nothing much really happened. The story unfolded at a leisurely pace, depending on whether or not you made your way to the mission start points marked on the map. I tended to do two or three side missions, then a story mission to break it up, levelling up my assassins and acquiring collectables. Then, without warning, the story just dragged me along in sequences 8-9 and I had no option but to complete sequentially until the game was done. There was no option to drop out of the main story; the missions just kept following on one after the other. Now the story was, by this point, compelling and I would have had no complaint if this was how the game had been set up from the start, but it had not. The balance between player control and narrative design just felt really off kilter and brought me right out of the game at its most crucial moments.

I’ve ended on negatives and that probably leaves you with the impression that this game isn’t worth owning. That was not my intention. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a beautiful installment to a series that has become one of my favourites. There was also a great ‘didn’t see that coming’ moment at the end of the story that has left me eagerly anticipating the next title. I would recommend that anyone considering it should buy/loan this game. There is much to love. Additionally, I haven’t touched the game’s online multiplayer option yet so cannot comment on that until I’ve given it ago. Once I’ve achieved 100% completion, I’ll let you know if my perspective has changed, but for now, I’m hazarding a guess that it will not.

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