Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Review
Ah, Italy. There’s just something about it. Ubisoft goes to such incredible lengths to painstakingly recreate 1500 Rome and other cities that one is often tempted to sit and watch for a moment. The teeming masses of people going about their daily business, the intricate labyrinth of the confined side streets that suddenly open up into courtyards where even more people congregate, etc. I’m harping on the atmosphere in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood because I’ve decided that the environment has become the primary appeal- for the same reason we all prefer certain Grand Theft Auto entries; it’s our surroundings that draw us in. Of course, what lies beneath is a bigger and (in some ways) better version of last year’s Assassin's Creed II, and that’s sort of important. It may not take the same giant step forward as ACII did in comparison to the original title, but there’s no doubt that if you loved ACII, you’re gonna adore Brotherhood.
For whatever reason, I note something different in the visual presentation. This one seems to harbor softer, more muted colors and – strangely enough – less overall detail. Now, because the screen-tearing issue that plagued the previous installments appears to have lessened (somewhat), I’m wondering if this minor overhaul was to combat said problem. Big fans may recognize the difference of which I speak but then again, maybe they won’t. As I just mentioned, Ubisoft puts a ton of effort into producing a believable, immersive environment that is never devoid of life. Character detailing is still great, the backdrops are downright amazing, and the animations are a joy to behold. I keep thinking we’re missing a bit of crispness and sharpness but that might be all in my head… The end result is yet another engrossing graphical depiction that beautifully captures almost every last facet of Renaissance Italy.
Wonderful voiceover performances and a fantastic soundtrack once again bolster the sound category, which only seems to be hampered by occasional effect drop-outs. In other words, not every slice of your blade or grunt of a foe is spot-on; in fact, it may just drop out entirely. But considering the sheer number of times such effects are heard, we should bear in mind that it’s still a 99% stable audio presentation. And once again, it’s the myriad of ambient effects that helps bring the cities alive; we appreciate everything, from the cries of the shop owners to the random civilian conversations. I keep thinking that awesome soundtrack should swell to the forefront a bit more often but as it stands, one can’t deny the music’s professional quality. And really, the realistic lilt of the Mediterranean tongue is a pleasure to my ears and you can even select the Italian voices if you so choose. Honestly, I could listen to a woman speak Italian for…a long time.
Here’s the thing about the gameplay, and it’s probably the most obvious observation a critic can make: it’s really no different than ACII. I believe this may be the reason some sources have given scores well below what Brotherhood deserves (although I see 9s are still the norm). In truth, not all the additions really seem like big steps forward and as soon as you work past the opening sequence, it will feel very much like you’re simply revisiting the game you played last year. Even the inclusion of your assassin friends don’t represent a large advance or departure; for most of the game, they’re little more than tools for Ezio. Plus, the storyline seems a bit more muddled. In ACII, it was an emotional, gripping plot that involved Ezio’s family, a desire for revenge, and a mysterious secret of humanity worked in for good measure. Well, that secret is back and more mysterious than ever but the rest…eh, it seems a little erratic to me.
But let’s start at the start, shall we? Brotherhood picks up right where ACII left off and although Ezio opted to let his target escape, he has completed his mission and everything is right with the world. His sister, mother and uncle remain safe at the villa (the one you restored in the previous entry) and although the Borgia threaten everyone’s way of life, Ezio and Co. are happy. But the slightly older hero barely has time for one of his patented rolls in the hay – with a beautiful and powerful woman who has a ridiculous amount of influence – before everything goes to hell. I won’t give anything away but let’s just say Ezio must re-embark on yet another quest and this time, the future isn’t so clear. On top of it all, we’re reminded that Desmond, the modern-day descendent of Ezio and Altair, is working with the descendents of the assassins. And now, Desmond is starting to take some cues from his ancestors…
The free-running is back and if you mastered this flowing form of platforming in ACII, you’ll still be quite competent. Nothing much has changed; it’s still the same effective, efficient, and surprisingly accessible mechanic it was last year, although one should note this mechanic was greatly refined between the first title and ACII. But hey, I don’t think it needs more refining. The combat is about the same as well: you can lock on to a foe with the L1 button, dodge with X, and hold R1 to defend and prepare yourself for a counterattack. Choosing weapons and items is as easy as holding down the R2 button to access the selection wheel; when you do this, by the way, the game pauses and I love that. You can still execute a counterkill by entering your R1 stance and hitting the Square button the instant an enemy goes into his attack animation. But here we get to one of the new battle additions that, while not a game-changer, remains a significant upgrade.
You can string together counterkills by angling the left analog in the direction of another soon-to-be victim and pressing Square. The kill chain is flashy and great for taking down a large group of enemies fast, but you have to remember you’re open to attack during the chaining process. On top of which, your opponents can now grab you from behind, which can halt your assault in its tracks. It can get pretty annoying but you only need to hold the L1 button and hit the Circle button rapidly to break free. This latter addition is one of those, “eh, I suppose” features that I’m not sure we needed. It’s a great idea, to be sure, but as the game has to give you a chance to break free, the enemies just stand there and watch you being held. It just looks silly and seems to detract from the flow of battle. You can grab enemies, too, but that’s not a big surprise and it can actually be effective.
The other new stuff- a set of virtual training challenges in the Animus, which can be used to fine-tune your free-running, stealth, location and combat abilities (and you can try to top your friends’ best tallies), the Borgia Towers, which – along with the death of the Captain of the territory – must be taken down to free a certain territory, the renovation of recently freed shops, the addition of banks, the factions and friendly assassins, the specific requirements for 100% full synch on certain missions (i.e., don’t drop below one health square, kill the Borgia captain by throwing him into the scaffold, etc.), and oh yes, the multiplayer. I’m not the biggest fan of multiplayer action but when it comes to Brotherhood, one has to appreciate the different style. This is no shooter and carrying out assassination contracts is tougher than you might think. It can get a little repetitive and I don’t think they did quite enough with the multiplayer option, but even so, it works out fine, and I only noticed a few minor online glitches.
Perhaps one will view the inclusion of the Brotherhood as a little lackluster and not nearly as prominent as initially believed. This is understandable because in reality, as I said before, it doesn’t have a huge impact on how you play the game. Having the option is nice, and doing some extra micromanagement – i.e., sending your loyal subjects off to gain some experience – is sort of entertaining, but it’s really just another tool for Ezio. In this way, I suppose someone looking for more of a team-oriented approach would indeed be disappointed. But that’s not how I’m looking at it. In my eyes, this series was built on the bad-ass lone-wolf philosophy and that’s exactly how it has remained. You know what the biggest difference is between ACII and Brotherhood? Simple- there’s just more to do in this one. How is that a bad thing? I could complain that a few of the additions don’t vault AC to another stratosphere but in my eyes, it’s plenty high enough as is so let's not quibble.
There’s just a ridiculous amount of stuff for the completionist. It’s not just about feathers, flags and treasures; it’s about getting 100% synch on every memory, it’s about taking down every Borgia tower and renovating 100% of that particular area, it’s about the multiplayer that offers something blessedly new, it’s about even more tools and techniques for the main character, it’s about completing all the intricate puzzles to learn “The Secret.” If you want to do absolutely everything, there are at least 30 hours of gameplay here, if not 40. And again, I must stress that the atmosphere and presentation puts the game at a lofty level; the meticulously designed environments have always amazed me, the Italian landscape and sonorous voices keep me entranced, the various missions (such a departure from the original title!) keep the experience fresh, and that continual strategic element – “okay, how do I go about approaching this one…?” – makes this game a gem.
Assassin’s Creed II built upon the foundation of the first game, while Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood doesn’t necessarily continue to “build,” but simply expands. I suppose the best way to describe it is that if the original AC was the foundation of a house, ACII finished up the framing, while Brotherhood supplied the paint and furnishings. Oddly, I did notice a few small hiccups I don’t remember in ACII, like Ezio not realizing there’s a ledge right in front of him; he just leans over, thinking there’s a drop. But then again, a fully completed house does come with a few new quirks. And I swear something is different about the graphics even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe all these games are taking their toll. But there’s one thing I do know- I love Italy and I love Assassin’s Creed.
The Good: The liveliest, most satisfying environments you’ll ever see. Attention paid to the smallest detail. Beautiful soundtrack and voices. Overall expansion adds to depth and longevity. Great variety. Large amount of historical information adds ambiance. Multiplayer is a refreshing plus.
The Bad: Story seems lacking and a little muddled. Inclusion of allies isn’t as pronounced as expected. Some lingering technical issues.
The Ugly: When suspicious guards lose track of you and go to return to their position, they become superhuman…kinda comical.
11/18/2010 Ben Dutka