When Ubisoft announced that a sequel to Assassin’s Creed II was on the way, it seemed like a no-brainer. Ubisoft has claimed that it is unlikely to develop any new IPs (intellectual properties) until the next generation of consoles, so its current library of titles — of which there are many — will be the focus for the company. And of those existing titles, Assassin’s Creed seems like the one with the most potential to expand on. The Tom Clancy games are always going to be around, but the universe created for Assassin’s Creed is ripe for expansion. Just look at the multiple comics for Assassin’s Creed coming out soon, and even the rumored (emphasis on the “rumor” part) animated series and Hollywood movie adaptations.
So when a new game was announced, it seemed obvious and welcome. But to put it out less than a year after the previous game? That seemed potentially problematic.
Activision does it with Call of Duty, and most sports games have annual entries, but sports are a different type of game, and the Call of Duty titles are developed by multiple companies with at least two years between entries. So many people feared that this new Assassin’s Creed would be little more than Assassin’s Creed 2.5.
Turns out they are right, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood basically takes the game created for ACII, adds a new setting with an original story, puts in a few new tricks, then ships it off with a multiplayer. Now, while that might not sound like a glowing endorsement, ACII was one of the best-selling and best-rated games of the current generation of consoles. It redefined open-world gaming, and delivered one of the most compelling stories ever written for a video game. ACB’s biggest problem is simply that it is competing against itself and the expectations of fans. If you can put those aside, and if you give the multiplayer a shot, then ACB jumps from being a little more than a lengthy add-on to one of the must-have games of the year.
See Rome! Tour the Coliseum! Stab people!
ACB picks up right where ACII ended. Like, the exact second the previous game ends. Because of that, if you have not played ACII, then you should head off and find a copy before you try to work through the campaign of this game.
Following the events of ACII’s finale, Ezio returns home, contemplating the fact that his long journey for revenge and self-discovery has been completed. While deciding what to do next, the consequences of his actions catch up with him, and his home is attacked by Cesare Borgia, who is partly seeking revenge, but primarily seeking an ancient and powerful treasure called the Apple of Eden. Borgia’s attack succeeds, and he leaves with the Apple, Ezio wounded, and many deaths to answer for.
Ezio heads to Rome to avenge the attack, retrieve the Apple, and to kill Cesare Borgia and his father Rodrigo. When he enters the city he finds that Rome is nearly in ruin under the authoritarian hand of the Borgias, and the people are suffering. Ezio soon realizes that he will need help to defeat the Borgias, and so he sets out to reclaim the city one section at a time.
Rome, however, is massive, and Borgia’s forces are everywhere. So Ezio decides that he needs the help of the people, and he begins to recruit citizens into the Assassin’s Guild who can help him free Rome, retrieve the Apple, and end the Borgias reign of terror once and for all.
While the focus is on Ezio, you are technically playing as the character Desmond, a modern-day assassin who is reliving his ancestor Ezio’s memories through a machine called the Animus. It is easy to forget about Desmond, as he has yet to play a significant role in the series. In ACB there is more to the story of Desmond, including some playable sections and a few interesting story moments, but for the most part, Desmond seems to be being saved for something in the franchise’s future. You do have the option to leave the Animus throughout the game and interact with the team at any time — you can even check the e-mails from the group (yay!) — but you can also skip over that entire part of the game and not miss anything.
While the first Assassin’s Creed had a good story marred by its repetitive nature, ACII’s story was one of the better thought-out and executed plots in video games. The story of Ezio growing into the role of master assassin while attempting to uncover who was responsible for the death of his family stands among the best examples as video games as a storytelling medium. The ACB story? Not so much.
Hard to live up to the hype
This is one of many instances where ACB competes against its own history. ACII’s story was deep, and layered with twists and consequences that spanned well over 10 years. The plot always worked in conjunction with the gameplay, and it felt natural and interesting to progress through the game. In ACB, there is still a solid story, but many times it feels like a contrivance for the gameplay. In fact, despite the assertions of the game, I felt relatively confident that I probably could have just walked into the Borgia’s stronghold after leveling up a bit and done a fairly good impression of the Black Death, wiping out anyone and everyone that looked at me funny, thus ending the game in record time. But rather than unleashing the fury within, the game has me recruit a bunch of noobs to do my bidding. It is a fun gameplay mechanic, but the story seemed a bit more forced than the last game.
Not to nitpick the plot to death, but it also lacks some of the subtlety that surprised me so much in the previous game. For example, there is a character named Cristina, a love interest for Ezio, that is sort of retconned into the previous game through flashbacks in this one. Her story is interesting and it isn’t too out of place, but adding to a story that was already completed always seems a bit odd. Just look at BioShock 2.
Again, the story isn’t bad, it just isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the previous game, and despite a handful of inevitable twists and turns, it really comes down to being as simple as see the bad guys, gather information on the bad guys, kill the bad guy in one of several interesting ways.
Spiderman better watch himself!
While the story is an added bonus, the gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is what keeps it going. If you played the original game and still played the second game, that is a testament to the gameplay. The first AC game took that gameplay, added an interesting story, set it against a series of amazing backdrops, then did its best to ruin the game with a series of extremely repetitive and dull missions. ACII fixed that in a big way by creating a much better mix of story and in-game missions, and ACB builds on that.
At the start of the game, Ezio is badly wounded while being forced to flee his home. The reason for this is partly to ratchet up the drama of the scenario. (You will want to hunt down Cesare for what he did and make him pay! Nowhere on Earth will be safe after what he did — you are an angel of death that will deliver judgment!) The other reason is to give the game an excuse to strip you of your weapons and lower your health to where it was at the start of the previous title, and you regain health squares as you “heal” over time (i.e., complete missions). The weapons also return to you gradually as you earn enough to purchase them from blacksmiths and others like Leonardo.
The free-roaming mechanics are much the same as the previous games, and the entire world of Rome is your playground. Which does bring up a minor criticism: Ubisoft has claimed that ACB’s Rome is three time the size of the largest city in the series. While that does seem likely, there were five cities in ACII and three in the original AC, as well as land surrounding them all. The city of Rome is big enough that you probably won’t notice, and there is still plenty to see and do, but the game is a bit smaller than the previous entries. A fact I contemplated while enjoying some of the mini-games and challenges around the city. For about five straight hours. Minor quibbles aside, the game is still fun and addictive and plenty big.
ACB again offers an assortment of games within the game through side missions and quests. Courtesans will ask for your help to escort them through the city or beat up men that did them wrong, while thieves will seek your help against other thieves, or perhaps challenge you to a race. Perhaps the biggest addition in terms of game modes is the Borgia Towers. The towers are spread around the city, and each marks the influence of the Borgia family. When you approach one, you will enter a restricted area where you need to find and assassinate the captain of the guard. The difficulty of these assassination ranges, and some guard captains will flee like little punks, while others will call for reinforcements. Once you dispatch of the captain, you then scale the tower and hit a button to destroy the structure and free the region from the Borgia influence. Once you do, you can then begin to purchase structures, which leads to another change in the game, the economy.
In ACII you earned money in order to rebuild your home town, but the money system was flawed, and it was easy to have purchased every single thing in the game — stores, art, weapons, everything — long before you reached the end of the game. In ACB the system is similar, but the scope is bigger.
As you free areas from Borgia control, you can then pay to upgrade and renovate certain stores, including blacksmiths, banks, tailors and more. With each new shop of that type opened, you receive a discount, as well as increase your income, which accumulates for your collection at the local banks. You can also purchase structures like aqueducts and historical landmarks, which increase your incoming cash flow, and further dispel the Borgia’s control of the area. You can complete the game without getting caught up in the rebuilding and acquisition of Rome, but it is shockingly addictive.
There are also a handful of “shop quests”, where you find rare items in chests, from looting bodies, or from assassin’s missions, then turn in the right combination for rare armors, weapons, pouches, etc. It is an interesting addition, but the rarity of the items means you probably won’t find them until late in the game, at which point you will already have more powerful equipment. It’s not a bad addition, just not a very useful one either.
There is also a quest to hunt down the Keys of Romulus, which is almost identical to the collection of the six seals that unlocked Altair’s armor in ACII. In each of the six locations, the game becomes something of a platformer, and you jump and swing your way through a series of obstacles to recover a key at the end of each area. When you have all six, you release a powerful new set of armor.
Even with the diminished geography, the single player campaign will take at least 15 to 20 hours, and could take many, many more if you want to seek out and complete everything the game has to offer. So while many of the games and missions might seem familiar, there is plenty to keep you playing ACB for a long time.
The combat is the same, unfortunately
One of the bigger gripes about the previous games was the combat, and while it is better, it still faces the same awkward targeting and inelegant button mashing moves.
The counter system has always been a highlight of the games, and now while you are in the middle of a counter, you can line up your next target and attack with a one-hit kill. If you are quick enough, you can link that to another target and continue a chain massacre. It is great when it works, but that isn’t all that often, and you will frequently face several enemies that you will need to kill by using the incredibly complex maneuver of hitting a different button. That was sarcasm, by the way.
The enemy attack patterns are always the same; usually one poor SOB will charge you screaming like you killed his mother, then an armored foe with an axe, a long sword or a spear will attack. The screaming idiot enemies are simple to deal with and make counters fun, but the armored enemies require you to either dodge an attack or kick them and smack them. The combat isn’t bad, but targeting can be a headache, and trying to flee a battle can be ridiculously difficult. Once you have fought through several waves of enemies, it becomes somewhat mind-numbing, and you will probably end up avoiding combat just because you have better things to do.
Of all the changes to the single player campaign, the most anticipated has to be the inclusion of the Brotherhood, a group of citizens you recruit to train as assassins. It is also one of the most underwhelming.
Once you unlock the Brotherhood just shy of the halfway point in the game, you can send them on missions throughout Europe to gain experience, or you can keep them nearby and use them like a special attack to take out an enemy. You can gather up to 12 minions in total, but you need to destroy each of the 12 corresponding Borgia Towers first. You can then head to one of several locations to access the assassins menu, and from there you can send your lackeys out to gain experience. The higher the risk of the mission, the higher the reward in experience for them.
Once your assassin hits level 10, you then attend their ceremony and they become full-fledged assassins. If you call them into a fight, they can easily wipe out the entire group you are facing. They can also help with taking out guard captains and higher profile targets.
While the theory is sound, the execution is weak, and renders the Brotherhood somewhat pointless. To build up an assassin, you simply choose a mission for them. Once you select the mission from a list that has a brief description and confirm it, you go about your business until the pre-appointed time ends and you receive a notice of success or failure. Part of the problem is that you are encouraged to be conservative. You can send multiple assassins on the same mission, and a bar will show you the chances of success. Anything above 90-percent is almost certainly a success, and anything below is not worth the risk — you just choose another mission. It is easy and somewhat tedious to level up your assassins, and there is never any real risk. If an assassin fails, you simply recruit a new one and start over.
The flipside to the Brotherhood’s leveling system is the death-fu martial arts style they tend to employ that always seems to get them killed. Always. Since you can recruit more at any time, it isn’t a big deal, but it is annoying and discourages you from using them in your fights until they become full-fledged assassins.
Overall, it is an interesting game mechanic that is somewhat pointless. It is nice to have the backup in big fights, but you rarely need it. As an additional part of the game, it works, but as what appears to be the focal point of the game, it is weak. It won’t detract from the overall game, but you will probably stop and ask if that is all there is.
Under the hood (Get it? Because Ezio wears a hood…?)
The graphics in ACB are the same level of quality that were available in ACII, and that is a good and bad thing. The city looks amazing, and the world is stunning in scope and in terms of technical achievement. The loading times are manageable, and the city feels alive and like a real organism.
The character animations are somewhat hit or miss. To see Ezio climb a building is an impressive sight. To see him talk is not quite as impressive. The facial animations are dated, and little things like teeth turning black and eyes changing color are common. It was a small issue in ACII, and a year later it is still an issue. Not a major one, but worth noting. In general though, the graphics are still fairly impressive, and wandering through a city teeming with so many people is a fairly awesome feat to accomplish.
The sound is great, and the music is among the best in a video game in recent years. The game feels much more Hollywood in it scope when the music kicks in. By comparison, games like Call of Duty tend to employ a generic guitar rift that you can occasionally hear against the sound of bullets and explosions. The AC series does not have the luxury of hiding the soundtrack, so the music needs to fill the silence, and it does so well.
The voice acting is as solid as ever, although the background voices are insanely repetitive, and you will hear the same line from attacking guards more times than you can count. The same is true when you do missions that are repetitive in nature, such as recruiting a new assassin. The animation will cut to the same scene every time. Every single time. It is annoying, but forgettable.
Ghosts in the machine
When you crank out a full-length game in just one year, you can expect glitches. Lots of glitches. Thankfully none of the glitches were a big issue, but there are plenty. It is common to see a group in front of you suddenly disappear, and people frequently walk through walls. The sound is usually right on point, but occasionally it will jump off track, and a handful of other minor issues will pop up.
None of the glitches slow the game, and you can probably expect a series of patches to continue to rain down on this game over the next few months. It does make the game feel slightly unfinished, but they aren’t a big deal.
Because every game needs a multiplayer, apparently (but they should all be so good)
When I first heard that ACB was planning to introduce a multiplayer element to the game, I was skeptical. Assassin’s Creed is a quintessentially single-player game, and the addition felt forced, like it was a business decision, not a creative one. After playing it at E3, I was optimistic. After having some time to play it, I am a believer.
The multiplayer contains four game modes: Wanted, Manhunt, Alliance, and Advanced Wanted. Wanted is the bread and butter of this multiplayer experience. It is a free-for-all that puts up to eight players in a relatively small area. Each player is given a contract on another, while you yourself also become a target. When you start the game, you select a character from among the many background characters in the campaign, and you then attempt to blend in like a computer-controlled character while both hunting and avoiding your hunter. It is one of the most original multiplayer gametypes around, and even if it failed, Ubisoft should be commended for trying something brand new. Thankfully, it works amazingly well, and you will frequently find yourself locked into a cycle of thrill and paranoia as you use a compass to track your prey, knowing that someone else is doing the same to you.
As you progress in the multiplayer, you level up, which unlocks perks, like the hidden gun, and smoke bombs. The smoke can be used to disorient your attacker, which can then lead you to stun them, while the gun delivers a quick kill at the expense of stealth points (the less your opponent sees you before the kill, the more points you receive). Additional perks like the disguise change your look, which might confuse your hunter into assassinating a CPU character, which cancels the contract.
Manhunt is a team-based event, with four people as hunters, and four as the prey. Each side has a limited time to assassinate or survive before you switch sides. Alliance is the same as wanted, but it is three teams of two, with one team hunting another, and the third team hunting them until a timer switches the roles. Advanced Wanted is similar to wanted, but the mechanics are a bit tighter, and the opponents are slightly more difficult to find.
The multiplayer is fresh and original, and offers a welcome respite for people that are weary from online FPS games and the like. It has a few problems though that might hurt it. Finding a game was sometimes difficult, painfully so, and many a lost minute was spent staring at the loading screen. That is an issue that can easily be fixed through software, so hopefully it is a minor thing. There is also the cursed “stun” which you will hear about almost as soon as you join a conversation online. When you are being attacked, a button prompt will pop up that allows you to avoid an assassination move and stun your opponent. In theory it is great. In practice it works about 25-percent of the time if that. When you mix in a smoke grenade or other stun device it helps, but it is hard to pull off, and usually the best bet is to run. Whether this is a glitch or a choice by Ubisoft in terms of gameplay is a topic for discussion, but it can lead to a few frustrating moments.
The multiplayer side of ACB is amazingly fun. It might wear thin after awhile with only four game types, but more are promised via DLC in the future. If you are a fan of the previous game, but are on the fence about ACB, the multiplayer has enough to justify the cost. This seems like the type of multiplayer that many will play then put down, while a select group of hardcore fans become ridiculously good and play it all the time. It might have a solid cult following if Ubisoft can keep those select few happy.
On its own, ACB is a solid game that follows the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” mentality. ACB is not better than ACII. If you consider that a mortal flaw in a sequel, then so be it. But ACB does offer a massive amount of content, that when paired with the multiplayer make this a great game.
As with the previous games, the tone is what is the important thing, and Brotherhood manages to capture the same historical flair and excitement that the previous entries were able to convey. While the story isn’t as strong as the previous entry, the game is still more immersive than most on the market today.
If you did not like the previous games, or if you did not play ACII, then this is not the game for you. Save for the multiplayer, there is not enough original content to win you over, and you need the background of ACII for the story anyway. For fans of the series, this is essentially the best expansion you could ever hope for. There really is nothing new in terms of gameplay except for the assassins, who are almost an afterthought, but thankfully the previous game did so many things right, and the sequel keeps those things intact, that ACB is still well worth the time.
Yes, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is essentially Assassin’s Creed 2.5, but when you consider the new setting, the original story, and the multiplayer, it is an upgrade worth playing.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Ubisoft)