Saturday, December 4, 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

As many people I talk to know well enough, I loved, Assassin’s Creed II. No, let me change that; I love Assassin’s Creed II. I’m not sure it was my game of the year (can’t remember all the games that came out this year but Uncharted 2 was likely a good contender), but if nothing else it was damn close. I was still roaming Florence, Venice, and good ol’ Monterigionni, slaying people as I pleased as Ezio when Ubisoft announced (and indeed, released) Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Ezio’s back for another round, and man am I glad.

Firstly, spoilers ahead for those who haven’t finished Assassin’s Creed II. (skip to the next paragraph) Brotherhood starts literally moments after the first one ends, at least in Ezio’s timeline (Desmond’s starts effectively in a similar manner, but I can’t say moments after). Ezio’s got the Apple of Eden, and together with Mario they escape Rome and head back to the villa. The other Assassins and other allies--Machiavelli in particular--aren’t happy that Ezio didn’t opt to finish off Rodrigo Borgia, who is now the Pope. Ezio reasons that the Apple was far more important, but it isn’t long before the Borgia stage their retaliation. A full-frontal assault on Monteriggioni leaves some major characters dead or captured, the villa you may have worked so hard on in shambles (and with it your armory), and the Apple of Eden lost to enemy hands. In a nutshell, you’re back at square one, and once more have a bone to pick with the Borgia.

Meanwhile, Desmond and company are hoping to find out where Ezio stashed the Apple of Eden after he retrieved it from the Borgia. To this end, Desmond jumps into the Animus once more to find out precisely where he put it, but the memory pertaining to this appears to be broken. They discover that the memory repairs itself as Desmond continues to live Ezio’s life leading up to this mysterious segment.

Brotherhood really is a direct sequel to AC2 in every way. There’s a very brief recap shown at the beginning like in AC2, but to be honest if you hadn’t at least played the previous numbered entry it would probably be difficult to pick up, especially given AC2’s twist ending (hoo boy; Brotherhood’s ending is a doozy). This really is purely a case of the gameplay being updated rather than completely overhauled or redesigned. Combat still works pretty much exactly the same as it did in AC2, with you being able to taunt enemies, grab them, dodge attacks, strafe, guard, and pull off counters and disarms (with the former resulting in a satisfyingly brutal kill). There are now some minor changes and tweaks, though. For example, enemies can now grab you (like how you could grab them), and attack a little more tenaciously. Attacks have more weight to them, with the camera shifting and the controller rumbling appropriately. You also can’t guard continuously. Taking hits continuously will smash through your guard, with some weapons being more suited to guarding attacks than others (for example, you can’t guard at all with your fists, and the hidden blade only blocks an attack sometimes). Ezio also locks on with his gun much quicker. Apparently Ubisoft realized how important counters and parries were to combat in AC2, because now they’re the name of the game, and it’s much easier to pull off a successful counter now.

The game assumes that you acquired pretty much every upgrade in AC2, so in Brotherhood you’ll be decked out in the Armor of Altair (for a little while anyway, before it gets destroyed), all the capacity upgrades (throwing knives, medicine, etc.), and such. All of the weapons from AC2 return, including the arm pistol, dual hidden blades, poison, and the ability to throw money. You also start off with the extra moves already learned, like throwing dust to blind your opponents and the climb-leap. Even though you lose them early on, you gain most of them back very quickly (or they at least become accessible). The game takes the special moves that the heavy weapons had and takes it a step further by giving most of the other weapons some kind of extension attack if you hold the button down instead of press it. For example, you can use the pistol with the sword equipped to kill a fleeing guard without having to open the weapon wheel. Speaking of heavy weapons, you can buy them and carry them around with you now (excited yet?). There’s nothing like strolling through town with a bastard sword strapped to your side, huh? Other new stuff you can carry on you include a crossbow (which is an insta-kill like the gun, but has more ammo and doesn’t make noise) and poison darts, which let you poison people from a distance.

The biggest change to the combat though is the ability to chain kills, and with that comes new finishers. And boy, does this speed up the pace of battle. I can NOT believe how I got through the last game without the ability to do this. Basically, by pulling off a finisher on one enemy, you can roll right into executing another nearby enemy, Batman-style. This improves the flow of battle immensely, bringing it a step closer to Arkham Asylum’s brawling system. I mentioned new finishers, right? Well firstly, you can now melee-finish enemies from the front, like you could with your bladed weapons, so there’s no longer a need to even draw a weapon when dispatching lone enemies that you can’t catch from behind. Beyond a few new exclusive animations for each weapon (like Ezio thrusting his sword right into an enemy’s throat), Ezio now integrates his arm pistol into kills sometimes, like grabbing an enemy by the neck with his gun arm and firing.

I may have alluded to this previously, but very little has changed since AC2 in terms of gameplay. The guard response, blending, and free-run systems are all almost exactly the same, with the exception of a new free-run mechanic called the lift, which takes you instantly to the top of a structure if you run towards it. The biggest difference comes in the sheer amount of new stuff to do, on top of what you could already do in AC2, virtually all of which has also returned. The platforming-centric underground areas are back in the form of Romulus tombs, which each contain a key needed to unlock the best armor and dagger in the game. And the quests, oh man the quests! The thief, courtesan and mercenary guilds are back, and bigger than ever. In addition to still having respective representatives stationed around available for hire like in AC2, each guild has their own series of quest lines. Furthermore, you have a slew of miscellaneous unrelated memories (what the game calls quests) involving citizens that are having trouble with Templar agents. Still more, Leonardo’s back, and since the last game the Borgia family have forced him to make them war machines, so you have several quests involving the destruction of those machines. Still more, you have a series of totally random quests unrelated to ANYTHING about a particularly lovely girl in Ezio’s past. Assassination missions are also back.

And that’s not even half of the stuff you can do. The villa upgrade system is back in a BIG way. Rome is in shambles due to the Borgia’s shoddy rule, with most of the shops closed and many buildings closed. With enough florins, you can change that. Instead of renovating one of each type of shop, there’s several of each shop spread out across the city (obviously). The aqueduct system is also out of order. You can fix that. There’s empty buildings you can fill with either courtesans, mercenaries, or thieves. With the revenue of an entire city flowing to you every 20 minutes, you’ll be making bank. The shops also have special items you can unlock in exchange for special trade items you can find in treasure chests or on enemies. There’s even a set of VR missions! You can test your mettle in combat challenges, timed runs, stealth assassinations, and one or two others I’m probably forgetting. Feathers are back, though there’s only 10 of them this time. But don’t worry, because there’s also 100 Borgia flags to collect!

Now…let’s talk about the reason Brotherhood is called what it is. When you first arrive in Rome, the Borgia have an iron grip on the place, which is carried out most directly through the several Borgia towers dotted across the map. The city is split up into sections/territories, which are each watched over by a tall tower overlooking a guard outpost. Strolling around either in the tower or somewhere nearby it is the captain of the outpost. To remove Borgia control from the area (reducing the amount of guards present and making it possible to renovate stuff), you’ll have to kill infiltrate the outpost, kill the captain, and light the tower on fire, telling the citizens that their oppression is now a thing of the past. It’s a shame there’s only a few more than a handful of these towers, because this represents some of the most fun you’ll have in the game (which is saying a lot, considering how much fun you’ll have and much stuff there is to do).

It’s about time the Assassins began expanding their ranks, which is why Ezio, now a Master Assassin, plays the recruiter in this game. Freeing an area from Borgia control opens up a slot for a recruit in your guild. When this happens you’ll encounter citizens rebelling against the guards. Help one out and he/she will join your guild.

There are two things you can do with the recruits now that they’re in your guild. The first thing is you can send them on missions across Europe. The Order is expanding its operations, but Ezio is occupied in Rome, so instead you can send your assassin recruits to carry out various tasks ranging in difficulty from delivering a letter to carrying out espionage in another country’s royal court, or assassinating key Templars in other parts of the continent. The other thing you can do is keep them with you as Assassin Signals. By looking at a nearby guard, you can press L2 to use one Assassin Signal (which regenerates after a couple minutes), which will summon your assassins to off the guy. Sometimes they might ride in on horses, other times they may strike from above, or from a haystack, either way they’ll get the job done, and take care of anyone else that gets in their way before making themselves scarce. They’ll also help you out in combat. As they off guards you shake your fist at or complete missions, recruits will gain XP and new levels, RPG style. With new levels comes new equipment to use. By the time your assassins reach level 10, they’ll have smoke bombs swords, daggers, their own hidden blades (one per recruit, of course) and arm pistols, and eventually even their own Assassin outfit reminiscent of Ezio’s. A recruit’s ascension to full-blown “Assassino” is a little more celebrated than your typical level-up, but I’ll leave that little bit as a surprise. I will say that it’s very satisfying seeing someone you picked up off the street ambush a group guards with a smoke bomb before expertly moving in for the kill, while decked out in the elite Assassin garb. So with an entire Assassin brotherhood at your back, as capable as Ezio is by himself, you’ll no longer feel like you’re in this on your own.

So! Let’s tally it up. In addition to the main story, you have a series of quests for each of the three main guilds, a bunch of Templar agents to assassinate, tombs to raid, a girl to reminisce on, war machines to destroy, a city to renovate, chests to raid, VR missions to try, targets to assassinate, feathers and flags to collect, Borgia towers to destroy, and a guild to run. Whew. And that’s on top of how fun it is to just run around killing guards like some sort of freedom fighter. Also, Subject 16’s puzzles are back.

And the amazing thing isn’t the staggering volume of content, it’s the variety present among it. Each the missions have a different flavor to them. The Christina missions (the afore-mentioned lovely girl of Ezio’s past) take you back to Ezio’s younger days, meaning they run mostly parallel to the events of AC2. For example, one mission takes place right after Ezio’s father is killed and before he gets the hidden blade repaired. So you’ll have to carry it out stealthily. Many of the Courtesan missions involve stalking a target before performing the kill. Each of the Borgia Towers and their captains are located in different locales, requiring different approaches and presenting different challenges. One of the Romulus tombs has you searching a masquerade party (which for some reason is going on underground) for a hidden target, while another has you sneaking into a church session and ends in an epic chase across the rooftops, attics, and generally places very high up from the ground. One of the storyline missions has you fending off an army. Each of the war machine destruction missions are also widely different from one another, though they all end with you getting to pilot the given contraption, with the vehicles themselves ranging from a bomber (which is basically the flying machine with a cannon strapped to it), to a tank.

One final addition is challenges. Almost every mission, story-related or not, has a side objective you can pull off to achieve 100% synchronization. Challenges can range from killing targets a certain way, not getting hit or detected to finishing within a given time limit or never touching the ground. With this comes the ability to replay memories and missions, with unlockable cheats enabled if you so choose.

However, it’s not all good times. As a game developed in a single year’s time, it’s amazing that this game is as good as it is, but that probably has to do with the devs saving time by not really updating the engine. Brotherhood’s graphics are exactly the same as AC2’s, with some perhaps very minor touch ups to character models. The graphics are still pretty good, but compared to some other AAA series, the engine hasn’t aged well. For one thing, the game almost never runs at what would be called a buttery smooth framerate, and dips quite often. It also froze a couple times during my playthrough. Load screens aren’t especially prevalent, but there are some moments (like when loading the map or pause screen) where the game takes a little longer than expected. Frankly, even AC2 ran a little better than this. To be clear, I’m not saying the game is a buggy mess, but it still looks like it could have used more polish in the technical department.

However, once again the developers did an excellent job building a living, believable world to roam in. For one thing, there’s a level of NPC activity present here that you’d only expect from a Rockstar game. The populace once again have limited minds of their own. You’ll overhear a variety of conversations (many of them concerning you), as you stroll down the street, and often observe a wide set of mannerisms. Some particularly disgruntled people will even aid you in battle if you find yourself in a scuffle with guards. Furthermore, the city is full of unique architecture and landmarks, from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Pantheon. Many of them, such as the Colosseum, are simply breathtaking. The music is also just as enchanting as it was in the first game (in particular, I’m a fan of the BGM that plays as you roam Moneteriggioni in 2012), and the dialogue is delivered very well.

The main story in Brotherhood, while not bad by any means, is one of the few, if only areas that is, at least in my opinion, inferior to that of AC2. And that’s not simply because it is shorter (if I had to guesstimate, I’d say Brotherhood is approximately 2/3 as long as AC2 purely in terms of plot length). AC2’s story was one that spanned entire decades, with the player witnessing and playing through segments of Ezio’s life ranging from the moment of his birth, to his induction into the Assassin Order as a young man, and finally to his acquiring the Apple of Eden as an adult Master Assassin. The player guided him through the wrongful execution of half his family, and as he learned what it meant to be a Assassin. Brotherhood lacks that scope. Instead we see Ezio mentor a new generation of assassins, which is great, but it just doesn’t have that magical feel that I loved so much about AC2’s plot.

Meanwhile, Desmond’s story doesn’t move forward that much either. However there is much more character interaction than there was in AC2. The game begins with Lucy and Desmond exploring the catacombs underneath the Monteriggioni villa, searching for a hidden entrance. As they travel together, they chat it up, cracking jokes and one liners at each other the whole way. This suddenly cheery atmosphere felt abrupt coming from the somewhat more grave atmosphere that was previously present. Incidentally, now you can leave the animus any time you want and talk to the other characters (they get some new dialogue options periodically as you progress through Ezio’s story). You can even get some fresh air, spending some time outside, and roaming a now-deserted Monteriggioni.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood improves on its predecessor in almost, almost every way. The combat is better, the world is better, and holy jeez the volume of content is way better. I was really looking forward to some more adventures with Ezio Auditore, even if it was more of the same, and this game has sated my appetite perfectly. That said, I’m definitely ready for Ubisoft to make the next big transition, like they did from 1 to 2. Another merely iterative approach at this point would be very disappointing. For now though, this game gets a 9.5/10 from me. This really is a case of "more of the same", which is great if, like me, you really got a kick out of AC2. But on the other hand, this game (apart from the multiplayer) might not change your mind if you didn't like its predecessor.

*Note: Brotherhood also features a full suite of online multiplayer. The reason I didn’t talk about it in this post is because I haven’t had the chance to spend a lot of time with it. I HAVE played a few hours with it though, and it is really innovative. I think I’ll just do a separate post on it. The score was still granted with the multiplayer in mind, however.

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