It’s almost a year to the day since the release of Assassin’s Creed 2, and to be honest, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood had all the makings of an unnecessary, half-baked but full-priced Assassin’s Creed 2.5. It’s a new game in the franchise but not a true sequel, with a short development period and a brand new multiplayer mode — sounds like the makings of a cash-in entry to AC’s lineage if ever there was one.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PS3 [Reviewed], XBox360, PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 16, 2010
MSRP: $59.99Lucky for us, Brotherhood isn’t a cash-in expansion game at all. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal has put together the best game to date in the series, capturing all the great elements of Assassin’s Creed 2 but tossing out the boring and frustrating elements in another huge, expansive sandbox game. And we even get a multiplayer, tough to break into though it may be.Continuing pretty much from the moment Assassin’s Creed 2 left off, Brotherhood centers again on the adventures of Desmond Miles, a modern-day member of an ancient clan of assassins who are at war with the Knights Templar, an Illuminati-esque organization that has its fingers in everything in order to control the world. The majority of the gameplay still centers around Desmond’s time in a machine called the Animus, which allows him to relive the experiences of his ancestors — specifically, Ezio de Auditore, the leader of the Assassins in Renaissance Italy.Taking a page from the Metroid manual of sequels, Brotherhood starts players out with all the great armor and weapons they gathered for Ezio during AC 2, only for him to lose it during the course of the game’s early story. So by the time Ezio gets to Rome, the city in which the entire game takes place, he’s down to his street clothes without a dime to his name.So Ezio meets up with Niccolo Machiavelli (seen mostly in the AC 2 downloadable content packs) and sets about striking at the vastly powerful Templars in Rome. The city is a corrupted ruin, with buildings and infrastructure in disrepair, and in order to do anything, you’ll need to remove the influence of the Pope and his family and restore hope to the people.Brotherhood’s core gameplay remains largely unchanged from Assassin’s Creed 2, and potentially, that means all the same problems that made AC 2 an extremely annoying game made it through here, as well. However, for some reason I can’t quite determine, Brotherhood is actually quite fun, while AC 2 made me want to throw my Xbox from one of the many buildings the game’s poorly conceived controls had me accidentally diving off every few minutes.I think it has to do with Ubisoft Montreal finding ways to streamline the experience. Yes, Ezio still spends most of his time climbing buildings and free running around Rome, just as he has always done, in order to get close to assassination targets and then kill them. All of the mechanics from AC 2 make it back here — from the controls for blending into crowds, running away and performing kills, to the ability to hire small groups of people from various factions, such as courtesans, to follow you around and distract guards.You still walk with the analog stick, run by holding the trigger, and run faster by holding a face button in addition to the other controls. And these are still the same controls for climbing and jumping, as well. One of my big complaints about the series up to now is that these controls encourage speed, while AC 2 was usually too dumb to predict accurately where exactly you were trying to jump — so whenever you were on the run and up high, which was all the time, you would continually accidentally just leap to your death with the “hold it down, aim where you’re going” control scheme.Brotherhood, however, feels like it has fewer distractions and just works better, even though all the controls are technically the same. Climbing puzzles, long a big part of the series but feeling like a repeated bludgeoning of head on wall in the last game, are much better designed this time around. Ubisoft has instituted multiple checkpoints when they want you to scale a huge building, which help keep you moving in the right direction. Better designed climbing portions of the game mean you’re killing yourself or restarting the whole puzzle a lot less.Despite only a year of lead time, it feels like Ubisoft thought Brotherhood through better than they have any other game in the series. The addition of the assassin recruitment system, for example, is really very simple, and yet it changes things just enough to add a great strategy element to the game.After a while, Ezio determines he needs additional help fighting the Templars in Rome, so you set about saving citizens from groups of guards and recruiting them to your newly formed Assassins Guild. Once you’ve started recruiting, you gain the ability to mark targets and sick other assassins on them, or call for aid when you’re in a tough fight. Both these abilities are great in and of themselves, giving you additional options for approaching each situation.All the assassins you recruit have their own level and experience, and in order to make them stronger and capable of handling better equipment, you have to put them in situations in order to learn. That means using them in combat and also sending them throughout the world on contracts, which you can assign assassins to go complete in other cities throughout Europe. Each contract comes with a bar that measures how successful one or more assassins will be in completing the mission, which changes based on which, and how many assassins are assigned to a task.Making assignments requires a strategy trade-off: for one, you need to determine which missions to send each assassin on, and the more recruits you send to complete a task, the less experience each receives. And whenever you send an assassin on a contract, you’re also giving up having that assassin at your beck and call for a set amount of time until the contracts is completed. So as things get more difficult, you may want to wait on certain missions until after contracts are completed, or hold certain assassins back so you have them as you need them.It’s actually a great system, and something that the series sorely needed. You still have options like hiring groups of NPCs to distract guards as before, so often, having your recruits available will mean you can use a combination of methods to finish a mission. The simple fact that you’re thinking about each situation beyond AC 2′s default position of “kill target enemy without being seen” makes this a much more interesting game.Brotherhood has focus. That’s key to this game. Ubisoft Montreal has seen fit to remove a lot of the things about the last game that weren’t very fun, and it’s clear that the developer finally has come to value a player’s time. Rome is huge, but one of the first things you do as a player is liberate a horse stable. Boom — suddenly, you can call a horse anytime, from anywhere, with one button, dramatically increasing the speed with which you can get from place to place in the vast city. There’s also a district-by-district fast-travel system, which makes things easier. And Ubisoft has even recognized that sometimes, climbing walls in its games can be really boring. There seem to be a lot more ladders in this game, as well as a new system of lifts that let you instantly scale a wall without any fuss at all.Combat, too, has gotten a slight tweak that suddenly takes it light-years ahead of AC 2. Ezio now has the ability to start “execution streaks,” which basically let you catch enemies by surprise while in battle. The series has always had a lone assassin dealing with a crowd of guards, and not much has changed there. You still fight in the same basic way — slash with a face button, block with a trigger button, and usually wait for an enemy to attack in order to counter for a one-hit kill. Now, however, getting that one kill allows you to use timing and reflexes to quickly turn your attention to another guard, and get a one-hit kill on him; then turn to another and kill him; and so on, all while the enemies are caught unawares. So instead of big, irritating fights, Brotherhood adds an ability based on player skill that lets you quickly gain an upper hand. It adds a dimension to combat that picks up the pace a lot, and removes the frustration of getting manhandled by whole platoons of enemies at once.Back is AC 2′s economy system, but this time the whole thing is much more reasonable. In the previous game, money was invested into the Auditore family’s villa and the town surrounding it — this time, you spend the money you earn on rebuilding Rome, helping to liberate the people there on an economic front, not just a political one.Each district of the city is under the influence of a nearby Borgia Tower, from which the local corrupt official rules. Before you can invest in shops or rebuild monuments (and earn a return on your investment for doing so), you have to infiltrate the area around the tower, kill the leader, and burn the tower to the ground. Once you’ve done that, you can buy properties in the district, allowing you to invest in and reopen shops, repair monuments, and purchase buildings for the game’s various ally factions. All the improvements you make go toward your completion of the game, but rather than feeling like completionist work, opening up shops is useful and convenient. The money you earn from your investments is nice as well, but it doesn’t become a flood until late in the game, and therefore you never feel like you have more money than you could ever need.Ubisoft has included a multiplayer mode in Brotherhood, because apparently the thinking in the industry today is that every game needs one, and that means that the single-player campaign is smaller than it was in AC 2. You wouldn’t know it from playing, though — there’s never a shortage of things to do in Brotherhood. In addition to story quests, there are challenges to complete for each of the various factions (mercenaries, courtesans and thieves), as well as towers to destroy and, later, missions to complete for Leonardo Da Vinci. And don’t forget the mess of collectibles to find. There may be fewer missions overall, but the game world still feels expansive and fully engaging.The only discernible difference in size between Brotherhood and AC 2 is the fact that the former takes place in only one huge city, where AC 2 was spread across several smaller ones. Brotherhood has a full-fledged story, plus all kinds of little side quests that have you running errands for various factions or helping people in distress. If Brotherhood has less to do, it’s certainly not obvious. You get plenty of content for your gaming dollar here, additional game modes or not.The trade-off for what one assumes is a smaller game is Brotherhood’s competitive multiplayer system, which is certainly ambitious. If you’re wondering how you can turn assassinations into a competitive sport with multiple people, you’re not alone — but Ubisoft has actually found a pretty interesting and elegant way to do so.When you fire up the multiplayer mode, you’ll pick one of a few character models, and load into a Renaissance city that’s populated with crowds of people, just like in the single-player game. All the NPCs populating the city, however, carry one of the set character models you were able to choose from. Somewhere in the city are six or seven other players like you, and as you go on, you’ll be assigned to assassinate one of them, receiving information about which character model you’re looking for, and a compass that directs you in the general direction and altitude of your target.Once you get your target in sight (the game notifies you of that fact), it’s up to you to pick the target out from the crowd of similar-looking people, get in close and kill him or her. Killing an NPC instead of the person you’re looking for costs you the “contract,” as well as any points for the kill, and causes you to start over. You’ll need to watch for players to give themselves away as such, and you’re awarded more points if you can kill them sneakily or without being identified than if you just ran up and hit them in the face. Brotherhood’s multiplayer isn’t necessarily about who kills the most, but rather, who kills the best.So you’re hunting a single other assassin through the streets of, say, Florence, but there are six other people unaccounted for. They’re doing the same thing as you — hunting one another — so at the same time you’re the predator, you’re also the prey. This means you need to think about blending in not only to get the drop on your target, but also so that your assassin can’t figure out who you are. For example, if you move around in the open too much, you’ll be easy to identify as the person’s target, so trying to stay anonymous in crowds is key. Doing other player-only things, such as climbing buildings or running, also is a surefire way to be pegged and murdered.It makes for a tense experience. On the one hand, you’re trying to get the drop on someone else, but you also know you’re being hunted all the time. The higher your score, the more pursuers you’ll have after you. But you’re not powerless, either — identify your pursuer and you’ll enter a chase mode, in which you can give them the slip by breaking their sight line, then hide until they lose you. That results in the opponent losing his contract, which means some momentary relief, and it also rewards you with some points.While Brotherhood’s multiplayer mode is a pretty cool idea, seeing it find widespread appeal is doubtful. Especially early on, the free-for-all mode gets frustrating in a hurry. You spend a lot of time being totally outsmarted by people who have learned that discretion is the better part of valor here, and that’s pretty much exactly contrary to almost everything we’ve ever learned about multiplayer in the history of games up to this point.Multiplayer requires you to level up by earning experience points in order to do anything — including play on a team, rather than alone — and it makes the learning curve feel all the more steep, even though it wouldn’t be with a slightly better tutorial system. The game teaches you a little about how to kill people, but nothing about how to avoid being killed. The knowledge of being able to jump on certain platforms or run under certain gates in order to automatically close them off to a pursuer is just something you come by on your own, probably when someone totally screws you by doing it to you first.Similar to games like Call of Duty, Brotherhood lets you save player classes for later, so you can load out with a specific set of abilities and perks at the outset of a match. You don’t have access to any of these at the outset, and they come out slowly as you level up. The whole system is meant to feel rewarding, but instead, it comes of as a barrier. Players will have to stick around for at least the first 10 levels in order to start feeling like they’re true competitors, and that might be asking too much.Multiplayer is enjoyable, it just takes some getting used to, and like anything, it’ll require an hour or two of being totally frustrated in order for players to earn the ability to be any good. It has potential, even if there don’t seem to be a lot of modes, but it might too complex and slow-moving to attract a large audience. Much more likely, Brotherhood multiplayer will create a small group of dedicated players who are really, really good, just like the Splinter Cell series has in its similar spy-vs.-mercenary multiplayer. That will likely have the effect of making Brotherhood’s online mode prohibitive to new players.But multiplayer doesn’t feel tacked on — in fact, none of the new systems do. To the contrary and to Ubisoft Montreal’s credit, Brotherhood finally feels like an Assassin’s Creed that has hit its proper stride. All the things that have been introduced in the series before now have finally been tuned to the point of being very solid and enjoyable, from the free running and combat, to the economy and faction systems. Finally, everything works so well that playing Assassin’s Creed doesn’t feel like a chore. Plus, Ubisoft tossed in a creative multiplayer mode that actually pushes the envelope.Story-wise, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood might not make a great entry point into the series, but it definitely is the most fun experience the franchise has yet offered. Here’s a recommendation from a guy who kind of hates the Assassin’s Creed series — buy this game.Pros:
- Streamlined experience that removes the tedium of previous games
- Finally feels like Ubisoft values players’ time, with time-consuming travel made much easier
- Reworked economy system adds shop quests, faction challenges, and lots of other option things to do
- Still a deep, open experience despite being a smaller game than its predecessor
- Story and characters finally starting to feel fleshed out
- Might be too easy: illegal actions don’t garner much attention; it’s pretty easy to lose pursuers; AI is often just dumb, especially when it comes to being detected
- “War Machines” quests, which should have had cool set-piece sequences like a naval battle, are underwhelming
- Ambitious multiplayer mode could be too hard to breach for most players
Final Score: 93/100
Convinced that it’s worth a buy? Use our walkthrough once you get it to breeze through the game!