Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review! Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

When in Rome...take it over.

I'm not a fan of the annual installment. Even if we are under the assumption that super large development teams don't dilute the final product, I still think annual installments of a franchise are too frequent for most gamers, and therefore lead to burnout. Most people have lots of games to play through, and unlike films, video games often take anywhere from 6-60 hours to grind through. I also don't believe as many good ideas are likely to develop and allow the product to be innovative, when given such a strict deadline. Overall, I think a franchise should take at least two years per installment, and games should always be delayed to make them play better.

So imagine my disappointment, when I heard not only was Assassin's Creed going to have another sequel one year after the release of Assassin's Creed 2, but it was going to once again take place during the lifetime of Ezio Auditore, and it was going to have multiplayer! But thankfully, sometimes I am so terribly wrong. Because although Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is more of the same and not as mind blowing as AC 2 was, it's a much improved sequel, mainly regarding it's gameplay systems and general design.

Let's get some of the bad out of the way first, so you can approach this with your expectations in check: Rome's level design feels extremely similar to the last installment, the narrative is weaker and harder to care about, and overall this feels like AC 2.5, and quite honestly, it's entirely fair to label it as such...except that narrative. It's far weaker; in fact, the best story driven moments come from when Ezio flashes back to the previous game's timeline. And the Desmond segments. But Ezio's fight against his current enemy, Cesare Borgia and la famiglia, just isn't all that compelling.

But the setting, while extremely familiar, is better: Rome is one consistent area with zero load times as you move about, and it's far bigger than any single city in AC 2. Also, landmarks like the Colosseum do impress.

More good news is many things are improved, which makes the final product tighter.  Rather than restricting you to rebuilt Montenegro like in AC 2, you now get to rebuilt and free Rome...and for you gamers who love to collect everything under the sun and go for that 100% completion ranking, this game will keep you busy for a long time. Like a "lite" city simulator, you pour money into Rome, rebuild shops, purchase landmarks and expand your guilds. But the way to unlock and allow for this expansion brings us to the coolest new mechanic: toppling Borgia towers.

Not Your Mama's Viewpoints

Borgia Towers are much like the viewpoints at the top of towers from AC 2, except now you are required to find and execute a ?Borgia General?, who's heavily protected by other guards and located in a high alert zone, where guards are aggressively looking for you. If you manage to defeat the ?, you climb the Borgia Tower and destroy it, which unlocks the surrounding area to be bought up and improved, like previously mentioned. The whole process means that all your actions feed into each other, and it's all pretty addictive.

What's great about the Borgia Towers is that they strongly encourage stealth. If you alarm the guard he will often run and escape, which means you have to come back another time and try once again. Honestly, although it seems obvious, I think AC games benefit greatly from using stealth as much as possible. You don't always have to, but then you'll be engaged in combat constantly, which is fun, but doesn't hold up as a game defining mechanic.

Combat is relatively the same as AC 2, but with a great new ability to string together attacks. So when you parry a guard and perform an instant kill, you can now proceed to drop every other guard within spitting distance. It may sound like cheating, but it really only makes things more efficient. Rather than having to parry or trade blows with every guard, now you can slice through them and move on. During some tense missions, this helps to keep the action moving, and the game throws a ton of guards at you to keep you busy.

Russell Crowe not included. Or tigers.
I'm sure everyone has heard through this game's marketing that "Brotherhood" implies you build a whole gang of assassins. I must admit, it's really cool to wave Ezio's hand and three assassins jump out of nowhere and disarm and destroy a group of guards; it's also very helpful. However, to build up your assassins, you engage in an "RPG-lite" system that leaves much to be desired. You send your assassins around the world on missions, described by only text, that can rarely (if ever) be failed by sending enough capable assassins to perform the job. It seems cool at first, but quickly becomes a nuisance. Also, recruiting assassins is boring, as it simply requires you to save them from guards over and over. It would have been far more interesting if each potential assassin had their own tale to tell.

Taken as a whole, AC: Brotherhood has far more diversity in it's missions, including the aforementioned "flashback" sequences, and some very inventive Leonardo missions, in which you pilot some of his machinations (although admittedly, they don't really fit in since they seem a bit technologically advanced for the time...but Leonardo Da Vinci was ahead of his time, too, so I'll give it a pass).

I am a big fan of good music in games. In fact, I feel many reviewers spend too much time talking audio in a general way, and not enough time evaluating good music and how it fits in; how it provides the "emotional punch", much in the way opera or a good film score does. The soundtrack in "Brotherhood" isn't the most amazing one I have ever heard (Nier, cough cough), but at times it hits the nail on the head and is absolutely stunning, particularly when you are just roaming around Rome (get it? I know, awful). It has a gentle beauty filled with some lovely light choir singing, while simultaneously being touched with a bit of tension.

Now, I'm not too much of a multiplayer guy, and so I didn't spend too much time with the multiplayer. However, I spent enough to declare Brotherhood's multiplayer rather refreshing, in the sea of Halo's and Call of Duty's. I won't go into much detail, except to say the multiplayer is unique and captures the spirit of the single player game well, even though I (understandably) had my doubts beforehand. That said, if you are only picking up Brotherhood for the single player component, there's plenty there to sink your teeth into.

Maybe we don't need annual installments of Assassin's Creed. Maybe we don't need to linger in Ezio's timeline for so long. And maybe Brotherhood only exists to improve upon existing gameplay systems while asking more questions than it cares to answer. But it's also a great game, and after completing it, I for one can't wait to get my hands on Revelations this November.

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