Let me start by saying this... I love the Assassin's Creed series. Ever since I first learned of the ongoing battle between the ancient order of the Assassins and the power hungry Templars I've been hooked. Playing as the ancestors of Desmond Miles, first Altair in the Holy Land during the Crusades and then Ezio Auditore in Renaissance Italy, was not only an intriguing take on alternate history, but also a blast to play! Sadly, with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I’m beginning to wonder if Ubisoft isn’t getting caught up in their own cleverness as the narrative becomes increasingly convoluted and nonsensical and the fun gameplay elements get lost amongst some interesting yet ultimately tiring mechanics. All the new bells and whistles are nice, but ultimately only serve to enhance the feeling that it’s just more of the same…
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way early on here… Rome still looks amazing, although draw distances are still a bit of an issue, as is the odd 'quicksand' wall. Of course, it's massive, so that can be forgiven. Up close the characters still look a little odd, especially their eyes (a complaint I’ve had since the first game). During the cutscenes they all come across looking a little wax sculpture-esque. But once you get out into Rome and start battling the Borgia the rest of the animations look fantastic and fluid. The soundtrack is pretty good although it does get a bit repetitive. The voice-over work and sound effects are well done yet again, no complaints there.
Desmond's continuing story revolves around the group of modern day Assassins taking refuge in Monteriggioni (in his Ezio's former lair no less!) to continue Ezio's story, which is all about getting revenge on the Borgia family and reclaiming Rome from their nefarious clutches. Insurrection, rebellion, revolution! It starts with a bang (both literally and figuratively) but runs out of steam pretty early on.
My problem with these sorts of games is the fact that there is so much going on that you lose the thread. Side quests and optional mini-games are all over the place (more specifics later). This took me ages to finish because I ended up chipping away at the plot. I can’t remember the number of times I would sit down to play Brotherhood and say to myself, "Ohhhkkkay, now what were we doing again?" Don't get me wrong, the writing is clever... but the ending will have you rolling your eyes and wondering what the bloody hell just happened. I’m not sure how much further we can go down the rabbit hole here without popping up in China somewhere. I’m reminded of Desmond's response at the end of AC2, "What... the.... $%*&?" Pretty much sums it up for me...
The weirdness of the plot aside, I'm happy to report that the combat, the reason why I love these games so much, is still excellent. It definitely takes some practice, I've always felt this series has a high learning curve. But if you're patient you'll soon have Ezio dancing through a mob of guards, a veritable whirling dervish of steel... and then as the dust settles they are down and dying while he has nary a scratch! But I fear that much like the previous games you'll still end up just waiting to counter attack. While the accompanying animations are brilliant (and different for each weapon, so it's worth trying out your whole arsenal), this does make things a bit predictable.
Of course, this time around you have help in taking down your target. Recruiting assassins to fight the good fight alongside you is what Brotherhood is all about (kinda obvious really, considering the title...). Some viewpoints, where Ezio gets a look at the surrounding area from on high, are now home to garrisons of Borgia troops. By assassinating the captain and burning the tower to the ground you remove the negative Borgia influence on the area. As a result, the disgruntled locals with revolt. If you aid them, they will join your cause.
Once you have recruited some comrades, you can target an enemy and with a quick button press call them into action! They'll pounce down from rooftops or ride up on horseback, do the dirty work, and disappear into the shadows! They gain experience in battle which can then be used to upgrade their weapons and armor. You can even customize their uniforms (plain ol' Assassin's white is boring don’t you think?)!
As clever as it is though, it may make the game a touch too easy. You don't really have to do much more than get into position, then signal your mates to take care of the bad guys. Fortunately, Brotherhood has another trick up its sleeve. In what amounts to a menu driven mini-game, you can send your fledgling assassins out into the world to fight against the evil Templars. Some of these missions are actually historically accurate assassinations, while others are simple tasks like "Protect a banker" or "Beat up a Judge."
Each mission has a level of difficulty, one through five. As a result, each assassin has a corresponding percentage 'chance of success' depending on their skill level. If it's lower, you run the risk of your disciple dying in the effort. Thankfully you can send more than one out to do the deed and tip the odds in your favor. Once they are off they will be unavailable for the duration of that mission which correlates to an in-game clock. For example, you send three of your new boys (or girls) out to assassinate some Duke in France and they will be gone for nine minutes of game time. It's a fun set up and is surprisingly addictive. As soon as I saw one of my recruits was back I’d immediately look on the map for the nearest pigeon coop so I can send him off again.
An issue with Brotherhood I alluded to earlier is one I had with AC2; namely that there is simply too much to do! I love the idea of buying up properties and businesses in order to rejuvenate Rome from the negative influence of the Borgia but I feel it has almost been taken too far. There is a lot of stuff to purchase, and to do so you need funds. Every twenty minutes of game time a deposit will be made into your bank, the amount based on what you own. As you purchase property or historical locations, that amount goes up. Take the money, buy more property, repeat. It can be a vicious cycle and it ends up feeling more like a chore. I've found myself placing Ezio on a bench somewhere, then getting up and making a cup of tea and a sandwich just so I could keep the clock running and put more money in my pocket.
Unfortunately, this hits a wall about two thirds of the way through. Towards the end it seemed I had renovated not only all of Rome but seemingly half of Italy as well. But like clockwork more money was deposited. I had hundreds of thousands of florins nestled in my waist pouch but there was nothing left to spend the money on! I guess that's not such a bad thing, but I felt like the pacing of this was off...
Another problem for me deals with the synchronization. In the previous titles, you had to complete 'x' number of tasks to achieve complete sync. Now, 100% synchronization is only possible by completing side objectives as you complete the mission. But what if you screw up? I get what you are trying to do Ubisoft, make us play the missions over and over again. But in my opinion this backfires because by defining what you must do, you remove the originality inherent with what you can do. That has always been one of the hallmarks of the series for me, the freedom to take down a mark as I see fit. It's part of what makes it so fun!
Brotherhood also heralds one of the biggest additions to the Assassin’s Creed universe in the new multiplayer. Those of you who are regular readers know I don’t like playing with others much, but this sounds so badass I might have to dip my toes in that pool at some point! Stalking real people as they stalk me sounds like a good laugh if nothing else.
While I really enjoyed most of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I have to say that it still feels a little too familiar. Pretty much everything is intact in Ezio's universe from AC2. It seems like this is a direct sequel to that game alone rather than another installment in the series. The new additions to the gameplay are interesting, but ultimately don’t cover up the fact that it feels like Ubisoft is trying to cash in on the brand. Admittedly you don’t have to do all the optional bits. In fact, I’m really tempted to try and do a ‘speed run’ of Brotherhood, skipping all the superfluous stuff, just to see if I like it better…
I feel like I've been overly negative in this review but I have a real fear with Ubisoft and their plans to make Assassin’s Creed an annual release. As much as I hate to say it, Brotherhood really does feel like Assassin’s Creed 2.5 (I know there are plenty out there who disagree, and that’s just fine). That's just my opinion, but for me personally I just didn't have as much fun with Brotherhood as I did with the others. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s time to move on from Ezio and Italy. I’m ready for the next chapter, and a return to the intrigue that made the first two games so compelling in the first place…
Score = 8.7 / 10