Monday, January 17

In case you haven't played it: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Review (X360)

Assassin's Creed is easily one of the stronger, original intellectual properties to be spawned during this hardware generation. While I dearly loved the original, the sequel improved upon it in every way possible with better mission design, more weapons as well as more likeable and better-developed characters. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood continues the adventure of series' protagonist, Desmond's descendant: Ezio Auditore de Firenze after his meeting with Minerva at the conclusion of Assassin's Creed II. What follows is an exciting, albeit frustrating return to Renaissance Italy that answers several questions, to then bludgeon you with another.

The Good
Tool shed - Brotherhood gifts players with a new set of weapons and techniques to combat enemies. My favourite by far, was the ability to fight enemies with a sword (or mace) and your hidden pistol equipped. If you're not having any luck with your swordplay, you can always end the fight faster with a bang. The dynamics of combat have changed significantly in Brotherhood as you no longer need to wait for your opponent to attack in order to deal significant damage with counter hits. Another addition comes in the form of Execution Streaks which, after taking your first victim, allow you to make any subsequent kills with a single blow; provided that you don't take any damage after your murderous chain begins. The ability to kick and shoot your opponents mid-combo, and dispatch them in great numbers with single strikes, results in a much faster and more offensive style of play. The new additions to the combat formula were initially welcome, but then I soon began to realise that the rhythmic swordplay that I had enjoyed so much from the previous instalments was now a thing of the past.

Micromanagement – The city of Roma presents many chances for players to dabble in activities other than murder most foul. If you are weary from clashing swords you can recruit assassins and task them with completing missions across the world for money and in some cases, treasure. For those that you haven’t sent to fight on foreign soil, they can be summoned to kill enemy guards silently, or in the midst of battle to aid you in your most desperate hour. Calling upon your Brotherhood in any fashion allows for each recruit to gain experience as well as access to more weapons and stronger armour. There is also an in-game economy that you can expand by restoring businesses and landmarks throughout Roma. It isn’t overly deep, but investing a little bit of time in this feature means more weapons, access to fast travel options, and less time spent backtracking (at least on foot).

That's amore - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is an exceptionally beautiful game, with an environment that exceeds the size and scale of most recently-released, open world action games. From all accounts the PS3 version is a little more stable, and I can report that were multiple (however minor) instances of screen-tearing and pop-in in the 360 version. Roma is an intricately detailed, and well-designed play space that is easily as large, if not larger than the total area found in its predecessor.

Web of lies - The conspiracies that form the core of Brotherhood's narrative are thoroughly compelling. It's hard to go into this in any great detail without spoiling anything, but rest assured your contemporaries will keep you guessing in Ezio's quest to reclaim the Apple of Eden.

To be continued (Part 1) - Thankfully, the end of Brotherhood effectively ends the adventures of Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Not that I didn't like Ezio, rather the end of Assassin's Creed II was so ham-fistedly punctuated (in both the past and future scenarios) to lead into this current instalment, that the ultimate ending of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood seemed elegant by comparison.

The Bad
Master of none - The developers tried to throw in a bit of everything into Brotherhood. There are vehicle sequences, a few (as in, not many) epic sword fights, platforming, team management, stealth (ugh), and exploration. The problem is that many of the new elements that have been introduced for this instalment feel rough, and were to the detriment of the experience as a whole. Commanding the Brotherhood certainly looks cool and comes in handy on occasion, but it also obliterates any sense of challenge. To make matters worse, every single enemy seems to carry the most useful loot. While you could pilfer through your opponent's belongings in Assassin's Creed II, more often than not you would walk away with a few florins and a throwing knife. In Brotherhood you'll find money, meds and ammo on even the most modest opponent. The vehicle sequences are completely disposable, and while not overly difficult, they still managed to frustrate in the case of the naval battle due to a massive turning circle and a stubborn cannon.

Out of sync - I touched on this previously in the post "Stealth and its Opposite," but the addition of the new Full Sync challenges is a bit of a mixed bag. When they test skill they're a welcome addition, however when they involve the more unrefined aspects of the game things become much more painful.

To be continued (Part 2) - As for Desmond's saga, the end of Brotherhood is so painfully clumsy from a gameplay and storytelling perspective. The final, timed platforming sequence while visually stunning, is almost completely bereft of fun; and the final moments should have been accompanied by a flashing warning "FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN ASSASSIN'S CREED III."  Is it too much to ask for a self-contained plot? I yearn for a videogame narrative that offers a clear resolution, in stead of a carrot for the next, inevitable instalment.

The Ugly
Hello? Is anyone there? - Any attempts I've made to play online have been met with abject failure. In some cases, I couldn't even find a single player to join the lobbies I had created. I've read many positive musings about Brotherhood's competitive multiplayer component, but I can't really impart any meaningful impressions, as the only experience I've had is with the PS3 beta. The beta gave access to one map, and I only played the standard free-for-all match type which tasks each player to take out another specific player. You have a radar which guides you to your target, and in the trial (at least) it was a little too helpful. While I understand, you're supposed to take it slow, blend in, and approach with care; most just bolt for you, and I found myself doing the same after a few frustrating encounters.

After him! -  I would wager over one third of the missions in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood involve tailing a target or informant. These missions are usually punctuated by three fights or cut-scenes (sometimes even a combination of the two), and are indicative of my experience with Brotherhood as a whole. Beautiful, repetitive and frustrating.

Castles on sand - The most frustrating sequence in Assassin's Creed II involved infiltrating the Vatican on approach to the final boss battle. While the stealth mechanics worked well enough in the public arena, where there were people en masse to blend with; the Vatican presented Ezio with some priests with whom you could not blend and a lot of guards. After several repeated attempts to move through this sequence, finally everything fell into place, and I could proceed. The developers took this broken segment, and then decided to build an entire game around it. There are several missions that involve or revolve around stealth. There have been no abilities added, like crawling, or being able to attach to walls (like in Metal Gear Solid) to accommodate this change in focus. Now you would think that perhaps the level designers could consult their Ubisoft colleagues who were involved with the Splinter Cell series, or even Kojima Productions (there is an unlockable Raiden skin) for help with developing solid stealth gameplay. Unfortunately, this is not the case as players can either blend, hide in haystacks or drop from sight; nothing more. The placement of haystacks in some missions is ridiculous, particularly in a mission staged during a wild party. I know everytime that I plan a gathering I go over my checklist: Beer? Check. Food? Check. The Ladies (pronounced leh-days)? Check. Enough hay to feed the equine population of Italy? Checkmate.    

That was not a request - There are several missions that require players to do things in a certain way or sequence, but the mission design fails to clue you into how events should transpire. In one particularly frustrating mission, players are tasked with assassinating a target who is mingling at a party (undetected no less). I found various ways to approach the target without being seen, however I could not lock-on to them and make the kill. After several frustrating attempts that ended in failure, I learned that I could only assassinate my victim once a cut-scene had been triggered. That's thirty minutes I'm never getting back because the game would only allow me to kill the target when and how it wanted me to.

7.5/10 - Make no mistake, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is not an expansion pack. There is easily fifteen hours worth of gameplay available in the single player campaign, and the vast majority of it is thoroughly enjoyable. There are various new additions, some of which I hope make it into the next instalment; others that need to be either refined somewhat, or dropped entirely. Initially, the game felt overly familiar, yet it presented enough new elements mixed with the action I have come to love from the series to warrant further play. The final few sequences presented little enjoyment, but were impressive in terms of scale and ambition. For me, Brotherhood was unrefined ambition from the team at Ubisoft Montreal: almost every idea and mechanic was thrown into the game, with little regard for the core, swashbuckling action typical of the series (that I hold in such high regard). When it works, it's every bit as good as its predecessor. When it falters, it feels as coarse as the first instalment.

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