This is a solid but notably underwhelming conclusion to Assassin’s Creed 2‘s storyline. Few as they are, some of the key changes are well-implemented, while others simply fall flat. Ultimately, while it does refine certain aspects of the formula, it lacks the energy and tight design of its predecessor – we recommend a cautious purchase at most if you’re a dedicated fan or an intrigued gamer.
The Long Version:
While writing up this review, I decided to look back at my notes for Assassin’s Creed 2. With all its new content and open level design that capitalized on the concept of assassinations, the best thing I could say about the game was that it started the series’ trend of careful, casual refinement. In other words, it was inches better than the original, rather than miles – a great many inches but still.
This, as it turns out, is the greatest hurdle that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood faces. The good news is that it makes a solid enough effort to change up or refine aspects of the formula. Unfortunately, it also drops the ball in certain essential areas its predecessor just couldn’t afford.
Kicking off just after Assassin’s Creed 2‘s ending, Brotherhood drops the player back into the shoes of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, master of Assassins and beater of Popes. Ezio and company settle in for a (generally) quiet retirement from revenge and stabbing political figures… until a destructive invasion comes courtesy of Rodrigo Borgia’s son, the psychotic Cesare.
Through a series of set-pieces that serve to invalidate all the money spent on Monteriggioni, Ezio ends up being the one to pick up the fragments of the Order and heads to Rome to settle the score. This entire scenario reeks of a “back-to-basics” reboot approach that will allow Ubisoft to repeat aspects of Ezio’s previous character development, but fortunately his personality and the writing behind him remains his strength. He could be slaughtering dozens of guards at a time, but his ability to settle conflicts with his charm is uncanny.
There’s also been an active effort expended in fleshing out the side characters, as the other Assassins and Ezio’s closest allies have more distinctive personalities. Rodrigo Borgia’s occasional cameos remind us that not all antagonists have to be irredeemable assholes, and Cesare is truly a menacing and unhinged presence who increases in his mental instability as the game reaches a close. It’s just a shame the other assassination targets are still one-note.
The big overriding issue is that the story, despite being shorter than the last game’s, takes longer to get to its point. The revelations of who or what is involved in Cesare’s plot are underwhelming, the exact nature of his plan can be disappointingly summed up as “let’s conquer the whole f**king country”, the tension between members of the Assassins over the inciting event gets resolved all too tidily, and it all feels like an extended epilogue of a perfectly good story. Assassin’s Creed 2 was perfectly substantial on its own – it didn’t really need any more closure than what it got in the first place.
The other trouble spot is in the modern day proceedings. Not that there is much to say on that front, but I’m left wondering why seemingly more effort went into refining this section of the campaign. There’s some sharper (and more entertaining) writing for Desmond and his posse, and their impact on proceedings even seems to have been reduced from the last game – this does keep them from overstaying their welcome. Sadly, the good things to say about Desmond’s little quest end the moment we start discussing that ending – that baffling, only-vaguelly-coherent-having-played-the-next-couple-of-games, pulled-from-ass ending. It only reaffirms how delusional Ubisoft must be to think that psuedo-mythology and mystical techno-babble have a place in historical fiction.
On a gameplay front, Brotherhood plays almost entirely like the last two games. You, the player, control Ezio’s body parts using buttons and (possibly) control sticks, triggering auto-running, gliding up rooftops like a parkour champ, and pouncing on enemies blade-first with the efficiency of a jungle cat. If you like the idea of essentially travelling on auto-pilot until the next big fight, you’ll enjoy this system; if you’re a stickler for full platforming controls, this is a frustrating example of modern game design. I personally embrace this control setup under the pretense that Assassin’s Creed is not a platforming series, but rather a stealth-oriented psuedo-platformer franchise.
The differences lie under the surface, a fact which becomes apparent very quickly. Ezio’s resources being limited by events as they are, the player is essentially controlling a moderately adequate version of the once-great Assassin – that means no immediate access to smoke bombs, or various heavy weapons, or even a second hidden blade. This, aided by the initial linear progression of gameplay, means you’ll have to play by Ubisoft’s rules for a while.
However, gameplay does open up within a few chapters. Side missions of various types become available and are, at the very least, varied enough to keep the experience fresh. You will have the option to take on guild missions for the Courtesans, the Mercenaries, and the Thieves, as well as a number of other singular missions. Leonardo da Vinci also reappears, bringing both his patented Assassin tool upgrades and several search-and-destroy missions pertaining to war machines built for Cesare. Said missions do present their own unique set-piece moments, but ultimately they are just solid side adventures with one notable flaw.
That flaw is the largest problem with the game design, and it has a name: Synchronization. Serving as this game’s “100% Mission Completion” marker, Synchronization rewards players who accomplish very specific, punishingly difficult secondary objectives within most of the game’s many, many missions. I’m sure someone out there will defend the system on the merits of good-spirited challenge, but this ain’t that. Brotherhood was not designed with open-minded players in mind; rather, it thinks only one mindset matters – the developer’s. Guards are not programmed in such a careful manner, and the platforming is not precise enough, that it is possible to succeed without unhealthy repetition of levels by the most obsessive gamers on the planet.
Fortunately, if you tune out this one big thing the game becomes bearable. The big selling feature this time around – besides the multiplayer, but we’ll get to that – is the ability to build up the Assassin’s Order by recruiting citizens to the cause. It’s fun the first couple of times to rescue a would-be Assassin from danger and pull them into your ranks, but soon the events become a little repetitive and routine. The whole micro-management minigame, wherein you send your recruits on international missions to gain experience, is fun in theory but lacks any depth or narrative impact. You can also call in some of your recruits to help in a fight or take down a target, but it does feel like a get-out-of-trouble card without any noticeable progression beyond gained experience.
That’s not to say the game is completely without value. There’s one set of optional side missions focusing on flashbacks from Ezio’s past that rectify the above lack of narrative importance, with real tension and emotional stakes. I was firmly invested in the events that unfolded, and I felt like I better understood the kind of man Ezio truly had become. Speaking of investment, the economy, while certainly a little unbalanced in the player’s favour, has seen expansion to the entirety of Rome; there’s a certain appeal to rejuvenating the vast city by spending grand sums on waterways and landmarks and market shops. If it weren’t for those damned Borgia Towers forcing a trial-and-error approach to progression down my throat, I’d say it is a damn good system that pays off well for the player.
Combat remains as adequate as ever. It’s not a nice phrase to use, I understand that, but it has to be said that hit detection and free movement do make a difference in combat design. Still, the style Ezio and his enemies bring to their merciless violence has a certain appeal and it’s hard to begrudge a game with such smooth character and clothing animation. The range of weapons has at least widened, with a crossbow thankfully finding its way into the fold. I can’t express how grateful I was for it when the Borgia Captains started fleeing.
Onto the multiplayer. Having played the next few instalments, I can safely say that this is the weakest of Ubisoft’s online offerings – and it’s solid in its own right. The premise is that Abstergo, front for the Templar Order, is training their agents using Animi. Thus, you are tasked with assassinating other players based on a contract system, which can be lost or completed depending on how well you blend into the crowd. This is where environmental awareness and patience come in handy, tenets of gaming which I admire for being part of a mainstream multiplayer experience. The matchmaking system has trouble actually finding matches, and higher level players do find their way into lower-level matches, but otherwise it’s an admirable experiment that largely succeeds.
As per the recurring theme, the presentation is a mixed bag. Let’s start with the positives: the soundtrack kicks ass. Jesper Kyd returns to conduct for Brotherhood, and his talent for conveying setting and atmosphere using musical cues is masterful. The voice acting is also a strong point, with Roger Craig Smith cementing himself as a character actor worthy of portraying Ezio’s middle-aged troubles.
The visuals are more problematic, though I struggle to call them “bad”. The Anvil engine has clearly seen some updates, as evidenced by the more expressive character models and the more detailed textures. It also helps that this recreation of 16th century Rome is as close to picture-perfect as you can come, with famed ruins and rolling hills leading into the bustling cobblestone streets. All this work is limited, however, by the art design and the somewhat hazy lighting. Stand still for a moment and you may feel your eyes plead for the colour and vibrancy that Assassin’s Creed 2 brought with its rendition of Venice.
Ultimately, that desire to go back to Assassin’s Creed 2 is this installment’s issue. Brotherhood doesn’t have many unique ideas, but when it does come up with one it freezes up and refuses to take a risk. It’s a safe iterative game that merely repeats what its better predecessor did, reminding us all why the last game worked so well. I don’t necessarily hate it, but I’m definitely inclined to move on and forget about it.