The first Assassin's Creed was an interesting but repetitive experiment. Two years later, Assassin's Creed II was an improvement in almost all ways. One year later, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, woefully misunderstood prior to release, is arguably the best one yet.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood returns gamers to Renaissance Italy and into the virtual body of expert assassin Ezio Auditore de Firenze in an adventure primarily set in Rome. Murder is still Ezio's main occupation as he works alongside such early 16th century characters as Machiavelli in a series of main missions and through a stunning variety of polished side adventures. Ezio is doing his part to further the series-spanning and history-spanning war between the Assassin's Guild and the Templars. That same conflict motivates the game's other, briefer sections set in 2012, starring Desmond Miles, the man reliving Ezio's exploits. This general description may sound like an echo of Assassin's Creed II but the details are wonderfully changed. Plus, there's multiplayer.
Let's see… 1) people who like the idea of being a building-climbing, sword-swinging assassin, 2) gamers who enjoy being treated intelligently and would like to dig into a lengthy story full of references to 500 years of real history, 3) anyone who couldn't get into Assassin's Creed because of its poor combat system (they fixed it), 4) and those hungering for a game that can, if desired, be played as a zero-tolerance, hide-the-bodies stealth adventure like the old Splinter Cells. One more: 5) anyone who wants to pretend they're in beautiful Renaissance Rome where the Colosseum is waiting to be scaled.
Assassin's Creed II was a Game of the Year contender and its creators at Ubisoft tried to top it in a year with Brotherhood. 'Nuff said.
Isn't it too soon for another Assassin's Creed? Fans who have soured over the many annual reheatings of Tony Hawk or Lara Croft rightly wonder if Brotherhood comes too soon and, because it's more Ezio in the Renaissance, isn't different enough. Brotherhood is neither brief nor dull and harnesses much of the familiar core technology used to previously render Ezio's Florence and Venice in Assassin's Creed II to render a distinctive Rome full of fresh faces and fascinating locations. Both the game's main and side missions are generally more interesting than those of Assassin's Creed II and the slightly shorter primary campaign keeps the setting from wearing out it welcome.
Some of the multiplayer characters to choose form in the game's fun online competitive assassination mode, which does not involve our heroes Ezio or Desmond.
Is this one mostly multiplayer? The first thing the public was ever told about Brotherhood was that it had multiplayer, a fact that has given the mistaken impression that this game's main feature is its assassination take on modern Call of Duty-style ranked multiplayer. Well, it turns out there's 20 or 25 hours of single-player content here too.
But this is just a side story, right? Ezio's sci-fi discoveries about the truth behind the Assassins and Templars at the end of ACII — handily recapped so newcomers aren't confused — appeared to close his story. The new narrative for him here is focused on his quest for revenge against the son of the Pope he almost murdered in the previous game. It doesn't feel as important, though the game's brief bits featuring Desmond do advance the master plot. Plus, as before, there are hundreds of details tucked into personnel files, location descriptions, mission briefings and in secret codes the player can crack, all of which add color to the vast historical conspiracy woven through the series. A sharp-eyed completionist will end the game knowing more about assassins located everywhere from Sao Paolo to Moscow.
Is combat still the worst part of this franchise? No way. In fact, Ubisoft has managed to fix combat completely. The old problem was that any fights between a player assassin and a crowd of enemy guards always involved the player holding the block button, waiting to counter-kill each enemy as they took their turn attacking. Tedious. Ubisoft gracefully solved that in Brotherhood by letting the player transition from their first counter-kill into a succession of chained one-button execution moves against the rest of a crowd of enemies. The player can still be foiled, but a skilled gamer will use that first kill to start a swift ballet of stabbing and shooting. Alternately, a few hours into the game, the player can begin to summon assassins to do all the fighting for them. (See the videos below for much of this in action.)
The player gets to train Assassins? That's the Brotherhood part of this? It is. This is the best new feature in the series. Players can recruit citizens to fight for Ezio, amassing up to 12 trainees who can be summoned with the press of a button. Assassins gain experience over time, earning better weapons, armor and tactics. This crew can also be dispatched on assignments throughout Europe to do cool things off-screen. The one problem with this system is that it is nearly devoid of challenge and hard decisions. Even a mediocre gamer can avoid getting any of their assassins killed. Doesn't stop it from being very cool.
It looks like a lot of things have returned from previous Assassin's Creed games. All that climbing and stabbing people in the neck with hidden blades in your wrists. Is there too much re-hash? There are a mountain of features and mission types brought back from ACII but mostly with twists. To name just a handful: Yes, you still have to climb towers to survey your surroundings, but this time many of those towers are guarded by enemy captains who require special strategies to defeat. Once the captains are killed, those towers can be scaled, blown up and the liberated surrounding region is suddenly available for real estate investment and renovation. You can still hire a quartet of prostitutes to surround you and mask your presence in the Italian streets, but now you can also upgrade their abilities (nothing dirty!) by completing a list of Achievement-like challenges. Same with thieves and mercenaries. Even Subject 16 and Secret Locations are back, franchise fans should be happy to know, both more fun and complex than before. The only downside is that this series has gone from boldly letting its gameplay be its own reward to offering cheese for every completed maze.
Is that multiplayer any good? Yes, though hard to judge without a few weeks of it being live for regular people to play. The core mode sends up to eight players into a crowd of computer-controlled characters. Each player is ordered to assassinate another, requiring the gamer to try to both blend in with the crowds so as not to be spotted but also to follow their radar, spot their prey and stab them. As with Call of Duty, players gain experience points which help unlock passive and active abilities, like death-streak perks or the opportunity to temporarily don a disguise. It was solid and full of characters and unlocks, but too early to judge whether this has staying power, fun as it was leading into release.
So all's well? Game of the Year? Could be. This review has kept a lot about Brotherhood still hidden, but everything from the game's writing to the soundtrack is top-flight. Mission design is wonderful, with highlights including unusual sequences set at the Colosseum, the Pantheon, a boatyard and at an underground party. In another series first, all missions can be replayed and each has a difficulty modifier (trail your target but don't ever touch the ground, for example). Ubisoft has made it hard to stop playing this game.
This clip shows many of the new combat moves, though check the Visual Guide lower in the review for an even clearer look at the chaining combat system as seen in the game's new virtual reality mode:
The game that comes to mind while playing Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Not since Rockstar's potent crime drama has a game so massive, so polished, so impressively improved from its predecessor been released just a year after the prior installment. But people won't remember how long Brotherhood took to make. They are likely to remember its quality. Ezio's new adventure may be less personal than his previous one, but it is as interesting and as mischievously manipulative of real history as the series has ever been. Nearly bloated with fun things to do Brotherhood is Assassin's Creed in peak form.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood was developed by Ubisoft Montreal (and several satellite studios) and published by Ubisoft for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (PC version coming in 2011), released on November 16. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Tore myself away to write this review with 54.95% of the game's solo content complete at the 17 hour, 38 minute mark. Played two hours of multiplayer on a development network and then over the PlayStation Network. Very close to discovering The Truth.