Review: Assassin’s Creed – Brotherhood (** stars)

NOTE: I did not play multiplayer, so this is a review solely of the single-player experience.

TL;DR – Assassin’s Creed repeats the misteps of the previous game while tinkering, uunecessarily, with its resource models rather than the game design. What occurs, then, is a slight improvement to combat and movement, and huge arbitrary complications to obtaining money and doing missions. The story, furthermore, sees little integration into the overall experience, serving to create an ending that makes little sense due to the separation of the real world and the Animus. It’s a disappointing sequel overall, and shows us such wasted potential all-around.

Want to know how to improve a game series? This certainly isn’t it.

Assassin’s Creed; Brotherhood provides so many good ideas on paper that utterly fail in practice. For one, we have the new location of Rome – rather than having separate cities that require fast travel, we have one incredibly large city to traverse. Rome, as you might expect, displays that same attention to historical detail that made ACII’s world so fascinating, with the Colosseum and Vatican City being personal favorites. As before, it’s amazing to see it – but the initial fascination, as in the prior game, gives way to a perfunctory development procedure.

While this might sound fantastic, much of Rome equals vast, open fields. Given the stealthy focus, you’d expect the designers NOT to place players in a boring locations, but lo and behold – let the Assassin dressed in an absurd outfit of pure white armed to the hilt run through an open field while no one notices. I want to jump between rooftops and become invisible in plain sight; I don’t want to run in a meadow! Tuscany and Forli in ACII also had this problem, but at least most of the action took place in the city portions of said locations; here, you’ll spend a great deal of time wandering in fields at times. They’ve reduced the horse movement speed as well for some reason, making location hunting a bigger chore than before. Fast travel locations also reduce the load, although they require money and don’t always put you in a convenient location. Some missions take place ten minutes from the nearest fast travel point, which shows a lack of proper design.

There’s no dearth of content, for sure, but the map screen has so many different symbols that you’ll need a map legend to understand everything. Ubisoft adds more, more, more, but never seeks to make these interesting enough to demand play. I’ll admit that I found ACII’s world so fascinating that I did nearly every sidequest, but here they tend to fall into a few different archetypes with little variety. Leonardo’s missions, with the vehicles segments, provide much needed variety, but they’re not that interesting. For the PC version, anyway, one mission creates a game-breaking bug if you don’t have Vsync enabled, which made me tear my hair out trying to understand why Ezio would crash his flying machine into the ground or not respond to any input I made. None of these vehicles offer anything new or notable, however, other than being setpieces using Leonardo Da Vinci’s warmachines in a video game context.

Missions fall into a few categories: Kill Templar, kill this person, kill that person – yes, it’s role-playing, but there’s no real fun to the proceedings. You’ve done this before! Rome isn’t fundamentally different from other Italian city-states other than its size; you’ll do the same things, and perhaps with more annoyance. The old things work, but serve the same function; the new things sound cool, but don’t work out that well.

See, several missions take place in large skyscraper-style locations. These, from my view, are genuinely interesting and new, allowing use of Ezio’s superb climbing abilities and skills (like the new crossbow, which makes throwing knives obsolete). However, at the same time, they offer you vague objectives which caused more than my fair share of wandering, looking for the next objective marker. Since they’re all stacked on top of each other on the map due to multiple floors, there’s a great deal of guesswork that causes more than its fair share of confusion. Much of the climbing in these sequences involve significant guesswork, to the point where I failed or died multiple times due to Ezio spazzing out or a missed command. These aren’t challenging; these are frustrating.

If a sequel’s first job is to offer new situations and improvements to the same basic framework, AC:B fails miserably at it. Stealth still retains much of its guesswork nature with inconsistent AI detection. Fighting actually becomes easier, somehow, with a new “kill-chain” mechanic. Basically, if you perform an execution on one enemy, pressing the direction pad towards them and the attack button will make you automatically kill that person too. It’s cool the first few times it happens (wow, I feel like an assassin!), but this makes combat essentially unnecessary. If you’re going to make it that easy, why bother to have it at all? Rather than becoming an essential part of the experience, it’s a time waster rather than a challenge. That goes for Rome’s size, as well. You can render it accurately, sure, but does that make it a fun location by default? No. Traveling between locations wastes your time, nothing more.

These problems are further exacerbated by the horrendous “city building” system. The last game used a streamlined system wherein all investments were made in one locations; when you had money, you’d build a new building and increase your income. Though it involved the hassle of returning to the villa (which was more a break in the action than a chore), you would do it for the promise of new stuff and more money. Brotherhood takes this a few steps past sanity. First, rebuilding Rome requires you to travel and invest in EACH INDIVIDUAL SHOP AND BUILDING. I cannot stress ENOUGH how tedious and boring this process becomes in a short time. Each shop and building you remodel provides a tiny income that increase over time; like ACII, it’s nearly the same concept, but running around to invest for thirty minutes just to buy new weapons, armor, etc. becomes an exercise in tedium. Why not create a menu or a new game system equivelent to SimCity or Actraiser here? Rather than making it boring, at least you could manage your funds and resources in an active, rather than passive, fashion that requires thought and planning to get the most out of your shops.

To add to this, you can’t build anything until you take over the Borgia Tower in that section of Rome. I will admit, taking over the Borgia Towers is a great concept; basically, you need to kill the general of that location, but detection may make him run away. It’s a tense game of finding him before he finds you, and finding creative ways to kill them. These represent the fundamental essence of the game: creativity. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t go further than this. Still, Borgia Towers can never be reclaimed by the opposition; this would add a great deal of stress and tension to your resources, imploring a response (I hear this is in Revelations, but I have yet to play it; good for them if it works!)

These Towers play into the subtle undercurrent of warfare throughout the game, and here we find the Assassin’s Guild. You rescue political dissidents in the region, who become assassins for your cause. Basically, they boil down to two uses. First, they assassinate people at your command. I admit, this  is tons of fun to watch as white-cowled messengers of death swarm on some guy out of nowhere, then mysteriously disappears. Second, they can be sent on missions, not only to gain money for you, but also to gain experience which grants them better equipment and weapons. It’s a cool system, sure, but it’s never integrated into the city building or Borgia Towers. I was hoping to send assassins to do missions IN Rome, as well as seeing where and when I had gained territory. You never get more than a taste, which is such a huge wasted opportunity.

Same goes for the story. Desmond’s story isn’t given much time in this game except for those who leave the Animus. As the game NEVER gives you any indication that you should leave it to read emails (seriously?), I had no idea what happened at the end of the game, or whether they even covered what happened in the emails. Frankly, it made no sense – to avoid spoilers, they don’t really move the plot forward so much as they add a cliffhanger that we didn’t need. Ezio’s story remains interesting – think “Godfather in the Renaissance” – but it doesn’t move that far either. Like any “middle chapter”, it meanders about while simultaneously avoiding conclusions as much as possible. Again, the player is left with a total mystery moment at the end with absolutely no context unless he/she was actively searching for the plot – not an effective storytelling method.

Brotherhood toys with so many good, possibly great, ideas that never become anything more than their surface-level elements. There’s one definitive reason why this occurs: multiplayer. It’s completely obvious that Ubisoft spent its resources on the multiplayer component, which is substantially cheaper to create, produce, and maintain. Unfortunately, this choice reflects a lack of care in the single player experience, expecting players to accept regurgitated content.

So, what’s the goal here for the Assassin’s Creed franchise? Apparently, to make money rather than a good game that MAKES money by virtue of being great. There’s room for a great game in this framework, but Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t that game – it’s a cash-grab from a now serialized franchise that needs some serious reworking.

24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Matthew 6

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.