Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

It’s been a few months since I finished up with this game, but I figure better late than never in getting this write-up done. I’ve raved about Assassin’s Creed 2, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed Brotherhood. The refinements to the single-player are excellent. The multiplayer looked clever, and had a lot of design work invested into it, but it didn’t jump out as appealing to me, and I didn’t play very much of it.

The idea of tying the guilds to familiar characters from the previous game was great. The overall story wasn’t all that compelling (hey, let’s track down that Apple again, and be sure to transfer our accumulated dislike of Rodrigo Borgia over to Cesare) but it was enjoyable to spend more time with Il Volpe and Sophia and the rest. It gave me an immediate sense of investment in the game.

I don’t have the same sort of personal attachment to Rome that I have to Florence and Venice. The Vatican felt underused, though there are story reasons for that. I appreciated the trips out of Rome – whether to familiar locales like Montereggioni and Florence, or to new places in the Leonardo missions. Given how focused the game was on Rome, it felt like an odd choice to stage the finally so far away from Rome, in both time and place, though the historical realities of Cesare’s life dictated this decision. Given the choice between having the main antagonist survive again or making a random-seeming jump into the future, I think the developers made a satisfying call.

The actual city of Rome seemed well-designed for gameplay purposes. There’s a good mix of urban and rural areas. It’s easy to get around, especially with horses and fast-travel. The business-purchasing and assassin-training systems didn’t really do much for me beyond padding out the experience. The Borgia towers provided some interesting challenges, requiring a careful combination of stealth and quick aggression in a densely guarded environment.

The 100% sync conditions, which are essentially extra, optional bonus criteria attached to each mission, are the best new feature of the game. In such a systems-heavy game, there’s a tendency for players to find a handful of tools that work for them, and reuse them over and over. This leads to a lot of sloppy play, and not a lot of learning and experimenting. One solution is to make the game harder, so that players have to play well and master the game’s systems in order to excel. But this leads to players getting frustrated and giving up, and missing out on a lot of content. Giving out achievements for good play is another option. L.A. Noire does this in some neat ways, for finding a critical piece of evidence early in a case, for example. But using achievements is inelegant. They’re outside of the game.

Action games (for example, Bayonetta) and stealth games (older Splinter Cell games) sometimes give player evaluations via end-of-mission reports and grades as a means of feedback and rewarding good play. Again, this works, but it’s not very flexible. The same criteria – don’t take damage, don’t get spotted – reappear mission after mission. Repetitive goals lead to a repetitive gameplay experience, the feeling of trying to do the same thing over and over.

The 100% sync conditions on the other hand are very flexible. The different goals provide variety. It gives the player something specific to focus on, while also providing a nice little extra bit of information about what the mission ahead will be like. The punishment for failing the 100% condition is minor and mostly psychological, so there’s no issue with blocking player advancement. And they encourage interesting play. Ezio is so durable that it’s tempting to just fight everything straight up, so I appreciated having an incentive to try to be stealthy, or call on fellow assassins for help, or trying out poison. There were a few frustrating moments where I’d be going along well, and then fail the 100% sync requirement at the very last second, and then I’d face the choice between replaying the whole mission or just moving on. But for the most part, it worked, and worked great. It gave me a specific, interesting goal to work towards, but wasn’t overly punitive if I didn’t quite succeed.

I liked the decision to continue to hide away some story within side-activities such as the Subject 16 stuff and Memories of Christina. It’s a neat little bonus for completionists and people who are hooked on the story, but they’re sufficiently inessential to the overall story that ignoring them isn’t a big deal.

In terms of pure gameplay additions, the assassin assists and the crossbow are both fantastic. They’re both, essentially, silent ranged attacks, something Assassin’s Creed has lacked (by design?) up until now. In prior games, when an enemy was encountered on an adjacent rooftop or another not readily accessible space, getting at them required either breaking stealth or spending a lot of time meticulously sneaking around to them. With the new tactical options, these encounters are over quickly and silently, which greatly improves the pacing of certain variations of missions.

Easily the worst part of the game, in my experience, was playing as Desmond towards the end. This is obviously troubling given where the series appears to be headed. I found it really hard to navigate during these Desmond sections. Partly this is just because the Colosseum ruins were a confusing space to traverse. This can obviously be remedied by better environmental design. But the lack of a mini-map and navigational beacons was also a big contributing factor. It’s not clear how to rectify this while maintaining the HUD-less style that’s meant to signal that Desmond is in the real world rather than the Animus. I assume given the choice between contorting the fiction and providing a good gameplay experience, Ubisoft with choose the latter, but hopefully they can come up with a more elegant solution.

All in all, I had a lot of fun playing Brotherhood, but I’m also feeling like I’ve consumed a lot of Assassin’s Creed content over the past few years, and that I sort of feel like I need a break. I’ll still play Revelations, but it’s not something I’m hotly anticipating. Next time I’ll talk a little about what I want out of Revelations, and my brief experience with the multiplayer of Brotherhood.

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