Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right now: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood isn’t a quick cash-in on last year’s massively successful and (mostly) critically-acclaimed sequel. It’s not a full-blown sequel, either; this isn’t Assassin’s Creed 3. Instead, it acts more as an epilogue to the story told in Assassin’s Creed II.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) [Note: Both versions were played for this review.]
As far as the core mechanics are concerned, Brotherhood sticks to the formula of the previous titles, with the player once again taking on the role of Assassin’s Creed II’s lead, Ezio Auditore. It’s all about the open-world exploration of the game’s breathtaking translation of 15th-century Rome, scaling the city’s massive structures with smooth and fast parkour-style movements. In Brotherhood, silent assassinations are still encouraged, but with an enhanced fighting system, direct confrontation is more viable than ever.
Brotherhood gets its namesake from another new element found in the game, the ability to recruit novice assassins from among the citizens of Rome. Once they’re brought into the fold, a meta-game opens up that will have you sending them on tasks all across Europe, either alone or in groups. As missions are successfully accomplished, the assassins earn experience points and can then be leveled up, allowing them to attend to even more difficult engagements. This is all a text-based affair, simple in its execution, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in building your brotherhood and watching it grow.
While it’s certainly a nice diversion to build up a fellowship of clandestine murderers, the real satisfaction comes from calling on them in the game world to perform assassinations or help you in battle. With a simple button press, you can summon your brothers (and sisters) to assassinate targets right before your eyes. As empowering as it is to quietly sneak up on a guard and take him out, sight unseen, there’s something even more fulfilling about watching your minions descend (seemingly from nowhere) upon a target at your command, doing your dirty work for you. In one instance, I sent a few after a group of three guards -- two assassins jumped down from a rooftop to pummel two guards while another leaped out of a mound of hay to briskly sever the jugular of the third. Assassins can also be killed in battle, and since they can be leveled up, customized visually, and even have names, losing one can sometimes be an emotional affair. I still am mourning the death of my very first protégé, Nico...
As in Brotherhood’s predecessors, you’re not limited to exploring 15th-century Rome: a few game sections take place outside of the memories relived within the genetic-memory-exploring Animus. It’s in these sequences that you’ll once more play as Desmond, interacting with other members of the modern-day assassin’s order such as Lucy, voiced again by Veronica Mars actress Kristin Bell.
The difference is that in Brotherhood, except for a few forced segments, you can hop in and out of the Animus at any time by pressing Start and then exiting the simulation. While it’s nice to have that freedom this time around, I did find that it worked against the favor of the story. Exploring outside the Animus can yield some secrets, but the interaction with the other characters seemed mostly inconsequential. While the modern sequences in previous games had weight -- they moved along the story in a crucial way, and you looked forward to the each one -- that’s just not the case here, and it’s a little disappointing.
That brings me to what’s arguably the weakest part of Brotherhood, steeped in an otherwise outstanding game -- its story. Taken by itself, it’s not terrible, but this is probably not the narrative follow-up that fans wanted trailing the mystifying finale of Assassin’s Creed II. Revisiting the tale of Ezio works fine as an epilogue to that game, and the tale of the assassin brotherhood working to reclaim Rome from the demented Borgia family is adequately compelling. Still, the overall narrative doesn’t really hold as much gravity as previous titles. There’s certainly not very much explained or even revealed about the overarching assassin/Templar chronicle, outside of the game’s final hours. Fans should also brace themselves for the game’s conclusion, which makes Assassin’s Creed II’s head-scratching finish seem like a neatly-wrapped sitcom finale in comparison.
Given the quality and scope of Brotherhood’s single-player experience, it’s already a must-buy. But I’ve yet to even touch on the game’s most radical addition to the series: online multiplayer.
Ten character skins are available from the get-go, each with its own set of animations, but functionally identical in every other way. The game then populates the title’s eight maps (with four more unlockable as the community reaches certain milestones) with the skins chosen by the players. So what you get is a city filled with many citizens going about their business, some of whom look like your potential victim. As you can imagine, the difficulty of finding your target is exacerbated by this fact. Worse yet is that finding and killing a computer-controlled citizen leads to a loss of points.
It’s these details that make Brotherhood’s multiplayer a psychological game like nothing else really seen on consoles. You’re given a compass of sorts that will direct you to the general area of where your prey is, but the game never really holds your hand and identifies it for you. The key is recognizing certain behaviors that are unique to human players. You’ll never see a computer-controlled citizen scale a building, nor will one just take off running. See someone making jerky movements in a crowd? That could be your victim.
While all of the character skins are on an even level to start, players can also advance through 50 levels of progression as they earn experience points by winning matches and meeting certain conditions. At fixed levels, abilities and passive perks are awarded, which can drastically change the way you play and apply tactics. Each of the game’s 12 abilities -- like the ability to morph your character skin into another to deceive potential assassins, or being able to throw down firecrackers to cause chaos or weed out prey -- can be leveled up as well.
According to Ubisoft, there’s 40 hours of play here before the “average” gamer reaches their maximum potential level. While there was certainly not enough time for me to work through all 50 levels myself, I did spend time playing on both ends of the spectrum -- once on a private account Ubisoft had leveled up to 50 for me, and another on retail servers starting from scratch. Having abilities at your disposal certainly seems to give you a slight advantage, too. Hopping on a retail game server a day before launch, my level-one player already had to contend with opponents who had reached level 20. Having a player toss a smoke bomb in my face to get me off their tail was a bit frustrating, considering it was a tool I was numerous levels away from having in my arsenal. It wasn’t so overwhelming that I wanted to rage-quit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out once players worldwide start digging in.
It’s a bit disappointing, however, that you’re so limited in terms of the number of players -- you must have a minimum of six for all modes, and the most you’ll have in one game is eight. It’s entirely possible that any more or any fewer players would completely break the dynamic, but in a world where double-digits is the norm, eight may seem like a meager amount to some.
For those folks who didn’t enjoy Ubisoft’s previous sequel (hey, I think I know a guy!), Brotherhood has nothing to offer -- outside of its incomparable multiplayer, perhaps -- that will change their minds. This isn’t a game that repairs “problems” or departs radically from a formula. It is, however, a game that improves on just about every facet, and dumps a ton of content on the player to boot.
THE VERDICT - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Reviewed by Nick Chester