One of my favorite games of 2009, perhaps actually my favorite game of last year, is Assassin’s Creed II. The story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and his adventures in Italy during the Renaissance is a hugely compelling tale (much more so than the framing narrative with Desmond which we’ll get into later), one with multiple cities to visit, a ton of sidequests, and great platforming & fighting mechanics. This year, Ubisoft has followed up Assassin’s Creed II with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. The game sticks with Ezio rather than moving on to a new assassin and time period (as happened between the original and second Assassin’s Creed games), picking up right after the events of the ACII.
As with its immediate predecessor, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a truly engrossing title. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it is a refinement of last year’s game, and as such is just as strong a title… mostly. In fact, it is so good that the missteps it makes are that much more glaring and hard to overlook.
Beginning with the bad, one of the reason’s that ACII works so well is that once an area is displayed on your map, it is almost always available to visit. There are some occasions when you get told that a place you’re trying to go to is locked, but it doesn’t occur all that often. In Brotherhood, unfortunately, it occurs on an incredibly regular basis (at least early on). This is because while in the second title you venture to a lot of different cities, most of Brotherhood takes place in Rome and its surrounding area, and consequently it’s a single huge location almost all of which is visible even if it isn’t visitable. Assassin’s Creed II simply chooses not state that there are cities that will be available later, Brotherhood has more trouble because while you can do lots of sidequests, the main story must unfold in only one direction and the game therefore can’t allow you to visit places in Rome until its time for you to do so.
That then is why you’re not allowed to go to certain areas, but the way the game prohibits you is really the issue. While you physically can enter many of them, the game informs you that within Ezio’s memory the place is not yet available and will kick you back out. They are able to get away with this because you’re less Ezio than you are a man in the present named Desmond, who is distantly related to Ezio, and who is in a chair reliving Ezio’s memories (ignore that frame to the story though, it’s pure foolishness and, as I stated in my review of Assassin’s Creed II, just one of those things that makes non-gamers shake their head and wonder why anyone would want to spend their time playing). What actually should occur – what would have made a whole lot more sense – is for locations you’re not allowed to visit to simply have manmade or natural obstacles blocking your path. It would be a whole lot more satisfying to be told that you can’t go somewhere because the drawbridge is drawn or because you haven’t yet learned a technique that will allow you to jump higher or grab a more slippery ledge than it is to have the game derez you once you enter an area and then drop you back outside it.
The entire thing is made even worse by the fact that locations within areas you’re not allowed to visit are shown on your map (although it doesn’t say that you’re not allowed to visit them). If I can’t go somewhere in a game, I need to know that before I spend my time barging my way through crowds, evading guards, and generally making a nuisance of myself. Taking 10 minutes to get somewhere only to be told once you’ve arrived that the game has arbitrarily decided you can’t enter is very frustrating.
Now that the big bad is out of the way, let’s take a look at the good, which is just about everything else. Rome is a huge city in the game and you can spend hours just running around it, doing sidequests for the various factions you encounter (thieves, mercenaries, and courtesans). Each of these factions also has a set list of things that they would eventually like to see you accomplish (just because it’ll impress them), things like hiring each group a set number of times, silently killing guards from behind or from a hiding place, etc.
The game also adds in the ability to recruit new assassins and to send them abroad so that they can complete quests for you (ones that you’re not allowed to go and do). The assassins gain experience, can level up, and earn you money by completing these quests. Assassins can also be called in to help you in your missions, which, unlike hiring thieves, mercenaries, or courtesans, doesn’t cost you any money (though the assassins may lose their lives).
As you are in Rome and not your home town in Brotherhood, no longer can you earn money by improving your villa and making its surroundings look spiffier. Instead, the majority of your income is derived from paying to reopen shops around Rome and investing in landmarks. Depending on how much you have improved the city, the bank gets a set amount of cash every 20 minutes which can in turn be used to buy weapons, medicine, equipment, and for opening other shops.
Yes, as foolish as it may be, Desmond and his cronies from the present are still looking for the apple and ways to defeat the Templars in the present in Brotherhood, but much of that can be overlooked, slipping by the wayside so that you can focus on what really matters in the game – giving the Borgias what-for.
Brotherhood even manages to come up with a fairly acceptable excuse for Ezio having to start out the game with none of the items he accumulated in the second title. That sort of thing is always a tough sell, but necessary in order to not start you, the gamer, off at such a high level in the sequel that you can simply plow through the entire title with little to no effort.
I am not sure that the graphics in Brotherhood are all that much superior to ACII, nor is the sound, nor the control scheme. Of course, in terms of the controls, they worked beautifully before so why shouldn’t they now. It must be stated, however, that there are a couple of notable disappointments with the graphics. First, there are definitely moments when the game shows you a picture of Ezio dispatching someone where the heights don’t line up correctly (Ezio may be doing the motions for slitting a throat, and the throat may be getting slit, but Ezio’s arms and weapon are not near the throat). Additionally, the mini-map that appears on screen sometimes has a seam where two portions meet; this presumably denotes different sections of the game to be loaded, but ought not be visible to the player.
What you really have with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a stellar extension of a stellar game. There is enough here to do and see that it can’t simply be executed as DLC, it is a full title in its own right. Even so, with similar graphics, controls, and story, there are certainly times when it seems as though it may initially have been conceived of as DLC but just became too big and too engrossing to be delivered in that manner (almost akin to the Majora’s Mask sidequest from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time getting spun-off into a full Zelda title).
Brotherhood will do absolutely nothing to convince folks who weren’t fans of the last title that they ought to get involved with the franchise (as ACII was able to do with folks who didn’t like AC), but anyone who liked last year’s entry is going to like this one as well. It’s more, and sometimes more is better.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.