The history of literature is dotted with discoveries of unpublished manuscripts when an author dies; in the case of Kafka, Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, some of their best-known work was published posthumously. If I dropped off the twig prematurely, instead of manuscripts, I would leave behind a collection of PS3 savegames for my family to pore through: “Wow, 84 Fallout 3 saves … pity he didn’t live to see the real apocalypse *sob*”, “No wonder he missed cousin Mikey’s wedding, he was stuck on the last boss in Killzone 2“. Actually that thought depresses me—why do I spend so much time playing videogames? Oh yeah, because of games like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is Ubisoft’s sequel to Assassin’s Creed 2 (the second-best game of 2009). The developers chose to give the protagonist, Ezio, and Renaissance Italy another outing, this time set in just one city: Rome. They chose wisely. Ezio has too much charm not to get a second run and after seeing what Ubisoft did with Venice and Florence, Rome had to be next.
The scene is set pretty quickly: Rome is under the control of the Borgia family, due to Rodrigo Borgia’s harsh Popeitude, and the Assassins start up a resistance movement to reclaim the city. Brotherhood is well-researched. Historical details and characters are woven into the fiction to add a thread of truthiness to the Renaissance plot. Of course, there’s a meta-plot going on too, one worthy of The Da Vinci Code, that says all history is a conflict between the enslaving Templars and the freedom-fightin’ Assassins … and on top of that there’s a sci-fi element that hints at alien contact with humans. If these other layers of the narrative sound overblown, that’s because they are.
Alius et idem
The core Assassin’s Creed experience is the same: it’s an achievement loop where you traipse around town, buildering and killing dudes (and they’re always dudes), doing missions to unlock more equipment, which helps with the buildering and dude-killing. This sounds repetitive, however, like AC2 before it, Brotherhood gives you enough variety in the mission design and the toys at your disposal that you don’t notice. What’s impressive is that Brotherhood adds further polish to the already-shiny experience of AC2.
A new feature of the mission design is the concept of “full synchronisation”, whereby you get extra marks on a mission if you fulfil an optional secondary condition. Your mission could be to kill a guy without being detected and the secondary condition could be to kill only your target, or to do it with a certain weapon, and so on. You won’t fail the mission if you don’t get full synch, but it provides extra challenge. I liked it because it forced me to widen my repertoire rather than overusing one weapon or technique. I only ignored those conditions that required me to do something within a time limit — I like to linger over a kill, muwahahah!
The side missions have also been given more colour and oomph — there’s Leonardo missions that let you play with some of Da Vinci’s “before their time” inventions, like a machine gun, and Lairs of Romulus, which are a combination of tricky platforming, combat and a sideplot where Ezio uncovers some secrets of ancient Rome.
Bene qui latuit ben vixit
Ubisoft put more emphasis on stealth in the main missions, frequently punishing you with a restart if you are detected. I welcomed this because in the previous games it was often too easy to ignore the stealth and just jump into a target’s bedroom and slaughter him and his 25-man entourage.
Virtus, non copia vincint
Speaking of slaughter, the combat has been further improved, so Ezio is no longer simply waiting amidst a circle of guards to perform his deadly counterstrikes. Now he can kick a guy in the nuts to break a block and chain kills together when he gets on the offensive. More weapons have been added to the mix, both for Ezio and the goons he fights. Hands down, my fave new weapon was the crossbow, although the shootable poison darts were also noice.
Even the exploration has been given extra spice. Rather than simply finding high spots to discover a district of town, each one is controlled by a Borgia captain who must be dispatched first.
Si monumentum requiris circumspice
Once Borgia influence has been removed in a district, you can rebuild it and this is where the “renovate your villa to earn cash” aspect of AC2 is back with a vengeance: now you can renovate all of Rome. Not only can you buy shops, but also famous landmarks and entire aqueducts. Through Ezio you can embark on a rebuilding program worthy of Caesar Augustus himself.
Amicus optima vitae possessio
Another new feature is the recruitment and training of assassins to do your bidding. You send your recruits to do missions off-screen to power them up. The recruit menu is rather clumsy, so it can be a chore to allocate missions. The payoff is worth it though, because when they come back, they can be called upon at the press of a button to take people out or help you out in a skirmish. It’s nice to hang back and let others do your dirty work, although eventually they got so powerful I had to refrain from overusing them.
Ad impossibilia nemo tentur
Sick of killing? You can hunt for collectibles or look for glyphs on buildings and do some puzzles to uncover more of the freaky historical conspiracy plot.
Sometimes it feel like there is too much to do: there’s just so many collectibles, missions, buildings to buy and so on, but that’s when you take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s all optional. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat- buffet — the trick is not to try and eat it all, but to focus on what’s appeals most to you (and don’t forget the Get This tip: avoid non-delicious fillers!)
If you’re a trophy hound who has to 100% every game you play, you have my sympathy. And you should take your OCD medication.
I have used the word “more” a lot in this review, because Assassin’s Creed games keep getting better. It feels like they are inching closer to the holodeck with each iteration. This is probably a bad thing for productivity, waistlines, humanity and so forth, but boy is it sweet. When I play Brotherhood, I understand what game industry types mean when they talk about “immersion”. I am entranced, gaping like a pilgrim at the landmarks: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the aqueducts. I forget I am using a controller and it is as if I am simply willing Ezio to perform his stunning acrobatics and brutal manoeuvres.
It is relaxing just to get about town, hearing the “plink plink” of terracotta tiles as you jog across a rooftop and the voices of ordinary folk below. Once you are sick of sight-seeing you can jump into a mission and enjoy some challenging action stealth. If you do get heavily into the side missions and city renovation you will end up very rich and overpowered by the end, but who doesn’t want to be a Renaissance-era Bruce Wayne?
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is virtual tourism at its best, providing a vivid world to visit that can be as cruisy or as exciting as you like. You can gorge yourself on it for hours at a time or play it in bite size chunks. It’s also quite easy to get back into after a break of a few weeks or, in my case, months. If I’d finished it last year, it would have made my top 5 for sure.
It has multiplayer too, apparently.