After a successful followup in their Assassin's franchise last year, Ubisoft is back trying to milk everything they can out of the series. They even shoehorned in multiplayer. Oh, and they were stupid enough to make it Game of the Year material. Psh! Corporate sellouts!
So, let's get one thing out of the way.
If you didn't enjoy Assassin's Creed II, and weren't one of the many people blown away by the improvements the series made, then stop reading right now. This review is a waste of time. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is still, very obviously, an Assassin's Creed game through and through. If you hated it before, you'll hate it now. This also means that if you're one of the many that fell in love with the premise early on or with the sequel, then you absolutely must play Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, arguably the best overall package in the series to date.
The last Assassin's Creed game ended with Ezio Auditore da Firenze sparing Rodrigo Borgia, who no longer presented a threat, and fulfilling his destiny. The final sequence of ACII drove the series forward in more ways than any other up until that moment. Brotherhood, literally, picks up the second the previous game finished and continues from there, which might be a surprise to most players. If you're interested in Brotherhood consider Assassin's Creed II a prerequisite for full enjoyment of the follow-up, because if you didn't finish that story, you'll be lost - and may have parts spoiled here if you don't stop reading.
Moments following his revelation that he was just the vessel to deliver a message from the ancients to Desmond Miles in the future, Ezio takes his hard earned Piece of Eden and heads back to his villa in Monteriggioni, for a little rest, relaxation and some hot, and heavy petting with Caterina Sforza. Ezio is hardly able to finish for a third time, at least, before a cannonball is launched through his wall and he quickly realizes his home is under attack by Rodrigo Borgia's son, Ceasare. In the tried and true method of stripping the player of what they worked so hard to previously attain, Ezio loses everything when his armor is smashed to bits and he's more or less left for dead. It's a convincing start to the campaign that tries its best to welcome new players but can be faulted for expecting players to remember all the whos, whats, whys and wheres of the previous title.
Over the lengthy single player campaign, some twenty to thirty hours, you'll spend your time in Rome which is a massive area that encompasses everything we've come to expect of the series; rural country sides, a densely populated urban center and a number of ruins. Your mission is simple: dismantle the Borgia's grip over Rome, rebuild the city, and establish a presence of the Assassins. If there's one real letdown with Brotherhood it's that, with the exception of a few absolutely crucial moments in the overarching narrative, the story doesn't feel nearly as labored over. It seems like the developers tried to take our knowledge of these characters for granted and don't honor them with the type of development we've come to expect. The best work tends to come from some of Ezio's allies like Niccolo Machiavelli and La Volpe, and the main villain Cesare Borgia, so if you're fond of the games' central character you might be disappointed. Mind you, if the comparison is most other titles on the market and not its own series then Brotherhood is told quite well and has all the hooks needed to keep you interested.
Brotherhood's most compelling attribute is the freedom it gives the player, stifled only by a couple of nagging issues that hardly corrupts the experience. After the opening sequence you're left to your wears in Rome with a massive amount of stuff to do. If AC II was the culmination of skillful refinement of the controls and systems that the original game laid out then Brotherhood is the type of evolution commonly associated with second game sequels where everything is done better and more often. At any given time there are dozens of available tasks, contracts and city-building to do. The kicker is that so much of it is optional that you could ignore vast chunks of this game and still get a lengthy experience.
The Water Cooler Gang
The biggest, but perhaps the poorest implemented addition to the single player campaign comes from a new ally system, or the Brotherhood part of the game. A little ways into the game, and provided enough Borgia Captain's are 'relieved' of duty (more on that in a bit) and their towers are burnt down, you'll find citizens being harassed by guards, who you can choose to help. Indebted to you they pledge their allegiance, which lets you then train them, send them on contracts throughout Europe to earn experience, level them up and eventually welcome them as full patch members, so to speak, of the Assassins. In truth this is little more than a management system done through a text menu that spells out everything for the player and leaves little at risk. You'll know how long each mission will take and what the chance of success is, making it unlikely you'll ever lose your recruits.
While the system is in need of a lot more options and goals for it to be compelling there is one infinitely rewarding aspect of it: you're able to call up to six recruits at a time to aid you in battle. Doing so means you can sit back and watch your enemies fall to shiny flashes of silver, postmarked by sprays of blood and muffled screams. If you don't want to wait for one of your mates to fall from the sky or reach out from a haystack you can always call in an arrow strike. The downside to this is that you can almost literally stop any fighting yourself. Whether they're wet behind the ears or experienced slaying machines - your Assassin brethren are deadly.
If you were a fan of the second game's side goal of renovating Monteriggioni then you'll be up to your arms in architectural planning this time. Every shop, bank, a number of buildings and even the aqueducts in Rome can be repaired. Doing so increases your revenue stream, which is always a good thing. The catch is that these areas are not accessible through monetary means only. A dozen Borgia towers loom over and intimidate the citizens throughout each of the twelve districts that make up Rome. It's your job to assassinate a Borgia captain standing guard and burn them down and break the hold over the people, which in turn gives you access to all those shops. Wisely, Ubisoft added the banks which is where you go to withdraw your money - no more traveling back to a remote location every twenty minutes.
If that isn't your thing then you'll still have plenty of side missions to tackle for the Courtesans, Mercenaries and Thieves through their respective Guilds. Ranging from assassinations, pick pocketing and beating up nobles who've abused one too many ladies of the night, there's a ton of different things to do that are a far, far cry from sitting on a bench and listening to a conversation like the original game's protagonist, Altair, had to do. The massive platforming sections from the second game's Assassin's Tomb's also make a return with six optional Romulus Lairs that reward you with some spiffy new dud's if you choose to complete them all. Admittedly, I wasn't nearly as impressed with them this go around because the developers have put time restrictions on a few of them and the rest are short on platform puzzle solving, which I'd argue made the originals so different. Still, they need to emulate these levels for the next Prince of Persia game because they've consistently shown the depth that platforming can reach when it's encompasses more than just timed jumps.
The Destroyer of Things
If you're adamantly opposed to the idea of running from one shop to another, renovating the world around you and waiting for pay day then it's important to remember that this stuff is optional. Brotherhood still manages a large number of improvements to the game's core systems that pay off huge. Most of them pertain to how combat has evolved. Gone are the long-winded standoffs where you had to wait to counter each of your adversaries. Now you're able to kick strong blocking enemies, break out of holds by flipping guards over your shoulder and fight while on horseback.
Bigger than that is the new execution system. Every time Ezio successfully kills an enemy you can then turn his attention on another guard by pressing in that direction with the analog stick and attacking. This won't end unless Ezio is interrupted by a hit from one of his attackers. Luckily your pursuers are more persistent this time so you're not just slicing through hoards without any resistance - though, the combat is far from difficult anyway. I was also happy to see way more enemy types this time around, which helps to ensure that your basic counter-every-attack strategy needs to be rethought pretty quickly. Assassin's Creed has never really been about challenging fights, but it's always thrown lots of them at the player, so it's a good thing they're sped up and more fun this time.
How To Shoe Horn, By Lazy Developers
So early in the year Ubisoft proclaimed to the world that "Within the next fiscal year, Ubisoft will be releasing a new episode of Assassin's Creed, which will be the first in the series to have an online multiplayer mode" and everyone that once loved the series got sad, lost hope, and pre-ordered any other game they could - their favorite was ruined forever. Now after playing it we know that we were being duped, swindled of our cynicism, because the Assassin's Creed Multiplayer isn't some useless tack-on just so people don't just trade in the game. No, AC Multiplayer is the freshest, most inspired and original multiplayer mode this year. That doesn't mean it's for everyone, but if you're one of those gamers that hate to see recycled multiplayer then you owe it to yourself to give this a try.
The premise is simple, and if you ever played or heard of the PC game The Ship: Murder Party then you'll know what to expect here. In "Wanted" up to eight players select a character for themselves and enter the game. Maps in Brotherhood utilize notable locations from the previous game to great effect; they're familiar but tailored just for what the online needs. Each player has a portrait of their target, who they need to find and kill, and a compass that shows that enemies' general direction. Once you reach a rough distance from your prey your compass only tells you they're somewhere in the area. The catch to all this is that each player’s character is populated by dozens of identical computer characters. The aim is to carefully pick the human controlled player out from the bunch and get stabby with them as conspicuously as possible. The more focus and stealth used the higher the points you'll receive, but fail to connect with the right target and you lose that contract and give your enemy points. Oh - and while you do this someone else is trying to find you to do the same.
Manhunt is the Team Deathmatch version for Brotherhood which sees four players trying to locate and kill four others who gain points by hiding or stunning their attackers for five minutes. When time is up the teams switch and at the end the team with the most wins. Typically asking players to hide for five minutes and seek for another five would be a recipe for disaster but the reality is finding a safe haven after losing your pursuer during a chase sequence - very similar to escaping guards in the campaigns - and blending in the crowd so you can watch them walk by oblivious to your location is one of the most rewarding things I've ever experienced in an online game.
The modes are rounded out with Advanced Wanted, which is the modes' hardcore version, and the Alliance mode which features three teams of two in what can best be described as a clusterfuck. Each team of two tries to kill another team as the third team tries to kill them. What usually ends up happening is one player leaps on another for a kill, he's quickly stabbed in the back by an attacker, who promptly has his throat slit by another target of the first team who quickly tries to flee but only gets a few feet before walking your face into a set of knives. It's fun and hectic, but best played with friends or players that take the multiplayer seriously.
Needles and Haystacks
While Brotherhood's multiplayer is the most surprising element in a game this year it isn't all smooth. Matchmaking is an absolute mess and even when you invite friends or enter matches in a party the game still asks you to select teams when playing Manhunt and Alliance. So if other players hop onto teams quickly and don't leave enough spots you and your friends are forced to fight each other. This also brings up clear issues if players are in party chat and playing against each other, and even if I never experienced that myself Ubisoft would be wise to clear this up. More frustrating, though, is that when you search for a match the game instigates a loading screen that tells you how many Abstergo Agents (players) are present until you have enough for a match. During this time you can't do anything but wait. In future iterations - or a patch - players need to be able to customize their profiles, look at their progression charts and know whether their friends are with them and not have to leave later if they aren't.
Poor implementation is the biggest fault of Brotherhood and it also stems to moments of the single player portion of the game. Rome is a beautiful place to travel and at certain points a lot of players will want to explore or eliminate all of the Borgia towers on the map, like I did. But throughout the story the game arbitrarily cuts off a third of the map with a white barrier. This was used in the previous games but when it was those were always separate districts that had a distinct differences between them and other parts of the cities. Rome doesn't have that. When you run into barriers it's just because the game told you so.
Visually Brotherhood reminds us why Assassin's Creed has always looked so good. Through a wonderful recreation of Rome Ubisoft maintains their artistic eye for architecture but subtly tweaks the engine to add details and textures that far surpass those of past games. The soundtrack continues the series tradition of beautifully peaceful scores that crescendo when the action ramps up and it outright rages during some of the more ridiculous action set pieces, like Leonardo da Vinci's war machine side missions (best left played and not spoiled) that you'll be surprised to learn are actually based on historical fact, sort of. The voice work is equally strong by all the actors, especially Ezio and his close compatriots but with less of a story to hang the words on they fall short of the actors potential.
Not Every Cow Gets Milked
At the start of 2010 a lot of gamers expected that the Assassin's Creed series had run its course and needed to cool down for a couple years. They were just finishing an amazing sequel and any talk of multiplayer additions in future iterations of the franchise was met with cold shoulders and glances the other way. When just halfway through the year another full Assassin's Creed game was announced and given a release date there weren't many among us that didn't expect the worst. And we were wrong. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is exactly what people should be clamoring for more of. It improves upon nearly every gameplay element of the past games while delivering dozens of hours of fresh content and new ideas, on top of an above average story that's only fault is following one of the best in gaming.
But the real coup is that no matter the type of player you are there's something for you. Action comes in bulk, platforming puts you to the test and history buffs will be up to their ears in new locations and plot-lines. And we can't forget that throwaway multiplayer. As much about combat as it is about psychological warfare, it goes so far as to redefine what the Assassin's Creed gameplay can be all about. Fight or flight multiplayer is too often wrongly associated with ducking behind cover and regenerating health, but will surely take new meaning for anyone that takes Brotherhood online.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood takes the series further in far more ways than anyone would have anticipated and its only shortfalls are implementation of the matchmaking online and the story in the campaign, and the depth of new features like the Assassin recruits. But those problems are easy to overlook with the sheer amount of things you have to do, place's to see and game to play. You're treated to an excellent continuation of Assassin's Creed II, the best new multiplayer of the year and arguably the most inventive in nearly five. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood might not convince anyone that walked away from the series to come back, but it sure as hell rewards those that have stuck with it and is easily a surprise candidate for Game of the Year.
FINAL SCORE: 95%
95-99% - "Exceptional" A fantastic play with top marks in all categories. Tiny hiccups prevent this game from earning the title "Masterpiece", but it still pushes the boundaries of what we have come to expect. A fantastic game.