Taking Another Stab at Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Warning: This review contains detailed mechanical spoilers but only moderate narrative spoilers.

Fern already wrote on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and though people have probably already moved on to Revelations (the newest installment in the franchise as of the time of writing), I still want to take another look at old codger Brotherhood because of how much it stood out for me in both wondrous and terrible ways.

First and foremost: the multiplayer. I found AC:B ’s offerings to be some of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve had in quite some time. As Yahtzee noted, B ’s multiplayer is perfectly in tune with many people’s desire to become a devious and griefing asshole as soon as they gain the veil of anonymity. This desire is facilitated by B ’s multiplayer being, more than anything else, a battle of wits and psychological warfare. There are two general ways to go about things and, though it may not seem like it at first, both routes have major tactical and psychological advantages and disadvantages. You can take the stealthy route by using stuff like disguises, morphing, blending, and slow-walking to make other players think you’re just another hapless NPC, or you can take the aggressive route by sprinting, jumping, climbing rooftops, and generally doing conspicuous things. If you go for stealth, you’re liable to rack up more points, but you’ll kill much less frequently and give your hunters plenty of time to sort out where you are based off a variety of techniques that were both programmed in and that emerged from careful observation of the game’s rules. If you go for action, you’ll kill much more frequently (though possibly at fewer points per kill), but you’ll almost inevitably expose yourself to every pursuer in a wide radius. Even so, cleverly mixing conspicuous behavior with sharp observation will almost inevitably expose your pursuer(s) as well, which is advantageous for stunning them or drawing the attention of their respective pursuers.

There’s far more nuance and brilliance to the multiplayer systems (they’ve even managed to weave multiplayer content into the overall AC mythos!) than I can adequately describe in text, so instead I’ll just note that the multiplayer has my seal of approval and that you should definitely try it out if you’re tired of typical FPS, RTS, and MMORPG multiplayer fare. Note, however, that just like real psychological warfare, B‘s multiplayer is more of a slow-burn experience and probably isn’t suitable for those that like to quickly hop in and out of sessions for a quick competitive fix. Highly viable stealth tactics only start to become available by experience level 14 of 50 (with Poison, one of the best abilities, only available at level 29!) and much of the joy of the multiplayer comes not from Rambo-esque slaughter but rather from carefully crafted kills that surprise your prey and that are hidden away from the prying eyes of pursuers.

Secondly, I was pleased with a number of changes to the combat mechanics. There are numerous little tweaks and additions, but I’ll just stick with the three most notable changes: the chain-kill system, the crossbow, and the poison dart launcher.

If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed 1 or 2 for any stretch of time, you’ve probably learned that one of the best ways to swordfight is to stay in a defensive stance and try to counter every attack that comes your way. 2 also gave us the ability to use an unarmed counter to steal an opponent’s weapon before turning it against them, but utilizing that was still similar to the first-order optimal strategy found in 1. Though effective, the reactive method of fighting rapidly became repetitive and tedious and generally made fights a slog rather than something exciting or dangerous. Fortunately, the developers figured out a way to make the combat significantly more lively by implementing a chain-kill system. Now, once an enemy is killed by a counterattack or an execution brought about by aggressive and rapid blows, a few simple inputs will kill the next target in a single attack. As the system’s name implies, this allows you to chain your kills to rapidly clear groups of enemies with a little skill and timing. It’s not perfect since enemy grabs and sneak attacks can and likely will break your combos numerous times, but it does mean that combat is far more proactive than reactive now, and that makes a huge difference in the pace of battles and in the sense of power imbued in player character Ezio.

The crossbow is an optional and somewhat expensive weapon, but this beast starts out powerful and effectively becomes a gamebreaker once you get a few bolt capacity upgrades. With a single shot, you can take out any unalerted enemy from a fair distance. Sure, the wrist-mounted gun did that in 2 (and still does in B), but with some clever positioning the crossbow is entirely stealthy, meaning you can easily pick off as many enemies as you like so long as you have the ammunition and patience. Though extraordinarily effective, it can make some segments dreadfully easy and it certainly does make the throwing knives (a holdover from the days of the very first game) completely redundant and pathetic by comparison.

We were first introduced to a poisoned weapon in 2, but it was of extremely limited use since literally anything else was faster or better for the vast majority of the situations you’d find yourself in. B remedies this a bit by including situations and synchronization challenges where the long-lasting distraction caused by poison is actually quite useful, but mostly does so by allowing you to eventually acquire a wrist-mounted poison dart launcher. While the crossbow is stealthy only if you’re careful, the launcher almost always results in an undetectable attack (like the poison blade, but at a range), which makes it insanely useful for easily killing guards without raising an alert. However, it shares the crossbow’s disadvantage in that, though useful, it makes certain situations way too easy by significantly reducing the personal risk and fear of retribution.

The last major praise I’ll toss B ’s way is aimed at the DLC. 2 was the first main installment to include DLC, and boy did it raise a stir. I’m not going to debate whether or not the developers purposefully cut out portions of the game in order to extort money out of their playerbase, but I will say that, regardless of the what the reality was, it sure felt like they did by going out of their way to draw attention to the fact that two chapters of the game were blocked off. They could’ve just had a time-skip to the last chapter, but no, they had to include Rebecca spouting on about damaged DNA sequences and they had to make those same sequences be visually irritating whenever you opened up the DNA menu. Personally, I wouldn’t have been so sour about the whole thing if it was evident that the DLC seriously affected the pacing of the main game or that it added a significant amount of content befitting a longer development time, but unfortunately both chapters of 2 ’s DLC turned out to be pretty mediocre, perhaps only lowering the quality of the overall package whilst also depriving you of more money.

Fortunately, it seems the developers may have learned from that snafu, as the purchasable single-player DLC for B is not as obnoxious or mediocre even though its purpose (to fill in a chapter normally skipped over) is the same. There’s a fine line when factoring DLC into the overall experience of a game; if you make the DLC too inconsequential, then the cost feels like a rip-off, but if you make the it too significant, then it feels like the main game is incomplete without the DLC, and that raises a whole slew of other issues. I felt the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC managed to straddle that line well. The added single-player chapter and the fresh faction of enemies were neither too inconsequential nor too significant, and everything added to the multiplayer felt like a wonderful bonus on top of an already fair deal. Other than a humorous oversight involving the ability to buy equipment from Leonardo whilst also hunting him down due to the titular disappearance, I don’t have any noteworthy complaints about the DLC.

Hey Leonardo, would you mind telling me where they’ve been keeping you?

I do, however, have complaints about some other things.

I’ll start with the parkour. I’ve always felt that the AC series’ greatest strength was in its parkour-based movement system. Sure, Mirror’s Edge had an even greater emphasis on that, but its level design was such that it often miserably failed to maintain the flow that’s necessary for movement to be intrinsically engaging (i.e. to provide engagement even in the absence of goals necessitating the use of the thing in question). This is less of a problem in the various Assassin’s Creed games as, unlike Mirror’s Edge, you’re not almost always being pursued while running. My issue with the parkour in B is, after all these years, they still plant ranged attackers on the rooftops. In this franchise, flow (and, by consequence, intrinsic engagement) in movement is only established while gallantly running and jumping around the rooftops, so ranged attackers only serve as speedbumps to break up that flow and prevent the game from being more entertaining. They’re probably there to provide a risk-vs.-reward scenario: If you want to move around quickly, you’ll have to face the possibility of pissing off rangers and you’ll either have to waste time escaping from or killing them when that happens. I realize that it makes sense to include these guys on a structure to be protected, but why include them on regular rooftops at the cost of hamstringing the best source of intrinsic engagement in each game? Don’t tell me this is due to concerns about realism. Any game that let’s you carry (and run with and swim with) an entire arsenal and a ton of armor isn’t realistic. (Fern dubbed these sort of things as “Frahmisms”, after eccentric pin-up artist Art Frahm, in his review.) For that matter, any game that lets you use a machine gun or a bomber or a fucking tank during the Renaissance isn’t realistic. Those additions were almost certainly “in the name of fun”, so why oh why can’t we remove the archers and arquebusiers in the name of fun too?

Pictured: Realism!

While we’re on the subject of flow, I might as well mention another way they screwed that up. So long as your current objective is not timed, you can do whatever you want (barring accepting another mission) while you meander your way to your goal. You can check up on your recruits and assign them missions, you can buy property, you can buy weapons and armor, etc. It’s all convenient, I suppose, but because this stuff is ever-present and horribly clutters the map with icons if you don’t turn some of them off, it’s like playing five mini-games while you’re just trying to complete one main game. And I think you’ll be inclined to try to juggle everything at once. “Well, that flag/feather/treasure is right there, so I might as well grab it real quick before going back to the mission.” “Well, the current recruit assignment takes twenty minutes to finish, so might as well polish off a mission to kill time.” “Well, I’m probably not going to be passing by this area again for a while, so might as well buy whatever property I can afford.” “Well, this mission and future ones might be easier if I take a detour to eliminate the local Borgia tower, so might as well do that.” Repeat this ad nauseam and you pretty much have my experience for the entire game. If you aren’t the kind of player that would play like that automatically in order to be efficient and avoid wasting time, then the game will encourage you to juggle tasks by the aforementioned cluttered maps as well as by periodically sending conspicuous notifications of bank deposits, recruit mission completion, and Borgia oppression. And since a lot of the missions, if not most of them, aren’t strictly timed, the perceived “convenience” of the messages and the ability to pursue optional content at all times comes at the cost of making much of the game’s campaign seem very unfocused.

I want to give special attention to the city renovation mechanic in B, as I cannot believe how much it made me loathe it in this game. In 2, the renovation was a new system and was limited to Monteriggioni, but even then it was handled much better than it was in B. For one thing, it was optional, though the process was incentivized by giving you discounts at the shops you renovated, and since weapons statistics actually mattered back then (the chain kill system in B made the statistics almost entirely irrelevant), it made sense to spend florins on renovating the town so that you could later afford discounts on more expensive weapons and such. You might think that it’d be easier to skip the renovation middleman and just spend the money on weapons, but I’d disagree. You could get money by other means (pickpocketing citizens, pilfering corpses, completing missions, opening treasure chests, etc.), but it was all pittance compared to the positive feedback loop created by renovating and then reinvesting the dividends you earned from renovating.

In 2, the renovation felt rewarding in a rags-to-riches sort of way, and I enjoyed looking at the scale model of Monteriggioni whenever it was time to upgrade the town. In B, the renovation is practically mandatory and significantly less satisfying. If you wanted to buy or use anything, unless you were willing to trek all the way back to some other shop you got earlier, you almost always had to buy the relevant supplying building first, and only then did you get to use it to buy the thing you actually wanted. And that’s only the case if you were lucky. If you were unlucky, you’d have to take out the nearest Borgia tower in order to unlock the shop in order to unlock the supplies you wanted to buy. And if you were really unlucky, the Borgia tower in question would be behind desynchronizing white barriers and you’d first have to unlock the Chapter in which the Borgia tower becomes available so that you could burn it down in order to unlock the shop in order to unlock the supplies you wanted to buy. The entire ridiculous process reminded me of a little flash game called Upgrade Complete! There, the process was a parody of the seemingly ubiquitous trend of including RPG elements and upgrade systems in games, and it was funny. Here, the process is delivered completely straight-faced, and it’s horrifying. Other than as a means to pad the game, there’s no good reason why all stores and utilities couldn’t have been unlocked immediately after the oppressing Borgia tower was burned. That’s the way it works in many other games, and that’s the way it should’ve worked in this one.

Though the renovation system was the holdover that irritated me the most, other inexplicable relics didn’t do anything to lessen my sour mood. Flags make an inglorious return in Brotherhood after being removed for 2, and they’re just as useless and pointless as they were in the first Assassin’s Creed. Feathers, the objects that usurped the existence of flags in 2, also have a minor reappearance, so that means there’s now double the junk to collect. (Technically, there’s triple, since you can’t forget about all the trade items! And most of them are useless outside of being vendor trash!) Okay, so maybe that’s unfair. There are only ten feathers, which is much fewer than the number of flags, but I still find them worse than the higher amount of feathers in 2 because at least there they had some effect on the story and gameplay, even if that effect was very minor. In B, they are completely and utterly useless. Since there were only ten this time,, I went out of my to collect them all to find out what would happen. After all, something happened in 2, so I thought that maybe something would happen in B. I placed them all in the storage chest at the Tiber Island Hideout and… nothing. Absolutely nothing. The achievement / trophy is bestowed upon collection rather than upon storage, so there is literally no reward for doing that. No explanation, no reasoning. The feathers are just… there. They just are.

Don't worry, the ultimate armor set sidequest returns too!

Another big issue I had with this game was closure, or rather, the lack thereof, as the vast majority of the game didn’t provide me with any. New characters are quickly introduced and then most are just as quickly thrown away as soon as they’re no longer immediately relevant. A number of old characters return, but they seem to exist almost solely as a means to an end for various side missions and the characterization they receive is only meaningful to people already quite familiar with their roles in 2. Also, of all the people killed in this game, there’s only two villain deaths with any kind of impact on the story, and one happens without input from the player while the other is ruined by the baffling non sequitur cutscene that follows it. And, of course, Desmond’s story is punctuated yet again by a cliffhanger “twist”, an event so routine in this series that it manages to make something that should be significant into something tiring and mundane.

One notable exception to the lack of closure was the Chess game progressively being played out in the Cluster puzzles. Its satisfying conclusion was one of the best parts of Brotherhood’s story and even of the entire franchise.

That seems to be a recurring theme in B. If you actually endeavor to hunt down the collectibles, you’ll notice that their locations are confined to certain set pieces (artificially convenient ruined pillars, back alleys, next to houses, the highest points of churches, and so on) that quickly become very repetitive and boring to visit. There are worthwhile vistas, views, and landmarks in the game, but they’re generally not where you’re going to find those damn feathers, flags, and treasure chests. The collectibles’ only result is to trivialize exploration. Rather than letting the grandeur of a beautiful view or the utility of a complex tactic be its own reward, the developers seem to think that a player necessarily has to have collectibles present as an incentive to explore and experiment. This bad habit was present in both 1 and 2, but by B it seems the issue has metastasized with the addition of a multitude of checklists that keep track of a wide range of possible actions and that offer periodic rewards for jumping through a sufficient amount of hoops. I couldn’t shake the feeling that these checklists did little more than contribute to the trivialization of everything special about the game. There’s no sense of reward in discovering a neat trick (like say, gracefully jumping from your horse to a beam) if it’s on one of the checklists because the developers have reduced it down to just another statistic, just another useless number that you can collect to receive another material reward that you likely won’t need since you won’t naturally complete some of the objectives in the course of your play due to arbitrary and repetitious requirements. It’s a shame too, as there’s a genuine sense of joy in discovering the few things the game hasn’t trivialized, like figuring out that you can assassinate and hijack simultaneously from horseback or like noticing the changes in NPC behavior as Borgia influence dwindles.

I just bought the Colosseum. Ho-hum.

This leads me to the conclusion that the single-player content of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood feels like it was designed by robots. Yahtzee once joked that Dead Space felt like a soulless game-generating robot created it, but to me, this game is a better example. “People like tits titillation, right? Toss in a gratuitous sex scene with Caterina Sforza and make sure Lucrezia Borgia shows off her cleavage at every opportunity!” And rather than trying to appeal any one group of players (such as those described by the Bartle test), B’s single-player content tries to please all of them at once in what I imagine is a single-minded attempt to maximize revenue. I think this scattershot approach is misguided since, more often that not, it only serves to dissatisfy every targeted group since what they get isn’t focused on what they want. Spades could be disappointed that they have to play story missions in order to unlock everything, Clubs could be disappointed that they’re aren’t more assassination missions, and so on. Multiplayer, by contrast, is highly Club-oriented. There are elements in it that also appeal to Spades, Hearts, and Diamonds, but the focus is still squarely on killing and avoiding death at all times. Ultimately, the differences between 2 and B that actually are significant are few in number and thus B feels more like a humdrum expansion pack than a sequel worth caring about. The robot went for a “It’s like 2, but more!” approach, but it was blind to considerations that would actually justify a full-fledged sequel and somehow only managed to create a sequel that is simultaneously boringly safe yet noticeably inferior overall.