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Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Review

By Matt Cabral, 12/2/2010

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Surprised by the quick reveal of a new Assassin’s Creed title so soon after last year’s successful sequel, many dismissed Brotherhood as a lightweight expansion disguised as a full-on follow-up in the blade-baring series. While this direct continuation of ACII’s storyline is not Assassin’s Creed III proper, its content-crammed campaign, new multi-player modes, and significant gameplay tweaks make it much more than the expected phoned-in cash-grab. It doesn’t touch last year’s entry in terms of evolving the ambitious series, but it still gives fans plenty of justification for donning Ezio’s white robes all over again.

As with Ezio’s last killing spree, his latest takes place in beautifully realized Renaissance era environments. However, this time everything unfolds within the confines of Rome, so you won’t be traveling to any drastically diverse settings. That said, Rome’s expanse is on par with the last game’s more geographically diverse world, and its period aesthetic is as eye-pleasing as ever. The obvious architectural details and cultural influences are in full effect, and appearances by real-life Roman landmarks, such a the Coliseum and Pantheon further immerse you in your endlessly engaging surroundings. Rich level design, carefully crafted environments, and an unmatched artistic approach continue to make this series one of this generation’s prettiest.

When you’re not taking in Brotherhood’s breathtaking sights, you’ll be doing what Ezio does best: Clamoring across rooftops, sneaking through streets, plundering ancient artifacts, and siphoning the life from scumbags. The basic platforming-fighting-exploring formula from the last game returns, so anyone who dug deep into ACII‘s copious quests and side missions will feel right home. Their comfort won’t lull them into boredom though, as the familiar approach is significantly complemented by a number of new tweaks that put a fresh spin on old favorites.

For starters, the combat’s been refined to the point that it now yields an elegance and fluidity on par with Ezio’s graceful acrobatics. This franchise’s fighting mechanics have always felt a bit clunky when we’ve been tasked with felling more than a few foes, but now things are different. Brotherhood’s streamlined approach to tackling bigger brawls mostly corrects this, allowing us to take down swarms of combatants without fumbling with the controls; one-hit kills can be threaded together effortlessly, and switching weapons mid-melee is an effortless affair. This more cinematic system tends to rob the mechanics of some of their depth, but you won’t really care when you’re slicing baddies to ribbons with style to spare. Tighter countering and defensive maneuvers also keep the battles flowing at a lightning-fast pace.

Brotherhood also retains the series signature open-world design, but adds some welcome structuring that ties directly into its story. Ezio’s still battling that pain-in-the-rump Borgia clan, and their influence over the city leaves little to the imagination. Spread throughout Rome are 12 Borgia-protected towers, each representing a well defined goal for Ezio--take the tower from them, and you free that section of the city from their villainous grip. Of course, taking a tower requires the same careful planning and precise execution you’d adopt for an assassination, so the usual gameplay elements--tracking enemies, blending in with crowds, attending clandestine meetings--are all employed. You needn’t overtake these 12 points in order to complete Brotherhood, but it will make the task easier. Additionally, players--like myself--who find themselves overwhelmed by the abundance of freedom afforded in open-world games will appreciate this more defined path.

Though optional, most will want to systematically take down the Borgia’s squatting points as doing so feeds two of the title’s other new features. When you clear an area of corruption, it becomes open to renovation; you can invest in and fix-up businesses and buildings, bringing prosperity back to that particular section of the city. Much like the light economic system from ACII, that had us doing an extreme makeover on Ezio’s villa, Brotherhood‘s city-rebuilding is an addictive meta-game that also happens to line your bank account with riches. Giving back to the people also means their shops will be well stocked with your favorite death-dealing toys and character-customization goods.

More importantly though, cleaning the streets of Borgia garbage also feeds the titular assassin clan-building gameplay. Inspired by your brave deeds, citizens will rise up and rebel against their corrupt leadership, allowing you to recruit them into your own band of quiet killers. With a dozen slots to fill, you’re free to build a small army of Ezios and unleash them on the targets you’d rather not take on yourself. You can send these loyal killers on missions, which gain them experience, and eventually upgrade them to master assassin status. They can fight by your side in a busy street brawl, or jump from a rooftop to silence a lone target at your command. Doing the latter is especially satisfying, as you can watch from the shadows while your eager apprentice drives sharp steel into the jugular of some unsuspecting sap. How often you use these trained killers is totally up to you, but their intuitive management mechanics certainly encourage their regular assistance.

The whole brotherhood-of-assassins concept is further explored in the title’s addictive and inspired multiplayer modes. Rather than grafting some contrived shooting mechanics onto the Assassin’s Creed formula, the designers have come up with a concept that feels organic to the universe. There’s a few modes on offer, but they’re all effective variations on a tension-ratcheting game of cat-and-mouse. Each player--up to eight are supported--is assigned a specific assassination contract, meaning everyone, including yourself, has a target on their back. You’re given a picture of your mark as well as a loose navigational idea of his whereabouts. But here’s the kicker: The map is populated with AI-controlled look-alikes, spreading a sea of potential targets before you. Trying to identify the actual human-directed target is a heart-thumping task made all the more nerve-racking by the fact that someone’s also playing Where’s Waldo with you. I’m not the biggest supporter of multiplayer games, but I loved Brotherhood‘s take. That, however, may be a bad sign for its longevity, as it is decidedly different than the popular frag-fests dominating the online space.

Brotherhood will feel very familiar to fans of the previous game; despite its changes and additions--big and small--the series’ core concepts are very much on display. Anyone expecting an evolutionary leap, like the one taken between AC and ACII, might be disappointed. On the flip-side, anyone who pegged Brotherhood as a rushed, content-light expansion is in for a real treat. Complemented by a number of improvements, not the least of which is the truly innovative multiplayer, Ezio’s latest life-silencing adventure offers more of what fans like and then some. In addition to the more significant contributions touched on here, players can also expect the usual smorgasbord of side quests, collection challenges, platforming puzzles, modern-day Desmond missions, and crazy da Vinci contraptions--if you plan on going for 100% completion, you’re in for a long winter. While a bit familiar and not as jaw-dropping as a true sequel, Brotherhood‘s still a full-featured, content-crammed AAA offering that effectively builds on its predecessor’s successes. If you’re new to Ubisoft’s stealthy series, I recommend starting with AC2; however, if you’ve already bloodied Ezio’s blades, you’ll want to begin building your army of assassins in Brotherhood.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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