This will contain VERY MILD SPOILERS for ASSASSIN’S CREED II and BROTHERHOOD.
The original ASSASSIN’S CREED was something of a curate’s egg. A beautiful game engine, a staggering recreation of a fascinating (and largely unexplored in gaming) part of history and a control scheme that granted every action from scaling a church to stabbing Saracens a fluid grace. The problem is that when you weren’t running along the rooftops of Crusades era Damascus or anointing the ground with the blood and other gooey bits of guards there really wasn’t much to do. ASSASSIN’S CREED was betrayed by its structure, lots of niggling little problems conspiring to make the game seem far less worth the sum of its part. Instead of capitalising on the strengths, the great design work, the fantastic movement engine, the visceral combat, the game kept throwing hurdles at your enjoyment. Long, unskippable, cutscenes bookend every one of the games main missions and the missions themselves soon revealed a paucity of ideas. The finales to these missions would invariably be entertaining, the thrill of the hunt and the exhilaration of the flight from justice perfectly captured by the game, but the nuts and bolts of the missions themselves left a lot to be desired. Repetitive missions, weird bits of logical inconsistency and a wealth of landscape and dearth of activities really hammered home the ‘oh god, why did I even bother wandering off the mountain for five minutes to kill this guy I don’t know and don’t care about for a man I don’t know and don’t care about’ness of it all. Combined with a story that became less about awesome Assassin’s doing assassiny things during the Crusades and more Dan Brown-lite as it went on the game became an exercise in tedium.
ASSASSIN’S CREED II was a breath of fresh air, taking everything that worked about the first game and stripping away the majority of the fat. ASSASSIN’S CREED II was a gargantuan game and its size and scope had almost zero filler. You rarely repeated tasks, you rarely backtracked, it was a perfect example of sustained pacing, with natural peaks and troughs in action creating enjoyable, rather than horribly stilted, progress. Aiding this pacing was an integration of the historical and science fiction elements. Instead of stopping every hour to allow you to wander around a dreary lab in the ‘not too distant future’(aimlessly pressing B in the vain hope that you’d activate something, ANYTHING, which would get back into the game proper) the majority of the game was told through your historical avatar Ezio Auditore. The sci-fi elements were still there, and more batshit insane than ever, but they felt like a natural part of the game rather than something tedious to wade through. Ezio was also one of the best videogame characters of 2009, bringing to my mind the kind of charm and likeability of the Prince in PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME. It also concluded with you having a fistfight with the Pope (well A pope) in the Sistine Chapel, which somehow was the least insane thing about the games finale.
ASSASSIN’S CREED: BROTHERHOOD, released just last week, was something of a sidequel to ASSASSIN’S CREED II. Picking up exactly where the previous game left off, Ezio’s knuckles still probably a little tender from Pope Punching, BROTHERHOOD was essentially a continuation of everything that made II work. However as I played, and completed, the game I started to feel faint murmurs of discontent. But before we continue I’m going to interject with an anecdote (can you interject yourself, I like to think so) about one of my favourite movies.
I love Roland Emmerich’s THE PATRIOT, not in the traditional great movie sense. I don’t hold it in the same light as THE GODFATHER or OLDBOY or NORTH BY NORTHWEST for example. No, I like THE PATRIOT in that douchey, ironic way, which characterises so much of film fandom nowadays. I love THE PATRIOT because it’s one of the only modern films about the War of Independence (surely one of the most seminal moments in American history) and it’s directed by a German and cast almost entirely by Brits and Australians. I love Mel Gibson going completely loco with an axe on a bunch of redcoats. I love the fact that it transposes Nazi war crimes to the British army, but more than anything else I love the fact that the film is so long it has to kill Gibson’s family twice. Once at the start and then again about two hours in, just to remind us why he’s so gosh darned angry.
This is tangentially related to ASSASSIN’S CREED: BROTHERHOOD in that this idea of having to kill a family again sneaks its way into the game, and I found it really hard to take the game seriously afterwards. You see ASSASSIN’S CREED II was kicked off with the murder of the Auditore family and what BROTHERHOOD does is murder yet more of Ezio’s family. It feels kind of lazy and it sets off a whole host of issues with the story. I’m of the opinion that ASSASSIN’S CREED II had one of the better narratives in a game this generation, it was just a nicely told story given room to breathe and expand and populated with a cast of truly loathable villains.BROTHERHOOD aspires to this, but it almost seems like it is trying too hard. The new selections of Villains are introduced right at the start of the game and almost immediately it feels odd.
For one it’s just plain bizarre to see ALL the main villains sort of stood in a row, led by the new big bad, whilst the still very alive (although slightly pummelled) villain from II just sort of lurks on the side-line like Ben Linus. The problem is that the new villain Cesare ain’t no smoke monster, he’s not even as interesting as some of the one shot villains from the previous games. There’s an element of Darth Maul to him, where it feels like all of the work has gone into his design rather than his actual character. BROTHERHOOD lacks the sense of character, purpose and agency that II had. Its basic structure actually comes across like an expansion pack more than anything else, with you visiting previous comrades, finding out what wacky exploits and trouble they’ve got into now, aiding them and using their help to take out a bad guy who is essentially a +5 evil version of the previous villain.
Not only does the structure occasionally feel more like an expansion but it occasionally comes across that the single player is full of missions which were cut from ASSASSIN’S CREED II. Even though everything has refitted to the new city of Rome a lot of the mission designs feel recycled. There is also a major issue with the difficulty in the game. ASSASSIN’S CREED has never been a series that prided itself on difficulty, but BROTHERHOOD has a selection of moves which make almost every mission a cinch. If you’re not ethnically cleansing Borgia troops with the ‘execution chain’ system then you’re using your new Assassin Recruits as pretty much an ‘instant win button’. The missions are easy but are often fiddly or ill defined.
That’s not to discount the game. There are moments of genuine brilliance in the game, from a rain soaked chase in and around the Vatican to feats of audaciousness such as an underground horse chase. The truly memorable moments of the game however are largely found in the side quests, with the main storyline seeming to never really take the training wheels off. As such it feels more like THE BALLAD OF GAY TONY than a bona fide sequel.
On the plus side the multiplayer is ridiculously good fun, even if the matchmaking system seems a tad broken, and Jesper Kyd’s score is wonderfully atmospheric.