Brotherhood: Best Assassin's Creed yet?
18th Oct 2010 | 16:00
Rome - a city rich in over 2000 years of history; the drama of the Colosseum, the beauty of the Vatican... And the delicious chicken wings of the Hard Rock Cafe.
Take a handful of British journalists on a trip to a European city - no matter how rich in culture - and they'll inevitably end up doing the latter.
And then, when the dust and Cranberry Amaretto (Ubisoft Montréal's obsession) has settled, we'll all miss an exclusive helicopter trip around town to sleep off the hangover. When in Rome, eh?
One thing we didn't pass up in the Italian capital was the opportunity to experience one of gaming's most successful franchises - the masterfully epic Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood - on its home turf.
Shuttled off to an immaculate Roman house (more like a palace actually) once owned by the game's Borgia family, we resisted chiselling the priceless paintings off the walls and instead settled for a chat with the lead team members and an opportunity to wash the potato skin stains from the front of our t-shirt. Oh, and an extensive hands-on with later portions of the new game.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
We must admit that even we're surprised, considering the speedy turnaround, to discover Brotherhood is far from the rushed expansion pack naysayers have been expecting.
If we were to sell our experience with the game in a sentence, we'd tell you it's last year's brilliant formula improved with 12 months of knowledge, depth and masterful sandbox. Ubisoft tell us it might actually take you longer to finish Brotherhood than ACII.
Brotherhood kicks off exactly where the last game started - sci-fi headscrews and all - with our modern day hero Desmond speeding off in a white van with the evil Templar in hot pursuit (this is where the minor spoilers start, so skip the next paragraphs if you want to keep the story a surprise).
It turns out Assassin's Creed's entire modern day period up until now has taken place in Italy, which (overly-convenient or not) means Brotherhood's opening sequence has license to deliver some wicked fan service.
As Desmond emerges from the Animus, Lucy and Rebecca explain that they're searching his genetic memories for Ezio's Piece of Eden. Minerva - the weird holo-lass from ACII's conclusion - changed the Apple somehow and they believe it's the key to finding the lost Temples she spoke of.
The problem is, Ezio's memories of where he left it are locked away and memories-within-memories are stopping them from accessing the location. Strong stuff.
This is when Desmond and friends arrive at the run-down and derelict Auditore Villa, all modern day and full of electricity. It's a fun scene which sees the increasingly strong secondary effects of the animus displaying projections of Ezio and other past events in Desmond's mind.
These illusions eventually see you travel underground with Lucy to reach the derelict Villa sanctuary, where our protagonists can escape the gaze of searching cell phone towers being used by Templars.
If you needed proof that Brotherhood's not just a rehash of ideas, this is it; the 30 minute platforming sequence sees Desmond and Lucy work together to navigate the caves and mines - an extensive modern day gameplay scene beyond anything attempted in last year's instalment.
In fact, the interaction between the two characters is as a whole more elegantly executed than anything in Assassin's Creed II.
As the pair navigate the mines, pulling switches and climbing up rotten rope, they're full of banter - and not unlike genre titan Uncharted there's tons of contextual chatter. Falling in dirty sewer water for example, Desmond comments on his stinky situation, and Lucy warns him to stay away.
OK so it's banter of the mildest kind and only a small touch, but it adds to the game's levels of immersion.
Another small but effective tweak in climbing sequences sees the camera subtly angle towards the direction you should climb. The AC team has definitely improved its methods in the last 12 months.
Ezio's story kicks off with a far grander sequence; starting where the last game drops off, our hooded protagonist escapes the Vatican with Mario and travels back to the Monteriggioni Villa.
Once there, he explains to the Assassins what happened. Machiavelli feels Ezio made a mistake by keeping Rodrigo alive and furiously leaves for Rome only for the villa to quickly fall under attack.
In a cinematic and explosion-filled action sequence (see it in video form below), Ezio jumps and sprints along the Monteriggioni walls to fire cannons and defend the villa until villagers can flee.
Inevitably, the town crumbles. Suddenly, Mario staggers through the main gate. Cesare Borgia appears behind him beside his loyal followers: Lucrezia Borgia, Juan Borgia, Micheletto and Octavien, the Baron of Valois. Cesare takes the Apple from Mario, and shoots him dead. As Ezio rushes to prevent Cesare's death blow, he himself is shot in the back. He collapses.
Ezio wakes in a Rome safehouse, where his wounds have been tended to and his equipment gathered. It's here our man goes about his newest mission; to free Rome of Templar influence and build an Assassin Brotherhood capable of striking at its most powerful footsoldiers.
Rome is predictably beautiful and epic, with a play space said to be three times larger than even Assassin's Creed II's largest city.
The Ubisoft team admit initial concern that the Renaissance setting might not have carried the same wow factor the second time around, but the sheer iconic-ness of the Roman skyline and its dramatic landmarks guarantees exploration is just as satisfying.
The series' dedication to historical accuracy is again extremely impressive; a stroll around Rome results in building-inspired déjà-vu from our own real-life trips around the city, with every polygon-perfect window ledge and crumbling column fitting the part (no Hard Rock Café though).
What's interesting is Desmond can now leave the Animus at any time, leaving you free to browse e-mails, chat to the cast and explore Monteriggioni for artifacts. At first glance this appears to be simply an option for you to take a breather, but it's another example of fresh ideas Brotherhood brings to the series.
Skipping to a sequence later on in the game, what's most striking about Brotherhood's main locale (he'll also travel to Spain, plus other Italian cities via flashbacks) is the sheer depth of its sandbox.
Ezio can now liberate areas of the city and upgrade buildings, horses can be used to navigate and blend through the streets. Occasionally bandits will rob Ezio at nightfall, plus hidden glyphs, flags and a small number of feathers wait to be discovered.
One of the most interesting additions to the open world however is the inclusion of Borgia Towers - the physical representation of Pope Alexander VI's stranglehold on Rome.
These are completely optional and separate to the main story, but if you choose to infiltrate and destroy them you'll liberate a part of the city and the local people will benefit - a bit like GTA: San Andreas' turf wars.
More exciting are Leonardo Da Vinci's new War Machine missions, which have Ezio taking charge of some rather OTT inventions the real man "actually" drew plans for (we assume Ubisoft's using the word "actually" quite loosely there - they're all a bit mental).
One of them is the naval cannon, which can render useless an entire boat fleet in minutes. Mounted on top of a gondola, the cannon shoots flares which send boat sails up in flames, leaving the vessels useless.
Another is Leonardo's version of a machine gun (amazingly, not the most far out invention), which sits on top of a chariot as a mounted wheel with multiple small cannons. Finally there's the armoured tank - and we're not joking.
The keeping-it-historical bit is that Ezio must destroy each of these inventions in order to prevent the Borgia family from using them in its plans for power. We don't think 15th century France could've done much about a tank, after all...
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Brotherhood's biggest bullet point however is the erm, Brotherhood. It's a genuinely immersive and enjoyable gameplay addition which has you training up your own stab-happy army and dispatching them around Europe to test their blades on Templar kings and historical villains.
As you progress through the story, you'll recruit certain characters into your brotherhood and be given the option to customise them with specific outfits and weapons to boost your cause.
As you recruit novice assassins, you'll be able to train them up by sending them out on assignments around Europe via a unique animus interface. This is a real gem for fans of the conspiracy narrative hidden throughout the last game's glyphs, with each mission historically accurate and detailed with a short synopsis. One, for example, has you assassinating an English princess with ties to the Pope.
Assassins will gain experience with each mission completed, and the animus displays a percentage chance of completion based on the ability of the members you've tasked to the mission. Basically, it's like a miniature strategy game within Brotherhood.
But when you're not micro-managing your foot soldiers and looking at stats, your trained Assassins can be called on at any time with the press of the right shoulder button - an ability you can only call on when one of several 'tokens' are cooled down and ready for use.
This changes the way you approach missions in a big way. In one sequence for example, we're tasked with quietly tailing and assassinating a templar banker, Juan Borgia, as he strolls through a Pagan party, which is basically a big orgy (there's definitely more humour sprinkled through the narrative this time).
As Ezio scrambles over walls and hides behind humping flesh to avoid the attention of Templar guards, you can use your Assassins to stealthily remove enemies from your path, or even start a fight so you can sneak past undetected.
The Assassins inject a whole new layer of strategy into missions and feel like a powerful and valuable weapon, especially considering that when they die, they're dead for good. That's not good news when you spend a bundle of time and effort training them into quick-witted super-assassins.
Condense these impressions into bullet point form then and you can see why Brotherhood is bringing a lot of new ideas to the table that could potentially result in a game that's more polished, more in-depth and more compelling than even last year's sequel - which itself turned out to be one of the top-tier action games of the generation.
And there's still so much in there that our 2000 words didn't cover; the Florence flashback scene with Ezio attempting to chat up girls, the precise and satisfying bolt of the crossbow, the faster and more brutal combat and the all-new Romulus side missions.
Another controversial addition we skipped is the addition of "100%" synching, which challenges you to replay a sequence in a certain way - never being seen, or only using your hidden blades, for example - in order to fully synch.
We must admit, being told we were constantly 'doing it wrong' proved a little distracting in our playthrough, but it could just as easily add tons of enjoyable replayablity in the final game.
Either way, Ubisoft Montreal seems confident this is the best Assassin's Creed yet. Tinker your anticipation meters, because they could be on to a real winner...