“Healing! Wellness! LEECHES!”
Before we begin, keep in mind that this chapter is where things begin to get confusing, title-wise, so let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: While this is part three of our Assassin’s Creed coverage, and this is the third game in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is not Assassin’s Creed III. The legend goes that both Brotherhood, and its follow-up, Revelations, began life as downloadable content for AC2, but were ultimately promoted to full-length games to allow for yearly releases and larger experiences… And, yes, probably more money, too.
Now, while preparing to play Brotherhood for the first time, I was pretty excited; everyone I asked had said it was among their favorites, and I couldn’t wait to jump back into Ezio’s shoes and discover what happens next in his story.
The opening levels are quite spectacular, with the control and abilities being nearly indistinguishable from AC2; after spending the final chapter of that game breaking into the Vatican, Ezio spends the first chapter of Brotherhood breaking out. In a kind of hilarious way to get around the plot revelations of AC2’s ending, Ezio and Uncle Mario, upon returning to the villa at Monteriggioni, begin to discuss the implications of the end-of-the-world scenario explained by the angelic Minerva, before concluding that the message wasn’t meant for them and that it would be best to not think about it, at which point it is completely dropped by Ezio’s timeline for the rest of the game.
In Desmond’s era, he and his fellow Assassins, after escaping their little hide-out in AC2, find themselves at a new, top-secret location: the Villa Auditore in Monteriggioni! It’s true, we’ve been in Italy this whole time, and never even knew it. It’s pretty cool to see the Villa in two different eras, and see the effect time has on its most beautiful architecture. Unfortunately, apart from the prolonged sequence of platforming with Lucy to turn power on and set up shop, there’s nothing to do in the present. You can run around and collect historical artifacts from Ezio’s life, but they do absolutely nothing, and nobody ever comments on them. Hell, you don’t even get a database entry or anything! All there is to do is have brief chats with your Assassin buddies or check your e-mail, which, unlike the e-mail in AC1, is not full of Easter Eggs or real supplementary material. There is the vague threat of Templar forces slowly honing in on our heroes’ location, but nothing ever comes from this perceived tension, leaving the present-day sequences, though as frequent as the player chooses to indulge in them, mostly flat except for the bookends of the story.
Back in the past, the narrative doesn’t take any risks; Ezio, master assassin, who only fails to kill a defeated Pope Alexander VI because he historically didn’t die until several years later, is berated by Machiavelli for his failure to kill his target, and then the Pope’s son Cesare shows up and attacks the Villa, and kills Uncle Mario!
Uncle Mario, we hardly knew ye.
The setup is great, but the Renaissance story definitely runs out of gas after the explosive intro; Ezio and his buddies relocate to Rome to attack the Borgias where they live… Like at the end of AC2, but for realsies this time!
What ensues are a bunch of episodes of varying degrees of plot significance, all held together by mostly excellent mission design and identical controls from AC2, which is a good thing. Sure, there are a few unfortunate jumps in which you’ll find yourself leaping into space by accident, but these incidents are more rare than in AC2, probably because Rome is an excellently designed city, and you can even ride your horse within its boundaries, which is awesome and convenient. On the other hand, the surrounding countryside is a bit tougher to navigate because of the lack of architecture. You can’t Skyrim your way up steep mountains, so to speak, so you have to find the hill or benevolently placed handholds if you want to ascend.
Combat hasn’t been overhauled from AC2, but Ezio has two cool new tools (there are more, but these are the cool ones): first, there’s the crossbow. After being allegedly cut from the original game, the crossbow has finally gotten a proper appearance, and it is beautiful. You’ll never use throwing knives again, but nobody cares, because the crossbow kicks so much butt! It’s just as reliable as the hidden gun, but it’s absolutely silent and carries a ton of ammunition. The other new trick at Ezio’s disposal makes combat even easier than before: chaining kills. It’s no Arkham Asylum, but pressing the attack, taking down foes with one strike while integrating well-timed counter-kills, is much more engaging than the combat of previous entries, in which the most effective offense was a series of counter-attacks, which consisted of just standing around waiting for one bad guy at a time to attack, and indirectly led to larger skirmishes being resolved more effectively by running away and finding a blend spot or some other kind of dramatic escape; this time, almost all encounters can be resolved with brute force. In response to the increased ease of combat, several missions have a stealth requirement, resulting in an instant fail if discovered, but the stealth mechanics still aren’t as polished as combat, so these missions leave room for improvement.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
While the main story is devoid of any stakes, drama, or pacing, it does introduce a couple of new characters: Rodrigo’s daughter, Lucrezia, is deliciously horrible, and her brief scenes with the red-blooded Caterina Sforza are among the highlights of the narrative. She returns in the strong DLC campaign, The Da Vinci Disappearance, in which her hotness for Ezio is turned up in direct relation to her level of desperation. Her brother, Cesare, isn’t quite as interesting, but it’s more because of the pacing of the story than any fault with his character. While he’s built up as an adversary in the beginning, he’s almost completely dropped from the story for too long, only popping his head back in to remind us of his devilishness. And then, after Ezio recovers an Apple of Eden (good for Ezio!), the missions, all of which involve kicking Cesare’s butt, come down the pipe one after another, with no room to breathe, or explore the open world, between them. There’s a ton of filler missions (albeit well-designed filler) earlier in the game with little to no story significance beyond “this will upset the Borgias!” and then, all of a sudden, the whole story resolves itself within just a few missions, all of which are squeezed into the very end of the game. Rodrigo tries to poison Cesare, Cesare kills his father, Ezio kills Cesare, and then locks the Apple in a vault under the Roman Coliseum, where it is discovered by Desmond and his crew in the ending. Instead of a vision of Minerva, the spacewoman from AC2, Desmond is greeted by Juno, who strongly implies that his Eagle Vision (by way of mentioning his ability to see the blue tint, or something like that) is a result of his lineage, a distant relationship to The Ones Who Came Before. Eagle vision, and precursor blood, would explain how Atair, way back in the first game, was able to defeat an Apple-wielding Al Mualim.
Everything is going well and good until Desmond finds The Apple. The apparition of Juno touches it, and seems to stop time, or at least Desmond’s friends, before possessing him directly. He has no control over his actions, and every time the player tries to do anything, Desmond takes a step towards Lucy, and another, before stabbing her with his hidden blade.
As the credits roll, voice-over from the Assassin leader reveals that Desmond is in a coma, and, perhaps in an effort to keep him alive, he is sent back into the Animus, at which point the player is free to clean up any side missions they may have missed and then slip in the Revelations disk to see if Lucy survives!
Speaking of these side-missions, they’re pretty great. In addition to the standard Assassination missions and races and diversions like these, the biggest new feature, and the catalyst for the game’s subtitle, is recruiting would-be Assassin’s into your Brotherhood. After all, as Mentor of the Assassin Order, Ezio’s got to live up to his title. Once your recruits get fancy new robes, Ezio can call them to assist in battle, or send them on away missions. While these missions are little more than waiting for a timer to run out so they can arbitrarily level up, I couldn’t help but want to do as many of these missions as I could. I loved the rapid progression, and the game does a great job of making you feel like the boss of an elite unit.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is the best gameplay experience of the series so far, but that doesn’t excuse the lackluster story. Ultimately, it’s not as good as AC2, because, even though I enjoyed some aspects more, I felt like I had much less context to justify the action. Most of the Assassin characters return, but have nothing to do. Machiavelli and La Volpe have an anemic subplot in which Machiavelli is accused of being a traitor (makes sense, given the parallels between his Realism and the Templar ideology), and even Leonardo Da Vinci himself does little more than facilitate a handful of cool missions with no overall thematic significance. The action is more energetic, more exciting, and there’s just more of nearly everything, but the game feels less engaging because the story and characters feel, for the most part, like such an afterthought. The narrative leaves a lot to be desired, but the combat is faster, the navigation is more fluid, and the stealth, well, the stealth still needs work.
Oh, yeah, and there’s also multiplayer, but… Um… I don’t care. So… Yeah.
By the way, my favorite NPCs in the game are the minstrels. In AC2, they would just sing generic and silly rhymes. Now, they sing silly rhymes about Ezio and how cool his legend is!