Age of Empires II: Age of Kings – PC

Don't let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don't want a completely Euro-centric game.

Don’t let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don’t want a completely Euro-centric game.

I don’t play computer games. Yes, I know I have a catch-all category for any non-console based game off to the right, and obviously I do indulge in them every so often, slipping from my healthy diet of games that don’t lag, crash, freeze or glitch in favor of a doughy, glazed-over donut of wonder built strictly for computers, but it takes a mighty powerful game to push me over that edge. And yes, maybe I only say that because for the second day in a row, Anne went to work without bringing in the tray full of delicious brownies caked in cookies and cream frosting that I know I can’t eat, but my point still stands; it takes an impressively good game for the voices in my head to overpower me and get me to break. (Maybe I’ll just go look at the brownies for a minute…) Maybe I just don’t play them, though, because I grew up with an NES, SNES and a PC that predated windows and had a 5.25“ floppy disk drive, and when a friend introduced me to Warcraft, I had to learn the hard way that it would take a few hundred of those suckers to fit all the data from the game CD.

I loved Warcraft. I liked anything with a fantasy setting, and I probably had never played a strategy game–now my favorite genre–prior to that. Plus it didn’t hurt that the summoned scorpions looked more like lobsters, appealing to that little insane voice in my head (which, by the way, still wants me to devour all the sugar in my kitchen). Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get my own computer with a CD drive until long past when Windows would let people see it out in public with Warcraft, and Blizzard dropped out of college and started hitting the gym because using words like “grind” and “crawl” made it more popular than if it challenged people to think. But on the upside, in a move proving that nerds will inherit the Earth if we believe in the power of extended metaphors, Microsoft moved in to take over the spot vacated by Blizzard, releasing their Age of Empires strategy games in the late nineties.

For some reason, you can't build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

For some reason, you can’t build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

After finding a collection of the first two games along with their expansions hiding unappreciated in a Goodwill, I jumped immediately to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Having played the NDS spin-off already, I knew I wanted the version which, presumably, had a little more gusto. And, see, that might have ruined the game for me. The Age of Kings scored ungodly high marks in reviews, averaging about a 9.2 out of 10. It does have a lot going for it, but comparing it to the DS version, it had the organization of a bathtub full of Legos.

Maybe I should start with its better qualities, though. The game basically operates like the original Warcraft games; you use peasants to farm, mine for gold, and build military buildings and defenses. These support your war effort, allowing you to train different types of soldiers, which all have unique stats that make them more or less effective depending on enemy soldiers. From there, you have to interact with the terrain to accomplish goals, usually which involve not a small amount of murder and/or mayhem. Think urban planning with medieval combat. You know–if Sim City let you pillage other players’ towns.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

The major addition, though, that Microsoft made when stripping away any potential copyright infringement, gives the series its name. Sort of. Battles progress through a sort of time. You start off most battles in the Dark Ages, and as you build your society, each building lets you research technology that will help your marauding. With enough advancement–and a hefty down payment of food and gold, you can “age up” to the next period in time, which will make new construction and research options available for your disposal, as well as giving you the option to beef up your current forces. Flawless system. Pure genius. Well, it does stretch the imagination a bit. Yes, we know that between games, Link, Samus, et al. have to get stripped of all their equipment, forget all adventuring know-how and sit on the couch eating Doritos until they can no longer perform even the simplest of sword-thrusts or beam-blasts. But that all happens on a personal level, between adventures–half the time this happens between consoles. Yet somehow, Saladin, Islam’s greatest military mind, can conquer Jerusalem, then happens to forget that his soldiers can sit on a horse? Eh. Whatever. Game mechanics. Suspension of disbelief.

Look carefully and you'll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

Look carefully and you’ll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

But that brings up one of my major beefs in transitioning from the DS AoE to the Windows version. The DS filled you in on historical notes, putting you into the context of history and flushing out the moves of some pretty big names from history–not to mention giving you that character for use in each campaign. The Windows version…not so much. Not only does this make the game less interesting, but in order to let the player win, they kind of had to rewrite history. Joan of Arc didn’t succeed quite as much as AoE lets you believe, but no one wants to take an arrow to the eye for the sake of reenacting history–just ask anyone wearing a Confederate Army uniform in the 21st century. While the DS game will fill you in on these details after the battle, the Windows version lets you remain in a blissful state of believing whatever you want, enforcing yet another generation of people who think climate change is a myth, George W Bush attacked the World Trade Center, and that Barack Obama forged his birth certificate and wants to take away our guns to declare himself king. But as most political turmoil caused by William Wallace or Genghis Kahn has more or less petered out, that remains an irritation easily overlooked.

I did struggle with the difficulty. I started the game on the easy setting and it coddled me with the tenderness of an angry dominatrix with nipple clips, a bull whip, and a large supply of hot wax. I didn’t want to crank it down to “easiest,” but it felt excessively time-consuming and replaced free-thinking strategy with a puzzle–“How does the game expect me to turn back this onslaught without winding up as a puddle of goo on these rocks?” The difficulty ramps up even more since rather than handling the traditional two resources that Warcraft, Starcraft, and the DS AoE requires, they expect you to juggle food, gold, wood and stone like you want to join the Cirque du Soleil of feudal combat. Harvesting each resource permanently ties up a peasant, which wouldn’t complicate things all that much, but the resources don’t last forever, and the peasants don’t quite have the brainpower to plant new turnips after eating the old ones, so they require constant attention in order to prevent any slacking off in your ranks. The game includes a button that will jump the screen immediately to the next idle villager, a gesture about as welcome as a hooker who gives you a bottle of penicillin and a warning that you might want to get checked out. I found myself waiting for them to introduce an idle soldier button or an idle siege unit button, but apparently they didn’t think the player would want to find these things quite as much as lazy farmers.

Uhh...well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

Uhh…well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

On the easiest setting, I still wasted countless hours upon each campaign, but I felt like I got to be creative with my strategy, play off the terrain, and solve problems in more than the single method Microsoft had envisioned. It usually ended up as some sort of variation of: 1) Build to Imperial Age, 2) Build trebuchets, 3) Move trebuchets forward slowly using other units to protect it. The trebuchets, while having the largest range and destructive force of any unit in the game, had a tendency to behave like frightened puppies. “Go over there,” I’d tell them. “Attack that castle.” Then I’d come back after slapping some sense into a peasant standing in the middle of an empty farm and find the trebuchet moving slowly, but confidently in the other direction.

Despite its immaculate ratings, the game suffers in comparison to the DS version, which lets you play with the heroes, focus on strategy instead of urban planning, and take your time to set your pieces into place–yes, I know most real wars happen in real time, but most real generals don’t have to issue individual commands to each soldier at all times. I like the turn-based features. Age of Kings might gray your hair with its difficulty, but I have to remind myself that all good strategy games do that at first, so you may want to put up with sleepless nights and clenched teeth for a little while, if you like this sort of thing.

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Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire – N64, PC

6157-1-star-wars-shadows-of-theI’ve spent well over a year writing about games from all sorts of origins, but this entry will mark only the second time I’ve written about an N64 game. The deadbeat of the console family, the 64 had all attention diverted from it in its toddler stage for the newborn baby Playstation, which we all soon realized came out with dozens–and eventually hundreds–of good games. (I figured I’d pass on the chance to make an amniotic fluid joke in there) And of course, this problem plagued Nintendo through the Game Cube and even a little into the Wii era. Fortunately by that time, they’d noticed the DS. “Oh, really? Players enjoy a wide array of fun games, along with backwards compatibility so they can still play all those old games floating around?” See, it turns out that selling a system on the tech alone just doesn’t cut it. But sadly, the N64 hadn’t quite read that memo yet, and millions of people decided to bypass its wonderful new 3-D environments in favor of the 3-D environments that Playstation developers made fun and exciting to play in.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don't have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don’t have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

Still, while terms like “amass” feel too grand for what happened, I did accumulate a modest collection of cartridges for the system, about three or four of which I actually enjoyed playing. Of the handful of these I have, I probably encountered Shadows of the Empire before anything else. It impressed me. It hooked me on the system, like a free shot of heroin that would eventually lead to an unsatisfying and expensive habit. But hey, Star Wars! In 3-D! The ability to walk around in the Rebel base on Hoth amazed me. Wandering in and out of my star ship…yeah, it sounds stupid now, but at the time it felt like strapping on a virtual reality suit and logging into Quest World (speaking of nostalgic disappointments). Still, I while I do have a tendency to overlook my N64 games in favor of a towering mass of Playstation discs, I recently began to wonder why I had ignored Shadows of the Empire for so long. So I pulled it out, dusted it off, jammed it in the slot and turned it on…then turned it off, pulled out the cartridge, blew the dust out of the game, blew dust out of the N64, put it back in, and sat back in amazement as I realized “Oh yeah, it doesn’t actually have much to offer.”

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously...how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously…how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Shadows of the Empire owes a lot to two things. The first, in a move surprising both for the game industry–in basing a game adaptation off something other than a movie–and for Hollywood–to resist hacking and slashing an obvious cash cow of a book into bloody pulped mash of beef and bone–they took inspiration from a Star Wars expanded universe novel. The book focuses on the period of time between Empire and Jedi, while the film’s heroes search for Leia’s hunk of a carbonite boyfriend, matching wits against a crime syndicate lord jealous of all the attention Palpatine gives to Vader. The crime lord hatches a plot to bump off Vader, thus endearing himself to the Emperor (a plan which would make no sense with anyone other than Palpatine) and becoming his new green-guy Friday. So the novel ends up looking at how Luke and Leia get by without the disarming wit and street-smarts of Han Solo, pushing them to their limits to test their mettle. Just kidding. They introduce Dash Rendar, a character exactly like Han, who fills his function just long enough to get them through to Jabba’s palace. Dash, a relatively minor character from the novel, becomes the central figure of the game, driving much of the action.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

Second, the Super Star Wars SNES games clearly influenced Shadows of the Empire’s creation. It retains the same semi-animation style of cut scenes, at least one secondary blaster power-up, and even some of the slightly nonsensical premises for dashing through a gauntlet of stormtroopers, droids and wampas rather than just landing your ship in a better location; it also makes sure you destroy your quota of tie fighters before jumping into hyperspace. The vehicle levels also feel lifted straight out of Super Star Wars, especially the one level they literally just took from Super Empire Strikes Back, spruced it up a bit, and used to open their game; you fly a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, slaying progressively larger and more dangerous enemies that didn’t actually fight at the Battle of Hoth (we all see you, Probe Droid!) until you have to harpoon a handful of AT-ATs and bring them down in what always feels like the sci-fi video game equivalent of walking heel-to-toe while saying the alphabet backwards.

Wait...platforming? Does the game think we'd rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

Wait…platforming? Does the game think we’d rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

That sort of drunken play control really marks the game, unfortunately. As an early N64 title, it almost feels like a demo they decided to market. I could almost feel the separate layers of the graphics, with Dash responding to the controls on top and an environment doing the same on a layer beneath. The amazing 3-D environments in retrospect come off as simple and non-interactive, with only a handful of objects that do anything more than just sit there, not letting you walk through them and looking all Star-Warsy. Each level jumps up and down like a 3-year old desperately trying to show you what it can do, especially in the various vehicle levels and the one moving-along-the-train level designed by a programmer who apparently slept through high school physics. While Dash has all the equilibrium of Mario in an ice world, once you get the jet pack the game really starts to handle as well as reading a newspaper in a gale force wind.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

But I’ve safely navigated through Mario games before, so I can forgive that. I can even forgive the rarity of blaster power-ups effectively classifying them as too-awesome-to-use items. The save feature, though, pisses me off to the point where I’d gladly strangle a Lieutenant if one made itself available. And I had Force powers. Not yet reaching modern times, Shadows of the Empire uses lives. But still in love with itself over 3-D capabilities, it also uses enormous levels that can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour to complete. If you don’t get to the boss and die. Like I did. Numerous times. On the medium difficulty setting. A setting which otherwise offered the perfect balance of challenge without frustration, yet still allowing adjustment for veteran players. The game only saves at the ends of levels, meaning any mistake and you get to play through everything again! Better pick something good to watch on TV while you do it. (I recommend Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) For extra challenge, each level contains either hidden or difficult-to-reach challenge points. Collecting enough of these will grant you bonus lives which become part of the save data, carrying over into the next level (meaning you can play through old levels again to potentially increase your life total for the next). While discovering these trinkets gives the same rush as finding a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, the bonus lives don’t add to the minimum–if you have one life left and get three bonus lives from challenge points, the game feels that raising you back up to the minimum lives ought to reward you enough.

Shadows of the Empire has all the nostalgic appeal of Johnny Quest–something you loved as a kid, but then you go back and catch the disturbing racial overtones and shallow plots. The game doesn’t come off as racist (well, unless you count casting green aliens as villains and white humans as heroes), but does kind of flop as a retro hit. For all the frustrations, I’d definitely put it in the top…let’s say fifteen N64 games. Maybe even top ten. But let’s face it; it didn’t exactly have fierce competition.

The Scoop – DOS

Inspector Smart

While I strive to generate an interest in games long forgotten, this week’s entry schools all my other entries in obscurity. While apparently listed as abandonware and therefore legally available for download, I don’t actually expect anyone to dig it out of the mothballs of the internet.  Still, like a serial killer claiming trophies from his victim, I may as well write about it to proudly display my conquest. Even if it did require a walkthrough.

My family got its first computer, a snazzy, sleek state-of-the-art 386, probably around 1992 or 1993–right before everyone else started discovering Windows. Already cultivating a healthy addiction to Nintendo, I found this new, clunky electrical contraption absolutely adorable, even if I spent most of the time playing solitaire, Tetris, and drawing pseudo-impressionistic geometric figures using the paint program. Still, every so often a new game would appear, presumably brought home by my dad who got a lot of cheap, secondhand software from the computer teacher he worked with. Of these games which I played endlessly–prefacing that as a 10-year-old, I probably remember 10-minute chunks of time as endless–only one of them didn’t try to teach me how to read words I could spell for five years, math skills mastered in first grade, or extremely outdated geopolitical trivia on the vague pretext that one day I could capture Carmen Sandiego. Curiously enough, this one game–the one that didn’t try to teach me anything–required more brainpower than any of the rest. One that, even today, I couldn’t quite figure out.

Not altogether an unreasonable time to slink around a jewlery store--not that it matters. You can barge in at one in the morning for routine looting and no one bats an eye. Hey, I don't have to go to trial, after all.

Not altogether an unreasonable time to slink around a jewlery store–not that it matters. You can barge in at one in the morning for routine looting and no one bats an eye. Hey, I don’t have to go to trial, after all.

See, The Scoop, a precursor to point-and-click adventure games released for Apple in 1986 and DOS in 1989, takes its plot from a novella written (in part) by Agatha Christie. It tells the story of either a male or female reporter at a down-on-its-luck newspaper that spies an opportunity to increase readership by capitalizing on a recent murder. Which, very shortly after the game begins, becomes two murders. The reporter travels to various locations in England, talking to people, spying on people, searching for physical evidence, and showing said evidence to said people in order to evoke interesting and insightful responses. The player has five in-game days to pilfer as much junk from the scenery as possible and locate the people who may find it interesting. If the player can show the proper items to the proper people, they’ll all converge on a single spot on Saturday afternoon to reveal the murderer’s identity. Oh, and presumably in order to accomplish this you have to solve the mystery.

I think I found a clue. Does it look like a clue? I think I found a clue. (Whips out handy-dandy notebook)

I think I found a clue. Does it look like a clue? I think I found a clue. (Whips out handy-dandy notebook)

However, before you figured out who went around England last weekend increasing the corpse population, you have to solve the mystery of how the game wants you to think. You can’t travel to all locations immediately; some of them open up naturally as you progress, others when an NPC talks about it, and for some you just have to wait until divine inspiration hits you and locations come to you in your dreams. Literally. Some locations open up only after you dream about them; adding to your time constraints, the game makes sure you get a nice, healthy…uh, seven hours of sleep each day. Should you fail at going to sleep (no earlier than your 12:00 am bedtime) a fit of narcolepsy will overcome you, and your current activity will screech to a halt.  Nap attacks notwithstanding, you have to figure out which characters do what when and where in order to follow them for observation, interrogation, or just clearing out of their house so you can pilfer whatever seemingly random shit the game tells you to take.  Since certain clues and items only become available after showing other items to specific characters, which the player must first locate, this could take several play-throughs.

(Because I realize not everyone grew up on Garfield)

(Because I realize not everyone grew up on Garfield)

And with the logic the game expects, you might play through the game hundreds of times. How else would you figure out that you need to show the picture of the murder victim’s former housekeeper’s former employer to said housekeeper in order to get her to point out the identity of the murder victim’s husband? Therein lies the problem with murder mysteries; the solutions rely on clues that the sadistic bastard of an author expects us to pick up and understand. And they write fictional characters. Characters who all seem like they have a motive for offing any other character within a 5-meter radius. Characters who appear like people and act like people, but could very easily have the predictability of a highly caffeinated squirrel. Not an issue in a book, really. You get to the end, find out some clue the author withheld or a new character she never wrote about, or you’d just see how the author wanted you to fit the clues together; murderer revealed, reader becomes angry or just feels a little stupid, then zip on down to the used book store to trade it in for another carbon-copy formula mystery. Or if you want to get really wild, one of those steamy books with flowing garments and half-naked men on the cover.

Yes...I often find portraits of irrelevant figures can prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Now excuse me, for I, too, must attend a murder case.

Yes…I often find portraits of irrelevant figures can prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Now excuse me, for I, too, must attend a murder case.

But in a game, the murder mystery format doesn’t work. Some times the clues simply don’t flow together logically and the player can only solve the mystery by trial-and-error. So while most games should have replay value, The Scoop forces you to replay it. Or, if you’ve solved the mystery, you don’t really have any reason to play it again. So with a bigger brain than my 10-year-old self and a finer understanding of mysteries (thanks to an amazing Neil Simon film, “Murder by Death.” Go watch it. Now. I’ll wait…) I zeroed in on the details I missed before, followed the people with the most likely motive, figured out that two of the characters conspired to murder over a bag of jewels…and then followed the walkthrough until a character with almost nothing to do with the story leaped off a building to avoid going to jail.

The hell with Mona Lisa; somebody tell me what this lady has running through her mind.

The hell with Mona Lisa; somebody tell me what this lady has running through her mind.

I give up. I can’t even think of anything worthwhile to say about the game. Play it if you want to learn urban English geography. Play it if you want to see artwork that makes riding on the train look like… like I don’t know what but people shouldn’t make that face when traveling! Otherwise, just take the reverse strategy of your high school English class–save time and effort and read the book instead.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac

title

I didn’t care much for Assassin’s Creed II. Blasphemy, I know. I felt the developers had an interesting premise and concept to build a game around…and immediately burned it into a disc, slapped a label on it and charged $50 a pop. Apparently shooting for a sandbox game style, the bland tasks combined with the ad nauseum approach to…well, everything…made it a perfect game for ignoring in favor of chain-smoking episodes of Scrubs. And I watched every season. Even the last one about medical school; and if I found the rich med school tool character more engaging than murdering my way through 15th century Italy, you can imagine how little interest I had in playing Brotherhood. But I bought both games at the same time, so as long as I have no classes to teach and no real burning call to play anything else, I figured I might as well plow through it.

Naturally, the story opens up with Desmond Miles, still undergoing virtual reality training to fight Abstergo, a corporation we don’t really see which supposedly came from the Knights Templar crusaders who somehow connect with the Borgia in Ezio’s time period by virtue of developers wanting their stories to connect really bad, but not exactly giving a damn if they do it effectively. So the player learns that Templars equal Borgia equal Abstergo, and pretty much has to just understand that with no more evidence than the game telling us that once in the opening sequence. Still on the run from the last game, Desmond, his slightly less cross-eyed love interest Princess Anna, and their team of wacky, zany characters, drive into Monteriggioni where they set up the Animus machine and continue his training. At the end of the opening sequence, Desmond stands tall, crosses his arms triumphantly smiling, and declares proudly, “My name is Desmond Miles, and this is my story!”

At which point the game promptly switches to Ezio’s time period with absolutely no sense of irony or awareness either at how badly they misjudged their own story or how little Desmond actually matters. Fortunately, you only have to deal with the obnoxious sap for an extended sequence early on where you wander through a darkened, non-interactive environment trying to locate power boxes and one doubly obnoxious segment of seemingly endless platforming just before the closing credits. I did receive notification part way through that I could leave the animus at any time so Desmond could check his email. I did this once, finding two absurdly pointless messages in an inbox that had no bearing on the game in any way. Thank you, Assassin’s Creed, for you have designed a video game that successfully simulates the experience of playing a video game.

You pretty much have to get this close for accuracy in Renaissance firearms.

You pretty much have to get this close for accuracy in Renaissance firearms.

But very early on we get to leave the twenty first century and go back to Renaissance Italy. At this point, I started looking for differences; improvements they may have made from one game to the next. Brotherhood, however, appeared exactly the same as ACII. Even to the point where I had to ask, “Why does Ezio’s robe have the custom dye job I gave it in the last game? And how does he have the same inventory and cash supply?” I thought I might enjoy playing a game that built directly from the last game, allowing me to keep weapons, armor, cash, etc, and didn’t feel creeped out in the least that Brotherhood had NSA-ed its way through my hard drive to import my ACII configuration. However, after a side trip to his Villa, a surprise Borgia attack destroys his clothing, weapons and armor, forces him to leave behind his cash, and somehow makes him forget how to jump-grab ledges while climbing. (Yeah…that didn’t make too much sense)

New to the running and jumping, Ezio can swing 90 degrees, reaching new heights of "hold down X" gameplay.

New to the running and jumping, Ezio can swing 90 degrees, reaching new heights of “hold down X” gameplay.

On the plus side, the game didn’t force me to play through a tutorial stage where I had to wiggle my toes or race anyone up a building. I don’t know if they just didn’t include it or if I owe that to the ACII save file, but I liked the pacing. In no time at all, I found myself merrily romping through the rooftops of Rome, stabbing and murdering willy-nilly and care free, leaping off great heights into stacks of hay conveniently placed around town, on castle ramparts, inside the pope’s house, and later on at a 21st century construction site. From here, I did begin to notice differences between games. They streamlined the combat ever so slightly, so rather than clanging your sword against an enemy’s armor for five minutes at a time, you only have to wail on him for about four and a half. Later I discovered the kick feature, which immediately dropped their guard, which I liked, but still didn’t find half as useful as walking up to people and stabbing them without a fight. Missions feel less like playing tag with a map icon. One of the big parts of Brotherhood involves liberating areas of Rome from Borgia control. This involves sneaking into a heavily fortified area, killing a captain, then climbing a tower and setting it on fire. Yes, you have to do this about a dozen times and they don’t really vary the mission formula that much, but enough can happen to make them feel like different jobs that require different tactics and responses that I didn’t mind the repetition.

Son, one day all the light touches will be yours...providing you invest public funds into infrastructure.

Son, one day all the light touches will be yours…providing you invest public funds into infrastructure.

Once you’ve liberated an area, you can put money into renovating shops in that district. Much like the Monteriggioni renovations in ACII, this opens up new options for Ezio as well as increasing Rome’s income, which despite Borgia’s influence, apparently gets deposited directly into an account for Ezio. But he seems to understand how to spend tax money better than the Borgia, so I’ll forgive Rome this indiscretion. Not that Ezio could really skim off the top, though. While cash doesn’t flow like booze at a strip club anymore, you can’t buy a whole lot of useful things. Shops have an even more limited supply than before (excepting “shop quests,” which open up new items and of which I managed to complete a grand total of one), so a handful of renovations and a little patience could get you all the cash you need rather early on. At that point, you can only use income for further renovations, which usually serve little practical purpose other than to increase income. But screw all that: I bought the Coliseum. Why? So I could say I owned the Coliseum. Still, it seems a redundant system of busywork, and I still don’t quite understand how setting up a neighborhood thieves’ guild manages to increase the city’s value.

Ezio communicates with his lackeys by giving information to a little bird to tell them.

Ezio communicates with his lackeys by giving information to a little bird to tell them.

Also on the redundant side, Ezio can recruit assassins for his cause. Once you rescue citizens from Borgia guards, they’ll join you and you can send them across Europe on missions to earn a few florins and experience points toward–you guessed it–sending them on bigger and better missions. You can call them to bail you out of tight situations, which makes certain battles significantly less daunting, but still, both AC games I’ve played seem to lack motivation; the player has stuff to do, but no apparent bonus in stats, inventory, or even storyline to gain by doing them. You just do the quests because the game gave them to you.

Leonardo invented everything else. Why not a tank, too?

Leonardo invented everything else. Why not a tank, too?

The real joy in Brotherhood comes from Leonardo da Vinci. Forced to make war machines for the Borgia, he hires Ezio to destroy his creations to ease his conscience. These missions always involve a segment where Ezio climbs into the war machine and uses it to destroy others; providing the only variable style of game play, even if a few of the machines feel clunky and tedious.

Overall, I didn’t hate this game. The characters looked better, still cross-eyed, but less so. The tasks repetitive, but slightly more interesting. If I expressed my feelings numerically, ACII may have ranked a negative 1, while Brotherhood hovers around a positive 0.5. Maybe I’ll consider finishing Ezio’s trilogy or playing the pirate version. But don’t hold your breath.