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

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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.

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Assassin’s Creed 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC, OSX

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Ezio enjoys fine wine, long walks on the rooftop, and flinging himself off towering buildings as if a plate of steel and a pile of hay will help him survive.

Years ago, a friend of mine had me play a little bit of Assassin’s Creed to kill time.  I didn’t get through much–just the first few tutorials–but it intrigued me.  Then after hearing the entire video game community collectively climax over the series (and finding a copy of Assassin’s Creed II for $6 at GameStop), I decided I needed to see what had absconded with everyone’s attention for so long.  Having just finished the game, I think I can capture its true essence with one sentence; Assassin’s Creed II allows players the rare opportunity to travel through time to visit the wonders of Renaissance Italy, see the sights from the heights of marvelous buildings, travel through the streets of Venice in a gondola, and meet historical personalities both famous and infamous…and then kill them.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Our hero: daring, bold, eager, cross-eyed, and 100% irrelevant to the plot.

Mixing sandbox-ish and platform-ish designs, Assassin’s Creed II provides 20-ish hours of interesting-ish gameplay.  The game opens with Desmond Miles busting out of  an Abstergo holding cell with his noticeably cross-eyed love interest in a thrilling escape sequence that I assume would make sense had I played the first game.  After establishing some stuff about the battle between the Templars and the Assassins, Desmond straps himself into a virtual reality machine called the Animus in order that we, as players, may forget everything we just learned about Desmond to focus on the real story; Ezio Auditore, a cross-eyed,15th-century nobleman, takes revenge on a conspiracy for the murder of his cross-eyed father and brothers. After their deaths, Ezio discovers his heritage as part of the Assassin organization, and he sheds his plain, average garb of a Florentine in favor of a gaudy white robe, hood, and armor that…helps him blend in with the average folk around him.

I know the frame story would (likely) make more sense in the context of the other games, but honestly I just don’t care. Video games have never needed story arcs or direct sequels before, and it actually sort of helps if they don’t. After all, Hollywood can expect people to pay three dollars at a Redbox if they want to understand the latest money-desperate sequel before, but games that charge a minimum of $30 and then require an hour of gameplay per dollar spent, I’d much prefer skipping to the better games rather than paying the time and money to play them sequentially.  Case in point: when I bought this game, I asked the guy at GameStop which Assassin’s Creed game he recommended I start with.  He suggested this one, and I thanked him for his expertise. Then Anne asked the girl working in the store whether she could recommend Disgaea 3 or 4.  She suggested starting with 3 because “It comes first, so you don’t want to miss out on the story,” and we both wondered how often she sleeps with the manager to keep her job.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes--with all seriousness--regularly in the game.

Ezio flying on a da Vinci prototype. I wanted to make a joke on decoding, but they actually have Leonardo crack codes–with all seriousness–regularly in the game.

Still, even with the solid storyline following Ezio, I didn’t exactly burn with desire to uncover the story–even with the plot-based sub-quest with its own menu section cleverly titled “The Truth.”  Ezio’s–and by extension the game’s–existence depends on killing people, the story does the bare minimum to prop up that premise. But since the term “assassin” implies a political murder, and since they seemed to want a fairly credible historical plot–at least until they start casting magic spells during the final boss fight–the writers had their hands full trying to tie together a series of actual murders, while also referring to any minor skirmishes along the way as “assassinations” as well.

At its heart, ACII revolves around stealth, which along with babysitting missions and quick time events, end up topping lists of things most likely to inspire players to send dead animals to the game designers.  However, while not quite as effective as Batman: Arkham Asylum, the stealth mechanics don’t detract from the game. Note that I say “don’t detract from,” not “add to.”  They don’t really encourage covert behavior, as the player has too many options for reducing notoriety among the NPCs.  For instance, you could lure citizens away with a handful of coins tossed into the street, then drop the body of a guard killed quietly on a rooftop down to draw the attention of a larger group of guards, then blend in with a crowd until you reach the guarded treasure–or you could just stab the guards in broad daylight, then turn around to find one of hundreds of posters plastered throughout the city with your face on it, tear it down, and everyone will forget that anything happened, despite the 99 other posters still hanging in plain view.  I ended up running, leaping, climbing and flipping through city streets littered with corpses, all with blood trails leading directly to me, and no one cared.  And if anyone did voice concern that I ought to not hang out on the roof of the palace, I could just stab them in the throat, rip down another poster, and continue on with my business.

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

I so rarely get the chance to depict a complete combat sequence using a photo instead of a video. . .

While I have to admit in a certain level of satisfaction in walking up to an unsuspecting victim and thrusting my long, hard, rod of steel into their skulls, or leaping down from the sky to flatten them beneath me, breaking my fall with their spines, I mastered that very quickly in the game.  Because Ubisoft focused on historicity and realism, though, they didn’t escalate the abilities of enemies.  While yes, I have often wondered how so many Final Fantasy enemies can withstand explosions, gunshots, and swords through their torsos without so much as a strong cough throwing them off balance, I understand the reason for this; it keeps the game from getting stale.  ACII starts off at a reasonably simple difficulty setting, then as the player gains stronger weapons and armor it…well it doesn’t really change much at all.  Equipment doesn’t noticeably change your performance, enemies do just as little damage to you all throughout the game; even as you gain more health, it only allows you to stumble off of taller and taller buildings. And no matter how sharp your knives get, they can’t murder someone any more than “completely dead.” It gave me the option of using a poisoned blade at one point. I never even figured out how to use it, since stabbing them in the throat proved just a little more effective.  So the game basically provides a series of platforms to help an Italian guy kill enemies in one hit by falling on their heads. Great, Ubisoft. You’ve invented Super Mario. Except cross-eyed.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn't need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

Ezio staring at the hand of the King of the Cosmos, which could easily go unnoticed as the player doesn’t need to focus on much except the radar in the lower-right.

“Up yours, Jake!” You say? “This won game of the year!” Yes…so have lots of games. Each year, I might add. People hand out game of the year awards like copies of The Watchtower. I know I’ve pretty much panned a super-popular game, but if you’ll stay with me, I want you to consider one more thing; pretend you don’t see anything that doesn’t actually have a function. If entire cities become either smooth or climbable walls guarding the occasional treasure chest full of money that becomes obsolete by chapter five, or platforms to walk on or swim through, then you’ll stop seeing any variation in the different locations. Each city contains the same assortment of posts, ladders, haystacks, etc, and except for the framing story not allowing access to certain parts of the map, you can access any area regardless of skills learned, immediately. All the sandbox-ish missions blend together–run through some section of town very fast, get in a fight, or kill some guy–with no bearing on the plot and no reward except the practically useless cash.  Even the main missions only redeem themselves by advancing the story.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn't add anything that the previous shot didn't show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

Our cross-eyed hero, from the front. Seriously. While it doesn’t add anything that the previous shot didn’t show you, I literally could not find another shot of gameplay.

While most games offer less actual variety of play than they seem, ACII pretty much consists of nothing except follow your radar to the next point on the map. Occasionally, you press a button once you get there–and not even like a quick time event, either.  At the very beginning of the game, Desmond approached the Animus virtual reality simulator and the game told me to “press any button.” No timer. No encroaching threat. Nothing. While quick time events have always annoyed me, Ubisoft found something even more pointless: the slow time event.  They provide an over-abundance of most missions with little or no variation in them, and it ends up turning into a geographical scavenger hunt more than anything else. Furthermore, traditional platformers required the player to properly assess the physics engine so as not to fling themselves past ledges and into the gaping abyss beyond like a Depression-era stock broker, but as this makes 3D platforming about as easy as juggling angry magpies, so the player only needs to hold down the X button to automatically hit the next ledge, pole or brick conspicuously sticking out of the wall for the eager climber.  But not to sacrifice difficulty, they made the controls hypersensitive to directly, so at any moment–usually while the camera auto-rotates–Ezio could flip along his public trapeze and then suddenly turn and leap crotch-first into the nearest wall, then slide down to his death like the world’s least-funny Looney Toon.

I don’t really understand the hype around this game.  Look at the pictures I posted; notice how little gameplay you see? When you google screenshots for a game and only get photos from the trailer, you can guarantee the developers did that to hide the lack of interesting gameplay from the market.  So I guess it kept my interest, and I got through the whole thing, mostly in the way my students get through the books I assign–they get bored halfway through, then skip to the end, using Spark Notes to fill in the gaps. And seriously…with as much detail as the PS3 can render, why does everyone have crossed eyes?