You didn’t think Ezio’s story was done with II, did you? By 2010 Ubisoft had begun to settle well into the yearly-release pattern that would see them release another approximately 8 billion Assassin’s Creed titles, and given that Ezio was such a fan-favourite character it was unsurprising to see him get another game. The question was whether or not the level of quality of II could be retained with a new release, or would Brotherhood simply peter out into the usual fate of yearly releases as a vector for carbon-copy gameplay and worthless content?
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Nov 2010 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
Brotherhood wastes no time in chucking us back into the life of Ezio Auditore. After his one-man war against the Italian Templars, Ezio retires back to his villa in Tuscany, content that his revenge-driven crusade is finished. Unfortunately for him, the Papal armies, lead by the manipulative and bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia, invade. With his villa leveled, his uncle Mario murdered, and his love interest Caterina Sforza captured, Ezio limps off to Rome, ready to enact yet more revenge against the sadistic Borgia.
His arrival in Rome heralds more bad news. At the turn of the 16th century, the city was held in the grip of the Borgia and so Ezio finds himself all but alone in enemy territory. Where the younger Ezio of II may have launched himself headfirst into a fight against Cesare, our older, more experienced protagonist opts for a more subtle path to victory: Ezio decides instead to begin a campaign of wresting control of Rome away from the Borgia and leave them with nothing. Thus we are introduced to the new major mechanics of Brotherhood: recruiting and strengthening Assassins, assassinating key members of the Borgia to weaken their control over Roman districts, and renovating the city to return economic power to the populace.
The renovation of Rome is a major undertaking. Essentially, it’s a very slightly expanded version of the same mechanic in II. Dotted around Rome are a ton of shops to re-open, from blacksmiths to banks. Renovating them is useful as it gives Ezio access to their services wherever he is, and if you’re anything like me you’ll find the grind of unlocking them worth the convenience. Some shops are questionable though: given you have a dedicated button to summon a horse to your location, is there any actual point to unlocking stables?
Part of Rome’s restoration sees Ezio establish allied guilds in Rome. The system of hirable courtesans, mercenaries, and thieves returns from II, but each now come with specific faction sidequests and a series of factions challenges to unlock new bonuses. The various factions can still be used in the same way during gameplay, such as hiding amongst courtesans or sending mercenaries to start fights, but the additional related sidequests and challenges give a lot more life and reason to be involved with them. Along with this there is also a glut of other content; Da Vinci returns to give out missions centred around destroying the war machines he has been forced to make and memories of a love interest from II give brief and heartachingly poignant glimpses into Ezio’s past.
Of course, none of this is possible without clearing out the Borgia presence from Rome. The Borgia mark their control over the city with huge towers that loom over the various districts of Rome, and around each one patrols a Captain. It is these men that Ezio needs to kill in order to begin the process of weakening the Borgia power over the area; surprisingly this is one of the ways where Brotherhood excels. Each Captain is essentially a mobile and naturally-occurring assassination contract, and is entirely freeform in how you approach it. Despite the move towards more cinematic moments, even this early in the franchise, it’s easy to forget that Assassin’s Creed is at its best when giving the player a target and freedom in how they approach taking them out and these Captains provide that function in Brotherhood. Though there is only a finite amount of them, the hunt for them and the multitude of ways they can be dispatched represent some of my favourite moments in the game.
Continuing in the theme of recycling mechanics, rescuing citizens returns from the first game. This time however it has a greater purpose – when Ezio saves a person from the Borgia they can be recruited to the Assassins. Once brought into the fold, Ezio’s recruits can be sent out on missions around Europe for money, experience, and occasionally special loot for the rarer items in the game. It’s not exactly a super-involved system (it’s basically entirely menu-based outside of the initial rescuing bit, and plays out more like a sort of Assassin’s Creed-themed management sim) but for some reason I do find something vaguely satisfying in it. Your Assassins can also be called on during gameplay; target an enemy and Ezio can order them to fight or assassinate in his place. There’s an element of risk to all of it as these Assassins come with permadeath, so should they be killed off at all you have to recruit new ones and start from scratch. It does however make you feel like a complete boss as you nonchalantly whistle and watch your finest recruit drop down on your target.
Speaking of feeling awesome, the combat in Brotherhood got a small revamp to introduce a chain-kill mechanic. It can be a bit tricky to get used to at first but once you get into the rhythm of it combat finally feels that much faster as Ezio leaps from foe to foe as a whirling and extremely fatal force. Critics might (quite fairly) point out that it largely trivializes combat, but I rather like it. Between it and the Assassin recruits, Ezio finally feels exactly like a Master Assassin should.
As ever, it’s not all good though. There are plenty of tailing missions crammed into the brief story, and with that comes plenty of instant-fail states. That sort of thing is never fun and I feel like Assassin’s Creed as a franchise is a particularly egregious offender of it. At its worst, you can find yourself in a loop of failing missions, especially as if you take a wrong step you can very easily lose a target or find yourself detected in a mission with a pointless non-detection clause.
Additionally (and in contrast to II) the plot is the weak point of the game. There is a running narrative thread in which returning members of the Brotherhood are all very suspicious of Machiavelli, thinking he has some involvement with the Borgia, but the game does such a poor job of actually making him worthy of it.
And what of Desmond? The modern day plot is far less involved than in previous installments; after a little bit of platforming and a chance for some wry comments and not-so-subtle moments between our hero and Lucy, there’s very little else on offer. You’re welcome to leave the Animus at any time and go exploring the town that the team of Assassins escape to but there’s nothing to do beyond run around without a HUD. All of the plot is saved for the finale, and it is a big moment but saving it all for the end is a bit underwhelming. Still, it’s inoffensive at least.
As with II, the Ezio Collection includes a swathe of DLC for Brotherhood. Templar lairs are the same as in II, a bonus dungeon with cash as the prize. If you’re after a little more platforming and fighting, and you want a wodge of cash to splurge on renovations then they’re worth it.
The Copernicus Conspiracy is the first of 2 major pieces of DLC. The Borgia initiate a purge against Copernicus and his fellow scholars’ ideas, leading him to enlist Ezio to rescue both himself and his fellow thinkers. The bulk of it is a repeated mission to deliver letters to people against the clock, which is hardly a wildly exciting time; because of this, most of the DLC consists of traipsing across the city after targets. It’s quite a weak set of missions, and not really worth the time.
The Da Vinci Disappearance is the other big DLC, and functions as a kind of pseudo-epilogue given that it’s set after the majority of the main game. Da Vinci is kidnapped by a sect of Hermetic monks who want to pick his brains for the supposed betterment of mankind. Most of the DLC seems to be spent chasing a set of Da Vinci’s paintings; it seems to promise a potentially enjoyable conspiracy but the main bulk of it is dragged out and tedious though some of the spectacle at the end is well worth it. The writers seemed to have approached their craft with tongues firmly lodged in cheeks with regards to The Da Vinci Code with hidden codes and ancient conspiracies, and the monks are a fantastic source of shop quest items quite early on so there are some decent things in the DLC. One small gripe however is that it explains something plot-related later on in the series and without playing this you’d never know how the characters know or came by it – I personally prefer DLC not to be a vector for that sort of thing but at least in this case it is especially minor.
What Brotherhood is, is a bloody good time. It was surprising, frankly. I had reasonably fond memories of it but those were tempered to some extent with memories of faffing about with the city renovation and being less than impressed with the map. Not so this time; taking the game at a reasonable pace I found the city renovation to be engaging and useful enough to make it worth doing, while the pacy combat and array of side content kept me going with the game far more than I had been expecting. The story might not be the strongest but it’s paired here with excellent gameplay and a rewarding play loop that makes Brotherhood a strong entry into the franchise and a game that I was very happy to have replayed.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.