Kill ’em with your Awesome!

Another year, another season of video game reviews.  I am proud to say that this year will include some of the biggest games I have ever gotten to critique, including several that I have been looking forward to since I started these reviews.  Today, I kick off the 2012 Video Game Review Season with the third installment of what is fast becoming one of my favorite game franchises.

It’s the game that kicked off my VG review days, and it remains the most viewed post on this blog. Assassin’s Creed introduced me to a fascinating story world and an incredibly fun (albeit repetitive and clunky) open-world gameplay style, and while I felt that the overall story was neglected and malformed, I saw the potential the series carried.  And now, two games later, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is the realization of that potential, and is one of the most fun games I have ever played.

It’s kinda like Star Wars….but Different.  While this is the third installment of the AC franchise to be released (like Return of the Jedi), it fits into the middle of an interior trilogy following Ezio Auditore. So, it is actually more like Attack of the Clones, in that it is a latter made part of the whole, yet it fits into the story elsewhere.  In case you are still confused (and I think that very likely because I still am), think of it this way:

AC1  [Altaïr]
AC2 — ACB — ACRevelations  [Ezio]
ACIII (soon to be released)  [Connor]

As this depiction shows, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is actually at the center of the franchise thus far and, while I haven’t played the other two games yet, I venture to say that the overall structure resembles chiastic literary structure.  The first and second games acted as necessary exposition and development to get players to the focus point of the series – the middle – where everything comes together just right.

This is very clearly the pinnacle of series thus far.  The gameplay is at its best, the graphics are pretty good, and the storyline is the least unattended of the three.  Some would say that this might be because it is almost exactly like ACII but I will get there.  For now, I plan to break Brotherhood down exactly as I did the first two games – starting with a review of the Story, turning to analyze the Gameplay, briefly examining the Christian Element, and finally giving my Overall Critique of the game.

STORY:

In concluding my Assassin’s Creed II review, I said that “ultimately I think it serves a good exposition to the REAL STORY, which I am looking forward to getting in the third game….This is Better – I look forward to Best.”  Well, I didn’t get Best but I did get some development of the Real Story.

Briefly summarizing the plot, Ezio returns from the secret alien pit thingy and his visions of the fourth wall-breaking Angel-Lady to return home to Monteriggioni to be with his family.  He is rich.  He’s got the girl.  What could possibly go wrong…other than the son of bad guy he did NOT kill in the last game coming back for revenge, and let’s just say “itsa not gonna be me, Mario, anymore”.  From the smoldering remains of his home (and every bit of armor and weaponry he owned), Ezio travels to “Roma” where he starts the process of rising in rank and defeating the Borgia all over again.  As he progresses, building a larger and stronger base of Assassin’s in Roma, Ezio is elected to the role of Mentor (though he does more stabbing than advising to stab).  Ultimately he fights Rodrigo Borgia’s son, Cesare, and takes control of the Apple of Eden.
Well, that’s the B plot anyway.

As usual, the true story of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood was neglected in favor of the jumpy, stabby flashbacks.  In case you have missed it, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is based on modern day bartender-turned-Assassin, Desmond Miles who re-lives his ancestor’s pasts via a machine.  The story of his discovering who he is, as well as his fleeing from Abstergo Industries (Templars), plus the relationships he develops with the team that broke him out – all of this gets ignored because it is more fun to run around ancient Italy than to ACTUALLY DEVELOP THE PLOT!!!

Ubisoft Montreal did finally figure something out because they do begin to develop the story of the 2012 world (yes, the apocalypse apparently happens in 2012 in game-world as well as in the real world).  However, the characterization of Desmond, who should be the most well known and important character by now, is left to short conversations had with Shaun, Rebecca, and Lucy and even then those are more focused on the supporting cast than on him.  No joke, at one point the player is asked to exit the Animus so they can eat a sandwich and discover that Rebecca’s a vegetarian…which is crucial to the arc plot of course….

The problem is this:  AC Revelations (game 4) is supposed to be about Desmond’s journey to discover himself and to not succumb to the madness brought on by being in the Animus too much. And I find myself hoping he DOES become Ezio in the future because he would at least finally have some personality then!  I cannot root for a protagonist that has no character.  Literarily none.

The other main criticism I have for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood‘s story of the past is that it is basically a repeat of ACII.  You get kicked down to the bottom rung and slowly rise to power and take down the corrupt and evil government.  This one is just less vendetta-y (though I see the pattern of losing friends and family continuing for our hero).  The setting is different and the end goal slightly changed (kill two guys instead of one) and in the end it plays exactly like it did last time.  No real innovation there.

**SPOILERS**
Of course, the big story development is the final segment of the game in which Desmond and crew travel to the Colosseum and discover the hiding place of the Apple.  I was glad to final play as Desmond when he has something important to do, and I really enjoyed the ambient, though vague, world you enter as you descend into the ancestors abode.  The ending is one crazy cliffhanger – as is the norm for this series – but I still was want for more development of the world Desmond lives in. You know.  The one where holographic Angel-Ladies make you stab your love interest (still a better love story than Twilight…or Half-Life).  Just saying.
**END SPOILERS**

Overall I have to say that I am glad we started to see the bigger picture in ACB, but that we are far from the “Best” I was hoping for.  From everything thing I have seen, we might get that in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, but the developers have a long way to go before I will care at all about the true protagonist of this series.  The ancient world Assassin thing is fun but I need something more than disjointed episodic structure if you expect me to shell out another $70 for the two other continuations. Fledgling at best, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood yet again disappoints in unveiling the beautiful story-world they have created.

Come all ye who are burdened with budding story arcs and I will make thee
STAB THEM!!!

GAMEPLAY:

In entirely opposite fashion from the storyline, the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is phenomenal!  I have always been more partial to Open World games than First Person Shooters or MMORPG’s.  Running around a huge environment with plenty of things to play with and try can be the most thrilling experience and, while its predecessors failed to fully utilize this opportunity, ACB makes great use of the open world map and could be the best third person game I have ever played!

What AC1 failed to do was make the vast world Altaïr lives in engaging or engagable.  Most of the landscapes and city structures are for decorative purposes only and leave the player with little to do than pass over them as they travel from Location A to Location B.  Assassin’s Creed II did a little better, allowing the player to buy and sell things, customize attire, and select weaponry for unique fighting gameplay.  Beyond that, the side quests were upgraded from long and pointless scavenger hunts to challenging and rewarding bonuses which enhance both story and gameplay.  However, ACII didn’t go far enough.  Very quickly one can purchase every weapon and upgrade, leaving you with nothing left to do with your mounting piles of florins.  And the hassle of returning to Monteriggioni to do any weapons-switching just became tedious.  Again, Good but not Best.

Best is what Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood gets for making the replay value substantially higher. One major addition was the bonus challenge of ridding the countryside of Roma from the Borgia rule via challenging assassinations.  While necessary for the story to progress, it was also fun to take out the ones not required so that the rest of my movements wouldn’t be plagued by the super-conscious guards from AC1.  Also, I really enjoyed the search for the Scrolls of Romulus, and while this side quest is just the updated version from ACII, it was still fun and I found the Armor of Brutus to be a satisfying reward.  Beyond that, landmarks were well implemented as things to spend my vast treasure trove on and the shop and guild quests added a nice touch of extra flavor.

But what really got me interested in the gameplay were two specific elements, the first being its Integration with Story.  I loved how gameplay was altered and affected by how the story was playing out.  My favorite sequence of the game is the one in which you chase a Cardinal up to the highest point of a cathedral and fight him in the rafters.  The chase is beautifully choreographed so that you use all of your skills on a set path, and the camera angles create amazing intensity making it a joy to play.  I also loved the integration of backstory via the Christina memories – fun challenges that more importantly developed the characters more.

The other new feature I loved about ACB was the recruitment and assignment of the Assassin’s Guild. Managing a team of growing young pupils was a true joy and I loved the strategy involved in choosing who to send out while keeping enough around to get you out of a jam if you need them.  It added a level of depth to the interactivity of the world that made the game all the more fun to play.

I only have three quick critiques about the gameplay and, while they are annoying as hell individually, they do not ruin the overall quality of ACB.  First, I noticed a glitch that seemed to occur fairly often. After I had unlocked Leonardo’s parachutes and had fully stocked up on them, they would magically vanish when I was already mid-air from jumping off a high place.  I rarely used them and yet would find my 15 parachutes to have magically dissappeared.  Frustrating and health-draining, I can’t call it enough to dissuade me from continuing to play.

One thing that did really bother me about the gameplay was the Quick Travel System.  The QTS was extremely handy when I didn’t want to run the entire map, but I could never remember what station I wanted to go to.  A map showing all of the possible places teases you as you scroll through every name until you find just the right one.  A much better option would have been to put a cursor on the map that snaps to each site.  That way I could choose much faster and stay true to the “Quick Travel” name.

Another significant annoyance in the gameplay was that the “Grab ledge so you don’t die” button the same as the “Let go of ledge to drop down” button.  Both actions are assigned to the Circle button and when you fall from a ledge that you were trying to grab onto because you kept holding down the button for the MILLIONTH time, you will know what I mean when I say that these two actions should have been separated.

On the whole though, I found the gameplay fun, engaging, and challenging in all the right ways.  I recently went back into it thinking I would play for an hour or so and nearly four hours later I realized exactly how addicting Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is.  I don’t normally play Multiplayer so I didn’t check out that feature but from the other reviews of ACB I have seen, that seems to be a great addition as well.  Overall I think this is the pinnacle of open-world play I have ever seen and I hope that the two remaining sequels can live up to that reputation.

CHRISTIAN ELEMENT

Because I have spoken so much in my other reviews about the religious aspect of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I am going to take a brief moment to go in a new direction.  As of late, I have had more free time than I would like to enjoy great games such as this one, and thus I have taken this opportunity to examine the reasons I play and love video games, and of what benefit they are to myself and to others.

This debate has raged on since well before my time and is still a hotly contested issue for parents and kids alike.  Youths love the thrill of pulling off the perfect combo or mastering a game 100%, while adults think it is a waste of time that detracts from social, physical, and mental development.  I wouldn’t dare begin to talk science about this because the only debate with more scientific discoveries on either end of it is whether or not food causes cancer.  Instead, I will quickly look at a few of the reasons I do play, and a few that suggest I should not do so as often.  And all of this will tie to Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood to maintain the appropriateness.

First and foremost, if you haven’t seen this video do so now.  In my years of playing games, this comes the closest to describing that cathartic feeling of beating a final boss or overcoming a challenge that has taken hours and days of my life.  I have fond memories of beating a particularly difficult mini-game with my good friend Isaiah while perched in an upper room of a rented house in Charleston, SC.  I remember when I beat a Pokemon game for the first time.  I remember playing Mario 64 with my dad for the first time one Christmas.  Video games leave us with memories of extreme satisfaction at having accomplished something great – like reading the entire Divine Comedy or seeing all of the AFI Top 100 Films.  That feeling of triumph over adversity taught me what it means to take on a challenge and fight my way through it.

Previous generations had wars.  We have simulated ones.

On the other hand, after spending hours playing ACB – beating the game and completing as many of the side quests as I could – I found myself tired and with a surprising feeling of discontentment.  While I enjoyed every second of playing the game, I realized that it would have been so much more fun to have played it with someone.  My memories of playing video games occurred mainly when I was with somebody doing something incredible.  Finishing Sly Cooper with Isaiah, ogling over the genius of Portal 2 with Yunji and watching Ryan play through it, finally beating the “Big Brother” Spec Op on MW2 with my friend Andrew.  Everytime I distinctly remember something from a game, it was because I could share it with my friends.  It is in the sharing of the moment that it becomes great.

So what does this mean for us gamers.  I won’t try to say that we should or should not play games because I think there is a time and a season for everything.  However, I will articulate my growing concern that I not play games because I “should”, my apprehension that I don’t need 100% on my screen to feel fulfilled in my life.  Simply put, I love video games and I am sure I will be enjoying them for years to come.  But I recognize that my childhood is ending and I must leave WASD behind for ASDF.  I intend to enjoy new titles as they come out and will always be a fan of the story-telling medium of video games, but I can’t keep spending my time alone in a room working my way through campaigns when I could be out living my own great adventure.

And if that adventure includes sharing a great story with friends, then I look greatly forward to that day.

On the plus side, it is making a whole new jobs market!

OVERALL

To wrap it all up, I really like this game. 🙂
Story-wise, it still isn’t the “Best” I was hoping for, but it shows all signs that the franchise is finally headed towards a developed arc plot.  The gameplay is the best yet and the open world mechanics lend for hours of fun even beyond completion of the campaign.  Ubisoft Montreal crafted the perfect third person adventure world and I can’t wait to see how they improve upon that in Revelations and the soon to be released Assassin’s Creed III.  Until then, I heartily recommend any fan of gaming to pick up a copy of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and enjoy countless hours running around Rome stabbing people…for justice…or Angel-Ladies.

Final Rating:  5//5

Well there you have it – one long and rambling review about a truly great game.  Please let me know what you think about this third installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  If you are as frustrated with the underdevelopment of the main story as I am, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Also, if you have any tips for how to find all of those Borgia flags, shoot me a comment.  I have all but one and no idea where it is.

Thanks for sticking around.  I still have a growing list of games and movies to review so keep on expecting new content in the coming weeks.  Hopefully these next few reviews will come faster, as many will be Quickee pieces.  This is the first of several big Video Game reviews I have in the pipe so check back soon for a few more spectacular reviews.  So until then, have a good life and all and I will see you back here on the Soontobeangel blog.

P.S. – My clue for the next review is the following:  “Oh, the independent couleurs!”

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

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