January 23, 2011

Catching up with the Brotherhood

Assassins Creed: Brotherhood
It’s not easy to get behind a franchise that has made the decision to go annual. The knowledge that the machinery has aligned specifically to bludgeon every last dollar out of the property (and the consumer) is grave in its implications. As an adherent to the existing systems for emulating assassins and their creeds, Ubisoft’s decision to Call-of-Dutyerize Assassin’s Creed was, for me, an ominous sign; the gong of some distant bell signalling the end of all things, save a string of uninspired sequels.

Then, of course, there was the multiplayer. One recalls the dial-it-in multiplayer solutions for traditionally single-player games like Bioshock and Metroid Prime and would be forgiven for groaning audibly. Equally, the human capacity to defy carefully crafted mechanics and break multiplayer game design is well known. Surely, Assassin’s Creed would have no chance of maintaining a mechanic based on careful stealth and patience among the multiplayer community.

Rarely is being wrong so satisfying.

I was standing in front of a merchant’s stand, with a pair of mercenaries flanking me. One of them was my target, this much was certain—but which? The target knew he was being pursued, though not by whom, and surely had taken refuge here, among the NPC’s admiring the merchandise, in the hopes of losing any tail. Eventually, he would move away to pursue his own target—and then I would know: you’re human, you’re the one I’m looking for—and I would strike.

And that’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I could not have guessed that the annualization of the franchise—the game that appeared on my radar merely as “More Assassin’s Creed”—could elevate the series and introduce something so undeniably fresh to the multiplayer landscape.

The system is characterized by careful, clever design: with every element leveraged to inspire stealth, patience, and planning, even the runningest, gunningest players will fall into line or be weeded out. A single, stealthy kill can earn one more points than half a dozen overt assassinations, allowing patient players to catapult themselves up the scoreboard at any time. The knowledge that obviousness will expose you to your own pursuers deters recklessness, and by consequence multiplayer matches become nervous games of cat and mouse.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
What’s impressive is that, instead of palely representing the campaign, the multiplayer manages to bring the player closer to the core concept–observation, patience, and stealth are far more critical against the human enemy than they could ever be against the computer that often doesn’t care when you scale a building or do something absurd in public. The social stealth mechanic that is so forgiving in the campaign here achieves full potential, becoming absolutely integral to success. In many ways, the multiplayer achieves an even truer expression of the core gameplay goals.

It’s also notable for being one of several new elements Brotherhood brings to the table to create something Assassin’s Creed hasn’t had in the past: replayability. In previous entries, you had the campaign, and that was it—if you wanted to drop in and battle an army of guards or take part in a stealthy assassination, your option was only to play the game until such opportunities came along. Now, the multiplayer offers bite-sized gaming sessions perfect for players looking to get in and get out.

Equally, new challenge modes in the campaign and an expanded array of optional side missions mean that whether you’re looking to sit down for ten minutes or two hours, there’s always something there to suit your needs. It doesn’t hurt that the campaign is supported by more options, more characters, a better economy and more variety, making it the most fun the series has seen, despite the shorter length. Really, few things are more satisfying than commanding your assassin minions to leap down from the rooftops wielding smoke, steel, and suffering.

More and more, the original Assassin’s Creed feels like a proof on concept, with the sequel beginning the process of refining and expanding that core mechanic into a fuller product, and Brotherhood finally bringing the franchise across the finish line. Brotherhood feels like the game the series deserved from the beginning, and it’s encouraging to know that going annual isn’t a death sentence for improvement and innovation in Assassin’s Creed.

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