Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Assassin's Creed is a series that is very near and dear to my heart as the first one is one of 'those stories' that we all have, in regards to memories we have with our games.  I guess you could say that I bought into the hype of the first game since I wanted the game so badly that I bought it, the collector's edition no less with the little figure of Altair, before I even owned a PS3.  I was so assured that I was going to get a PS3 following that Christmas, whether I got money to help buy it or if I had to dip into money set aside for other things.  And I did; in January following the release of Assassin's Creed the first, I bought a PS3 alongside a copy of (sigh) The Elder Scrolls IV:  Oblivion Game of the Year edition (well....I -meant- to buy the GotY version and had to switch the base copy that I -actually- bought for it) because I didn't know better against giving Bethesda money for a PS3 game.

Regardless of that purchase, the first game I ever played on my PS3 was Assassin's Creed and even though it wasn't on a proper HD TV, I was in awe of the way it looked.  I'll never forget climbing up the first viewpoint I was able to find after the intro and standing there for a full minute after synchronizing simply because I was admiring the scenery.  While I remember the visuals of the game vividly, I remember the game proper less-so, which I suppose is telling, but I recall that I enjoyed the game a lot, aside from the really, really long and boring speeches from Al Mualim that culminated in getting a new or better piece of weaponry.  Simply put, I really liked Assassin's Creed and was a little bothered after playing AC2 that people actually recommended skipping the first one because for all that AC2 did right, I feel it did a lot wrong as well and was not 'objectively better' than the first, which would be the only reason to skip it.

I say all this because the first Assassin's Creed has brought something out of me that 2 didn't:  excitement.  And that's something that Brotherhood failed to do as well, unfortunately.  That isn't to say I didn't like AssBro, because I did.....more or less, which is the very point of elaboration this post is going to make.  It's just that, AC2 and AssBro left me in a constant state of 'waiting for it' and whatever 'it' was, I don't know what it was, but I know it never came.  Which meant my entire state of playing both games was enjoying what I was getting, but always waiting for that 'it', then being left with something of dis-satisfaction when it inevitably never came.  Still the lack of that certain 'it' doesn't really detract from either game overall, but both games have their own individual things detracting from them all their own.

One of those detracting factors was certainly not the titular addition of the Brotherhood which adds a deceptively large amount to the game despite the relatively small time it's primarily featured in the game.  A good portion of the main story in, you actually unlock it, then you 'have' to use it (it meaning your assassin disciples) a few times, then never again is it necessary but for your own personal amusement and enjoyment.  Though I'm not sure I can claim it's under-utilized as, in the words of Chance from his first review (that he urges you eschew in favor of the second review that is shorter and he prefers) the Brotherhood is like "an overpowered magic spell on a cooldown."  And it really kind of is.  Basically, you have a little bar beneath your health bar that shows off whether or not your Assassins are ready to come out at your call, and if it indicates that they are, all you need to do is press L2 when there are guards nearby.

What happens then is that one or two of your recruits (depending on how many you have and how many are away on missions) pop out of fucking nowhere and cause a ruckus.  There's a really, really good chance that they'll be able to kill the guards without a resistance thanks to the AI who still, still doesn't know how to recognize a shanking in progress, but even if a fight starts, your recruits stand a really good chance of toughing it out, killing their foes and running off to rejoin the aether or whatever they do.  Only once did I ever stand a chance of losing a recruit in a fight and that was because it was less of a fight and more of a small-scale war between Borgia's men and my assassins, all in a near vain attempt to keep from being detected while escorting a senator to a place where he could hide.  That took like twenty minutes to find for some reason.  Still, what the Brotherhood gives you is a real sense of raw power that no other game, especially those with a similar theme of building up a faction, has yet to offer.  You can literally walk towards a group of guards, hit L2 and walk by and away from them and know that they are going to die without so much as a press of the square button on your part.

Unfortunately, using the Brotherhood detracts from what I feel is one of AssBro's strongest features:  the combat.  (This is where you're going to start seeing a complete divergence of opinions from myself and Chance, by the way.)  The introduction of the Execution Chain system really shows the development of Ezio that started in AC2 as a recruit himself, as it shows that he has been at this business of killing people for long enough that he's got it down to a science.  Upon killing one foe, repeated strikes of the square button and the pressing of the analog stick into the direction of the next person whom you want dead, Ezio complies with that in short order, provided he's not attacked in the meantime.  Meaning, things die really, really fast around Ezio and that's just the way it should be in my opinion.

Talking about Ezio's growth as an assassin leads comfortably into talking about Ezio's growth as a character....or it would, if I could properly articulate said growth.  I'm one of the few who didn't see a whole lot of positive in Ezio in AC2 which was further cemented by the way AC2 ended in which Ezio showed faux-maturity that ended up biting him in the ass because it was stupid.  So I'm not sure I could say Ezio even grew at all during AC2, yet was smug the entire way through it for reasons that I couldn't comprehend aside from "Hey, I've killed dudes and not died".  However, he really tones down the smug factor in AssBro which is welcome and instead becomes much more cool-headed and authoritative which is fitting, considering his ascension to the role of Master Assassin.  Which, despite being able to control/lead the whole Brotherhood of Assassins from fairly early on in the game, the actual, official ascension doesn't happen until a ways into it.

The rest of the story is kind of hit-or-miss insofar as being an actual story versus being someone telling Ezio to go save this guy from getting killed because shut up and do it.  Now, I exaggerate a lot in my writing, you know that and I know that, but there was literally, literally a section of the game, where I had absolutely zero fucking clue what was going on.  Someone told me I needed to rescue this guy I was supposed to know from being killed while performing a play and I apparently needed to be in a Roman costume to do so and the entirety of the section went by with me doing it without having any idea why I was doing this other than the fact that it ended with me getting a plot key.  Is it possible that I forgot some part of the story because I would periodically take breaks from the story by exploring the map which provided endless amounts of fun more than the story missions themselves?  Yes.  Entirely possible.  But I would suggest that if I would rather run around to nondescript portions of Rome to buy up shops rather than continue the story, there might be something wrong with the story.

Then again, I might've rather gone off to buy up things around Rome because of a little Game-OCD that AssBro is all too willing to exploit.  Where AC2 had actual attempts at explaining away their 'collect-a-thon' items, i.e. the flags, feathers, chests, AssBro merely assumes you're going to pay that explanation forward for this game because those things are still present and are not talked about whatsoever.  If that wasn't bad enough, I am partially sure that there are some of these items that you can only collect while you're not actually in the proper streets of Rome, but rather the sewers and other such undesirable locations.  I say partially sure because, while I've seen (and collected) flags in one of the Romulus Shrine missions (which take place in maps that are only available for the duration of those missions unless you re-select it from the animus) I'm not sure the game would make these items semi-missable.  Of course, I have bought the maps that show me all the feathers and I'm pretty sure I don't see the one I'm missing on the main map, so I might just be wrong.  And it's totally not cool if that's the case.

Similarly not cool is how the game handles some of the items it wants to sell you by putting them behind an arbitrary wall called the "Shop Quests" in which you take an arbitrary amount of goods to a store and trade them for the ability to buy a weapon or item.  At least, I think it's the ability to buy the item, but I wouldn't know because I've yet to get all the items for -any- of the Shop Quests because what the fuck, why do you need eight rolls of silk, and other such oddities.  These items that you need are only available through treasure chests scattered around the city (which I imagine have their contents randomly generated), chests found at the end of Shrine quests (since the ones throughout the Shrine maps have only had florins in them for me), rewards for high-level Assassin Contracts for your Brotherhood to perform, and off Borgia Messengers and thieves, the both of which you have to get via catching them as they are running away from you while there are also thieves that challenge you and carry said items on their corpses to be looted.

I was trying to think of some way to smoothly segue into the topic, but I really shouldn't try and dance around it:  the platforming, what one would think is the main draw of the AC games, is simply not up to par in my eyes.  This is pretty much exemplified by one of the new additions to AssBro from AC2 - The Borgia Towers.  I'm going to be honest here and say that if there's one thing I love about AssBro it's....well, the combat.  But if there's two things I love about AssBro it's combat and the majority of every Borgia Tower conquest.  The majority because the actual climbing of the thing just sucks until you get the high-climb gloves or whatever they're called and even then it's kind of a chore.  Scaling things is just tiresome since Ezio doesn't really climb all that fast and doesn't like to reach out towards things that he can actually grab onto despite slamming the stick in its direction and cursing loudly.  And that's kind of true for the platforming as a whole in that Ezio just likes going places you don't tell him to go and doesn't go where you tell him to go.  I can't tell you how many times I ended up jumping off a perch to my near-death because Ezio decided "Hey, I'm not going to jump on that beam that the control stick is being pointed towards because the grass looks so inviting I want to roll around in it." but that number is high, I assure.

It's the worst when the -game- doesn't even know where to let you go, which, I don't know if it's just a glitch, bad programming or -what-, but I had a really egregious example of terrible earlier today that pretty much cemented things for me in this department.  Upon doing one of the latter Romulus Shrine missions, I came across one that revolved solely around platforming and the Full Synchronization task offered was "Do not lose more a full block of health." which I read as "Don't lose any health" because I don't think I ever took less than a full block of damage in the rest of the game.  I'll get to full synch in a moment, but on my fourth attempt of fulfilling this accomplishment, I was right at the end of the shrine when I realized that I had apparently walked right by one of the giant glowing things I needed to shoot and had to go back to it.  Fair enough, I guess, and I started climbing up the conveniently made way up when Ezio got to a point where he decided to reach to the left.  And he grabbed something - what it was, I have no idea - and pulled himself towards it, but since there was actually nothing there, he then promptly fell to the ground and lost four squares of health, causing me to rage out.  I did not jump.  I didn't do anything that would have prompted me to fall, and there was no reason I should have fallen.  But I did.  And that problem (falling/jumping when or in a direction that I clearly shouldn't have) was a problem I had throughout the rest of the game, but that was one that could clearly, clearly not be called -my- fault.

Examples like the one above are pretty much precisely why I grew to hate the Full Synchronization goal throughout completion of the game.  Sure, it was apparently completely optional, but the context of the game didn't suggest as much, since it's introduced in such a way that might suggest you may not be able to continue with the game unless you get 100% synch on at least a majority of missions.  This is not the case, and 100% synch is, as far as I can tell, not required in any way, not even for a trophy, and exists purely as a way to 'challenge' yourself because it's supposed to be a challenge.  Yet there are too many examples where the Full Synch goal is put -just- out of realistic reach in such a way that generally lets you get through a mission mostly until it throws something at you that all-but ensures you'll fail through only a small fault of your own.

An example I used earlier for the Brotherhood's hardiness is what I'll throw this Full Synch thing out the window with as well.  That mission, escorting a Senator around town where the Full Synch requirement is "Don't be detected", is littered with spots where the game actually spawns guards right near you so you have to tell the Senator to stay put while you find a way to deal with them in a way that doesn't get you spotted.  I fell back on the Crossbow and Assassins for the majority of the mission only to find that, when I beat it, I didn't get full synch because it counted one of the detections from a failed attempt.  Since if you fail full synch, you're supposed to go into the menu and hit "Restart memory" which starts the entire goddamn thing over again.  I'm assuming there's no "restart from last checkpoint" option present in the game because the game basically autosaves for every little thing, whether it's finding out your assassin that you sent on an easy mission succeeded or everytime Ezio sneezes.  (That may be an exaggeration.)

It bears mentioning that, despite my saying that I would probably check it out, I did not check out the Multiplayer aspect of the game before this post.  I think there was maintenance going on today anyway, but regardless, I can't and won't comment on that part of the game because of that.  Aside from saying that I still think it looks pretty cool and is actually kind of well-thought out if it works how I think it does, since I have seen some videos and streaming of the MP mode being played.  Regardless, you probably can't review AssBro without at least mentioning the multiplayer, so I did.  That's about all I can say on it; looks cool, didn't play.

The last thing I want to cover, before I get to the break-down is the fact that I love being able to get out of the Animus.  There's not a whole lot to do aside from look for a few artifacts that, I guess, have no impact on anything, and check emails that I was lead to imagine meant something, but if there was something to be gleaned from them, I missed out on it completely.  You can also have a few chats with the rest of the 'party' as it were, which provide quite a bit of entertainment, but they're pretty much entirely filler.  One such conversation I remember well is where Desmond asks the History Major what happens to one of Ezio's conquests and he replies, basically, "She went home, got pneumonia and died", to which Desmond can only say "...Oh.  That's kind of sad." to.  I guess it helps that I -love- the dry wit of that guy, where I imagine others find him off-putting, but still, my point remains.

The Good
  • Combat is powerful and smooth and really translates Ezio's proficiency at his job
  • The Non-Climbing Parts of the Borgia Tower missions are Awesome and fun, because of all the different ways you can get at, and then kill, the Captains
  • Rome is big and beautiful and offers you a lot, should you choose to explore it
  • Being able to explore modern day Monteriggioni as Desmond was fun, if mostly unnecessary
  • Pretty much everything about The Brotherhood is enjoyable, provided you don't mind menus
  • Specifically separated from the above, calling in Assassins to kill guards never gets old
  • Buying/renovating buildings and landmarks is oddly satisfying.
    The Bad
    • The platforming doesn't always works and chooses the worst times to not
    • The story is pretty poorly-paced with only flashes of brilliance here and there
    • Why do I have to collect 101 Borgia flags again?
    • Shop Quests are both stupid -and- unnecessary
    • Full Synchronization oftentimes calls for things that require far too much effort because the game intentionally tries to screw you up on it. It's never impossible, but almost always frustrating
    • The final mission was a prolonged boss fight and said boss fight was terrible
    • That Ending
    • Seriously, where the hell is the rest of the story? Oh right, In Revelations
      Mogs Says
      For all its faults, of which there are plenty, I still think AssBro manages to take what AC2 did right and make it better as well as introducing various other elements that it does right by.  As such, there's a strong argument towards saying AssBro is a better game, though not fully.  In its own right, AssBro is actually a pretty good game and while it doesn't lack in game content, it lacks in story content, for Ezio and Desmond both.  Still, there is a lot of fun to be had with the game, and I'd definitely recommend it if you were a fan of the previous two Assassin's Creed games.  Besides, if you want the entirety of AC2's story (which I think we all do), it's vital.

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