My word, doesn’t time fly? It seems like only yesterday I was having the original Assassin’s Creed described to me in less-than-glowing terms, with the one-at-a-time combat and the stupidly complicated setup coming in for particular criticism. That conversation was back in 2007 and dissuaded me from trying the series for four years, by which point there were already three sequels. Three! And now they’ve just gone and released the fourth one. That’s five games released in six years. Only CoD is more regular as a series.
Anyway, last year I jumped into it with Assassin’s Creed 2, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a very fine game despite the somewhat-sticky free-running controls. I even liked the preposterous setup of the Animus and the Templar/Assassin war. Unfortunately I made a mistake by attempting to do everything in the game before finishing it, and twenty-six hours later I collapsed a broken and shattered man after a compulsory two-hour DLC mission proved to be a bridge too far. I slunk away to watch the ending on Youtube, and then left the series alone even though I also had Brotherhood sitting in my Steam account. It’s very easy to burn out on AC games if you’re not careful, and it’s definitely not a series you should play more than once a year.
Which makes my decision to cap off 2012 by playing through the last three AC games in a row all the more baffling, really. This week, you get a double bill of my opinions on Brotherhood and Revelations. Next week, Assassin’s Creed 3.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Brotherhood takes place immediately after AC2 and chronicles the further adventures of that game’s clumsy-yet-likeable protagonist, Ezio Auditore. After making some monumental fuckups during the final stages of AC2 (the part I didn’t play) Ezio has his home blown up by the Borgias and the series MacGuffin stolen in an introductory sequence that lasts nearly two hours1 and flees to Rome, which is the worst place for him to hide since it’s basically the Borgia HQ. Rome has basically no Assassin presence, so the goals of the game are 1) Rebuild Assassin organisation in Rome, 2) Free the various districts of the city from Borgia control, 3) Kill Borgias, and 4) Retrieve the MacGuffin.
Now, this is fair enough for a two-hour intro sequence to set up, except after those two hours you don’t get to start the game proper. You get to start the tutorial. This is a problem endemic to the AC series: it can teach you how to move around and fight goons very quickly, but there are so many different game elements specific to Assassin’s Creed – notoriety, the different factions, shops, challenge levels, some bizarre fucking thing in Brotherhood called the Rome Global Economy that I never really understood – that by the time it’s done explaining them you’re halfway through the game. This probably wouldn’t be too much of a problem if Brotherhood didn’t lock those game elements off from the player until they’ve played through the relevant tutorial level; as it is it makes no provision for somebody who did most of this stuff in AC2 and just wants to get on with things, and for most of the game’s length I was raging against this developer-imposed straitjacket. When a game doesn’t stop teaching you new stuff until two-thirds of the way through, that means you’re only really playing one-third of a full game.
Case in point: Brotherhood makes several very nice iterative changes from AC2 but only really adds in one brand new feature to the game: the Assassin recruits. This is a band of cut-throats that Ezio can call upon at any time; he only has to whistle for a pair of assassins to sprout forth from a nearby haystack or drop from a rooftop to attack his target. This fits with the theme of the game – Ezio is done learning the assassin ropes and is now calling the shots for the entire Assassin order, so it’s only fitting that he’d have minions to do his dirty work for him – and leads to some hilarious scenes where Ezio is just calmly walking down the street towards his target while guards all around him are variously stabbed, shot and blowpiped by a horde of assassins without him ever having to lift a finger, but the thing I don’t get is that it isn’t until six hours in that the game gives you your first assassin recruit. I was done with the game by hour ten, having learned from my mistake with AC2 by ignoring most of the optional content, meaning I’d gone over half my playing time without seeing the feature that gave this edition of Assassin’s Creed its subtitle.
Aside from the recruits it’s pretty much business as usual: free-running, challenge levels posing as assassination contracts, obstacle courses and so on. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is a good Assassin’s Creed game; if you have never played an Assassin’s Creed game then it’s best compared to an open-world version of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. (And if you haven’t played that then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.) My one complaint – and this is a very personal one – is that I don’t think 16th century Rome is a very good location for it. Rome is a city built on top of a series of ruins, and while this has been faithfully recreated within the game it doesn’t make it very interesting to look at; it’s essentially a bunch of square houses interspersed with the odd mouldering monument. The thing I liked best about AC2 was that it portrayed Venice and Florence at the height of the Renaissance, with some appropriately stunning city environments and building interiors. Brotherhood’s problem is that it succeeds a little too well in creating a crumbling dilapidated Rome that has been too long under the heel of the Borgias, and as a result I treated it as an annoying series of boxes I had to climb over to get somewhere rather than as an actual place. It’s a trap a lot of open-world games fall into, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
Ah, now this is more like it. Perhaps sensing that a third AC game set in Italy would really be pushing it, the developers wisely chose to shift the action to Ottoman-era Constantinople. I like this move. I like it because it vindicates my complaint about Brotherhood. Revelations’ Constantinople is a rich, vibrant environment steeped in culture and history, and it’s a far cry from the pallid representation of Rome seen in Brotherhood. The use of colour is great, with the inhabitants of Constantinople wearing gorgeous patterned silks and the Janissaries patrolling the city clad in ornate ceremonial armour. It’s a far more visually interesting place, and this is good because otherwise Revelations is pretty much exactly the same game as Brotherhood.
Oh, as ever there’s a couple of additions to justify making a whole new game. Ezio is getting old – as indicated by his sporting a full-on grey-flecked beard — and isn’t quite as spry as he used to be, so these days he needs an assisted climbing aid in the form of the hookblade that makes up for his arthritis-riddled joints. The hookblade also allows him to use ziplines, which occasionally make getting around the city a bit easier. There’s also some final refinements made to the formula; fast travel nodes are now unlocked from the very start of the game and the tutorial segment is much shorter this time around, which are both excellent improvements. However, there’s really no getting around the fact that if you played Revelations straight after Brotherhood and you didn’t have my odd fascination with the way the AC series portrays different historical eras and places you’d probably be sick of it after just a couple of hours. It’s the same old schtick repeated for a third time, and aside from the baffling – and thankfully optional – tower defence segment there’s nothing in this game that’s genuinely new, it’s just all been renamed. Borgia towers are now Templar dens. The optional Romulus challenge levels have been woven into the main plotline as puzzles to find yet more magical MacGuffins. The shops and guards have been reskinned but use the same animations as they did in Brotherhood. As good as Revelations is – and it is the best of the three Ezio games thanks to the iterative approach of the series – you can hear the faint sounds of a horse being whipped to within an inch of its life the whole time you’re playing it. The stunning visuals of Constantinople just barely camouflage the fact that the series is starting to creak and wobble alarmingly, just like its protagonist.
Fortunately the developers have realised this too, and wisely pack up the Ezio plotline before we get sick of both the character and Assassin’s Creed games in general. The incomprehensible Desmond overplot is still trucking along, providing all the long-term story resolution of an episode of Lost2, but Revelations is used as an opportunity to otherwise tie up the series’ loose ends so that it can make a fresh start in Assassin’s Creed 3. It’s a smart move, as Ezio was starting to display Samus Aran levels of carelessness in losing all of his equipment and abilities at the start of each new game; as it is he at least retains some of his dignity and actually comes off as the master assassin on one last mission before retirement, providing at least some degree of closure for those of us who are actually following the plot.
I’m happy Revelations exists. Of all the AC games it’s the one that comes closest to the ideal of what its gameplay should be; there’s still too much pointless fluff in the game but you don’t have to deal with it if you don’t want to, and the core experience is remarkably solid. However, I’m also ready to move on. When I play the next Assassin’s Creed game I don’t want to be playing a slightly improved version of Revelations set in a different time period. I get a lot out of AC’s representation of history but that’s only a hook, not a reason in and of itself to endure a franchise which is released so frequently that it is in serious danger of oversaturation and stagnation if it doesn’t receive a much-needed injection of new ideas. So while I did enjoy Revelations very much, I’m also hoping Assassin’s Creed 3 will use its fresh start to give the series the creative shot in the arm it so desperately needs.