3. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Other than Black Flag, Brotherhood, technically the third game in the series, still has the best overall gameplay, and its combat is superior to every other title released thus far. It was the first game to introduce chain-kills, which allowed the player to turn Ezio into a dizzying flurry of blades as he swept one insta-kill to the next. ACIII and the games that shared its engine—Liberation, Black Flag and Rogue—continued the chaining mechanic, but like with the rest of their gameplay, combat was considerably dumbed down. Never in Assassin’s Creed’s history was chopping and stabbing more viscerally satisfying than in Brotherhood, and some of the kill animations are completely ridiculous, namely one in which Ezio stabs an enemy in the temple, then pushes his body around to fire his hidden gun through the guy’s head and into another enemy.
However, when the game was first announced, I was very suspicious. This was the first annual entry, and I was dubious of AC’s annualization from the start. The year before I played Modern Warfare 2 until my eyes bled but I held Assassin’s Creed to a higher standard and didn’t want to see it stagnate like I was sure Call of Duty was bound to (for the record, I’ve played every COD since, but my interest has waned with the last two games). I became intrigued when I saw early gameplay footage showing Ezio leaping from a rooftop onto the back of a horse, and I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got my hands on the game.
Brotherhood is essentially Assassin’s Creed 2.5, but done in such a way as to not feel obnoxious. If nothing else, Assassin’s Creed games always make the player feel like they got their $60 worth. It was odd that the Italian Renaissance-set ACII neglected to feature Italy’s most famous city, but with over 20 hours of gameplay, moving Rome to its own game never felt like a cash grab to me, even though it clearly was. This is partly because Rome is just so huge, so even though Ezio is confined to a single location, that location is vast enough that you never feel trapped; the illusion of the open world is maintained. Plus, exciting one-off missions that tasked the player with destroying Da Vinci inventions were set in different locales all across Italy and Western Europe.
Brotherhood wraps up Ezio’s conflict with the Borgia and felt like a fitting conclusion to his life story. Desmond’s plot was also a bit more involved this time around and ended with the series’ best and most shocking cliffhanger, one that was never fully paid off. Ezio’s story has nary a mention of the First Civilization and is the better for it. The Apple of Eden is still the MacGuffin central to the plot, but where it comes from and how it can control men’s minds is never of much concern to the Assassins or the Templars. At one point Ezio asks his allies, “and who is this Desmond?” but they never find out, and it’s never brought up again.
Brotherhood really acts as the conclusion to the revenge plot set up in ACII. Pope Alexander takes a backseat as his son Cesare comes to the forefront as the chief antagonist, and joins Ezio’s shit list when he executes his uncle Mario. A bizarre Renaissance soap opera then unfolds as Cesare and sister/lover Lucrezia vie for power, while their father struggles to maintain his hold on the Templar Order and Papacy alike. Meanwhile, Ezio stalks them and their cronies until facing down Cesare in the midst of an insane castle siege.
ACII saw Ezio evolve from brash rogue to hardened Assassin, and here he forms his own brotherhood and becomes a Master of the Order. The Brotherhood mechanic was a brilliant way to weave plot and gameplay together, allowing Ezio to recruit men and women to his cause and send them on missions all across the continent. You could even import your Assassins into the Facebook companion game, Project Legacy, Ubisoft’s first foray into cross-platform multimedia (it was also the first time they abandoned one of the experiments without warning or statement; a similar fate is currently befalling their Initiates web service).
Brotherhood proved that Assassin’s Creed could be an annual franchise but it was also the high point for the series. Revelations, ACIII and Liberation all followed, and all were disappointments. It wasn’t until the pirate-themed Black Flag that AC regained its former glory, only to dash it the next year with Unity. And even if Black Flag was a blast to play, by then the narrative was in shambles. Brotherhood would mark the last time AC achieved that beautiful blend of gameplay and story.
A Note on Multiplayer
It occurred to me after posting this that I neglected to mention Brotherhood’s multiplayer mode, which would return in Revelations, ACIII and Black Flag. This was another red flag for me when the game was first announced, as the 2000s was the decade of tacked-on multiplayer. Every game had to have a multiplayer component, even games whose concepts didn’t lend themselves to it, such as Dead Space. I figured AC would be the same, and that the multiplayer would be dumb and poorly-made. It ended up being one of my favorite multiplayer games ever, and I would continue playing it until I got burnt out with Black Flag.
I liked it because it was multiplayer that actually emphasized stealth. The stealthier you were, the more points you accrued. You could run around like a maniac but you wouldn’t accrue enough points to win. Players chose avatars then stepped into a contained map filled with NPCs that looked identical to all the participants’ avatars. This meant that you had to watch closely for behavior that looked human and not NPC. It could be slow and frustrating and matchmaking was a bitch, but getting those high-point kills was more satisfying than any COD killstreak.