Re­mem­ber­ing As­sas­sin’s Creed: Brother­hood, when gam­ing’s most

In Rome, a se­ries mired in an iden­tity cri­sis for once set­tled on what it wanted to be

EDGE - - SEC­TIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Pub­lisher Ubisoft De­vel­oper In-house (Mon­treal) For­mat 360, PC, PS3 Re­lease 2010

Ubisoft makes a lot more than just

As­sas­sin’s Creed, but where would it be with­out Al­taïr, Ezio, Con­nor and the rest? More per­ti­nently, what would its games look like? In the eight years since a hooded avatar first leapt from steeple to haystack, As­sas­sin’s Creed has not just be­come the most im­por­tant line on Ubisoft’s bal­ance sheet, but also a driv­ing in­flu­ence on al­most ev­ery de­sign doc­u­ment that spools from its print­ers. What­ever the set­ting or cen­tral me­chanic, if the com­pany is mak­ing an open-world game then

As­sas­sin’s Creed will run deep in its DNA. And it does make a lot of open worlds.

In­tro­duced in the first As­sas­sin’s Creed, the formula of cap­tur­ing – or, in Al­taïr’s case, scal­ing – a point to fill out the map in its vicin­ity has be­come Ubisoft’s call­ing card, de­ployed in the past 12 months alone in Watch Dogs, Far Cry 4 and The Crew, three no­tion­ally very dif­fer­ent games united by their pub­lisher’s best prac­tice. Yet while the first As­sas­sin’s Creed laid foun­da­tions for the se­ries’ me­chan­ics and its lore, it didn’t make for much of a game. Its two pro­tag­o­nists – Al­taïr Ibn-La’Ahad in the past and Des­mond Miles in the present – had lit­tle to say and not much of worth to do. That would im­prove in the sec­ond game, Al­taïr mak­ing way for the im­mea­sur­ably more like­able Ezio Au­di­tore Da Firenze and Miles see­ing his skills trans­fer back to the real world. Look­ing back, As­sas­sin’s Creed was the tech demo and its di­rect se­quel was the proof of con­cept. But Brother­hood was the peak and tip­ping point, the game where Ubisoft briefly un­der­stood what it wanted the se­ries to be and ex­e­cuted it in style.

That said, it’s a hard game to go back to. El­e­ments that once felt novel have since been reprised at least once a year in the se­ries, and many more times through­out Ubisoft’s bulging back cat­a­logue. The law of di­min­ish­ing re­turns holds true. What once in­spired ap­pre­ci­a­tion now in­vites cyn­i­cism, each canny de­sign choice taken not on its mer­its but seen as a scrawl on a white­board at Ubisoft Mon­treal that no one ever both­ered to wipe clean. Brother­hood’s com­po­nent parts may have been copied and pasted into other games in dif­fer­ent gen­res, but once your eyes have stopped rolling, you can see that those ideas, while of­ten bor­rowed, have rarely been bet­tered.

Take, for in­stance, the tu­to­rial. Ubisoft has long strug­gled to el­e­gantly ex­plain the morass of sys­tems within its games, and a new As­sas­sin’s Creed in­vari­ably means a pon­der­ous open­ing while each lit­tle me­chanic is re­layed one by one. That is cer­tainly the case here – five hours in, you’re still be­ing shown new things – but each in­tro­duc­tion makes sense within a story mov­ing at such a rate. And for once, Ubisoft’s an­nual it­er­a­tion of­fers a bonus to the player as well as the share­holder. As the sec­ond game in the Ezio tril­ogy (still the only ex­am­ple of its kind in a se­ries that has in­tro­duced a new pro­tag­o­nist with each re­lease since Rev­e­la­tions), Brother­hood kicks off its tale sec­onds af­ter the con­clu­sion of

ACII with a two-minute cutscene, then puts a blade in Ezio’s hand in short or­der there­after. He’s got all his ACII endgame gear and a whop­ping health bar, and while it’s in­evitable that they will be taken away, even this cliché is han­dled with el­e­gance. It’s not a flash­back or cat­a­clysmic event that strips our hero of his toys and tough­ness, but a sex scene, a sur­prise Bor­gia at­tack set­ting Ezio run­ning from a morn­ing quickie half-dressed and empty handed. Within half an hour of the disc spin­ning for the first time, Ezio’s fam­ily seat is in ru­ins, his rel­a­tives ei­ther dead or dis­patched to safety, and he leaves the scorched Mon­terig­gioni coun­try­side for the stonework sprawl of Rome to ex­act re­venge. It makes ‘press B to crouch’ look in­cred­i­bly clumsy.

It’s along the banks of the Tiber that Brother­hood re­veals its evo­lu­tions of ideas brought into life in ear­lier games, plus a few new no­tions of its own. Three games in, scal­ing view­points was al­ready be­gin­ning to lose its lus­tre. Mean­while, the first game’s pre­re­lease prom­ise of freeform stealth had gone un­ful­filled, at first ask­ing that play­ers spend an un­ac­cept­able amount of time sit­ting on benches and then, in the se­quel, hid­ing be­hind the skirts of a hired group of cour­te­sans. Brother­hood sought to fix both of these prob­lems in one go.

While tra­di­tional view­points re­mained in abun­dance, many took the form of

Bor­gia tow­ers. These well-staffed camps and struc­tures needed clear­ing out, climb­ing and burn­ing down be­fore the map icons in the vicin­ity be­came avail­able. Tightly wound, filled with cor­ners and cover, these were spaces de­signed for flex­i­ble stealth. While As­sas­sin’s Creed has, both be­fore and since, al­lowed play­ers to get spot­ted and draw their swords with­out penalty (in­stafail stealth mis­sions aside), here there was a pain­ful con­se­quence to be­ing seen. The reg­i­ment’s cap­tain, who must be killed be­fore you can claim the tower, usu­ally bolts if you’re spot­ted; if he es­capes to his safe room, you’ll have to wait un­til the guard ro­tates at dawn or dusk to try again. As well as mak­ing good on years-old prom­ises, strip­ping away the Bor­gia’s hold over Rome one flam­ing, col­laps­ing tower at a time added a weighty sense of achieve­ment to the fa­mil­iar rou­tine of un­cov­er­ing the map.

There was a more pro­found ben­e­fit to cap­tur­ing points, too. The view­point con­cept was al­ways in­con­gru­ous, ask­ing play­ers to ac­cept that the tallest land­marks in a city are per­fect for spy­ing on its denizens, rather than dis­tanc­ing you from them. Here, re­mov­ing the Bor­gia’s in­flu­ence from an area al­lowed Ezio to ren­o­vate and re­open a se­ries of shut­tered small busi­nesses, each of which would pay out a small trib­ute ev­ery 20 min­utes. It gave con­text to the one-but­ton busy­work and – com­bined with sim­i­lar re­build­ing works de­manded by the story, such as a pub done up to give the Thieves’ Guild a base of op­er­a­tions, or a knock­ing shop made over to give Ezio’s mother and sis­ter some­where to hide – pro­vided the tan­gi­ble sense that Ezio was push­ing his en­e­mies back. It was a change for a se­ries where progress had been mea­sured in VIPs killed while the world around you lay un­changed.

As the Bor­gia guards thinned out, you be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the world. OK, most of the peo­ple in it were there only to fill the streets with walk­ing, talk­ing cover, but the city about them was steeped in at­mos­phere.

As­sas­sin’s Creed’s world-build­ing is al­ways at its best when you’re dropped in a city that still stands, sur­rounded by ar­chi­tec­ture that still ex­ists; in Rome, Brother­hood had a recog­nis­able, beau­ti­ful ur­ban sprawl that would go un­matched un­til As­sas­sin’s Creed

Unity. A re­strained, ethe­real score by Jes­per Kyd – whose ab­sence from later games in the se­ries has been felt keenly – fur­ther added to a sense of place, to a world that felt recog­nis­able and real but re­tained a sense of oth­er­ness, the strings kick­ing in as Ezio clam­bered up the side of an­other Ro­man ed­i­fice or stalked his next mark.

Ezio’s in­flu­ence would spread far be­yond the city walls, too. The legacy of all these el­e­ments can be felt else­where in the Ubisoft oeu­vre, but none makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Ubisoft of then and now so clear as the tit­u­lar brother­hood sys­tem. A finely made metagame in which you re­cruited As­sas­sins then sent them far and wide to fur­ther the brother­hood’s in­flu­ence across the con­ti­nent, it re­in­forced

BOR­GIA TOW­ERS GAVE CON­TEXT TO ONE

BUT­TON BUSY­WORK AND THE SENSE THAT

EZIO WAS PUSH­ING HIS EN­E­MIES BACK

the sense that you were chang­ing the world for the bet­ter, and was a pleas­ant dis­trac­tion in its own right. Af­ter dis­ap­pear­ing from the se­ries en­tirely for four years, it re­turned for

Unity as a mo­bile com­pan­ion app.

What must, to the in­vestor, seem like Ubisoft’s great­est as­set – a vast net­work of global stu­dios that can en­sure that each suc­cess­ful se­ries yields a new game ev­ery year – is its big­gest cre­ative prob­lem. That busy sched­ule means that by the time this year’s As­sas­sin’s Creed hits shelves, work on the next will be well un­der­way. Any lessons learned about what does, or doesn’t, work will have to wait for at least 12 months. Lit­tle won­der, then, that so much of Brother­hood’s magic was left be­hind and

As­sas­sin’s Creed has be­come so con­fused. Rev­e­la­tions, the clos­ing in­stal­ment of the Ezio tril­ogy, was seem­ingly made un­der the as­sump­tion that what play­ers most wanted from As­sas­sin’s Creed was a Bat­man game, given its baf­fling fo­cus on gad­getry. By game’s end, Ezio had some 150 vari­a­tions on the theme of ‘bomb’. It had a tower de­fence sys­tem and first­per­son puz­zle sec­tions. It was as if ideas were blindly folded in for the sake of giv­ing play­ers some­thing dif­fer­ent to do and to hell with how it hung to­gether. It’s been a re­cur­ring theme ever since.

As­sas­sin’s Creed has leapt an­nu­ally be­tween time pe­ri­ods, set­tings and pro­tag­o­nists. Its worlds have be­come big­ger but flat­ter, more rid­dled with stuff but feel­ing ever emp­tier. Ubisoft has never found a world as rich as Rome or a hero as af­fa­ble as Ezio, but then none since have had to stick around long enough for it to mat­ter. Black Flag warmed cock­les (and shiv­ered timbers), but it was a fine Pi­rates Of The Caribbean game and a luke­warm As­sas­sin’s Creed. No mat­ter: 12 months later, Ed­ward Ken­way was gone, play­ers were trans­ported across the At­lantic to Paris, and the clock wound for­ward by the best part of a cen­tury. Next up is Vic­to­rian Lon­don, and as ap­peal­ing as that may be, Brother­hood shows that As­sas­sin’s

Creed is about more than just his­tor­i­cal tourism. It is about sys­tems, sto­ries and set­tings that work to­gether, rather than get in each other’s way. If there’s still time, Ubisoft could do with look­ing back to 2010 and when – for the first time, but hope­fully not the last – the most mud­dled se­ries in videogames al­most made sense.

Lan­tern swing­ing added wel­come flu­id­ity to a traver­sal sys­tem that had pre­vi­ously strug­gled with right an­gles. It was used to par­tic­u­larly fine ef­fect in the Lairs Of Romulus sec­tions, some­what re­call­ing Prince OfPer­sia:TheSand­sOfTime

TOP Rome’s streets were too cramped for horse rid­ing.

ABOVE Clearly, women only be­came tricky to an­i­mate on newer con­soles: they were in Brother­hood’s mul­ti­player

While later re­leases largely ig­nored Brother­hood’s suc­cesses, there was a sign of things to come in Loose Cannon, where Ezio takes out Bor­gia ships on a fire­ball-spit­ting gon­dola

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