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
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