Dec 192010

My review of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has gone up at GameCritics, but in case you don’t want to bother, the summary is that Brotherhood is great and you should get it. It’s not great like War and Peace is great. Brotherhood completely squanders all the awesome things you could do thematically with the horrible Papacy of Alexander VI and instead uses that as a backdrop for more of its tediously silly techno-conspiracy mumbo-jumbo. And, it’s not great like Saint Peter’s Basilica is great, because its poor design choices and occasionally slapdash construction deny it any real feel of majesty. Brotherhood is great like a really delicious dinner at a new restaurant with horrible decor. It’s different, and fun, and you just can’t understand some of the choices that were made in the setup.

Unless you’re really jonesing for some more Assassin’s Creed gameplay you probably shouldn’t grab this game just for the single-player campaign before the price drops. It’s a substantial offering, but none of the few changes that were made from Assassin’s Creed II really improve it (although the crossbow and your apprentices add some fun). And, if you just want to get your feet wet in the series, Assassin’s Creed II is the better place to start, because Brotherhood doesn’t really introduce the gameplay or the story very well. No, the reason to get the game is for the multiplayer.

Brotherhood‘s multiplayer isn’t quite like anything else. Deathmatch gameplay for shooters has been the same since I was in high school: run around like a maniac, kill everything that moves, and be the first guy to the rocket launcher. In Brotherhood, however, running around like a maniac will only show your enemies where you are, killing anything that’s not your target will give your enemies points, and there’s definitely no launcher to pick up. Scoring lots of points requires you to stay hidden and low profile until you’ve got your target in your sights, then kill quickly and vanish into the crowd again before the guy hunting you gets wise. I have been really enjoying it, especially since I got the hang of playing defense in Manhunt mode.

That’s not to say that it’s ideal. The multiplayer seems to have a bunch of server-side issues. Sometimes the matchmaking is lousy, sometimes enormous quantities of NPCs appear suddenly out of nowhere, and it’s not unusual to see other players glitching, including my favorite bug where a player seems to glide over the ground in a crouched position. These are implementation issues, however. From the design side, my only major complaints are that the game is missing a deliver-the-package mode, and that I don’t like its leveling system.

Now, the idea of gaining levels doesn’t have anything to do with the single-player, which has little in the way of RPG elements. Rather, this seems to have become a bullet point for multiplayer games. Your score in a round of multiplayer also represents experience earned during the match, which increases your player level and unlocks various things. Sometimes you pick up a new ability or advance one you already have, and sometimes you get something that’s just silly, like the ability to change your persona’s outfit color. The purely cosmetic “gear” you get for the personae is the low point: the nobleman’s “Superior Gear” is apparently a feather for his cap. That’s not a euphemism — it’s literally a feather.

This points to a two-fold downside to the leveling system from the player’s perspective. Low-level players are at a serious disadvantage in equipment as well as experience, and also the content feels like it has been stretched to cover all 50 levels. The matchmaking tries to compensate for the first problem by assembling groups of players that have similar levels, but this only brings up an additional problem with this kind of leveling system, namely that mediocre players (e.g. me) can get themselves to a very high level through sheer repetition. It takes more matches to reach level 50 if your average score is closer to 2000 than 4000, but not that many more.

I also feel like the leveling system, as it currently stands, doesn’t encourage a great diversity of play. If you want to level up, the strategy is to perfect your technique with a few skills and maximize your score. Especially since you can’t make substantial changes to your loadout without backing out of the playing screen entirely, players are encouraged to play the same way all the time.

What’s particularly odd is that the game already has a perfectly good system in place that would address many of these complaints. In addition to the leveling, the multiplayer also includes a number of “challenges”, that involve, say, killing from a hidden position, or killing with a particular skill, or evading pursuers a set number of times. Getting to the first level of these challenges is fairly easy, but completing all three levels of each challenge can be very difficult. It seems to me that using these to measure progression would have been a superior approach.

For one thing, this approach fits more cleanly with the ideas of the single player game, which also features sets of challenges that Ezio is meant to complete to impress the various guilds. In addition, the diverse nature of the challenges means that in order to progress a player would have to try new skills and new play styles. Since completing the challenges is generally tougher than just scoring, a high player level would be more likely to represent actual skill, making those matchups better.

Multiplayer games that monitor and reward player progression are here to stay, and that’s not intrinsically a bad thing. I just happen to think that experience-based leveling systems where sometimes-silly perks are doled out in a trickle as a reward for sheer stubbornness aren’t the only or best choice. Particularly in the case of Brotherhood, the challenges provide a ready-made way to monitor progression while also encouraging players to expand their skills and vary the way they play. Whoever implemented the challenges made a good decision. The game should have been built around that good choice rather than adding an extraneous experience-based leveling system.

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