Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood First Impressions and a Bit of History

Sorry for the absurdly light posting week. I've been cranking out pages for Games and Maximum PC, and I also just got my Xbox 360 back from the shop. Losing one of my main reviewing platforms for the busiest three weeks of the gaming year is not cool, and I've been chipping away at a mightily impressive backlog.

First up was the game that's been taunting me for weeks now: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I was a big fan of AC2, for the reasons outlined here. I've been looking forward to the sequel, but also a bit dubious about how the new features and multiplayer would come together.

I've read a number of comments complaining that this is just an elaborate set of downloadable content, little more than an add-on disk. Those comments are written by ... what's the word I'm looking for? .... oh, yes: morons. DLC doesn't usually come with 20 hours of gameplay and an entirely new multiplayer mode.

Yes, this is just a continuation of Assassin's Creed II, expanding an already ludicrous plotline in an even more ludicrous way. In case you missed the previous games, the premise involves a machine that can project you into the memories of your ancestors, and allows you to relive those memories in real time. This machine is used to send Desmond Miles back into the life of his 15th century ancestor, Ezio Auditore. Ezio was a member of a secret society of assassins attempting to thwart the plans of the Templars to take over the world by collecting powerful artifacts. The Templars are still at 500 years later, in the guise of the Abstergo Corporation. Thus, Desmond and his allies are on the run from Abstergo in the modern world, while Desmond (acting through the memories of Ezio) is fighting against their ancestors in Renaissance Italy.

It doesn't make a lick of sense, and it frankly doesn’t need to. (Look, I read Doc Savage novels: logical plots and the suspension of disbelief are like dessert: nice, but not necessary.) Short version: Ezio is a powerful assassin with retractable wrist blades, the ability to vanish into a crowd, and an amazing set of acrobatic and fighting skills. He also gets to scamper around a staggering reproduction of 15th century Rome, running across rooftops, leaping from tall towers, and even sometimes taking to the air thanks to the inventions of his pal Leonardo da Vinci, who acts as a Renaissance version of James Bond’s Q by providing Ezio with nifty gadgets and weapons, such as cannons and machine guns.

There’s plenty of conspiracy, skullduggery, romance, and mystical mumbo jumbo, but lying at the core of all it is some absolutely engrossing gameplay. The game picks up right after the end of Assassin’s Creed II, and immediately jumps into the action after a completely unsuccessful attempt to get newcomers up to speed on the plot. The introductory clips play like a particularly jagged set of outtakes from the original game, and there is no way people new to the series will be able to figure out all the plot points, characters, relationships, and history that came before. This is a game about history, and one in which the history of the prior games is deeply entwined with premise and character. I wouldn't go so far as to call it unplayable by people who didn't catch the original, but newcomers will certainly find themselves adrift.

Whereas the real stars of Assassin's Creed II were Florence and Venice, Brotherhood gives center stage to Renaissance Rome. Once again, we get a spectacular recreation of a city, from its loftiest heights to the lowly beggars cringing in back alleys. At this point in history, Rome was still emerging from years of neglect and corruption, and factions were struggling for supremacy. At the heart of this festering enterprise is Roderigo Borgia, who as Pope Alexander VI was the most corrupt man to ever rise to the See of Peter. 

There is no question that Alexander VI was a deeply wicked man who was widely hated within the Vatican itself. Upon Rodrigo's election (accomplished through force and bribery), the man who would later become Pope Leo X remarked "Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all." The priests of St. Peter's refused to accept his body for funeral rites until forced to do so, and only a few priests even showed up for the Mass. His successor, Pius III, was a compromise choice selected because his age and frailty made him seem malleable. He responded by forbidding the saying of prayers for the soul of Alexander VI (saying that it was blasphemy to pray for the damned) and arresting Cesare Borgia, Alexander's son and heir apparent. This didn't work out so well for Pius: he was dead in less than a month, perhaps by poisoning. 

If the Borgias thought that was a solution, then they misjudged both the Church and the times. The next man to rise to the See of Peter was Giuliano della Rovere, a cunning and powerful figure who took the name Julius II as a deliberate echo of Julius Caesar. He forced the Borgias into decline, waged wars, and engaged in plenty of dubious behavior. But he also was one of the great patrons of Renaissance art and architecture, befriending and hiring Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Bramante and commissioning the painting of the Sistine Chapel and the reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica. The controversial methods used to raise money for these projects would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation, but not before Rome was once again a place worthy of being called "The Eternal City."

I teach Church history, so I'm pretty well attuned to the way the historical elements are handled in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Obviously, this is a work of fiction using history as a mere background. Complex issues are simplified and titillating elements are emphasized. For the most part, however, the game gets its depiction of the Borgias right. They really were that bad. There's certainly a strong possibility that Rodrigo was poisoned, although who did the deed is anyone's guess. Wiki has a particularly gruesome, and fairly accurate, description of Rodrigo's death and decomposition

The game also deals with the point at which the fortunes of the Borgias turned, and the Church finally attempted to cleanse itself of their influence. The anti-papal rhetoric in AC: Brotherhood is central to plot, but also true to the period in which the game takes place. In the end, the Borgias were defeated not by a band of secret assassins, but by a couple of popes and the Church hierarchy. Obviously, it would have been hard to work retracting blades into that particular storyline.

I let myself ramble a bit in this post, so I'll cut it short here and post more on AC: Brotherhood after I log some more playtime, particularly on multiplayer. This is an easy one to recommend, however, so don't miss it.