The surprising quality of Assassin’s Creed II, with its enormous cities, believable characters, engaging story and massively improved main story gameplay put Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a direct sequel to the game set to release on 16th November in North America and 19th November in Europe, near the top of my anticipation list, especially since it featured the same fantastic characters, and something new for the franchise in the form of a multiplayer mode. This beta is multiplayer-only, and features nine different character classes and three maps. These beta impressions deal with the Wanted gameplay mode, the only mode currently available.
The basic gameplay is relatively simple. You play as a Templar, in accordance with popular belief a complete psychopath who runs around cities and stabs…other templars? The explanation for this given by the game is that you are all ABSTERGO employees in an Animus training program; the ability to assassinate somebody while avoiding assassination yourself, using 500 year old weaponry, is apparently a very important skill in the world of 2012. So, that is exactly what you do. You are assigned a certain character to kill, and given a portrait of the character (not very helpful, since one in seven people in the game world look exactly the same – which, to be fair, is deliberate - and the disguise ability is learned fairly early on) and a compass which tells you how far away they are by position and size. Your contract is completed if you kill the character, and failed if you initiate open combat and the character escapes, or if somebody else kills the character or if you kill an “innocent civilian” (i.e. the person standing right next to the target in question, who unfortunately looks exactly the same as them). At the same time, somebody else in the game (this can go up to two other people if you have a high ranking in the current game) is trying to find and kill you. “Well, that’s ridiculous”, you say. “I can just sprint up to the person and stab them”. Actually, you can’t.
When you are in your target’s line of sight (remembering that your target has 360o vision and so can see behind them), the compass turns blue, and any high profile actions you perform (notably running) will empty the threat meter, which is found to the left of the character’s portrait. If you manage to receive the contract and kill the target without this meter ever decreasing, it is an incognito kill, and you receive a bonus 300 points, on top of the 100 points afforded for killing the target. If you raise their suspicion at one point, even if only for a fraction of a second, but it then decreases, you gain a silent bonus: 200 points. If the target is somewhat suspicious when you stab your blade into their face, this will give you a measly 50 point bonus, and if you decide to leg it, and empty the threat meter, this alerts your target to your presence. If you manage to kill them before the meter runs out, it’s just the 100 points for a kill for you. If they escape, you lose the contract. And no, you can’t revenge kill them afterwards, for some strange reason. The attack button doesn’t appear. This system aims to encourage stealth and, for the most part, it works.
The nine character classes are all functionally identical, with only different skins, weapons and kill animations to distinguish them. Of course, when a game begins and everyone grabs a character, the Courtesan and Smuggler, since they are female, are the first to get taken, and, almost without exception, the Noble, with his strange hunchback, is left until last. I am partial, personally, to the Doctor, Priest and Prowler (who is essentially an assassin), but again, they are all exactly the same, contrary to statements from Ubisoft in the beta manual. Each point you earn in-game is one experience point, and these add up to raise your level. You gain abilities (which are active), perks (which are passive) and win streaks and lose streaks – a Win is a successful kill, and a Loss is a lost contract or death. All characters earn the same abilities, and experience points are by account, rather than by character. The beta allows you to go up to Level 20, at which point you will have a multitude of abilities from which to choose, including Poison and Hidden Gun.
The two maps currently available are Siena and Rome. Where the former is a tiny carnival setting, the latter is an enormous city. I personally prefer Siena, as Rome too often has you traipsing around for several minutes (in a ten minute game) searching for your character until you eventually give up and stab the first person you see. Siena is fast-paced and exciting: you will never be wandering around in search of your target; you sprint after them, leap on them and stab them, most often before being stabbed yourself. There are hardly any buildings on which to hide, so the map is even smaller.
Thus, at its best, the Brotherhood beta is brilliant. It is ten minutes of stalking your prey before finding the correct time to slowly amble in and stab them, while always looking around for potential assassins out to murder you. Many a time, you will say “I knew that guy was going to kill me”, but of course, you will have thought “That guy is out to murder me!” some twenty times beforehand, each time in relation to a different character. It is part of the nature of the game, and it’s a little like being a detective: you must find the suspect even while several people are out to kill you. You will clamber up buildings with close to the amount of finesse of Ezio Auditore, run across, leap into haystacks and realize that your target is actually in the opposite direction, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Or, you would, if that was all there was to say.
In an untold story set shortly before the events of Brotherhood, the Assassins seem to have infiltrated Abstergo and installed viruses onto the animi, with the result that the animus glitches quite often and quite severely. There is perhaps nothing in a game more frustrating than missing out on a kill because of a glitch. Therefore, when you aim at your target and end up stabbing somebody else entirely, when you are trying to lock on to your target and lock on to everyone else instead, and when you are trying to stun your pursuer, you press the button, and nothing happens. When you are on top of a building and want to swoop down and deliver death, and the kill prompt doesn’t appear, well, it’s irritating to say the very least. Then, you throw in the fact that matchmaking can take an indefinite amount of time, and can come one player away from a full game before going down to five players required. Add to that mix the tendency of the game to kick players for no apparent reason including the host, leading to a premature end to the games, and that horrible monstrous disgusting thing we call a freeze happening every hour or so, and it begins to tarnish the brilliant game beneath.
I can’t say I have many complaints related to the actual gameplay or design. The characters could have some more individuality, I suppose. Perhaps there could be a better system for aiming at targets to reduce the number of accidental civilian kills. Indeed, for a beta, with the relatively small amount of content available, this is gripping, addictive and highly enjoyable... the majority of the time. Unfortunately, when the bugs begin to appear (which can be worryingly often) your enjoyment of the game decreases drastically, and can even lead to a ragequit or two. Hopefully, however, with the extra month of polish and perhaps some after-release patches, they can improve stability and iron out bugs, and when they do, this will be a fantastic multiplayer segment to complement what is sure to be an incredible single-player campaign. There’s no need to be nervous, fellow AC2 fans. Ubisoft Montreal’s ideas for Assassin’s Creed multiplayer work, and they work well.