Review: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

Ezio Auditore da Firenze is summoned into battle once again as he aims to liberate Rome from the influence of the Borgia family. Small improvements to the campaign and a fresh multiplayer mode ensure that fans of the Assassin’s Creed franchise have plenty of content to get excited about.

Developing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood couldn’t have been easy. The last iteration (AC:II) shipped only twelve months previous and was applauded for fixing many of the jarring flaws in the original Assassin’s Creed. Many writers such as myself were worried that the short development cycle of Brotherhood would force Ubisoft to shrug off the single player experience as an after thought. We needn’t had worried. If you liked Assassin’s Creed II, you’ll almost certainly like what’s on offer here.

Nurturing a brotherhood of assassins is no doubt one of the largest additions to the game. Ezio can approach unruly citizens and enlist them to his cause, sending them out on missions and levelling them up with experience points. These can then be summoned into battle with a tap of the shoulder button, attacking large numbers of enemies or serving as a distraction as you drive toward your objective. The system isn’t forced upon you, as utilising them is only crucial to a handful of missions later in the game. I never felt an emotional tie or sense of personality from any of my members, so as a result I used them sparingly throughout the campaign.

Once Monteriggioni is all but destroyed, Ezio and his assassin chums head to Rome for the remainder of the game. The city is astoundingly huge and offers a wealth of districts, back alleys and landmarks to explore. The parkour controls make it incredibly easy to traverse the open world, again making brilliant use of rooftops, window sills and suspended signs. The setting does reuse many of the objects and textures found in Assassin’s Creed II though, surmounting in a location that lacks quite the same visual impact as Venice.

Players continue to explore Ezio’s memories so that Desmond Miles (a chap from present day) can learn of a political conspiracy. This section has a much larger prominence than previous games in the franchise, giving Desmond the chance to leave the animus and do a little free running of his own. There’s not an awful lot to discover here, but it’s a crucial reminder that what is happening to Ezio in the Renaissance period has implications for the future. A startling end sequence creates further questions for Desmond’s role and the motives of the Templars. Oh, and Shaun Hastings is just as annoying and idiotic as before.

The core missions have a nice amount of variety, including tailing enemies, infiltrating hideouts and performing covert assassinations. These can often require a great deal of stealth to complete, forcing players to pick specific routes or combinations of kills. Unfortunately this can sometimes lead to ‘trial and error’ scenarios, which is frustrating if you want to be creative and use a route that the developers didn’t intend. Nevertheless the campaign is paced well and consistently offers unique and enjoyable missions.

Just like in Assassin’s Creed II, there is a heap of side missions for Ezio to delve into. Players can help renovate Rome by purchasing buildings, receive upgrades by destroying war machines for Leonardo De Vinci and traverse tombs for a special armour set. The single player is already reasonably lengthy, but these additions mean that enthusiasts will be going after achievements and trophies for many weeks.

The multiplayer is a vital component of Brotherhood, but one that I can admit to not testing for this review. I’ve never been much of the online type and as a result, the new mode simply doesn’t interest me. From what I hear the experience is a unique take on cat and mouse, forcing players to hunt a target whilst they in turn are hunted by someone else. They are keeping the multiplayer for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, so presumably it has been a success and maintained an active community.

The engine has started to date a little bit in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, with occasional texture drop in and objects sporadically appearing in the distance. This is also apparent in some of the facial animations, which have since been eclipsed by titles such as L.A Noire or Heavy Rain. Despite these flaws the game has a massive attention to detail, realistically representing Rome in a stunningly historical fashion. Character animations continue to be a highlight, with Ezio leaping between rooftops and rolling across the floor with surprising fluidity and velocity.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise continues to refine its unique blend of stealth combat and period setting. Brotherhood does enough to justify itself and differentiate from the previous game, teasing players with further questions for Ezio’s final chapter, Revelations. If you’re interested in multiplayer this is a fantastic adventure game with great value both online and off.


What a decent Harry Potter video game would look like

The Harry Potter video games have been, for the most part, distinctly average. Far too preoccupied with mimicking key moments from the films, or trying to force game mechanics that have been successful in other franchises. It’s all been a bit of a mess, accumulating in a final instalment which many consider to the be the worst of the lot.

Although it’s easy to blame short development cycles or inexperienced teams, Electronic Arts should really know better. They’ve been in the business a long time and were entrusted with a brand that has millions of fans around the world. Surely they could have done a little more with the Harry Potter video games?

The concept for this piece was inspired by a recent post on Kotaku. They ask a simple question: If you could create a perfect Harry Potter video game, what would it be like? Both Jen and Sam bring up some interesting (and hilarious) ideas for their own prospective works, but what I really took away from the article was the need to go beyond the original source material.

From a business point of view, each Harry Potter game was designed to coincide with the films. That’s fine. Once a child leaves the cinema, they’re likely to spot the game in a shop and then want to do a little magic conjuring of their own. The difference is that these games don’t have to be a scene by scene representation of the films. They could be about an entirely different part of the Harry Potter franchise. Simply call them ‘Harry Potter 7’ and slap Daniel Radcliffe’s absurd face on the front cover. It’ll have the exact same effect on sales, regardless of the content inside.

Sam mentioned a prequel game, similar to what The Force Unleashed did with the Star Wars license. I think this is a fantastic idea, introducing characters who were mentioned in the books/ films, but never given the chance to be explored fully. I would consider taking this one step further – how about a game documenting each stage of a particular character’s life, such as in Assassin’s Creed? Let’s take James Potter for example.

James Potter started out as a pupil in Hogwarts. This chapter could be presented in a similar fashion to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with an open world school and classes to attend at your leisure. Small cut scenes could tie it into the original literature, such as meeting Lily Potter and making friends with Sirius, Lupin and Peter Pettigrew. Otherwise it could deviate into new territory, using platforming and dialogue trees to show how the school once operated.

Upon graduation, James then fought in The First Wizarding War as a member of the Order of the Pheonix. Marking the original reign of Lord Voldemort, this section could show Potter senior in a new, older light. Upgraded powers could be used to take on missions from either the Ministry of Magic, distressed muggles or the Order directly. This would provide the opportunity to explore previously unseen locations from the books and films, allowing level designers to create worlds that actively benefit the gameplay.

Each console offers a wealth of opportunity for controls and input. Motion controls are an obvious place to start, but should be handled delicately and intelligently. No waggle Wii mote flailing, please. Using the Wii U as the Marauder’s Map is a great idea offered by Sam, allowing players to design their own routes or track important enemies. Taken one step further, the map could be used in game to offer online player hints and tips in a similar fashion to Demon’s Souls.

Most importantly, put the franchise in the hands of a capable developer. Bioware is already doing a fantastic job with Star Wars: The Old Republic Republic and shows the quality that can be produced with a little creative freedom. Perhaps it’s too late for a decent movie tie-in, but it’s certainly not too late for a decent Harry Potter video game.

Bioshock Infinite demo looks very impressive

Bioshock Infinite is going to be phenomenal. Don’t believe me? Watch the 20 minutes of gameplay footage put up by GameTrailers right here.

The location of Columbia looks stunning. I wasn’t sure that Irrational Games could top the artistic marvel that was Rapture, but this new floating dystopia has proven me wrong. Each island is filled with a scale that is almost breath taking to look at. American patriotism is everywhere, tarnished by greed and corrupt ideals. Every street has a dark edge to it; giant posters quickly go up in flames and horses are found dying on the streets. Skylines litter the world like one giant suspended roller-coaster ride, weaving in and out of skyscrapers, streets and recreational parks. Columbia feels much more organic than Rapture, free from the restrictions of glass corridors and one way trams.

There is also the possibility of other settings. Through Elizabeth’s ability to create ‘tears’, the demo revealed a glimpse of down town New York. Who knows, perhaps the player will be able to explore this at greater length, alongside any other areas that Elizabeth can summon with this potentially limitless ability.

Elizabeth’s ability to manipulate tears also applies to combat. Throughout the demo it was obvious that Booker could call upon her powers to summon a variety of objects, such as carriages for cover or doorways for alternate routes. She acts as a simple support character that players control directly, eliminating the need for sublime A.I or complex commands. The demo showed a tendency to rely on traditional weaponry rather than ‘vigors’, the equivalent of plasmids that have been designed specifically for Bioshock Infinite. This might be due to the location of the demo in the overall campaign, or a desire to hide some of the more extravagant ‘vigors’ for a later date.

Elizabeth has an interesting personality and relationship with both Booker and the Songbird. At times she appears naive, believing plastic gold to be real and trying on a novelty Lincoln headpiece. At others she seems incredibly serious and determined, asking Booker to swear that he will never let the Songbird take her back. The dynamic between these characters looks to be at the core of the plot, offering a personal and believable take on the Bioshock Infinite world.

Although the Songbird looks pretty menacing, in my eyes it doesn’t quite have the same edge or iconic appeal as the Big Daddy. Perhaps this particular enemy will warm to me over time, but it still has a long way to go before it’s scaring me half to death with a pneumatic drill.

I came away from the Bioshock Infinite demo feeling very impressed. The scope and artistic direction of the game is like nothing else on the market, offering frantic combat and an original plot line. I can hardly wait for when this is released next year.

Review: Beyond Good and Evil HD

A sharp hybrid of gameplay styles and an interesting open world prove that this cult hit was worth a second outing in high definition. Originally created for the last generation of consoles back in late 2003, Beyond Good & Evil was unquestionably a commercial failure. No-one is entirely sure why this was, although I think that the challenge of introducing a new IP and the unexpected female lead may have been partly to blame.

Nevertheless, over the years the title has gained a small fan following that is desperate to find out if the franchise has a future. Whilst a rumoured sequel hangs in the balance, the original has been created in full HD on XBLA and PSN. It’s slick, has fantastic visuals and a heart that is hard to replicate.

Jade is a photojournalist who lives on an alien planet called Hillys. She doubles up as the owner of an orphanage, caring for the children whose parents have been abducted by an alien force known as the DomZ. Uncle Pey’j is a pig interested in mechanics, fixing up their home and the hoverboat that they use to travel into town. Together they’re quickly whipped into a political conspiracy involving a national task force called the Alpha Forces and a resistance group called IRIS. Despite its vibrant setting and pleasant animal residents, there is an unexpectedly serious undercurrent of slavery, kidnappings and propaganda.

Uncovering the conspiracy is entrusted to Jade. Enemy outposts including a factory, slaughterhouse and space station are set up like dungeons, forcing the player to explore each level and snap specific photographs undetected. Generic combat is mixed in with some brilliant stealth sections, forcing players to sneak around and dispatch guards with more than a few nods to Assassin’s Creed. Hitting guards’ weak spots can be a little unresponsive and a tad unrealistic, but it generally works well and provides a good mix of pacing.

Pearls are used to buy hoverboat upgrades, thereby unlocking the next section of the story and new areas of the map. They can be picked up from shops, boss battles and optional mini-games, but also by photographing the wildlife in Hillys. This creates a fresh way of finding collectibles and emphasises the importance of using Jade’s camera to take in your surroundings. Some of the mini-games are pleasant distractions (hoverboat races) but others are borderline mundane (the tabletop game with Francis?!). Thankfully you never need to complete all of them to proceed.

The lack of textures and character details shows the game’s age, but it’s spruced up by a great colour palette in high definition. The effect is similar to Windwaker – it might not be the most technically beautiful game, but it has a creative and conceptually attractive look. A fantastic score using tribal drums and grand piano really compliments the setting of Hillys and constantly reminds you that this this is an imaginative fantasy world.

Loading windows are incredibly frequently, but are thankfully sped up by the new hardware. The camera can also be a little tough to handle, often yanking itself across a battle unexpectedly or inverting when you want to peep over the top of a piece of cover. The worst moments surmount to glitches in the game. On three occasions I found myself in an eternal abyss of black, forcing myself to exit the game and restart from my last checkpoint. I also found that some puzzles were poorly signposted, with solutions which I had tried but failed to execute just right.

For all of its minor technical hitches, it steps forward with ideas that were innovative for its time. As an example, I would argue that photography has never been used this well in a video game since. The idea of rolling news bulletins was also a great tie in to the work you were doing and its affect on the people of Hillys. The co-operative moments with Pey’j and Double H were simple but also intuitive, combining attacks and button pushes so that Jade could proceed or allow another character to continue.

The plot and voice work is also a considerable step above most contemporary output. Jade is a great lead character, matched by the comical Double H (“Carlson and Peters!”) and lovable Uncle Pey’j. They’re all eccentric but ultimately heart warming and memorable. The plot is simple but quirky and enjoyable to watch, ending the game with a couple of unanswered questions. Oh, and the last act has an intense, old school boss battle. Take plenty of Starkos, because you’re going to need them.

Beyond Good & Evil has aged over the last 8 years, but you can see its impact on Ubisoft’s recent output such as Assassin’s Creed and Naruto: The Broken Bond. This is fantastic value at 800 Microsoft points and a perfect chance to check out the game if you missed it first time round. A great mix of gameplay genres and interesting characters makes this an enjoyable HD downloadable title.

First trailer drops for No More Heroes: Red Zone

No More Heroes was always a pretty gruesome and erotic game. Now Suda51 and the guys at Grasshopper Manufacture reckon that they can top it with No More Heroes: Red Zone. The zany Wii title has already been ported to the PlayStation 3 in the form of No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise, but this version promises to be a little bit special.

This new trailer shows off the game’s exclusive features and a restoration of its original adult Z rating. In comparison, Heroes’ Paradise was changed to fit a more socially acceptable D rating. Players can expect Red Zone to have support for PlayStation Move, online rankings, five returning boss characters from No More Heroes 2 and ten missions that were cut from Heroes’ Paradise.

The end of the trailer also reveals a download code that unlocks four new beam katanas, four bike colour variations and a “Forbidden View” mode. Konami states (found via Joystiq) that Red Zone is the same version being released as Heroes’ Paradise in America.

I’m not a Wii owner, so I’ve always been very excited to try out the No More Heroes franchise on a HD console. The compatibility of PlayStation Move means that the PS3 should be an ideal platform for carrying over the gameplay from the originals. Fingers crossed eh?

Review: Enslaved (360/PS3)

Monkey is a man that you don’t mess around with. His vibrant white hair and red face dye will do little to distract you from his tree trunk arms and monster abdominals. Controlled by a ferocious girl with a knack for technology, they’re an unlikely pair with both brains and brawn. Together they explore a post-apocalyptic wasteland overthrown by mother nature, whereby skyscrapers are decaying under the pressure of twisting vines and roads are concealed under beds of crimson poppies.

This isn’t a haven though. Mechs are everywhere, patrolling the rooftops or waiting in dormant groups. Alex Garland has taken a few cues from his previous work 28 Days Later, concocting a powerful story based on the survival of humanity and the attraction of a few isolated survivors. There are less than a dozen characters in Enslaved, but each is crafted with a personality and believability that really binds the game together.

The campaign starts with the best tutorial that I can remember in recent years. Monkey escapes from a slave ship that is crashing into the heart of New York city, only to awake with a headband that forces him to obey Trip’s every demand. By threatening to administer pain (that could eventually lead to death) she forces Monkey to help take her home.

Players control Monkey in two distinct ways; fighting swarms of mechs, or traversing the beautifully crafted environments. Each level is varied in style and filled with detail and life, but actually moving through them is mind numbingly simple. Akin to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, gamers simply have to point Monkey at the next foothold and press A or X to proceed. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The occasional block will fall under your feet or a particular gap might need a timed jump, but by and large it’s incredibly easy.

Combat uses a joypad mashing two button set up, allowing Monkey to combine light and heavy attacks. The shield and counter moves are surprisingly responsive, but it quickly boils down to a generic ‘stun, heavy attack, shield’ formula. Collectible energy orbs allow you to upgrade your abilities, but most of them are optional and provide only minor improvements. Enemy AI is predictable (although perhaps this is how mechs are supposed to behave?) and provide minimal opportunities for strategy. Surprisingly, some of the best tactical moments come in the earlier parts of the game. Distant enemy outposts force you to judge the duration of a limited shield and destructible cover, encouraging the use of Trip’s minimal distractions. It’s a shame that these thoughtful segments are lost in favour of scale and numbers in the latter half of the campaign.

Objectives are tied to the narrative and varied in design. There are no fetch quests here – instead you’ll be breaking into a survivor’s camp, outrunning a mechanical dog and unshackling a behemoth sized mech. This helps to build a pace that will keep you driving forward relentlessly from start to finish. A few unexpected hoverboard sections (using a ‘cloud’ stolen by Monkey) are highly polished and utilise tight controls. Boss battles are thrilling and offer a much needed challenge, but are spaced out a little too far apart for my liking.

The sound design is excellent and the motion capturing from Andy Serkis is remarkably natural. Unfortunately the overall presentation is let down somewhat by the ageing unreal engine – character models look a little last generation and texture pop up occurs a little too often. The ending was also a little sudden, fitting the game thematically but breaking away dramatically from the small scale drama before it.

Enslaved is an impressive experience. The narrative is immersive and the environments offer a breath taking sense of scale. As a game though, it’s very uninspired and lacks a challenge either responsively or intellectually.

Review for Splinter Cell: Conviction

The stealth genre has faded into near obscurity with the current generation of consoles. Aside from the smattering of sneaky elements found in Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s hard to find a game devoted to stalking in the shadows. After a four year break Ubisoft Montreal continues to wave the stealth banner with the Splinter Cell series, throwing Sam Fisher back into the field with this latest iteration, Conviction.

The tale takes place around three years on from the alleged death of Fisher’s daughter, Sarah. Players find Sam in Malta, off the radar and trying to keep a low profile. Former colleague Grim manages to track him down remotely, warning him of a group of hit men homing in on his location. Once he learns that a drug runner might be responsible for Sarah’s death, Sam sets off to find truth and vengeance. In return for information surrounding his daughter, Fisher is quickly caught up in a series of rogue operations, uncovering a conspiracy involving EMPs and a plot to derail the President.

The plot moves remarkably quickly and frequently refers to code names, incidents and figures from previous games. Newcomers to the Splinter Cell franchise will feel slightly overwhelmed by the complexity of the conspiracy – by the end I found myself frequently referring to Wikipedia in order to understand the relationship between Black Arrow, White Box Technologies and Megiddo. However, it’s easy to relieve yourself of the political weight and simply relish in the plight of Sam Fisher; constantly moving forward and finding his next target, forever in the hope that he will find some kind of resolution with Sarah.

The gameplay dynamics take some getting used to, but ultimately rewards those who play with patience and strategy. Fisher is invisible provided that he keeps a low profile, highlighted by the monochrome visuals once he’s safely nestled in the shadows. Taking a cue from Gears of War, Conviction also prioritises the use of cover, encouraging Sam to hug walls and press against the sides of nearby pillars. Arrows point to other potential positions, allowing you to scuttle to a new spot with a quick button press. This allows you to move around fluidly and assess environmental angles much more easily. Occasionally you’ll find yourself unable to move to a particular wall or slinking off right in front of a guard, but for the most part it works very well.

The ‘last known position’ feature is a particular highlight. If Sam is detected, a ghostly outline will appear in his place. Guards will then search this spot thoroughly for clues, allowing you to plan a quick escape or sneak up behind them for an even deadlier assassination. I found myself allowing Sam to be spotted on purpose, just so that I could disappear and set up increasingly elaborate traps. It can feel immensely gratifying and players will be rewarded for these advanced strategies through the game’s built in UPlay achievements.

Marking and execution is another deadly addition to your arsenal. Once players perform a hand to hand melee attack, they’re rewarded with the chance to execute their opponents. By holding RB, players can then select multiple targets and take them out in one fell swoop. It can pull Fisher out of some tough situations, especially when you’re stuck in a room with a dozen thugs. This might be a stealth game, but Sam is often merciless and outright brutal. Necks are snapped and heads are smashed through tables in the interrogation sequences, eventually finishing them off in clear view. Forget about knocking out your enemies or hiding them in a closet; Sam is determined and leaves these ‘by the book’ measures firmly at the wayside.

Mission objectives are portrayed around you in bold white text, frequently shone onto the side of buildings, walls and streets. It feels impressive and cinematic, removing the need for a pause menu almost entirely. This is extended into the cut scenes, with many of Fisher’s emotions (anger, betrayal, etc.) thrown up inside the room. For the most part Splinter Cell: Conviction looks the part, with varied locations in both daylight and night time scenarios. Sam is an older, more rugged hero this time around and it shows fairly well in his character models and animations. Grey hairs, a split lip and uneven run helps to build up the impression of an aging hero. In game remarks such as “Yeah, I’ve still got it” flesh out his persona and relationships with the rest of the cast. This also relates somewhat to the realistically rapid health depletion. Fisher will hit the deck in less than three shots, making planning and movement absolutely critical. If you’re the type who likes to run in with guns blazing, expect to die an awful lot. Otherwise, the visuals are adequate, but not exceptional – perhaps a trade off for using the older Unreal 2 engine.

The campaign is relatively short, approximately seven hours depending on your play style. The campaign missions are solid and expansive though, encouraging repeated playthroughs with new approaches and smarter AI. Although I haven’t tried it out yet, the co-op mode is also meant to be fantastic. A unique prologue to Fisher’s story, two players can team up and unravel a mystery of their own. Throw in further co-op modes and a small, but interesting multiplayer suite and the package feels like decent value for money.

These days, there isn’t much out there quite like Splinter Cell: Conviction. For as long as it lasts, the campaign is engaging, fun and intellectually testing, forcing you to think on your feet and be patient with strategies. It’s a refreshing escape from the horde of ‘twitch’ shooters that are currently so popular. For those interested in narrative, this is just as good as any Tom Clancy novel, albeit slim on global context. Certainly worth a rental and an essential purchase for fans of the franchise. An extended single player experience and added visual polish would have certainly put this in contention for Game of the Year.