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.


The narrative impact of Heavy Rain

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Heavy Rain, the adventure video game on PlayStation 3.

When I finished Heavy Rain, I had to take a moment to catch my breath. A moment to be able to take in what I had just experienced and digest some of the finer plot points. Regardless of the choices, mistakes or revelations that you make in the game, it is undeniably an emotional roller coaster.

I should probably provide a brief summary of my personal path in Heavy Rain. As Ethan Mars I managed to find and save the child – this was achieved by cutting off Ethan’s little finger and choosing to take the poison at the final trial. By refusing to shoot the drug dealer, I was left with three possible choices for the location of Shaun. Luckily, by listening to the mobile phone and deducing that some kind of ship(?) was nearby, I chose to drive to the warehouse closest to the river.

As FBI profiler Norman Jayden, I didn’t find out that the killer was Scott Shelby. Despite finding the gold watch in the clip of the origami killer, I didn’t want to accuse Blake and didn’t think of geo-analysing it for further evidence. As I rooted through the rest of Blake’s evidence, I was aware that Norman would soon die from the ARI and chose to log out. This meant that I ended his scenario with a rather unimpressive resignation.

Regrettably I left Lauren to die in the car, allowing Scott Shelby to escape to the surface. I felt a little tricked by this section; the buttons didn’t seem to correspond to their contextual counterparts and what I thought would wake Lauren up actually resulted in Scott leaving. Out of frustration I left Charles Kramer to die in the mansion (the man deserved it in my opinion) and I also missed cleaning the telephone in the typewriter store.

Although I was never particularly sold on the quick-time controls, the intriguing plot and deep characters really pulled me in. It was a great piece of storytelling and up there with some of my favourite crime novels. To make the experience ‘pure’ I never turned off the console to retry a section, nor did I spoil the story by looking it up in advance. As a result Ethan’s final choice was a very difficult decision for me. The revelation that Scott Shelby was the origami killer was also completely unexpected.

Hopefully Heavy Rain will spawn more video games with this type of mature, intelligent narrative. Although I was confused with a few of the minor plot points (what was Ethan’s blackouts really about?) these were addressed in some of the ‘Making Of’ videos and I agree with their decision to make the game less supernatural. Although I always felt a twinge of the fantastical in Heavy Rain (Norman’s glasses were always a little far-fetched) maintaining a sense of realism helped to focus my own personal theories throughout the game.

I’m not usually one to advocate video games as an art form, but Heavy Rain certainly fits into this category. The narrative is engrossing and will likely stay with me for many months to come. If you own a PlayStation 3 and haven’t played it yet, I heartily recommend checking it out.

Review: Outland (PSN, XBLA)

A distinctive art style and eclectic blend of gameplay elements makes for a compelling 2D platformer. Outland is a downloadable title that has been finely tuned with precise controls and challenging level design. Everything screams detail, from the clever use of its colour system to the intelligent and downright tricky boss stages.

The silhouetted hero is tasked with reinstating balance in the world. There is a brief introduction to gods and ancient warriors, but by and large the plot is completely forgettable. The narrative quickly slips to the background as the first locale is revealed, a beautiful jungle filled with brilliant shades of green and yellow. Stages like these are just waiting to be explored and traversed, constantly filled with scale and hidden secrets.

One of the most compelling features in Outland is its use of light and dark affiliation. Once players have gained each power (emphasised as blue and red) they can be switched on the fly with a single button press. Soon everything in the world requires a delicate use of each colour; enemies can only be dispatched with the opposing shade and waves of projectiles need to be absorbed by matching their colour.

Towards the end there are a few ingeniously dramatic moments that cause players to switch between colours in mid flight, activating platforms and avoiding damage in a single move. It’s a simple mechanic that is used in increasingly complex and imaginative ways.

Outland controls perfectly. The character is capable of being flung left and right with incredible accuracy, darting up ledges and sliding under crevices with a flick of the analogue stick. Despite the campaign’s high difficulty level, players will rarely feel cheated or let down by the game’s control scheme.

This is vital for taking on the handful of lethal boss characters scattered throughout the adventure. These are often layered with multiple stages, starting with simplistic attack patterns and then slowly building up to almost impossible windows of vulnerability. Failure will set you back to the very first stage, so finding out the secret of each boss often takes numerous infuriating attempts.

The world is divided into linked stages that can be revisited at leisure. It’s a constantly expanding experience, encouraging players to backtrack and use newly acquired skills to access new areas. These can lead to upgrade shrines, floating collectibles and in game currency. It’s not essential, but offers further incentive for completion addicts and trophy junkies.

Although the game boasts a beautiful art style and fluid animation, the sound design is mostly underwhelming. It’s by no means poor; it just never grabs your attention or adds anything new to the proceedings.

Outland also boasts a few online co-operative modes. Tackling the campaign with a partner feels a little unnatural, but playing the challenge levels and “arcade” setup is deeply rewarding.

Housemarque has taken reference from a number of older titles (Metroid, Ikaruga, Prince of Persia) and bundled them together to create a surprisingly fresh downloadable title. It’s polished to precision and will satisfy anyone with a love for exploration and old school 2D platformers.

A retrospective for GameCamp 4

GameCamp is an event where fans of board games and video games can come together and discuss their favourite hobby. The fourth gathering was held in London South Bank University and this year I was lucky enough to attend. Despite suffering from partial deafness in one ear (I’ll have to get that checked out) I had a great time and learnt a lot from the various game developers who were holding debates.

This is the mighty whiteboard found in the base camp room. Any of the attendees can write down a game or discussion that they’d like to hold in one of the designated rooms – then it’s down to the rest of the visitors to decide whether they’d like to attend it. It all feels very creative and democratic, providing gamers with a chance to talk and play about anything that they’re passionate about.

The first talk that I chose to sit in on was about free range video games. Programmers argued that the measly pay and unfair hours that some game developers work is unfair, and that consumers should be made more aware of this. If some games were labelled in a similar manner to free range produce, the discussion questioned whether gamers would choose to purchase ethically. Do players care about the working conditions of triple A game studios? Or are they just concerned with getting the most play for their pound? It was an interesting argument, especially when the popularity of small indie developers were considered.

Another debate that I really enjoyed was about 2D art used in video games. I’m a big fan of the genre, but had never considered the technical and artistic limitations of choosing between pixel art, vectors or other digital mediums. Listening to the game developers explain why pixel art had remained so popular was insightful and added to my appreciation of modern game design.

One of the stranger talks concerned the political implications and representations of LittleBigPlanet. The host argued that the campaign in the original game stereotyped real world locations and cultures, encouraging players to plunder each country of all their resources. Personally I thought this was a complete misreading of a very light hearted game, but nevertheless it helped to create some interesting debate about the portrayal of ethnic minorities in video games.

I came away from GameCamp 4 feeling humbled and educated. If you’re a game designer or have ever wanted to debate the culture of video games with other people, this is a fantastic event that I can heartily recommend. Everyone that I met was very friendly, courteous and interesting to listen to. It was a shame that my damaged right ear affected my experience, because otherwise it was a very pleasant and memorable day.

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.

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 Fable 3

Leading a revolution in Albion isn’t quite what you’d expect. Put any preconceptions of blood stained banners, raised pitchforks and screaming townspeople firmly to one side. As the prince of a tyrannical brother, you’ll need to build up a rebellion piece by piece, winning the allegiance of various regional leaders through favours and hollow promises. It might sound a little mundane, but it adds up to a final chapter filled with authentic and difficult moral choices – something many games strive for, but only few succeed in achieving.

Set decades on from the previous instalment, Albion has entered an industrial age drowning in depression. The cruel leadership of a seemingly power-deluded brother has caused much of the population to live in fear and anger. After a particularly bloody opening sacrifice, the prince (or princess) escapes the royal grounds in the hope of leading some form of an uprising.

Approximately two thirds of the game documents the growing rise of the hero. Guided by Sir Walter and an ensemble of other memorable personalities, players visit a variety of new villages in the hope of winning support. The world looks spectacular, breathing life through its hundreds of citizens, varied architecture and natural flourishes. The frequency of texture pop-up is noticeable, but the scarcity of load points makes the design choice somewhat forgiveable. In the main, Albion is an intriguing and believable place to explore.

Most leaders will ask you to fulfil a number of favours, which include winning the trust of villagers, dealing with neighbouring bandits or solving widespread poverty. They’re varied enough in their structures and objectives, but few will have you sitting on the edge of your sofa. It’s a relaxed pace that transcends to the combat. Magic, melee and ranged weapons each use a face button and can be powered up by an extended press. That’s pretty much all there is to it, aside from a few customisation and upgrade options. The difficulty is also pretty low, coupled with very little punishment for being ‘knocked out’.

Voicework in video games are renowned for being poor, forced and horribly unnatural. Fable 3 bucks this trend by hiring some of the best British actors that money can buy. John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Zoe Wannamaker and Simon Pegg are just some of the names that pull off some incredible performances, conveying both emotional weight and witty humour at appropriate moments.

The Sanctuary is an interesting replacement to the start menu. Rather than pausing the game, heroes are suddently whisked away into their own personal hideout. Clothing, weaponry, a quick-travel map and multiplayer options are all nestled in their own designated rooms, stopping the more complex game systems from becoming too overwhelming. If you’re ever unsure where the next quest, collectible or house purchase is, the Sanctuary map is always the first port of call. The lack of a specific ‘pause’ button is a little irritating, but can easily be overlooked by using the Xbox ‘Home’ button.

Fable 3 will be remembered for its complex end game. Once you become King, many difficult choices are suddenly thrust upon you. An evil presence threatens to kill most of Albion’s population – and can only averted by pumping large sums of money into the nation’s army. However, on the flipside to this are the promises that you made to each of the leaders in the earlier portion of the game. Keeping each promise requires a substantial amount of money, raising complicated issues – do you improve the standard of living in Albion, only to have them killed later? Or do you carry on the tyrannical rule of your brother in the hope of saving them further down the line? Morality is a key theme in Fable 3 and increasingly becomes blurred as you try and keep everyone satisfied. It is possible to do both, but it’ll take a lot of investment and patience in the property market… something I can guarantee most gamers won’t have.

The single player campaign is a little short, but luckily there’s plenty of content to dive into after the end credits. Optional side missions help to max out your skills on the ‘Road to Rule’, there are collectibles to dig up and chances to marry/ have children. Players yearning for experimentation and exploration will certainly be satisfied by the offering from Lionhead Studios.

Aside from the world design that I mentioned earlier, the visuals are fairly impressive. Character models are varied in appearance, but few have intricate textures or detail. Lip syncing is also particularly bad, often raising unnecessary question marks over the original language of the game. The soundtrack is impressive when it comes to the fore, but I often found it to be smothered under combat sound effects – or simply missing entirely.

Few action role-playing games have the scope and production values of the Fable franchise. Although many gamers have become disillusioned with the promises made by Molyneux and friends, this is still a title with plenty of enjoyment at its core. It’s far too easy, but the art style, humour and moral choices will ensure that you remember your experience with Fable 3 for many months to come.