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.


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.

Catherine demo available from next week

Atlus fans rejoice. On July 12 a demo for Catherine will be dropping on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live – or rather, at least in the United States. There’s no confirmation yet that the gameplay glimpse will be available in Europe, adding further speculation to when (or if) the title will be released there. The erotic horror puzzle-platformer came out in Japan back in February, with the aforementioned demo being available since January.

To get an idea of what the demo will showcase, below is a walkthrough of the Japanese demo by Kotowari. He’s been kind enough to translate the dialogue and control scheme, so that you’ll be able to understand some of the insane plot.

Are you excited for the English demo? Or have you already played the Japanese version? Let me know in the comments below, especially if you’re concerned about the speculative Europe release.

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.

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?

Retrospective: Microsoft in 2010

Microsoft has done a much better job of selling the Xbox 360 throughout 2010, with sales now close to rivalling the Nintendo Wii. The redesign has reinvigorated the console, heaping on a new set of features and adding some much needed aesthetics.

A significant percentage of sales are from existing owners that have chosen to upgrade. The built in wireless network adaptor, improved storage and quieter internal fan has made the Xbox redesign very desirable. Microsoft is trying to attract a family audience with the launch of Kinect, but their marketing strategy has also been very successful for ‘hardcore’ gamers. By improving each iteration’s functionality (in a similar sense to the iPhone) I think consumers see each purchase as a piece of cutting edge technology.

Kinect has surpassed all sales expectations, throwing the traditional controller out in favour of full body input. The current selection of games is hardly imaginative though, taking reference from Nintendo with a heavy influence on sport titles and party games. It’s been a big risk for Microsoft, but they’ve backed it with an appropriately strong marketing campaign. However, I’d like to see the technology integrated into existing titles in a similar manner to the PlayStation Move, or with full retail games that encourage an adult audience.

Kinect has fantastic potential, but is currently struggling to persuade ‘hardcore’ gamers with its steep price point. Until it steps away from the experiences we already own on the Nintendo Wii, I suspect its sales spike will begin to slow down in the spring of 2011.

Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo Reach were big titles throughout autumn, but it’s left Microsoft exposed for the Christmas period. Favourable, but not great ratings from Fable 3 will likely leave them scrapping for multiplatform sales on titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

In 2011, I predict that third party support for Kinect will improve and recognition will grow for original XBLA titles such as Limbo and Plants Vs Zombies. Gears Of War 3 and Batman: Arkham City are my most anticipated full retail titles.

Final Grade: A-

Review for Alan Wake (360)

Alan Wake prides itself almost entirely on its story. It’s done to such an extent that reviewing the game becomes pretty simple; let yourself become engrossed by the narrative and you’ll find a gripping tale wrapped up in some intuitive survival horror gameplay. Conversely, think the plot is one big farce and you’ll be running through a pretty boring forest for fourteen hours.

Alan Wake is an acclaimed crime fiction author who has been struggling to write his next book. The writer’s block has made him emotionally unstable and is also having some pretty nasty effects on his relationship with his wife, Alice. To try and clear the air and rediscover his creative mojo, the pair take a holiday in the back country town of Bright Falls.

After a disturbing night in a log cabin, Alan wakes up in the middle of a car accident seven days later. He can’t remember anything that’s happened, there’s no sign of Alice and he’s being attacked by several violent citizens possessed by ‘a dark presence’. The crux of the storytelling comes in the manuscript pages scattered throughout Bright Falls. They’re read aloud in a similar fashion to the audio logs in Bioshock and depict a new novel that Wake doesn’t remember writing. The story seems to be coming true before his very eyes, hinting that the writer has somehow foreseen these events.

Without giving too much more away, the storytelling is fantastic and improves upon many of the shortcomings found in the film and literature mediums. The small cast of characters are realistically flawed and very believable, with some excellent dialogue and interesting insight from the manuscript. My favourite relationship was between Wake and his agent Barry Wheeler; at the start of the game Barry seems like the typically annoying, dumb sidekick type – but by the end of the adventure he proves himself to be Wake’s closest and only friend. Breaking the game down into ‘episodes’ didn’t sell me on the concept of a video game TV series, but it helps with pacing and alerting the gamer when it’s time to put the controller down.

The core gameplay revolves around the concept of light. The taken are possessed by a shadowy veil, and the only way to unload some clips into them is by removing it first with your trusty flash light. Keep a source of light homed in on them and they’ll quickly stagger, presenting an opportunity for you to send them to the afterlife.

Firearms are restricted to a few revolvers, shotguns and hunting rifles, but it does a good job of emphasising just how crucial light can be to your success. Hand-held flares will blind all nearby opponents and give you some breathing space, while flash bangs and flare guns can empty rooms in one sitting. Rigging up street lights, search lights and hunting for new batteries give a fresh take on the survival horror model.

Coupled with the combat is a presentation that feels straight out of a nightmare. Bright Falls is a dark place with minimal sources of light, creating constantly harsh shadows that will have you doubting the safety of every footpath and corridor. The fog that hurtles in when you’re in a particularly dangerous area is just sublime and will keep you straddling the line between feeling fear and awe.

Unfortunately, Alan Wake relies on its forest scares a little too often. Just like in Dead Space, I feel that less is always more when it comes to fighting off enemies. When only a couple of taken attack Wake in each area, tension builds in between the encounters and the player genuinely fears their potential when they burst onto the screen. However, after the midway point the forest environments feel a little too tired and the number of enemies make them predictable. Each kill gives a little less satisfaction and you end up simply ploughing ahead for the next checkpoint.

There are plenty of collectibles to be found that embellish the experience of Alan Wake. Radio sets allow you to tune into the latest show from KBF-FM, giving further insight into how the dark presence is affecting the town. Television sets also broadcast episodes of ‘Night Springs’, a fictional show that hints at complex theories such as alternate reality. Coffee Thermoses and hidden stashes (hinted by fantastic wall scrawls that appear only when your torch is exposing them) means that there’s at least some reasoning for multiple playthroughs.

The ending of Alan Wake will annoy many gamers, as it (perhaps not surprisingly) ends on a cliffhanger, thereby opening up a whole host of new questions. I don’t really want to have to wait another five or six years for a sequal – if one gets made at all. Thankfully two DLC episodes are already in production, so we’ll have to wait with baited breath to see if it offers some kind of resolution.