Now I finished Brotherhood. Most of the plot-significant stuff happened in the last ten minutes of the game. The 10+ hour game. So content-wise Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood was a bit of a let-down. But gameplay-wise it has improved slightly over AC II. The reason is that pretty much any random enemy in the game can be instant-killed.
Let me elaborate. The combat system in Assassin’s Creed is excellent. It is very satisfying and ties seamlessly into other parts of the gameplay. And the game never slaps you with a combat situation that you can’t avoid. Due to the fact that The Witcher 2 whispers ”finish meee…” when I go to bed every night, I’ll be making comparisons between that game and Assassin’s Creed.
The Witcher 2, and many other games, rely on random encounters. While you are travelling from point to point B in a ‘dangerous’ environment, there will be some enemies along the way. Enemies that you probably won’t have to kill, but if you want money and experience points, you will. In The Witcher 2, there are several enemies that can easily kill the player if he does not fight perfectly and with an optimal strategy. Combine this with long load times and you have a recipe for red hot frustration. And even if they are easy to steamroll over, they usually sport enough HP to provide an annoying speed bump on the way. Most of the times the encounters do not make any sense. In Dragon Age II, a night stroll in the city can net you over 30 dead members of a female-only cult.
In Assassin’s Creeds, when not doing memories (missions), there are no fights to slow you down. The guards will generally regard you as a village idiot, running around and jumping into objects. Only the rooftop guards react to your presence with force, and they are easy to introduce to your hidden blade. Or to just run away from. Only when your Notoriety is 100% will guards be on the lookout, and even then avoiding them is quite easy, albeit a tad slow. Only when the player screws up will he have to fight.
In The Witcher 2, you are pretty much constrained to the one trick you have put all your skill points into. Every enemy generally has one strategy which you have to play around. And if you do not take the one skill whose name I don’t recall right now, an enemy behind you will deal a boatload of damage, resulting in flinching which makes it difficult to block another attack.
In Brotherhood, Ezio has over a dozen ways to kill a guard. And everyone is suspectible to all of those ways. Even if they aren’t by default, Taunting will make them. Instead of finding the optimal strategy and applying it ad nauseum, you can pretty much select your favourite weapon (unarmed, double hidden blade, dagger, medium weapon with pistol or a large weapon) and go nuts. Personally I prefer the speed and wince-inducing visciousness of a dagger, but I tend to vary. Or then you can use a smoke bomb to give you time to work your hidden blade. Or summon your apprentices to kill the guards for you. Or shoot them with your gun, your crossbow or your throwing daggers.
Guards have variable amount of health, but that won’t matter since no-one is safe from an instant-kill. Counter-killing, disarming and performing a three-hit combo will make Ezio perform a cool and merciless killing maneuver. While he’s doing it, pointing at another guard and pressing Attack will make him perform another instant-kill on the target. This is called Execution, and there is no limit on how many times it can be chained. The only thing that prevents one from killing every guard in a battle is that you can’t block while doing it. Instead of being an annoying timesink, even a large, ten-man combat can become a short, death-ballet interlude to whatever you were doing.
If your patience is too short, you can always disengage, turning the combat into a chase, utilizing the wonderful free-run system. Climb a few roofs, jump into a haystack and lay low for a few seconds. If a guard comes poking at your hiding place, you can perform an Assasination From Hiding, which is a cool maneuver in itself. I especially like the bench assassination for its cheekiness. The guards are never a problem in the overworld, unless you want them to be.
If there is something that I would change, it would be the Hit Point system. In the first Assassin’s Creed, HP was called ‘synch level’. When you took damage, you went out of synch with Altaïr, and if you took enough, you desynchronized. I liked how it implied that Altaïr never missed a jump or took damage in a fight, the badass he was. It also explained away the abstractness of Hit Points, tying it to the game world. From AC II onwards, Ezio can carry around up to 15 potions of ‘medicine’, which restore health points with the power only a renaissance-era medical knowledge can impart. It both requires suspense of disbelief, but also ensures that the player will never die when he has a half-second to press left on the D-pad. The old AC system meant that if you managed to screw up a battle, you had to run. It improved dynamics.
I’m not saying that every combat system needs to be a copy of Assassin’s Creed’s. I’m saying that all combat systems should integrate themselves into their game’s concept and other mechanics as well as Assassin’s Creed’s. Don’t put meaningless combat in your game, and if you do, make damn sure it is not mandatory.