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AC: Brotherhood’s Confidence Issues

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer remains one of the simultaneously most frustrating and rewarding experiences that I find myself crawling back to.

Engaging in tense firefights as gunships scream overhead is one thing; the heart-pounding anticipation of casually stalking and gradually approaching an unsuspecting player as he tries in vain to hide from an unseen assailant by failing to disappear into a crowd? That’s another sensation entirely.

Ubisoft has hit on something that I’m excited to see more of as hardcore multiplayer games make a segmented migration towards more nuanced modes of competitive play. In Brotherhood, it’s not so much the quantity of the kills one makes as it is the quality of the kill. All of the sprinting controls and free-running abilities demonstrated by Altair and Ezio in the two previous single-player iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series are possible in multiplayer, but the game doesn’t recommend using these maneuvers. In fact, it downright discourages it.

 

 

Using the story conceit of the Animus and the millenia-old ongoing struggle between the heroic Assassins and the tyrannical Templars, the multiplayer mode is explained away as a training simulation for Templars to utilize so as to better understand their Assassin enemies in fully realized cutscene that plays the first time players jump into multiplayer. The player assumes the role of one of many different character skins, the match then populates the map with multiple copies of identical chosen character skins, and their goal is to then pick out actual players from crowds of copies and eliminate them.

At any given time, the player will be assigned a “contract”, or an image of the skin that the player’s target is wearing. And it’s not that easy to pick out the intended target from copies. Copies will speed up their step, walk one direction only to turn 180 degrees and backtrack, and they’ll travel in packs, too. Killing copies willy-nilly until the intended player is hit isn’t possible: as soon as the player kills one wrong target, he is immediately assigned a new contract.

In order to pick the correct target out from the clones, the player is given a detection meter in the form of a radial compass. At maximum distance, the compass points out the location of the target player. As the player approaches his target, the compass fills in more and more until the player is within killing distance of his target, at which point the compass fills up completely and emits a light ringing sound.

When stalking targets, the player needs to keep his target’s “awareness”, or a passive defensive meter, into account. Running at full speed at the target immediately puts the target in “high alert” status, which is signaled on the other end by war drums and the words ‘ESCAPE YOUR PURSUER’ flashing in red on the screen. Should the target break from his pursuer’s line of sight and hide for a set amount of time, the pursuer’s contract is lost automatically and the target is in the clear.

 

 

This is where some of that aforementioned frustration sets in and things begin to fall apart. Single kills are awarded a base 100 points each, but then different bonuses are stacked on top of the base value. Eliminating a target with an increased step will either net a 50 point ‘Discreet’ or 100 point ‘Silent’ bonus, depending on the target’s awareness at time of death. Managing to flank a target without running or giving any hint as to the player’s true identity nets a whopping 300 point ‘Incognito’ bonus. In theory, the kill ranking logic is a system founded on the concept of  diminishing returns: in the time it takes one player to dart around the map and land 4 no-bonus kills, another more skilled player could easily earn the first player’s point value and more simply through patient, clean kills.

There’s a lot about the multiplayer and stealth design to admire. Ubisoft Montreal has created a very elegant system that makes sense in performing a series of checks and balances against reckless game play. However, the multiplayer system does nothing to check and balance player attitudes and eventual escalation.

What I mean by ‘escalation’ is this: more often than not, many of the players do not employ the bonuses attributed to quality kills. They’ll clamber up and perch on rooftops and earn 100 point-only kills using the hidden gun perk and perform 150 point aerial kills, and then immediately dart off. In order to pursue these targets, players will have to employ the same “tactic” of running at full speed and using long-range weapons with equally long cooldowns in order to successfully hit their target. More often than not, this will expose the player to their target, meaning that upon successful capture, the player will earn a paltry 100 points only. Escalation is when these players set the tactics and strategies (or lack thereof) that will determine the rest of the match’s tempo and speed.

This issue is compounded by an otherwise excellent tension-building mechanic in place, which sics more and more lower-ranking players on players ranked at the top of the list.  The player sitting in first place will have as many as four simultaneous lower-ranked players pursuing him at once, which means players at the bottom of list have to compete for the same target. 9 times out of 10, it will be the jackrabbit player that reaches him first, and here’s where it falls apart: the total 100 points the conspicuous player receives is not enough to bridge the point deficiency between low and high ranked players, meaning that once a match gains its tempo, it’s difficult to create any kinds of shifts in power, no matter how careful lower-ranked players are.

Each time I’ve played the Wanted game mode, I’ve always ranked in the top three slots without break in consistency. At the end-match tallies, the surface of the point total I’ve gathered from my 6 kills and 8 deaths can’t even be scratched by a player who has 12 kills and 4 deaths. A few times when I was ahead, I would mess around with the rankings and experiment. If I managed to hit over 1000 points in the first two minutes of play, chances are I’d be ranked on top. With at least a 400 point lead on the 2nd-ranked player, I started to sprint wherever I went. This caused two things; the four people chasing after me had to expose themselves every time, which meant minimal points if they managed to catch me. 50% of the time, someone did, but the rest of the time I’d use chase breakers to lock three of them out and then hide from the last pursuer in the bushes. Not only did that reset their contracts, but it earned me points for successful evasion. This gave me time to go after my contract, which was a nice breather. Because I’m at the top of the list, I’m not competing with other people for my kill. My position at the top is more or less secured. It’s things like this which make the multiplayer both exhilirating and frustrating.

 

 

My frustration is two-fold. The designers at Ubisoft Montreal have created what might be one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of all time, so I can’t quite fault them for what might be construed as poor design. However, while the multiplayer fully condones stealthy, observant gameplay, it does nothing to penalize those who set a standard of play that is incongruent with the design. I say incongruent because while it’s possible for twitchy, KDR-obsessed players to raise the bar in terms of rhythm, there’s no way for deliberate, cautious players to pull the proverbial bar back down. True, I did mention that there’s a deterrent in the form of incognito versus non-discreet kills, but it’s not a strong enough deterrent. The throwing knives perk unlocked at level 19 prevent quick-footed players from scaling up walls, but using it feels more like a concession that the designers fully anticipated this type of multiplayer environment than anything useful like the smoke bomb or disguise.

What the multiplayer is effectively doing is not outright penalizing or punishing stealthy players, but rather forcing them to adopt the sloppy methodology of their opponents. I can’t say enough good things about what Ubisoft Montreal has created, but consistent design isn’t one of those things. The multiplayer design is a mildly schizophrenic, self-conscious affair: the designers want players to play one way and promote this through mechanics and rewards, but it won’t risk turning off players who want to play an entirely different way. Something as simple as a 100 point reduction for every three to five non-stealthy kills  a reckless player makes would force players to re-evaluate their strategies without turning them off from the entire experience.

Before a game can provide something for every type of player out there, it first needs to have confident design that rewards players for utilizing the systems in place and recognizing and harnessing the patterns around them. On the same note, I wouldn’t dare to accuse Brotherhood‘s multiplayer for being wishy-washy. It’s not that. It just has a self-confidence issue it needs to overcome.

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