I've been revisiting Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released fourth game in the series, Assassin's Creed: Revelations. I started a new game, and within an hour or so protagonist Ezio Auditore was effortlessly laying waste to dozens upon dozens of enemies — guys on horseback, heavily armoured pikemen, and scores of sword-wielding Roman guards. I paused and blocked, then countered, then chained my attacks to insta-kill foe after foe. Maybe it's all the Witcher 2 and Arkham Asylum I've been playing, but I found myself mentally checking out the more I fought. It's not exactly new news, but damn, this game is easy.
I like a lot of things about Assassin's Creed. I like how classy and clean it is, how effectively it weaves together timelines to tell a story that somehow feels coherent despite, y'know, being a total mess. I like the sense of vertigo I get when I climb to the tallest point in the city and jump, and I like the audio design and how it blends with Inon Zur's musical score.
But I've never felt satisfied by Assassin's Creed's combat. It's too forgiving, too prone to exploitation. The more toys Ezio gets, the further the imbalance is exacerbated — facing eight enemies, I've got my choice of shooting them, chain-killing them, picking them off one by one with counters, crossbowing them, throwing knives at them, overpowering them by hammering the attack button, or if I get bored, just dropping a smoke bomb and assassinating them one by one. The menu in Brotherhood offers no way to change the game's difficulty. I don't know what kind of balancing would be required to make variable difficulty possible, but I can't help but feel like it's a shame that it's not an option.
I have spent a lot of time this year playing The Witcher 2 — CD Projekt's game lacks the smoothness of Assassin's Creed, but it's refreshingly challenging. The addition of the extreme new "dark" difficulty and its challenge arena only serve to enhance my enjoyment, and to highlight how different the game feels than Assassin's Creed. I've had a sadly small amount of time to dig into Dark Souls, but if it's anything like Demon's Souls, the swordfighting remains unforgiving and tense, and therefore incredibly exhilarating. Batman: Arkham Asylum's ever-escalating challenge rooms work well despite not having variable difficulty settings, and the more-complex, layered challenge rooms in Arkham City sound like an evolution of an already winning formula.
In Revelations, Ezio's arsenal continues to grow more varied and powerful — the new trailer has him seriously ruining some shit. He's got bombs now, and in demos we've seen him manning some mounted, heavy weaponry as well. So in addition to all those new tools of destruction, I'd love to see some options that let me give myself more of a challenge. It'd have to be adjustable, of course — plenty of folks love Assassin's Creed just how it is. But give me the option to lower the power of Ezio's counters, or make his healing potions take effect over time. Shrink the windows that allow for successful dodges and counter-attacks. Make me work for it!
This would be especially nice for a second playthrough, particularly with some sort of New Game+. With each past Assassin's Creed game, I've torn through the campaign doing a pretty large amount of sidequesting, but I haven't felt that pull to go back and do it over again. A higher difficulty would help with that, and give the hardcore a reason to do a second playthrough. I can tell you for sure that I'll be doing a New Game+ in Arkham City, but at the moment I'm not as sure about Revelations.
I'm writing this just before I head down to Ubisoft's San Francisco HQ for an extended hands-on with Revelations, so when I get there, difficulty will be one of the first things I ask about. But even if we don't get a variable difficulty in Revelations, Assassin's Creed is a franchise that Ubisoft will clearly be supporting for a good while. Hopefully as they continue to add inventive new ways to kill my enemies, they won't forget to teach my enemies some new tricks as well.