Games 11/23/10: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Sonic Colors, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)

Don’t be fooled by the quick turnaround, spinoff-like title or emphasis on multiplayer. “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” is, in every respect but its packaging, a full-blown and fully worthy sequel to last year’s “Assassin’s Creed II.”

Ubisoft made such hay about “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer that the unsuspecting might mistakingly think it’s the game’s main dish. Turns out, it isn’t.

But the hay is justified. Backed by its own side story, “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer stars players as test assassins, and the goal of a typical match is to assassinate another player while eluding the player (or, in team play, group) whose assignment is to assassinate you.

The multiplayer maps are populated with A.I. people, some of whom closely resemble players’ character models, and the game leaves players free to decide how to attack, elude and hide in plain sight. The freedom to employ stealth tactics — and, in the process, attempt to fool other players by mimicking computer-controlled characters — adds a brilliant layer of psychology to what otherwise are traditional rules of multiplayer engagement. Players who traditionally are slow on the trigger can still rule a match by out-scheming their less observant adversaries.

“Brotherhood” implements a terrific experience points system that rewards players for making savvy kills, and those who level up receive access to new tricks that open the door to even more elaborate plots. All tallied up, it’s a terrifically original slant on multiplayer, with a great rewards system to match.

And it’s merely a companion piece to one of the year’s best single-player games.

“Brotherhood” resumes the intertwining stories of Desmond Miles (present day) and Ezio Auditore da Firenze (16th Century Italy) exactly where “AC2” left them, and the game’s first twist finds Desmond heading to the present-day incarnation of Ezio’s Villa while, in the 16th Century, Ezio watches it fall into ruin as he flees to Rome.

The new setting marks the first time a “Creed” game has taken place almost entirely in a single city, but “Brotherhood” more than compensates by making Rome monstrously large, freely explorable and loaded with mandatory and elective missions that increase in variety as the story advances. Chipping away at the Borgia’s rule allows Ezio to increase his influence, take the reigns of Rome’s economy and, eventually, assemble an uprising of assassins to take down the overlords for good.

The Assassin’s Guild is the most significant change to the “Creed” storyline formula, and it’s a surprisingly welcome one. “Brotherhood” lets players manage recruited assassins in a menu system that makes it easy to level them up and send them on missions across Europe, and the ratio of engagement to user-friendliness makes for a fun investment that never diverts too much attention from the primary gameplay.

The real treat, though, comes from being able to call those assassins into battle whenever they aren’t away on assignment. Ezio can fight alongside them or use them to flank or distract enemies while he hones in on the primary target, and while an excessive reliance on the assassins can get them killed, “Brotherhood” leaves players free to deploy them when and how they please.

“Brotherhoods'” storyline matches “AC2’s” in terms of length and importance in the timeline, and while Desmond doesn’t get as much face time as he did in “AC2,” players finally get a chance to control him for a meaningful length of time. Both characters’ lives take major turns in the final act, too, so if you loved “AC2” and plan to play “Assassin’s Creed III,” this seemingly innocuous offshoot is not to be overlooked.

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Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Criterion/DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

“Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” finds the creators of “Burnout” not only playing in another racing franchise’s yard for the first time, but finds them refreshing what arguably was that series’ finest hour.

Predictably, compromises have been made in the rebooted “Hot Pursuit,” with facets from both brands now sharing the same road.

But the compromise doesn’t feel like a compromise so much as the best of two very good worlds. Like a typical “Need for Speed” game, “Pursuit” comes loaded with real, licensed cars from the likes of Porsche, Lamorghini and Pagani. The on-track action, particularly once the fastest car class is unlocked, is as blistering as a typical “Burnout” game, and the crashes and takedowns are every bit as spectacular. But the weightiness of the cars (and their subsequent ability to withstand more damage without crashing) feels more like “Need for Speed.”

The choices made between speed, weight and durability are of no trivial importance to “Pursuit,” which gets its name by letting players play from both sides of a nasty highway battle between street racers and cops (who, wonderfully, have access to police cruisers that are as exotically branded as what the racers drive).

“Pursuit’s” single-player component divides its events between both sides, and in a move that will dishearten anyone who enjoys “Need for Speed’s” B-movie storytelling, it opts for the “Burnout” approach of just letting players jump into events without narrative provocation.

Some of those events — too many, in fact — are racing game staples. Street races and time trials are prevalent on the street racing side, while the cop side has duels against racers and a time trial variant that also prioritizes mistake-free driving.

The game’s speed and polish make all these events perfectly fun, but they still pale in comparison to Hot Pursuit mode, which pit a squad of cops against a sextet of street racers who, in addition to taking on the cops, are competing with each another to win the race.

“Pursuit” spices up the mode — which is available online (eight players) as well as in the single-player portion — by providing both sides some tools of sabotage (spike strips, roadblocks, EMPs, radar jammers, even a police helicopter) that add a nice layer of strategy to the mayhem. But with or without those tricks, the freewheeling chaos of the mode, and how perfectly it meshes legitimate racing with combat and dual layers of competition, easily stands alone as the game’s hallmark feature. “Pursuit’s” single-player component regularly offers new Hot Pursuit events to play, but not nearly as many as it should have in relation to all those other modes that can be found in just about any street racing game.

In lieu of a storyline, “Pursuit’s” flashy interface award instead goes to the Autolog, a game-wide social networking system that allows players to post messages and photos, see how their event times stack up against friends’ times, get alerts when friends beat their times and, of course, instigate online competitions. The omnipresent (but never intrusive) nature of the Autolog makes it a terrific benefit for those who have friends also playing the game, but for those who don’t, this comes at the expense of global leaderboards. It would’ve been nice if “Pursuit” had an optional (if less functionally impressive) global or regional Autolog that allowed those who lack the friends to still have a cut of the experience.

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< strong>Sonic Colors
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Someone at Sonic Team finally received the memo stating that Sonic the Hedgehog’s adventures would be better off without the towns, humans, exploratory levels, werewolf transformations, cars, guns and every other misfit idea the studio has tried to implement since the series went 3D 11 years ago. They also read that memo, which is why “Sonic Colors” cuts the fat, lets Sonic be Sonic, and emerges as his best three-dimensional outing ever.

At the same time, parts of that memo appear to have been smudged, because “Colors,” for all its improvements, still has some familiar aggravations that may, even in the face of fresh goodwill, ruin whatever plans you had to enjoy the game.

But first, the good news: “Colors” marks a return to franchise purity, with Sonic sprinting from end to end, collecting rings, jumping into enemies, and using the usual contraptions to blow through levels while avoiding spikes, bottomless pits and other traps. There’s a story, but it stays surprisingly on point, and it doesn’t require Sonic and friends to engage in any weird extracurricular activities that bring the action to a painful crawl.

The only real gimmick “Colors” has is the scattering of alien creatures who, in return for Sonic’s attempts to liberate them, give Sonic the ability to briefly transform into (among other forms) a rocket, laser beam or obstacle-devouring force of nature. But these transformations are ingrained into the core game, and they don’t disrupt the action so much as give it an occasional, temporary dose of variety.

Perhaps the best news about “Colors” is that, finally, Sonic Team has figured out how to frame a 3D “Sonic” game. The camera zooms further out than in the past, and the game takes the reigns to continually keep it trained on Sonic in ways that make sense. Compared to the schizophrenic cameras of “Sonic” games’ past, and how thoroughly they could sabotage player progress, this alone makes “Colors” the best 3D “Sonic” game of all time.

But while the born-again camera may finally be blameless for players’ failings, the loose controls are as guilty as ever. “Colors'” levels are full of spots that demand precise platforming, but Sonic’s footing is slippery, his jump is limp, his double jump is both weak and unwieldy, and the completely unpredictable effects of his dash maneuver make it totally unreliable when a long jump toward a short platform is in order. Some of “Colors'” later stages would be beasts even if Sonic had Super Mario’s nimbleness, and they come off as cheap when they demand ballet from a character who couldn’t tiptoe down a grocery store aisle without knocking something over. Gaming masochists will love it, and they’ll appreciate the way “Colors” encourages multiple playthroughs by grading performance and dangling special collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but regular players might find the will to continue totally sapped after a string of cheap deaths.

“Colors” takes place inside an amusement park, and its appetite for bright colors and lights makes it a visual feast. The game supports numerous input styles — remote, nunchuck, classic/Gamecube controllers — and even lets players play as their Mii in a handful of special challenge levels. Those challenge levels also let two players play simultaneously, but while co-op “Sonic” is a novel idea, the action is a little too haphazard for this to capture the same lightning “New Super Mario Bros.” bottled last year.

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Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

After 27 years of playing it safe with spinoffs, retreads and cameos, Namco blew the doors off the barn with a true sequel, “Pac-Man Championship Edition,” that rewrote the “Pac-Man” script without changing the tenants that made it the most popular video game ever made. “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” takes that blueprint, refines it, and douses it with sprinkles. The base game has changed: Mazes now crawl with dozens of ghosts instead of four, but all but a few rogue ghosts will follow Pac-Man in formation, making their movements easy to predict. “DX” counters the crowded mazes by giving Pac-Man a limited-use bomb to briefly clear his path, and it sends the action into a very brief fit of slow motion whenever Pac heads toward peril. Such lifesavers sound like game-breakers on paper, but they quickly become indispensable once it becomes apparent just how ridiculously fast the game gets as players increase their score. (Happily, “DX’s” outstanding control responsiveness never loses a step even when the speed is out of control.) “DX” increase the maze design count from two to 10, lets players dress those mazes in multiple audiovisual styles, and adds new free play, ghost combo and time trial modes. The only downside: The achievements/trophies are entirely too easy to unlock this time, and while every mode of every maze gets its own leaderboard, there’s no at-a-glance way to see how you stack up against your friends.