Developer: Ubisoft Montreal / Publisher: Ubisoft / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Language, Mild Sexual Themes, Violence]
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been one of the more surprising of this generation. From its social stealth and parkour mechanics, to the times and places it visits, there’s nothing else like it on the market. It’s even made the jump from a traditional development cycle to an annual one, starting with last year’s Brotherhood. There were concerns that this would cheapen the series, but Brotherhood once again defied expectations by being an amazing single-player game and introduced AC’s first multiplayer experience. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations aims to beat the “once-a-year” curse, while at the same time expanding on everything the series has done before. It’s a tall order. So have the teams at Ubisoft studios around the world pulled it off, or did this title miss its leap of faith?
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations picks up right where Brotherhood left off, which means that modern-day assassin Desmond Miles is in a coma, but still attached to the memory-surfing Animus. He therefore gets to live in a digital representation of his subconscious, while still reliving the latter years of his Renaissance-era ancestor, Ezio Auditore, in Istanbul, who is himself reliving the memories of the Crusade-era Altair. It’s a pretty convoluted set-up, and sadly, that confusion permeates every aspect of this game.
The strength of AC’s writing has always been its great characters and strong dialogue, most notably Ezio himself. Unfortunately, this time around the characters are all pretty bland, Ezio included, and the dialogue is wincingly painful at times. Everyone has a single note that they play: the Turkish assassin is Exposition Man, the lady is Obvious Love Interest, and the bad guy is… well, you actually don’t even know who the bad guy is until the end of the game.
And that’s another problem: you almost never know why you’re doing what you’re doing. There’s no context. Since the identity of the bad guy is supposed to be a mystery, you don’t really know who you’re fighting, you don’t know what they’re after, and you don’t understand how the different missions relate to one another. One minute you’re helping gypsies for no apparent reason, the next searching for books for no apparent reason. It all ends up being a bit of a mess, a bunch of random assignments that are there “just because.” They’re not always interesting, either; one mission literally has you tailing a florist to discover the source of his flowers, so you can pick them yourself for your lady. Yes, really. I understand this is meant to be a quiet moment in the life of a violent man, but come on! This series is about an epic war between freedom and tyranny, and this game has me picking flowers. Not to mention playing a lute to distract people. Yes, really.
Fortunately, everything picks up once the bad guy is finally revealed, because now you have an actual story with stakes involved. Unfortunately, this is the last hour of the surprisingly short 8-12 hour campaign. Still, in that last hour you get some great moments, including the kind of philosophical debates between the bad and good guys that we haven’t seen since the first game in the series. The ending cutscene is also another mindblowing sequence, and is a fitting conclusion for both Ezio and Altair.
Oh yeah, Altair! He’s in this game too. I almost forgot. Through the course of the game, he appears in five very brief sequences that are interesting from a lore perspective, but are completely irrelevant to the main plot, or anyone who hasn’t played the first game in the series. But at least he doesn’t have an American accent this time.
As a matter of fact, if you haven’t been playing Assassin’s Creed from the first, you’re going to be lost here. The game simply assumes you know everything that’s happened already, remember it all perfectly, and want to know more about it. If that doesn’t describe you, prepare for some confusion, on top of the confusing plot. All in all, it’s a sad way to say goodbye to both of these great characters, since Ubisoft has promised they will not return again.
Like with the story, Revelations has more mechanics than it really knows what to do with, and assumes you remember them all from previous games. A large number of mini-games have come back, been expanded upon, and then practically ignored by the narrative. You can still recruit assassins and send them on missions around Europe, but I would forgive you if you missed that entirely. It’s not a part of the story the way it was in Brotherhood, and it has no impact on gameplay.
You can still destroy Templar towers and make them Assassin dens. In fact, you can now install a fully leveled-up assassin as a den leader, which does… actually, having played the game I don’t really know what it does. But you can do it! These dens can then be attacked by Templars, which you can defend against in a tower defense mini-game where you’re literally defending a tower. And you’ll want to do this because… actually, I’ve played the game and I don’t why you’d want to do it. But it’s there!
You can still renovate stores around the city of Istanbul. While the city itself is gorgeous and the fashion and architecture are a nice change of pace from Italy, renovating the city has no visual impact on it. Combat has been so simplified that there’s really no need to buy new equipment or even medicine packs. This was a bit of a complaint in earlier games as well, but it’s really apparent this time around. Basically, if you hit the attack button a bunch and remember to counter, you will win every fight easily.
In the rare instance when you have some trouble, like when you’re fighting a Janissary guard, just throw a bomb at him and be done with it. Bomb-crafting is another new mechanic, allowing Ezio to create any one of a number of explosives, from lethal to distracting to obscuring. Hardcore crafters out there will probably love combing all the different ingredients into ever-more exotic creations, but from a pure gameplay standpoint, all you need are a few basics. One for killing guards, one for distracting them, and you’re pretty much set for the whole game.
The best two features of this game are the parkour-only dungeons, and the brand-new first-person puzzles. The parkour dungeons are much like they were in earlier games, but with a bonus sprinkling of Uncharted-like camerawork and dynamism. They’re well built, fun, varied, and really pull you in. The first-person puzzles are unlocked by finding Animus fragments throughout Istanbul, but are accessed from Desmond’s digital subconscious. This is really where Desmond’s side of the story comes into play. The puzzles themselves are wild, abstract constructs that you navigate by creating basic geometric shapes your disembodied mind can walk across. Yes, really. It’s totally insane and totally unlike anything I’ve seen before, and I loved them. I just wish more of the game felt like that.
Multiplayer is back in Revelations, once again putting you in the role of an up-and-coming Templar training to be the best bad guy. Fundamentally, the multiplayer still does a great job of evolving the single-player experience of stealth assassinations to online. Revelations ships with more than the last game, which will hopefully make for a more varied experience this time around. Modes like Deathmatch make for more fast-paced and intense rounds, since the maps are smaller than in other modes and it is much easier for the enemy to detect you. There are also more tactical experiences like Escort, in which the defending team must protect an NPC from the attacking team. Perks and persistent unlocks are also back, with deeper options than before. It’s still a completely original approach to multiplayer and a welcome breath of fresh air.
Revelations very much feels to me like a team checking off items from a list. Ezio, Altair, and Desmond are here; there’s parkour; there’s combat; there’s a bad guy, eventually; there are puzzles; there’s a big beautiful world to explore. The problem is, they never seem to cohere into a single experience, and the kind of passion and quality that has made this series so good in the past is missing. Most of the gameplay is so optional that you might well forget that it’s there, and good luck figuring out how your missions relate to the core plot. The multiplayer is still fun, fresh, and different, and should add good replay value. But in the end, the game feels more like it’s trying to be fan service than an actual game, giving us the end of Ezio and Altair and not much else.
Assassin’s Creed is a great franchise; Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is not a great game.