Review: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

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Ezio, Ezio, wherefore art thou Ezio? After the sprawling adventures of the young Italian in Assassin’s Creed II and the slightly less grand adventure chasing the Borgias in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we can finally say goodbye to the now grizzled and milked-for-all-his-worth Renaissance-era Adonis.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s final adventures in the series, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad’s journey during and after the events of the first Assassin’s Creed, and Desmond’s life in the run-up to his encounter with Abstergo Industries. It’s a story of closure for two Assassins past and the birth of an Assassin present, but does Revelations prove that Ubisoft can craft a full new title without series founder Patrice Désilets’ input, or is it a symptom of the publisher’s iterative addiction?

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: November 15, 2011 (PS3, 360) / November 29, 2011 (PC)
MSRP: $59.99

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood fit nicely into the Italy of Assassin’s Creed II by portraying Ezio’s chase after the nefarious Templar pope Rodrigo Borgia and his son Cesare, but Revelations opts for the rather ambitious solution of bringing Altaïr and Ezio’s arcs to a close with Constantinople and the old Assassin fortress of Masyaf taking center stage.

Masyaf is now under the control of the Templars, who are trying to open a door that guards yet another impossible secret. The keys to open this door are hidden in Constantinople, prompting Ezio to race the atheist power mongers in a quest to find these keys before the secret ends up in the wrong hands. These keys double as First Civilization memory storage devices, imprinted mostly with Altaïr’s experiences of the years following his disposal of the treacherous Al Mualim, allowing the player to find the answers to some lingering questions surrounding the Codex and the old Grand Master’s legacy.

Just like Brotherhood expanded upon the gameplay of its predecessor while delivering a less expansive story, Revelations adds even more to the formula. The Borgia Towers are now Templar Dens that can be turned into Assassin Dens, which serve as local headquarters. Your notoriety can no longer be wiped clean by ripping a few posters off the wall; heralds must be bought off for a 25% reduction, or once you attain well over 50% notoriety you’ll be able to kill some unfortunate Templar official for a 50% reduction. Reach 100% notoriety and eventually one of your Dens will come under Templar attack, allowing you to start a rather imbalanced tower defense minigame called Den Defense. This is a fun distraction at first, using Assassins to murder waves of Byzantines from the rooftops, but it quickly becomes more of a chore that you can just as easily ignore.

Apprentices are still recruited as before, with the addition of a few unique recruitment quests, and you can have a couple more murdering peons at your disposal this time around. Your apprentices now gain experience if you call upon their services to deal with enemies, but you can still send them away on missions to level up a bit faster. The new Mediterranean Defense aspect is similar to the one in Brotherhood, letting you select missions for your recruits to reduce Templar influence in cities around the Mediterranean. You can even take control of these cities to provide you with additional money, experience, and ingredients, as long as they remain under Assassin control.

Leveling up your apprentices far enough allows you to assign them as Den masters, eventually allowing you to “lock” a Den from Templar attack after playing a few unique Master Assassin missions. These are centered around Ezio’s new role as a mentor, with his apprentices reflecting the same brash young man he was two games ago. If you leave the game running while you go do something else it still gives you the same easy money every 20 minutes, but doing so will allow Templars to slowly reduce your influence in the captured cities and eventually reclaim control if you don’t pay attention for an hour. Unlike Brotherhood, owning landmarks no longer provides you with a huge amount of income, so by the time you are done with the story, you’ll probably still have things left to buy.

The wonders of the Orient provide two other gameplay additions: the hook-blade and bombs. The hook-blade allows Ezio to jump a tiny bit higher and farther. It can definitely make vertical movement a lot faster, although you’re often better off not using it in lateral movement, as doing so will force you to hook onto a ledge when in most cases you could’ve just grabbed it with your hands and moved along more quickly. The hook-blade also lets you glide along sparse ziplines that are somehow always positioned in the wrong direction when you want to use them outside of the scripted missions.

While the hook-blade comes into play often enough, and you’ll learn to use it to your benefit without too much trouble, bombs are a bit of a curious addition. Instead of harvesting ingredients for equipment, the materials you gather from chests and bodies are now used for creating different types of bombs. These bombs can be used to kill, obscure your presence, or distract guards to let you walk by unnoticed. There are a lot of bombs to craft for as many different effects, but the question is whether you will ever care to use them. Just like throwing coins and using hired help were reduced to relatively inefficient tools in Brotherhood, the combat system — which is nearly identical to Brotherhood’s — empowers Ezio in such a way that you can easily dispatch of any type of enemy save the fearsome Janissaries without breaking a sweat.

A few missions here and there remind you that you should use bombs, by forcing you to distract guards lest you get detected and fail the mission or fail the 100% synchronization bonus requirement, but chances are you will forget to use them again the minute you are done with such a mission. There are just too many other ways to deal with any situation to bother with bombs, and in the few instances where you really wish you had a specific bomb on you, you probably brought the wrong type.

Constantinople doesn’t lend itself too well to using some of these bombs, either; you don’t want to risk desynchronizing by accidentally killing too many civilians with a lethal bomb, so you end up not using them that much. What’s worse, while the city offers some architectural variety with its Byzantine structures compared to Renaissance Italy, it is a monotonously drab and brown maze of buildings. Perhaps this depiction of Constantinople is relatively faithful to the period, but one wonders if there couldn’t have been a way to bring the culturally vibrant city to life in a more visually impressive manner.

You no longer have access to a horse, and while you can use rooftops to get around faster, some sections of the city are cut off from each other by massive walls from a bygone era. You’ll have to find the right building to climb and then pass over these walls unless you want to run alongside them hoping for a gateway of sorts, which more often than not prevents you from easily getting around the city. The tunnel transport system is back, but tunnel entrances are too few and far between to serve effectively as time savers, and it isn’t until you start to hunt Animus fragments (feathers) that you actually learn to quickly make your way around. For some reason, it also takes pretty long to bring up the map and it quickly becomes a chore to set a map-marker whenever you don’t know which direction to take.

Of course, the history of early 16th-century Constantinople does provide a colorful tapestry of inspiration to draw from. Unfortunately, the backdrop of the Sultan Bayezid II’s sons and their fight for succession is underdeveloped in favor of using a remnant Byzantine faction as the dominant Templar adversary for most of the story. It isn’t until halfway through the game that a rather unimpressive antagonist enters the fray, and by that time you’ll already have spent well over a day on taking over Dens, defending them, doing sidequests, grabbing collectables, waiting for shops to appear once you buy them, and playing a few story missions.

Altaïr’s story missions are short but solid and offer a nice change of pace, almost making you forget the rather boring gameplay of the first Assassin’s Creed. Some aspects of Altaïr’s missions may raise a few fans’ eyebrows due to temporal inconsistencies, but they are explained with a deus ex machina as you approach the end of the game. Desmond’s pre-Abstergo story is told through his own weird missions inside the Animus, unlocked by collecting enough Animus fragments in Constantinople as Ezio. The Desmond missions are played from a first-person perspective, but don’t expect any Mirror’s Edge-style gameplay; all you can do is walk around, jump, and place platforms to bridge distances.

The level design in these missions can symbolize Desmond’s journey in an interesting way, throwing obstacles in your path when Desmond’s early life was in turmoil or visually reflecting his past experiences if you care to look for it. Yet on the whole these missions are a strange and sometimes frustrating departure from the core gameplay that you play an Assassin’s Creed game for. They are still worth it for the fans who want to know more about Desmond, but these missions completely replace the fun Subject 16 puzzles from the previous games, and not for the better. Subject 16 himself shares the Animus world with Desmond’s mind and he’ll interact with Desmond at times, but for some reason he is depicted as a raving lunatic with bulging eyes whose role in the entire franchise is never properly explained until he is unceremoniously discarded.

Revelations offers the same game as Brotherhood, but in a straitjacket and a new coat of paint. Gameplay-wise, it’s still a fun, deep experience that any fan of the franchise will enjoy playing because it’s not very different from what you’re used to; you’ve just already played it last year, and the year before that. Ezio’s final chapter in the franchise is a shadow of the past two games, and you realize how sorely you miss the “real-world” characters like Shaun when they do make an appearance for a few seconds. More importantly, there are just no great characters in Revelations.

The famous Piri Reis is far from a Machiavelli or Leonardo da Vinci and feels like a throwaway character, while Yusif, the leader of the Brotherhood in Constantinople, is just not interesting enough to care about. A female character inspired by one of Albrecht Durer’s famous paintings acts as Ezio’s love interest in the autumn of his life, but even she seems to be there just to make Ezio a little bit more human. That leaves Suleiman I, still the young scholar during the game’s time frame, as the game’s strongest support character, although his impact on Ottoman rule is mostly lost to all but those familiar with the period’s history.

However, Revelations does offer a dozen strong sequences that are among the series’ finest. When the soundtrack booms during one of these superb and varied missions, it reminds you why you love these games in the first place, and a mission featuring a minstrel Ezio is the best thing you’ll encounter this side of Mass Effect 2‘s Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Alas, it makes it all the more painful to notice how the rest of the single-player is simply a letdown. In fact, nearly everything about the story mode feels rushed. This includes the gameplay additions that now give you too many tools to ever use half of them, the lack of quality of Ezio’s story arc and its numerous sidequests, and even the recycled NPC animations that show Ottomans using Italian hand gestures if you pay attention to them long enough. Revelations seems like a throwaway title that ends up being a bridge too far.

One time Ezio is shown in a cutscene with items he isn’t logically supposed to have on him at that point in the story. Special icons for your Assassin recruits limit the missions in Mediterranean Defense they can go on, but the items are never explained properly. Having to sit through unskippable conversations when restarting a memory for 100% sync can become a nightmare if you’re a completionist. Being able to recruit identical-looking Assassins makes a cutscene with all your recruits look ridiculous. Buying a landmark doesn’t actually renovate it or change its appearance. The list of small rough edges goes on and on. Add to all these minor issues the larger impact of the lack of Subject 16 puzzles and the absence of the VR mode with its insanely competitive time trials — despite the entire game taking place inside the Animus — and it feels like there could’ve been a masterful title here if Brotherhood and Revelations were simply developed as one game that closed the Borgia arc, the Ezio arc, and the Altaïr arc at once.

Whereas the story mode is by no means bad and still offers a decent enough experience that is merely disappointing compared to the past two games, the multiplayer mode almost completely makes up for Revelations‘ single-player flaws. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer surprised many who thought it would be a worthless addition last year. Admittedly, it’s a unique beast that can be frustrating at times, yet rewarding like few other games if you stick with it. If you loved the multiplayer in Brotherhood, the rebalanced and improved setup in Revelations alone is worth the price of admission.

New perks and abilities now need to be unlocked and then purchased with “Abstergo Points” that are gained by playing rounds of multiplayer. As befits a new iteration in a series, a wealth of new modes for free-for-all and team play has been added, and some of Brotherhood‘s iconic maps like Castel Gandolfo and Venice make a return. The new Artifact Assault (a Capture The Flag variant) is a supremely enjoyable mode when you are playing with a good team that works together. Capture the Chest, Revelations‘ take on Modern Warfare‘s Domination mode, makes teams alternate between defending and capturing three chests across the map. As chests are captured, the area surrounding the last chest inevitably becomes a temple of butchery where defenders and attackers vigorously strive for dominance, only to chaotically flee in all directions once the last chest is captured and three new chests spawn across the map. Escort has you protecting VIPs from a rival team as they make their way through checkpoints, and you can imagine how tense that can be with enemies potentially lurking in the shadows at every turn. Most other new modes are welcome variations on Wanted, the main free-for-all hunt-and-be-hunted mode, and each provides a unique vibe and feeling of tension.

The multiplayer menu UI has been improved to quickly allow navigation of the ability menus with the press of a bumper button, while friends’ high scores are always in your face and give you “dares” that taunt you to improve on their scores in one of the many modes. Ability sets can now selected in-game while you spawn, a most welcome addition. Some troll favorites like the smoke bomb are now further down the line of unlocks, while Templar vision is somewhat easier to obtain early on. A fearsome option to craft your own abilities awaits you at level 30, as does the option to reach level 99 Prestige for those of you who need a virtual badge to rationalize the amount of time you have lost to multiplayer. The level of customization is huge, with everything down to different parts of a Templar’s outfit, weapons, and stun animation offering tailoring to your taste.

A lot of work has evidently gone into balancing as well. Challenges no longer lead to overpowered abilities but simply give you XP. The old “I totally stunned him/I totally killed him” stun vs. kill dilemma has been addressed with the Honorable Death system; you can score some points if you try to stun one of your attackers who is simultaneously going for the kill, which kills you but also lowers their score in the process. This makes aggressive stuns less effective than before, and you can’t stun people over and over again. Whether or not you will miss annoying people with stuns (there is “The Stunner” title to make up for it), it’s a good solution to the problem of not knowing when a stun or kill animation takes primacy when both players are mashing their respective buttons, in a way that leaves both parties at a score disadvantage. Moreover, progressing in multiplayer unlocks videos and texts that document the rise of the Order that once became Templars and currently hides behind Abstergo Industries — a fun story addition that gives solo players an extra reason to try out multiplayer.

Ubisoft Annecy truly deserves a lot of credit for improving on Brotherhood‘s multiplayer by such lengths that Revelations‘ highest praise is reserved for the multiplayer mode of a traditionally single-player franchise. If you are not big on multiplayer, however, you might not care for the balance of quality between the solo and online components.

Revelations is the Janus of Assassin’s Creed. One head looks to the past titles and tries to improve on the single-player aspect while wrapping up the story of Ezio and Altaïr, not quite succeeding in improving the gameplay and at the cost of the story’s quality. The other looks to the future and succeeds at delivering one of the finest multiplayer games you can find this season. It’s simultaneously a transition towards next year’s big new title and a closure of not just what happened to Those Who Came Before, but the two iconic Assassins that came before. Given how much it does right and how much it disappoints, I can’t help but feel that most of Ubisoft’s attention has gone to next year’s Assassin’s Creed title.

You need to be a die-hard Assassin’s Creed fanboy to be blind to the apparent flaws in this latest semi-sequel, but that doesn’t mean Revelations is a mediocre game or even a mediocre package; it just won’t be good enough for most fans. Brotherhood already showed a small but noticeable decline in quality compared to Assassin’s Creed II, but it still had plenty of good moments and offered better gameplay than its predecessor. Revelations shows a further decline and simply doesn’t add enough in terms of gameplay to make up for the unfocused and disappointing story. You’ll get some answers but they don’t give you anything you couldn’t have lived without. That is, apart from the traditional “WTF” ending, which, thankfully, doesn’t disappoint.

As much as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is a testament to the inevitable cost of trying to milk your franchise too much, too fast, it is still a fun game that gives you the single-player gameplay you’ve come to know and love, but sadly offers little more on that front. A few months after you finish it Revelations will be that game that had better make Assassin’s Creed III worth the price Ubisoft has had to pay to release both titles on schedule, but the main reason you will remember it at all is because you will have the disc in your tray for the masterful multiplayer.

Requiescat in pace, Ezio.

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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