I was frustrated by the unrealized potential of the first Assassin’s Creed, but the improvements Ubisoft made in the sequels have made it one my favorite series in recent years. The latest installment, Assassin’s Creed Revelations closes the chapter on Ezio and Altair and offers a more refined version of the gameplay I’ve come to love. Unfortunately, it also tips the scales in terms of distracting mini-games, an overabundance of gadgets, and an abandonment of one of the series’ main characters. Still, as long as I can jump from roof to roof and stab people in the neck, I’m generally happy.
Ezio’s exploration of the towering architecture and fractious politics of 16th Century Constantinople allows for some amazing gameplay. At any moment you’ll be slipping in and out of the crowds as you use a poison dart to take out a corrupt city official walking down the street, or scrambling along the city’s rooftops to avoid patrols of heavily armored Janissaries, or delving deep into cavernous tombs to recover a mystical and ancient treasure. It’s endlessly fascinating, both in terms of the unique gameplay it offers and the rich historical context it presents for it all, which is as authentic as anything we usually see in today videogames.
With a few notable exceptions, the movement controls are even more intuitive this time around. Yes, I still bounce back from walls from time to time and, yes, I still get frustrated every time I can’t climb up on a structure because I happen to be one inch off to the right or left, but, in general, moving around the city is fantastic. The addition of a secondary combat weapon also adds variety to combat without ever making Revelations feel like a fighting game. Instead, having that second weapon is more about the tactical choices you make before you go into battle than about your reflexes during the actual fight. Do you equip a gun or throwing knife to take down enemies at range? Or do you bring along an extra dagger in case you find yourself pressing the flesh?
For all that it does so right, Revelations also serves up some puzzling elements, some of which are downright frustrating. The hookblade is the first new toy you’ll get. It basically extends your reach a few extra inches, which makes scaling towers a bit easier and allows you to spin past civilians blocking your way. The trouble is that you have to trigger it, which adds one more worry to navigating the city. I mean, do you ever want to fall to your death, or bump into a shopkeeper while running away from angry guards? That this isn’t an automatic part of high profile movement means you sometimes end up thinking more about the controls than about where you want to go.
The same problem exists with the bombs. While it’s nice to have bombs as a way of managing encounters, having to craft different kinds of bombs and then switch among them in the midst of the action means you spend more time managing the interface than managing the actual fight. And invariably, I’ll have made the wrong type for whatever situation I find myself in at a given moment. About halfway through the game, I discovered I could be much more effective if I just stopped worrying about the bombs altogether. In fact, the looting of bomb components is even more ridiculous than the looting game from the previous Assassin’s Creed. This time around you’re finding lamb’s blood in rooftop chests and scrounging pocketfuls of coal from Janissaries. Even if it makes sense from a gameplay perspective, which it doesn’t, it still breaks the reality of the game to have most of the citizens of Constantinople walking around with bomb components in their pockets.
The distractions continue in a pair of intertwined mini-games. While I generally like the concept of sending your assassins out in missions across Europe, doing so felt more like managing a sports team than leading a league of trained killers-for-hire. It’s great to have competent allies spring forth when you’re suddenly up against it in the city, but having to spend so much time moving them around from Athens to Madrid just felt tedious. On top of that, there’s not much challenge in these modes. With just a couple of hours to spare, I managed to take over every single city in Europe without ever losing a single mission. The trouble is that you have to participate in this mini-game if you want to avoid the second, more tedious tower defense mode the game throws at you.
I admit that I liked the tower defense component when I first played it. I even kind of enjoyed it the second time. But by the third time around, I was over it. Despite the new toys you unlock – flame throwing barricades? Yes, please – it’s very much a rinse, lather, repeat affair. Once you attract enough attention from the local Templars, they’ll come knocking at the door of one of your dens. If you don’t want to lose it, and the income it and the surrounding neighborhood generates, you need to hightail it back home and start orchestrating the defense. I applaud Ubi’s efforts to give us something new but between this, the assassins’ mini-game, the bombs, the hookblade, the ridiculous cart-driving and mine-shaft sliding levels, and the handful of other extras thrown in to the mix, I’m finding myself spending more time doing things that aren’t what drew me to the series in the first place.
Of course, I wouldn’t want Ubi to swear off of innovation forever. After all, that’s what brought us the highly enjoyable and addictive multiplayer assassination games. They’re still here in Revelations and they’re just as compelling as they were in Brotherhood. What makes them so compelling is that they’re not like every other competitive multiplayer game out there where it’s just your skill at killing that determines how well you do. In Assassin’s Creed half of the game is knowing how to blend in with the dozens of NPCs who happen to surround you while you track down your targets. Naturally, they’re trying to blend in as well, so you spend most of the game trying to tell which people are actual players you need to kill and which people are just NPCs going about their AI business. It’s such a refreshing alternative to the usual FPS deathmatch. I mean, where else can simply sitting on a bench and watching people walk by get your heart racing?
From a standpoint of pure historical simulation, I’m sure the version of Constantinople in Revelations is probably just as accurate as Rome was in Brotherhood, but the city in an Assassin’s Creed should feel like one of the characters and this one just doesn’t. It’s monochromatic, indistinct, and homogenous. Maybe it doesn’t have the variety or the familiar landmarks of a city like Rome or Venice, but it just lacks the life that makes the cities from the other games feel like real places inhabited by real people. Mechanically, it’s still sound, with loads of crowded markets, towering spires and backyard gardens that make assassination such a fun game. It just doesn’t feel like it has any soul.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot because there are some jaw-dropping moments that are well worth experiencing unspoiled, but I will say that the story itself seems to come to a satisfying conclusion, at least as far as Atlair and Ezio are concerned. The loose ends of both men’s lives are effectively tied up in a neat little bow in Revelations (and the accompanying Embers movie), so all that’s left is to speculate about what happens with Desmond in the inevitable sequel. The trouble is that there’s basically nothing going on with Desmond in this game. His sequences are so marginal that they might as well not exist, and the game really doesn’t even bother making a big deal of Desmond’s presence outside of some cinematic bookends. After having dreaded Desmond’s lack of character and real gameplay, I’m curious to see where Ubisoft wants to take this series next. Are we going to get a full Desmond game or are we just going to see a new surrogate and a new setting?
Bottom Line: The thrilling gameplay that attracts fans is still here, although it’s a bit obscured by too many mini-games that are less fun than or relevant to the core experience. The story is finally ended but we’re still left wondering what’s next for Desmond. Multiplayer is, as expected, awesome.
Recommendation: It’s a must-buy for fans of the series’ gameplay and narrative and inventive take on multiplayer. If you aren’t already in that group, get in on the ground floor by reading up on the story from the first game and then playing Assassin’s Creed II.[rating=3.5]
Steve Butts is scared he’ll have to play a whole game as Desmond.
This review is based on the 360 version of the game.