When it became clear last year that Assassin’s Creed was going to be a yearly franchise, fans reacted with equal parts excitement and unease. Assassin’s Creed games are sprawling, open-world epics that follow a history-spanning, conspiracy-laden plot about acrobatic killers; is it really possible to do all of that justice on an annual schedule? Ubisoft seems to think so, and with no fewer than six of its worldwide studios on the job, Assassin’s Creed Revelations certainly looks poised to prove the doubters wrong.
Will it, though? Can it? Well, yes… and no. It depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it.
Are you interested purely in the series’ rooftop-hopping gameplay? Then you’ll be happy to know that Revelations continues the “let’s just throw more features at it” approach to design seen in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, changing little while piling on new elements. The basic gameplay’s essentially the same as before; playing as 16th century Assassin Ezio Auditore (now the graying, middle-aged leader of his order), you’ll spend a lot of time running up walls, darting across rooftops, parachuting off buildings and destroying guards with an ever-more-lethal assortment of blades, clubs, guns and other era-appropriate weaponry.
Stealth is encouraged but rarely required, opportunities for deadly mischief are everywhere and there’s a huge new city to explore. This time it’s the bustling, predominantly Muslim metropolis of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), where Ezio’s come to seek keys that will open a secret library built by his predecessor, Altair. And just like Brotherhood’s Rome, Constantinople is filled with landmarks and vacant shops to buy (which will then funnel money into your bank account and offer you discounts), secrets to uncover and hidden challenge levels to explore.
Above: There’s also been a small but significant uptick in graphical detail, as evidenced by the new faces of Altair, Desmond and Ezio. Oh, and it’s in 3D now, which is great if you’ve got a 3D TV
Unlike Rome, however, nearly all of Constantinople is freely explorable more or less from the moment Ezio arrives there. So if you’re one of the many who’s been irritated by the Creed games’ insistence on blocking off certain areas until you’d unlocked the right memory sequence, that’s definitely a plus.
Also unlike Rome, Constantinople is completely devoid of any horses to ride. Granted, the city’s design is compact, with lots of narrow streets that would make horses unwieldy, and you might not even notice they’re gone. However, their absence is still noteworthy enough to point out.
Oh, and one other thing: Beggars are back, and this time, they come in threes.
Above: At least you can still throw coins to make them stop bothering you
Aside from a new story and a new city, Revelations brings several big additions to the gameplay, the biggest being the hookblade. Far from simply being a way to shoehorn ziplines into the game, the hookblade gives players a little more control and agency over Ezio’s actions, making climbing and swinging across Constantinople’s skyline just a little more fun in the process. With the hookblade equipped, Ezio can grab ledges that are just out of reach, launch himself up the sides of buildings and swing across gaps by hooking onto hanging lamp-like objects (which, when grabbed normally, still let him swing in 90-degree arcs).
Ezio can also use it to tumble right past any guards in his path, or – by tapping a button at just the right moment – throw them to the ground (or off rooftops, which is much more entertaining). The hookblade’s also good for yanking scaffoldings down onto pursuing guards and, and as you might expect, it makes fighting with Ezio’s hidden blades about 50 percent more gruesome.
Another big addition: Bombs. Using ingredients found everywhere (most frequently in chests placed across the city), Ezio can craft a pretty wide assortment of explosives by combining different shells, gunpowder strengths and payloads. Each can accomplish a different goal, whether it’s simply killing a bunch of guards at once, luring them away from a spot they’re protecting or causing panic with an explosion of animal blood.
Above: There’s so much new weaponry, ranged attacks are now mapped to a second button, and weapons are selected from two separate wheel menus
Whether you’ll actually ever use all of those bombs is another matter. Most of the guards in Revelations are just as easy to kill as in any other Creed game; as before, they’ll surround you and attack one at a time, and you can either hack away at one until he forgets to block and dies, or simply wait for them to strike and either disarm them, or kill them in one hit with a counter.
Like in previous games, combat can be immensely fun (and it’s flashier than ever here), but its simplicity means that A) there’s little practical benefit to buying new weapons, since anything you wield can kill in one hit, and B) there’s little incentive to use any bomb other than a lethal grenade or a smoke bomb, unless mandated by the mission. The rest demand a certain level of patience; you have to want to mess with your enemies, and mustering that level of interest is difficult when killing them is so much easier and faster.
That doesn’t hold true when you meet the Janissaries, however. The elite slave-soldiers of the Ottoman army, the Janissaries are faster, more devious and much tougher than any other enemy in the core series. Taking one down requires at least three “killing” blows, and they have an annoying tendency during combat to step just out of sword range and shoot you with pistols. They’re bastards in a fight (although they’re relatively easy to beat once you understand their patterns), but it’s kind of a nice change to see an Assassin’s Creed enemy that’s actually formidable enough to make avoiding them a serious consideration.
Like Brotherhood, Revelations pads out its relatively short narrative with plenty of side missions, although these are both less numerous and a little more closely integrated with the storyline than before. The centerpiece this time is your brotherhood of recruitable Assassins, which (as in Brotherhood) can be signaled to help you during a fight, and can be sent off on various errands abroad (which brings you money, nets them experience points and can eventually open foreign cities up for Assassin conquest).
As you slowly conquer Constantinople by taking back Assassin Dens (analogous to Brotherhood’s Borgia Towers), you’ll earn the right to recruit up to 12 Assassin helpers, who now come with short introductory quests. Where in Brotherhood you just had to rescue them from angry guards, you might now have to beat a prospective recruit in a race, or catch one as they’re picking pockets, or rescue one’s wife and daughter from a Templar madman.
Next page: So how's the story?
Then, once they’ve done enough to reach level 10, you’ll be able to assign them full-time to a Den, which kicks off a new quest in which they’ll need Ezio’s help to track down a local troublemaker (actually one of the multiplayer characters). They’ll fail, of course, but the attempt will raise their level cap to 15; once they reach it, they can complete the second half of their assassination quest and will be permanently assigned to their Den, thereby protecting it from attack.
That’s another thing – your Dens, once captured, can be targeted and attacked by Templars. See, this time around, your “infamy” – the little meter that fills whenever you steal, murder or start fights with guards – actually means something. It’s been replaced by “Templar awareness,” and if it fills up, you’ll have a short grace period to whittle it back down by bribing heralds and killing witnesses. After that, the Templars will try to take back one of your unsecured Dens.
If that happens, you’ll be able to jump into a tower-defense minigame, which – despite technically being a punishment – is one of Revelations’ most enjoyable new additions, inviting you to set up Assassins with crossbows and guns on rooftops to guard against waves of marauding Templars and their occasional siege engines. Cannon fire and Ezio’s hidden gun can be used to thin the Templar ranks quickly, and eventually, you’ll unlock defenses including grenadiers, hand-to-hand fighters and barricades with gun-turret emplacements.
The other side tasks mainly involve scanning areas for ancient books lost to history (a less interesting replacement for the last two games’ paintings, which apparently would have been anathema in the Muslim world), and taking on faction quests, of which there are two. No, not two factions – two quests, one for the Mercenaries and one for the Thieves (the Courtesans of earlier games are replaced by squads of belly-dancing Romani, incidentally). They’re still enjoyable, but after the intimidating wealth of side missions in Brotherhood, the offerings in Revelations seem disappointingly sparse.
You may have noticed that, up until this point, we haven’t said much about Revelations’ story. More so than in a lot of other modern games, the storyline of Assassin’s Creed is central to the experience of playing the games, and while scaling walls and leaping across rooftops is fun, devoted fans have gotten heavily invested in the history-manipulating Templars, the mysterious First Civilization and the development of Ezio and Desmond as characters.
And then, of course, there’s the question of just what the hell happened at the end of Brotherhood, which had one of the most frustrating, confusing cliffhanger endings since Halo 2. The good news is that at least one of the big questions Brotherhood left us with is answered (somewhat unceremoniously) in the game’s opening act.
The bad news is that, if you’re hoping for another epic storyline that sees Ezio and Desmond grow and develop in interesting ways, you’re going to be disappointed. First, let’s talk about Ezio’s narrative: while the previous two games saw him dismantling and undermining conspiracies run by colorful historical figures, this one sees him trying to find the keys to a library before a bunch of generic Templar nobodies (who never really have a chance in hell of finding them anyway). The “real” villains aren’t revealed until fairly late in the game, and when they are, they tend to bite the dust before they do anything too villainous or memorable. They don’t even seem that bad, really, which makes it less than satisfying when Ezio finally slides his blades in.
Also, none of the allies we got to know over the last two games return in Revelations. Considering this is purportedly Ezio’s final adventure, it would have been nice to see at least a few of them get a proper send-off. Instead, Ezio gets a handful of new allies who are either A) utterly devoid of personality, or B) charming, but don’t get enough screen time to really leave their mark. The only real standout is Ezio’s romance with bookshop owner Sofia Sartor, which – despite feeling a little forced and awkward – nevertheless gives Ezio a chance to finally put aside his air of dry, world-weary confidence and show a little glimmer of his old cocky charm.
At certain points, Ezio’s narrative gives way to a second one – that of Altair, the protagonist of the first Assassin’s Creed, who’s stored his memories in the keys Ezio’s trying to track down. These six memories – which take place years before, immediately after, and then years after the first game – are a fun change of pace and an opportunity to return repeatedly to the familiar fortress of Masyaf. They’re also some of the more memorable parts of the game, especially for longtime fans of the series, but they’d have been even more memorable if they hadn’t been so short.
Then there’s Desmond. As interesting as he became in Brotherhood, he spends Revelations in a coma – or, more accurately, confined to Animus Island, a dreamlike but dull environment where he’s occasionally visited by his enigmatic mentor, Subject 16, and listens to the voices of his Assassin friends as they fret about his condition. Here, after collecting enough Animus Data Fragments (which replace the collectible feathers and flags of previous games), you’ll be able to jump into a handful of first-person puzzle levels that reveal key things about Desmond’s past, filling in the details of events that fans kind of knew about already.
The levels themselves seem at least partly inspired by Portal, with Desmond creating platforms and ramps to work through stark, futuristic environments, and they’re an enjoyable departure from the central gameplay. However, their voiceovers and static-image projections don’t really add anything new or interesting to Desmond’s character. If anything, they just flesh out his backstory a little, and in that respect they feel like a missed opportunity. Especially since they replace the brilliant Glyph and Cluster puzzles, which provided a measure of subversive social commentary that’s completely absent here.
To be fair, all three plotlines build toward a genuinely great finale that’s in turns explosive, then touching, then explosive again. Until then, however, it plods and meanders through a storyline that, while serviceably interesting for a videogame plot, feels flat, disappointingly underdeveloped and well below the series’ usual standards.
Next page: The multiplayer, and the verdict
There’s one area in which Revelations doesn’t disappoint even a little, and that’s multiplayer. The stealth-based, somewhat solitary hunt-or-be-hunted action from Brotherhood is back, and this time it’s brought a slew of new refinements, modes, maps and customization options. It also brings a bunch of social features, including customizable profiles and automated challenge ladders for your friends, as well as an in-game store that sells new perks, abilities and modifications for your avatars.
At its heart, though, it’s still the same hunt-and-be-hunted gameplay that won us over in Brotherhood, as you and a handful of other players – whether on your own or in teams – are set loose in smallish villages, cities and palaces (populated by a bunch of wandering lookalikes and random characters) to stealthily murder each other. Success largely means relying on environmental hiding spots, your ability to blend in with the crowds and assorted Templar tricks to get the drop on your target, while not attracting the attention of the players out to kill you.
Revelations’ multiplayer is crammed full of little improvements, but the biggest ones are the new modes, including Deathmatch (which is a lot like the lonely Manhunt mode, but does away with both the radar and any player-character lookalikes in the crowd), Corruption (essentially a zombie mode in which one team tries to kill and convert the other) and Escort (which tasks one team with defending a VIP and the other team with killing them).
There’s also Artifact Assault, which turns classic capture-the-flag into a game of sneaky misdirection. Here, you’ll be tasked with stealing the enemy team’s flag and escaping before any of them chase you down, immobilize you with traps or otherwise stab you to death. Tearing ass through enemy territory (in which you’re vulnerable to attack) with two or three opponents on your heels can be a genuinely pulse-pounding experience, and it makes safely reaching your home base with the enemy flag extremely satisfying.
As fun as playing multiplayer is, however, the real incentive to playing through and leveling up your character is that doing so unlocks chunks of a parallel, multiplayer-only storyline that reveals tidbits about Templar history. As you rise through the ranks of Abstergo, you’ll be treated to occasional videos and (more frequently) text/image files that offer a glimpse of the AC universe from the bad guys’ point of view. It’s here that the series’ conspiracy fans can get their fix, although getting to level 50 and seeing everything requires a considerably bigger time investment than simply running through single-player.
Assassin’s Creed II? Depends. If we’re talking purely from a gameplay standpoint, then that's a yes, but Assassin’s Creed isn’t a franchise that can be judged purely from a gameplay standpoint. Its story and characters were too important to the overall experience. Taking them into account, ACII stands as the best game in the series thus far. Revelations may have amazing multiplayer, and it may have added and refined a few game mechanics, but as a whole experience, ACII still stands above it.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood? No. Well, its multiplayer is definitely better (although it’s really just refining something that was already great), but Revelations feels as though it just adds a handful of bells and whistles to Brotherhood’s formula. And where Brotherhood’s story seemed weak and flabby compared to ACII, it feels epic next to Revelations’ meandering, treasure-hunting plot. Also, while Revelations arguably tries to make its side missions more meaningful, there are noticeably fewer than there were in Brotherhood, and none of them involve piloting Leonardo Da Vinci’s bizarre inventions – or anything more awesome than a horse-drawn carriage, for that matter.
Batman: Arkham City? No. Arkham City is prettier than Revelations, its side quests are more compelling, its city is more fun to explore and its villains (however many of them there are) are better defined and more fun to take down. True, Revelations’ Constantinople feels like an actual, living city, while Arkham feels like a hostile, thug-infested prison camp, and climbing buildings as Ezio is neck-and-neck with Batman’s grappling hook as a fun way to get around. In the end, though, Rocksteady’s superhero sim wins out as the better overall experience.
While it brings some undeniable improvements to the series, Revelations feels like one step forward, two steps back. Its gameplay and multiplayer are still fantastic, but they come at the expense of a lackluster storyline and a shorter overall experience. Instead of being the exclamation point at the end of Ezio’s story, Revelations feels more like an ellipsis.
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