Ezio’s final journey takes him down a familiar, well trodden path, but outside of a few ill-advised detours, it’s still a trip worth taking.
It’s only been two years since Assassin’s Creed II was released, and publisher Ubisoft has already capitalized on the success of that game with two sequels, and while some would understandably criticize the company for milking the franchise, I personally have no issue with annual releases as long as they manage to maintain the quality of the series. That’s precisely what the newest Assassin’s Creed sequel does: It maintains the status quo, subtly improving most things (while adding a bad idea or two,) while making sure not shake things up too much. The series’s narrative tells its characters to expect the unexpected, and that nothing is what it seems, but contrary to that, Assassin’s Creed Revelations is exactly what it seems: another safe, but solid iteration on the foundation that AC2 laid.
The original Assassin’s Creed was a game that had a lot of good ideas that were executed poorly. AC2 introduced a suite of improvements that took all of the original’s potential and created an actual good game around them, creating an excellent experience that fixed all the problems of the original. Following up AC2 was Brotherhood, a sort of side-story that told a mostly unnecessary story concerning the further exploits of AC2’s protagonist, the charismatic Italian assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Brotherhood suffered from a sloppy single-player campaign that lacked the freedom and polish of AC2, but compensated for that by introducing a unique, tense multiplayer experience.
At first glance Revelations seems like another Brotherhood; the single player campaign opens with a frankly terrible carriage chase sequence that recalls the frustrating, trial-and-error gameplay that characterized much of Brotherhood’s story missions, but thankfully, things in Revelations improve quickly. Where as Brotherhood’s single-player mode felt like a regression back to AC1, Revelations justifies it’s existence with a narrative that actually matters and gameplay that feels like a refinement of it’s predecessors, rather than a step back.
Revelations picks up where Brotherhood left off, with modern day Assassin Desmond falling into a deep coma. To keep his mind intact, he’s once again plugged into the Animus, a machine that lets users relive the genetically encoded memories of ancestors. Told that he needs to go into the memories of his ancestors in order to find a key memory that will allow his shattered psyche to re-calibrate itself, Desmond once again relives the memories of his ancestor, Ezio, now in his fifties, who himself is on a quest to recover memory-storing artifacts left behind by the protagonist of the original game, Altair Ibn-Lahad. The story in this game brings to an end the character arcs of both Ezio and Altair in a satisfying, surprisingly heartfelt way, and also finally begins to unravel the vast web of conspiracy theories and mysteries that have surrounded Desmond ever since the first game. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s story felt like filler material, but AC Revelations lives up to its title by moving the story forward, and it finally seems like the series is moving towards its climax.
But while Revelations’s story brings lots of changes to the lives of its characters, the actual changes to the series’ core gameplay remain minor. Ezio gains a new piece of equipment, the hookblade, that allows him to scale walls faster, vault over obstacles (and people) that get in your way, and make use of some conveniently placed zip lines . While the hookblade is cool, the most useful new addition to Ezio’s repertoire is his new ability to craft custom-built bombs, which range from standard grenade style explosives to smoke bombs to even rudimentary trip mines and even a bomb that sprays a crowd with lamb’s blood, causing them to panic and start a riot.
The bombs initially seemed like a minor addition, but eventually I realized that they afford players an unprecedented amount of freedom within the game’s assassination missions. Part of the joy of AC2 was the multitude of ways you could approach a target: you could use your free-running skills to scale a nearby building and attack from the air, or hire a few prostitutes to distract the guards while you slipped in unnoticed to kill your defenseless target, or, if you were feeling especially cocky, you could simply charge your way to your target. Revelations’s bombs give you even more options: now you can use a smoke bomb to blind the guards, use one of the before mentioned blood bombs or even a bomb that shoots out money to cause a distraction, or you can simply blow them up. Like the hookblade, the bombs don’t change the core formula, but they refine it in a thoughtful and welcome way.
Whether you chose to be stealthy and subtle or go in Michael Bay style by blowing everything to hell and fighting your way out, Revelations lets you tackle situations the way you want to, and it regains the satisfying sense of freedom that AC2 had but Brotherhood lost. There are a few missions in which the game tries to recreate the scripted, linear nature of games like Uncharted or Call of Duty for the sake of some bombastic set pieces, but for the most part the game manages to avoid the trial and error, instant fail scenarios of Brotherhood. Despite only making minor refinements to the series formula, Revelations’s single player campaign was still polished and fun, and along with the excellent, gripping narrative, I found myself unable to put the game down until I saw the ending credits.
Unfortunately, while the core elements of the series have received some clever refinements, Ubisoft also sought to add some new gameplay styles to spice up the aging formula of the series, but these new diversions lack the polish of the main game. The main new minigame is a tower-defense style strategy game where Ezio has to set up troops to prevent Templars from seizing an area, and to put it frankly, these strategy sections are terrible. Enemies are poorly balanced, with basic enemy types being complete push-overs while the boss units that cap off each battle are impossibly hard, making for battles that see-sawed between being completely boring when fighting most enemies but that turned maddeningly hard and frustrating whenever a boss unit appeared. While I love tower defense games, the one in Revelations is simply terrible, and I dreaded having to do it.
The game also has some weird, first person platforming segments that sort of play like a mix of Portal and Minecraft, where Desmond has to escape a series of Aperture Science like test rooms within the Animus while he recounts stories from his own past. Unlike the main game, these sections take place in first person, and instead of a Portal-gun, Desmond has to solve these environment puzzles by laying down blocks that he can use as platforms. Like the tower defense minigame, it doesn’t sound so bad on paper, but the execution is lacking; the first person view makes it hard to land jumps, and moreover, unlike Portal, it’s sometimes not particularly clear where the exit to each room is, meaning you’ll often times spend as much time aimlessly wandering around a room as you will solving its puzzles. Thankfully, for the most part these sections are pretty easy, so they never got as frustrating as the tower-defense game were, but they certainly didn’t add to or improve the experience either. Neither of these ill-advised new gameplay styles are terrible enough to ruin the game, but Revelations definitely would’ve been better off without them.
While the single player campaign successfully addresses most of the issues that arose with last year’s Brotherhood, Ubisoft wisely decided to bring back Brotherhood’s best addition — multiplayer. Like the campaign, the multiplayer hasn’t really changed much; the biggest addition is a new, capture the flag style mode, but there’s a host of tiny improvements and refinements that make it an overall better experience. No, you still can’t kill your would-be-killer once you notice them coming down on you, but you now at least have a clever counter-tactic that’ll keep them from earning any points off of your kill.
I hate to repeat myself over and over, but that feeling of “evolution rather than revolution” is what characterizes Assassin’s Creed Revelations best. The game is at its best when it sticks to the franchise’s formula, and thanks to few subtle, thoughtful additions to the core gameplay, that formula is better than ever, even if it lacks the feeling of newness and innovation that characterized previous entries of the series. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t try new things, but unfortunately, those new ideas — the strategy mini-game and Desmond’s detour through the Animus — fall completely flat. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, but Ubisoft has some serious brainstorming to do when they start designing the next Assassin’s Creed game; while I’m okay with another iterative entry this time, they’re going to have to make another revolutionary AC2-style leap for the next game if they want to the franchise to remain relevant.
Final Score: 8.5/10