Edit: I completed the game today, and felt it necessary to make some changes to this review - including raising the score by half a star. Lesson to be learned, never review games until you've played them right through...!
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
Another year, another Assassin's Creed title from Ubisoft. Adventuring in the Animus is becoming as clockwork as EA's FIFA series, and whilst many out there have a lot of love for Ezio and co., the same could once be said for one of the gods of the last console generation, Tony Hawk.
But never judge a game by it's cover, or whether it seems as if Ubisoft are intent on running it into the ground in excange for our Florins (or Akçe this time around - it's different already...!). Judge it on it's own merits. Or a lack of.
After the events of the last game, "protagonist" Desmond Miles finds himself trapped inside the Animus, and must replay his ancestor's (Ezio Auditore's) memories to get out. It's a premise that sounds all too familiar, but one that you can hardly blame Ubisoft for using, and to be honest it's a fair idea, if a little convoluted. With Desmond trapped, there is no "real world" to exit to this time around - instead, a mysterious island within the Animus serves as the hub, from which converations above can be overheard, and extra memories accessed.
After the initial few scenes, Revelations quickly sets down in "faff around" mode, this time with Constantinople as its locale. Ezio arrives in search of five keys needed to open an impenetrable vault back in Masyaf, but soon becomes embroiled in political battles, rumours of treason, issues of the sultan's successor, and suchforth. So much so that the driving plot becomes lost in the mess. There seems to be little reason for Ezio to become involved in these affairs other than to simply waste time.
Not everything here is pointless, however. The search for the keys does give rise for some missions of interest, in particular the playable memories of Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad many years prior. And accessible from the island hub are unusual sections of the Animus, playable in first person, that give much-needed insight into Desmond's past. It's in these segments Revelations is strongest - when it knuckles down to do some storytelling of relevance, touching upon something in the process that too few games have - soul.
In fact, it's a peculiar thing with Revelations, in that the largest parts of the game feel the least necessary, at least in terms of the story. The Constantinople missions, whilst decently varied, only really serve as filler - whilst the brilliant Desmond puzzles, Altaïr flashbacks, and the ending sequences are all of the highest quality. Simply put, anyone who's had an investment in the Assassin's Creed tale these last few years won't be disappointed.
Naturally, the core gameplay is indentical to before. Why fix what isn't broken? And naturally, no sequel can be allowed to have fewer items than its predecessors, so there's a few new introductions here. Some good, some not-so-good.
On with the good. Rather than his standard hidden blade, Ezio now has a "hook blade". Identical in every way, except that it can be used to extend his reach when jumping and climbing, and it can be used to slide down ziplines. Though it feels a bit cumbersome at first, it soon becomes a flawless addition to the game, bringing a breath of fresh air into the free-running sections - allowing jump after jump to zipline to assassination with such grace and ease that you can't help but smile. It's got some combat functions too, but they're essentially a waste of time. Why hook-blade over a soldier when you can barge right past him...?
The Assassins minigame has had a slight overhaul, with a Risk-like continental takeover objective imposed upon it, in addition to being able to train new recruits right up to a point at which they can run their own dens. It's not much, but it does give your army of recruits a little more personality.
New in Revelations is a tower-defence styled minigame, whereby Templar attacks on an Assassin den have to be repelled through placement of barricades, riflemen, crossbowmen, and more. Its frustratingly difficult at times, but thankfully (and weirdly) it can be avoided completely, save for the initial tutorial. The only explanation for this mode's inclusion is that Ubisoft felt they had to do something new to justify the new game, but game modes for the sake of game modes are never a good thing, as proven here.
The same can be said of the weaponry. Ezio now has his hookblade, crossbow, gun, poison darts, lethal bombs, tactical bombs, diversion bombs, fast-acting poison, sword, heavy weapon, dagger, and throwing knives. And if all those fail, he can use his fists. The bombs are another new addition, as is the ability to craft them yourself (though this does mean that nearly every treasure in the city is yet another bomb component, and the bomb crafting points outnumber everything else by far, as if to force you into using them). It's a decent addition, but it wouldn't be missed if it was removed entirely. And the weapon system is in dire need of an overhaul. Guards have never really posed a threat in the entire series, but now they're nothing more than fodder to experiment on.
Overall, in gameplay terms Revelations is simply a reiteration of what came before, with some more thrown in for good measure. It's starting to feel pretty bloated, but in fairness this doesn't impact on the fluid gameplay the series excels in.
One area in which the Assassin's Creed series has always done well has been in its design, and although Revelations is a little weaker in places, it's still strong overall. The clear whites and blacks of the Animus design are gone - replaced with blacks and greens to represent the "broken" state of it. It does make the map a little harder to follow, but it works well from a stylistic point of view, giving the game something of its own identity.
The controls are as solid as ever - though using Eagle Vision now inexplicably requires a press on the left-stick, which can be awkward, and doesn't really free the Y button up for anything new. That aside, the combat is more of the same, and the free-running is improved thanks to the aforementioned hook-blade.
Further praise needs to be reserved for the soundtrack - another strong point for the series. Whilst it meanders calmly around as backing for the most part, in some of the more poignant sequences it provides the perfect accompaniment, hightening events in the way only music can.
I've never been a fan of games having multiplayer just for the sake of it, and whilst the Assassin's Creed multiplayer does offer something different, it still doesn't appeal to me. Each to their own though, and since multiplayer isn't (yet) a key part of the game, it hasn't been used in this review's score.
As before, players have to hunt down and killing a selected target, whilst trying to avoid detection themselves. With a complete overhaul of the modes, classes, and menus, the attention to the mode is admirable, but whilst it's okay for an hour or two, it does gets repetitive soon after. The problems prevelant in the last game are still there too - how are you supposed to silently kill someone who's running around on rooftops (and this happens alot)? Why is the stun function so picky, in that even when you can tell someone's chasing you, it feels random whether it works or not? Why is it so geared towards the higher levels, with poison, guns and the like unavailable to new players? Why isn't it any real fun? On the whole, it's a nice idea, but a frustrating experience that the series would almost certainly be better without.
So, having played this, which is the best Assassin's Creed game? Chances are, you're in the majority thinking Assassin's Creed II right now. Yet on paper its immediate sequel, Brotherhood, is a better game. It has far more weapory, more side missions, minigames, online multiplayer... Except that having more doesn't make a game better. It's a curious phenomenon, limited solely to the videogame world, that every new title in a series must have the same and more, the same and more, the same and more. Musicians don't hire orchestras to record second albums, or feel the need to have one more track each time.
I digress... The essential point here being, that Assassin's Creed doesn't need more. If anything, it needs refining down. Brotherhood felt a little top heavy at times, and it's worse, if anything, in Revelations. The Animus initially served as a brilliant plot device for messing around in the past, but at times here it felt like an excuse more than anything...
To be completely honest, this all seems a little harsh. It's still a very good game, and well worth playing. But this series is one of my favourites of this generation, and with every iteration, I slowly forget what made it brilliant in the first place. The joy of free-running around Renaissance Italy has been slowly replaced with what at times now feels like a checklist. Renovate all the shops, buy all the monuments, complete all the missions, counter all the guards, 100% the game...
But, as mentioned, it does have its moments. The compelling backstories of Altaïr and Desmond make this a worthwhile purchase to fans of the series, and it's essentially the same game holding it all together at the centre. If you're not a fan though, this won't convert you. If you want to play the series, go play II first instead. And if you've already played the rest, you probably already own this.