The Assassin’s Creed series has become one of the success stories of this generation. A promising but awkward first game has been transformed into a genuine multi-platform blockbuster. The second game greatly improved the mission structure and storytelling while the third game brought worthwhile multiplayer and a host of single-player refinements.
Revelations, the fourth game in the series (and the third featuring Ezio Auditore da Firenze as lead-protagonist) provides that same level of polish and technical achievement but, sadly, brings almost nothing new to the party. As a result, Revelations is an enjoyable experience, but one that gets old much more quickly than previous Assassin’s Creed titles.
Part of the problem seems to be that the game’s writers have struggled to pack in enough conflict and key story beats to keep the core narrative in focus. The setup here is the weakest of all of these games. The weakest by a long shot. Desmond Miles, the bloke tasked with saving the world because of the DNA he shares with his superstar assassin ancestors, is told that if he doesn’t finish exploring the memories of Altair and Ezio then he’ll (and I paraphrase) go mental and lose his mind.
It’s clichéd, it’s tired, it’s overplayed and it’s unbecoming of an Assassin’s Creed game. Based on previous games I expect more, quite frankly. The bulk of this memory exploration is centred around Ezio trying to obtain an item that potentially holds the key to finally ending the war between the evil Templars and goodie Assassins.
However, that epic plot line hasn’t been translated at all well into engaging narration and gameplay. Far too much of your time as Ezio is spent being sent on quests by characters that have little more than a cameo role in proceedings. Many of the quest givers here are seen only once, reducing the epic sensibility of previous games (especially the first two) to a by-the-numbers grind that fills time between the ‘proper’ action.
Looking at Revelations as an entire package, the dilution of that sense of scale hurts the plot and characters tremendously.
The structure of many of these missions doesn’t help matters either. From tailing targets in secret to chasing guys across rooftops, most of this has been done before and done many times. I don’t like to criticise gameplay mechanics that work well but, thanks to the generous length of these games, anyone that has consumed the entire franchise thus far is probably getting on for 100 hours of stuff already.
What doesn’t feel old (despite his looks) is our leading man. Taken in isolation, Ezio himself is as charismatic and as suave as ever. Older, wiser and greyer than the privileged playboy we were first introduced to this is now a man that understands the value of a subtle approach. Whether it be history, politics or women, our hero treads carefully and only puts his neck on the line when it is intelligent to do so.
The growth and maturation of Ezio’s personality is far and away the most interesting element of the series to this point. It’s a testament to the strength of the character that the weak supporting cast on show here does nothing to dampen your interest in him. Conversely, it does nothing to heighten it either. However, Ezio isn’t the assassin to master.
Experiencing the past as a means of influencing the future is a tried and tested means of ramping up the importance of elements that would otherwise have little to no meaning or drama. The golden ticket of Revelations is the inclusion of the first game’s Altair as a playable character. By retrieving glowing discs that hold recorded memories of Altair’s exploits (don’t ask me how that technology works), Ezio can gain access to information that will help him complete his own task in his era.
Altair’s memories take the form of short but fully playable chunks of gameplay that are probably the most interesting and exciting of the entire running time. Unlike the open-world, convoluted mission structure that defines your time as Ezio, Altair’s moments are short, punchy and full of character and intrigue. This bite-size formula is both brilliant and irritating – their length means they don’t get tiresome but their relatively infrequent insertion leaves you constantly wanting more.
Of course, it’s a catch-22 situation: insert more and you’d likely get bored of them.
There are other new elements on show, albeit none that have the impact of a playable Altair. Constantinople circa-1511 AD is as wide-spreading and labyrinthine as we’ve come to expect from a city a la Assassin’s Creed, packing that same draw distance and feeling of genuine life that pervades all of the series’ urban hubs. Once again, enormous credit must go to the design team responsible for creating such a wonderfully realised canvas.
A new ‘hook blade’ allows Ezio to jump across bigger gaps than before and use zip lines to quickly traverse between rooftops. It can also be employed in battle as a means of tripping opponents or performing a nifty dodge move that puts them off balance. Ultimately though (and despite the lengthy enforced tutorial) the inclusion brings little of real interest to the gameplay.
More interesting is the ability to craft a wide range of bombs that come in handy in various situations. By finding ingredients around the world Ezio can put together explosives for all manner of situations, from diversionary stink bombs and cherry bombs to more sinister proximity bombs and shrapnel grenades. There’s a lot for the creative player to indulge in and experimenting with new formulas is one of the most satisfying elements of the game. There’s also a new (and mostly optional) tower defence style mini-game, but the less said about that the better…
These new elements join returning favourites such as the ability to recruit and train fellow assassins to assist you in tougher moments, the counter-attack heavy combat system and the buying of various kinds of shops.
Less convincing is Ezio’s parkour. In previous games I had few issues with the free-running antics but the system is now starting to show its age, especially when compared to the smooth flow and cinematic flair of similar movements in Uncharted 3. Some ledges and handholds are inexplicably out of bounds which has led to many a premature death, and the camera angles mean you’ll sometimes jump into oblivion because you’re pressing the wrong way on the stick. I understand that the complexity of such a system is difficult to get perfect, but this is the fourth game and some of the basics still haven’t been fixed.
Despite the faults though, Revelations remains an intriguing proposition because of gaming’s finest Italian hero after that plumber in dungarees. Seriously, if there was an Oscar for game characters Ezio would walk it more often than not. If you’re less entranced by Mr Auditore then Revelations is a more difficult sale.