Friday, December 9, 2011

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

I honestly was less disappointed when I found out this game was going to star Ezio than I was when I learned the same about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. After all, with that game they had already established a willingness to reuse the same protagonist, and it makes a certain amount of sense to have a trilogy within a larger trilogy, that being the one about the series' meta-protagonist Desmond. I don't know that the game released next year will actually be called Assassin's Creed III, and I wouldn't be surprised if it features another new or returning central character, but I am reasonably confident that it will resolve Desmond's story without killing off potential for future games in the series. Revelations does a lot of work toward setting up that sort-of conclusion, both in the resolutions it gives to Ezio and Altair and the small steps forward it takes in the larger narrative. Also, that narrative has hinged on the end of the world happening in 2012, and of course it would be silly to have a game about that come out in 2013 or later.

Revelations was advertised as being a game to finish the stories of Ezio and Altair, and I'd say it does so, though in a slightly odd way. Despite them both appearing on the cover, you will spend the vast majority of the game playing as Ezio again, with only five missions as Altair, all relived through keys Ezio finds (and relived also by Desmond too obviously, in a weird Inception-style layering of realities), all taking place in the Assassin stronghold at Masyaf, and mostly being pretty limited from a gameplay perspective. But Altair actually gets a more purposeful send-off as a character, as we see snippets of his entire lifespan, struggling to keep the Assassins on the right path and make the proper preparations for his descendents to follow their own paths. There are some really strong moments in these missions, that finally made me care about a character who was mostly just a jerk in his own game. Conversely, we do see Ezio accept what the true purpose of his life is and get closure on some things, but there's less of a finality to his arc. Still, he also had some good moments.

Looking at the game itself though, while Brotherhood won me over with what it brought to the table in terms of new concepts and systems for the series, Revelations seemed a bit light on actual new gameplay content that was enjoyable. While the first game obviously established the vital climbing and combat mechanics, and the concept of the series, and the subsequent games added fun features like core combat improvements and an economy that allowed you to purchase better equipment and renovate businesses in exchange for more influence over the world and the ability to recruit and level up new Assassins who could help you on missions, there's not much new about Revelations that I really liked. I will say the hookblade is a very good addition - it doesn't have much effect on combat, but it does make getting around easier by letting you climb a bit faster and use suspended wires all over the city of Constantinople like ziplines.

Otherwise though, the additions were either a wash or actively irritating. Bomb crafting is interesting in theory, but there's really not much that they allow you to do that you couldn't do before in another way. It's not like you need more ways to kill enemies, smoke bombs already existed to allow for obscuring your movements, and there are other methods of distraction like poison or hiring citizens to help. Adding a control component to the assassin training missions provides a new source of revenue but is also a money sink on its own, and the new stuff with notoriety and defending your territory is almost a total disaster. Now instead of permanently taking over Templar strongholds, they can be retaken if you're a wanted man, and the only way to defend them without taking them back again is to engage in an undercooked and uninteresting tower defense-style minigame. Luckily you can avoid that altogether by keeping yourself off the radar, but now renovating businesses increases your visibility, and the methods to reduce it are decreased in number and less effective. It's just more of a chore to build up your power over the city than it was before, and I really don't see the benefit.

On top of the questionable additions to the available distractions from the game itself, the game itself seems a bit slighter than it was on the past. I'm not sure if my perspective is skewed or what, but it definitely felt like a shorter game to me, especially in the second half when the plot kicks into high gear and every memory sequence seems like it's over in an hour or two. There's not exactly a shortage of side content, and I know for a fact there's a number of optional missions I can finish as soon as I get back to the game. But the critical path through the story definitely felt a bit rushed to me, especially in the end, when the game teases what could be a big confrontation but it never comes. It's just like there was supposed to be one last twist and one last big Templar you'd have to track down and assassinate, and that final act doesn't really come. Really, you don't do much actual assassinating in general. Those silly scenes where you stab a guy in the neck and the environment turns into white nothingness and the victim gives a final confession or Ezio just blesses them are a staple of the series, and they're unfortunately in short supply in this game.

It did have some strong spots - the game has the best development of a human relationship in the series, and the underground tomb missions which focus on more specific platforming are better than they've been before, and make a nice effort to remove some of the sterility from the series' level design. I even liked the first person platforming levels you unlock by finding small objects in the city, which aren't terribly fun but are a nice break from the game's regular hustle and bustle and do a good job of establishing an interesting past history for Desmond, though they're light on any real surprises. And of course the multiplayer is back, and it's still fun as long as the other players aren't idiots. Of all the main games in the franchise, Revelations feels the most like a stopgap. It felt less connected to history, and had the smallest cast of characters, and the least momentum in the overarching story. But it did hit a few important beats, and it's still fun just to run around the city and mess up fools, and I'm still looking forward to what's next. It's a bit unfortunate that Ubisoft has felt the need to push out a game every year to keep the series relevant, but I'm not going to pretend I haven't enjoyed playing them every time.

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