Arrivederci, Ezio Auditore da Firenze
Assassins Creed: Brotherhood was a genuine surprise last year, dismissing worries over its short development cycle by building on the solid foundations set by its excellent predecessor and providing another fantastic entry in Ubisoft’s stalwart, parkour-loving franchise. Its quality and success set a precedent for the series, so it’s no surprise to find us a year older with Assassins Creed: Revelations landing at our feet, double-blades in tow; the third game in three years to take us back into the Animus. It seems an almost insurmountable task to maintain the high levels of quality the series has exerted over the past two years, but witnessing the conclusion to loveable protagonist, Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s story is certainly an intriguing and exciting prospect for fans of the series; even if the question must beg: is it a case of diminishing returns for Ezio and his merry band of assassins, or are its titular revelations really something to behold?
The Ezio side of the equation is certainly here in full force, even if he is older, wiser and sporting a suitably distinguished bout of facial hair. His constant fight against the nefarious Templar’s has taken him to the beautiful city of Constantinople where he must uncover five keys to open a library in Masyaf; former protagonist Altair’s previous place of residence, and keeping place for many desirable secrets. It’s a simple objective that propels the narrative forward, combining with the requisite political intrigue involving the aforementioned Templar’s, the cities Sultan and all of the baggage that comes with them. The writing is as strong as it has been throughout the series, and Ezio’s development is superlative, but most of the narrative feels fairly inconsequential, providing a means to an end as we await the inevitable Assassin’s Creed 3. Only towards its final moments does it get more personal, and thus more meaningful, as it heads towards a satisfying conclusion. It’s admirable but not a patch on previous entries, even if Ezio is as amiable as ever.
Fortunately, being Assassin’s Creed, Ezio isn’t the only player here. Upon the discovery of each key we’re given a brief glimpse into the past to tie up Altair’s loose ends. These sections are short and very contained, focusing more on story than any gameplay implications; showcasing the most poignant moments of Altair’s life. They provide a nice break from the Constantinople action even if they fail to offer any of the touted revelations of the game’s title. Like the main story thread, its most meaningful beats arrive towards the end of the game, leaving the rest of Altair’s exploits to feel rather rote and negligible. They’re entertaining enough, sure, and it’s joyous to see and control Altair again, but in the grand scheme of things these sections seem meaningless; a character driven tale more than anything else.
And that’s a theme that’s maintained throughout Revelations with Desmond Miles’ side of the tale. Here we have the character with the most intrigue and monumental connotations to the main story arc - particularly after Brotherhood’s ridiculously shocking ending - but he’s relegated to the doldrums in Revelations, leaving Ezio and Altair to grab the limelight. I won’t spoil anything but after his previous actions at the end of the last game, Desmond has slipped into a coma and now finds himself stuck on Animus Island, a strange reality that works to keep him alive as his mind becomes fragmented between the two worlds. From this odd plane of existence his appearances become minimal, though there are a batch of optional side-missions you can undertake that play out like poorly conceived, Portal-inspired, first-person puzzles. They’re flat out egregious and the information they reveal about Desmond’s back-story are vaguely interesting at best; their inclusion is misguided and there’s no real reason to suffer through them for the sake of character insight. It’s a fruitful endeavour that doesn’t pay off, but it’s just one of many additions Revelations introduces to the series.
They’re a mixed bag but Ezio’s new hookblade leans into the positivity column. It’s a device that improves upon an already excellent platforming mechanic by ameliorating ease of use and allowing added flexibility in its climbing, combat and any quick escapes. When climbing, it hooks onto surfaces, propelling Ezio upwards with the obligatory velocity; generating much more speed and enjoyment out of the act of scaling Constantinople’s many exquisitely designed structures. When jumping, it offers a similar advantage, letting Ezio leap across much larger gaps, safe in the knowledge he can stretch out his arm and hook onto any nearby ledge to pull himself up, or use it to slide down any of the conspicuously placed ziplines littering the rooftops. In combat it serves a different purpose and can be used to throw enemies and knock down unsteady structures when being pursued.
It’s a welcome addition to Ezio’s ever-growing arsenal of historical gadgets, improving upon the series’ immensely enjoyable, free-form parkour with steady evolution. It’s still a fantastic feeling to traverse the rooftops, and Constantinople proves a laudable playground for Ezio’s brand of platforming; its superb level design built around generating every ounce of pleasure from its high-flying antics. Though it’s once you venture below the city streets that it truly comes into its own, utilizing every one of Ezio’s abilities in linear sections that showcase his greatest attributes with gratifying design and brilliant set pieces; it’s focused and tight nature reinvigorating memories of Ubisoft’s other popular acrobat, the Prince of Persia. It might be the third time in three years but Revelations’ method of travel is still as good as ever.
The same can be said of the combat, which has remained very similar to Brotherhood, even with the explosive entity of bombs being introduced to the mix. As you explore and open chests in Constantinople you’ll collect ingredients for bomb making, allowing you to craft three different types of bomb: lethal, tactical and diversion. Each type works well depending on the situation, whether you adopt an all-out attack or decide to take a more stealthy approach. They provide another option in combat to coincide with the regular swordplay; itself as enjoyable as in previous instalments, maintaining a fast pace, satisfyingly brutal finishing moves that fill the screen in arterial spray, and introducing various enemy types that require all of your attributes to defeat.
Of course, if you want, you can always avoid combat situations altogether, relying on your assassin’s guild to get the job done. This management system returns from Brotherhood, encouraging you to recruit assassins to fight alongside Ezio and head off on their own international assignments to level up and eventually defend your assassin dens. The management has seen its own improvements, making the system a much more meaningful addition. As you send assassins to each city, completing missions will give you control of that state, taking it away from the Templar’s and providing you with extra money and XP for your recruits. You’ll want to maintain control of each city to reap the rewards so there’s some minimal strategy on show this time, adding a hint of depth to proceedings.
Once your assassins reach level 10 they can also defend the aforementioned assassin dens. These dens replace the Borgia towers from Brotherhood, requiring Ezio to kill the Templar den captain and capture the structure for himself; which in turn grants you access to the plethora of shops in that region, allowing you to try a hand at property development to generate yet more funds. If you don’t have an assassin recruit in defence then your increased notoriety leaves undefended dens susceptible to Templar counter attacks, and you don’t want that; not unless you enjoy 16th century tower defence. It’s a curious addition and one that doesn’t pay off due to an awkward view point, banal units and a sense of disjoint with the rest of the game. It’s easier to negate its inclusion completely, allowing your dens to be taken over and then recapturing them again after the fact. In a game with so many diversions, the tedious and poorly implemented incorporation of tower defence is unnecessary and disappointing. While Brotherhood took what Assassin’s Creed 2 did and made fulfilling improvements, Revelations’ are merely incremental, or out of place; they don’t destroy the experience, but their appearances are mostly unwarranted.
Revelations’ enhancements to the multiplayer are on the contrary, however. The inclusion of any multiplayer at all in Brotherhood seemed like a poor choice for a story-driven series like Assassin’s Creed, but it was surprisingly adequate, offering a unique multiplayer suite unlike any other. That successful formula has remained the same in Revelations, providing plenty of gratuitous backstabbing, heightening tension and a nice variety of game modes and customisation. There are new maps, modes and characters with new abilities, unlocked through a familiar levelling up system in-line with other multiplayer games. But its gameplay is anything but familiar, tasking you with assassinating a specified target while being inconspicuous enough that you’re not assassinated yourself. It’s an anomalous juggling act as you sneak through the bustling crowds, blending in and trailing your target while also keeping an eye open for any suspicious activity. The new deathmatch mode removes some of this tension by ditching the proximity radar and the useful clones, but it proves entertaining enough with its quick thrills. The Artifact Assault mode, on the other hand, focuses more on pursuit as a capture-the-flag variant, shaking up the foundations of the regular multiplayer gameplay with welcome aplomb.
It’s a shame the additions to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’ single player aren’t as impactful as before. Maybe it was inevitable considering the yearly release cycle, but the majority of its improvements are incremental at best, while the rest are disappointingly substandard. That’s not to say this is a poor game, however; the platforming is still superb, the map is brimming with enjoyable activities, and missions are varied and joyous, maintaining the high level of quality set by its predecessors. Its narrative may not offer the revelations the title implies, and for that it feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it remains a fitting and appeasing conclusion to Ezio’s story - and Altair’s to a lesser extent. With sky high production values, a fantastic soundtrack and a lengthy campaign with admirable multiplayer, Revelations can carry the Assassin’s Creed namesake with pride. But it’s about time for a change in formula and significant improvements for the next step in the franchise. Revelations just feels like a stop-gap before bigger things to come.