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Three Stories Unfolding At Once; or how I learned to stop nitpicking and love Assassin's Creed: Revelations
I just finished Assassin's Creed: Revelations. A real roller coaster of mixed feelings. I thought I'd share my final (deliciously spoilerific) views on this game with you guys. I'll be discussing the story in previous games and Revelations, including optional/hidden content. Do not read if you haven't finished all four games yet.
A quick summary of my experience with the series
At the start of the summer of 2010, I finally decided to get with the HD crowd and bought myself a PS3. Naturally, I picked up a copy of Assassin's Creed. My initial impressions were rather positive, to say the least. I may at some point have grunted "uh uh uh" whilst stabbing dudes to death. My excitement quickly turned into boredom as I was sent to do the same four quests over and over and over again.
I moved on to more exciting games, but Assassin's Creed had planted its seed somewhere deep in my brain and a few months later I just had to go back. I played through the whole game in just a few sittings, fully embracing the tedium. The very same day, I started playing Assassin's Creed II. As most of you know, a much better game in nearly every conceivable way. I eagerly awaited the release of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which I also voraciously devoured and adored. I even ended up playing a fair bit of AssBro multiplayer. And that brings us to this week, when Assassin's Creed: Revelations came out.
So, what happened in the first three games again?
Right, sometimes it's easy to forget all the crazy stuff that happens in Assassin's Creed games. You spend hours stabbing dudes and then *BLAM* supernatural artifacts, a pre-historic über race, genetic memory, all that jazz.
Assassin's Creed, the first one, kept its cards close to its chest. It's quite open about Desmond Miles living in the present (or the near-future) and reliving his ancestor's memories through the Animus. But other than that, we don't learn much about Desmond's story. We meet Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, a rather young assassin who doesn't play by the rules and has his toys taken away by his master, Al Mualim. He has to stab nine dudes, templars it turns out, to regain his master's favors and the aforementioned toys. In the end, it turns out Al Mualim is a templar himself. He had Altaïr assassinate the other templar leaders so he could keep the Apple of Eden, a strange artifact with immense power, for himself. Altaïr kills Al Mualim and takes The Apple, which reveals the locations of many similar artifacts all over the world. This is the information that Abstergo (i.e. the modern day templars) wanted from Desmond. They now intend to kill him, but luckily Lucy saves him. Also, someone wrote invisible crazy talk on the wall of your Abstergo cell. To summarize: we learn a fair bit about the mythology of the Assassin's Creed world (about genetic memory, the Animus, assassins, templars, artifacts), a tiny bit about Desmond (he's descended form assassins) and a bit about Altaïr (just what happened to him during his twenties, roughly).
Assassin's Creed 2 takes a radically different approach to storytelling. It's a much less game-y game which tells a more interesting story right from the start. Desmond is now hanging out with his fellow 'assassins'. They have their own Animus. They're sending Desmond into the memories of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Italian nobleman/playboy who knows nothing about his assassin heritage, much like Desmond in the first game. We are there as Ezio is born. We are there as he beds Cristina Vespucci. We are there as he sees his father and brothers being executed, which leads to him training to be an actual assassin and a final confrontation with Rodrigo Borgia. After this final confrontation, Ezio acts as a conduit for Those Who Came Before, an ancient yet advanced race that was wiped out before recorded history, so they can communicate with Desmond. They inform Desmond that the world is about to end, again. Also, Subject 16, the previous victim of Abstergo, left bits of code behind in the Animus which reveal much more of the mythology of the Assassin's Creed world. We learn very little about Desmond this time around. On the other hand, we learn a lot more about Ezio than we ever did about Altaïr. We see him grow from a boy into a man, an assassin.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood continues where Assassin's Creed 2 ended, using much the same approach, albeit with more enticing gameplay. While the focus is more on the gameplay than in Assassin's Creed 2, there is still plenty of story told. We now witness the downfall of Monteriggioni and Ezio's successful attempt to rebuild a brotherhood, this time in Rome. After once again battling the Borgias, Ezio hides the Apple of Eden beneath the Colosseum. Desmond and friends travel to the Colosseum in modern time to retrieve the Apple, which takes over Desmond's body and makes him stab Lucy and then paralysis him. This game reveals quite a lot about the Assassin's Creed mythology. It also tells a lot about a decent, if not terribly relevant, chunk of Ezio's life. Once again, the modern day story is least touched upon.
And what's the deal with Assassin's Creed: Revelations?
Okay, so we finally get to the good part. Or at least the part that I wanted to talk about. Assassin's Creed: Revelations takes after Brotherhood. It covers yet another chunk of Ezio's life and improves on the previous game's gameplay in subtle, yet entertaining ways. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't impress. We've already had two games about Ezio and while I find him an interesting character, it's a third game about the same guy! And the gameplay in Brotherhood was so great, it didn't really need much improving. Why should anyone care about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, other than "it's more of the same, so if you like that, that's cool"?
Though I wasn't too impressed with Revelations when I first started playing it, I ended up really enjoying it because of the stories it tells. Although the entire game takes place inside Desmond's head, as he relives Ezio's memories, Revelations manages to tell three stories.
Ezio's story takes up most of the time, which is a bit of a shame. I really like Ezio. Seriously. He's an awesome dude. However, after two games of all Ezio all the time, I didn't really need more Ezio. His story felt the least essential. Having said that, it was a good story with all new, interesting characters. Even Ezio can be seen as a new character, as he's now a weary old man with a different look at life.
Through five special artifacts, called Masyaf keys, Ezio relives some of Altaïr's memories. There are only five six such sequences, but they all feel important. Through these five six sequences, we see the rest of Altaïr's life. We only ever heard about his early adulthood. Apparently, things didn't go so well with Altaïr since we last saw him. He was accused of being a traitor for killing Al Mualim. He was kicked out of the order. He had two sons with Maria and the younger son was killed by Abbas, the new leader of the assassins, in an attempt to get Altaïr to hand over the Apple of Eden. As he was handing the Apple over, his wife was murdered. Decades later, as an old, old man, he returned to Masyaf to right those wrongs and put the order back on the right path. He ended up taking the Apple with him into a secret vault under Masyaf, where he died. This story was easily the most rewarding of the three. Altaïr always had the potential to be an amazing character, but the first game didn't do much with that potential. Revelations makes up for that in spades. Altaïr comes alive. He's one of the more sympathetic characters I remember from video games. He's always tried to do the right thing and ended up an outcast for his noble attempts. At the end of his life, everything comes together, which evokes both a sense of exhilaration and one of sadness, because nothing can undo the bad things that happened to him.
And finally, there's the Desmond story. We learn that Desmond is in a coma, that he is still hooked up to an Animus and that his mind seems to be falling apart. He meets Subject 16, who always seemed like an inevitable bad guy to me. As Ezio finds animus fragments in
Istanbul Constantinople Kostantiniyye, separate Desmond memories open up. These first person segments play very differently from regular ass Assassin's Creed and I didn't exactly enjoy the gameplay. However, they do, at long last, tell Desmond's story. I believe we'd heard him talk about "the farm" before, but now we learn that he did actually grow up in an assassin community. He had to go through special training. He was being prepared to be a proper assassin, but he ran off to live a normal life. Instead, he was captured by Abstergo and had his inner assassin drawn out, unintentionally, through repeated, prolonged Animus sessions. While Desmond's story isn't particularly interesting, it's nice to finally hear it.
Learning to love Assassin's Creed: Revelations
So there you have it, stories. That's what I love about Revelations. The series has always been good at fleshing out the mythology, the world. But the only character whose story they ever told properly was Ezio. Desmond was a mystery and Altaïr was a flat character presumably designed so players can project themselves on him. Revelations tells us a bit more about Ezio, something I didn't really need, but I'll take it. Relevations tell us a bit about Desmond, which I really needed. No, really. Yet another game without any Desmond backstory would have been frustrating to me. And Revelations tells us a whole lot about Altaïr, which is friggin' awesome. I'd almost want the next game to be all about Altaïr once more, that's how great the Altaïr stuff in Revelations is.
Besides telling awesome stories, Revelations also works well within the franchise. It brings (somewhat unnecessary) closure to the story of Ezio and it brings (much needed) close to the story of Altaïr. At the same time, it delves far enough into Desmond's story, as well as the Assassin's Creed mythology, to set up future games.