Why I love Assassin's Creed: Revelations' stories (big spoilers)

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.


Dear Game Industry, please ignore my language. Seriously.

So.... Beyond Good & Evil HD came out. That's a thing. I've heard so much about this game, I just had to try it. Luckily, there's a demo on the PlayStation Store. Downloaded it (a fairly big download) and had it sit on my HD for a while, whilst I played through inFamous. Tonight, I finally got around to trying the demo, and it... was... in Dutch? Entirely in Dutch? Everything was in Dutch! The menus, the in-game text, even the voice overs. And no way to select another language? What is this madness?!

Sure. I'm Dutch. I speak Dutch, fluently even. But I don't play games in Dutch. I grew up watching a lot of British TV and American movies, reading books in English and, obviously, playing games in English. Games are hardly ever translated into Dutch. The only two examples I've personally encountered (other than Beyond Good & Evil) are Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, and Professor Layton and the Lost Future, both of which I loved despite the translation, rather than because of it. In the case of Professor Layton, I was actually quite startled when the game started speaking Dutch at me. I even considered returning it and importing an English or American copy. Instead, I turned the sound on my DS off (yes, I missed out on most of the wonderful music in that game) and tried not to think about how much better that game would've been in English.

Don't get me wrong, I love Dutch. It's a very quirky language, with some wonderful words and expressions. But mostly, it's a language that was built (or rather, that evolved) to get information across quickly and directly. It's not a language suited to engaging story telling. Let's face it, to people who don't speak Dutch, it sounds like someone trying to clear their throat whilst speaking fake German. You know who tops the Dutch music charts, other than Adele, Bruno Mars, Snoop Dogg et alia? Dutch singers and bands, singing original songs, in English. The reason we flood the world with shitty reality TV and game shows? Those shows don't rely on language.

Add to that the fact that the Dutch speaking market is relatively small and consists mostly of people who speak English (or French, or German, or all three) fairly well. Why does that matter? Because nearly all Dutch dubs are targeted at young kids, who haven't learnt English yet and thus form the largest audience for dubs. People who do Dutch dubs, whether it be for movies, TV or video games, only know how to do crappy dubs targeted at very young kids. When they get to apply their ~considerable skill~ to an actual piece of entertainment (arguably even "art"), things generally don't end well.

So, there it is. My rant against localization. I guess I'm never going to play Beyond Good & Evil. Dear game industry, please, please. I beg of you. Don't translate things into Dutch. And if you insist on doing so, at least give me the option to play in English anyway.


On filling bars.

Yes, yes, I am writing a blog post to complete a quest. The new quest system, much like the game Blur ( see this Penny Arcade comic) is a great way to fill bars. As I write this, I'm at level 8 and nearly 80% of the way to level 9. My bar is nearly full. This makes me happy. Seeing this bar nearly full makes me want to fill it more. Once it is completely full, I will reach level 9 and my bar will be saddeningly empty once more. Apparently I am not only driven to fill bars, but to raise counters as well. These two things, bars and counters, are central both to my GiantBomb questing experience and most of my gaming experience.
I am a huge RPG fan. I'm particularly fond of JRPGs, but grew up playing D&D-based Western RPGs like Might & Magic. The appeal of these games, to me at least, is the sense of progress they instill. When your character gains a level, it becomes stronger. You can see its statistics increase. You can teach it new skills. Your character now is harder, better, stronger and faster than your character five minutes ago. In other genres your progress is traditionally measured by your progress through the game's story and/or geography, or by your increasing skill as a player. There is no easy way to tell that you are making progress. This hasn't gone unnoticed by game developers, who have begun including 'RPG elements' in their non-RPG games. By 'RPG elements' they obviously mean bars and counters.
The trend of RPGifying games is all about making people feel like they're accomplishing something. I've spent more time than I'd care to admit playing FIFA Street 2 and only because this mediocre game has so many bars to fill. My favorite GTA game so far is GTA: San Andreas. While I prefer the characters and style of GTA: Vice City, San Andreas simply has more bars to fill (and slightly improved controls, but it's mainly about the filing of the bars). Social networking sites have bars to indicate how good you are at using their website and counters to indicate how good you are at life. Even GiantBomb has bars, to trick me into being more active on this here website. Touché GiantBomb.
So here I sit, facing a world full of bars, with a compulsive need to fill them all. Level 9, here I come!