Well, here we are again. If it's the Christmas season, that means it's time for another Assassin's Creed installment. Now, that may sound like a snide jab at the franchise and Ubisoft, but it really isn't. I've come to find that my desire to skulk around city rooftops reawakens at a rate of about once a year, and whereas with other games, I would have to reinstall and play through the same experience again, with Assassin's Creed I get the same basic game over and over, with slight improvements, mildly different settings, and incremental progression of the over-arching story. Wow, that sounded snide too, didn't it? Try to realize that I'm genuinely happy about everything I just said.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations opens with one of the better intro videos in the series, showing how, as a much older man, Ezio has now embarked on a journey to rediscover the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood. He travels to Masyaf, Altair's home, only to find it overrun with Templars who are busy trying to open a hidden door. Superficially, the game is about the search for the five keys which open that door, but the keys are really just the excuse that developer Ubsioft Montreal uses in order to get Ezio off his 55 year old ass and take on one final mission. But while Revelations has all the gameplay and action of previous titles, this last chapter in Ezio's life feels more like an epilogue or addendum. This is, at once, a bit of a gyp given the $50 price tag but also something quite new and different for the series.
In any action/adventure yarn, you have the overarching story, which drives the narrative forward and keeps things humming along. But in truly great stories, it matters less that the world is saved or that the sacred crystals are retrieved; what really matters is character. I can honestly say, for the first time in the Assassin's Creed series, that I now care about both Ezio and Altair. In Revelations, we finally see the toll that a lifetime of fighting this invisible war against the Templars takes on an Assassin.
In searching for the lost keys, Ezio gets fleeting glimpses into Altair's life after the events of the original game. He watches as Altair's family is ripped away from him piece by piece, all because he feels a duty to keep the Assassin Brotherhood going. As he watches, Ezio begins to wonder just what the point of the war is and whether he can find true, personal contentment of his own. Can he really afford to fall in love so late in life? Revelations hits on emotional and thematic beats that were never even hinted at in previous games. Suddenly, Ezio and Altair aren't two dimensional super heroes, but just human beings that have to live with the regret of choosing one path over another.
This new, deeper storytelling comes a cost, though. The game is very short, taking anywhere between fifteen and eighteen hours (by comparison, Assassin's Creed 2 took upwards of twenty five). Perhaps all of the previous games should have been this length, as the story feels tight and mostly devoid of filler. Regardless, don't expect a long journey in this outing, as this game could have easily been called an expansion.
Similarly, Desmond's story hardly progresses at all. Instead we are given an optional rudimentary first person platforming experience while hearing Desmond's voice describe his childhood and past choices in life. While it was neat to hear about who Desmond was before all of this craziness started, the game you play while listening to the "Desmond's Life" audiobook is downright awful. Consisting of spartan, cubic environments, a la Portal, you must create blocks of various shapes and use them to navigate from start to finish, while Desmond yammers on. Given how half-assed that portion of the game feels, I would have rather just sat back and watched a non-interactive movie that showed me the events of his life.
Ezio's gameplay, on the other hand, is just as good as it ever was. The fluidity and cinema of previous games remains strong, even if it does boggle the mind as to how an older man can move so expertly. Constantinople is the largest single city in an Assassin's Creed game so far, and in my opinion, the best. The city is at an interesting transitional point, as the new Islamic Sultanate works to stamp out the last remnants of the old Christian Byzantines (the face of this region's Templars). For some added fun, Constantinople is littered with zip line posts on the rooftops, which affords Ezio quick transport via his new hook-blade. Also, since you are now much closer to China and gunpowder is increasingly more available, there's a heavy emphasis placed on bombs, even to the point of a small crafting system. Selecting your shell (delivery method), powder (radius of explosion) and effect, Ezio can make a large variety of traps and bombs. Some standout effects include lamb's blood (makes affected solider think they are hit and spastically check their bodies for wounds), pyrite (fool's gold that make citizens into a violent, greedy mob) and some good old caltrops. I wouldn't say bomb crafting is a huge improvement over the old system (I still ended up using throwing knives and bullets more often), but I always welcome the opportunity to customize my load-out as much as possible.
Let's see, what else is new? There's a little (and I do mean little) tower defense game that pops up here and there. After taking down one of the seven Byzantine enclaves, you must assign one of your assassins to guard the area. Whereas in previous games your wanted level made life more difficult for Ezio, now it clues the Byzantines in to all of your assassins' activities. As such, when your wanted level hits red, one of your captured towers will come under attack and you must scramble to the rooftops and rain down fire and blades on the invading enemy soldiers.
All of this sounds like a fun diversion, and for the most part it is. The camera angles are a bit confining and the controls, which are obviously made for a third person action game, are not as fluid when applied to a strategy game, but overall, it succeeds in breaking up the normal Assassin's Creed gameplay. My biggest problem is that it is so easy to "lock off" this mini-game entirely. As soon as the assassin guarding an area hits level fifteen (which happens very quickly) and you complete his mini-mission, that's it. His sphere of influence can no longer be invaded. And with only seven regions to secure, you can see how quickly the player can make the tower defense game obsolete. If I had to remember and estimate, I think my final tower defense skirmish took place about six hours into the game. Why even bother creating a feature like that if it's completely eliminated shortly after being introduced in the first place?
At the end of the day, despite all the little niggling shortcomings, I quite enjoyed my time with Assassin's Creed: Revelations. It was a calmer, more introspective experience that put character development at the forefront and gave both Altair and Ezio a fitting send-off. Is it worth buying? Well, like serialized TV shows, you are either following the story or you aren't. Ubisoft, in making the overarching story about Desmond, has ingeniously roped all of us in for the long haul. If you care at all about the story, this isn't a series where you can pick and choose which installments to buy. However, unlike Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which came off feeling entirely like filler, Revelations has just enough assassiny goodness to sate your bloodlust while also feeling very important to understanding all of the heroes so far, even Desmond. My only hope now is that Ubisoft continues in this vein for the next hero's story.