When it comes to trends in game design, the continued proliferation of the silent protagonist is a pervading annoyance. If the goal is to create a specific personality by taking away a character's vocalization, fine. The mechanism for characterization, however, then falls on how that persona represents itself through visual action and demeanor. Having NPCs talk at your character without any kind of interaction, be it scripted or with a choice in response, doesn't instill 'immersion'—it leaves a void. A guided tour through a videogame without a way of crafting a character's presence isn't playing out a fantasy as if I were in it, it's a staged exhibition where I'm passively along for the ride. Developers have made leaps and bounds over the decades when it comes to graphical and technical pursuits, but storytelling sometimes seems to be an allusive element.
Thankfully, all of the contributing Ubisoft studios aren't keen on this kind empty vessel theory in their Assassin's Creed franchise. Story-driven, each of the games in the series cements a strong grounding for not only the character you're playing as, but many of the NPCs around them. Yet, the games manage to complement their dramas of intertwined fact and fiction with compelling interactivity as well. You get to explore ancient cities by freely moving about them, clutching and hopping around their architecture.
The first Assassin's Creed provided the setup for Ubisoft's Templar-based doomsday fiction and free running gameplay; Assassin's Creed 2 stoked the fire of both the conflict and open world interaction; and Brotherhood experimented with additions to the formula that made big impacts, including a surprisingly ingenious multiplayer component. Now, there's Revelations, adding a fourth installment to an IP introduced as a trilogy—making it a sort of trilogy within a trilogy. Said to be the last adventure for Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Revelations ties up some loose ends left over from the past games and offers some changes to the popular navigation, social, and combat pillars of the series.
If nothing else, the Assassin's Creed brand shows how iteration works and can be successful, when it's made possible. Specifically in the case of Revelations, it's iterative content that hits a few marks and misses with a couple of feints in the process.
Noticeable to the faithful Assassin, it's a short list of gameplay tweaks and additions made for Revelations that builds on the core routines of the previous entries, with minimal impact. This time, inventory can be looted to build bombs of various effects as offensive and defensive weapons or instruments of distraction. Also, a new “hookblade” replaces one of Ezio's hidden blades, allowing him to zipline across the roofs of Constantinople and climb more efficiently, using the hooked end to move vertically more quickly than his timed ledge grab ability.
Both additions open up different strategies to use against some more defensive enemies introduced in the Turkish city, who aren't susceptible to one-shot counter-kills, and don't detract from the formula; but neither are they completely instrumental either. Some missions might require some light implementation of the new tools, but the game isn't built around or particularly focused on them.
Less interesting is the overuse of Ezio's “Eagle Sense,” an upgrade to the Assassin's “Eagle Vision.” Like “detective mode” in Rocksteady's Arkham games, Eagle Sense highlights significant or otherwise hidden objects and people in the world, making them easier to find and trace. It can be a useful feature, but missions that force its implementation to complete don't require much more than going to an area marked on the mini-map, clicking it on, and pointing a cursor over illuminated objects. The procedure doesn't come off as fulfilling, and it's without suspense. You either find what you're looking for or you don't.
The only real significant change to the single-player formula comes from open-world activities. Like in Brotherhood, various districts of the open world and regional cities are controlled by oppositional forces. Each side-quest of fighting for a den's control and Mediterranean Defense feeds into one another with a cycle of: executing Templars to gain control of a district den, that then feeds into the recruiting of assassins, which allows you to overtake Mediterranean cities for daily bonuses, awarding Ezio's proteges experience to level up high enough to guard both dens and reclaimed cities. If Ezio accrues too much infamy throughout the story, and a den is unguarded, the Templars can attack and force a tower defense style of mini-game. In these instances, Ezio directs defensive maneuvers from a rooftop vantage, employing assassini of various specialties and street-level barricades.
With this interconnected setup, the single-player experience doesn't feel as separated as before, where there's a critical path and then some random events to complete; instead, it's more like there are errands to run and operations to direct on the way to important meetings. There's also the more traditional challenges like races, assassinations and hidden collectables in which to participate, but it's disappointing to not see the return of perplexing point-and-click puzzles. In Revelations, hidden items help to unlock exploration into Desmond's past with first-person platforming that's serviceable at best. There's still plenty to do after the game's main path wraps up—but again, it's just not a huge departure from the last three games.
What Revelations really serves to deliver, however, is additions to the franchise's canon and to bring closure to lingering cliffhangers and backstories by uniting all of the games' playable characters. Going into the real weight of the story is (of course) venturing no-no territory given the style of the exposition, but the base concepts remain the same: Desmond, though in a comatose state, is using the Animus to access DNA memories at some point in history, except this time it mainly takes place in Constantinople of the early sixteenth century, not Rome. Thus, it's a bit of a meta, full-circle kind of scenario where you're playing as Desmond trying to wake up, playing as Ezio in search of Altair's hidden treasure before the Templars uncover it, playing as Altair effectively setting the whole thing up.
Yet, playing out this effort to unite the three in a common thread falls prey to some gaffs. In a strange sense of appropriateness, it's when the game wanders away from the series' familiar design where it seems to come unhitched. In both the game's beginning and ending sequences, Revelations comes off as trying too hard to switch things up with clumsy chariot races. At these points, he's either trying to bash enemy carriages or, while attached to the wagons by a rope, dodge rocks when dragged on the ground and buildings when aloft in the air. The idea of the Renaissance equivalent to parasailing might have a place somewhere, somehow, but it doesn't find success here.
At another point in the story, Ezio gets out of Constantinople when traveling to Cappadocia in pursuit of a target. His voyage brings him to an underground town with a large natural pillar at the heart of its cavernous community. Unfortunately, it's a comparatively uninteresting destination that doesn't invite much reason to explore, forcing me to ask if it really needed to be included? Revelations is at its best when it challenges your ability to negotiate environmental puzzles to reach goals quickly or stalk enemies in thoughtfully constructed linear dungeons and sprawling neighborhoods. It's less compelling when wrought with an easily navigable, claustrophobic dwelling of bland aesthetics.
When deconstructed into its individual parts, Revelations still carries the series' signature components, but it's missing that new car smell. Nonetheless, when they're all bundled together and delivered with that freedom to explore with nearly flawless precision (I want to grab that, so I'll transition over this), and ability to approach a good portion of objectives with a strategy that suits your liking, the single-player part of the game holds onto a fair bit of charm. Though I can't see why much of the game's arc couldn't have been succinctly parsed out in a more major update to the series with CliffsNotes, most of the lingering sour grapes towards the ill-paced action are subdued by character developing cutscenes and surprisingly touching, emotionally beautiful outros by both Ezio and Altair. Not to mention, these accomplishments are backed up by the series' most accomplished soundtrack yet from Jesper Kyd and Lorne Balfe.
The single-player side of Revelations might be more of almost exactly the same, only in a different setting, but its refined multiplayer remains a refreshing example of how to shut up speculative criticism and deliver a unique experience in a sea of halfhearted rush jobs.
The kinds of game modes in the multiplayer are tried-and-true, but their execution is special. To deceive your opponents, it takes cunning and patience; you have to fake out your enemies by pretending to act like an AI. A simple deathmatch isn't so simple when all you have to go on is your target's a general vicinity, in a crowd of lookalikes. The rules might only allow them to stun you for fewer points than your kill, but acting rash and running around on rooftops and over barricades gives you away not only to them, but your pursuer as well.
They're slow, cat-and-mouse games, but getting the fake-out maneuvers perfected to use against unsuspecting marks in permutations of the rule sets is infinitely rewarding, provided you don't spend too long on the learning curves.
It's also worthy to note that matches can require acute attention to more than visual detail, as audio queues hint when assassins are near you, ready to kill.
Brotherhood might have introduced the competition, but Revelations adds to it with more variants on classic match types, more skills and customizable equipment to unlock, a better online interface, and an independent side-story premise with included cutscenes. There might not be that much revelatory content in the game's single-player gameplay, besides an appreciable resolution to Ezio's arc and further development of the series' assassin protagonists, but with such a different kind of multiplayer element that works so deftly, Revelations saves face.
Coming across as more of an Assassin's Creed 2.2 than true sequel, Revelations provides for the same kind of experience as a yearly released sports title. On one hand, it's a fairly shallow approach when what's playable isn't really all that new, misses a few steps, and retains some of its technical quirks; on the other, when the story is portrayed well enough and ends things appropriately, and at the core of everything is the same thing you've appreciated in the past, it's hard to get too down on the re-play.
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