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Critical Review: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

Another year, another Assassin’s Creed game. I’m not sure how I feel about Ubisoft cranking out a new game on a yearly basis. Part of me, the part that is in love with the plot and the characters in that universe, is ecstatic every time a new game is announced. The other, more rational part of me wishes they would take a full two years to really create a new game.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations takes us nearly a decade after the events of Brotherhood. It’s 1511, and a 52-year-old Ezio Auditore da Firenze is now the grand master of the entire order of Assassins. He finds himself reflecting back on his life, wondering what the point of it all was. He seems to think that he never had any choice at all in the path it took, and even appears to regret having dedicated nearly his entire life to the endless war with the Templars. Despondent and melancholy, Ezio decides to take a pilgrimage to Masyaf in search of answers to his lingering questions.

In returning to Masyaf, Ezio finds the entire town overrun with Templars. We learn that the final master to preside over the Assassins’ home, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, had constructed a secret library deep below the fortress. Its massive stone door is impenetrable by conventional means, but it does have several strange keyholes in its façade. Before Ezio kills his Templar assailants, he learns one of the keys had been discovered underneath Topkapi Palace in Constantinople. Ezio quickly secures passage to the heart of the Ottoman empire, eager to link up with their local Assassin guild and hunt down the remaining keys before the Templars can locate them.

I feel like maybe I set my own expectations a little too high. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t much care for the first Assassin’s Creed. I felt the plot was just too slow and plodding. I wasn’t a fan of some of the gameplay mechanics. Above everything else, I just couldn’t get drawn into Altaïr’s character. He had no depth. Comparatively, by the time the title screen popped up on Assassin’s Creed II, I was fucking hooked. I couldn’t stop playing that game for anything.

Seriously, as nerdy as it sounds, this shit still gives me goosebumps.

In fact, ACII is the reason I’ve read dozens of history books about The Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, the Medici family, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the Borgias. Yes, the game was so awesome that it actually made me want to go read books and learn history. What other title in the history of gaming can say that? So yes, my hopes were mighty high going into this one.

There were actually a ton of things that I really, genuinely loved about AC:R. I know I’ve given the impression that I might not have cared for the game. That’s not true at all. I do have a few gripes, though. Maybe it’s because my love of the fiction created an impossibly high standard. That, or Ubisoft made some seriously fucking weird design decisions.

My biggest problem with the game is that it’s too open world this time around. Call me a square, but I prefer my games to be linear. I feel like if you’re a game designer, you’re telling me a story. You should give me the protagonist, the antagonist, and set the plot beats. At least in previous AC titles, each memory only took place on a small portion of the map. If you tried to wander too far, the Animus would block your path and tell you the area isn’t available in this memory. Not so in Revelations. The entire map is available right from the start. In retrospect, there’s a really good plot-related reason why the Animus wouldn’t be holding you back this time. For gameplay purposes, though, it makes for an overwhelming experience.

I don't think I've searched that one tower waaaaaaaay over there yet...

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I play a sandbox game, I like to knock out all the sidequests before I tackle the main story. With AC:R, since the entire map is open, I honestly spent about 10 hours doing extra missions before I even continued the story. They just kept going and going. I kept hitting viewpoints, capturing the surrounding towers, training assassins, and buying up property all around the city.

This leads into another weird little conundrum I found. Part of the reward for training assassins is that for each member who earns the rank of Master Assassin, you’re awarded better weapons and armor. By the time I was wrapping up chapter three, I was already sporting the game’s best sword, dagger, and armor. I don’t know if that’s really the worst thing ever, but it almost seemed out of place. I suppose that’s the reward for players who are anal about only roaming Kostantiniyye with a posse of seven Master Assassins. It was just weird to spend the next 20 hours absolutely facerolling everything in my path.

The assassin training, however, is the absolute worst part of the game. The whole Brotherhood mechanic returns with a twist. In the last game, it was a “set it and forget it” method of sending your recruits on missions and having them level up afterwards. This time, the missions you send your assassins on are part of the new Mediterranean Defense meta game.

The premise is cool. The missions you send your assassins on now affect those cities throughout the Mediterranean. After enough missions to a specific city, you will have shaken the Templars’ hold on it enough that you can launch an attack to capture the city. Cities held by the Assassins reward you with daily revenue deposits and crafting materials. The problem is that successfully holding cities takes an absurd amount of micro-management. Once you’ve captured a city, if you don’t continue to send assassins in on missions, the Templars will slowly regain control. If your control slips enough, they will siege your city and retake it. If you stop paying attention to Mediterranean Defense for 10 minutes to, I don’t know…PLAY THE ACTUAL GAME, you’ll come back to the map and find all your previously held cities under attack.

The simple solution would have been to make Mediterranean Defense like the Den Defense mini game, where after a certain point you can lock the captured location and protect if from further attacks. Just like in Brotherhood, you can capture Templar towers throughout the city. The towers then become Assassin Dens, which allow you to recruit new members into your brotherhood. If you’re a big enough dickhead to get your awareness meter entirely red, the Templars will be alerted of your presence in Constantinople and attack one of your dens to reclaim it. This launches a tower defense mini-game. If you‘d rather not play Den Defense, but enjoy killing every patrolling guard you encounter, you can install one of your Master Assassins at a den. That permanently locks the den and protects it from future attacks.

All of that being said, the good news is all of those things represent secondary content and have absolutely no bearing on the core game. If you wanted to, you could skip it all. I wouldn’t recommend it, if only because having the ability to call in reserve assassins during a tough fight or take out large crowds with an arrow volley is actually really useful. If they happen to be Master Assassins, they are just as formidable in combat as Ezio himself.

I take that back. Even in his 50’s, Ezio is still the most dangerous man alive. He’s just as quick, agile, and deadly as ever. The combat and platforming work exactly the same as they did in Brotherhood. Combo kills and kill streaks are viscerally satisfying and the fastest way to dispatch large groups of enemies. The only changes to the platforming portions are through the addition of the hook blade. As I mentioned before, assigning the hook blade to the B button makes for some awkward situations at first. I did eventually get used to shifting my hand slightly so I could press all the buttons necessary to make those split-second jumps.

pictured: one bad ass old man

This actually brings me to the real highlights of the game. The massive platforming levels Ezio has to conquer to retrieve the hidden Masyaf keys are where Revelations truly shines. There are some amazing, jaw-dropping environments. Those platforming sequences contain a few really intense set-pieces, and more than once I realized I was actually in awe of what was happening on the screen. It helps that the jumping, climbing, and shimmying is as tight as ever. I’ve always loved how you can see the lines in the environment. Loose boards, crumbling rocks, and the telltale white cloth will always point you in the right direction without being obtrusive in any way.

If there were something even more impressive than the dungeon-crawling, it would have to be the Altaïr segments. The Masyaf keys happen to be pieces of the same technology used in the Apple of Eden. They react to Ezio’s presence and allow him to relive some of Altaïr’s memories. That complaint I had earlier about not caring about Altaïr? Revelations did more to make me love him in the 30 minutes I spent controlling him than the entire first game did.

I’ve done my best to not spoil anything, but I will say this. Playing as an 80-year-old Altaïr and reclaiming Masyaf from Abbas was a total blast. You know that scene in Attack of the Clones where Yoda hobbles in on a cane then goes apeshit on Count Dooku with a lightsaber? It’s like that except not fucking retarded. It’s such brilliant design. Obviously, at his advanced age, Altaïr can’t run or do crazy parkour or anything. You can try to run, but will quickly double over and proceed to hack and cough. Instead, he simply limps forward at a deliberate pace, and completely fucking obliterates anyone stupid enough to try to draw their blade on him with counter kills. Playing those few levels as the elder Altaïr wound up being this amazing breath of fresh air due to the distinctly different style of play. Plus, after those first few missions, you get to see the human side of Altaïr and really want to see him succeed. I never would have thought I’d say this, but I think I might have enjoyed being Altaïr even more than Ezio this time around.

pictured: the baddest motherfucking old man of all time

Oh yeah, Desmond is here too. It’s funny, but I continually forget that Desmond is actually the main character in the series. Again, trying to not spoil anything, all I can say is that Desmond finds himself in a strange place after the events at the end of Brotherhood. He seems to have gone down the same route as Subject 16, and his prolonged exposure to the Animus has caused his mind to splinter. He can no longer differentiate his own memories from Ezio and Altaïr.

Desmond finds himself, or more accurately his subconscious, in the Black Room – a backdoor program inside the Animus. By locating data fragments throughout Ezio’s memories, Desmond can enter his own memories and attempt to pull himself back together. The Desmond memories are also completely optional, which is a good thing. You don’t gain anything useful or interesting from completing them, and the controls are a bit spotty due to being played entirely in first person.

The bottom line with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is that if you’re a fan of the series, you need to play it. There are some glaring issues. It seems to follow in the tradition of Brotherhood and pads out the game length artificially with excessive and unnecessary side missions. I really wish they would take that extra year to really come up with some innovations for the game. Instead, it seems like they’ve slapped a fresh, Ottoman coat of paint over the same game we’ve been playing for three years now. That’s not the worst thing, considering the game is still fun to play, but some freshness is definitely in order. I look forward to seeing what the true third chapter of Assassin’s Creed has to offer. As far as the final entry into this portion goes, it’s definitely worth the time. Problems aside, the story ties up the events of all the past games nicely. There’s even a handful of wacky, over-the-top Michael Bay moments thrown in for good measure. If you don’t have the money to shell out for a new copy, at least find a way to rent it or borrow it from a friend. I promise it’s worth it.

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