At the end of Assassin's Creed Revelations, the aging Ezio Auditore da Firenze explains the true meaning of his clan's creed. "We must be the shepherds of our own civilization," he explains. "We are the architects of our actions."
Less than two minutes later, Ezio says he was forced into his life. Whether a gaffe or intentionally bad writing, this identity conflict runs deep throughout the entire Assassin's Creed Revelations experience. It's a game that tries too hard to do too many things, becoming everything the series is known for and somehow, much less.
I should make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed Assassin's Creed Revelations. Once again, it provides what we've come to expect from the franchise: a gorgeous landscape to explore and a variety of ways to decimate adversaries. Upon arriving in Constantinople, where the bulk of the game takes place, Ezio is greeted by a young assassin who provides him with information and a new hook-blade attachment. Using the hook-blade, Ezio can utilize wholly historically accurate zip lines and scurry up walls faster than ever. Though it completely throws a wrench in the ideal of a stealthy and shadowy figure by giving him a traversal accessory that makes so much noise, it's functional and fun to use.
Ezio's journey brings in to the region in order to locate five keys, created and sent into hiding by the franchise's original star, Altair Ibn-La'Ahad, for the Assassin's secret library. Upon his arrival, Ezio learns of another Templar conspiracy and commits to a host of new characters that he will solve their problems, his advanced age and bulky body be damned. Discovering each key unlocks a short section starring Altair that runs the gamut of his life from before the events of the original game to the character's final days. Altair is fleshed out here, his emotions and motivations are revealed, and his actions redeem any ill-will I had been awkwardly holding onto.
Then there's Desmond, the character who is "living out" the memories of his ancestors Ezio and Altair through the use of the Animus machine. In a game where Ezio continues to charm and Altair develops into an interesting and emotional character, Desmond's existence is sleep-inducing. Revelations continues where Brotherhood left off; Desmond is in a coma and has become trapped within an Animus test construct alongside the consciousness of his mysterious predecessor Subject 16. The game barely touches on the shocking last moments of Brotherhood, mentioning the fate of certain characters only in passing with little in the way of emotion.
Animus Island is the setting for a few voice-overs that outline what is happening around Desmond's lifeless body as well as some Desmond-focused side-missions, which unlock after collecting "data fragments" as Ezio. These side-missions feature first-person spatial puzzles while Desmond blandly details--but mostly whines--about his life to random flashing images. The levels themselves start strong, but eventually deteriorate and feel like walking through concept sections of a bad Portal clone. And that's it for puzzles. The mysteries hidden within classic works of art from past games, for example, are gone and all that remain are Desmond's emo home movies. Even the franchise's amazing puzzle rooms, which put expert players to the test, are almost all completely missing from Revelations.
I don't decry Ubisoft for trying to add new elements to the game. But, most of the "new" concepts included in Revelations grind the pacing of the story to an halt. Assassin dens can be contested by Templar's by way of a new Tower Defense-like mini-game. It completely takes players out of the role of assassin master and compartmentalizes Ezio's role as nothing more than a supervisor yelling commands at his troops from a rooftop. It's slow and and lacks creativity. It's essentially a skin for a genre you're bound to find better version of for free on your web browser. Luckily, you're only ever forced to do it once and you can work to avoid ever doing it again. It's just another addition to a game that's trying to do too much at once.
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Brotherhood's inventive multiplayer also returns, and remains wonderfully entertaining. The newest mode here is the creatively-named "Deathmatch." This works much like Brotherhood's "Wanted" mode, where assassin's are given a single character to hunt and kill all while being hunted themselves; however, it has one fundamental difference. "Wanted" paints a giant compass on the screen, tipping players off to your position as soon as you're in their vicinity, which makes attempting to blend into the crowd a waste of time. "Deathmatch" removes this compass and--though it still throws out indicators to your target's position--it forces players to carefully examine characters. There's a suspense that exists here that is absent from other modes. I had a blast playing through the game's modes, but my attention was usually drawn to "Deathmatch."
Overall, the core of Assassin's Creed remains intact here. The story is interesting, as much as it has gone completely off the rails, and the world is joyous to explore; however, it's the least accessible of the series. Revelations really expects players to have some idea what has happened throughout the series, meaning newcomers will be "narratively misplaced." The stories of Ezio and Altair are wrapped up nicely, giving each character a proper farewell. Combat is still love-it or hate-it, but I've always adored the counter-focused system that was introduced in the series. But the game suffers from multiple moments of identity disorder. It shifts between three characters, its puzzles force you out of the established experience and into first-person levels, and it throws Tower Defense in there for some reason. It feels like three different ideas, which makes sense since five other internal development houses at Ubisoft helped its primary Montreal studio create the title.
Assassin's Creed Revelations may have a few of missteps throughout its adventure, but it's still at a level of quality that few franchises have managed to retain throughout their lifespan. It is however the third game in as many years, and while it has yet to overstay its welcome, Ubisoft needs to be inventive for the series to continue annually and retain its current crop of would-be assassins.
[This Assassin's Creed Revelations review is based on the retail Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by Ubisoft.]