Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I feel like it’s more important than ever that I state my fondness for the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  The reason why is because at this point I feel like Ubisoft is taking advantage of that fondness.  Assassin’s Creed 2 was excellent, Brotherhood was more of that excellence, but with an expectation of change afterwards.  And then Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed Revelations.  It’s like they know that people like Assassin’s Creed (and Ezio in particular) enough that they’re just barely willing to tolerate one more spinoff to generate extra revenue before they move on.

Revelations actually tells multiple stories.  This isn’t actually that strange, because Assassin’s Creed often has at least two plots running parallel; that of the starring Assassin (Ezio in this case), and that of the series’ protagonist, Desmond Miles.  But Ezio’s narrative has two different focuses, and one of thing also brings Altair back into the mix.  That brings us to four different intertwined plots.  As always, the instigator here is Desmond who—after the events of Brotherhood—has fallen into a comatose state, with his consciousness trapped in the core of the Animus’ software, known as the Black Box (think of it as a safe mode of sorts).  The only way to fix things is of course to relive his ancestor’s memories some more, which brings us to Ezio, who has traveled to Masyaf, a long abandoned Assassin fortress, in hopes of discovering Altair’s library and learning more about the true purpose of the Assassin Order.  He learns that in order to enter the library, he’ll need five keys, which have been hidden in Constantinople.  Ezio arrives in the Constantinople to find that while the Assassin presence there is significant, the city is split by political strife that the Templars have a hand in.  Furthermore, each key Ezio unearths also contains a memory representing a segment of Altair’s life (so yes, technically you are reliving the memories of an ancestor who is reliving the memories of an ancestor).  This results in a running narrative that explores key points in Altair’s story, from his acquisition of the Apple to his death at the tender age of 92.

While the hints of political intrigue show promise, and the character interaction—as always—is very strong, none of the stories are all that interesting and are content to plod along until the last third or so of the game, when everything comes to a head, and Revelations suddenly wakes up from its stupor and reminds you that it’s still part of one of the most ambitious franchises in the industry.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise’s grand plot is incredibly broad in scope and scale, and nothing drives this point home further than the last 45 minutes or so of Revelations.  We’re four games in, yet as the credits rolled I felt like they were only just getting started and fervently hoped that Ubisoft could deliver on all this exposition.

Gameplay in Revelations—as you probably expected—hasn’t changed radically from Brotherhood.  You can still climb on just about anything, and you can still kill dudes in all sorts of mean ways, and your core arsenal will be familiar all the way from Assassin’s Creed 2.  But there have been some tweaks and additions.  Early on Ezio acquires a hook blade as one of his hidden blades.  The hook blade isn’t really the big addition that Ubisoft makes it out to be, but it is neat.  On top of adding a couple new finishers and combat moves, it lets you get around just a tad quicker by letting you climb faster and slide on ziplines with it.  There’s even this new move that replaces the running tackle, where you run straight at a dude, hook him with your blade, and slide over his back, with the option to use the gained momentum to throw him, like some sort of running hip toss.

The bigger addition is bombs.  Apparently the Assassins in Constantinople are all about throwing bombs at people.  Not just smoke bombs, but grenades, and flash bangs, and scary stuff like bombs that disperse deadly gas, or bombs that spill fake blood everywhere.  You have three bomb pouches that can each hold three of one bomb.  You have your lethal pouch for killing dudes, you have your tactical pouch for weakening them, and you have your diversion pouch for trickery and mischief.  Bombs are a fun addition, though I wish there were more varieties available.  Ubisoft claims you can make 150 different bombs, but there are actually only about 10 different actual bomb types.  The variety comes from more minute details such as blast radius, and how quickly the bomb explodes (like whether you want it to detonate on impact, on a timer, or only when stepped on).

You also have your brotherhood of Assassins and Templar dens back.  You target someone, press L2, and fellow Assassins spawn and eliminate that target right before your eyes.  It was awesome in Brotherhood, and it’s awesome here.  You gain new recruits by helping out unfortunate souls and convincing them to join your cause, then level them up through field work or sending them out on missions across the continent.  The Assassin’s guild metagame has been expanded somewhat; now Assassins can be leveled up to 15 (where the previous cap was 10), and cities that you do missions for can periodically send you resources.

You increase the number of recruits you can have in your guild by capturing Templar dens.  Just like in Brotherhood, this consists of sneaking into an area, sniffing out the captain of the garrison, and attempting to assassinate him.  This used to be really fun, but in Revelations it’s hampered by a number of tweaks, the first being in captain behavior.  Supposedly these guys come in a variety of flavors, but most of them will simply run away if they catch sight of you.  This means that many of your attempts to take over a den will devolve into a stupid chase, where if you fail you have to wait half an hour for the shifts to change before you can try again.

The one complaint against taking over Templar dens in Brotherhood was that you could only capture each den once.  Well, Ubisoft tried to address this with Den Defense.  If you get on the Templars’ bad side, they’ll launch an offensive on one of your dens.  To take it back, you have to participate in this tower defense-style minigame called Den Defense.  In Den Defense, you set up road obstacles and assign Assassins to various rooftop positions to coordinate a defense against wave of Templars who will try to smash their way to your base.  It really is like if you took Assassin’s Creed and made it a tower defense game.  It’s competent but it’s not very fun.

Aside from your Assassins, the other common factions are back as well.  You have Thieves, who can follow you even on the rooftops, and will distract guards for you.  You have mercenaries, who will go fight enemies at your command.  The courtesans have been replaced by Romanies, basically a group of traveling gypsies and entertainers.  A group of Romanies can serve as mobile cover for you, and will also distract guards.

Between your parkour skills, literal armory of killing tools, and various cohorts, at this point it’s hard not to feel overpowered at any given time in Revelations.  Let’s stop and think about this.  You have bombs, a pistol, a sword, a dagger, poison darts, two hidden blades, throwing knives, a crossbow, glider parachutes, and an entire gang of Assassins at your beck and call; not to mention a possibly posse of goons surrounding you at all times.  This is one game that will make you feel empowered.

Here’s a scenario:  I want to take over a Templar Den.  I stroll down the streets, flinging some money at a group of Romanies.  They keep me invisible as I approach a pair of guards.  All I do is raise my fist and they are promptly eliminated.   Me and my Romanies stroll past them without batting an eyelash.  More guards further within.  They look at me suspiciously, but I just casually flick a bomb at them that detonates and silently disperses poison gas, killing them without a trace.  Before I know it, I’ve found the Captain and no one even knows I’m there yet.  All I do is raise my hand, shoot him in the neck with a poison dart, and walk out.  It’s that simple.

When Revelations’ gameplay is at its best, like in the scenario just described, it’s truly an excellent experience.  But despite all the additions Ubisoft has added, this is at its core the same game we played in 2009.  And it shows, when you’re trying to chase someone and trip up on some waist-high wall or a barrel, or when any player character walks (Desmond in particular), and you realize they probably haven’t changed their gait at all since Assassin’s Creed 2 (or even 1).  The gameplay mechanics that I thought were great a couple years ago just seem competent now.

The production values haven’t changed a ton, either.  Revelations is a fine looking game, and I will say the facial animation seems to have been improved somewhat.  The cities still look fairly lively, and the animation is still good.  The voice acting is excellent, and the music is mostly just serviceable except for a few instances.  The load times feel more prominent though.

What can I say?  Assassin’s Creed Revelations is a good game; a great game, even.  But in a lot of ways it’s the same great game we’ve been playing for a good while now.  Yet it still manages to differentiate itself as an important stepping stone in a plot I for one am extremely invested in.

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