The Assassin's Creed franchise seems prone to fits and starts. The hugely ambitious but problem-riddled original was not the most auspicious debut for a new IP, despite a massive amount of hype, but the property was salvaged entire by the sublime Assassin's Creed II which made massive strides by cutting away the chaff and fixing what was broken.
It was a total triumph, which highlighted the best in Ubisoft Montreal - its fantastic art direction and platforming - and gave us one of the most enjoyable protagonists of the current generation.
The bland, proud, stoic Altair was replaced with the fiery, funny, sexy Italian Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Here was a charming, engaging fellow who loved his wet work and still came across as righteous, and noble. After II and Brotherhood - two titles which only improved the Assassin's Creed name - it's disappointing to admit that Revelations is not quite as strong as its two predecessors.
The handsome young nobleman-about-town, who we watched grow into a master assassin and then master of assassins over the course of the past two games, deserved a better send-off than this. What should have been Ezio's greatest triumph and defining moment is instead just another stepping stone on Desmond's path, and a set-up for the inevitable Assassin's Creed III.
To be sure, there are a few improvements to the formula, here. Zip lines prove an efficient and stylish method of transportation, and Revelations is packed with far more fantastic set-pieces than previous entries. These mostly take place during what have been the best part of the franchise since II - wonderful, directed interior sequences which highlight how fast, responsive and elegant Assassin's Creed's platforming has become. During these jaunts underground, Ezio scrambles across crumbling beams and mighty chainworks - as one looks back on their time with the Italian, they will no doubt recall these thrilling moments before any in his previous adventures.
The hook blade - a modification to Ezio's right-hand hidden blade - is another winner. It's always bothered me that Altair and subsequently Ezio could never just book it up the side of a building like Altair did in the first trailer for Assassin's Creed, and while - on taller towers - ascents are still slow, with a proper layout Ezio can now zip up a two-story building in three seconds flat.
It also adds an immediate layer of risk-reward to the platforming, as the extra half-foot of reach the hook provides will allow you to (sometimes) stretch out your arm at the last moment, with a press of the circle button, and save yourself from a fifty-foot fall.
In terms of pure mechanics, Revelations' platforming - always the series' greatest strength - is the best it's ever been. Unfortunately, the world design does not quite live up to the standard of II and Brotherhood.
Take, for example, the hanging lanterns they introduced in AC:B. These lovely, stylish modes of transport and the pulley systems that would zip you up to a rooftop were liberally sprinkled about Rome last year, and while they return in Revelations - with the opportunity to turn a ninety-degree swing into a fifteen-foot long jump if you use the hook at the last moment - they aren't nearly common enough in Constantinople.
Where Brotherhood's Rome was a constant joy to simply travel through thanks to clever design and constantly thoughtful layouts for platforming, Revelations' Constantinople is comparably spartan, and bland. The zip lines are assuredly a nice touch, but the use of lovely little shake-ups like the pulleys and lanterns are rare treats instead of fun, familiar friends.
The platforming itself - on a mechanical level - remains slick, satisfying and gorgeously animated, in fierce competition with inFamous for the best platforming on the PS3, but the city simply does not showcase the game's locomotion at its best.
It also pales in comparison to the European cities of previous games. Constantinople boasts a few lovely vistas, but is never as consistently gorgeous as Rome or Venice.
The narrative we guide Ezio through is also relatively lean. He arrives in Constantinople and shortly sets to work pulling a Rome - setting up guilds in every corner of town and training up a loyal army of acrobatic assassins. As in previous games, this opens up into a menu-driven minigame of managing your murderers - you send them to foreign cities to pull jobs, they disappear for a while and cannot be called to your aid as you wander the city - and they either get killed on their journey or return in a minute or twenty with a bit of experience.
Leveling your Assassins offers little, in terms of real gain. You'll get a little coin in your pocket if you take over a foreign city (not that you'll need it), and once you cap their level they will prevent enemies from taking over one your guild halls - but given that the whole affair is text-driven, it leaves one feeling rather bored. After puttering around with it for a while, I ignored my Master Assassin duties and started letting the Templars take back the guild halls I'd opened.
Or... I would have let them take 'em - but they won't just take them. They'll "attack" them. You have to show up and direct your forces in a weird stationary, over-the-shoulder view tower defense minigame that quickly becomes just as boring as the text-driven management. I had hoped the Templars would just take the damned things over so I could be super-cool, sneak into their newly-acquired fortress and re-assassinate their captain - but alas, no matter how long I left their attack unopposed, they never successfully took control.
At that point, one will be forgiven for ignoring these salty additions to the game's core formula and returning to the main quest line - which allows you to actually get down to the business of dashing up walls, flying off rooftops and assassinating fools with maximum style.
It is here where the graying Ezio finds his footing, and shines once again. Ubisoft remain masters of the delicious act of moving a character from one platformer to another in three-dimensional space, and the game plays beautifully. Throwing in a bit of context - saving a maiden fair or punishing a traitor - only makes it more engaging.
Dashing across rooftops in the moonlight, perching atop a spire and directing your honor guard to dispatch a target far below with a sharp whistle retains its thrill, and thanks to the game's largely excellent presentation and (still) exceptional animation, it's wonderful to watch.
Combat has seen another (minor) improvement, which still leaves it well short of a dedicated brawler. Whereas in Brotherhood you could chain together insta-kills, enemies in Revelationswill interrupt your chain by attacking - which is easily remedied by counter-killing them before continuing your chain. It remains stylish and great fun to watch, but not nearly as much fun to actually play.
Thankfully, the sublime platforming, pitch-perfect controls and fantastic presentation go a very long way.
It's a testament to Revelations' often-excellent gameplay and Ezio as a character that this game makes one want to invest further in the world of Assassin's Creed - and a bit telling that it instead whispers that one should, perhaps, go back to II or Brotherhood to really enjoy his high adventure.
If Ezio had a defining moment, it was not during the events just prior to the end of his life. It was his battle against the Borgias or the Catholic Church, back in Italy - not in the port of Constantinople. Worst of all, Revelations fails to even provide our hero with a worthy ending - leaving the true send-off of one of this generation's most successful, engaging protagonists for a twenty minute short film Ubisoft would ask you to purchase off the gaming network of your choice.
Like much of Revelations, that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth - but it's also not the whole story. If there is indeed more value in the journey than the destination, Revelations is a path worth walking - but only for those hungry for more of Ezio after the excellent Brotherhood - not those who are hoping to see its brilliance exceeded.
- Ezio is still awesome
- excellent presentation across the board - voice work, costume design and graphics tech are all top-notch, with regular spikes of quality in art direction
- the music is particularly great
- the game's platforming mechanics have never been better
- it's still fun to explore a beautiful, romantic, ancient city
- the story missions which allow you to really marry stealth, assassination and platforming are pure pleasure
- perfect controls
- the romance of Ezio and Sofia is wonderful to see, if too lightly-explored
- regular diversions into linear, indoor sequences provide a wonderful focus on the game's excellent platforming, and are chock-full of spectacular set pieces and thrilling escapes
- ohhh, that explains some things. Not everything, though.
- the overall story is a bit of a misfire - we never really care about the new narrative or enemies
- not enough of those awesome indoor sequences
- Constantinople's not as cool, fun or pretty as Rome
- the combat is still rather rote
- Ubi, do you really think I bought an Assassin's Creed game to play tower defense and send awesome assassins on menu-driven, invisible missions?
- those Desmond missions are awful
- Ezio has had greater adventures than this. If we weren't going to give him a proper send off, we should have left him where he was - Mayor of Awesome Sexy Badassville.
- speaking of which, way to make Altair even more boring
It's nice to spend more time with Ezio - and while this is still a good time, it's not quite the good old days.