Assassin's Creed Revelations marks the end of two eras as it explores the final adventures of Ezio Auditore and Altair Ibn-La'Ahad. Ubisoft's ambitious conclusion to a four game narrative manages to be the best chapter in the Assassin's Creed franchise despite suffering from some familiar problems. Witnessing Ezio and Altair come to grips with the lives they've lived is a remarkable sight, easily worth one more trip to a world we've experienced for several years.
Ubisoft's ambitious undertaking with Revelations, which spanned a half dozen studios across the globe, follows no less than three lead characters, which would be downright catastrophic in the hands of lesser developers. The game's story not only involves Ezio's quest to uncover the secrets of his order, but his budding romance and entanglement in a complex political situation as well. Add in flashbacks to key moments in Altair's life and brief, optional excursions to Desmond's mind in the Animus and this plot is packed to the limit.
Somehow it all works. The most compelling material by far involves Ezio, as his storyline is the most complicated. His quest to discover more information about Altair ties itself to the political and social turmoil in Constantinople. That in turn makes its way to Sophia, who quickly becomes a romantic interest despite the fact that Ezio pardons himself every five seconds to stab someone in the chest. The sequences between Sophia and Ezio flourish emotionally despite their brevity. You believe these two characters are slowly falling in love despite the chaos around them. It's impressive how convincing these moments can be.
Ubisoft's overall storytelling has reached new heights. Previous games seemed to get some cinematic sequences exactly right while others completely missed the mark. Those awkward, jolting moments are completely gone, replaced instead by very real, fully developed characters in strongly-scripted scenes. That leap alone helps elevate Revelations above some of its predecessors. The game's visuals have likewise taken a step up, with characters and their expressions looking better than ever. Voice acting is fantastic and the soundtrack is incredibly solid. All of these improvements, combined with a franchise-best city design, add to the larger narrative experience of the game.
On a basic level, Revelations functions much like the Assassin's Creed games that came before. You're still accepting various missions that task you with chasing, stalking, meeting or killing certain targets. The curse of the franchise has always been that it seems to fill your time with missions that are completely irrelevant to the larger story. Ubisoft more or less avoids that trap this time, mostly because its plot has so many layers. Still, expect a handful of quests that feel a bit too superfluous or are poorly constructed. The game's introduction suffers particularly from some very awkward parameters, setting an odd tone for its opening hours.
The most thrilling moments of the game come when Ezio discovers clues about the keys to Altair's library. It's here where the series' infamous "dungeon" sequences come into play. Much like the Lairs of Romulus or Assassin's Tombs, these epic excavations take you on wild rides that would feel perfectly at home in Uncharted. At times a journey through damp caves and at other times epic chases alongside rivers, each of these segments are simply fantastic, and are the highlights of the entire game.
Almost equal to finding Altair's keys are the chapters that feature Altair himself. Each major portion of the game includes a segment with Ubisoft's original assassin, and players will relive specific moments throughout his life, ranging from a very young age to much older. Some of these missions feel very similar to Ezio's, while others are decidedly different. The variety helps keep things fresh, as does the fact that they're very story-driven and help bring a certain amount of meaning and weight to what Ezio is doing. By the end of the game, you'll see similarities between the two men - as well as differences - which help form one of the key emotional cores of the entire experience.
Ubisoft made a number of additions to Revelations in terms of control, weaponry and gameplay. The most critical alteration is simply a button layout change. Players will now directly access a secondary weapon (throwing knives, a concealed gun, bombs) in addition to a primary one (hidden blade, sword, axe). This helps give players more options, allowing for quick reactions for stealth missions as well as challenging combat scenarios. This alteration affects combat mechanics the most because it changes how you're able to operate within hostile situations.
Bombs serve as an extension of your more flexible combat options. Throughout Ezio's time in Constantinople, he'll acquire a wide range of ingredients that can be assembled into three different categories of bombs. The functionality proves diverse as you'll make everything from a standard smoke bomb to something that shoots out coins to lure dozens of peasants. Whether you distract your opponents or outright kill them, the choice is yours. Generally I didn't find bombs to drastically change my approach to a situation. Countering and chaining kills, combined with summoning my brotherhood for remote attacks, is still by far the most effective way to dispatch foes. Revelations suffers for that inability to break away from its own mold, and as a result, this game continues to feel very similar to its predecessors.
Though missions and core combat mechanics remain very familiar, Ubisoft did add a new dynamic to the territorial control element of Revelations. In previous games, Ezio would not only buy shops around a city, he'd take control of enemy camps by assassinating their leaders. Now the enemies will attempt to take these headquarters back through somewhat-optional Den Defense segments, which are basically a fancy version of a typical Tower Defense game.
Den Defense adds little to Revelations. In fact, it actually detracts from the experience. As Ezio stands on the rooftops near his headquarters, enemy troops march down a street to damage the building enough to take it over. Players must install, through a menu and cursor system, various types of assassins along the rooftops to fend off that attack. Controlling the deployment is rather clunky, as is the way the mode meshes with the overall direction of the game. Assassin's Creed focuses on direct combat, not real-time strategy. Straying too far from that feels like a distraction, a nuisance that undoes your progress just for the sake of doing so. Frequently the game throws overwhelming odds against you, making the entire affair an irritating, extraneous mess. Even more irritating - if you lose, you can immediately climb a wall and assassinate the enemy leader again, rendering your previous 10-minute chore almost pointless. I'd rather see Den Defense completely disappear, but if returns, it needs drastic revision.
The other major addition to Revelations deals with Desmond. Ubisoft chose to make the modern day assassin's sequences completely optional this time, almost anticipating a sharply divided reception to the bold departure in game design. Desmond, who is comatose and attempting to reclaim his mind within primitive Animus architecture, must navigate Tron-like worlds in first person perspective. He maneuvers through these abstract oddities by using two shapes of blocks that he can create and place in the world. The shocking concept is immediately jarring, yet somehow it works, largely because its puzzle-like nature actually plays well and ties to the overall story. Unlike Den Defense, which feels more like an awkward and deliberate attempt to harass you, these Desmond moments are a curious respite from Ezio and Altair's more intense, combat-driven missions. It seems obvious that not everyone will love this concept, but despite their simplicity, the sequences are well done and thought-provoking.
Multiplayer is augmented again this time around, with various new modes, a wealth of customization options, a better interface and even a story mode that will allow players to learn more about the modern day Templars as they progress (or "train") in the Abstergo facility. Ubisoft is creating a fine counterpart to what is typically considered a very single-player centric series. The decision to weave more of the franchise's lore into these modes was simply genius. Most remarkable is the mode's ability to create a variety of unique gameplay experiences through different match types. Wanted and Deathmatch recreate the more calm and collected idea of stalking prey while something like Artifact Assault is far more breakneck and frantic. The fact that all of this experience builds towards an ultimate goal will certainly reward those accustomed to focusing on the core storyline.