Assassin’s Creed: Revelations feels tired.
In part, this is a thematic choice. Ezio Auditore’s an old man now- a genuinely old man, not simply artificially aged or decrepit, which makes him relatively unusual among game protagonists. We’ve seen a lot more of Ezio’s life than most of his counterparts, and I have no doubt that Revelations, like Brotherhood before it, is little more than an engine for Ezio to show up and be charming.
But is the weary, resigned tone of Revelations symptomatic of its aged protagonist, or does it come from an overworked development team who had to throw together another sandbox narrative in a year’s time? I suspect it’s a bit of both – and more from the latter than Ubisoft wants to admit.
Revelations opens with our decoy/frame-device protagonist Desmond Miles catatonic with shock after murdering his friend Lucy at the end of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. But rather than drag him to a psychiatrist, our plucky Assassins have decided to shove him right back into the Animus – because further time spent in the machine that’s helped to put a kibosh on his brain can only help, right?
Adrift in the very bottom levels of the Animus, Desmond encounters his now-digitized predecessor, Subject 16, who’s adopted a rather whimsical approach to sanity. He advises Desmond to once again delve back into the memories of Ezio Auditore and Altair, his ancestors, to sort their personas out once and for all from his own and avoid becoming a vegetable. What follows is a three-level quest for our heroes: Desmond to unscramble his brain, Ezio to learn ancient secrets of the Assassins left behind by Altair while meddling in the politics of the Ottoman Empire, and Altair to understand the treacherous pieces of ancient super-technology at the heart of the war between the Assassins and their Templar nemeses.
This is Ezio’s last hurrah. Without its aging lead, Revelations has no reason to exist. It’s not a bad game, but like Ezio, it’s begun to slow down.
Revelations’ core mechanics aren’t much different from Brotherhood before it. Constantinople/Istanbul is pretty much another Rome, right down to needing to claim (and then buy up) parts of the city before you can use them. The villains du jour are a band of unreconstructed Byzantine Templars (poor Byzantines, will they ever get a sympathetic narrative?) raising a fuss in the capital of the Ottomans, and most of the game takes place there. Unfortunately, the short development time shows, a number of small-but-annoying visual bugs cropping up with some frequency.
Also unfortunately, Ezio’s accumulated so many disparate genre-blending tools and techniques that they’ve started to get in each other’s way. There’s only room for so many context-specific actions before you start smacking a guard when you mean to assassinate him and jumping off the wall when you mean to jump up the wall, and Revelations decided to add yet another bag of tricks of somewhat dubious necessity, many of whom are easily forgotten. The new “hookblade” is the most useful of the lot, largely because it amounts to a further expansion of Ezio’s classic parkour abilities.
Revelations’ other new additions are less promising. Foremost among them are its new bombs. Revelations loves its bombs and never hesitates to encourage their use. Bomb components are the game’s primary loot from enemies, and bomb crafting stations are on practically every corner. They vary from tactical bombs that spray blood, counterfeit coins, or smoke to deadly gas or shrapnel grenades.
Ezio’s activities in Constantinople attract Templar scrutiny, and now and again they’ll try to snatch back an Assassin stronghold. The result is a basic Tower-Defense game, often maddeningly difficult, and sometimes it’s almost more worthwhile just to lose deliberately and retake the stronghold by hand. Since, just as in Brotherhood, you have to capture Templar dens to set up shops, and traveling through Constantinople is quite time-consuming, you’ll spend much more time playing would-be community organizer-slash-gang-leader than heroic assassin. During Brotherhood, with the Borgias gleefully sacking the treasures of Rome, this makes sense, but Constantinople is the heart of one of the most successful Islamic empires in human history, and it strains credulity for you to finance nearly the entire city and its grand monuments.
It’s not that the bombs or the Tower Defense minigame or even the returning property-development sandbox elements are bad additions. But even if they were handled spectacularly, they’d never rise above gimmick status. It may be telling that the best moments of the game are relatively linear and that the sandbox is largely a way to get between linear missions. The game’s treating them as core additions feels like a sign of desperate developers forced to shepherd a title without direction.
And that brings us to the core of the problem. At their best, previous Assassin’s Creed entries were tightly-plotted, tightly-constructed sagas of intrigue, revenge, family and espionage. Revelations and Brotherhood have gradually cluttered the field with team-building exercises, constant travel back and forth to accomplish minor errands, property development, and it threatens to overtake the heart of the game.
Revelations’ story has many bright spots, but its plot is cluttered and the sandbox structure defuses narrative tension. Desmond’s doomed quest to steal the leading role from an Italian ninja that had a fistfight with the Pope aside, the main plot is essentially a key-hunt, while simultaneously trying to tell the story of how Ezio finally got married, while simultaneously trying to explore Ezio’s involvement with Ottoman politics and recount Altair’s life story.
Ezio himself is a joy as always, and his interactions with his love interest Sofia have understated chemistry and affection. Newcomer Yusuf is charismatic and rambunctious and would have been an interesting protagonist in his own right, and Altair is given much greater depth and nuance by the series of flashback-within-flashback moments portraying his life. However, the antagonists aren’t particularly memorable, none possessing the personal touch or gradual development given Rodrigo Borgia or his villainous brood in the prior games.
It’s a sign of how unexpected Ezio’s popularity was that the writers evidently don’t understand how much he relied upon his interactions with his friends and family, and by spiriting Ezio off to Constantinople he and the narrative lose a certain spark. The three allied factions feel token and lack connection to the narrative – a decision to replace the Courtesans with Romani is particularly odd – and they don’t get particularly developed. It was probably this point when I realized that the titular Assassins, and their Templar nemeses, really can’t carry a story on their own, and the decision to make the entire metaplot about the battle between two atheistic, anachronistic philosophies over the course of human history may have been a mistake.
Constantinople often feels like a palette-swapped Rome, except filled with repeated buildings – every mosque looks nigh-identical right down to the dome and minaret, for example. This last problem is especially not helped by the story’s indifference for religious and cultural differences between both the past and the present and Renaissance Italy and Ottoman Turkey. A story about Ezio as a stranger in a strange land is a fascinating opportunity – but the game casts its heroes as enlightened modern secular libertarians, so the rich possibilities in a historical narrative are ignored.
Despite the bugs, the gimmicks, and the narrative gaffes, Revelations remains a solid title. It’s a character vehicle at heart, a swan song for an unexpectedly memorable protagonist, and its choice to show a hero’s sunset years and solid core gameplay earns it plenty of grace. Fans of the Assassin’s Creed franchise will find much they enjoy in Revelations, and it’s worth another trip back into the Animus to visit Ezio and Altair for the last time.
But Revelations is also a warning sign – not just for itself or even its own series, but for the pressures placed on any successful franchise. Economics is a cruel mistress, and cares little for artistic integrity or dignity. Just like many pop musicians and young actors become caricatures of themselves in their later years, Revelations reminds us that it’s important to know when to say goodbye.