What do you want out of a video game? What should you hold against a video game, and what should you let slide?
One more question: Do your answers change if we're talking about a sequel?
Assassin's Creed: Revelations, the fourth major Assassin's Creed game released since November, 2007 arrived this month as perhaps the most unwanted big-game sequel since 2010's BioShock 2.
Like BioShock 2 it secretes the smell of a corporate conception. It appears from afar like the product of an executive's need for a sequel rather than a desire of the series' creators (... and what do you know? The top person behind the first BioShock and the first Assassin's Creed was not involved in these two sequels).
Like BioShock 2, Assassin's Creed: Revelations has emerged this month suffering the peculiar penalties of any favorite dish served again too soon.
And like BioShock 2, Assassin's Creed: Revelations may not be the most ingenious and special game in its series. It just might be the best-playing one.
What you think of Revelations will depend on what you look for in a sequel, what you might hold against sequels and, ultimately, if you look beyond that, on how much you value the ways a game plays.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a bifurcated game, half multiplayer, half campaign. Its multiplayer is an expansion of the format introduced in last year's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. As before, it is built mostly around the idea of players hunting for each other on maps that are crowded with computer-controlled characters. Those characters can look like the players' array of characters, creating levels full of clones, only one of each controlled by a real, hunt-able person. That multiplayer is expanded in Revelations and an indisputable improvement over last year's effort.
The game's campaign is a more ambiguous success. It is sold, through the game's subtitle, as the "answers" chapter of the Assassin's Creed saga. It is the final part of a belatedly-defined trilogy of annual AC games that primarily let the gamer play as late-15th and early 16th-century Italian assassin Ezio Auditore. The so-called trilogy didn't start with the first Assassin's Creed. No, this trilogy started late, which is part of what aroused suspicions that Revelations is more cash-in than instant classic. The new game follows 2009's Assassin's Creed II and last year's Brotherhood. It is, surprisingly, no lightweight game. It is equal to Brotherhood in the generous density of its content and is the sum of the many gameplay ideas introduced in those games, plus a bunch of new ones.
We're promised that, with this new game, we'll find out more about the centuries-spanning storyline of the series. What might the revelations be? Perhaps we'll learn more about the long war between the Assassins and the Templars. Perhaps we'll find out why the crazy events from Brotherhood's conclusion happened and more. The opportunity for many revelations is there. We play as Ezio, primarily, on a mission in 16th-century Constantinople, with playable flashback sequences to Assassin's Creed 1's main playable character Altair and with a third strand of playable adventures as 2012's Desmond Miles, the assassin-in-training. who has been reliving the memories of his ancestors Altair and Ezio in all of the games in the series.
In terms of delivering answers Assassin's Creed: Revelations, falters. Soak yourself into the game's campaign for 19 hours, complete 80% of it and you still won't have a satisfying explanation for the events at the end of Brotherhood. You still won't know Ezio's fate; that's delivered in an animated movie that the game's publisher just released. You will, however, learn a lot more about Desmond's life story and you will probably care much more about Altair and the people close to him, thanks to marvelously succinct storytelling in his handful of moments in the game.
But the whole thing is shown up by a book.
If you really want Assassin's Creed revelations, what you need is the game publisher's recently-released Assassin's Creed Encyclopedia. It fills in blanks and answers questions. It is the better service to fans who have accumulated piles of whys, hows, whens and whos since 2007. In that regard, it outshines—and out-reveals—the game.
Let's return to the idea of what a sequel is good for and what can be bad about a sequel. The knock on Revelations is that, as a game, it has arrived too soon and in too similar a fashion to the two acclaimed Assassin's Creeds of 2009 and 2010. To those charges, it is technically guilty of being released in 2011 and embellishing upon, rather than replacing, the core game design of its two predecessors.
The things that players did as Ezio in virtual Florence, Venice and Rome over the last two years, they may now do in virtual Constantinople. They may run through crowded streets, climb buildings, and assassinate people. They may generally mix their time between being the hunter and the hunted, from playing as an exposed perpetrator of violence to playing as a man blending in with the crowd. They have the choice to shoot from afar or stick a knife in the gut of a guard with the public subtelty-amid-crowds that a modern person would use to check their fly.
There has not been a game that has played like Assassin's Creed: Revelations in a year, which is more than can be said for some of its contemporary competition. There hasn't been a game that looks like it in a year either, as no other game creators are bothering to make rich, urban period pieces that time-machine their players back several hundred years.
A game might not deserve the criticism that it was made too soon if it's conceivable that it would be better enjoyed, unchanged a year later. That could be the case with Revelations which does so much right. In a vacuum, or with distance from Brotherhood, it might be viewed as a more glorious achievement. Of course, Revelations is no November 2012 game. Assassin's Creed III is well into development and is promised to star a new character. It probably is coming in November 2012. So Revelations is but a surprise in what might otherwise have been an off-year. And what a surprise.
Revelations is gorgeous. Its Constantinople is unmistakable for the Italian cities of the last two years. The Ottoman metropolis is a wonderful bustle of color. The vivid sights of spices sold streetside, the rugs draped in the bazaars, the citizens decked in bright robes and the heavens above bleeding oranges at sunset—all of these things collectively ensure that playing the game becomes a process of repeatedly, accidentally framing what look like wonderful paintings. What can stop an assassin from running through Constantinople? The game's art direction, which invites him to stop and gawk.
The gameplay in Revelations is a mountain of ideas, mostly assembled from prior Assassin's Creed games. The core loop is still about acrobatic running and deadly, precise killing. As before, Ezio can use his fists, swords or dagger. As was added in II, he has a primitive gun that takes a long time to load. He still can wield slow-acting poison, throw knives and fire a crossbow. As he did last year, he can start assembling a brotherhood of assassins and call them in to fight with him or to fight in his place. To all this is added the hookblade which lets him pick the pocket of men he's fighting, lets him bodyslam them or leap over them as he rushes toward them to leave them in the dust.
Ezio now also has bombs, the game's most radical and best new idea. These are not simply the grenades you might find in a war game. They are explosives crafted by the player. They are composed of one of several shell types, one of several gunpowder types and one of several fillings that spread upon detonation. Those fillings are things like smoke or poison gas or blood splatter or even gold coins.
The player is encouraged to tinker. Mixing and matching bomb ingredients can produce a wide-radius smoke bomb that detonates three seconds after it is tossed, clouding the vision of a cluster of Templar soldiers, enabling Ezio to stab each confused one. Or the player can make a medium-radius caltrops bomb that explodes when it is dropped by a fleeing Ezio. Those caltrops spill to the floor, causing his pursuers to stumble and wipe out. He or she can create a sticky bomb that detonates five seconds after it is affixed to an unknowing guard, generating a poison gas cloud when it does. He or she can toss a large-spread gold-coin bomb that sprinkles so many valuables on the streets of Constantinople that civilians descend like pigeons to breadcrumbs, creating a commotion to cover for Ezio's next action.
The bomb system, like the game's mostly-optional tower defense mode, is an odd fit, potentially casting Ezio as more of a brazen action hero than the perpetrator of quiet violence he was initially cast to be. It is, at first glance, a sign of an Assassin's Creed formula in need of a rest and re-think rather than an annual sequel. But that's only its bad first impression. The player who tinkers with the bomb system will find one of the most advanced gameplay mechanics of this generation.
For years, people have wondered: what is really "next generation" about this generation of video games? What, aside from better visuals is a product of the more powerful hardware of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? The bombs are one of the best answers.
The bombs are one of the most "next-gen" ideas this generation. They are, essentially, tools for manipulating the artificial intelligence of a crowd. They are the ultimate tool in an arsenal of tools that the Assassin's Creed series has given the player through the iteration of the franchise.
Consider the options the Assassin's Creed: Revelations player has when standing, as Ezio, on a crowded Constantinople street. Imagine that the road is full of civilians milling about, some walking, some selling their wares. At the far end is a trio of guards. Let's say Ezio wants to get to the treasure chest behind them. This is not a storyline mission. It's just an opportunity in a city dense with them.
- He could walk up to the first two guards, stab them both at once and then fight the other one and the reinforcements that third guard calls. With this approach, the player can decide whether Ezio will use his sword or disarm his enemy and use their weapon. Or Ezio can run away, lose his enemies in the chase and then return to raid the chest. But Ezio doesn't have to attack directly.
- The player can make him shoot one guard with a poison dart and then watch that guard, deranged, possibly kill his comrades before dying.
- Or Ezio can call in his assassins and just stand there as they either do the killing or succumb in the fight.
- Or he can summon his assassin brotherhood to rain down arrows and immediately kill all the guards, though that act can only be done infrequently.
- He may find some mercenaries and pay them to attack the guards or find some woman to flirt with the guards.
- He can take to the rooftops, run around behind and climb to the treasure chest without any conflict at all.
- Add to all this the bomb option. He could use a blood-splatter bomb to stun the guards into thinking they're hurt, then walk over and kill them. He could set off a noise bomb in an alley and hope they investigate the sound. He can do all these things in that street. He can do all of those things at just about any time in the game, in a mission or not. The range of possible expression given the player is extraordinary. The range of ways the player can role-play Ezio is without peer in the medium.
No other video game character has as extensive and expressive an array of actions available to them then the lead character in Assassin's Creed Revelations. That is not despite the new game being an annualized sequel but possibly because of it. Possibly because years of iteration and accumulation of ideas have tacked on so much to the skillset of the game's virtual person.
Revelations is a jarring game to play in the same season as acclaimed linear adventures like Uncharted 3 or Modern Warfare. Those games, exciting as they are, tell the player to do nothing but follow the script. The new Uncharted, in particular, suffers the comparison, as its chases through crowded, exotic streets and leap-filled dashes across rooftops are the same stuff Assassin's Creed games are made of.
While the beautiful Uncharted 3 allows the player to only take the specific route and pretty much only do the specific actions planned by the game's creators, Revelations seemingly gives the player at least a dozen choices at any second. That is a glorious achievement that elevates Revelations as one of the most interesting, purest games to play, second to second, of the year.
The sandbox of Revelations is sensational, though the dependency of each of its systems on another may drive some players batty. Concepts that used to be separate in earlier AC games are now tethered. Renovating the city shop by shop now increases Ezio's notoriety, as do the more expected things like killing guards in plain sight. Should Ezio's notoriety be maxed out. then Templar enemies more aggressively stalk him. Should Ezio not bribe enough heralds or kill enough officials to lower that notoriety, those Templars will assault Ezio's territory. Ezio gains the territory by hunting regional captains. He can lose it by failing the game's awkward tower defense mode. He can avoid having to worry about losing his territory by installing a level 15 Master Assassin to that region, something he can only do after recruiting assassins, leveling them up by calling on them during battle, dispatching them to cities around the Mediterranean, and/or going on two scripted training missions with each of those high-level assassins. Some of that assassin-training costs money, which, of course, is obtained through other systems in the game. Surely, you got all that?
The whole array of systems in Revelations' Constantinople is a knot of inter-related gameplay. Getting tangled in it is not unlike getting lost in a Facebook game like FarmVille but with infinite energy. Once you start spinning all the plates to get them going, its hard to stop. Those systems kept me out of the game's main storyline for six enjoyable hours, until I was content that I had six new Master Assassins installed and I no longer had to worry about losing territory. That manner of playing is not for everyone, and it is certain that some Assassin's Creed players will prefer last year's less inter-connected and stressful game.
Within the rich and interesting Constantinople of this game are many tiny, pleasant surprises. Series veterans will notice that the old Beat-up and Chase missions have now seemingly turned into random occurrences. Occasionally, someone will just show up for a fistfight. There are some delightfully minuscule missions, like this guy on a dock who just needs you to carry three boxes to his boat. That mission isn't listed in the game's menus; it's not played up as a big thing. It's just this small thing you find and can do or not do, depending on what kind of guy you think Ezio is.
There are tiny twists to how the city works that feel like winks from the designers to long-time players. The dry-well hiding spots of old are now covered in planks, forcing the player to decide whether to start opening each with bombs, risking raising their notoriety when they do but giving them a hiding spot to use, should they be chased there in the future. The old wanted-poster system is gone, eliminating one of Ezio's ways to lower his notoriety and forcing Ezio to either do stealthy kills or spend money to lower the heat. The poster system had rewarded acrobatic exploration, but that behavior has been de-emphasized in that small way.
Some cuts are welcome in Revelations. They've ditched shop quests, for example. Other elements, like being able to buy landmarks, remain so inconsequential that they beg to be eliminated. But the painful cuts are to the characters. What Revelations players gain in access to Altair they lose in access to the once-maligned modern part of the game. It is true that the 2012 Desmond sections in the first Assassin's Creed were, by some, despised. They got better in the sequels, and they fleshed out Desmond and the interesting crew around him, a crew that factored heavily in Brotherhood's shock finale. But Desmond's cronies are given maybe five minutes of time in Revelations and, as little progress as they get to make in storyline, their emotional narrative is all but put on pause. Players have come to feel for Desmond and his allies and they are given nothing to have an emotional reaction to from the 2012 Desmond sections of Revelations.
There is also one bold addition to Revelations that is likely to divide fans. Desmond's section is, surprisingly, mostly played as a first-person puzzle game. Desmond's consciousness has been fractured by the events at the end of Brotherhood, so we more or less play within a computerized version of his mind. That is carried out in what can feel like a poor man's Portal, a sequence of five first-person levels based on the idea of being able to generate rectangular and triangular floating platforms in front of yourself to walk on. Like everything else in Assassins' Creed, it fails to charm immediately. But those who collect enough things in Constantinople will be rewarded with later Desmond chapters that add welcome complexity to his puzzle mode and, more significantly, present an unusually attractive, experimental integration of abstract graphics with storyline narration.
To be slightly more specific and to give an example, there is a moment in one of these levels—which are mostly comprised of austere chambers made of large geometric shapes—when Desmond is recalling a stream he saw in his childhood. At that moment, the floor of the room where you're working though a puzzle has blue shapes flowing down a lane of the floor. It's sort of like you're playing through a level presented, not with realistic graphics, but with an abstract artist's impression of them. This side mode is bold and feels more like a submission to the Independent Games Festival than a part of a multi-million-dollar planned-blockbuster of a game. So much for the safety of annual sequels.
There isn't much to be said for the game's main story. It is ok. Ezio needs to find five keys to open a door locked centuries earlier by Altair. He also needs to help Ottoman assassins repel Templar influence in Constantinople. And he might be falling in love. Everything proceeds predictably and with far less heart and drive than the adventures of the previous two games.
Ezio does feel more like a tourist in this one, disconnected from an adventure that feels frivolous. The missions that are part of the game's main storyline are nevertheless varied and interesting, still mixing in new types of assassinations, riot-inciting, flower-picking, assassin-training and more.
As in years past, some of the best missions are the side missions, including the pairs of missions tied to schooling each of six Master Assassins. Those missions are programmed to include lots of fun banter between Ezio and his trainees, who often manage to fail in interesting ways. One of them, for example, kills the wrong person while on the hunt with Ezio. He (or she) gets their talking-to, and, well, that's quite a mission!
The series' wonderful "hidden location" missions are back, but they've changed. Most still involve more acrobatics to reach a secret chamber and minimize combat, but now some are part of the mandatory main plot. One is so hidden you'll have to go on a quest for a certain collectible item to access it (systems interlocked with other systems, see?). When you do get to it, well, let's just say climbing up the inner dome of the Hagia Sofia is amazing.
An afterthought about the multiplayer (because there is so much game here in single-player that multi can be an afterthought): They're still trying to get a Call of Duty following out of this. The multiplayer suite is enhanced with a system that tracks friends' progress. The new multiplayer unlocks even more perks and customization options as you gain more experience points with each match that you play.
The core of multiplayer mode is still Wanted, in which each player is assigned another player to hunt and kill. But they've added deathmatch modes, which eliminate the interesting confusion of civilian doppelgangers. In deathmatch, if you see a character that looks like your target, that is your target.
My favorite mode offered in Revelations is Steal the Artifact, a riff on popular kill-the-carrier modes in other games. He or she who holds the artifact gains points until another player assassinates them and starts their own run with it. The twist is that the player is rewarded more for keeping their cool than for bolting. Points accrue more quickly if you hold the artifact while hidden in a crowd. You gain even more points if enemies are stalking you nearby. Imagine the nervousness of standing next to two identical computer-controlled characters, watching an enemy player size up the scene. Points keep tallying to reward the stealth that's in effect, but maybe that player has sniffed you out? Maybe they're about to pounce? At the last possible moment, you should bolt. The chase is on, and as you run, you're suddenly visible to all players. An icon on all their TV screens points to you, but as you flee, you'll still get points. As it oscillates from low-key to high action, this mode is always exhilarating.
These are all the differences a year makes, some big, some small. But are they what makes a game excellent or what should be held against a game?
In terms of story, Revelations is not an improvement and is perhaps a bait-and-switch. In terms of graphics and in terms of gameplay, it is another hop ahead, not the two-year leap that separated the good Assassin's Creed from the great Assassin's Creed II. It is the second one-year hop we've seen in the series.
No game in 2011 allows its player to do so many things as Assassin's Creed: Revelations does. That they could so so many of those things in 2010 will ward away some Revelations players. Should they stay away they will miss the series' best and most interesting playground yet. They will miss the game that best counter-balances some of the linear blockbusters of the season by proving, for the third year in a row, that we can have beauty, drama and dynamic action in a video game. We can have a game that lets us make one split-second choice after another, with blade, with bold steps, with a brotherhood and now, most impressively yet, with bombs.
That is the revelation.