With everybody from Mario to Saints Row scoring perfect 100s from game reviewers this season it's good to see a big-name title that bucks the trend. I suppose that doesn't apply if you're Ubisoft.
The Ezio saga finally comes to a close in Assassin's Creed Revelations, the third and final chapter of the series that kept getting announced instead of Assassin's Creed III. Fans will explore the ancient city of Constantinople, walk in the footsteps of the original Assassin's Creed's Altair, and finally put this puppy to bed so we can move onto a fresh setting, like New York City, Moscow, or ancient Egypt. As long as we've got handholds, we'll be happy.
But are game reviewers happy with the third installment of Italian-style exploratory killing? Not 100 happy, at least.
The Animus is gaming's greatest get-out clause. Invisible walls, erratic NPC behaviour, narrative inconsistencies and technical snafus can all be explained away by the fact that you're merely experiencing a (mostly) sophisticated virtual reality simulation. If guards are attacking you despite your notoriety being zero, well, that's just a bit of dodgy Animus programming. And if Niccoló Polo is refusing to follow you because he's busy hovering above a rock? Glitch in the Animus. Pedestrians merging into Ezio during a dialogue sequence? Animus.
Yet it can't excuse everything. Assassin's Creed Revelations has been developed by six studios across three continents - and in a little over twelve months. It shows. Revelations' fractured campaign doesn't suffer from a lack of ideas, but the new inclusions either fail to add anything meaningful, or, in some cases, actively detract from the experience. You can't really blame Ubisoft for not trying here; there are plenty of new additions to deflect the common accusations hurled at yearly updates. You can, however, criticise the way in which these concepts have been integrated.
Revelations offers the same game as Brotherhood, but in a straitjacket and a new coat of paint. Gameplay-wise, it's still a fun, deep experience that any fan of the franchise will enjoy playing because it's not very different from what you're used to; you've just already played it last year, and the year before that. Ezio's final chapter in the franchise is a shadow of the past two games, and you realize how sorely you miss the "real-world" characters like Shaun when they do make an appearance for a few seconds. More importantly, there are just no great characters in Revelations.
The famous Piri Reis is far from a Machiavelli or Leonardo da Vinci and feels like a throwaway character, while Yusif, the leader of the Brotherhood in Constantinople, is just not interesting enough to care about. A female character inspired by one of Albrecht Durer's famous paintings acts as Ezio's love interest in the autumn of his life, but even she seems to be there just to make Ezio a little bit more human. That leaves Suleiman I, still the young scholar during the game's time frame, as the game's strongest support character, although his impact on Ottoman rule is mostly lost to all but those familiar with the period's history.
...the map is always covered in quest markers that vie for your attention. Recruiting soldiers is as much a part of the game as buying up property, perusing bookshops, acquiring art and renovating rundown parts of town, so much so that its easy to forget your primary job description. Even a Tower Defence minigame manages to make its way into this year's update, in which you protect threatened Assassin Strongholds from invading armies. The huge amount of content is generous, but the series has reached a tipping point where the distractions are now eroding the core.
And it's a strong core. Traversing the city is a joy, as it's always been, while the central premise that has you searching for five keys to unlock a door is reassuringly straightforward. Each key is located in a different dungeon, and these are the standout moments of the game; intricate, smart puzzles that mix platform design ingenuity with a purity of focus. Here, away from the hobbies of the outer city, the strengths of Assassin's Creed shine, adding to the sense that the copious embellishments are all filler, not killer.
Nevertheless, Revelations is as absorbing as its predecessors, because it's so much fun to move through Constantinople and other key areas. This is due in part to the world's sheer beauty. Deep golds and reds make a stroll through the grand bazaar a feast for the eyes, and famous landmarks like Hagia Sophia cut striking silhouettes against the night sky. Row a boat across a strait, and you marvel at the authentic wake that ripples behind. A mauve haze softens the horizon as day passes into night, and makes you keenly feel the passage of time—a thematically relevant effect, considering how conscious the older Ezio is of his mortality. Of course, previous Assassin's Creed games looked stunning too, but Revelations is no less impressive for it. Not that every detail is perfect: citizens still occasionally pop into existence before your very eyes, and you might spot a guard clipped halfway through a rooftop. But such quibbles hardly matter in a game this visually spectacular.
The other reason exploration is so joyous is that the simple act of moving from place to place is so satisfying. Animations remain superb. Ezio doesn't grab some unseen outcropping as he scales towers: he reaches for actual ledges and outcroppings, which makes his impossible acrobatics feel authentic. Climbing a tower reaching into the heavens, admiring the view, and then making a leap of faith into a hay bale hundreds of feet below is a delight, as it always has been. But Revelations expands the parkour aspect of the game by giving you use of a handheld hook. With this hook, Ezio can scale upward more quickly and glide down ziplines—and even assassinate rooftop guards as he skims past.
The stab-or-be-stabbed multiplayer returns from Brotherhood with a few tweaks. Set inside the Abstergo templar training program, as you level up you unlock cinemas that give you some insight into the organization. Where you had to earn all your abilities before, you're given some right out of the gate this time. It doesn't help much, though. Higher level players have a distinct advantage—particularly in the team-based modes where things like invisibility give them a decided edge. There's a plethora of options including variants of deathmatch and capture the flag across nine different maps, but if the perks aren't ruining the good time it's the skill-free instant kills. It's a fun diversion, but it still feels like empty calories.
We really have been spoilt this year. With the release of Revelations, Ubisoft have finally turned their initial concept into a truly unmissable game. Pulling the narrative together alongside some vital gameplay additions, this is the best, most complete Assassin's Creed title to date. In the space of four years, the series has turned it's infantile expectation into a showing of maturity and extreme class. It seems the developers have grown up alongside their assassins, nurturing the series with enough confidence and pizazz to execute a top contender for game of the year
Could the latest Assassin's Creed get lost in the crowd?