Nick Parkes Considers the Intricacies of “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations”

Posted on January 24, 2012

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(Ubisoft Montreal 2011)

The abundance of free time for consumers and the money that gets chucked around leading up to New Year’s Eve is a very happy time for any market. Video games, as product of a fledgling industry, always cater to safe bets, which essentially saw the Christmas period of 2011 rain releases from the sky like a more entertaining and altogether less deadly version of the bombing of Dresden. One such release was Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the latest iteration of the eminently popular Assassin’s Creed franchise from publisher Ubisoft. The fourth installation of the series, the game sees you again in the shoes of Desmond Miles, forced by cruel circumstance to artificially relive the memories of two of his ancestors: Ezio Auditore da Firenze of Renaissance-era Florence, and Altaïr ibn La-Ahad, in the time of the Third Crusade.

This may seem like an odd choice for a first review, namely that, as the fourth console title of the series, approaching AC:R without consideration of previous titles always has an attendant danger of confusion. Luckily, the gameplay itself deviates so little from its decidedly user-friendly first instalment that newcomers to the series are unlikely to find themselves running into too many walls, literally or figuratively.

And upon reflection, this conservative trimming of the series’ staples is hardly a bad thing; Ubisoft judiciously placed most of the emphasis on the open-ended gameplay that made the previous historical romps such a success. You’ll spend most of your playing time in 14th century Constantinople, lovingly rendered with fastidious detail. Instead of forcing you down a linear pathway and bombarding you with cut-scenes, endless tutorials and patronising hand-holding (one memorable early mission of Assassin’s Creed 2 involves a danger-ridden task of carrying a box, on foot, from one house to another), the game carries you for just long enough to find your feet before letting you peruse the city’s secrets at your leisure. And when the illusion works, the freedom is dizzying.

Nobody's business but the Turks.

Vendors bark out their wares, fishermen sit listlessly at the piers, and pickpockets seemingly conspire to drive you insane with rage. Constantinople has minarets to scale, fortresses to infiltrate, and an endless number of hidden nooks that beg discovery. Indeed, the greatest strength of the game is the way it subtly reinforces its atmosphere by instilling a carefully crafted ambience of a dusty, bustling and occasionally apathetic metropolis. On the other hand, when it doesn’t, you’re offensively reminded that you’re controlling a digital puppet in the shape of a geriatric killing machine, who in spite of your grandest efforts, can’t quite make that bloody jump. A shortfall of building such a huge city to with which to gallivant about in is that it becomes impossible to iron out every possible bug or glitch. And once the flow is interrupted, however briefly, the illusion can fail altogether.

Additionally, the changes this instalment brings are relatively minor to the point of disappointment for veteran players. The biggest innovation comes in the form of the hook-blade, a hooked extension to the signature weapon of the series: a wrist-mounted retractable dagger used for stealthily offing a hapless foe. The hook allows for easier climbing (which would be welcome to a 52 year-old protagonist), and for an entertaining new use for the zip-lines that inexplicably litter the city. Though as fun as it is to whizz at high speed down a rope only to land, dagger first, on some poor sap in the wrong place at the wrong time, I can’t help but think that when a series boasts that its greatest game changer is an additional three inches of curved steel, it’s time to rethink your definition of “revelatory”.

The "Revelations" gang.

But the biggest shortfall of the game comes in its plot and storytelling. If, as a newbie to the series, the prospect of playing as a white dude in a coma, reliving the memories of a silver fox-esque Italian assassin who is in turn tracking down a long-dead Arabian assassin in order to prevent the possible end of the world is an obtuse plot, that’s because it’s an obtuse fucking plot. I have never seen such a convoluted way to introduce a game that could just as have easily been a series of self-contained historical dramas. The framing devices are questionably unnecessary to the point of irrelevance, and what’s worse, runs the risk of alienating new entrants to the games.

That said, I’m not walking away from this one without giving it a recommendation, albeit one with a modest footnote. If almost unparalleled freedom comes at the cost of a largely forgettable or incomprehensible plot, then so be it. And even if the series’ formula is being changed less and less, it doesn’t stop it being a formula that works; just look at Nintendo’s success with the Mario franchise, or The Legend of Zelda. At the end of the day, if lobbing a home-made smoke grenade into a contingent of Turkish Janissaries, ruining their shit entirely, and making a daring escape by diving into the Marmara Sea is wrong, then I’m not sure I want to be right.

Nick Parkes is a recent addition to the You’re Dripping Egg gang. Please welcome him, and his much-desired gaming expertise! For another video game review, check out Rory Brenan’s Portal 2 review.

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Posted in: Games