The third Assassin’s Creed game in three years wraps up Ezio Auditore’s story while introducing tower defense elements.
The Assassin’s Creed series has been somewhat compartmentalized since the first game, its Animus conceit (you’re not directly experienced the historical periods, but rather a reconstruction of them created from the genetic memories of the games’ protagonists’ ancestors) used to explain why everyone speaks English with an accent, rather than their native tongues. The game’s HUD and menus, its limited areas: all because of the simulation.
Revelations is even more compartmentalized than its predecessors. Six Ubisoft studios are named in the opening credits. The game is all over the place, jumping between protagonists and game styles: sometimes you control Ezio during the Renaissance, sometimes you control the first game’s Altair in the 12th century, sometimes you control Desmond in third person in the present day (sometimes in first person). Sometimes you’re commanding a battle on the streets of Constantinople, sometimes you’re moving assassins around the Mediterranean like a Wall Street banker moves around money: just looking at numbers.
Ezio’s still a little clunky to control. Sometimes he’ll jump the wrong way, or attack the wrong target. You do get the hang of the controls, but it’s like it never wants you to get too comfortable with them. Just like the Animus, the controls are always reminding you that you’re playing a game.
Ezio is on unfamiliar ground. One of his blades is destroyed in the opening cutscene, but that’s the only ability he brings over from the previous game that is lost. Constantinople is the West and East, a crossroads of cultures. Assassins are similar, but different. These Arabic assassins’ gear is more technologically advanced than the European Ezio’s: they’ve “borrowed explosives from the Chinese”, as Yusuf Tazim tells Ezio, though they’re now primarily provided by a creepy man who sits in the back of his shop muttering to himself before giving you short missions to train you in using the different bombs. And they’ve got hook blades, an innovation that hasn’t yet made its way to the Roman assassins.
Of course, these technical innovations are meaningless unless they affect gameplay. And they do. Hookblade adds more timing-based controls to the platforming – long jumps, ledge grabs, and climbing leaps all require an additional press of a button. You don’t quite realize how much this affects the movement until you’re forced to do without it in one of Ezio’s flashbacks to Altair’s memories (By this point, Ezio is well aware of the series’s batshit paranoid scifi conspiracy angle, and he plays his role as the middle of a group of assassin nesting dolls well).
Renovating the city returns from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, except in Constantinople the Templars don’t take as kindly to it as they do in Rome. Each upgrade increases “Templar Awareness”. A few times I let it get too high and they attacked one of the dens, leaving me to play that tower defense game to save it. In the previous games what is now the awareness meter measured your character’s “notoriety”. It’s a subtle shift in description that reflects its new effects — as it increases, the guards no longer just notice Ezio. They go after his entire guild in these Den Defense sections.
It makes a lot of sense given Ezio’s progression through his three games: in the first, he is a lone assassin. In the second, he builds up a team that he can call in, as well as the other thieves and soldiers and courtesans that he commands. Now he’s directly commanding troops in battle.
Revelations adds both tower defense and first person segments featuring non-Euclidean doorways. The assassins have always been able to move through space in a way that normal citizens cannot — their rooftop travels a metaphor for their abilities to exist outside of the rules of society (rules more often than not put in place by their Templar enemies). As Desmond reconstructs his memories in the first person Memory segments (unlocked by collecting a certain number of Animus fragments in the Ezio and Altair segments), he gains the ability to create level geometries himself, literally making the space as he needs to in order to move through it. They’re disorienting, and it’s pretty clear why Desmond’s adventures take place in his ancestors’ memories: his are pretty boring.
Almost the entire city is open to you from the start, as are its fast travel tunnels. The game is a little different from other open-world games because it largely doesn’t have to introduce a mission type in the story before it’s open to you in the game. The two exceptions are bomb crafting and Mediterranean Defense.
The latter is presented as a series of menus overlaid on a map of Mediterranean cities. The assassins that Ezio recruits in Constantinople can be sent on missions to any of these cities. Eventually they can recruit assassins from those cities who can accompany Ezio on missions of his own. This flow of assassins connects the direct violence of the main game to the apparent spreadsheet management of running an international group of assassins.
It’s a is a battle against entropy, as you try to first take and then keep control of various Mediterranean cities out of the hands of the Templars. Sure, there are bits of story here, fleshing out what was going on around the Mediterranean as my assassins fought to free the cities (though as they were successful, they increased the number labeled “Assassin Control”, not exactly what one would expect from these champions of the individual). But I only cared about those numbers. Every in-game day the Templars would regain a little control of each city, and so I’d send my assassins on missions (always grouped in a way that they had 100% chance of success) to raise those numbers back up.
I was taking advantage of my obsession with progressing: buying the stores in the city; ticking off the templar dens and viewpoints; leveling my assassins. I was getting stuff done. The structure of the game, as compartmentalized as it is, allowed me to do all of this stuff without touching the main storyline missions. One district was locked at the beginning. It contained a viewpoint and the last collectible journal page. I spent fifteen minutes making sure there was no way to get to them before I was able to move on.
I’d trained all my assassins to the master level, controlled the entire Mediterranean, owned all of the stores and most of the landmarks in Constantinople. I was collecting some books, getting ready to move onto the next major story beat, when my system froze while saving. Neither the saved game nor its backup would load. Twentyish hours of…what, exactly? Running around the city, yeah, but also a lot of menu-twiddling. Staring at the map to plot my course from where I was to where I needed to be to hit the maximum number of things to collect (because, let’s be honest, buying the stores and landmarks are just more things to acquire, even if they give you more convenient access to buy in-game items).
I’d played all of Desmond’s memories and got that portion of the story filled in. Ezio’d met a woman (fifteen or so years his junior) who almost has to end up being the mother of his child because his genetic memories need to be passed down eventually to Desmond, and one assumes that those genetic memories have to stop more or less at the moment of conception.
The game is fortunately missing his mute, traumatized mother (she who could only be saved by collecting 100 feathers). Unfortunately, his sister, Claudia,who ran the family estate and then a successful brothel in Rome, and who became a full-fledged assassin in Brotherhood is now little more than Ezio’s penpal.
Because the design between sections is so disconnected, it’s possible for extremes to exist side by side in this game. Mediterranean Defense satisfies some part of the lizard brain, a Skinner box for numbers. Constantinople and Desmond and Altair’s memories fill in the blanks of the lives of the major characters in this saga. And there are interesting moments in the city that show Ezio’s leadership roles: missions that see Ezio working alongside teams of local assassins, or training master assassins. Each district has a Templar rival for its master assassin. Ezio accompanies all these assassins in their missions against this rival. He stands to the side as his apprentices’ victims wax philosophical about their lives and power and the assassins and their worldview. As we’ve seen both him and Altair perform this action repeatedly over the past three games, these scenes underscore Ezio’s passing on of responsibility.
I cannot imagine this making sense to anyone who’s never played it before. And even though the mechanical risks they take in this game don’t work as well as the ones from Brotherhood, it’s kind of amazing to think that this is a big budget game that includes tower defense as one of its main gameplay modes! It’s neither the huge leap that Assassin’s Creed II was from the original game, nor the focused refinement that was Brotherhood.
It’s annualized fanservice, and maybe it’s an example of what happens when an annualized series tries to change too many things between installments. But it’s still got a beautiful city to run around in, and some amazing moments both designed and organic. If you can just avoid the traps.
And Jesper Kyd’s score as you watch the sun rise perched atop the Hagia Sophia: that’s got to be worth something, doesn’t it?
Brian Taylor finished Revelations after he got over the frustration of his corrupted save. Follow him on Twitter and he’ll be sure to tell you what he thinks of the rest of Ezio’s story.