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Assassin's Creed: Revelations review: Hanging on, letting go


Assassin's Creed: Revelations, a third sequel in as many years, is asking a lot. Ubisoft has been remarkably clear that another game is coming next year, and that it will advance the story of Desmond, the series' main character. This leaves Revelations in an awkward position, serving as a coda of sorts to the stories of Ezio Auditore de Firenze and his Crusades-era forbear Altair Ibn-La-Ahad, stories that seemed competently told already. It doesn't seem like Assassin's Creed: Revelations needs to exist -- but then, neither did Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which nonetheless turned out to be great.

Surprise or no, Ubisoft has managed it again. By introducing an interesting new cast of characters, making additional refinements to the free-running and combat systems, and providing closure to characters we've gotten to know for their entire lives, by defying all logic, Assassin's Creed: Revelations is another great Assassin's Creed game -- mostly.

Gallery: Assassin's Creed: Revelations - 10/11/11 | 5 Photos

Picking up immediately after the end of Brotherhood, Assassin's Creed: Revelations finds Desmond in an Animus induced coma, the memories of his ancestors and his own identity fractured and in danger of collapsing entirely. His only means of sorting himself out is to dive back into the memories of Ezio Auditore to discover the last secrets Ezio has to reveal. Those secrets involve Ezio's journey to Constantinople in search of answers of his own, as he seeks to find and unravel the mystery of five keys to an ancient library hidden in the Assassin's defunct home in Masyaf. While Desmond is on the brink of losing his identity, Ezio's not in great shape either. He's 50-ish, disillusioned by the deaths of loved one after loved one, and wondering what it all means. Oh, and he's hallucinating, seeing visions of his own ancestor, Altair.

Yes, it's complicated. Revelations' narrative successes and failures start with its reliance on the player's familiarity with the previous Assassin's Creed games. It's the least accessible jumping-on point the series has seen. If you haven't played Assassin's Creed 2, at minimum, and ideally Brotherhood as well, you'll be lost in a sea of already-established lore, history, and some of the most complicated play mechanics seen in an action adventure game. And even more than Brotherhood, Revelations sees fit to add more to that.

Thankfully, the new mechanics in Assassin's Creed: Revelations serve as effective connective tissue, tying all of the existing systems and mechanics together in ways that make sense. Every addition seems well rooted in the fiction that Revelations continues and builds upon. The hook blade is a logical next step for the Assassin's tool set, and the increased variety of Bombs makes sense for the time, the place, and the history of Constantinople as a port of call for traders around the world at the time.

Perhaps the only real failing in adding those new pieces of equipment is how little they have to be used. Even before Assassin's Creed: Revelations starts doling out new gear, Ezio is packing a staggering amount of stuff, and the new hotness doesn't really replace any of it. Outside of a few item specific missions, where situations are contrived around Ezio's new tools, Ezio is free to do as he's always done. Still, resourceful players will likely zip around Constantinopole and throw some bombs here and there. I found myself gravitating to Ezio's traditional arsenal, branching out when one piece of equipment seemed to fit a situation especially well.

The Den defense sequences are Assassin's Creed: Revelations' sore thumb. Cause too much of a stir in Constantinopole and the Templars will try to retake one of the headquarters you previously liberated from them. It's a cool idea in concept, again rooting a gameplay system well within Revelations' expansion of Ezio's role as not just a master assassin, but a master of assassins. But the would-be tower defense element removes Ezio's grace and power so that he can stand on a roof and tell guys to go over there.

Luckily, these are tied to infamy. In a way, the Den defense mechanic helps link infamy and various other systems together. Buy a shop, recruit an assassin, or take a Templar den, and your infamy will increase. If your infamy maxes out, it's only a matter of time until the Templars make attempts on your hideouts. More than ever before, you'll be listening for the tell-tale holler of heralds, and the eye-shaped icon on your map of Templar emissaries. It emphasizes a sense of consequence to your actions. It's just unfortunate that the consequence itself isn't really fun.

Other than that, there's an at times overwhelming amount of things to do -- after 30 hours, I was at 64 percent sync in the campaign. Assassin's Creed: Revelations picks up every mechanical thread laid down by Brotherhood and develops them further. Recruits can become Master Assassins in charge of their own dens, which guards them against Templar attack, and getting them to that rank requires specific missions with their own unique stories and assassination targets.

Here's the thing: it's all still fun, but there's not much there that you haven't done before, Den defense missions notwithstanding. Revelations often feels familiar, sometimes disappointingly so. Instead, Revelations lives and occasionally stubs its toe on the stories it has to tell.

It's hard to talk much about Assassin's Creed: Revelations without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that it deals in large part with the idea of letting go. It explores the regrets and loss that Ezio has experienced over the course of a life we've witnessed more or less right from the beginning, and it does it believably and respectfully. Even more impressive is the added depth given to the character of Altair. Each key of Masyaf holds a memory from Altair's life, a memory key to solving the mystery of the Assassins' ancestral home.

More surprising? Each memory develops Altair into a legitimately interesting figure. Honestly, I always felt like Altair was kind of a dick. He's one of the least likable main characters I've ever played in a game. By the end of Revelations, he seemed like a real person, with motivations and emotions, changes enough to shift my feelings about the original game's story almost entirely.

But it's not all roses. There are moments where Revelations feels held together by rope and prayer, especially toward the end of the game, and there are some story pacing issues in the middle sequences. There are setpiece moments that fall flat and just aren't any fun, lacking the refinement present throughout much of the rest of the game. Combat is still going to be love it or hate it -- I'm a fan of the timing based counter system that drives most of Assassin's Creed's combat, myself.

The good news: Assassin's Creed: Revelations provides a real, affecting sense of closure to both Altair and Ezio. When their stories end, there's a sense of finality that's almost mournful. After spending all that time with the characters, it's bittersweet, but well done. Revelations also explores Desmonds' history prior to his capture by Abstergo at the beginning of the first game, a welcome glimpse of who Desmond is, other than the human half of Assassin's Creed's sci-fi Macguffin.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations also features a more refined version of the inventive, unique Assassin- and target-oriented multiplayer we originally saw with Brotherhood, featuring its own spins on VIP and Capture the Flag gametypes, as well as the standard, bloody interpretation of hide-and-seek. It's just as fun as it was in Brotherhood, and Ubisoft has added much stronger narrative hooks into Assassin's Creed proper. The question is whether or not it'll find an audience outside of the tiny, passionate playerbase that couldn't quite carry multiplayer last time around.

And that's indicative of Revelation's biggest Achilles heel. It's an Assassin's Creed game wearing blinders that focus it on covering ground it's already traveled, albeit more effectively. While it's always good to see iterative improvements, some bold new territory would have been a real revelation for the series. Instead, Revelations does almost everything its predecessors have done slightly better. Which, as it turns out, is enough just one more time.

This review is based on debug review code for the single player portions of Assassin's Creed: Revelations provided by Ubisoft. Multiplayer was played on a retail 360 copy of Assassin's Creed: Revelations, also provided by Ubisoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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