It’s Assassin’s Creed week here on the blog. This is a series I’ve loved since the start, and Revelations is a game with a lot of content, so I want to give it the space it deserves. Today I’m going to focus on the core gameplay, next time I’ll talk about the story and some of the peripheral gameplay, and then I’ll close with a discussion of the multiplayer.
The core gameplay of the series was solid right from the first game, and has only improved since then. Assassin’s Creed 2 added situational kills and social stealth. Brotherhood added the ability to stealthily project force at range, via assassins and the crossbow. Revelations adds bombs. And bombs essentially give Ezio further options for remotely manipulating the AI or projecting force.
The two bombs that I used the most were poison, which is a low-profile, ranged, area of effect, lethal weapon, and the light smoke, which is a low profile method of luring guards to a specific location. The poison bomb occupies the same role as the assassin crossbow volley that was introduced in Brotherhood. But note that the crossbow volley is on a cooldown, and a pretty lengthy one at that.
In principle, the light smoke bomb could be used to lure guards to a specific location in order to, say, kill them while out of sight. I used them this way exactly once, and had only limited success in that instance – it kept luring over the wrong guard. In practice, I ended up using it to lure stationary guards away from their post when I wanted to get by. In other words, it fulfilled the same role that social stealth and agents used to fill.
Other bomb options include two more lethal ones that are both higher profile and less reliably fatal than the poison and hence are unnecessary, caltrops which are actually kind of nice for disabling a group of guards before going into combat with them, blood and stink bombs which confuse the AI and single out a target, both things that are never particularly useful or necessary. Then there’s the dark smoke bomb, which was already in the last two games, and the gold bomb, which is a ranged version of throwing coins, something that, again, I never found useful, though I suppose it could have been used to incite conflicts between civilians and guards as a distraction. In terms of triggers, the impact, timed, and sticky bombs are all fairly obvious. The tripwire, however, I was never able to use effectively. Even with being able to see guard routes, there was never a case where it wasn’t easier and stealthier to just throw the bomb at the guards, rather than take the risk of going down the street and stopping to set up the device, and then hoping that it was a guard and not a civilian who triggered it. In principle, a lethal tripwire bomb combined with a light smoke one to lure the guard over could have been effective, but there was always an easier way.
And so, that’s the thing: bombs never quite fit into the sandbox comfortably. Most of the bombs are at best marginally useful. The ones that are useful are more expedient or reliably available versions of tools that already existed. On the whole, they’re a pretty big power increase, but at the cost of nuance. The game keeps track of certain accomplishments, and I think it’s very telling that the ones that took me the longest to get were acrobatic kills, uses of agents, stealthy crossbow kills, and kills from social stealth. These are all abilities and systems I love. But when it’s so much more expedient to throw a bomb from a rooftop, or call in my assassins, that’s what I’m going to do. (I also had some trouble using bombs during combat – I’d hit the Y button the bomb wouldn’t get thrown.)
There was one system change, and it’s relatively minor, but I don’t like it. It’s the eagle vision. First of all, taking off the Y button means finally abandoning the face buttons as limbs system from the first game in the series. Now, it’s on the left stick, which I wouldn’t mind except that that’s pretty much the most awkward button on the controller. You have to stop to use it, and more than once I accidentally jumped out of my hiding spot while I was activating the mode. And then there are the actually changes to the mode. The screen now fades in and out of black when the mode is activated and deactivated. When combined with having to stop to activate it, this makes me not want to use the mode. There’s also the downgrade of having to scan mission-critical entities in order to identify them, instead of it happening automatically. This adds nothing and, again, makes using eagle vision more cumbersome. It’s as if the designers are responding to the critiques that were made about Batman’s detective vision in Arkham Asylum: that it was too useful, and so players tended to have it on all the time. But I don’t think anyone was making that complaint about Assassin’s Creed. It’s sufficiently hard to navigate, and you lose the mini-map and rest of the HUD when it’s activated, so I don’t think anyone was overusing eagle vision.
I think the biggest letdown of Revelations has to be its pacing. Assassin’s Creed 2 had constant forward momentum. Every time Ezio moved on to a new city, there was a whole new area to explore, with new viewpoints and Templar Dens and side-quests. Players were also encouraged to break up the experience by returning regularly to Montereggioni to resupply and collect income. Brotherhood’s core gameplay was confined to just one city, but Rome was a very large, diverse area. It held both urban and rural spaces, it had horses, access was gained at what felt like a fairly measured space. Brotherhood also had the sense to let Ezio get out of Rome from time to time via the Leonardo missions and Christina memories. The former of these were difficult, focused bits of gameplay in new, often bright, mediterranean environments. The latter were novel reuses of familiar spaces from Assassin’s Creed 2.
Revelations takes place almost entirely in Istanbul. After the introductory missions, Ezio gets access to almost the entire city. Because of the way the game’s larger systems are set up, this meant that I climbed just about every viewpoint and captured every Templar Den all in one stretch. I wanted to open up the map because I hate doing missions when my mini-map is blurred. I wanted access to as many assassin recruits as possible, both since they’re so useful within the game, and because it felt like money was scarce early on, and their missions are a good way of generating income. So, other than Den Defense, which I’ll cover next time (preview: it’s not very good) I ended up doing pretty much all of the out-of-mission, sandbox gameplay in one contiguous stretch during which I made almost no progress on the main story. Something has gotten unbalanced in the game’s incentives if I felt encouraged to play that way.
Istanbul itself was fine, but it lacked character. Other than the Hagia Sophia and Great Market, there’s not a lot there that stands out to me as distinct or new. A lot of the viewpoints felt like they were on top of the same spire, and even the paths to climb them didn’t feel as interesting as in past games. The zip-lines do help in getting around, but I really miss the horses. I recognize that, given the layout of the city, they don’t really fit, but still, nothing beats leaping off of a roof, assassinating a rider, and then galloping off with his horse. I loved riding through even the otherwise-pointless kingdom environment in the very first game, and it kind of broke my heart when I realized there wouldn’t be any riding in Revelations.
The material that should have broken up the pacing of the game were the Altair missions. I was really hoping that Altair would be in the game more fully, that he and Ezio would explore parallel Constantinoples, separated by centuries. Instead, the Altair content is composed of five individual missions spread throughout the game. These missions could have been set anywhere, and they should have been used to give provide interesting, new, different environments to play in. Instead, they’re all short, and, incredibly, they’re all set in Masyaf. Every single one. I was shocked when I realized this. It’s an environment that we’re already familiar with from the first game, and it’s one that Ezio spends the opening and closing of the game in, so being in it is not even new to Revelations. The missions are over quickly, and they’re not very good. One is focused around infinite knife-throwing. Another around the Apple (which, I’ll grant, looked cool). Another on doing basically the same climb at the start of the game. Another on trying to move stealthily across the Masyaf courtyard, an open environment that was never really suitable to this sort of gameplay. Another is just walking and a conversation. It really felt like they put as little effort as possible into them.
I will grant that, late in the game, Ezio finally does get out of Istanbul for a chapter, and it’s pretty great. There’s this very cool looking underground city. It’s confined and claustrophobic. It’s more heavily patrolled by guards than Istanbul. It’s multi-levelled – I’d climb a building and find myself in another street. Assassin’s Guild access is taken away, forcing more reliance on core tools. It’s just a shame that it comes so late in the game.
What about the other missions that form the bulk of the game? The first half was underwhelming. There was a conceptually amusing mission where Ezio dresses up like a musician (funny if one remembers the street minstrels from Assassin’s Creed 2 – Ezio clearly does) and has to move through a party, pointing out target for his assassins. The execution isn’t great, let down in part because of the nerfed eagle vision I was complaining about earlier. It takes too much time to identify the enemy, which then leads to an unpleasant scramble to get in the right position to point him out in time. There are a couple of really fun missions later on based around social stealth, which, again, is a system I like, but tended not to use unless the game forced me, since there were more expedient options in the toolbox (and it seemed like there just weren’t crowds of the necessary size where and when I wanted to use them – people tended to move around in ones and twos, rather than the four necessary to blend).
I mentioned last year when I talked about my expectations for Revelations that I wanted a really good Hagia Sofia mission. It turns out that it’s in there, but I would have missed it if I didn’t look through the achievement list after beating the game. To even be aware that the mission exists requires finding all of a collectible that otherwise appears useless. Why the designers chose to hide away the single best traversal experience in the game is beyond me. It’s this vast, gorgeous, airy, golden space. It’s an absolute delight to be in. And hiding it away was manifestly the wrong decision. A quick look on Giant Bomb shows that only 28% of their players played the level (and this on a site whose users are more committed than average to both playing games and getting achievements). In comparison, over half of their players finished the game.
The game also felt buggier than some of the past ones. I broke the scripting of a mission by buying a building in the middle of it, and had to restart. In two of the Master Assassin missions, targets persisted in being marked on my HUD after the mission had completed. And one mission-start point appeared to be underwater and inaccessible until I did a different story mission.
Otherwise, I don’t have much else to say about the mission content. The assassin faction content is more fleshed out, but that didn’t really add much. The game was pretty much just more Assassin’s Creed. That’s not a bad thing, on its face. I like moving around the city. I like calling down my assassins. The missions that taxed my stealth capabilities were highly engaging. The rest of the missions were pretty much ok. There was one pretty egregiously out-of-character set-up where Ezio needlessly breaks stealth to shoot someone during the mission opening, forcing a chase when just staying quiet and tailing would have produced the same result. It’s just that the whole thing feels loaded down with too many systems, and there’s just not enough there that’s new and different from previous entries in the series. I feel it was a misstep when Ubisoft annualized the Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia franchises in the Xbox era and I can’t help but feel that they’re making the same mistake again here. I respect that the games sell well, but there’s a real risk of burn-out. While I rent most of the console games that I play, I make a point of eventually buying copies of the ones that I put in my year-end lists. The one exception since I started doing them has been Assassin’s Creed 2, and the reason for that is simply that there’s always another Assassin’s Creed game to play, and so I’ve never felt the need to go back and make sure I own the older one.
Anyways, this is one of those entries that, I think, is going to come across a lot more negative than I actually feel. I’m critical in this case because I care. I loved the first Assassin’s Creed despite its rough edges. The second game was extraordinary. And I find it really kind of painful how mundane Revelations feels, how the best parts of the gameplay are getting buried under layers and layers of systems. I want to look forward to an Assassin’s Creed game again, but I don’t see how that’s possible if the franchise keeps heading down this road.