While I complained a lot about the core gameplay last time, playing around in Constantinople in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was still generally a pleasant experience. Narratively, though, it was even more of a let-down. It decided to tell three stories, rather than the usual two in an Assassin’s Creed game, but it didn’t really tell any of them very well, and, worse, it didn’t seem like these were stories worth telling in the first place.
But before getting into too much detail on the story, let’s talk briefly about the two peripheral gameplay activities: Den Defense and Desmond’s First Person Puzzle-Platformer. (I don’t include assassin training since that’s just unsatisfying, rote menu manipulation.)
I like tower defense games, but Den Defense is not a good tower defense game. The basic issue is that, because of the camera angle and the lack of visual distinction between the units, it’s hard to get a read on what’s going on. The Plants vs Zombies style resource pick-up and “dramatic angle” camera cut-aways only serve to further distract from the action. I do, however, applaud the attempt to make the notoriety system relevant (and, likewise, approve of the removal of posters, so that it’s harder to lose notoriety).
I found the inclusion of the Desmond puzzle sections pretty baffling. It’s like someone at Ubisoft had an independent mandate to produce a Portal-style first-person puzzle game, and then it wasn’t substantial enough to make it to retail, so it ended up here in Revelations. The idea of laying down a path seems interesting enough to build around, but there’s a core problem that just wasn’t well-addressed. The most frustrating thing that would happen in Portal was to get hit from the side by an energy ball. You know it’s there, and it’s coming, but you don’t have the necessary peripheral vision and spacial awareness to avoid it. (This, and their travel time were, I suspect, the two main reasons they were absent in Portal 2.) Playing the Desmond portions of Revelations is like that all the time. At every obstacle, either the platforms are moving, or the kill-volumes are moving, and you just don’t have a good feel for how close you are to being killed. Also, shading volumes of space to indicate they have different properties really doesn’t work. It was consistently difficult to tell where the white air-currents ended and the orange lock-out zone began. This is the sort of thing that works fine in two dimension, but not three, and especially not from a first person perspective. That said, these sections of the game weren’t hard, just somewhat frustrating and tedious.
Most of the time in the game is spent with Ezio, so let’s begin our story discussion with him. Given that this is Ezio’s final outing, and the mechanics of the Animus, it was pretty much mandatory that Ezio’s story contain a romance, and Revelations more or less delivers on that front. I would have preferred something more tragic, and there’s certainly nothing all that deep to it, but simple and straightforward is fine in this context. There’s the clichéd damsel in distress thing, but that was pretty much inevitable given that this is a video game starring an action hero. Sofia herself is unobjectionable. I don’t think it was necessary for her to be Italian, but that’s an understandable decision, and to be a good match with Ezio it was important that she be a traveller, and learned, and a little older than is typical for a video game love-interest.
The rest of Ezio’s time is spent getting involved in Ottoman politics and tracking down Altair’s memories. I had trouble keeping track of who was who in the Ottoman court and there weren’t clear villains, only a faceless Templar/Byzantine conspiracy, for most of the game, so this part of the story fell flat. I really enjoyed the way each chapter of the first Assassin’s Creed focused on profiling one particular target, culminating in an assassination – it’s something that was subtly carried over into 2 and, to some extent, Brotherhood – but, except in the last third of the game, this staple narrative technique is absent from Revelations. As for the hunt for Altair’s memories, my one disappointment was that it was revealed, in the end, to be a hunt for the Apple. Again. For the fourth game in a row. And it was confusing. I thought Ezio’s Apple and Altair’s were one and the same, but apparently that’s not the case. And what ever happened to Ezio’s Apple?
Let’s talk about the Altair memories. I mentioned last time how disappointed I was from a gameplay perspective that they all take place in Masyaf. It doesn’t make a lot of sense narratively either. It seems particularly odd that the memories are all of Masyaf when Ezio emphasizes towards the end of the game that Altair’s great accomplishment was decentralizing the Assassin Order, and removing Masyaf’s role.
Why does Altair choose to pass on these particular memories? It seems clear that the memories are intended for us as players, rather than for Ezio. They fill out corners of Altair’s life that weren’t covered by earlier games and conspicuously don’t overlap with content from those games. There’s something of an arc to them, tracing Altair’s rivalry through the years with another Assassin, but there doesn’t appear to be a compelling reason for Altair to want to pass this story down through the ages. The waters are further muddied by the ending which indicates that Altair ultimately left the memories as a trail to the Apple. If the point is to tell the story of the Apple then it makes little sense to include the first memory shown, while at the same time some of the Assassin’s Creed 1 content should have been included. (Also, it’s awfully convenient that Ezio finds the memories in chronological order. Given that it’s alien technology, there are ways to explain this, but they’re fairly convoluted.)
All that said, Ezio and Altair’s concluding walks down the corridor to the chair are very well executed. It’s a solid send-off for Altair, and as good a one as could be expected for Ezio given the constraints of the Animus. At first, walking down the corridor as Ezio, you don’t quite know why the game is making you stop and light the torches, but then you switch over to Altair and it’s immediately apparent what’s going on. I found it quite touching.
Now we come to Desmond. Going in to the game, as far as I was concerned, Desmond’s story had a single storytelling requirement: to justify and explain what happened at the end of Brotherhood. And so I was in for a disappointment. Other than mentioning that they happened, the game didn’t address the events of Brotherhood at all. Instead, nothing of consequence happened. Nothing at all. For a game with “Revelations” as its sub-title, that’s a problem. We get some backstory for Desmond that feels thoroughly disconnected from everything else, not least of which the gameplay in those section. We get a plane-ride happening outside the Animus. We get Desmond apparently repairing his shattered psyche, but he doesn’t seem broken to begin with. It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s in bad shape at the start of the game, and there’s no feeling of him getting better as the game progresses.
The Desmond framing device doesn’t even do an adequate job of justifying the Ezio content this time around, which is the minimal bar it should have to clear. There’s no attempt to explain why it’s these particular memories of Ezio’s that Desmond latches on to. In the opening of the game, Subject 16 tasks Desmond with collecting data fragments, and completing the first person puzzle levels. Note that neither of these goals has anything to do with what Ezio is trying to accomplish in Constantinople. And what’s the reward for completing the puzzle levels, which, from Desmond’s perspective, is the whole point of the game? An achievement and the ability to use a Desmond skin in the Ezio portions of the game. No narrative recognition whatsoever.
So, on the whole, it was a pretty big disappointment. I can’t shake the feeling that the story told in the game is fundamentally inessential, and that it’s there just because the developers needed a story to pair with the gameplay, not because it’s a story that needed to be told in its own right. There’s a lot of treading water, and not a lot of forward momentum. Again, especially odd in a game with “Revelations” in the title. I’m fairly invested in the fiction, and I could not, if you asked, tell you what the important revelations in the story were. Assassin’s Creed 3 has just been announced, and I really hope, especially given the number in the title, that there’s some more cohesiveness and momentum to its narrative.