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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Assassin's Creed: Revelations Review

The Good

New movement options keep the platforming joyful
Brotherhood recruitment has been nicely fleshed out
Gorgeous, vibrant world with a lot to do
Fantastic soundtrack
Emotionally fulfilling ending.

The Bad

Tower defense isn't fun
Desmond sections aren't fun
Disappointing main story.

Even the greatest heroes can't live forever. And so it goes for Ezio Auditore di Firenze, who finally steps aside to make room for new champions in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. This is another quality entry in a quality series, and it unleashes you in a visually stunning re-creation of 16th-century Constantinople. Additions to the movement mechanics make exploring the city a joyous exercise in high-flying parkour, with you as Ezio leaping across rooftops and flinging yourself up exterior walls like a Renaissance superhero. Like many sequels, Revelations giveth, and Revelations taketh away, so you lose certain elements (horses) in favor of a slew of new ones (bomb crafting). Lots and lots of new ones. Assassin's Creed: Revelations is sometimes a lumpy Frankenstein's monster of a game, half-formed appendages stitched into place regardless of whether they belong there or not. Thankfully, when Revelations remembers to be an Assassin's Creed game, it soars into the Turkish skies, reminding fans why they fell in love with this freewheeling series.
 Expectedly, Revelations isn't all Ezio's story. It's also Desmond's. You remember Desmond, the bartender-cum-assassin whose mind is probed to discover truths that could potentially prevent the earth's destruction. Desmond looks different than you might remember: faces have been redesigned, features elongated, making your old comrades-in-conspiracy feel a bit unfamiliar, as if they have had plastic surgery since you saw them last. In any case, Desmond's mind is a prisoner within the Animus, the machine that allows his associates to tap into his ancestral memories. This computerized sanctuary is presented as an island, where shimmering doors leading to who-knows-where punctuate a virtual seaside. Here, Desmond and the enigmatic Subject Sixteen explore the bartender's memories and regrets in long conversations that illuminate Desmond's former life.

In Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Desmond was becoming a full-fledged assassin, and you guided him through dank caves and across rooftops as a sort of Ezio-lite. The character arc matched the gameplay arc: Desmond was gaining confidence, and this was reflected in his ever-improving abilities. Revelations tries a more thoughtful approach but falls short. Subject 16 starts as a mystery and remains one, making for an unsatisfactory replacement for the team with which Desmond has typically interacted. Meanwhile, Desmond passes through those shining portals and into his own memories. These memory levels are made of gray columns and tiled floors that glisten and undulate like digital rivers. You move through them in first-person view while Desmond talks himself through the pain of his past. This synthetic cyberspace makes for an effective backdrop, but the accompanying gameplay is anything but fun. You create blocks and ramps out of thin air to pass through these levels, but moving across them feels flat, and jumping is inexact. The flatness turns to frustration as you encounter gusts that move the blocks you create, and deal with energy fields that cause them to dissipate. These levels are one of Revelations' many attempts to force elements into a game that doesn't benefit from them.

 The good news is that you spend the bulk of your time as Ezio, though he isn't the only historical presence taking center stage. Altair from the original game returns as a playable character, and Revelations makes good use of the parallels between the heroes' lives, and scenes near the conclusion resonate with great emotion. Yes, there is a "holy cow!" moment near the end, as expected for an Assassin's Creed game, and the final shot will have fans--once again--wondering what comes next. But it's the calm before the storm that ties two lives together and thus impresses most; there's a moment when you realize you will miss these assassins of centuries past. As for Ezio's story, well, the man is older and tired, and the story reflects this weariness. It introduces new characters, the best of whom is Sofia, an Italian bookseller who welcomes Ezio's formidable charms. But the main plot, involving political unrest among the sultan and his family members, is merely serviceable, lacking the personal touch that made Assassin's Creed II's narrative so enthralling.

Nevertheless, Revelations is as absorbing as its predecessors, because it's so much fun to move through Constantinople and other key areas. This is due in part to the world's sheer beauty. Deep golds and reds make a stroll through the grand bazaar a feast for the eyes, and famous landmarks like Hagia Sophia cut striking silhouettes against the night sky. Row a boat across a strait, and you marvel at the authentic wake that ripples behind. On the PC, the smallest details are as impressive as the grand, sweeping vistas. The scars criss-crossing Ezio's weathered face; the finely crafted designs threaded across Yusuf's gauntlets; and the deep-green ivy climbing the worn face of a domed mosque: these elements are uniformly impressive. At high resolutions, certain technical imperfections stand out more than they did on consoles, such as some object clipping and animation glitches. (Some asynchronous sound effects can also prove distracting.) But overall, Assassin's Creed: Revelations' presentation is dazzling.
 Eagle vision proves useful when tracking targets.

The other reason exploration is so joyous is that the simple act of moving from place to place is so satisfying. Animations remain generally great. Ezio doesn't grab some unseen outcropping as he scales towers: he reaches for actual ledges and outcroppings, which makes his impossible acrobatics feel authentic. Climbing a tower reaching into the heavens, admiring the view, and then making a leap of faith into a hay bale hundreds of feet below is a delight, as it always has been. But Revelations expands the parkour aspect of the game by giving you use of a handheld hook. With this hook, Ezio can scale upward more quickly and glide down ziplines--and even assassinate rooftop guards as he skims past.
The hook also allows you to reach out and grab walls as you fall--walls that would be out of reach in previous Assassin's Creed games. You can also buy parachutes and activate them in midair, which feels free and easy, like wafting downward on a cool breeze. Revelations makes it more fun than ever to stay on the move. In fact, some of its best moments focus on fluid parkour, such as an atmospheric trek through a dank cave and an exhilarating escape from a flaming boat. The best set pieces are those that focus on movement. How unfortunate that other such events are less successful--and that the game leans on the lesser ones so early on. Avoiding rocks as you are dragged behind a careening carriage isn't fun, nor is bashing other carriages as you drive one. Another carriage-focused mission is more entertaining and has you activating a parachute and flying behind the vehicle as a sort of Renaissance-era parasailer. It's nice to have the variety in between long stretches of fighting guards and wandering among crowds, but earlier games simply did such diversions better. 

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