Considering its subtitle, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is disappointingly light in this regard. While Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood managed to shatter our pre-conceptions last year, Revelations is the third series title in as many years, and it's starting to show. The mechanics that once felt new and interesting are lessened by virtue of their repetition, and the new ideas Ubisoft has introduced to keep things feeling fresh don't quite hit the mark.
As a metaphor for Revelations itself, protagonist Ezio Auditore is now an old man — his rugged, handsome features hidden behind a stringy grey goatee that droops messily beneath his lips. Revelations sees the popular protagonist travel to Constantinople, the so-called "crossroads of the world". It's here that Auditore goes in search of a set of mystical keys hidden in the multicultural city by Assassin predecessor Altair — the protagonist of the original Assassin’s Creed.
But Revelations goes much deeper than it first appears, prompting one of the most complicated plots in the series so far. While hunting for the keys Ezio uncovers a Templar conspiracy, and is also tasked with overthrowing the sinister scheme. The plot is packed with more superficial twists than a soap-opera, and gets a little bogged down in its own ambition. Factor in a love-interest, a tear-jerking bromance and a multitude of warring factions and you have a narrative that demands a huge amount of attention, without ever offering enough pay-off to make it all worthwhile.
The plot gets even more complex when you consider that the keys include memories from the aforementioned Altair, filling in flash-backs from the previous protagonist's life. These short distractions provide serviceable enough diversions from the main plot, but are desperately linear — mostly prompting you to follow an NPC character while reams of dialogue are tossed at you in conversation. Fans of the original game — and the series as a whole — may find merit in these sequences. It's genuinely appealing knowing what became of Altair in his later years but, ultimately, it all feels a bit inconsequential.
The same is true of the sequences sporting modern day character Desmond. Aside from a short cut-scene at the end of the game that gets you ready for Assassin's Creed III — Desmond's inclusion is almost meaningless. Trapped in the limbo of Animus Island — a kind of surreal, abstract landscape — the character is joined by the creepy imprint of his failed predecessor, Subject 16. While the game lays on its sci-fi nonsense as thickly as it can, nothing really sticks. Desmond's plot ends largely in the same situation as it started.
The only real attraction of Desmond’s story is a selection of memory sequences, which can be accessed by collecting Fragments within Ezio's story. These first-person encounters see you solving simple block and platform puzzles while Desmond recites monologues about his past and upbringing. It all helps to add context and back-story to the character, but is largely worthless if you’ve had enough of collecting minuscule items in enormous open-world games.
Despite the many side-distractions, you'll spend the majority of your time wandering through the culturally rich streets of Constantinople. The world is as detailed and thorough as ever, with dozens of NPCs mindlessly going about their business in a convincing manner. The scale of the city is enormous, with a multitude of staggeringly tall look-out points to climb.
Climbing these towers has been made more efficient by the introduction of a new hook-blade. Being the fourth game in the series, most players will already have an idea of how the climbing mechanics in Assassin's Creed work, so the inclusion of an item that significantly increases the speed of such a core mechanic is a smart addition.
The hook-blade has other uses too. It can be used in combat to quickly flip over assailants or trip run-away targets, while also serving as a handy attachment to the long ropes that occupy Constatinople's skyline, acting as a kind of make-shift zip-line.
Outside of that though, Assassin's Creed: Revelation is very much the same game as Brotherhood. Towers need to be captured in order to relieve enemy presence, Assassins can be recruited and sent on missions via pigeon coops, and shops can be renovated in order to both increase your income from the city and reward you with a tidy discount. The management aspects remain some of the most satisfying, but on their second outing they feel watered down and familiar. It's not that Ubisoft's necessarily lost anything in translation since Brotherhood, it's just that it doesn't feel as original this time around. Therefore some of the magic — and incentive — is lost.
It doesn't help that the new features added to Revelations don't feel particularly worthwhile. Much was made of the game's tower-defence mini-game pre-release, but the reality is not quite as exciting as it first appeared. Designed as a means to protect your captured Dens from incoming attacks, these diversions break the pace of the campaign. It doesn't help that they are so haplessly implemented, with your ‘Templar awareness’ leading to an eventual attack unless you remember to casually bribe any prophets you encounter.
This addition feels average and uninventive: there are dozens of similar games already available on the PlayStation Network, and the majority of them outclass what is available here. A pretty Assassin's Creed aesthetic doesn't make it any better, and it feels like an excuse to add mechanics where they're not welcome.
The same is true of bomb crafting, another bizarre fixation of Revelations' campaign. You'll collect various items by looting carcasses and completing missions, which can then be combined to create new explosives. Admittedly toying around with stink bombs and the like in the extremely dense open-world can be exciting, but the novelty quickly wears off.
Despite its problems, Revelations still manages to contain the occasional moment of brilliance. It's at its very best when it plays like a platformer, and hunting for the Masyaf Keys provides plenty of opportunities for Ezio to escape from Constantinople in order to engage in what he does best. One brilliant sequence sees you jumping through the upper-tiers of a ravine, while a Templar boat tracks you from below, firing off rifle pot-shots as you jump from ledge-to-ledge. Another sequence sees you locked in a square room, pulling levers and hopping between moving rock structures with satisfying grace. There are also spectacular moments, including one where a shoot-out on Constantinople's ship-yard involves dashing across a selection of exploding ships. It's memorable stuff and is enhanced by Ubisoft's versatile graphics engine, which allows for both impressive scale and some brilliant set-pieces.
Constantinople is a well realised setting, and while it doesn't necessarily stand apart from previous Assassin's Creed locations, it achieves a lot by virtue of its multicultural districts. The placement of the city means that Ubisoft is able to explore the more Asian setting of the original Assassin's Creed, as well as the European architecture from Ezio's adventures, and it makes for an interesting contrast that gives the city a vibrancy and originality.
The graphics engine also feels more stable than previous releases, with scenes of greater scale less susceptible to drops in performance. Tearing is still an issue in areas of high activity, but it's not enough to detract away from the sheer technical ambition on display. Assassin's Creed rarely gets the plaudits it deserves, but it’s undeniably one of the strongest visual spectacles available on PlayStation 3. It's enhanced all the more by its originality — Ubisoft Montreal is still the only developer rendering these kind of historical landscapes, in an industry dominated by the appeal of modern military warfare and science fiction.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations sounds glorious too, with a moving orchestral score that is as diverse as its setting's cultural variation. The voice acting for the most part is convincing, but sadly it's let down by some stiff facial animation and ugly character models.
As the successor to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Revelations' ten hour campaign is complimented by a refined version of its predecessor's multiplayer component. The feature is as intriguing as ever, offering a distinctly different competitive experience, with more subtlety than the wealth of shooters available on the console.
Those that invested in Brotherhood will feel right at home with this multiplayer, but Revelations does a great job of gradually introducing players to the unique mechanics within. At the core you'll find an experience that is as much about being subtle as it is offensive. Blending in with crowds and mimicking AI behaviour is the key to success, as you attempt to trick opponents into attacking the wrong contracts.
A new Deathmatch mode, meanwhile, removes the compass at the bottom of the screen, making tracking targets a delightfully tense and understated affair. It's a million miles away from the bombast of Call Of Duty, but it deserves an audience. While the multiplayer component in Revelations is largely similar to the one in Brotherhood, unlike the rest of the game it retains its appeal and is arguably the strongest portion of the package.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations is far from a bad game, but it just doesn't do enough. While Brotherhood managed to shrug aside the concerns of its parent franchise's annual schedule, the developments in Revelations — in both plot and gameplay — feel like a quarter-step. What's at the core is still undeniably brilliant — and the originality of the multiplayer overlooks any repetition concerns there — but it doesn't feel quite as engaging as it did 12 months ago. Renovating an historical city while training an elite group of Assassins is still a satisfying endeavour — but Ezio's last hurrah feels more like a stop-gap than the next chapter in an otherwise fascinating series.