maanantai 6. helmikuuta 2012

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: November 2011
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Montreal
PLAYERS: 1, Online Multiplayer

Assassin's Creed II was a revolutionary stealth-action game that changed the face of the Assassin's Creed franchise for good and introduced us to one of the most charismatic lead characters in history in the young Ezio Auditore. A more mature Ezio went on to star in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, another great game of the same flesh which mainly focused on its new multiplayer mode, city simulation and the opportunity to train a small army of assassins by the ways of a very simple attack and defense simulator. By the end of Brotherhood, Ezio's story was far from over; as was the story of the franchise's original lead character, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad. To finally be able to move on with a new storyline focusing on the franchise's true protagonist, the modern-day assassin Desmond Miles, Ubisoft made Assassin's Creed: Revelations, featuring both Ezio and Altaïr in starring roles, heading for closure. Three years, three major games - that's remarkable in terms of speed, quantity and company efficiency, especially when we're speaking of a franchise this huge. However, there is one thing that is more important than any of them, and that's quality. Assassin's Creed: Revelations does not lack it per se, but it has not come very far from the very basics that made the first game in the Ezio trilogy so good, and the main focus of the game is on the wrong things. As it progresses, Assassin's Creed: Revelations turns out the weakest offering in the series since the very first one, by one disappointingly long shot.

Assassin's Limbo

Desmond Miles is in a coma as the result of his encounter with Juno. To bring him back, the modern-day assassins place him in a special Animus program - the "Black Room", where he is able to develop a virtual consciousness. Inside the Black Room, Desmond finally meets Subject 16, who explains to Desmond that his mind has been broken due to the Bleeding Effect and he needs to mend it by finding closure as both of his ancestors, so that the Animus can separate his ancestors' memories from his own. As it happens, Desmond can find all the solutions he seeks in one place, as in his latest memory the aging Ezio Auditore sets sail to Constantinople, to investigate Altaïr's findings on the true purpose of the assassins.

Smile pretty for the hangman.
Let's start by recapping my personal history with the franchise thus far. Last year, I did a marathon of the first three games and it was actually the first time I played Assassin's Creed, after years of wanting to try it out. I hated the first one. It was already dated back at the time it was released in the endless sea of third-person action, not to mention the sea of sandbox games. It had some good ideas, and a good story, though, and it was the story that left me craving for more. Assassin's Creed II hit the bullseye. It had better and more immersive gameplay, just about every limitation that bugged the so-called sandbox experience of the first game was completely ousted, and it had an even better story - starring one of the greatest protagonists of all time, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who we had the pleasure to get familiar with from his teens to his 30's, within the confines of a single game. There was no bullshit to be found in Assassin's Creed II - which apparently was perceived as a problem by Ubisoft. Next, came Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the second chapter in Ezio's tale, which was a seriously great game, but it was amped with loads of forced ideas. Some of them were good, but some didn't quite work for the game's, not to mention the gamer's, benefit - and even with all its new ideas, the game didn't feel like much of anything besides an "upgraded" version of Assassin's Creed II. Brotherhood also introduced the highly popular multiplayer mode. Some fans and critics felt that was the main focus of the game instead of the story, which had been the heart of the franchise, even according to developers themselves - which makes Assassin's Creed: Revelations an even stranger experience. Although the story's promising enough, the developers didn't seem to know where to go with it - or care, since apparently the multiplayer mode is excellent, a huge improvement over Brotherhood's. Where do we single players stand, we to whom the franchise was supposedly created for? If this is the climax we've been waiting to happen for the last couple of years, I must say I am sorely disappointed, and will head to the upcoming Assassin's Creed III with reservations I never thought I'd have about this franchise again.

The in-depth part of the story just doesn't work anymore. The previous game was already full of far fetched riddles I believe even Ubisoft never came up with solutions for - confusion is weird, weird is confusing, confusion is exciting and weird is good. Or something like that. The threads here do not answer any questions, and the story just tramples on its spot instead of moving the least bit forward, leaving us the same confusing riddles to reflect on some more, if we're the least bit interested anymore.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations kind of returns to the roots of the series by being less of a dramatic, progressive and cinematic story, and more of a bunch of simple and simply scripted assignments aiming towards the same outcome, and given to you by mostly just one dude. This style, reminiscent of the original Assassin's Creed - which comes bundled with the special edition, by the way - does not really fit Ezio, who used to run around the city, helping out random people for random reasons, and delivering an amazing one-liner every five minutes. He's way too serious and on the mark in this game, I'm not sure whether to like him just 'cause he's Ezio and he does have a few of his old traits left, or just disregard the character as a mere shell of the man we used to know. Ah, damn, let's just face it - I still get goosebumps every time Ezio says "Requiescat in pace", and he shows a little bit more of his old ladykilling self in each of his encounters with Sofia, the game's extremely solid female lead. We even get a minor cameo appearance by a character from Ezio's past that is sure to do the most eager fans of Assassin's Creed II some service, and prove that inside that hard shell of his, "The Mentor" is still Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Still, the conclusion to his epic story that has spanned three major games will surely leave a lot of fans cold. It lacks a true climax, unlike the story of another assassin from the past.

I'm placing my bet on some blood and guts.
The most interesting character in the game - if you're not seriously into how the main plot involving Desmond twists up, down and around this time - is Altaïr. It's been a while since we've seen, moreover strapped on the boots of the original article in a major Assassin's Creed game, and considering that after Assassin's Creed II's release he's been completely cast aside from the spotlight, playing through the first game just to jog your memory a little doesn't seem like such a bad idea after all. On his adventure, Ezio finds disc-shaped keys left behind by Altaïr - these "keys" are supposed to lead him to the truth. In fact, the keys are some sort of early Animus technology, which allow Ezio to relive Altaïr's memories, within Desmond's memories of Ezio, which Desmond relives while hooked on to the modern Animus. Gone cross-eyed already? Well, anyone who's ever played the games knows what I'm talking about. Anyway, the first memory is an event some time before the events of the first game which kind of re-introduces the character as a way more fleshed out version of the old one, the second memory shows us what took place immediately after the ending of the game, and the rest finally reveal (ooh, Revelations!) what Altaïr's life was like after securing the Apple of Eden. You seriously don't have to confuse yourself by playing in tandem as both Ezio and Altaïr as I originally feared; the few segments with Altaïr are single missions, and each one takes about ten minutes to complete. They're well written and I enjoyed them more than most of Ezio's missions (!) which may turn out quite repetitive, although I must say the last thing the story needed was the revelation (ooh, Revelations!) of the actual Animus technology suddenly being nearly a thousand years old. Doesn't matter, though - like I said, the story has become really whacked, to the point it turns uninteresting. Ubisoft really needs to put some work into Assassin's Creed III if they want to get the wheels rolling again.

General graphics are OK, but not much of awe-inspiring improvement over the graphics in the previous year's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. On this side, we have absolutely gnarly death animations. Ezio might be a gentleman, but there's absolutely nothing gentle about his profession or the way he professes it; we're talking both hidden blades through the opponent's chin, an axe to the head, a dagger in the eye, spear through the gut... this game is extremely violent and the combat mechanics have certainly improved. A little. On the opposite side, we have new facial construction for all three main characters. That would be only natural, if they looked even a bit like the old ones! Ezio looks completely different from what he looked like in the previous games, and both Desmond and Altaïr's faces have been slightly changed to somewhat look more like this Ezio. So the connection to the earlier games fades even further.

Those tutorials tend to show up in every single
turn. Except in the turns in which they would
be of some use.
Even the voiceover work is disappointing - it sounds like even the best, like Nolan North, who was recording Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the pinnacle of voiceover work in video games, at the time, is here just to collect a paycheck. Roger Craig Smith's third and final performance as Ezio Auditore sounds forced and tired. Subject 16 (formerly voiced by Cam Clarke) and Altaïr (formerly voiced by Philip Shahbaz) have both got new actors to do their parts: Graham Cuthbertson and Cas Anvar, respectively. I seriously don't understand why Clarke didn't return for the clearly even more insane 16, since he pulled off the insanity angle perfectly in the previous games' puzzle monologues. This new guy doesn't sound anything like the 16 I've grown to know and somewhat idolize. I don't know why Shahbaz wasn't rehired, but I'm glad they replaced him with another actor with a similar ethnic background. Anvar kind of overplays the accent, though - Shahbaz had very little, if any accent. The middle's lost. The new characters Yusuf and Sofia are two of the easiest people to listen to in this game... and Sofia's cleavage is easy on the eyes, too.

Jesper Kyd's score is quite much the same it's been for the last few years, only a few clearly more dramatic tracks are added into the mix by Lorne Balfe, who mostly works on similar "extra scores" for movies. The score's at its best at the game's most cinematic moments; the background music will eventually bore the hell out of you. I think that having two or three constant background themes in a 100% on-foot sandbox game (oh, all right, 95%) is not a good idea.

So, yeah, even while the game has had some stylistic modifications which are there to somewhat remind us of the first game, Assassin's Creed: Revelations is still very much a sandbox game... for the most part. You see, all forms of exploring take place within one single city - and I can tell you, Constantinople or Istanbul or whatever the hell you call it ain't no Rome. While other games aim at a more and more epic setting, Assassin's Creed takes a step back - I do acknowledge that it's hard to outdo a 16th century Rome, but something near-equal such as Athens would've been bitchin'. Ezio visits some other locations in the beginning, middle and end of the game, but these little trips on the side are almost wholly mission-driven, and scripted, which in this case means that you cannot return to them. If you're after the collectables and miss the ones in Anatolia, that's just too bad. You'll have to start over a game which really isn't one of the most replayable ones around.

This game is coated with all sorts of side missions or additional ways to pass time from both sides of being fun. Buying properties doesn't mean anything anymore. You're not renovating anything, you're just buying up stuff for no purpose at all. All you get is lousy extra income and the Templars on your ass for buying a landmark for tens of thousands of valuable coin. The rep system indeed works a little differently. Every witnessed criminal action and general misbehaviour, such as entering restricted areas, running on rooftops, and indeed, buying up property results in the Templars becoming more and more "aware" of your presence in the city, and they will keep harrassing you at every turn - if their awareness is at zero, they don't even look at you if you pass them on the street, even in high profile, as long as you're not doing anything illegal or something to screw them out of their dominance. Although it's kind of realistic to have a warrant on your head for each monument, bank, store and pharmacy you buy, it goes without saying that before long, having to clear your name after each transaction by finding a herald to bribe or a Templar info agent to kill will seriously start pissing you off.

The hookblade - it's such a small thing, but it
makes your life so much easier.
Having to deal with an army of thugs after reaching total awareness is just the beginning. If you continue breaking the law after the meter turns red - which is kind of hard to avoid doing with all those annoying assholes just begging for your blade to stab them in the face - you might end up having to defend your standing in the city in a game of tower defense contextually called Den Defense. How surprising, huh? This was seen coming from miles away. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I do not like real-time strategy, and I like it even less when great games have these sequences pushed into them by force. Den Defense ain't so bad, though; it has ridiculous tempo unfitting for a strategy game, but it's very easy to assign the troops you want. The limit to the "currency", which in this case is your assassins' morale, is very forgiving and replenishes very quick. If it looks like the enemy's attacking with full force you can't possibly handle by normal means, you can also unleash devastating cannon fire on them to keep the enemy at bay until you have enough morale to hire new units. After training seven of your apprentices to the rank of Master Assassin and assigning them as Den Leaders, you no longer have to worry about this minigame, as the leaders are perfectly fit to control their own troops. So, you might not even have to take part in more than the single game of Den Defense which is part of the story - if you're ready to take on the guise of the almighty mentor in a much heavier training program that was a big part of Brotherhood.

Training assassins is one part of the Assassin's Creed: Revelations single-player experience that was truly focused on, and which can be quite fun for quite some time - it also takes quite some time to truly finish up with the job, and once you've done it, you'll be glad it's over with. Trust me. OK, so you run around rescuing citizens and recruiting them to your cause, that much is intact from the old. But, this time, some of these citizens will give you unique missions to carry out before they're prepared to put their different skills in use under your guidance (these "different skills" don't mean squat once they're actually part of the team, though - also, their appearance strangely changes by means of the face generator). In the vein of burning down the Borgia towers in Brotherhood, you need to claim the seven Templar Dens in the city for your own by killing the Templar in charge of the area, climbing the den and lighting a fire on top of it to scare the rest of the men of the cloth out. At this point, a Templar Den becomes an Assassin Den where you can manage all sorts of stuff related to your own faction, and at this point, the Assassin Den is vulnerable to counterattacks which lead to games of Den Defense. These counterattacks are once again impossible if you have a Den Leader. An assassin can become Den Leader at Level 10, but his den is only immune once he/she reaches Level 15 - Master Assassin. Once you assign a Level 10 assassin as a Den Leader, his/her unique training mission is unlocked. These seven two-part missions are the most important parts of Master Assassin training; the second parts are unlocked at the end of Level 14. Although the character generator for the assassins is very generic, these missions add a lot to teacher-student bonding that was totally missing from Brotherhood. Of course, Mediterranean Defense, in other words sending your assassins to the capitals of the world to take care of business for EXP and other benefits is still a very crucial factor in your assassins' training program, as is simply calling them for help any time. This time, they don't make things quite as easy as they did in Brotherhood; Revelations is just an extremely easy game in itself. So easy it's downright boring. The only thing difficult about it is unfortunately nothing new to this franchise.

"Fratello mio. Before I lay this city in your
hands, I must ask you a question that defines
you as a person: weed?"
That's the difficulty of dealing with the controls. In the first game, the controls drove many a player nuts. The second game was much more dynamic, but it was made in 2009, and Revelations shows no general progress over it except for the combat. We've had some minor flaws in both II and Brotherhood to bitch about, and then they slap us with a game that is not only totally untouched when it comes to the controls, sometimes I'm reminded of the first game a lot more than I bargained for. Ezio certainly likes to jump out into the nothing even from the highest towers into his certain death, even though what you're doing is trying to get him to climb up, 'cause that's the natural thing to do, and there's an opening you can grab, right there in plain sight, highlighted from here to hell. Remember the age-old "wall kick of death"? That's possible too, and at times, very likely - way more likely than it ever was in the last two games. Besides the other glitches in this game (which are not amusing at all), the controls might even downright freeze from time to time, especially the shoulder buttons have a tendency of not responding. Playing as Altaïr from time to time doesn't make it any more difficult to believe that THIS is the real Assassin's Creed II, the game that was supposed to be released two years ago. I can honestly say that even while the game that ended up being baptized Assassin's Creed II lacked a lot of extra features that have come along later, that game is still amazing, better and much more fun to play than Revelations.

Swords. Knives. Poison. Even guns. Who can guess what comes next? What could possibly be added into the mix somewhat realistically in a game mostly based on 16th century events? That's right, bombs. You can't just pick bombs up, you have to buy them or craft them yourself using ingredients you can loot from ever-spawning chests around Constantinople and inside your Dens. Another idea that might be kinda cool, but is absolutely needless - there's absolutely no need for the bombs during gameplay. Zero, if you count out the bomb tutorial missions which are completely optional. Trophies and Achievements are of course afloat, but you don't need one single bomb to beat the game. Which is good, 'cause Ezio is simply not the bombing type.

Before taking a dive into this game's lowest depths, and in fact, some of the lowest depths any basically good modern game has sunk into in a long time, I'd like to throw in a little praise for a change. In a very early point of the storyline, Ezio's age-old hidden blade is replaced with the Constantinople assassin's weapon of choice, the hookblade, which is similar to Ezio's signature weapon, but has a hook on its end - duh. With the hookblade, you can jump and reach higher, make long jumps from a rooftop on one side of the street to another of equal height, and use ziplines for even faster travel between rooftops. What the hookblade means to the avid Assassin's Creed player is that navigation of the city is much faster and comfier than it has been thus far - though it would be even comfier if the controls were better.

The multiplayer even looks like it's been
worked on.
Then, to the real deal when it comes to the factor of stink. You know, many modern games have bad ideas applied to them. Some of those ideas turn out good, or at least you can easily get used to them. Assassin's Creed: Revelations has the exception which confirms the rule. There are 100 Animus Data Fragments hidden along Ezio's way. Collecting a certain amount of them results in a bonus, and collecting the first batch of a few tens unlocks a series of bonus memories, in which you are given the opportunity to fix Desmond's mind by engaging in five puzzle challenges on the virtual island of data he's stranded on. These very strange quests surrealistically recap Desmond's life from his childhood up until his abduction in the beginning of Assassin's Creed. This sounded awesome on paper, but I can tell you, there's absolutely nothing good about these puzzles - apart from the fact that they're completely optional. Oh, and those puzzles which did their own part in defining the greatness of the last two games? None to be had. These are all you get, and it's hard to like 'em. Console players need to remind themselves of the joy of a Trophy or an Achievement for each finished puzzle, constantly.

In fact, they're not puzzles. You know the solution, but you're gonna rupture a vein or two trying to get to it because the controls are so enfuriating and the sequences themselves are so damn boring! They're annoying bits of Ubisoft presenting how bad their judgment can be even in the case of a franchise that you'd think could afford a little experiment. You control Desmond - or some sort of data collective with his train of thought - in first person, in a labyrinth of raw data. Think of a more surreal and confusing version of Tron. Anyhoo, you need to form these platforms (that look like long Tetris cubes) and ramps to get forward in each situation. Things to watch out for turn up in the second memory, the first one's kind of like a tutorial; orange "read-only" fields that prevent you from forming blocks, and particle storms that move or elevate your blocks to each direction. Checkpoints turn up often enough, until you get to the more challenging (and long) bits, where you will be driven mad by sudden deaths and how much overtly sensitive controls have to do with them. Surely there are people who will find these sequences awesome, but I don't belong with those people... and I couldn't imagine anyone I know liking these. I was thinking of ditching them altogether after finishing the second one - since I knew it was only going to get worse - but I battled it out with the strength of a few beers, just to nail the Trophies. Even if I end up replaying the game, I'll never do these bits again.

This is what Desmond's Journey looks like.
In addition to the Animus Data Fragments which are the only main collectables in the game, there are also rare books to find and buy - finding the hidden ones is once again through a far fetched and pointlessly stretched "minigame" - as well as faction challenges issued by the assassins, Romanies (gypsies, in common language), mercenaries and thieves, beating which unlocks some non-essential yet cool special perks and weapons. I'm sure there are a lot of fans out there who are willing to make the effort of beating this game to 100%. I don't have the energy to do that - I'd be much more willing to go back to the previous games to take care of a few loose ends. Assassin's Creed: Revelations was a one-time experience for me, and it's very likely going to remain just that 'til the end of my gaming days.

These days, one simply can't milk a dead cow in the world of story-driven action and get away with it. Sure, Assassin's Creed II was a damn masterpiece, but we warned you, Ubisoft - we warned you of the consequences of hanging on to the reputation of a single game! The things wrong with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood were easy to forgive. It might've been little more than an upgrade to the working formula of the previous game, but it was still a full-blooded, passionate, ambitious game. Assassin's Creed: Revelations very simply lacks that same blood, passion and ambition. It's just another annual attempt to raise money on the wings of a masterpiece. We players deserve more - Assassin's Creed deserves more. And Ezio damn straight deserved a better exit. 

+ The multiplayer mode (apparently)
+ Improved combat
+ The hookblade and the comfort it provides the player with
+ Training assassins is more interesting and personalized
+ You could deep-fry Ezio in butter and he would still be Ezio... somewhat
+ The Altaïr sequences
+ The Assassin's Creed II formula 

- The Assassin's Creed II formula
- Not much new questions when it comes to the main story, even less answers; with each passing game, interest in it seems to decrease
- Cinematics are disappointing, down to the voiceovers
- Repetitive missions (tail, tail, tail!!!)
- General controls lack just as much as they did two years back... if not even more
- Besides Trophies, everything extra is just that, extra, and not much more; "owning" the city holds close to meaning at all
- Desmond's Journey sucks ass, AND it is the game's one and only puzzle-oriented part
- Crafting bombs is mostly a waste of time and good storage space
- That damn annoying "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" song will probably play in your head a few times while you're playing the game

< 7.0 >

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