Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is the fourth installment in a popular series of third person sandbox-style games where players take control of an Assassin fighting an old enemy over ancient mysteries. Being a fan of the series from the very beginning, I was very excited to dive head-first into the experience. Join me as I take a critical eye to the game and explore what worked and what could have used a little more tweaking. There are spoilers within. I tried to keep them to a minimum, but you have been warned.
As the game begins, the player is given a short synopsis of the past three games via flashback sequences and voice-over work. The brief history lesson would not help a player picking up Assassin’s Creed for the first time to know what is going on, but it does serve as a nice refresher for series veterans. At the end of the previous game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the protagonist Desmond attacked Lucy, a member of the present-day group of Assassins, while under the influence of a powerful ancient artifact. It was an unexpected turn of events as the two had been building a clearly romantic relationship throughout the game. Literally being the last thing the player did, it was a cliffhanger ending.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest questions going into this game was whether Lucy had died, along with the ramifications of the player’s actions in general, and Ubisoft thankfully addresses those issues almost immediately. As the game begins, Desmond finds himself on an island that is essentially Animus limbo. He is not alone though, as he soon meets Subject 16. The issue with Subject 16’s presence is players who enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed series could have played through all of the games without understanding who he truly is.
Subject 16’s existence throughout the series has only been introduced in secondary ways. He was never the main subject of any tasks by the player. It is only through completely optional content that a player would know of Subject 16 at all. In the first game, Desmond would sit in the Animus, go through memories of his ancestor Altaïr, and then be given an opportunity to interact with the world. He could speak with the attendant, Lucy, read e-mail correspondence from the company that kidnapped him, or explore the room he was confined in. Speaking with Lucy would garner different dialog each time, new e-mails would be found on the computer, and exploring the room would reveal different things too, depending on how many memories had been completed.
There were juicy story-driven elements to discover if the player was willing to look for them. One such story element was Subject 16. However, often times, rather than explore the office or speak with Lucy, players would simply return to the Animus not knowing that Lucy’s dialog was unique each time the player exited the Animus. And of course some players simply did not care and re-entered the Animus to continue with Altaïr’s memories because that is all they were interested in. Similar optional content existed in Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood. Puzzles existed within the world of the Animus that were unrelated to the main story. Solving the puzzles gave players more information regarding Subject 16, among other things.
There is nothing wrong with that though. Developers adding optional content like that for players who wish to find it is a good thing. The issue comes into play when optional content stops being optional. Revelations literally puts Subject 16 in your face without giving players who chose not to do the optional content a little back-story. That causes an awkward break in continuity for many gamers because they are suddenly introduced to a person their character recognizes instantly but is an unknown to them. If Ubisoft felt the urge to use Subject 16 in this way, they should have given players enough understanding of who he was to make it work. A nice solution would have been for the game to check if the player had earned any of the achievements associated with solving the puzzles from previous games. A player who had done them could be expected to know who Subject 16 is, while those without the achievements would get a minor, but important, introduction to him by way of an extra few lines of dialog at the start of the game.
After having a discussion with Subject 16, it is time for the first Memory of the game . . . which is nothing but a cutscene. Who was Ubisoft trying to fool with that? Why mark Memory 1 as a separate thing unto itself if it is comprised of a three minute video requiring no player input whatsoever? That is insulting. The only reasoning that makes sense is that Ubisoft was trying to pad the Memory count in Sequence 1 to make it seem longer than it actually was, which is shameful.
Memory 2 is rather short (although obviously not as short as Memory 1) but it serves the important function of getting the player re-acquainted with the game controls. Any Assassin’s Creed veteran should be able to pick things up again by the end of it, as it amounts to a mini obstacle course. The only real issue with Memory 2 is also present throughout the entire game and unfortunately plagues the vast majority of games being created today. The text is too small. All of the text in the game is too small, whether it is a subtitle or user interface menu. This is because the game is designed around a high definition television. Running the game on an old 36 inch CRT television renders the text nigh-impossible to read even if the player is sitting very close to the television. While HDTVs are nothing new and have become commonplace, it is inexcusable for game developers to disregard the existence of widespread older technology. As I said though, this issue is not specific to Ubisoft. It is an unfortunately widespread epidemic.
Memory 3 loosens the reigns a little, giving the player the ability to kill four guards in any manner they wish while introducing the concept of aerial assassinations. The game tells you that, in order to achieve full synchronization for this Memory, the requirement is: “Do not fail a single tail.” Ubisoft opted for a more pleasant sounding rhyming description instead of a practical and informative one. During the course of the Memory the player is tasked with following someone, often referred to as “tailing” someone. But there is only one person the player needs to follow. Wording the full synchronization requirement as not failing a single tail makes it seem as though there are multiple “tails,” which is not only awkward sounding but also incorrect. The consensus on the internet is that the requirement is to follow the target without being detected. Would that have been a radically difficult description to use? “Follow your target without being detected.”
Memory 4 tasks the player with two new and uncomfortable gameplay mechanics. The first is to climb a rope being pulled by a horse and carriage. Ezio, Desmond’s ancestor, has found himself being dragged through the streets as he tries to avoid hitting rocky bumps in the road while simultaneously making forward progress on the rope. The entire thing is very awkwardly implemented because in order to climb the rope, the player must press forward on the game controller. In order to avoid being hit by rocky bumps in the road, the player must press either left or right on the game controller. Clearly only one direction can be moved at a time, and since moving out of position of the rocky bumps cannot be accomplished quickly, the player is left trying to play thumbstick acrobatics. The worse part of the whole thing is that the progress on the rope is restricted, meaning if you advance too quickly the game will prevent Ezio from moving further to prolong the sequence. Punishing gamers for being too good is never an intelligent idea.
The second gameplay mechanic involves ramming the player’s horse and carriage into an enemy’s horse and carriage which is running parallel to yours. The dangers involved are patches of rocks on the road that Ezio cannot drive over. To effectuate the ramming, the player needs to steer Ezio to the left side of the road (where patches of rock can appear) and then sharply steer Ezio to the right, into the enemy’s carriage. The enemy carriage will also try to ram Ezio. The effective strategy is to only steer to the left after passing a patch of rocky ground so as to ensure it will not appear when it can cause damage.
After dispatching the enemy carriage by destroying it, another carriage appears which the player must seemingly defeat in the same way. It would be natural to assume so after all, but the reality is different. The second carriage cannot be defeated. The goal is simply to avoid being hit by the rocky patches of ground until the player progresses far enough down the road to trigger a cutscene. But the player has no way of knowing that. Logically the player would attempt to ram the second carriage only to get frustrated as the enemy carriage would perfectly push the player onto the patches of rocky ground. The trick, evidently, is to wait until a patch of rocky ground appears, then attempt to ram the enemy. Even though the ramming will be unsuccessful, it will prevent the enemy from pushing the player’s carriage onto the rock. Survive long enough using that strategy, and the aforementioned cutscene will play allowing the player to move on.
The entire carriage scene is poorly implemented because it ignores common gameplay formulas. The introduction of a new mechanic is almost always a situation where the game holds the player’s hands and then the training wheels are removed the second time around, allowing for a more difficult challenge of the same mechanic. The second carriage is certainly more difficult to deal with than the first, but the mechanic is no longer the same. Different rules are introduced, such as making the carriage indestructible, without giving the player clear instruction. What could have been a nice and unexpected change of pace is instead met with frustration as players master the first encounter but fail the second.
Memory 5 introduces an interesting limitation on the player because, at the start, Ezio does not have the ability to use his acrobatic skill. Much of the gameplay in Assassin’s Creed revolves around climbing structures to gain an advantage, but here Ezio is grounded. It briefly harkens to the situation players found themselves in while playing as Altaïr in the first game. At the start, Altaïr has all the powers of a full assassin. Shortly after the game begins though, he is stripped of those powers and must work to earn them again. It gave players a taste of what was to come and an incentive to get the power back. In Revelations, players are given all of Ezio’s assassin powers to play with at the start too, but in Memory 5 they are taken away briefly. It forces the player to think outside of the box a little and appreciate that stealth does not always mean rooftop assassinations or just calling assassin trainees to fight for you.
After Ezio regains his acrobatic skill, the small town is mostly a free-roam playground. The player needs to advance to the other side, and there are guards in between him and his objective, but there is no requirement to be stealthy or kill a certain number of guards. If the player wants to dispatch of all the guards or none, it is entirely his or her decision. The end of the Memory produces a rather forced feeling of suspension as cannon balls are shot at Ezio. The cannon balls are all scripted though and there is no real risk to Ezio that he would be knocked down or injured. Killing the guards supposedly manning the cannons does not actually stop them from firing, so the sense of immersion into the game world is shaken.