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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Assassin's Creed Revelations Single Player Review

I should preface this by stating that generally speaking I do not believe in the 1-10 setup of game reviews for a number of reasons that I'll save for another post; but chief among them is that it is an arbitrary number that does not give one a good idea of the actual quality of a game. Instead I judge games by the bar set by their developers and fan communities; so I use a system of "Expectations" weighing how a game compares to what the hype (and in the case of sequels or remakes, the prior games) leads one to expect from the game.

Also; I am going to avoid detailed discussion of the story to avoid spoilers, but this review does assume some familiarity with the series.

So getting to the meat of things, Assassin's Creed: Revelations!

Since this is meant to be a critique I should start by saying that the game is fun, do not let the number of negative criticisms fool you...think of them more as me saying "Ubisoft please don't do this in the next game!"

First and an issue that has been growing since the very first game introduced counter-kills is what I call “power creep” that is each game has introduced new tools for your assassin to make use of and as a result each game has had to introduce new enemies to preserve some level of challenge. In Assassin’s Creed 2 they introduced Elites who required more than one counter-kill to defeat, they also introduced Brutes who wielded two handed weapons and were much tougher. In Brotherhood they introduced the Papal Guard; an evil mix Agile, Elite and Brute. They could outrun Ezio, carried pistols, were semi-immune to counter kills (they required more than one) and would dodge or block most attacks.

In Revelations the ante has been upped once more with the introduction of Janissaries; they are more or less identical to Papal Guards except that they are also immune to kick and take three counter kills apiece. In most cases for me fighting Janissaries was more of an annoyance than a challenge since you were required to wait for them to attack you before you could kill them. To be fair there were other means of dealing with these tougher guards: calling in your apprentices, poison darts, crossbow or a bomb. Which is exactly the problem; Ezio has too many tools at his disposal. In other words they have to make each enemy tougher and more frustrating just to present a challenge, but I have yet to encounter an enemy in the game that your apprentices or an arrow storm can’t solve in an instant. The other issue this creates is that the developers had have to concoct missions that require these tools to succeed, so the game has become less about sneaking around and more about throwing your entire toolbox at a situation. While certainly one can choose to ignore all these tools, the game’s challenges expect you to be using all these handy devices liberally if you want to complete them before the end of the relatively quick story.

Which brings me to point number two; the story is probably the weakest of the series thus far. I will admit I joined the party at Assassins Creed 2, but since then the story in the games feels like it is falling apart. I felt as though AC2 had an engaging an interesting story, even if it was very long. Brotherhood on the other hand had a coherent story but its main purpose was “Make another game” so unabashedly that the beginning of the game serves only to strip you of all your toys from AC2 so that Ezio has a reason to go Borgia hunting. At least the Borgia family offers a reasonably interesting set of villains. Now we come to Revelations who’s story is somewhat confusing.

On its face the game is about Ezio’s search for Altair’s library by finding keys in Constantinople; during this we also see the end of Altair’s story and we of course see the other half of Desmond’s ancestry and further proof from Ezio that handsome 60+ men are apparently irresistible to women. At the same time there is a story running concurrently about a power struggle between the sons of the reigning Sultan; which as Yahtzee points out is basically mentioned once at the beginning of the game and has little actual player involvement. The problem is that the three stories, while interconnected, feel very incoherent when set aside 2 and Brotherhood; I found myself caring less and less about the story as I ran from mission to mission and had completed the story very quickly. Somehow it failed to grab me as 2 had; and while I may mock the introduction in Brotherhood it did manage to set up a personal stake in Ezio’s interest in Rome.

My third issue is that overall there felt like there were far fewer missions and things to do in this iteration. They have done away with the faction missions and most of the side assassin contracts. There are single missions for each faction (thieves, mercenaries and romanis) at the beginning nothing more. As your apprentices level up they open “master assassin” missions: two part missions that use the multiplayer skins as the target NPC’s. The problem is that these missions are widely separated as the amount of time it takes to level your apprentices up is huge. I finished the main campaign and still had only promoted 3 of my apprentices to Master level despite having sent them of missions frequently and made comically excessive use of the Call Assassins system.

The content issue is punctuated by the way they have done challenges; where completing sets of challenges (along the lines of “Kill 10 enemies from zip-lines”) rewards you with additional faction abilities (which turn out to be minor), new weapons or cheaper hiring prices (because that 150 florin’s was always prohibitive). At this point I had to go out of my way to try and complete the challenge tasks, which were likely meant to be completed naturally during play (as they are in Multiplayer). Hiring factions seems like a waste of time; they don’t provide much of a benefit anymore and your bombs can do everything they do with more player control.

Speaking of zip-lines, what was billed as one of the interesting new mechanics from this game feels like a side-distraction that I only ever found myself using to complete challenges and when the mission specifically intended it (as in, they stuck a zip-line right in front of you as the mission began). The same was true for the Den Defense and Desmond’s Journey mini-games that were included. The former you are only forced to complete once and afterwards can be completely avoided by bribing heralds, killing Templar messengers and killing “Stalkers” (Templar agents that hide in crowds and will attempt to hunt and assassinate you if your “Templar Awareness”, the game’s replacement for Notoriety, gets too high). I find I don’t miss tearing down wanted posters. This awareness increases when you commit obvious crime, purchase structures or complete some missions…meaning that buying a bank can sometimes lead to one of your Assassin Dens finding itself in Templar Crosshairs which triggers the new Den Defense mechanic.

Briefly put; Den Defense is a tower-defense style game in which you use assassins on roofs to keep a Templars from walking down a corridor and taking your den. While I like tower defense games I found this one frustrating and unpolished; it was not always clear what sort of “towers” I needed and most of them boil down to “easy until the last guy (usually a siege engine of some kind) shows up, then pray”. The funny thing is that even if your Den does get taken by the Templars you can immediately retake it by killing it’s Captain (it’s almost identical to Brotherhood in that respect).
The “Desmond’s Journey” mini-game is sort of a “portal-esque” puzzle game in which Desmond attempts to navigate the inner simulation of the animus and while doing so learns about his connection to the Assassins and he comes to some philosophical conclusions about the order. This too felt a little rushed but it did offer some answers as to his history and the modern goals of Templar and Assassin. Of the new mini-games added in Revelations I found this one most enjoyable, and I hope Ubisoft keeps to the “optional but interesting” mantra in 3.

Lastly, the mechanic of purchasing stores and landmarks that was originally introduced in 2 as rebuilding the Auditore estate and in Brotherhood as building up a power base in Rome feels wrong in Revelations. The shops seem to have somewhat lost their purpose and I rarely found myself visiting them. Most resources can be looted off guards and is usually faster than trying to find the right shop then purchasing it and waiting through the 30 second cutscene as it “builds”. Even if you do find a shop nearby the menu feels clumsy to navigate so I generally trust in RNG and dead guards. Buying the city now just feels like an added annoyance rather than a compelling gameplay factor; and aside from the extra income it offers virtually no benefit that I can see; which is weak when income feels unnecessary except for buying more buildings.

All those things said the game was still fun, but I am not sure I would mark the next installment as a “day one buy” if this trend continues. Though a major buying influence for me is also the multiplayer but I truly hope Assassins Creed does not go the route of Call of Duty where the single-player becomes an afterthought.

Final Grade: Expectations met but only barely, new flaws weigh it down.

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