Game Pile: Assassin’s Creed Revelations

Oh for fuck’s sake.

Ubisoft successfully produced an Assassin’s Creed game every single year since the first one, which is something worth noting, showing a gift for scheduling and design discipline that I think is actually quite rare in the triple-A games industry. Even more remarkable for a videogame studio, though is that their scheduling skills are so absolute that they seem to have successfully created time travel, where every single game they’ve released has been slightly worse than the clearly superior game that came before it, but still probably decent enough to not get a complete bollocking like it deserves. So talented has this reverse-engineering of the space-time continuum that right now, Assassin’s Creed, a triple-A title of breathtaking scope and with a wonderfully subtle, self-contained storytelling character arc about the folly of pride and the indulgence of righteous violence cast upon a backdrop of the fascinatingly mysterious historical backdrop of the crusades, with an educational bent that tied together characters in actual historical conspiracies and enlightend audiences, is still somehow the same game as Assassin’s Creed, the tale of the snottiest serial killer at murderer school finding as many mustache-twirling evil dudes across ancient Foreignville with bullshit boss fights and whose sense of authorial discipline fell apart into a pile of mush and bloody pus in the last quarter. What I’m saying is that after seeing Assassin’s Creed as a fun game with a lot of problems, a solid ‘average’ notch-mark on the wall, the subsequent games busted out shovels and hammers and started pounding downwards until standing where they do, Assassin’s Creed actually looks really quite good. What I’m saying is that in the years since 2009 when I first started playing the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the games have done nothing but lower my expectations and disappoint me to the point where I now view triple-A games doing something well as an accident rather than anything they’d do on purpose. What I’m saying is that Assassin’s Creed Revelations (hence ACR) has dragged my standards downward, and I hope it’s appropriately ashamed of itself.

The easiest way to begin a summary of this game is ‘continuing the story of Ezio,’ and possibly then going on to say ‘and drawing to a close the story of Altair,’ but while those statements may make writing a review easier, they are unfortunately also filthy lies that should only be spouted by people who don’t mind getting visited by the smack fairy. This game does not continue the story of Ezio, because Ezio’s story was done, complete and self-contained quite well in Assassin’s Creed 2, with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood being a new story that unnecessarily featured Ezio, forcing extra questions into his story in order to try and answer them, and do it badly. ACR wants to tell you a story involving the fascinating historical context of Constantinople’s displaced nobility and challenge of inheritance around a Sultanate, while drawing you back to explain how an idea that started in Syria in the 1100s could somehow make its way all the way to Italy in a paltry four hundred years. Thing is, while it could do this story by introducing us to a new Assassin, possibly one who has new tricks and doesn’t need all the old tricks that Ezio had weighing him down. It could have immersed us in the culture the same way it did with Ezio, starting out with a character who was different and distinct and likable, possibly even dovetailing it into Ezio’s story with an opening that begins in a recruitment. If they had to have Ezio around, they could have had him communicate to the character with the letter sequences.

It’s not like these guys at Ubisoft are incompetent or anything. ACR introduces in its first non-tutorial mission a really likable character whose every appearance is a wonderful shining jewel of fun based on his over-the-top mannerisms, colourful behaviour and even if he is a stereotypical type of character, he’s still super rad all the way up and down, including when he calls you out on performing what can only be described as a dick move.

Instead, though, I’m meant to sit here and watch as Ezio makes his way through a city full of swarthy foreigners and saves them all from the machinations of men, falls in love with a somewhat thinly characterised woman, who is then used against him in a plot move so basic that Snidely Whiplash stopped doing it in the thirties for being predictable. What makes it worse when it happens is that it really serves no purpose but to raise the stakes, to make you want to beat the bad guy (and makes the subsequent confrontation’s resolution even stupider). We’re left with this lasting problem that Ezio’s life is defined by sparing the worst people in his life after murdering dozens and dozens of guards and underclass. I used to make a game of it in Assassin’s Creed 2, starting a slow walk through the streets, and stabbing every single Templar-aligned character that came towards me, refusing to stop or slow down until I finally had enough notoriety that the guards would try to put arrows in me on sight. that, that the game is happy to let you do and even as you circle around your depressingly huge stack of bodies, you can reflect on the way Ezio must have impacted the overall life expectancy for the job title of ‘guard.’ Get to the mastermind at the top of the plan, the guy who we know, historically, is a shocking bastard, though and Ezio decides, no, no, he can’t hurt me, and therefore I don’t need to finish my job as an Assassin.

Yes, Ezio believed the pope didn’t have power enough to impact Ezio’s life. It serves the fucker right that the next thing that happened was the destruction of his home and everything he loved.

You can make something of this idea, the theme that Ezio, for all of his authority in the story and importance is still a spoiled rich prettyboy who thinks of himself as a champion of the poor, but stil thinks of the poor as an underclass with the nobility as the people who deserve special consideration and respect, but they don’t – it’s done to create a movie moment, where you beat up someone, then demonstrate how powerful and impressive you are by not killing him, a move that can seem impressive out of context, but actually requires its context to support it to do anything but ring hollow. This tradition of movie-style moments continues into ACR, where you have to do a daring rescue of a woman who is being killed in a surprisingly stupid and slow fashion. Why is she being killed that way? There are about three basic arguments – to slow Ezio down, because the person in charge is a meanspirited dick, and for some other clever reason that we, the mere audience, don’t get to know. The first is idiotic since we’re talking about a guy with agents all over the city, the second is even stupider because this requires him to be a stupid meanspirited dick whose talk about admiring and respecting Ezio is all bullshit, and the third should sound stupid to you as you say it, so I’m not even going to give it credit of response.

There’s more to it, of course. There’s an accidental assassination of someone who was in the right but on the wrong side, something that Altair already did, to an extent and played with in his story, reminding me, once again, of back when I had such high hopes for the storytelling in this game about world history, conspiracies and stabbing dudes in the neck. There’s the needless punching-minstrels bit of the game, which rather than feeling witty and funny, felt more like I was being pandered at.

Still, I did finish the whole thing, so the question has to be asked, is it a bad game, and no, it’s not. It’s a truly fantastic game. With only a small number of exceptions, the worst elements of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood have been eschewed and being kept at the beginning and end of the story, and most of the game’s worst stuff is all optional. You don’t have to recruit two dozen lumpy-faced ugly assassins, you can just pick up a small handful and get the airstrike (and that’s why you get them, no doubt). Ubisoft have been at this now for quite some time, and the core fundamentals of Revelations have been polished to a mirror shine, with the best bits kept and made better. There’s less open-countryside horseback roaming that plagued Brotherhood, more speedy-parkour courses across the cityscape. There’s a maneuver for avoiding a combat in a run, which both looks great and also rewards you for knowing your shit. There’s multiple parkour-only challenges, some really fun tailing missions that left me feeling smug for coming up with good paths around that the game didn’t expect, and even though I hated their narrative presence, I really liked the mission where you’re just pointed at an item and given the order of ‘go get it,’ with options that included using bombs, perfect timing and subterfuge, making disturbances with the landscape, murder, or, what I favoured, kicking someone in the balls and walking off with their stuff. The level of polish is such that this game could be used to solve several puzzles at once in the next Legend of Zelda game, especially the way it comes back to almost everything it shows you.

Where DXHR‘s big problem came from a lack of structure and pacing in its storytelling, ACR‘s big problem is just that the writing is itself quite bad. It’s great structure, it’s just it’s full of amateurish storytelling devices and it chooses to focus on people whose stories are over. We don’t need a story about how Ezio finally got his leg over with the only astoundingly young-and-hot Italian woman in a city full of foreigners while trying to find Altair’s resting place, because neither of those questions were in any way left open by the other games. We know that Desmond is descended from Ezio is descended from Altair, so it’s not like there’s some mystery about the fact that they did have sex at some point. Jesus christ, are we going to be treated to some tedious story device where we get to find out about how Ezio died?

Fact is, there’s a type of player to whom the most blessed thing is a game that gives you a big empty space you can enjoy, and says ‘go ahead, fuck around.’ I’m not one of those players. A good game will often pull me in and make me part of its world such that I want to fuck around and do its extraneous side-story stuff or explore its nooks or even, horror forfend, ask ‘Why?’ then go looking for the answer. So far, none of those things have happened. A game can even get close if it gives me a goal I really want to fulfill, then lets me go about finishing it in my own way and time, which Fallout 3 does, and fantastically. ACR, on the other hand, with its setpieces and its big complicated game projects, does not, nor do its forebears. I finished Assassin’s Creed with as-close-to 100% completion as I could manage, and all that remained was hunting down something like 30 flags and killing 4-5 more templars, and none of that was done because I wanted a trophy at the end. I was doing it because I liked fucking around on the maps, and I liked being Altair, so I wanted to fuck up Templars, because Templars are dicks.

If you’re umming and aahing about which of the Ezio games to get, and you only have the money for one, grab this one. It’s the best game of the three, and it’s not like the story matters to anyone but weirdo mutants like me.