The fourth Assassin's Creed game is out on PC now, for once merely weeks rather than months behind the console version. I've been dragging old man Ezio across its rooftops and into its underground lairs of conspiracy for the last few days, and as such... well, you know how this goes.
Experimentation, calibration, celebration and now stagnation: that's been the course Assassin's Creed games have taken, and until Revelations it's been a course of sustained improvement. In some ways, and when looked at alone, Revelations is the best of the bunch, but it's also the most unnecessary. Especially on PC, where delays meant we only saw the last game, Brotherhood, a piffling eight months ago. After a half-decade of tinkering, AssCreed has settled on its formula and Revelations presents an impasse - stay the course, do the COD-style franchise thing and hope the fanbase is loyal enough to stump up for iterative updates, or return to the reinvention it once embraced.
On the other hand, I can understand why the series' original plan - to see a new historical setting and protagonist every time - ended up being abandoned in favour of keeping Ass Creed 2's past-hero Ezio around for what's now become three games. Ezio, you see, is a total dude. AssCreed's other player characters to date, 12th Century assassin Altair and his and Ezio's modern-day descendant Desmond, are a bore and a whiner respectively. Ezio? Dude. To throw out a likeable character in favour of starting afresh again must have seemed like a terrible waste.
Ezio's at his most charming yet in AssRev, as we join him during the onset of old age. Grey-bearded, distinguished, no longer hot-headed or quite so led by the desires for vengeance and naughty cuddles with ladies, fatherly when the so-so, exposition-crazed script remembers to paint him as such... He's an unusual videogame hero, and refreshingly posture-free as action protagonists go. It's sad the game's free-running, flow-fighting mechanics, being broadly a repeat of AssCreed 2 and Brotherhoods', more or less don't address his fading strength and speed, bar having a reason to once again reset his health to bare minimum and have the player incrementally pick up upgrades.
But rather than a tale of Ezio facing up to his own encroaching mortality, AssRev is, depressingly, another tale of digging up increasingly oblique titbits of mystic information ultimately aimed at minutely moving on the tiresome tale of Desmond in the present day. If you haven't played the series to date, AssRev will almost immediately be nonsensical to you; I have played it all, and I only just grasp what it's wittering about, but can't begin to care.
Even the original sci-fi twist - that Altair and Ezio's adventures are Desmond reliving his noble assassin ancestors' memories via a clever computer wired up to his brain - has been lost to increasingly absurd mysticism. As the game begins, Desmond is lost in his own mind due to having apparently offed his special lady friend by mistake at the end of the last game, and must explore his way back to consciousness via - you guessed it - reliving yet more of Ezio's roof-running and man-stabbing, occasionally interspersed with abstract, Portal-for-dummies first-person puzzle-platforming sequences in which Desmond recalls bits of his own childhood and more of the overarching babble-prophecy. I DON'T CARE SEND ME BACK TO THE PAST.
Actor Nolan North does his level best to make Des' sustained WHAT WHERE HOW WHO WHY confusion and complaint likeable, but there's no escaping that modern-boy still doesn't do much of note even after four games. Why are we expected to care about someone whose primarily role is waiting, whining and listening? It was always mystifying that AssCreed went down the sci-fi and prophecy route when it had a perfectly serviceable setting and plot already, but doubly so that it's still failed to do anything meaningful (let alone meaningfully interactive) with that aspect of the game except drown it in ever-more demented exposition.
As has always been the case, the ultimate outcome of this latest AssCreed is essentially a crude statement of "yes there will be another game and you'd better buy if you want to find out what happens." Revelations? Don't take the piss. AssRev does, at least, seem to mark the last we'll see of both Ezio and Altair. I'll miss the good-natured Italian geezer, but the promise of a new protagonist and time period is far more appealing than another chance to wear his manky old hood.
Ezio's swansong takes him to Constantinople, which in some respects - probably due to the engine and reused assets - doesn't look or feel a million miles away from Rome and other Italian cities he's dragged us around previously. Areas of it offer new variety though - civilians in rich, coloured silks, a ramshackle wooden poor district, hulking, ornate mosques and a division by waterways into islands. It's a pleasant, pretty place to be, as AssCreed cities have always been, but it does feel all-too-familiar. That's mostly because this old dog hasn't learned many new tricks, so Ezio's up to pretty much what he was up to in Brotherhood. The major new additions are a mini-grappling hook built into his sleeve that means he can jump about a foot higher and perform a couple of new moves that you won't use unless a navigation puzzle specifically demands it, and bombs.
Bombs can be thrown, and bombs can be built from parts you collect in your travels, but once again it's just needless feature creep, one more optional tactic on top of what's almost too many. The sheer complexity of AssCreed game's controls means by this point, once again, the first few hours of the game are basically one long tutorial. It was necessary though - having recently been playing Arkham Asylum, I experienced real discombobulation about how to climb onto rooftops and drop onto men's spines from afar, hands reaching for different controls and frequently hurling Ezio off the side of a hundred-foot tower to his messy doom. Ezio could really do with a batrope, I have to say.
Also new is an infrequent tower defence mini-game wherein you're defending your territory from invading Templars by placing an assortment of archers, riflemen, leapy death-guys, barricades and all sorts on either side of a road. 'Morale' is generated from kills, and then spent on more units. It's very silly, especially because it's hard to not think 'if Ezio would only get down in the street himself he could sort out all these lads single-handed', but it adds more context to the game's territory-seizing meta-game. It doesn't need to be there, but the game isn't hurt for it being so.
AssCreed 1's Altair also gets a look-in, with Ezio occasionally reliving hitherto unchronicled parts of his predecessor's life. So that's Desmond reliving Ezio reliving Altair, just to be clear. Oh, and the whole thing's being puppeteered by some quasi-goldlike race that preceded humanity, right. Sigh. Altair's sequences aren't anything to shout about, as to control he's just Ezio with less toys, but I suppose it's nice to nod back to the series' roots.
So, AssRev is just a retread with a few unnecessary new growths stuck to the side, but I don't mean that it's a bad game. It's a very good game if taken on its own merits rather than those of its series. Not to mention that it's a lovely-looking, huge and generous game-world. Constantinople is packed with content and relative freedoms and things to collect and mini-games (restoring the cities' businesses in order to make money; recruiting and upgrading apprentices to aid you in battle) that offers hours and hours and hours of distraction and kleptomania if you elect to indulge yourself rather than carve through the main missions.
It's a wonderful time-sink, it really is. It's just that it's almost totally redundant if you already own Brotherhood - but sadly it makes little to no sense if you don't. As such, I'd recommend Brotherhood as the AssCreed to get if you're going in cold - it's a confident expansion of what the previous game got right, without suffering the slow entropy and outright repetition that Revelations does.
Its hours of play, its elaborate city, its many side-quests and money-making opportunities are ultimately only there to delay the arrival of a pseudoscience-mired final cutscene that sets up the next game. It's fallen into the Lost trap, endlessly stringing us along in pursuit of answers that could take forever to arrive. I'm fond enough of the journey so far, but I do need it to make a sudden turn if I'm to remain interested.