I'm consistently impressed by Ubisoft's apparent ability to crank out complete Assassin's Creed games each year. When Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was released a mere year after Assassin's Creed II, many were expecting more of an expansion pack. What we got was a full-fledged game, the deepest and most involved Assassin's Creed yet.
After spending an afternoon last week playing through a healthy chunk of Assassin's Creed: Revelations, which releases on November 15, it would appear that they are about to manage the same feat again. It doesn't match the seismic shift from the first game to Assassin's Creed II, but it doesn't have to. Revelations adds new gameplay modes, rendering technology, in-game tools, and (hooray!) difficulty to the series.
I played through a couple of large memory sequences (chapters) from the game's single-player mode—those unfamiliar with Assassin's Creed should know that the game is framed as a story within a story. Modern-day bartender Desmond Miles finds out that he is a descendent of an ancient line of assassins. Through a machine called the Animus, he travels back into his genetic memory and relives past lives in an attempt to stop a global conspiracy that has been going on for centuries.
There is quite a bit of mysteriousness surrounding Desmond's current situation in Revelations. At E3, it was clear that after the tragic events at the end of Brotherhood, Desmond's mind has shattered and he is trapped in some sort of Animus limbo. So up front: I didn't get to see any of the Animus stuff, though when I paused the game, the menu had an option for "Return to Animus Island". Naturally I selected it and was greeted with Desmond, standing alone on a misty, mysterious grassy hill. I began to run forward and… a Ubisoft employee came up and physically removed the controller from my hand. HA. So, just enough to tease—it sounds like Demond's adventure is going to get pretty interesting this time around.
As for Ezio, I joined him in the second sequence as he arrived in Constantinople aboard a large ship. I'm assuming that the first sequence sets up how, exactly, Desmond gets back into the animus, as well as the series of events that led Ezio from Rome to Constantinople. He was speaking with a young man with a short-cropped moustache, and as he did, I was struck by the dramatic improvement that has been made to Ezio's facial animations. He is much older now, wizened but no less dangerous-looking. His eyes had a catlike glimmer, and for the first time I didn't feel as though I was watching tightly animated mannequins do pantomime. It ain't quite Uncharted, but it's a huge improvement, made possible by the new motion-capture technology that Ubisoft used when creating the game's cinematics.
After getting off the boat, Ezio was accosted by a younger man with a scar on his face and a big grin—soon he introduced himself as Yusuf Tazim, an assassin in Constantinople. He was eager for Ezio to arrive and teach his troops.
I walked with Yusuf for a bit, admiring the lovely design of the Constantinople city streets. (Oy, I can already tell that I'm going to have to write "Constantinople" a thousand times over the next two months. Why couldn't they have changed it to Istanbul earlier? I guess that's nobody's business but the Turks.)
As we walked, we were attacked by some guards—I don't think it was a scripted moment, but rather the AI boiling over at us as we were mid-sentence. In true Assassin's Creed fashion, we cut through them like a hot knife through butter—Ezio's sword animations have become even more brutal, and one fight ended with him stabbing his sword through an enemy's neck, leaving it there, pivoting around the man and pulling his sword out as his foe's corpse fell to the ground. Nice.
The interface has been re-tooled somewhat — I was playing on PS3, and pressing R2 brought up not one radial menu but two — the one on the left for selecting primary weapons and the one on the right for selecting secondary weapons, like throwing knives and bombs. Given the way that Ezio's arsenal has ballooned over the last three games, it seems like a smart call to move to two menus.
A few swordfights later, I was loose in the city. The controls work just like past Assassin's Creed games, and by now I'm used to them to the point that their idiosyncrasies don't bother me. But still, those idiosyncrasies remain: It's easy to guide Ezio in the wrong direction, particularly when running. But for the most part it's no longer the frustration that it once was.
Soon afterwards, I met back up with Yusuf, who immediately asked Ezio about his hookblade. Turns out, Ezio does not have a hookblade, so Yusuf gives him one. The hookblade goes in place of one of Ezio's two hidden blades, and it allows a good deal of new moves. It is, of course, also still usable for double-assassinations. In Yusuf's words, "The Ottoman hookblade has two parts: The hook and the blade. So you can use one or the other. An elegant design." Which made me chuckle.
The hookblade allows Ezio to make longer jumps than previously — gone are the days of misjudging a jump and just missing a a ledge — now, pressing circle (or B on Xbox) causes Ezio to extend his hookblade and catch the corner. It also allows for much faster traversal of walls — Ezio can launch himself into the air with it and cover about twice as much vertical space.
The hookblade is also useful on the ground. Specifically, it can be used to dodge around guards and civilians, and to perform a hook-sweep that lets you trip civilians freely. I spent a couple of minutes just rampantly tripping civilians, laughing my head off. The hookblade is pretty cool.
The last thing the hookblade allows is traversal of Constantinople's many ziplines, as Yusuf showed me. Ziplines work about how you'd imagine — run up to them while pressing Ezio's high-profile run, and he'll automatically hook on and start sliding down. It's possible to perform zipline assassinations, as well.
I undertook several more missions for Yusuf that were more boilerplate Assassin's Creed stuff, like stealing money to buy armour. Eventually, I met up with Yusuf again, and he informed me that two different Assassin's headquarters were under attack. He could only defend one, so it was up to Ezio to defend the other.
I made my way over, expecting to engage in some more swordplay, but what I got surprised me: a Tower defence game. It's called "Den defence." Ezio stands on a corner overlooking the street, with the gate to one end of the street. Players place units on the rooftops, and waves of soldiers march down the street towards the gates. If they make their way in, Ezio loses and the mission ends in failure. Players can put archers and riflemen on the roofs, who make short work of enemy troops as they march down the street. It's also possible to place barricades in the street, which causes attacking troops to bunch up and get cut down by Ezio's rooftop allies. Finally, as the match continues, Ezio is granted the ability to drop cannon rounds down on the enemy.
I was just remarking on the relative ease of Den defence when the final boss wave arrived — a huge, damned-tough battering ram. It almost made it to my main gate before I took it down, mostly with cannon fire.
While the Den defence game is merely a sidequest, it's cool to see how, once again, Ubisoft has added new gameplay elements that put Ezio into more of a command position than that of a foot soldier. It fits with the story, and broke up the action interestingly, and for those who don't care for the gameplay, I doubt there will be a shortage of other more core things to do in the game.
After defending the den, the memory sequence ended and I loaded up the next sequence, skipping number three straight to memory four. Ezio was tasked with infiltrating a night-time party in order to protect a prince named Suleiman. To do so, he and his fellow assassins would need to knock out some minstrels and don their outfits. Fortunately, there were minstrels all over the place, so I snuck around the guards and punched out the musicians, who, hilariously, each went down with a single punch.
After taking care of that, Ezio got dressed up in a minstrel costume, with only a lute to protect him. It was a humorous gag, and a sign that Ubisoft hasn't lost sight of how much fun Ezio can be as a character. If anything, age has made him more sly than ever—he's lost a bit of his youthful arrogance and gained a self-aware sense of humour. Pressing the face buttons would cause him to sing different songs, each with funny, referential lyrics, such as:
Cesare, Cesare, a man of great depravity. He thought himself immortal 'till he had a date with gravity.
Heh. Ezio wasn't able to carry his blade in the tight clothing, so he had to rely on his assassin henchmen to do any actual dirty work that would be required. As I made my way around the party, I used Ezio's Eagle Vision to highlight characters and determine which ones were Byzantine (read: Templar) assassins. Eagle Vision works a bit differently this time around — instead of immediately identifying assassination targets in gold, it identifies a group of possible candidates. Players must leave a floating white cursor over each one until they are scanned, either turning dark if they are civilians or turning red if they are, in fact, the target.
Each time I successfully identified a target, I'd then have Ezio play a song, which would cause the crowd to turn, distracted enough not to notice as my compatriots stabbed and dragged away the would-be killers. It was a bit goofy, but darkly fun to watch everyone turn away while I could see what was really going on behind them.
As the mission progressed, Prince Suleiman arrived — and lo, he was in fact the young mustached man from the boat at the beginning. I had to follow ahead of him and continue to eliminate potential threats. When he was completely safe, Ezio revealed his own identity, and the two went in to talk about a whole bunch of complicated plot-related stuff that probably isn't worth going into detail about. Suffice to say — there are two warring factions in Constantinople in addition to the assassins, and things are getting hairy.
I went to grab my regular clothes, then returned to the party, at which point I got into a fight that convinced me of Brotherhood's newfound difficulty. As I recently complained, as much as I've enjoyed past Assassin's Creed games, I've always found them to far too easy. This time, I picked a fight with some well-armed bruisers in armour and found myself getting my arse well and truly kicked.
This was no doubt partly because, in my preview-session hurry, I hadn't stocked up on insta-heal medicine for Ezio. But regardless, before long the guards' ability to dodge my parry-attacks, coupled with their brutal, block-breaking advances and ranged pistol attacks had me gasping for breath and then actually dying. I haven't really gotten thumped since the first Assassin's Creed, and it was nice to feel a challenge again. I'm sure that the presence of health potions will significantly mitigate the game's difficulty, but I was pleased to find myself wishing for more time to practice, using the game's various weapons and bombs in order to become more deadly. And more than that, just to survive.
I saw a lot more of the game, but dear god this preview has really stretched out already. So, I'll talk about a couple more things, first of which being the caves beneath Galata Tower. In a mission similar to the Lairs of Romulus from Brotherhood, Ezio must assemble five keys to the assassin's castle at Masyaf—and to find each key, he must traverse a huge, enclosed dungeon filled with Prince of Persia-like climbing puzzles.
Soon after Ezio entered Galata Tower, he fell through the floor and tumbled down, down, down, finally sliding down a massive rock wall before barely catching himself, hanging hundreds of feet below the floor of a massive, echoing cavern. The camera pulled out to reveal an absolutely gorgeous cave—unexpectedly, this entire level is one of the most beautiful things I've seen in an Assassin's Creed game. As it turns out, that shouldn't be a huge surprise, given that Raphael Lacoste, the art director for the gorgeous Sands of Time, is making his Assassin's Creed debut with Revelations.
I made my way through the usual underground puzzles—up walls, around corners, over ledges, and now, across ziplines. It wasn't too challenging, but man was it gorgeous—the caves were never less than beautiful, and strange though it may sound, I've never felt this sense of scale from an Assassin's Creed game before. Finally, I made my way to the treasure room at the end and recovered the key to Masyaf.
In doing so, I also unlocked a memory of Altair, Ezio's ancestor and the protagonist of the first Assassin's Creed. The Ubisoft reps on hand assured me that Ezio should have gone back to his home to meditate, but since it never quite happened for me, instead they just cued up the first Altair for me to play.
The sequence kicks off just after the end of the first Assassin's Creed, with Altair's corrupted mentor Al Maulim laying dead at Altaïr's feet. You must then carry him through the castle at Masyaf and out to the front, after which point Altaïr will attempt to convince his assassin brothers what happened. Altaïr set Al Maulim's body on a funeral pyre despite the protestations of his brothers, and wound up getting into a scuffle with a few of them.
It's interesting how different it feels playing Altaïr — he moves differently than Ezio, and brings back many memories of the first game. However, he is now being played by a new voice-actor—it would appear that the new animus has learned how to give its characters accents. (PS3 owners who want to re-live those memories will be able to play through a complete build of the first game, available right on the Blu-Ray disc).
It would appear that the Altaïr segments are going to be bite-sized bits of gameplay that inform the greater series mythos while providing a break from Ezio's journey.
I came out of my time with Revelations impressed. It was more or less what I was expecting, but that's not to say it wasn't good — the game feels more varied, deep, and sprawling than ever, with the best art, tech, motion capture, and gameplay variety that the series has yet seen.
I remain unsure about the means by which Ubisoft manages to create an entirely new Assassin's Creed game each year with such a short turnaround time. (Refreshing the creative team with each iteration probably has something to do with it.) Whatever the process, it would appear that with Revelations, they've done it again.
Ezio the blade running fast over rooftops hey don't go that way