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As Ubisoft prepares to wrap-up the Ezio Auditore saga, we go hands-on ahead of the game's launch next month...
Has Minecraft taken over the world? When the flagship game from a publisher as influential as Ubisoft has its very own crafting mini-game, it’s hard not to conclude that Indies are dominating industry innovation now. What’s next? A block based map editor for CoD Zombies? Mining ore for ammo? Perhaps FIFA 13 will make you harvest sheep’s wool and coloured dye every time you switch to your away kit.
Of course, mainstream franchises are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to leading innovation: invention equals risk, and when you’re dealing with a franchise as established as Assassin’s Creed, staking huge amounts of brand equity on one crackpot developer’s interesting idea might not seem entirely prudent. Unfortunately, the danger of this approach is that you risk churning out endless identikit sequels, and the result - in Revelation’s case - is that the biggest new ‘back of the box’ gameplay feature is... a new sound effect when you grab onto ledges.
It’s a lovely sound effect though, a wonderfully solid metallic ‘clink’, that perfectly compliments Ezio’s glistening new Hookblade as he scrambles over Constantinople’s rooftops in the baking midday sun. The Hookblade lets you glide down ziplines, flip over enemies during combat, and generally streamlines the (already competent) parkour navigation, but it’s more of a natural refinement of existing Assassin’s Creed gameplay than something genuinely new.
Ezio’s getting old now. This is likely the last main AC: Subtitle game before ‘real’ sequel, Assassin’s Creed III; it promises to conclude the current story arc, wrapping up the loose threads left by original assassin Altair Ibn-La’Ahad and (the now middle-aged) Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Set largely in Constantinople - ‘the crossroads of the world’ - Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is itself something of a crossroads for the triple-tiered narrative of Altair, Ezio, and Desmond - who finds himself in a coma in the present day, trapped in the mysterious ‘Black Room’ of the Animus. If the White Room was a simple loading area for the Animus OS, from which Desmond safely accessed the memories of his assassin ancestors, the Black Room is more akin to its BIOS, with all the power and danger that entails. From here Desmond interacts with his DNA-embedded memories of Ezio, from a time when Ezio himself was uncovering the past of his ancestor, Altair. Ubisoft hasn’t yet shown much of Desmond’s sections in Revelations, but Lead Writer Darby McDevitt described them as “very special interesting gameplay” in our recent interview, and there’s clearly a lot of scope for that given the premise.
The ‘memories’ that Ezio seeks in Constantinople are actually linked to seals hidden around the city, which together promise to unlock a secret chamber beneath Masyaf Castle that was closed off by Altair centuries earlier. As Ezio finds the keys, he unlocks visions - playable memory sections based on significant points in Altair’s life. One such section occurs shortly after Altair murders a prominent assassin in possession of a powerful artifact; as he lays the man to rest, a scuffle breaks out amongst the gathered assassins, during which one of them liberates the artifact and climbs to the top of a nearby tower. Unfortunately, this artifact - The Apple of Eden - has a mind and power all its own, and starts pulsing out blasts of energy which threaten all nearby. Cue a frantic scramble to the top of the tower to rescue the assassin, who’s life is slowly draining away. The section owes much to Shadow of the Colossus: movement must be timed to avoid the Apple’s blasts, as each makes you lose your grip, forcing you to quickly grab a ledge lest you plummet to the bottom of the tower.
As with previous games in the series, Ezio can still renovate buildings around Constantinople to generate income, but first needs to liberate them from Templar control by using his Eagle Vision to hunt out and kill the local area Captain. The dens that are then created (filled with Romanies, Thieves, or Mercenaries) can sometimes come under assault from vengeful Templars looking to re-establish control, initiating a wave-based Tower Defence mini-game. As Templar soldiers trudge towards your property, you can strategically place defensive troops on nearby rooftops; a leader must be placed to ‘unlock’ each rooftop, at which point you can arrange crossbow archers and rifleman at strategic (pre-defined) points to help slow the Templar advance. As your men kill Templars you gain points which can be used to buy further units or better defenses (such as upgradeable barricades). You can also call in a barrage of cannon fire to help scatter the troops, but only with limited frequency, as the ability takes a while to recharge. The waves get progressively harder until the Templar forces are spent, with a formidable mobile battering ram marking the end of the section we played; naturally this introductory section wasn’t massively challenging, but it did offer a nice change of pace to the usual ‘scale, hunt, kill’ action.
Will Assassin’s Creed: Revelations offer enough new content to bring jaded fans back into the fold? The developers are clearly doing their best to vary the action within the confines of AC’s well-defined gameplay parameters; an early section in which Ezio dresses up as a minstrel in order to distract revellers at a crowd (complete with lyrical in-jokes aimed at fans of the series), certainly brought a smile to our faces, but it also demonstrated just how entrenched the Assassin’s Creed establishment has now become. There is always the danger that popular series can fall prey to their own successes, particularly if publishers are tempted to boost profits with mandatory annual instalments. Certain highly scripted sequences - especially a boat chase in sequence five - are little more than interactive movies where you hold down ‘play’ (in this case up and right trigger) eliminating tension precisely when it’s most required. Nevertheless, the open world play is still as enjoyable as ever, and hopefully the expanded recruitment gameplay and bomb-crafting will provide enough variation to keep things fresh.
Die-hard fans of the series who are eager for more of the same are likely to be extremely satisfied with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and there’s always the small matter of its expanded multiplayer left to consider for those seeking something new.
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