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AC: Revelations and la vita assassino

Although it successfully extends the franchise, Assassin's Creed: Revelations suffers from new features that break player immersion. In general the Assassin's Creed games approach but never quite succeed in offering players "the assassin lifestyle."

Moses Wolfenstein, Blogger

January 12, 2012

10 Min Read

Jumping from roof top to roof top, hiding in shadows or hanging patiently from ledges, uncovering the secrets of an ancient brotherhood, leading a cabal of highly skilled killers, and of course executing targets using a range of tools and techniques...This is the assassin lifestyle, and it is this experience that I believe Assassin's Creed: Revelations (as well as the other games in the series) aspires to grant the player. In this fourth game in the series, so long as it focuses on Ezio and sticks to third person platforming and stabbing, Assassin's Creed approaches but never quite achieves that objective. When it focuses on Desmond, it stumbles as the narrative becomes heavy handed and the game generally becomes fundamentally less coherent and at times even incoherent. Then of course there's the problem with the mini-games...more on this before the post is done.

Ultimately I believe Assassin's Creed as it stands never quite manages to grant the player a true experience of the assassin lifestyle, in large part because it doesn't manage to be a true stealth game when it needs to be. This is not ultimately a major issue for me with regard to the game or the series. After all, the game play is generally fun and as I noted in my early reaction to the game, Ezio's part of the narrative (and even Altair's for that matter) does pretty well. Still, before I get into the good and the bad about this game I would like to offer a thought on what a game would need to do to provide the experience that Assassin's Creed comes tantalizingly close to doing.

The basic structure of interaction for true assassinations in the Assassin's Creed games requires the player to attain low profile status if they've recently done anything to attract the attention of the guards, position their assassin in a desirable location with the appropriate weapon equipped (and/or faction hired), focus on a target with the left trigger (under many but not all circumstances), if there are multiple possible targets wiggle the left stick around until the desired target is selected, and then finally hit the X button to kill the target or tap the left bumper to call an assassin to do your work for you1. This is what the activity of assassination is like in Ezio's Istanbul, and it's pretty much way it was in both games when he was still in Italy.

On the surface, this structure seems to provide the player with a lot of options. After all, the player can (if they are so inclined) skip step 1 and move directly to stabbing people. Additionally there are a fairly wide range of weapons that can be equipped, and in Revelations there are even bombs (more on these later). That said, the different types of tools are often only circumstantially useful. Hence, the core decision a player is generally offered is pretty much between performing the elaborate sequence of actions necessary for a low profile kill, and tapping the button for pulling out a sword/hammer/axe and killing people.

There are in fact NPCs in the game that take the "just start stabbing" approach. These NPCs are notably called Mercenaries, while the Assassins in the game are generally designed to emerge from no where, kill their target quickly, and then disappear. This is, at least in theory, what good assassins do after all. The idea that the designers want you to take this approach is emphasized by the fact that the game will punish you for calling your assassins into a heavy fight particularly early on (not like I'm still bitter about losing those two assassins or anything). Hence, the previously described sequence of actions is more or less the shape assassination tends to take in the Assassin's Creed games.

As I've considered the concept behind the game play over the course of the series, I've come to the conclusion that this is simply not an adaptive or responsive enough system to provide the player with the true assassin experience. This is particularly true due to the fact that the attack and assassinate button are both X. While great in theory (both are technically ways to kill), the combo assassinate/pull your sword out and wave it around button combo can be problematic in practice. There's nothing quite as frustrating as painstakingly setting up the assassination only to watch Ezio, seemingly of his own accord, shift targets and stab a civilian This problem was enhanced in Revelations by the "hold the left bumper" weapon selection system. While this system is efficient once engaged in combat, it caused an additional slew of random sword brandishing episodes over the course of my playthrough.

To put it all together: the somewhat arbitrary targeting system combines with all of the other conditions to create botched assassinations that are the result of the played mechanics (those the player experiences). These moments rather forcibly break the player out of the immersion the game tends to illicit, and this is why I believe the game never quite offers the player "la vita assassino." It is however still beautiful, and the combat system is generally quite enjoyable.

Several reviewers have dissed the environment of the game as being overly close to the previous games. I believe the designers of Ezio's Istanbul deserve more credit than that. Certainly there are some of the same basic structures in Revelations as there were in 2 and Brotherhood, but I have to wonder whether that was really so unlikely during that period, and a huge amount of it is different (not to mention the set pieces). Anyway, the look and feel of the city is absolutely unique. I have very little doubt that the levels designers did their homework for this game much as they did in Italy. If someone has evidence to the contrary, please let me know in the comments and I'll update.

That said, the reuse of the voice actors for the environmental noise in Revelations is fundamentally criminal. This game has many failures in my opinion, but most of them I can live with. If there's one thing I would ask of Ubisoft, it's this. Write some new scripts and make some new samples for the background NPCs in AC: Revelations, and release that shit as an update. It's pretty much an embarrassment for all of us the way it is right now.

Moving on, I noted in my preliminary review that Ezio felt like he played old. In fact, this was not much different from the previous game. Once you start getting geared up the audio commentary reminds you of his age, but he pretty much scrambles about as nimbly as ever. In many ways this is a bummer. I mean, the developers had the opportunity to write all of Ezio's parts as the old guy, and use a somewhat younger Altair to give the player the experience of being the lithe and able assassin. Instead they went the other way around. That said, I totally enjoyed playing most of the game as Ezio, so at the end of the day I can't be too harsh on that decision, except for it's narrative impact on the game.

Now, to pick up a few of the pieces from the previous post. I found the bombs to be an excellent addition to the game. At first I wasn't a huge fan of the crafting system itself, but once I became acquainted with it I found the interface fluid, and that it didn't require a whole lot of time. Being able to make and use different bombs definitely adds a lot to the array of choices the player has tactically and strategically, so all in all bombs were definitely a net gain. 

Regarding the tower defense game: I played it two more times and found that I wasn't getting any better at it. I think if I spent some time on it I could become facile with it, but at the end of the day I kind of just think it's a bad Tower Defense game. It can of course be avoided by maintaining a low profile status, and this was largely the route that I took. Needless to say, that impacted my game in various ways at various points. 

Then of course there's the firt person platformer/puzzle game they decided to put in there for some reason. If you haven't played the game, you might think at this point that I'm joking, but sadly I'm not. For some godforsaken reason, someone at Ubisoft thought it would be a great idea to put an FPS platformery (FPP?) thing in the middle of an Asssassin's Creed game. I'm not sure what the venn diagram for people who like Assassin's Creed games and people who love FPPs looks like, but I'm pretty sure that there's a divide here even among "core gamers."

Granted, even more so than the tower defense mini-game, the FPP is technically optional. However there is a big chunk of the narrative for Desmond in it. This resulted in my playing four of the five available levels (the four I had unlocked). I'm not actually going to judge the quality of the FPP based on the narrative content of those levels, because that actually wouldn't be fair to the game design behind the platformer. At the end of the day, I'd say it's not bad for what it is, but it's really not what I bought AC: Revelations for. 

All of these issues with the mini-games spiral around one core design issue: If you're modifying and/or extending a more or less successful game model or franchise, don't put things in that go against the grain of the existing game or games. These things will be far more likely to fundamentally disrupt the flow of the player's experience. While my core critique of the series applies to AC: Brotherhood as well, this was one thing it got almost perfect. While some might disagree, I found the addition of the assassin's including the assassin management mini-game only enhanced the existing game play from the prior game. By contrast, the tower defense game fundamentally disrupts the player's flow, while the FPP regardless of its quality is basically tangential to the game.

At the end of the day, I have to say that Assassin's Creed: Revelations didn't need more things in it anyway. If anything it needed one or two less. Some reptile part of my brain doesn't understand why the designers didn't just do the sequels to 2 about Ezio without the Desmond wrapper. It could've been acceptable within the narrative framework they'd already layed out at the end of 2. They never technically needed to advance Desmond's narrative. They could've just suspended that entirely for 3! Ezio's world could've been even more expansive if they'd just chosen to color a little further outside of the lines of that vague but pervasive B movie Hollywood game narrative design rule. But of course, when I bring both lobes to bear on the situation, I know exactly why this game works the way it does, and when I enjoy the design it is mostly in spite of the production.

Reprinted from moseswolfenstein.com 


1.If you forgot that part about the weapon or the faction during step two, you've already set yourself up for problems depending on the assignment.

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