Most game series would consider themselves lucky to have their fourth entry even more anticipated than their second or third, but with fame comes high expectations. With Assassin's Creed: Revelations, developer Ubisoft is giving players the third game following the same character, based upon the same combat and traversal, with a few added refinements.
But is Assassin's Creed: Revelations going to be a game that players remember as one that even better honed the basic principles of the series, or advanced into new territory for the franchise as a whole?
That's a difficult question to answer, and not for the reasons that one might expect. As a game, Assassin's Creed has grown from an open world adventure with an interesting science-fiction premise into a certified epic, with the last two games spanning the life of assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and chronicling the modern day battle between the Templars and Assassins. Even with a mythology this rich, Ubisoft has delivered without a doubt the most story-driven and cinematic game to date with Revelations. As the name implies, this game is intending to do one thing, and that is provide answers. Not just for our protagonist Desmond, but for Ezio and the man who started it all, AltaÃ¯r Ibn La-Ahad.
Ubisoft made no secret of the fact that they would be including both Ezio and Altair as playable characters, and we won't spoil anything, but the way in which the two men are intertwined is worth the price of admission alone. Those who have stuck with the series since the beginning will be glad to hear that AltaÃ¯r's life following the events of the first game are told as beautifully and skillfully as they deserve, and are just one way that the mystery surrounding Masyaf Castle and the Apple of Eden is clarified.
Along with Altair comes yet another chapter in the life of Ezio Auditore, this time centered around the city of Constantinople and struggle for power within the royal family. Players fond of collecting hidden items around the game world will also be rewarded with a glimpse into the history of protagonist Desmond, and exactly how he came to find himself embroiled in this centuries-old conflict. To say that Desmond's memory sequences offer a new gameplay experience would be an understatement, with players forced to solve physics-based puzzles that are completely unprecedented within the series. This section may be entirely optional, but one dose is sure to have even casual players hunting down the hidden items to see more.
Again, all of this is contained within a 15-hour main story featuring the same basic gameplay seen in the series so far, with a few notable additions. We've already provided details on how the new hookblade would be changing both traversal and combat, and how revolutionary the inclusion of bombs could be for tactical players. These new features do offer a wide variety of possibilities, with the bombs themselves providing much of the same strategy and stealth options as Batman: Arkham City did last month. Whether it's smoke decoys that draw guards from their posts, blood bombs that panic soldiers into thinking they've been injured, or just a smoke bomb for a surprise attack, the number of ways a situation can be tackled has grown exponentially.
That said, the same problems and hitches that have plagued the control system of the series are still present, and an increase in combat choices only compounds the issue. The developers have added a new interface to assign primary and secondary weapons to hot-keys, but the overall traversal and attacks are still not anywhere near intuitive.
We're certainly not criticizing the developers for adding choices, but dropping from a ledge instead of jumping from it in the heat of a chase, or attacking an innocent bystander who happened to be standing beside the target hasn't become any less irritating. In addition, the bomb-crafting and selection is a bonus, but unless a great deal of time is spent mastering the awkward interface, many will go unnoticed by most players.
The nicest improvement for series fans is unquestionably the Assassin's Dens, and the new systems that have been implemented to the territory control mechanics. The act of recruiting, training, and assigning is too multi-faceted to briefly describe, but suffice to say that all aspects of the system seen in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood have been evolved wonderfully. Some may have had their doubts concerning the new Den Defense mini-game getting thrown into the mix, but in practice the presence of a tower-defense game makes perfect sense.
But as was said before, this game is not about combat or rooftop-running. Sure, there are some new additions with zip-lines and smoke bombs, and yes, the traversal elements have been made more interesting and reactive. But Revelations never ceases to place the exploration of Ezio's character and story above mission design, and the moment-to-moment gameplay does suffer as a result. The missions are far less varied, and there are fewer of them, with the average being much shorter in length than those of Brotherhood. But before players presume that this is a game-breaking issue, the depth and quality of the story itself have to be taken into account.
The series has always contained well-written dialogue and stunning cut-scenes, and the fierce affection that Ezio has received from the gaming community is testament to that. But with Revelations, the developers have really outdone themselves. The animation of all of the characters, and Ezio in particular, have been given a serious boost to capture subtleties and facial expressions that were never possible a few years ago. And while engaging stories have never been an issue with Assassin's Creed, the number of times that players will set their controllers aside and enjoy a lengthy cut-scene is now easily a dozen, which takes this game into a very different genre. The only real comparison is the film-quality scenes from Uncharted - and make no mistake, Ubisoft looks poised to go toe-to-toe with Nathan Drake; at least, if the story-telling of Revelations is a sign of what's to come.
Vocal fans have been hoping that all of their questions concerning Desmond, AltaÃ¯r, Ezio, Minerva, Juno, and what disaster looms in 2012 would be answered, and in what may come as a shock to many jaded gamers, most of them actually are addressed. The individual memories of both assassins do a great deal to fill in the series' plot holes, but the game's ending is sure to leave loyal fans with their hearts wrenched, their jaws dropped, and their wallets emptied on pre-orders for next year's installment.
So while the gameplay may have once again received slight tweaks and improvements, the frustrations that had to be overcome in the past remain, even if more options are given to those who want them. And while some might look at the emphasis on story over combat as an undesirable move, a more artfully delivered narrative is something we've always been hoping for from the franchise, especially if it's coming to the big screen.
Ubisoft has answered that demand with gusto, bringing not just closure to the characters of Ezio Auditore and AltaÃ¯r Ibn La'Ahad, but one of the most beautifully delivered endings of modern gaming. Both in terms of presentation and opening the door for what we presume to be Assassin's Creed 3, Revelations offers information and, yes, revelations that must be seen by those planning on finishing off the story next year.
There's no denying the fact that this game was made with the fans in mind, and will likely exceed even their loftiest expectations. We've got to hand it to Ubisoft, since we never thought they could pull the loose ends together in a sophisticated way, but they did. The advancement of gameplay may have suffered as a result, but with a foundation this strong, and a story this satisfying, that's a trade-off we're willing to make.
If you've completed the game, give us your opinion below - then head over to our Assassin's Creed: Revelations spoilers discussion, where you can discuss the ending and other story beats without worrying about ruining the experience for others.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations is available now for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
Let me know what you think on Twitter @andrew_dyce.