"Revelations" might sound like a meaningless stock subtitle for unnumbered sequels (see also: "Origins," "Evolution"), but when Ubisoft's Annecy studio first added multiplayer to stealth action series Assassin's Creed, it was genuinely revelatory: a tense, cerebral, asymmetric competitive experience that was true to the spirit of an until-then decidedly single-player, story-driven franchise. But that was in last year's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. What manner of revelation can Revelations bring to the table?
In a word, none. In many words, the multiplayer in Assassin's Creed: Revelations isn't a radical overhaul of the previous game's offering, but instead, it's a richer, refined experience that builds on the comparatively bare bones of Brotherhood, as well as adding the expected new maps and skins. Though the multiplayer suite in Revelations won't offer the full surprise of its predecessor, the additions and improvements are many, sweeping, and, in as much as we've seen so far, welcome.
First up, there are the fixes. The core free-running and stealth-killing action feels much the same as in Brotherhood, but with a handful of mechanics retuned or rebalanced. Locking on to a distant target is less fiddly. Stunning your attacker, which felt unreliable and finicky in Brotherhood, is much easier, with the balance tipped a bit further in the prey's favor than before. What's more, if assassin and prey hit, kill, and stun simultaneously, the target receives an "honorable death." Though he or she will still be killed, both parties earn points. It's a way of rewarding you for spotting your attackers, even if you weren't fast enough to evade them.
Outside of the action itself, Ubisoft promises to cut down the time players will spend queuing for their next match (Brotherhood multiplayer fans will recall the frustration of long and occasionally unfruitful wait times). It's not yet possible to confirm how improved the online access is, having spent our hands-on time playing opponents in the same room, but this is exactly what we wanted to hear. At any rate, players can now vote for their next map and mode between matches from a selection of three.
In our time with the game, we played with nine new characters across three new maps (Antioch, Constantinople, Knights Hospital), all designed in keeping with the exotic setting of the single-player campaign. We also sampled two of the new modes: Deathmatch and Artifact Assault. These sit at opposite ends of a scale of multiplayer complexity.
Deathmatch is a simple free-for-all, a pared-down version of Brotherhood's Wanted mode. You play without a radar to point you to your target and without computer-controlled duplicates of your target to distract you. We're told Deathmatch is intended as a kind of entry point for those inexperienced in Assassin's Creed multiplayer, delivering the basic experience with less sneaky evasion going on than in the other modes. If you can spot a character who matches the portrait in your target window, it's more or less seek and destroy.
Artifact Assault, on the other hand, is a take on capture the flag, blending team-based defense and attack with the game's characteristic free running and devious stealth, and it makes for a more complex mode than Deathmatch. The map is divided into two. In your team's half, you are an assassin; in the enemy's half, you are its prey. You must sneak--or, riskily, dash--into the enemy's side of the map, swipe a flag (sorry, artifact) from the enemy base, and then get it back to yours. The Assassin's Creed twist is that you might run hell-for-leather out of the enemy's half of the map, in which you are at risk of assassination, to the relative safety of your own. Or you might smuggle the invisible artifact out from under your enemy's nose, putting the assassin-eluding tricks in your abilities loadout to good use.
The new content is capped off with new perks and skills for those custom loadouts. Among them is the tripwire bomb, in effect a proximity mine; closure, which instantly shuts and locks nearby gates; and minor hack, which kills opponents at long range by hacking the animus software itself. New, also, is a storyline layered over the multiplayer progression. As you level up, to a level cap of 50, you will proceed through an Abstergo-based story--the plot of Revelations as seen through the eyes of the Templars. Revelations will also provide an equivalent of prestiging for multiplayer enthusiasts; you can loop through the 50 levels of progression up to 99 times.
Customizable avatars are the icing on the multiplayer cake in Revelations. The Templar persona skins are more minutely customizable than in Brotherhood, with six body parts or costume elements to choose designs for (head and hair, chest, arms, legs, belt, and accessory), along with the usual color choices. In addition, you select your avatar's primary and secondary weapons, which in turn determine the in-game animated flourishes for kills; stuns; and the all-new, just-for-fun taunt moves.
Cosmetic customization spills over into new social features in Revelations, in which a player's Templar profile divulges his or her stats, including favorite skin, favorite ability, kill-to-death ratio, and the like. These profiles are the calling cards you'll encounter in the game's leaderboards and in its new dares feature. Dares are challenges issued by a friend's multiplayer accomplishments--a little like Need for Speed's recently added Autolog social suite.
In customizing your Templar profile, you can also pick a title--with various titles unlocked by leveling up and by completing challenges--as well as a customizable emblem design, of the kind we've seen adorning armor in, say, Halo multiplayer. This emblem, though, isn't just for your profile card: it appears on your avatar's costume (usually on a cloak) in the game proper, as it will on the computer-controlled duplicates drafted in to confuse would-be assassins, along with the rest of your cosmetic customization.
It might be hard to beat the revelatory leap of no multiplayer to some (rather good) multiplayer, as between Assassin's Creeds 2 and Brotherhood, but Revelations looks ready to take Assassin's Creed's first stab at multiplayer somewhere special. Look out for it in November.