Even the greatest heroes can't live forever. And so it goes for Ezio Auditore di Firenze, who finally steps aside to make room for new champions in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. This is another quality entry in a quality series, and it unleashes you in a visually stunning re-creation of 16th-century Constantinople. Additions to the movement mechanics make exploring the city a joyous exercise in high-flying parkour, with you as Ezio leaping across rooftops and flinging yourself up exterior walls like a Renaissance superhero. Like many sequels, Revelations giveth, and Revelations taketh away, so you lose certain elements (horses) in favor of a slew of new ones (bomb crafting). Lots and lots of new ones. Assassin's Creed: Revelations is sometimes a lumpy Frankenstein's monster of a game, half-formed appendages stitched into place regardless of whether they belong there or not. Thankfully, when Revelations remembers to be an Assassin's Creed game, it soars into the Turkish skies, reminding fans why they fell in love with this freewheeling series.
Expectedly, Revelations isn't all Ezio's story. It's also Desmond's. You remember Desmond, the bartender-cum-assassin whose mind is probed to discover truths that could potentially prevent the earth's destruction. Desmond looks different than you might remember: faces have been redesigned, features elongated, making your old comrades-in-conspiracy feel a bit unfamiliar, as if they have had plastic surgery since you saw them last. In any case, Desmond's mind is a prisoner within the Animus, the machine that allows his associates to tap into his ancestral memories. This computerized sanctuary is presented as an island, where shimmering doors leading to who-knows-where punctuate a virtual seaside. Here, Desmond and the enigmatic Subject Sixteen explore the bartender's memories and regrets in long conversations that illuminate Desmond's former life.
In Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Desmond was becoming a full-fledged assassin, and you guided him through dank caves and across rooftops as a sort of Ezio-lite. The character arc matched the gameplay arc: Desmond was gaining confidence, and this was reflected in his ever-improving abilities. Revelations tries a more thoughtful approach but falls short. Subject 16 starts as a mystery and remains one, making for an unsatisfactory replacement for the team with which Desmond has typically interacted. Meanwhile, Desmond passes through those shining portals and into his own memories. These memory levels are made of gray columns and tiled floors that glisten and undulate like digital rivers. You move through them in first-person view while Desmond talks himself through the pain of his past. This synthetic cyberspace makes for an effective backdrop, but the accompanying gameplay is anything but fun. You create blocks and ramps out of thin air to pass through these levels, but moving across them feels flat, and jumping is inexact. The flatness turns to frustration as you encounter gusts that move the blocks you create, and deal with energy fields that cause them to dissipate. These levels are one of Revelations' many attempts to force elements into a game that doesn't benefit from them.
The good news is that you spend the bulk of your time as Ezio, though he isn't the only historical presence taking center stage. Altair from the original game returns as a playable character, and Revelations makes good use of the parallels between the heroes' lives, and scenes near the conclusion resonate with great emotion. Yes, there is a "holy cow!" moment near the end, as expected for an Assassin's Creed game, and the final shot will have fans--once again--wondering what comes next. But it's the calm before the storm that ties two lives together and thus impresses most; there's a moment when you realize you will miss these assassins of centuries past. As for Ezio's story, well, the man is older and tired, and the story reflects this weariness. It introduces new characters, the best of whom is Sofia, an Italian bookseller who welcomes Ezio's formidable charms. But the main plot, involving political unrest among the sultan and his family members, is merely serviceable, lacking the personal touch that made Assassin's Creed II's narrative so enthralling.
Nevertheless, Revelations is as absorbing as its predecessors, because it's so much fun to move through Constantinople and other key areas. This is due in part to the world's sheer beauty. Deep golds and reds make a stroll through the grand bazaar a feast for the eyes, and famous landmarks like Hagia Sophia cut striking silhouettes against the night sky. Row a boat across a strait, and you marvel at the authentic wake that ripples behind. A mauve haze softens the horizon as day passes into night, and makes you keenly feel the passage of time--a thematically relevant effect, considering how conscious the older Ezio is of his mortality. Of course, previous Assassin's Creed games looked stunning too, but Revelations is no less impressive for it. Not that every detail is perfect: citizens still occasionally pop into existence before your very eyes, and you might spot a guard clipped halfway through a rooftop. But such quibbles hardly matter in a game this visually spectacular.
The other reason exploration is so joyous is that the simple act of moving from place to place is so satisfying. Animations remain superb. Ezio doesn't grab some unseen outcropping as he scales towers: he reaches for actual ledges and outcroppings, which makes his impossible acrobatics feel authentic. Climbing a tower reaching into the heavens, admiring the view, and then making a leap of faith into a hay bale hundreds of feet below is a delight, as it always has been. But Revelations expands the parkour aspect of the game by giving you use of a handheld hook. With this hook, Ezio can scale upward more quickly and glide down ziplines--and even assassinate rooftop guards as he skims past.
The hook also allows you to reach out and grab walls as you fall--walls that would be out of reach in previous Assassin's Creed games. You can also buy parachutes and activate them in midair, which feels free and easy, like wafting downward on a cool breeze. Revelations makes it more fun than ever to stay on the move. In fact, some of its best moments focus on fluid parkour, such as an atmospheric trek through a dank cave and an exhilarating escape from a flaming boat. The best set pieces are those that focus on movement. How unfortunate that other such events are less successful--and that the game leans on the lesser ones so early on. Avoiding rocks as you are dragged behind a careening carriage isn't fun, nor is bashing other carriages as you drive one. Another carriage-focused mission is more entertaining and has you activating a parachute and flying behind the vehicle as a sort of Renaissance-era parasailer. It's nice to have the variety in between long stretches of fighting guards and wandering among crowds, but earlier games simply did such diversions better.
Not that Revelations doesn't try to mix up the pace; far from it. Like in Brotherhood, you can recruit assassins and send them off on contracts to such cities as Barcelona and Athens. This menu-based minigame works much as it did before, but there are two key improvements that make recruitment much more interesting now. Firstly, the contracts have been given context in the form of a strategic minigame. Completing contracts increases assassin influence and diminishes Templar presence. Your goal is to earn and retain control of those cities, which lends meaning to what used to be abstract busywork without real consequence. Secondly, once an assassin reaches a high enough level, you can assign him or her as a leader of a faction den. Doing so opens up new missions in which you accompany recruits as they tail targets and attempt assassinations. Your newest brothers typically fail their missions on the first attempt but rise above such adversity later on. Before, you knew Ezio was a mentor because you were told he was. Now, you actually feel like you're making a difference.
It's natural that developer Ubisoft Montreal would want to expand the previous game's mechanics, which felt like they belonged because they were pertinent to the story, and to Ezio's leadership role. On the other hand, it's hard to know what to make of the brand-new addition of tower defense to the mix. The Templars take over for Brotherhood's Borgias, controlling key areas and forcing you to kill their commander so that you can light a signal fire and purchase nearby shops. But the Templars can regain control if you don't take the time to assassinate key figures or bribe heralds. (This new twist on the notoriety concept doesn't require you to rip wanted posters off walls.) To preserve control, you participate in a tower defense battle in which you place assassins on the rooftops above a single, short alley and destroy the waves of soldiers that stampede in.
You do all this from a single vantage point, earning morale (the minigame's currency) as Templars fall, and using it to place blockades and assassins. Not only does the whole thing seem out of place, but it isn't enjoyable on its own terms. It's nice that you can shoot marauders from above as your fellow assassins take aim with bows or leap onto their targets from rooftops. But your limited view is confining, and the gameplay is too simple to lead to a rewarding victory. To make things even less fun, the camera occasionally zooms in for a close-up of a falling enemy or brother. This cinematic touch was probably meant to add excitement to this unexciting process, but it's just aggravating. All it does is disrupt the flow.
As an infomercial host might say: "But wait--there's more!" Now you can craft bombs out of ingredients that you find in chests and earn for completing contracts. It's a simple process; you just go to a crafting station, select the right ingredients, and voila: bombs. The bombs might spew poison into the air or simply explode as a good bomb should. They're nice toys to have but unnecessary because combat isn't so difficult that you're forced to pull them out of your trick bag. That doesn't mean that combat hasn't seen some changes, and to be fair, it is more challenging than before. Much of that new challenge comes from gunners squirreled away in tiny shelters, where they are out of your blade's reach. Getting shot strips away a good deal of health and knocks you back, though you should always have plenty of health packs if you regularly loot bodies. Nonetheless, it's annoying to be shot by a pair of unseen snipers, especially if you're already engaged. At least you have your own ranged weapons (gun, crossbow, knives, bombs) and can destroy gunners once you find them.
So you get more use out of your gun than before, but battles still focus on swordplay. There's still a nice ebb and flow to the action, which is made more brutal by new, frequent kill animations. You take up arms as both Ezio and Altair, and while Altair doesn't have that many moves at his disposal, his sections are much more linear. You won't do much free-form climbing as the Crusades-era hero; rather, these missions are focused much more on narrative. It's a nostaligic joy to return to Musyaf and see how it has changed in the years since Altair's original adventures. Besides, the change in scenery is welcome. Previous games let you gallop around on horseback outside of city walls. Constantinople doesn't offer much in the way of wide-open spaces, and in fact, there are no horses to ride there. But Ezio does make a detour late in the game, though the change in scenery is accompanied by a decline in free-form parkour.
Brotherhood introduced an unusual multiplayer component to the series, and it returns in Revelations. There are new characters with new special abilities, maps, modes, and other changes, but the core mechanics remain the same. In many cases, you are assigned a target and must identify him as he slinks through the crowds, trying to remain unseen. The map gives you only a rough idea of the target's location, so you need to keep your senses keen. Of course, you also need to refrain from giving yourself away to your assigned assassin, slinking through crowds and standing near identical crowd members. Some new modes take a different tack. In Deathmatch, the proximity radar is gone, as are the clones that make it easier to stay hidden. That mode is entertaining but simple, and it doesn't result in the kind of tension boasted in other modes. The new Artifact Assault mode produces tension, albeit of a different kind. This capture-the-flag variant gives you more chances to sprint at top speeds as you deliver the enemy's flag to your home base, hoping to escape a hotfooted pursuer.
As enjoyable as Revelations' multiplayer modes are, it's the single-player adventure that elicits the strongest reactions. The enhanced acrobatics make the simple act of moving from one place to the next an enormous delight. The improved recruitment mechanics communicate that there are, in fact, high stakes in this underground war between Templars and assassins. Not everything that's new represents an improvement, however. First-person puzzling and tower defense are bewildering, unenjoyable additions to a game that didn't need them. On the bright side, the game usually sticks to what it does best. And what Revelations does best is to set you free in a magnificent city, where you skyrocket across the rooftops, letting the gorgeous sights and evocative music transport you to another life and another century.