The premise of this game is that Desmond's brain is going into overload thanks to the countless hours he has been putting into the Animus machine reliving the memories of his ancestors, so he can no longer tell the difference between his own reality and that of Altair and Ezio. This means living out the end of both their tales, as well as coming to terms with his own past.
AC:R is set almost exclusively in Constantinople (Istanbul), following the single city plan of its predecessor. While the change in architecture is a definite bonus, Constantinople feels significantly smaller than Rome and there are certain areas that the player where the player must traipse back and forth repeatedly. While some effort has been made to speed up crossing the city with ziplines that allow the player to traverse the rooftops more rapidly, these tend to be in short supply in the areas that are covered a lot. Furthermore, it's quite easy to explore a large amount of Constantinople from very early on in the game, and as such players don't get that sense of gradually exploring and uncovering more locations as time passes. While this supports the open nature of the world, it ends up detracting from the game rather than adding to it. Not being able to go somewhere makes players want it more.
Too much freedom can be a bad thing...
Retained from the previous game is the concept of assassin towers and assassin recruits, allowing you to train and call upon assassins whenever you like. The mission system has also received an upgrade, allowing Ezio to manage the assassins to conduct a campaign to regain control of European cities from the templars. This actually makes the missions feel a bit more "real" and make the player feel a little more invested in them by making sure that missions are conducted on a regular basis to ensure a city regained does not fall back into templar hands. Assassins can also go on "master" missions, where Ezio will accompany and assist the recruit to train them, which is a really nice touch. These missions offer a different angle to the gameplay and really let the player take on the role of mentor.
Who would have thought teaching could be so much fun?
The mechanics and controls have changed again slightly for AC:R, allowing players to more easily wield and use melee and ranged weapons in combat. This is a valuable thing, as the difficult bar of the combat is raised again, and there are some enemies that can really dish out serious damage in a short period of time. While this increased challenge is a good thing, the feedback from the combat feels extraordinarily weak. Sometimes it is possible to lose a large amount of health very quickly without even realising, leaving the player wondering what they did wrong.
AC:R also continues to add to Ezio's arsenal, providing even more options for dispatching, disabling or distracting opponents. The ability to easily throw enemies to the ground, use them as mobile free-running obstacles or dispatch them with the countless weapons in your arsenal really gives players the freedom to fight in pretty much whichever style they choose. AC:R does potentially take it to a point where there are too many weapons, so you can end up spending time thinking about your options rather than simply doing. The addition of bombs and bomb crafting adds a new strategic element to missions, but for the most part they really don't seem to be worth the effort and micromanagement required. It's an extra level of fuss over and above the effort of recruiting and training assassins, and that already pulls the player out of the meat of the "real" game enough.
I can do without these
Another major new mechanic introduced to the game is that notoriety has been replaced with Templar Awareness. When this meter fills, then crimes can result in templars attacking one of the Assassin Dens, which are the replacement for the Assassin Towers in AC:B. These attacks result in a tower defense minigame where you must place assassins to defend against the onslaught of attacking templars to retain control of your base. Unfortunately it's not a very well designed or particularly interesting tower defense game, and people wanted to play a tower defense game, they'd buy a tower defense game.
To change up the gameplay, you get a few sequences where you play as Altair and Desmond, which are a nice touch, but these really seem to come too infrequently to feel like the game is living up to the promise of its advertising, or even the premise of its story. The game is still almost exclusively about Ezio, with Altair and Desmond feeling relegated to minor characters. In the case of Desmond, this is actually a relief, because his gameplay elements are like a first person platform game crossed with tetris. First person platforming is almost always a bad idea, and AC:R is not one of the rare exceptions that makes it fun or enjoyable.
And I can definitely do without this
The presentation of the game has been stepped up another increment; the cinematics and storytelling elements are arguably stronger than previous games, and the designers have managed to weave in some really visually impressive sequences and places. A giant underground cavern complete with waterfalls is one of the most spectacular settings in the game to date, and given the locales it has covered, that's saying something. Constantinople itself is wonderfully realised, and definite justice is given to the architecture and aesthetic of the city. The music also picks up again, with the addition of Lorne Balfe to co-write Jesper Kyd injecting some new musical ideas into the soundtrack, which really help the feeling of the game after the somewhat lacklustre music of AC:B.
Some of the gameplay borders on the fantastically ridiculous, but there are some great missions to be had here. One of the amusing highlights is Ezio taking on the role of one of the much hated minstrels from previous games, complete with self-aware out-of-tune singing, indicating the game doesn't need to take itself too seriously all the time. The only real drawback is the "full synchronisation" requirements of AC:R. If the player does not meet the extra requirements of the mission, then they only achieve 50% synchronisation rather than 100%. This makes the player feel punished for not achieving it, rather than feeling as though they gain a benefit for doing so. There also appear to be no additional memory bonuses granted to the player, which means full synchronisation feels like a chore rather than an avenue for additional fun.
Ezio picked the right career. He's no minstrel.
Overall, AC:R is an enjoyable entry in the series, but it's definitely the weakest game except for the first one. It's quite short, experiments with a number of new ideas that don't quite work, but still manages to get the core experience of Assassin's Creed right. The main problem with AC:R is that it doesn't do terribly much new that feels innovative or dramatically better than its predecessors. It's still a lot of fun and delivers more of what players have come to expect, but never really feels like it makes a step forward to really grab the player and whet their appetite for this year's full sequel.
If you've been interested in the series at all, it's worth playing, but it's probably not something that would warrant a full-price purchase. At the very least, it leaves the player satisfied that they've brought the stories of Altair and Ezio to a satisfying conclusion, and it does so in a manner that is fun and interesting to play.
I'll be looking at the series as a whole in a couple of upcoming posts, covering gameplay, presentation and storytelling, as these four games offer a really interesting insight and example of how a series can change and adapt while retaining true to its roots.