Well somebody at Ubisoft's been watching Inception. Assassin's Creed: Revelations begins with chronically plank-faced protagonist Desmond washing up on a sad-looking desert island. He's told, by a digital ghost, that this is the default setup of the device that lets him explore his past lives – the Animus. Essentially, he's trapped inside an autoexec.bat file.
But in a move that would make Christopher Nolan blush, while you control Desmond's Renaissance ancestor Ezio in Constantinople, Ezio is himself discovering magical memory-unlocking keys left behind by his 12th century ancestor Altair. If time travelling, science-fiction oddness is what put you off Assassin's Creed in the past, prepare to groan a decade of groans as Revelations routinely expends drastic countermeasures trying to avoid doing what it does best.
What it does best, of course, is death, and the third game in the trilogy has entire morgues of the stuff. Arriving in Constantinople in search of his keys, a bearded, greying and creaky-shouldered Ezio ends up embroiled in a conspiratorial Templar powergrab. Cue the series' most championed features: Ezio shadowing targets, infiltrating enemy strongholds, free-running and executing choreographed, riotous assassinations. Stabbing somebody in the neck has never looked so much like ballet.
The guild-building of Brotherhood is expanded upon. Assassins in your employ may now be put in charge of dens around Constantinople, or sent to other Mediterranean cities to establish new guilds, which generate experience points for assassins stationed in those cities as well as income for you. This is as compelling a pursuit as it was in Brotherhood, as your assassins level up, becoming more powerful allies when called upon in battles and, eventually, preventing dens from falling back into Templar hands.
Seven dens around the city can be captured by assassinating a local Templar captain, but once under your control they can be contested whenever your notoriety reaches a critical point (Templars keep a vague tally of how much stabbing and renovating you've been doing, which, as in previous games, can be reduced by paying off heralds and murdering officials). This leads to the first of Revelations' new features – a tower defence minigame in which Ezio must place units on rooftops in order to stave off a Templar assault on a random, unprotected den.
It's a strange distraction that feels absurd on the first play, unnecessary on the second and frustrating thereafter, as you frantically order many different flavours of assassin to occupy every bit of clickable slate available. Placing units and blockades requires spending 'morale' points, which not only implies that there's an off-screen cache of unenthusiastic assassins who simply cannot be arsed to climb up on a roof in defence of their lives, but which entirely detaches the act of den defence from the other currencies and mechanics of the game. Templar attacks are just frequent enough – and enduring the sideshow is just slightly less hassle than losing the den – that you'll feel slavishly obliged to take them on as they appear. It's rudely intrusive, like being forced to Alt-Tab out to a game of Bejeweled every 45 minutes.
Bombs and bomb-crafting have arrived too, in case you don't remember requesting this feature. Ezio can use bomb ingredients to construct dozens of different kinds of exciting explosives, from sticky shrapnel bombs and stink bombs to poison-gas tripwires and pedestrianslowing caltrop grenades. The usefulness of these devices varies depending on whether or not you remember they exist, and it's remarkably easy to forget that they do. The game seems awkwardly obsessed with its new bombs. Almost every chest in the city contains a sort of gunpowder or bomb casing, and the cities you conquer shower you with daily deliveries of bomb ingredients. But bombs feel as brash, blunt and clumsy as Ezio isn't, requiring you to reconfigure your fingers and brain to unfamiliar positions to use them. The alternative of open combat or impromptu parkour requires less mental effort, and you'll find yourself relying on these escape methods more. Rather more saddening is that you'll soon be carrying as many bomb ingredients as is permitted, until your magpie instinct for looting chests withers and drops off entirely. Instead you'll ignore those hitherto glistening treats, with glum resignation.
A new hookblade replaces one of your regular stabby wristblades, which is incredibly useful given that Constantinople is strewn with ziplines. These not only allow for quick and dramatic access to restricted areas, but enable a new method of assassination of guards who loiter underneath these aerial assassin thoroughfares. The hookblade also enables your new double jump when climbing, and allows you to evade guards by running towards them at full whack and 'rolling' over them. It also comes with its own sickening combat animations – including one in which Ezio unapologetically hooks somebody in the face. It goes into the eye socket. Pedants, meanwhile, will find it irritating that despite the obviously hooked end of his new blade, Ezio can stab with it as if it were still sharp. Just as with bombs, there's a certain inelegance, as it stabs illogically, clanks loudly on ledges and jerks to one side as you mount ziplines. Infrequently useful ziplines, which, it soon becomes obvious, prompted its inclusion.
New collectibles appear in the form of hidden Animus data fragments. For every five of these you discover, a new chapter of Desmond's backstory is unlocked back on Animus Island. Dropping you into a first-person, Desmond's eye-view perspective, these chapters take place in virtual puzzle rooms not far removed from those of Aperture Science, where cubic, concrete and dark rooms are pierced by streaks of burning natural light. It's a visual spectacle in places, though the actual puzzles feel like a poor man's Portal as you conjure up magical platforms to navigate the space. All the while Desmond ruminates on his life as a whiny, unwilling assassin, as if being an assassin wasn't the coolest thing in the world. This is Ubisoft's storytelling at its worst. Ezio's Sex and the City monologues as he pens expositional missives to his sister back home, just in case you were wondering, are Ubisoft's storytelling at its second worst.
But while these mutant additions might not fall neatly into the existing Assassin's formula, that formula still prevails. Assassin's Creed: Revelations remains a thrilling, violent and at times astounding adventure. It's ultimately an exercise in plot tidying, drawing together and bringing to a satisfying close the disparate threads of Ezio and Altair's stories in preparation for a hopefully more progressive Assassin's Creed 3. And once you forgive its clunky and staggered delivery, there are touching, and indeed revelatory moments to be had.
Revelatory too, is Ubisoft's apparent abandonment of its always-on DRM. I'll stress that this is the case with the finished, nonretail review build – Ubisoft could still be devising an even more nefarious DRM method in which you're prompted to place your genitals into a primed USB mousetrap – but it appears, for now, that Ubisoft no longer care where you stick your ethernet cables. A one-time activation is required, but Revelations can be freely played offline thereafter.
Other PC woes, such as abhorrent mouse acceleration rendering the game near unplayable on keyboard and mouse, remain. Revelations, more than most, was designed around the buttons, sticks and triggers of 360 and PS3 pads, and as such almost demands the use of a controller. If you can deal with that indecency, it's an otherwise neat port.
So: much the same murderfun but with unnecessary tangential baubles – that's Revelations in a teacup. It's milking the Assassin's teat for certain, and while the milk's still sweet, the teat's clearly going a bit raw.