In a video gaming world dominated by full-force melees and wanton firearms engagements, the stealthy approach favored by Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed" series is a welcome respite.
There's killing, and then there's killing with style. "Assassin's Creed: Revelations" (for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99) delivers the latter. Scurrying up walls in 1511 Constantinople just to shank someone in the neck has never been so fun.
To recap: You are Desmond Miles, a 21st-century man abducted by a large corporation that is a front for the ancient and enduring Templar Order. Using a device called the Animus, the Templars force Desmond to relive centuries-old memories of distant ancestors, all stone-cold killers, in an attempt to locate lost artifacts that will bring them ultimate world power.
Those ancient memories are where all the fun comes in as Desmond relives the life of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio isn't the biggest guy on the block, but what he lacks in brawn he makes up for in wall-climbing, rooftop-leaping and knife-chucking.
So how does it play? Gorgeously. The sprawling old-world metropolis of Constantinople is one of the most realistic gaming environments I've ever seen. It's wide-open for exploring, and the exhaustive attention to detail is really impressive.
While death was just a blade away, I had to remind myself not to kill everyone in sight. Knocking off civilians remained a bad move, as it drew attention to me and made my presence as a troublemaker more evident. Byzantine guards, for example, sought to kill me on sight, so I had to duck in alleyways and blend in with crowds of commoners and pickpockets. Luckily, I was able to pickpocket some of them back, earning a little cash for armor upgrades.
"Eagle Sense" is a cool new tool that allowed me to gain the upper hand on my enemies by reveals and shows environmental clues to help solve level challenges. It revealed handholds in stone walls for climbing tips and well-walked trails behind people I was following. That came in handy when I felt I had begun to wander the cobbled streets of Constantinople a bit too aimlessly.
The story mode is full of small missions that lead to the greater goal of finding missing artifacts before the Templar goons do. And there is plot consistency: Altair Ibn-La'Ahad, the assassin in the first game of the series, is back as a playable character.
Online play was decent. I was plunked down in a scene with a handful of other assassins, and we milled about a souk with some civilians before springing into action. I was given a target to kill and it was crucial to quickly find and dispatch that player without letting him know I was in pursuit.
I used various methods, including the trusty hide-in-a-bale-of-hay approach. But this isn't the fastest way to notch the kills, so I mostly fast-walked the paths with my eyes peeled. Often, just as I was about to take out my target, I was treated to the cold steel blade of death myself. Trickery abounds everywhere online.
If I noticed my enemies coming and acted quickly enough, I was able to grant myself an "honorable death" -- which didn't prevent my demise, but gave me a few points for seeing it was coming.
In its solo campaign and in multiplayer, "Assassin's Creed: Revelations" is easily one of the year's top action titles. Four stars out of four.
Ron Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/Journorati