Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Montreal’s long awaited action-adventure title, offers an innovative story, incredible graphics, and a ground-breaking control scheme that takes context sensitivity to new heights. However, despite these strengths, the game falls just short of greatness by failing to deliver enough mission variety to keep players completely engaged for the entire 15 to 20 hour experience. That’s not to say that Assassin’s Creed isn’t a wonderful experience overall… it’s certainly worth your time. It’s just that for all of Assassin’s Creed polish and innovation on the graphics and storytelling side of things, there is a surprising lack of game play variety that becomes tiresome as the game builds to its finale.
Set during the tail end of the 3rd Crusade in 12th century, Assassin’s Creed style and subject matter are heavily inspired by the film Kingdom of Heaven. You play the role of Altair, a cocksure assassin who has recently been stripped of his rank and forced to prove himself by killing key figures who are instrumental in continuing the battle for Jerusalem. The cities and surrounding country side are as sizable and open ended as Grand Theft Auto or Crackdown, and are chocked full of thousands of NPCs wandering around to challenge players who must navigate the sea of bit-mapped faces. In addition to Masyaf, the Assassin stronghold, you will have access to 3 of the massive cities: Acre, which is controlled by the Christians and comprised primarily of castles and stone structures, Damascus, which is held by Saladin’s Muslim forces and has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel, and picturesque Jerusalem, also occupied by the Muslims and home to numerous religious landmarks. Each of these cities is gorgeous and immersive, and constructed such that the player can climb most any surface with skills on par with the likes of Spiderman. Altair finds handhelds without questionable animations or physics breaking your extension of disbelief as he climbs vertical surfaces, and this mechanic is probably most entertaining aspect of the game.
In addition to unlocking areas of the map, the reward for climbing tall structures is the exhilirating leap you get to make afterwards. Luckily, there’s a soft pile of hay wating at the bottom.
The graphics are, in a word, spectacular. Ambient lighting changes based on the position of the clouds, character models are detailed and lifelike, animations are superb across the board, and the authenticity of the art design makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another world. Depth of field is realistically subtle, and light filters provide a great deal of emotion to the proceedings. All in all, I’d say this is the best looking game Ubisoft has ever produced, which is really saying something considering how good the Splinter Cell games have always looked. When you arrive at a new city and are treated with a panoramic view without the tiniest bit of slowdown, you know you’re playing a special game.
Each of the game’s 3 cities contains a trio of historic figures which you are tasked with murdering. Although many people were worried that Assassin’s Creed was going to be little more than a game where a Muslim murders Christians simply for the sake of being controversial, Ubisoft Montreal wisely sidestepped such culturally sensitive material by having Altair assassinate both Christians and Muslims, ostensibly as a means of ending the 3rd Crusade. He’s an assassin of peace, ironically… something Altair becomes painfully aware of during post-assassination dream-sequences in which his victims soliloquize and plead their cases to him from beyond the grave.
Where Assassin’s Creed really excels is in the way it manages context sensitivity. Considering how fluidly the game plays despite the sheer amount of movement and combat options available to players, this game really breaks new ground and raises the bar for action-adventure platforming. Assassin’s Creed features one of the most parsimonious interfaces I’ve ever seen, and it’s a delight to play simply because the mechanics work so damn well. The animations flow together and look so spot-on that simply navigating around the gorgeous environments is an absolute blast, and the best part is that none of this shucking and jiving requires a complicated control scheme.
Much of Assassin’s Creed Gameplay revolves around avoiding the unwanted attention of guards so that you can complete objectives away from prying eyes. Draw too much attention and a battle will ensue, requiring players to choose between fight or flight, forcing you to re-attempt the mission. Bump a person carrying a bundle of sticks or a woman with a pot on her head, and they will drop their wares, bringing down a cadre of goons. Altair can face them or run and hide in a nearby bail of hay, bench, or rooftop garden, and the sensation of outmaneuvering your relatively clumsy foes is an exhilarating rush that never gets old. However, despite his maneuverability, it’s desirable to avoid the ruckus altogether when in a crowd by holding down the B button, which allows Altair to gently push pedestrians out of his path without alerting any nearby sentries.
Fighting mechanics are quite solid, and players will be able to handle large groups of foes with ease. In addition to his assassin’s blade used for 1-hit kills, Altair has a long-sword for maximum damage in group battles, a short-sword that is faster and better suited for large groups, but does less damage, throwing knives, which are great for taking out distant enemies, and his fists, which are only helpful when performing an interrogation. You can collect a handful of flags and kill 60 Templars scattered throughout the game-space, but these side tasks are only appropriate for those obsessed with accruing achievements, as they have no impact on character progression, story, or game play.
Altair can hop from beam to beam with ease, making speedy getaways an attractive tactic.
Although you can get by with fighting most of the time, mission objectives often require players to complete tasks on the down-low. This becomes challenging because performing combat or acrobatic moves require players to switch to high-profile mode, which allows Altair to execute badass maneuvers like scaling sheer building faces, shoulder tackling pedestrians, and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Unfortunately such abilities come at a price: anytime you need to hustle, you hold down the high profile button (R Trigger) and will become much more nimble but also more noticeable to the many guards scattered all over the maps.
Each assassination is broken up into stages, some of which are great, others not so much. Once you travel to the location via horseback, you begin your search for your target by climbing tall structures within the city which reveals the surrounding area on the player’s map and highlights places to investigate. Once atop a building, you can jump off and dive spectacularly into a pile of hay on the streets below, which looks incredibly cool and never gets old. After unlocking various sections of the map, you can begin your investigation of the target, which has players eavesdropping, interrogating, pick-pocketing, saving citizens, or helping other assassins by gathering flags or performing a series of contract kills within a time limit. Finally the player initiates the assassination phase by reporting their research to the local assassin’s bureau and compile the information they have gathered to fulfill the contract kill.
Although the climbing and informant missions can be fun, since the crowd dynamics and free running involved capitalize on the game’s strengths, the eavesdropping, interrogation and pick-pocketing aren’t the slightest bit challenging and often yield only marginally helpful information. Saving citizens is somewhat more exciting, but sadly you will hear the same dialogue repeat each and every one of the 50 or so times the game will ask you save someone, and this gets old fast. It’s generally worth saving these citizens though because they will either unlock scholars, whom you can use for mobile cover, or vigilantes, who will fight for you should the guards come after you, but it would have been really nice if rescuing them didn’t occur in exactly the same fashion every time. At the very least, the dialogue should have had far more variety… it’s never good when you can know what an NPC is going to say verbatim.
In addition, saving citizens ultimately increases your health meter, and the vigilantes will allow you to get away from failed investigations, but by the end of the experience most players will be tired of doing the exact same thing over and over again. Thankfully, you only have to complete a handful of these chores before beginning the assassination phase, which is recommended for anyone who isn’t obsessed with gaining the associated achievements. While there is some helpful information to be found during the investigation phase, the rewards for completing them all are slight at best, and often times assassinations don’t go down as you’d expect, regardless of your efforts in planning things out.
The context sensitive fighting works just as well as the free-running, but does rely a bit too much on reversal moves, shown here.
The assassinations themselves are fairly entertaining, and their completion grants Altair new abilities. However, the order in which your abilities are doled out are questionable. After your third successful hit, you will gain the reversal move, effectively reducing most of the challenge in the remainder of the game’s battles. However, after your next couple assassinations, you then gain the much less useful dodge-counter move, which is no where near as helpful as the reversal ability. It seems that had Ubisoft given you the dodge move before the reversal, it would have felt like your character progression would have represented a more logical advancement of your skills. As it is, you get the best move early in the game, and it reduces the appeal of subsequent upgrades by making Altair feel overpowered a little too early. It’s a small complaint, but it would have helped the lion’s share of the combat encounters devolve into a ‘stand-around-and-wait-to-counter-fest’ 1/3rd of the way into the game.
Finally, Assassin’s Creed has one of the most unique stories you’ll experience this year, but don’t look for any revelations here… being aware of the twists prior to playing the game will defiantly diminish your enjoyment of it. All you need to know is that it’s undeniably fresh and interesting. As with any quality story, I can say with certainty that players will be presented with a bit of a head game that will compel them to unravel the game’s mysteries and find out what exactly is going on. However, while Assassin’s Creed plays around with narrative style, the payoff at the end is every bit as disappointing as Halo 2’s famous “Stay Tuned for Halo 3” ending. Although it’s nice that there’s an Assassin’s Creed sequel in the works, it’s hard not to walk away after beating the game Creed with the feeling you’ve been tricked, and frankly I can’t recall a more anticlimactic ending in recent memory.
Assassin’s Creed was a hard game to review… it does so many things well that I felt bad faulting it for repetitiveness, especially when a player could choose to skip many of the parts that bring down the game. However, I can’t ignore that Assassins Creed penalizes the player for being a good detective by offering boring tasks with marginal rewards. It’s an interesting game because the story, graphics, game play, and overall polish is so outstanding that they make the repetitive investigation missions stand out as being half-baked all the more. In short, Assassin’s Creed is a must play, but some flawed design choices put this title behind some of the more balanced games coming out this holiday season.