Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 13, 2007
It's difficult for a 2D franchise to make the jump to 3D graphics. While some, like the Mario titles and Ubisoft's Prince of Persia, made the leap with flying colors, others, like Mega Man X and Sonic the Hedgehog, didn't fare quite as well. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time used the new dimensions to great effect, creating one of the most innovative and exciting titles of the last generation of gaming. When Ubisoft announced that the team behind Sands of Time was working on a title that combined the high-flying acrobatics of Prince of Persia with the free-roaming action of Grand Theft Auto (another of the franchises that outdid itself with the transfer to three dimensions), well, it's not difficult to see why gamers were so excited. It sounded like a match made in heaven, and by all rights, it should have been. Assassin's Creed doesn't quite turn out to be what gamers were expecting.
Assassin's Creed actually tells two stories. One tale takes place in a futuristic setting and is about Miles Desmond, former assassin and bartender. Desmond is kidnapped by a mysterious corporation that is seeking what only he can give them: information involving his ancestor Altair, an assassin. In order to find what they're looking for, the corporation convinces Desmond to use the Anima Machine, which allows him to relive the "genetic memory" stored in his DNA and learn about his ancestor. Unfortunately, getting the information they need from Altair is impossible because Desmond is too different from his ancestor to allow for proper access to that memory, so instead, he must relive his ancestor's life up until the moment Altair comes across the information the corporation needs.
Altair is an assassin in the era of the Crusades, and he's involved in the bitter war against the Christians. Altair's brotherhood of assassins is not a murder-for-hire organization that kills for profit; they are followers of the Assassin's Creed, a strict set of self-imposed rules that guide their actions in an attempt to restore the world order by eliminating evil men. Altair is gifted and arrogant, with a high success rate but little regard for the Assassin's Creed. However, after failing his last mission due to his own ego, Altair is stripped of his rank and has to perform a fantastic deed in order to redeem himself in the eyes of his brotherhood. Of course, he has to do so by eliminating a number of nearly impossible-to-reach targets that are prolonging the war for greed. The story switches between Altair's assassinations and Desmond's own attempts to discover what's going on with his captors, and both stories eventually begin to intertwine.
Be warned, gamers: From the way the plot progresses, Assassin's Creed is obviously the first in a planned trilogy of games. Few of the plot points introduced here are resolved by the end. The title spends such a long time setting up its convoluted tale of genetic pseudoscience that by the time the plot seems about to really begin, the credits roll, leaving only an unsatisfying cliffhanger as the reward for all of your hard work. Assassin's Creed is all setup and no payoff, and considering how much time it spends setting up its own story, that is almost unforgivable.
Since you're playing as Desmond controlling Altair, Assassin's Creed's health meter is a bit different from other titles. Instead of a life bar, you have DNA synchronization, which shows how close Desmond and Altair's mindsets are to one another. If their minds become too far out of sync, Desmond is kicked out of Altair's memory and has to restart from the last stable memory. Any injury will desynchronize the two, and too much injury (or flat-out death) will kick Desmond out. However, Desmond also loses synchronization for not following the Assassin's Creed's strictest rule: Do not harm innocents. Any time that Altair kills an innocent, the synchronization rate bottoms out, leaving Altair a sitting duck. Of course, synchronization fills up fairly quickly on its own, and as long as Altair isn't taking damage or injuring innocents, he'll be back to full health in about 10 seconds.
Assassin's Creed uses a unique control method called "puppeteering." Much like a puppeteer controls a puppet, each of Altair's limbs is connected to one of the face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller. Any action you take with your legs, for example, involves the A button. Anything involving the left arm is the X button, the right arm the B button and the Y button controls the head.
Beyond that, however, Altair has "social" and "nonsocial" stances. When acting like this, Altair is likely to draw attention to himself, and will at least catch the guards' attention, if it doesn't make them attack. Overall, the puppet controls work fairly well. They're not completely intuitive and natural, but once the player gets the hang of them, it's incredibly easy to move about the city without attracting attention or leap from rooftop to rooftop fast enough to make Spider-Man blush.
The "social" and "nonsocial" actions are key to Assassin's Creed's stealth system. Altair isn't Solid Snake or Sam Fisher; rather than sneaking around in shadows, he prefers to blend in while still in plain view, and the key to doing that is to remain unnoticed. Most of the time, Altair is in a social stance and can be subtle; he won't do anything that will intentionally attract attention. He can gently brush through crowds, pickpocket and perform silent assassinations, but he can't climb walls, run or do anything unnatural.
By holding the right trigger, Altair enters nonsocial mode, which lets him do things like run, sprint, climb walls and tackle people. The more nonsocial actions he takes, the more attention he draws. Draw too much attention, and you'll put the guards on edge, and the slightest infraction will send them after Altair. In order to escape from the guards, he has two options: hide or kill every guard nearby. Hiding is a deeply flawed decision; in order to successfully escape from guards, Altair has to break their line of sight and then hide in a nearby haystack or cloth-lined stall. This takes more time than actually just slaughtering your enemies, moves you farther away from your goal and the game generally gives you little reason to do this.
One part of Assassin's Creed that really deserves extreme praise is the climbing engine. There has never been a video game that allows you to ascend vertically in such a natural and understandable way. Altair will pull himself up by loose rocks, hops over to hang off the edge of a grated window, and then reaches up to grab an overhanging ledge, smoothly, easily and naturally. The assassin can climb places where normal people would not think to climb, like grated windows or overhanging ledges. This may seem odd to point out, but it's so rare for video games to do that. Usually there are giant "climb here" walls or "swing here" sections, even in classic titles like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but the cities in Assassin's Creed rarely feel like that. There are, admittedly, a few places where realism gives way to video game logic, but they're mercifully few and rarely interrupt the flow of Altair's exploration.
Assassin's Creed is divided into "memory blocks," each containing a specific time period in Altair's life, and each almost exclusively revolving around one of his assassinations. This isn't to say that Assassin's Creed is level-based because it's very much a sandbox game, with multiple cities available in each time period. Each city contains a "mark," and Altair can go about killing them however he likes, as quickly or slowly as necessary, or he can just fool around on the rooftops for a few hours. In order to unlock new cities and areas, though, he has to eventually advance the plot by killing his target. It won't be an easy task, either. An assassination is a long, fairly involved process that requires investigation, preparation and, finally, execution. Players will have to take care of all of these aspects; Altair is a disgraced assassin and has to prove himself, so he's certainly not going to get any help.
Investigations make up the bulk of Assassin's Creed's gameplay. Players have to wander the city and perform missions in order to receive scraps of information about their targets. These missions aren't challenging and unique as they are in Grand Theft Auto, but consist of a repetitive batch of the same six kinds of missions. The easiest, for example, is eavesdropping. All Altair has to do is sit on a bench and press the Y button. That's the entire mission. Pickpocketing involves Altair walking up behind an enemy and pressing B, which is harder than eavesdropping only because you actually have to move the analog stick.
Intimidation missions in particular make little sense. Supposedly, Altair follows his intended victim into a dark alley and threatens information out of him. In reality, all he has to do is punch him a few times. It doesn't matter where or when — a few punches, and he'll cave in. Admittedly, if you try this in a very crowded place, a member of the crowd may try to help your victim, but this poses very little threat, and once you've hit your target enough, the Good Samaritan simply walks off. All of the missions are fundamentally flawed, and none are very fun after the first or second time you do them, each simply serving to pad out the game's length a bit more. The other investigative mission types are flag collecting, timed assassination and untimed assassination.
Once you get enough information, Altair is granted permission to assassinate his target. In theory, players should use all of the information gathered by investigations to sneak in, kill him and sneak out without being noticed. However, there is no need to do this. You can do it, but the game doesn't specifically reward your stealth. If players want to rush in and cut their way through all the guards, the game gives them no trouble with it. Despite all of the emphasis on stealth and being a "blade in the crowd," there's no real reason to be. It will make missions take longer, be more frustrating and gives the player no advantages in exchange. Admittedly, there are two achievements available for stealthy players, but one will almost certainly be earned on the first assassination in the game, and the other doesn't technically require stealth, just good swordplay.
Assassin's Creed's sandbox cities are an absolute joy to explore, but once you've gotten over the fun of climbing buildings, you find out that the cities have very little to do. Each city has a few side-quests you can fulfill, but they're always the same two things: save citizens and find viewpoints. Viewpoints are the most important side-quest, but they're also the most repetitive. There are a dozen or so "viewpoints" hidden in the highest areas in the city. Viewpoints are usually located on one of four identical buildings and are clearly marked, so completing them just involves running from one to another and activating them. You find one, climb it, activate it and move on. On the plus side, completing the viewpoints task opens up more of Altair's map and marks citizens and investigations on the map, making them easier to find. This is useful, but it doesn't make finding viewpoints any more entertaining.
Rescuing citizens, much like activating viewpoints, is an exercise in tedium. You find a yelling citizen who is being menaced by ne'er-do-wells, you kill the villains, the citizen thanks you and you're done. There's no real challenge or risk here. Like viewpoints, Altair is given a reward for saving citizens. Rescued citizens tell their friends about Altair, which unlocks roving vigilante squads or scholars. Vigilante squads will grab guards when they're nearby, distracting them and making it easier for Altair to escape or fight back. Scholars provide a moving cover for the assassin, allowing him to enter areas undetected that he normally couldn't. This sounds a lot more useful than it is, and ironically, the reason why these bonuses are almost worthless is the same reason that rescuing citizens is more of a chore than a challenge: Assassin's Creed's hopelessly flawed battle system.
While the rest of Assassin's Creed is polished to a mirror shine, the combat system comes very close to ruining the game. At first, the problem is that the controls are awkward and uncomfortable. When you fight an enemy, it feels less like a swordfight and more like you're wildly swinging a sword at him. Once you complete an early mission and get the counter-kill ability, though, the problem jumps to the opposite extreme. The counter-kill ability allows Altair to instantly dispatch foes that are attacking him by "countering" as they attack by holding down the right trigger and pressing X. This isn't an unfamiliar concept; "just defends" and the like have been in video games for years. The problem here is that there is no punishment for pressing the counter button early. Hold RT and pound the X button, and you'll almost certainly dispatch the enemy, turning combat into a joke. This may seem like a minor problem until you remember that Assassin's Creed is built on having to avoid, not slaughter, these enemies. Once you get counter-kills, there is almost no reason to take advantage of the many unique and interesting ways for Altair to escape from his foes, when you can just take down all of the guards and be on your merry way, which is both faster and easier than trying to outrun them.
The world of Assassin's Creed certainly looks fantastic. The cities are modeled in meticulous detail and actually feel large and crowded, just like real cities. There is one notable problem: repetition. Much like other sandbox titles, Assassin's Creed suffers from seeing the same face over and over again. This same problem occurs in the architecture, too. While it makes sense to see similar architecture in cities, it's certainly not difficult to notice reused buildings, particularly in the case of the viewpoints. These are minor gripes at best, and standing on the highest building on Jerusalem while looking down at the thriving city can be a jaw-dropping experience. Character models are more of a mixed bag. While most characters look fairly good at a distance, the few times that the game zooms in tend to take away the sparkle. There's a reason most of the characters in the game are hooded, as the hair graphics are simply awful, and any character that isn't specifically designed to appear in a cut scene looks pretty hideous when viewed up close.
Assassin's Creed's sound work suffers from the same problem as the graphics. It's high quality, but has a lot of repetition. There are only a few quotes for any possible event, and you'll hear them repeated over and over and over. This isn't normally a problem unless you're sitting on a building listening to a rabble-rouser preach over and over, but it does become an issue when saving civilians, since you'll hear the same quotes again and again, which can quickly become aggravating. That is the worst that one can say about Assassin's Creed's audio; it's otherwise worthwhile and excellent. The music sets the tone quite well, although few of the tracks are memorable.
Assassin's Creed is fun, but it isn't the system seller that everyone was expecting it to be. Climbing around and exploring the city is initially a lot of fun, but there isn't much to do beyond that. The investigations and the side-quests are repetitive and quickly become tedious instead of entertaining. The assassinations are fun, but not overly challenging, and there is little that prevents players from just slaughtering their way through guards, rather than being subtle and sneaky. Assassin's Creed is certainly worth playing, but once you've finished the game, there will be little reason to pop it back in, except perhaps to play around on the historical playgrounds. On top of that, it's terribly aggravating that the story is pulled out from under you before it even starts, especially with the sequel being unannounced, let alone coming out anytime in the near future. While Assassin's Creed certainly has its enjoyable moments, all but the most hardcore of gamers will want to wait for it to drop it price.
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