Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Rabid anticipation for Assassin's Creed dates back to the developer's pencil-shaded storyboards. Whenever the hoopla over a mere, mortal video game begins so early, almost invariably well-kept secrets — prettier, faster, fancier, gee-whiz titles — surface during the development process and steal all the wunderkind's thunder. Of course it's not fair, but it's life in the mercurial games industry: Major publishers' good titles, otherwise destined for greatness, even genre-defining status, are subsumed by a couple of blam! graphics, multiplayer juggernaut games that drop out of the sky late in the day, robbing the longtime darling of her charm. Unfortunately, often as not, publishers and developers follow the gaming public's lead, wrapping up things faster than they'd have liked, refocusing development efforts in new directions; no one wants to be deemed last year's news the very day their baby hits store shelves. Certainly both of these quirks of the industry to some degree befell the once-hallowed Assassin's Creed.
The best way to describe Assassin's Creed in analogy is by calling it Grand Theft Auto Lite set in the 12th century. That's hardly damning with faint praise, calling attention to a contemporary game's structural similarities to the infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise. After all, Rockstar didn't invent the so-called "sandbox" game genre; rather, they just gave you something more intriguingly sinister to do than engineer Rube Goldberg roller coaster parks. Likewise, Assassin's Creed takes some of the better points of open-environment, free-roaming games and applies its own somewhat unique brand of gameplay. While missions, culminating in assassinations, have specific requirements for completion, you're not compelled to finish every single requirement, and as you wish, you may go off and do other things — some mere sightseeing, some with a tangential in-game purpose and some eventually getting you killed.
For the most part, Assassin's Creed is set during one of the Crusades in the Holy Land, although the intricacies of the historical period or of this particular Crusade are never properly explained. Interestingly enough, Ubisoft kicks off the game with an informational screen stating that in-game events are based on an actual historical period; however, fictional are key plot elements, specific characters and in-game events. After that, they go nowhere in truly defining that briefly captioned period in history. You won't learn much, if anything, about the Crusades here, although, perhaps, if you don't already know a bit about them, you'll be inspired to further reading.
The game's central plot could have seen the property entitled Moral Relativism or Situational Ethics, but neither of these carry the hardcore fantasy-novel cachet of stark Assassin's Creed. Altair, anti-hero member of the Assassin Brotherhood and the role the gamer assumes, often finds himself in quandaries over the legitimacy of the heinous acts he must perform in the name of, ostensibly, the greater good. If you're concerned you might miss these finer contradictory points of the plot, don't be: You're hit over the head with them as if they're hammers. It's the standard "hooker with a heart of gold" plot device; it's unsophisticated but reasonably effective, more effective had the scripted dialog and voice acting in the numerous, integral cut scenes been just a bit better.
In a fashion evoking a simple-minded Mary Shelley, there is a plot-within-a-plot scheme at work. The gamer doesn't really play Altair; he plays Desmond, who, via some ambiguous technology developed to exploit "genetic memory," is conveyed down the neural pathways of his ancestral recall to recover information of use to the inventors of the genetic-memory machine, an even more ambiguous entity up to nebulous shenanigans. Their general plan is contemporary do-gooding using their futuristic technology to discover the secrets of balancing human affairs, secrets known especially to the ages-old Assassin Brotherhood. Frankly, the science-fiction component of Assassin's Creed is wholly unnecessary in terms of gameplay; the developers could have set the whole game in the 12th century and created very much the same experience. Likely not, but it's possible the contemporary component of sophisticated science was written in so as not to discourage from buying the game those gamers who dislike fantasy plot titles.
Assassin's Creed's graphics are always above competence for an HD title. Often, especially the cityscapes of places like Jerusalem, and along the tightly packed streets of these fortress-like cities, the visual depiction of ancient environments is quite stunning. Within the game, you are required to climb "View Points," which are specially labeled tall structures, to populate your GPS. It's just a standard way-finding mechanism — an on-screen, compass-based map, with icons representing objectives required for completion of the serial missions. The vistas from atop these buildings are quite amazing; the developers did an excellent job, if not absolutely accurately representing the cities as they existed at the time, then at least providing for the gamer the feel of the period's population centers. Character models are acceptable, but could have been better; however Altair does a lot of climbing walls and jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and these animations are smooth and superb. Multichannel audio is serviceable but hardly stands out in a market crowded with some stellar audio production.
The gameplay in Assassin's Creed is fairly by the numbers. Save a brief introductory scenario in which Altair possesses his full powers and equipment, you start as a novice assassin; completing each subsequent mission awards you more equipment and better refined combat skills. Unfortunately, once you've something extra to rely upon over your fists, nothing is much better than your first step-up, a sword, in completing your missions and succeeding in your assigned assassinations. This is not an insurmountable flaw, but it lacks diversity, especially as you'll quickly discover that by far the best strategy for playing the game is remaining anonymous, unnoticed and evading any kind of combat unless it's completely unavoidable. However, the movement and combat control scheme is readily memorable and works quite well for a third-person-perspective title. These games are often plagued by camera-control problems and awkward character movement mechanisms, which don't burden Assassin's Creed.
The biggest nod to the free-roaming, choose-your-own-path nature of the game are what most adventure gamers would call "side quests," but they are not worthy of that label. Indeed they are mere additional objectives, directing you to collect certain types of flags rather plainly hidden throughout the cities or climb every available "View Point," even the ones that yield no useful data for your GPS. They are purely gameplay-extension elements, and you'll only enjoy them if you're so enamored of Assassin's Creed the idea of quickly finishing the game bothers you.
Transit times between cities are the only supremely valid complaint with the title's gameplay design. Horses are provided for long journeys between cities; horses can of course gallop much faster than people can run, so this feature is not only appreciated but also invaluable. And the developers have designed in trigger points along your routes, places at which the game saves a checkpoint and skips ahead some large distance, saving you the trouble of covering all that ground. They could have used more of these time-saving skip triggers, although I'd speculate there was concern that constantly skipping the player ahead, bypassing interstitial environments, would interfere with Assassin's Creed's principal claim to fame, its free-roaming, open-world gameplay. I wouldn't have cared one bit. Free-roaming is only briefly entertaining if you're not also provided some interesting, useful diversions. The point here being anonymity and subtlety, getting up to much with your more overt, aggressive assassin's skills will soon earn you diligent chase by large hordes of enemy factions. They'll catch you and kill you, too.
Despite Assassin's Creed's smooth, almost deft controls and not infrequently gorgeous, gritty ancient urban settings, it is ultimately a game by rote, not salvaged by a compelling story and also burdened with a shell plot that is both trite and superfluous. I'd have been much harder on this top-billed title except that I spent a lot of time playing it very late at night or very early in the morning — what I call my vampire hours — a time when you feel your corneas have been peeled off your eyes and any game, no matter how easy or fluid, can frustrate. Even so, I found myself having a good time progressing through the missions even as a nearby clock indicated I should cash it in and head for bed. A reasonable amount of fun in an otherwise fairly standardized gaming experience goes a long way in my gaming grade book; true innovation is perhaps critical for a great game, but it's not prerequisite for a good game. I do, however, circumspectly approach real hope for the surely inevitable sequel to Assassin's Creed.
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