PC Review - 'Assassin's Creed: Director's Cut'

by Alan Butterworth on April 16, 2008 @ 3:33 a.m. PDT

Shrouded in secrecy and feared for their ruthlessness, you play the role of Altair, an Assassin intend to stop the hostilities by suppressing both sides of the conflict and throw the environment into chaos and shape events during this pivotal moment in history. Assassin's Creed on PC features four brand new exclusive types of investigations.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: April 8, 2008

In 2007, Assassin's Creed was released on Xbox 360 and PS3 with plenty of fanfare and stood out as an original non-sequel title in a year full of strong releases. It was a huge commercial success, garnered a lot of attention from gamers, and divided reviewers who heaped praise on its highly polished production and innovative premise, but criticized the repetitive mission structure. Six months after the dust has settled, PC gamers can finally find out for themselves what all the hype was about. Ubisoft Montreal didn't cut corners and make a straight port; they released a new Director's Cut edition, complete with tweaks and new features that aim to address some of the flaws that faced the console version.

Assassin's Creed could simply have told the story of a Crusades-era assassin and the people he kills, but it chooses instead to go with a much more intriguing plot. We follow the story of Miles Desmond, a modern day bartender who somewhat naively cooperates with researchers who use a cutting-edge memory recall device called the Animus to replay and record his genetic past. The theory is that our genetic code contains the memories of our ancestors, and Desmond's ancestor was the deadly 12th century assassin, Altair. Much of the game focuses on Altair's life following his master's orders to assassinate nine important public figures. As the story unfolds, it reveals some almost-unexpected twists, exposes characters with suspicious agendas, and even gets around to exploring some fairly weighty philosophical concepts.

Assassin's Creed takes place in a breathtakingly stunning world where it feels like no effort was spared to recreate a living, breathing and wholly believable free-roaming version of the Holy Land in the 12th century. The environments are crawling with an amazing amount of detail, from the incredible visual flair to the understated and immersive sound effects. You'll get to explore three medieval cities: Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem, and each is an architectural extravaganza with almost picture-perfect bloom, depth, lighting and shadows; no corner is left neglected.

There are small details that bring scenes to life, such as the way the wind kicks up dust and dandelion seeds, and smoke streams out of chimneys. There are shadowy alleyways with people resting on benches and busy thoroughfares alive with the hum of conversation. The streets are active with citizens going about their everyday affairs, ferrying goods and being harassed by the town guards. A lot of your time will be spent racing across the rooftops of these cities, and these environments are no less spectacular. There are minarets, fortress towers and cathedral spires stretching into the skies and a rooftop vista that expands to the horizon. The overall effect succeeds in giving the impression of a real and believable city that exists and thrives independently of your character's presence.

The obvious drawback to this all-you-can-eat eye candy buffet is that you will need a high-powered gaming rig to display Assassin's Creed in its full glory. The system requirements might make you wince if you haven't purchased or upgraded a PC recently, and to get a decent frame rate and lag-free gameplay experience, you'll definitely need at least a dual core CPU, two gigabytes of RAM, and one of the newer graphics cards. If you are in any doubt that your PC is good enough to play this game, it probably isn't.

The sound effects perfectly complement the artwork and make for a wonderfully engulfing experience. As you prowl through the cobbled streets you'll hear the distant hum of townsfolk talking, birds peeping, lecturers preaching words of wisdom, and vendors hawking their wares. Beggars will run up to you pleading for money, and guards will growl at you to steer clear. You can escape the cacophony by heading up to the roofs, where you'll only hear distant barking dogs and pigeons cooing; while perched atop soaring towers, the sound of the whipping wind will fill your ears. Importantly, the sound effects are never overly intrusive but always at the right level to create a believable background. The voice acting is solid and credible in almost every instance, and lines are spoken with the appropriate level of flair and self-restraint. The orchestral score is subtle yet distinctive, fading in and out at just the right moments to add emotional weight. The perfectly themed music heightens the tension when you've been discovered by the guards and augments the vivid street scenes and scenic panoramas.

The core of gameplay involves a mix of platform-infused exploration, stealth-'em-up action and full-on armed combat. In each city, there are three districts, which will open up progressively as you complete missions. When you enter a new area, you need to scout out information about your hit and do so by climbing to the city's highest points. Getting there is at least half the fun of Assassin's Creed, and leaping and climbing is exhilarating because Altair is the equivalent of a medieval Spiderman, acrobatically sailing across huge gaps and using the tiniest handholds to effortlessly scale some impossibly tall structures. The view from the top is astounding and almost enough to inspire vertigo, but it's nothing compared to the trip back down. Altair can perform a so-called leap of faith, plummeting many stories as he dives headfirst from his aerial perch into a ground-level haystack. This set piece is done so well that it has the effect of making your stomach want to fly out of your mouth in much the same way as when you hurtle down the first steep dive of a roller coaster. After my first leap of faith, I was like a kid, giddy with the thrill and almost yelling, "Again! Again!"

And you do it again. And again. And then some more. In each district, there are plenty of climbing missions, and while you don't necessarily have to do them all, you do have to complete at least a few, and it doesn't take that long for the novelty to wear off, proving that you can have too much of a good thing. The repetitive gameplay structure is Assassin's Creed's chief flaw because once you've gone through the whole of the first assassination mission, you've basically seen most of what the game has to offer, and then you have to do it eight more times. Sure — the three cities and their different districts are visually distinct, the missions get a little tougher, and each murder circumstance is different, but the overall appeal diminishes more and more with each successive assassination. Only the most patient and forgiving of gamers is going to make it all the way through the title without an overwhelming sense of boredom-inspiring déjà vu.

Gathering information about your target takes up the rest of the bulk of gameplay, and there are a number of different mission types. Eavesdropping is by far the simplest and can't even really be considered a game. You just make your way to a bench, sit down and press a key to listen in on someone's conversation. Another contrived mission type has you racing around collecting flags, while the assassination task is to kill a certain number of selected guards without being spotted before time runs out. You also get to pickpocket unsuspecting targets for their information and interrogate others, which boils down to a short and simple fistfight. With the exception of the assassination assignment, these missions feel pretty scripted and quickly become tiring and repetitive, more like a real job than a game.

The Director's Cut edition of Assassin's Creed for PC aims to address this problem with the addition of four new mission types. Sadly, these don't really bring any groundbreaking new content into the mix that might alleviate the repetitive nature of gameplay. In Rooftop Race, you simple make your way from A to B before time runs out, which is exactly how you'll probably spend 90 percent of the game anyway. Assassin Escort is as underwhelming as it sounds, while the Archer Stealth Assassination mission, while undoubtedly fun, is still too similar to the regular assassination mission to qualify as entirely new content. That leaves the Merchant Stand Destruction task, which involves grabbing people and throwing them into stalls; like any of the other games, it's fun for a while, until it's not. On the one hand, it's gratifying to see that extra content exists just for PC gamers who always tend to get the short end of console ports. It's just disappointing that the additional content isn't a bit more substantial.

Despite the title, a fair amount of time will be spent out in the open engaged in vicious hand-to-hand sword fights with the town guards, who don't take very kindly to you sneaking around murdering people. The combat system in Assassin's Creed is very well tuned and incredibly satisfying. Altair is armed with a hidden switchblade with which he can carry out a seriously lethal flying stab on unsuspecting targets that looks so cool you'll probably find yourself getting up to look for somebody to show it to. However, it's your sword you'll turn to when faced with eight or nine guards trying to cut you down. While combat starts as a more or less simple mouse button masher, you'll soon unlock new attacks and defensive maneuvers involving precision timed keyboard and mouse combinations that increase the challenge and fun. Altair's defensive counterattacks are deadly, extremely stylishly choreographed, and often accompanied with gory fountains of blood.

However, sometimes you'll be hugely outnumbered, and the flight part of your instinct makes more sense than sticking around to fight. In these situations, you have to find higher ground, which is not always an easy task when guards are in pursuit and throwing stones and arrows at you to make you lose your footing. Once on top of the roofs, the chase is fast-paced and exhilarating because the guards seem to have graduated from the same school of Parkour-inspired gymnastics as you, and as a result, they're not easy to shake. Climbing, running and jumping around the city are flawlessly executed, with swift and fluid animations that make Altair's movements feel completely natural and graceful.

The maneuvers are gratifyingly easy to carry out with a mouse and keyboard, and the challenge lies instead in finding the most efficient route while at running speed. You'll find yourself actively scanning the area ahead of you for the next available grip or handhold to help you reach higher ground. One wrong choice could bring you to a dead end or worse, crashing painfully to the ground into a circle of irritated guards. If you manage to lose their line of sight, however, you can quickly scurry into a bale of hay, sit down inconspicuously on a bench, or blend in with a group of white-robed scholars, and your pursuers will give up and suffer permanent amnesia.

The main chunk of Assassin's Creed will take around 15 hours to complete — less if repetition bores you and you do the bare minimum number of optional missions, and more if you choose to take your time and go sightseeing. For 100 percent completionists, the random flag collecting and Templar killing goals could keep you occupied for far longer as you explore the cities and surrounding countryside. However, unlike their console counterparts, there are no achievements to be gained here, so wandering around the rich environments will have to be its own reward for PC gamers.

There are a few other complaints worth mentioning like the overly long, idiot-proof tutorial entry to the game and the confusing and ultimately unsatisfying designed-for-sequel ending. But while Assassin's Creed is not perfect, it is technically stunning, and the gorgeous visuals alone are almost worth the sticker price alone. If you're a patient sort of gamer and can forgive a somewhat hollow and repetitive gameplay structure, you should definitely give Assassin's Creed a chance, if only for the opportunity to show off what your high-end gaming rig can really do.

Score: 8.0/10

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