Posted – 12.15.2007
Ubisoft’s latest take on covert ops takes players into the past as a medieval assassin working to thwart the deadly machinations of unseen enemies, trading in night vision goggles for a white hood and the ability to leap into haystacks from impossible heights. From the moment you step into the game, the twisting story and richly textured world of Assassin’s Creed almost dare you to imagine the motto of the protagonist’s order, to believe that nothing is real and that everything is permitted. It’s exciting fun when the game lives up to the hype, but digging deeper into the gameplay reveals several things that shatter the illusion.
Assassin Creed’s story borrows from the chaos of the Third Crusade, taking place when King Richard the Lionheart had mounted his invasion of the Holy Land putting him at odds with Saladin who wages his own war to oust the Christian armies. In the midst of these two powerful forces is an order of assassins that have their own agenda to keep. Altair, the most gifted among them, has been stripped of his position for failing his master and lord. But he’s given a second chance to prove that he understands the Creed that they follow…and a list of nine names that must be erased.
The game is almost Oblivion-like in its sweeping treatment of the cities that you will guide Altair through. The medieval details worked into every corner compliment the story which is clearly the best part of the game and every character central to the tale have their own reasons for doing what they do giving players hungry for a little cinematic storytelling plenty to look forward to. The well written dialogue adds plenty of character to each of these key figures, although it does fall into flat repetition among the common folk that wander in between them going about their daily chores or torments. Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack adds plenty of punch to whether you are fighting or simply walking the city of Jerusalem, and Ubisoft Montreal’s ability to deliver a compelling atmosphere through its artists hits you as soon as you begin the game. The Dome of the Rock, the port of Acre, the prayer towers of Damascus, and the crowded streets that wind in between all of them easily give the impression of a vast region laid at your feet ready to act as your own personal playground. If only the gameplay was as polished.
The PS3 controls make getting around the world of Assassin’s Creed easy enough. The “puppeteering” system that it uses allows you to switch between “socially acceptable” actions for your controls and actions that you might use to get out of trouble. A regenerating health system is in place set up as a series of bars, improving as you complete smaller tasks in the game or finish off your marks. Altair, the assassin in whose boots you will be playing, can climb up walls, jump across rafters, and generally make his way most anywhere that has a handhold for him to grip. Ubisoft’s crack animators have created an incredibly diverse set of moves for the white robed assassin with every parkour-like dodge, jump, tumble smoothly flowing into each other as you move across the environment.
There are a few issues with shimmying from one corner to the next, however, as Altair can often become “stuck”, unable to get around a corner or up to a post, until you manage to tilt the camera and nudge him back into position. This can sometimes be a frustrating exercise in getting him in just the right spot, but not something that you’ll need to often deal with. But while obstacles such as walls and Altair’s complete lack of fear when it comes to heights might give him plenty of access to where he needs to go, there are times when a more subtle hand is needed.
Altair can gently push his way through a crowd and past those carrying boxes or jars, hide among scholars to get through a guard checkpoint, and ride a horse to quickly travel between cities. And then there are times when a good sword arm is needed. Altair has a considerable set of moves and combat, while it takes some getting used to, is not quite as solid as Altair’s ability to scale stone walls and towers at will. In many cases, it can almost feel downright broken and rip you out of the atmospheric gameplay to remind you that this is still a game.
For one thing, Altair suffers from Attentionitis, a rare condition that makes him the center of attention no matter where he’s going or what he might be doing. He could be walking on a street, minding his own business, but everyone’s eyes will always point in his direction. Bumping into someone creates a small catastrophe since everyone is apparently on edge. It also doesn’t help that everyone’s fingers are coated in butter, causing them to drop whatever they might be carrying with the slightest nudge. Or the fact that crazy and drunk people in the street will pick him out of the crowd to shove in order to start some trouble. Or how about the beggars in the street?
As soon as Altair shows his hooded face, they right right on over to him for coins, probably because they’re looking at the sword at his side and the blades running all over his clothes which must be some kind of status symbol for the rich since he’s the only one that they bother. Altair also has a sort of medieval “night vision” that’s called “eagle vision” which renders everything a blurred black and white, highlighting important characters such as guards and victims with a variety of colors to indicate their mood instead of their body heat. It’s an interesting idea, but I barely used this in my playthrough because the automatic highlighting will tend to focus on who is important to you anyway.
Guards in the game are simply pissed off all the time, along with most of the nosy townspeople. Bumping into a guard is usually enough to start a life or death struggle, if for no reason that Altair looks like someone they hate, and this leads into the overpowered combat system of the game. Keep in mind that Altair is an assassin, a man trained to kill by stealth and cunning, not as Conan the Barbarian. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe. If Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell had gotten into a firefight, the odds were that he’d die faster than brain cells at a kegger. But in Assassin’s Creed, it is entirely possible to kill a small brigade of guards and knights in the middle of the street without a scratch…or without much of a consequence.
Altair’s ability to lay waste to his enemies is as equally deadly in a swordfight as it is in shadow, especially when you can grab and throw your foes to the ground making them easy prey to your blade, or off of rooftops as your surprisingly agile opponents can jump, climb, and bounce across rafters almost as easily as you…in full mail. The only thing that they, or you, can’t get away with is swim. It’s a good thing that armor doesn’t help protect them from a fall that you can easily walk away from. As Altair regains his lost position over time, he regains the abilities that he once had. One skill in particular, the counter attack, will turn Altair a veritable paragon of death. If taking on small groups of guards and knights wasn’t too difficult to handle, counter attack allows you to depopulate the local garrison. Actually, you won’t be able to take out everyone in a city, but it can feel as if you did when you carpet a street with armored bodies.
You can lock onto enemies and Altair does a decent job in tracking his foes allowing you to react to attacks from any direction, and leads into the other reason why it’s easy to clear out a small armored party. Enemies in this game will attack you one at a time, probably following some sort of honor code, allowing you to easily dispatch whoever is in your way. Crowds of these guys can still prove lethal, though, as they’ll take advantage of an opening in your defenses. The dodgy lock-on system also adds to the challenge as thrown foes occasionally break your focus. Hitting the attack button after you throw someone down might send Altair swinging at someone else instead of the person that you just knocked senseless against a nearby wall. Counter attacks can also be a bear to work with, even against a massive party of enemies, as Altair might instead gut punch his enemy instead of spearing them on the end of his blade. Despite the problems, combat can still be pretty exciting stuff especially in making Altair appear to be that much more of a medieval blademaster especially when he stands alone after a brutal melee.
You can always lose your foes if you can get away from them and out of their sight by hiding in rooftop gardens, blending in with the crowd, or by simply sitting on a bench. If you’re successful, the guards will eventually give up, leaving you to roam the city at will once more as long as you don’t act too suspicious around the corpses that you’ve left behind to raise the alarm again. The problem with this is that it’s just far too easy to pull off. Even after taking out a slew of knights and sending the crowd into a fear filled frenzy, as long as there weren’t anymore guards in the area to witness the massacre, Altair could clasp his hands together and look like one of the screaming citizens even if he was the only one walking away from the body. If someone gets away, you don’t have to worry about a description of your face making the rounds throughout the city.
Everything pretty much returns to normal as guards arrive and investigate the corpses, looking around at the crowd and asking who did this to which no one replies since everyone is apparently hit with a bout of amnesia, or simply afraid that you might clear them out in the same way which is simply a “bad thing”. It’s even worse when it’s one of the people that you rescue, as they’ll ask the same questions after you’ve spoken with them, even if you’re the one that’s responsible for whacking their tormentors right in front of their eyes. Thanks to the power of blending in, Altair can literally get away with murder even if it’s a swordfight in the middle of the street.
The elaborate, staged events that form each of the assassination missions lie at the heart of the gameplay, but you’ll need to go through a few investigations in order to find out more about your target first, whether it is pickpocketing information, roughing up a demagogue for what he knows, helping a fellow assassin take out his enemies in stealth, or even eavesdropping on a conversation. Most every assassination mission repeats the same, repetitive, pattern, although you only need to do so many of these in order to actually get on with the assassination which feels very much like a much earned reward. Your targets will be in the middle of doing a variety of things, whether it is holding a party, watching over an execution, or experimenting on suffering patients, giving you plenty of reasons to off them and an opportunity to explore of how to best handle it. Doing as many investigations beforehand ill also go towards building up your health bar, and many of the conversations or setups that you can pick up on are unique slices of the story told through the eyes of others, but it’s hard to shake how rinse and repeat a lot of this can come off as.
You can also find other opportunities to help your fellow assassins in taking out knights that are on their tail or in collecting flags that they had lost, collecting even more flags to complete in-game challenges, or in helping the occasional citizen being roughed up by the local soldiers. Helping citizens will help you out by having vigilantes hang around the area where they had been, allowing you to easily lose pursuers as they delay them if you happen to pass by again. The other challenges, however, don’t give you as much satisfaction aside from a personal scorecard that the game keeps for you. There’s not much else to do in these vast sandboxes aside from these little tasks which fall short of the potential that the open nature of the game can give.
You can’t strike up anyone in a particular town for conversation, buy or sell equipment, bribe guards to get out of your way, enter historic buildings, or basically interact too much outside of what you’re there to do with the medieval life that’s all around you. There’s no day or night cycle, either, so forget about sneaking into the home of a potential mark and taking them out while they sleep. There’s a really good reason for why this might be and ties neatly into the story itself, although some players will probably wonder if Ubisoft is going to use what is in Assassin’s Creed to actually build a good RPG with as they look for more to do outside of what the main game asks of them.
The engine underlying the game is also a little buggy. I’ve seen guards spin in place when trapped by NPCs as they are unable to escape, float in the air off of rooftop edges, or perform some kind of dance move when stuck as they try to climb down a ladder. There’s also some slowdown that hits the performance of the engine in particularly busy scenes with on in particular towards the end of the game. Granted, it wasn’t often that I’d see something bizarre like this, but when it occurs, it’s pretty jarring to see the game released with as many issues as there were. It doesn’t detract as much as it might sound from the gameplay which overshadows issues like this, but it’s still surprising to see these in the final game.
Creed provides plenty of moments where the excitement of its promise can be felt in being an assassin, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing up sheer walls, skyscraping towers, dispatching enemies with killer blows, and sneaking up behind others with a hidden dagger the size of your forearm. But the open world created for the game can often feel coldly mechanical thanks to the repetitive tasks that you pursue against every mark and the attentionitis that everyone suffers from whenever you start walking the streets. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to break through the monotonous gameplay with the promise of a sequel. Despite its shortcomings, the world of Assassin’s Creed comes to life in much the same way that MGM’s Ben-Hur had dazzled audiences with its vast backdrop, making it hard not to enjoy yourself as you explore a world where nothing is real and…nearly…everything is permitted.
– World 1-1