With the New Year in motion, and after buying a Xbox 360 seven years after its release, I felt like reviewing something unexpected to start off my desire to write this year. Though it took some deliberating, I eventually decided to go with the underdog, the game that was hyped to no end but which was generally seen as failing on deliver on all that it promised.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is my take on Assassin’s Creed.
For those not savy to Assassins or video gaming in general, Assassin’s Creed is an action-adventure game with elements of stealth and platforming integral to the gameplay. Though the process by which it occurs makes sense in the context of the story, players take the role of Altair ibn-La’Ahad, a Master Assassin who is reduced to the rank of novice and must now prove his worth to regain his honour and his rank.
Being an Assassin has many perks, like being able to use throwing knives, a sword and a hidden wrist blade in combat and being able to climb virtually any part of any surface. The player will travel from the Assassin fortress of Masyaf, through a “hub-world” of sorts, to three carefully recreated Middle Eastern cities (Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem) in search of nine important targets, to whom you must do what Assassins do best – assassinate.
Actually, the assassination missions are high points of the game, as they put you in interesting situations and force you to rely on careful timing and specific tactics. The body of the game has you undertaking smaller, more repetitive missions (more like “tasks” than missions, actually) to gain intel on the targets, which run the range of eavesdropping on a conversation, pickpocketing civilians for key information and maps detailing enemy locations, interrogating particularly out-spoken citizens, and assisting fellow Assassins to gather flags or assassinate suspicious guards.
I personally didn’t feel the repetitive nature of the tasks to be too grating, but given the slim variety I can understand why someone else might. On the plus side, the game’s take on parkour, which turns climbing into a challenge all its own, keeps things interesting. Any edge, any window, any ornament or significant part of a wall that looks like it can be grabbed can usually be grabbed. It’s also fun to go sprinting along the rooftops, holding down the right trigger and A button (or equivalent for PC & PS3) to send Altair off the edge of the building he’s on to make a seemingly-impossible leap across a street to the next building.
The game controls well, even in combat, which seems clunky and rigid at first but will get easier to handle once you understand the flow of a battle and get used to quickly switching between guarding and striking. The counter-kills Altair performs are pretty cool, as are his assassination animations, though his prowess is aided by persistent yet somewhat lacking A.I. Example: if you run at an archer on a rooftop while facing him, he will delay for about 5 seconds to declare, “You’re not supposed to be-”, allowing the player to pounce and promptly end the guard’s scripted life. Guards are also eager to give chase and rush into battle quickly, which is respectably dedicated at best and idiotic at worst.
As for lasting value, there are flags scattered throughout the cities that earn you Achievements/Trophies, but experiencing the story will take up most of your time in the game. Granted, it’s an intriguing story with large emphasis on historical events and conspiracy, but if you’re looking for more than just cool parkour, surprisingly fluid combat and intriguing plot devices, Assassin’s Creed comes up a bit short.
Luckily, those plot devices can keep your attention if you are patient. The game intially puts you in the shoes of Desmond Miles, a modern-day bartender who’s been kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation to aid in their research. Using the Animus, a virtual simulation device that brings to mind The Matrix, Abstergo intends to scour the memories of Altair, Desmond’s distant ancestor, which are encoded in his DNA, in search of…something.
The other half of this tale is just as intriguing, as players will experience the trials and tribulations of Altair, who has recently defied the Assassins Order and is obliged to help his mentor Al-Mualim hunt down nine key Templar leaders (the Templars being the Illuminati-esque, power-mongering rivals of the Assassins) to regain his title of Master Assassin and “find peace”, as Al-Mualim might say. It’s your standard “fight to regain honour” quest, but it’s engaging enough to keep your attention, what with the assassinations and cameos by famous Crusade-era figures.
Out of the two timelines, the present day events seem like footnotes. Desmond’s predicament of being held by a mysterious organization is worthy of sympathy, particularly when one learns of Abstergo’s true allegiance, but it seems very sterile and subdued…until the ending, which will be equal parts interesting and frustrating for the player, a la Halo 2. Let me put it this way: this ending pretty much guarantees an sequel, just to understand what the hell just happened.
If there are flaws in the narrative and gameplay, then the presentation mostly makes up for it. The scale when staring at each of the aforemention cities is immense, as is the historical accuracy. I’m no historian, but I’d guess from what knowledge I have that for the most part, each of the cities match their real-life counterparts of the time. Every building is covered in details, the environments are lush and beautiful and the atmosphere is tense with the conflict of the era.
Sound design also plays into this, though not quite as well. The performances from supporting characters and random civilians fit well with the time and are well-acted, though you’ll hear repetition of similar dialogue from the latter throughout the game. Altair’s accent, or lack thereof in this case, stands out in a bit of an awkward way: it’s not that he’s uninteresting or portrayed with little emotion, it’s more that he speaks in a rather flat, casual manner.
It’s not a major complaint, more a nitpick, compared to the noticeable lack of atmospheric music most of the time. There are moments in the game when the soundtrack fits with the poignant nature of the background, like standing outside of Jerusalem and taking in the sights, but for the most part things are quiet for Altair…besides guards shouting at him as he flees, civilians pleading for help and assassination target gasping in their final moments.
I said at the beginning of this review that this game was an underdog, but not out of lack of support. Rather, it fell behind its cousins in the genre because it was masterful in some aspects of gameplay, presentation and storytelling, but was unable to make good on its promises entirely. That said, in the context of starting a franchise from scratch, this games certainly provided the blueprint for future masterpieces (Ubisoft’s equivalent of Portal, as it were). For that fact alone, this game deserves a moment in the spotlight.
If you’re patient, dedicated and open to new experiences, this is a game worth spending money on. It’s not for everyone, but fans and the open-minded of us will certainly find something to enjoy.