Review by Disco Joe
"A beautiful, mediocre experience."
Beautiful-yet-mediocre, Assassin's Creed is an action adventure title, combining elements from the Hitman, Thief, and Prince of Persia games into an over-ambitious, lackluster experience that is pretty to look at, makes a great first impression, but which quickly degenerates into a kind of perpetual blond moment: pleasing to the eye, but lacking in diversity, depth, and cohesion.
What the game does right:
The story follows the grey-shaded exploits of Altair, a member of a covenant of assassins stationed in Israel during the 12th century Crusades, as he undertakes the assassinations of nine individuals. The game starts off in the year 2012, where the true protagonist of the story, Desmond Miles, is being subjected to involuntary scientific research at the behest of parties unknown, in order to locate key genetic memories left to him by his ancestor, Altair, the main playable character in the game. In order to find these key memories, Desmond must relive key events in Altair's life in chronological order, and most of the game is actually a computer simulation of Desmond's genetic memory. Since Altair obviously must have survived these events in order to live them, the player cannot actually kill Altair. As you do things that are too out of sync with what Altair had done in the past, (like falling too far, dying, killing too many innocents) you gradually lose "sync" with the memory and eventually get sent back to a checkpoint if thrown too far out of sync. Likewise, attempting to venture too far from the memory's actual course will find you face-to-face with a impassable wall of blue computer jargon and a message that the current memory cannot be accessed. This premise in original and refreshing, and one of the game's highlights. My only complaint plot-wise is that the ending is lackluster. Otherwise, the main plot is what will keep you playing through to the end.
The sound effects are lovely. Everything sounds rich and detailed, from the clang of blades to disturbingly moist sound of a sword rending human flesh, to the ambient city chatter, and the way Altair's footsteps make sounds appropriate to his speed and environment, the sound design is flawless.
The voice work is all top-notch, from the main characters down to the many generic npcs, with quality comparable to most big budget animated films. The only qualm I have is with Altair himself, whose attitude and inflections give the impression of someone a bit too foolish and belligerent to make us believe that he is really the best assassin that this proud old covenant has to offer.
Assassin's Creed is beautifully presented in almost every observable way, especially if your computer can handle it. I run the game maxed out (shadows at medium) and am often taken aback by the sheer graphical splendor of everything. The lighting, shading, shadows, and weather effects are all majestic and impressive. I found myself recalling last year's Crysis upon first sight of many of the game's lush, sprawling vistas, particularly in the hub area that links the world's cities together, and like Crysis, you may find yourself playing the game because of the graphics.
Visually, the combat is visceral and satisfying. An obvious inspiration here are the Prince of Persia games. Every connecting hack and thrust feels brutal and intense.
The freedom you're given to move about the cities and lands in between is thrilling. When you're perched high above the landscape, it really feels high, and there is a kind of serene ambiance to these instances that I'm not sure was intentional on the part of the developer. If only the game had managed to sustain this kind of solitary atmosphere throughout its course, we might have had a truly classic stealth action game on our hands. Instead, we're treated to the long list of...
What the game does wrong:
First, I want to talk about the hub area, which is something that's had me particularly irked. The hub area is a gigantic outdoor environment that links together the game's cities that the player must travel through via horseback (which is technically optional, but going on foot isn't recommended due to the epic size of the land) in order to get from city to city, where the heart of the game's content lies. And that's exactly the problem: aside from the option of collecting a whopping 100 useless "flags" strewn around the map, there is no content whatsoever in the entire hub area. All the towns and guards are just filler content designed to look pretty as you go trot along between cities. This makes the entire area an utterly pointless place, and to make matters even worse, there isn't even a reason to collect these flags. No unlockables. Nothing. Maybe there is some achievement for doing so in the console versions, but that's hardly proper incentive to spend countless hours on a boring scavenger hunt. The flags also appear in the cities, where they are equally pointless.
Combat, once the "counter-attack" ability is learned at around the four hour mark, is trivial at best. You can easily dispatch large groups of enemies at almost zero risk by only using this one ability. Later on, the combat becomes marginally more difficult, but never achieves the status of being challenging. Overall, there is very little depth to the combat, other than pressing the attack button at specific times to perform special attacks. The player has the option of performing quick stealth kills, but there isn't much purpose to this other than to get a freebie kill when walking toward a group of unsuspecting guards, usually in order to rescue a citizen in the game's mediocre optional missions.
In order for the player to have a complete view of the objectives map, "viewpoints" - in the form of high perches which must be climbed - have to be discovered. Upon discovery, you'll be treated to a panorama of the area from your vantage point, as well as having the immediate area uncovered in your objectives map. This is one of the more fun aspects of the exploration in Assassin's Creed, though there are perhaps a shade too many of these in each city, which can feel like a chore for those of us who want the map fully discovered before carrying on with missions.
Ironically however, the distraction presented by all the viewpoints turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because the missions, in both their execution and structure, are rubbish. Each time you are assigned a new target, you must travel there manually, and then complete a certain number of investigation missions that serve as the means of gathering intel on you main target, such as his whereabouts, his schedule, secret routes of infiltration, etc. These missions involve doing things like pickpocketing a single person, eavesdropping on a single conversation, and following one person to a conveniently dark and unoccupied dead end and punching him a few times until he starts to feel convivial. Under the right circumstances, this kind of thing could be immersing and rewarding, making us feel like the lone assassin, slowly and methodically gathering intelligence to piece together the perfect hit, but what we end up with in Assassin's Creed is sadly not so impressive. Each of these missions is bland, extremely simple to complete for even the most unskilled gamer, and worst of all, entirely monotonous. You will do the same set of generic missions before each hit, experiencing not a smidgen of variation, neither in strategy nor gameplay. This goes on for the entire game, I kid you not.
There are a couple PC-only additions to these missions, like racing across rooftops for no reason, and assassinating archers, which add some much-needed variety, but fail to add any of the even more-needed depth to the gameplay, nor do they resolve any of the difficulty issues of the rest of the game, being far too easy, for the most part. It is unfortunate that Ubisoft had enough time to add new quests to the game, but opted to pile on more of the same sloppy content that plagues the rest of their product.
The game includes some optional missions, but almost all of these involve rescuing distressed citizens from the bullying of 3 or 4 corrupt guards. The citizens you can rescue come in maybe five varieties at the most, which, due their how numerous these encounters are, makes them feel like randomly generated content. If they had recorded unique dialog for each of these missions, it would have felt much more rewarding to help them out. Yet even these clones would be passable if you were given some type of useful reward to encourage you to push on, but this isn't the case. After you rescue a citizen, a group of npcs will spawn, allowing you to either hide amongst them, or use them to hold up pursuing guards, depending on which type of group is spawned. Great, except the easy combat makes both of these options totally unnecessary; I haven't had cause to use either of them even once.
Another example of the laziness in the design of the npcs is the street preachers. Each one reads from a very small list of possible dialog over and over and over. And over. This would be okay if you only heard them once in a while, but you'll end up hearing the exact same sermon dozens of times or more as you explore what little content there is in the game's giant cities. It's immersion-breaking, simple as that. You may argue that I am nit-picking, but when the game's main strength is in its presentation, this kind of thing really stands out and is detrimental to the overall fun factor.
Lastly, I want to touch upon the game's stealth aspects. Assassin's Creed is billed as a stealth action title, yet the way stealth is implemented seems to imply that the developers considered this to be more of a sandbox-style option, rather than a core aspect of the gameplay. Stealth is extremely difficult to pull off, totally unnecessary, and much, much less effective than simply charging in and assassinating your target with brute force. The guards are psychic, and there is simply too much chaos in the city streets to tell when it is safe to attack. The game doesn't even seem to encourage stealth, as there is no penalty for losing cover other than an easily thwarted armed pursuit by laughably incompetent guards, all of whom will only attack one at a time despite usually having large advantage in numbers. There is no reward for completing a mission using stealth, nor is there any sort of ranking system at the end of a mission (probably because of the open-ended structure of the world making it too hard to discern at precisely what point a mission as started) to let the player work toward a "silent assassin" style perfect game like in the Hitman titles, which added a lot to the replay value of those games, as any fan will surely tell you. It boils down to what feels like broken stealth mechanics that were given a band-aid by making the combat too easy for when the psychic guards magically detect your presence.
Assassin's Creed has all the symptoms common to pretty games that have too big a budget and far too much hype. Its striking presentation is marred by unrelenting monotony and shallowness, and half-done gameplay elements which give the impression of a game that is well-meaning, but ultimately too ambitious for its own sake.
Rent the console version, borrow a friend's PC copy, or wait for a price drop.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 04/10/08, Updated 04/16/08
Game Release: Assassin's Creed: Director's Cut Edition (US, 04/08/08)
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