Review by utuseless
"You don't fool me with your rooftop ballet!"
Assassin's Creed is pretty typical meat for gamers - you play an elite loner tasked with doing something or other in order to restore something to the something something. This much is obvious, but personally I wasn't nearly as interested in Creed's story as I was in simply whizzing around on top of big buildings and jumping off them with no consequences. The assassin part appealed to me too, as it would to most nerds who loved games like Thief and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - the attraction of going it alone against impossible odds, equipped with only absurd skills and your own wits (and a working mouse and keyboard) is a staple of successful games. But why should Assassin's Creed be considered special?
It probably shouldn't, to be honest. In spite of its beautiful graphics, its unusual setting and its impossibly talented hero, there just isn't enough in here to make a truly great game. Creed suffers from being shallow and repetitive, as well as from a lot of frankly daft design decisions, many of which can be explained by the fact that the PC version of the game is a lazyass console port - alarm bells may be ringing before you've even installed it.
To be fair, when you first get into the main body of the game, having gotten past the tedious Animus business, you will probably be as breathtaken as I was. Very soon after some mercifully brief scenarios in which it's all talk and little action, you arrive in a tiny hilltop town and can begin zipping around like a spider-monkey, pulling off ludicrous jumps, twists and dives in long, unbroken sequences, and the best part is that you can be a complete buffoon at PC games and Creed will still make you look like a marvel with the reflexes of a cobra. Just hold down two or three keys and there are very few leaps and plummets you can't pull off with consummate style and ease. Purely by letting you move around and nothing else, Creed is immediately wonderfully fun to play, and this is just as well, because if the makers hadn't managed to pull you in right at the beginning with the game's strongest suit, I doubt they would have been able to sustain your interest through to the end in any other way.
Altair's fluidity of movement has to be seen to be believed, and actually experienced to be fully enjoyed. This nutter can barely walk through a doorway without performing some extravagant psycho-ballet pirouette, so just imagine what he's like escaping from twenty guards across the rooftops of a busy town. As I said, two or three keys are all you need to come out looking like a positive genius - you're basically moving the mouse and guiding Altair through a never-ending assault course to which he is more than equal. It's the movement of Altair which makes this game, and to the designers' credit they decided against any sort of energy level or tiredness gauge - we are allowed to sear joyously through the towns like an unstoppable angel of death, which is exactly what we want. Probably the most incredible moments the game has to offer are the dives - scale a huge tower and take in the view from the very top (and I do mean VERY) in order to populate your map with points of interest; then all that's left (because there's no way you're simply clambering back down the way you came up) is to leap off and drop, oh, two hundred feet into a handy bale of hay (bales of hay are under every tower in the game for this very purpose). The first time you try this your stomach will invade your throat, it's so brilliantly realised. The first time I did it I just sat back and said "wow". I nearly applauded. I couldn't remember the last time any game had smacked me in the face with sheer brilliance like Creed had just done. It will take quite a while for the novelty of the leaps of faith to wear off, though you'll still have to keep doing them in order to reveal more objectives. Have a look on youtube, there must be someone who couldn't resist doing a video of this.
So, when not burning across rooftops and bothering hay bales from above, what else is there to do? Well, that is the question, because be warned, this isn't Grand Theft Auto 3. Though the main body of the game involves running and jumping (endless fun) the rest falls well short of the high standards you were probably hoping for after seeing the graphics and the detail of the town maps. There are three main towns to visit, each with 3 arch-villains in them, just waiting to be assassinated by you. But to get to them you have to achieve various sub-objectives first. To begin with you always have to scale the towers in each town to further your quests, but this can get tedious when you're forced to do it again and again long after the (admittedly orgasmic) initial thrill has worn off. Especially when the objectives they open up are largely toss. You get to save peasants quite a lot - these are noobs who are being harassed by groups of four or five guards, and you have to square-go the guards and pick a fight. This almost always raises the ire of any nearby guards in the surrounding streets / towns / planets, so be ready for a prolonged brawl against unfair numbers. Kill 'em all off anyway and the grateful peasant will thank you at length, no matter how much you will be wanting to beat a hasty retreat. There are like ten or more of these every time you go looking for a new villain, and though you don't need to save them all it's worth your while, as the more sub-objectives you do the more health you receive - very handy later when you are facing off against comically absurd numbers of hostiles.
Just before I get to the combat I'll mention the rest of the sub-missions, if you're interested. There are flag races, where you race against the clock to pick up twenty flags for no reason on earth - these races entail simply doing what you do when running across rooftops, and the only challenge is choosing the correct order to make it in time. You get to help a few friends from time to time by removing someone who's hunting for them, and these ones can be tough and mildly exciting because it's usually templars or hospitallers who are doing the hunting - these guys are the dangerous tanks of the game, not to be underestimated. They eat deadly assassins for pudding and your best bet is often to sneak up behind them and unapologetically knife them one in the neck. You get to wreck some market stalls - as daft as it sounds - by throwing guards into them and then running away. There's also pickpocketing, eavesdropping and stalking, all of which are simple. Your reward for completing any quest is the possibility of gaining one more unit of health (there is a maximum) but your punishment is a simple respawn nearby, which removes a lot of the challenge of the game. If you have any sense you will know when to fight and when to run, and once you take care of that the game is practically unfailable, if that's a word. Oh, and in the PC version you have the option of collecting a certain number of hidden flags spread out all around the game, though there's again no reason because you get no bonuses for doing so. This is like GTA3's hidden packages but without any point.
Combat. I loved it, others didn't. I can see why, because it's massively simple, especially later in the game. As soon as you learn to block you're more or less fine, and when you get the counter-attack ability the enemy have a big problem. The best strategy (and still fun) is to ALWAYS counter-attack, and this is possible through the stupidity of the guards, who, no matter how many of them are surrounding you at once, will always attack one at a time. Combat looks tremendous when it's happening, especially since Altair can do Mortal Kombat style finishing moves to off a guard fast, and these are always accompanied by cinematic closeups and appropriately painful sounds - again, as with Altair's movement, you come out looking like a pro. Or you can opt to run like hell away and bait your pursuers into following you to the top of a very high building, from which you can just grab them and shove them off (though they can do the same to you if you mistime it). This is the best tactic for dealing with templars and other toughies. But, like almost everything else in AC, combat can get repetitive and chore-ish, and you may find yourself just wanting to get through it to reach the next unique 'boss' villain of the level.
Bear in mind that there are three towns and yet there are nine villains - this of course means that you visit each town three times, which seems like a bit of a shortcut to me, reusing many of the same places, no matter how fun their thieves' highways were earlier. Anyway, each boss character is given their own little cinematic and Altair is instructed in a particular way to get rid of them. I won't put spoilers, suffice it to say that all the villains are challenging in different ways, and you won't always have the option of nudging them off rooftops or whatever. These end up being the most exciting parts of each level, because you are otherwise just repeating the same actions over and over. Not a game with much depth to it, especially since you can see the ending coming a mile off, almost from the start of the game.
A common complaint about this game was that Altair is chastised and more or less killed for breaching the assassin's code when the game begins, yet he is then given license to rampage through the streets, offing anyone who so much as looks at him funny. OK, the guards will chase you and people will react unfavourably if you simply walk up and knife someone in the face, but this would happen anyway. Altair seems to completely ditch any pretense at a code of ethics or assassin's values throughout the game, and yet none of his cronies seem to notice, as they're too busy congratulating him for returning to the right path of the assassin and redeeming himself in the eyes of the brotherhood. Bollocks. Another thing I found slightly frustrating was the ability of every guard in the game to scale most of the same buildings Altair can, in the same way. Altair's athleticism loses a lot of its spectacular appeal when you turn around and see twenty guards swinging and leaping behind you unrealistically. So everyone's an assassin now, eh? Why couldn't they just use the ladders and such? They're also laughably easy to shake off - just break their line of sight and duck into a hiding place and they'll forget all about you within ten seconds. Some sort of notoriety gauge which built up with every bit of trouble you cause would have been good, especially if it extended throughout the duration of the game. This would encourage people to be careful and behave like a genuine assassin, thereby rewarding more patient players with an easier time of it later in the game. As it is it's just another facet of Creed which makes it too forgiving and therefore not challenging enough.
Speaking of hiding places, Creed isn't like Commandos 2 where you can get inside the buildings. Huge though the game's towns might seem, they feel a lot smaller when you realise that all the doors are shut and that the only purpose of a building is to present Altair with another wall to scale. Everything takes place on the streets - this might be authentic of Jerusalem communities in the time of the Crusades, but it's also authentic of a game missing another opportunity to escape being called shallow.
One more thing I should mention is the gigantic hub area in the middle of the game's four main towns - a desert region with various villages through which you must pass about three times before being given any fast travel options. Since the only worthwhile thing to do in there is hunt for templars (for fun, not for any discernible reward), this area is another unnecessary chore which wastes your time as you send your horse chundering through it. This is typical of what Assassin's Creed represents: a mixture of great fun which grips your imagination and big fat pointlessness that you're forced to trudge through. The Animus sequences are another example of this - we just want to run around on buildings, not yawn our way through cinematically assisted conversation pieces in a story which only serves to break up the fun even further.
Anyway, Assassin's Creed is worth buying just for the way Altair moves and fights, but don't expect too much to delight you beyond that. You won't be replaying this game very often in the future, especially with no multiplayer available. It needs a sequel with far more depth and variety, keeping all the good and ditching all the bad. But how often do sequels deliver that?...
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 07/07/08, Updated 07/08/08
Game Release: Assassin's Creed: Director's Cut Edition (EU, 04/11/08)
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