Review by chainsawhands
"Assassin's Creed - Redundant but Amazing"
Staying true to its strategy of moving in a new direction, Ubisoft Montreal did not tack on a conventional, ready-made story for Assassin's Creed. You play an assassin bound by the titular creed, named Altair, member of an esoteric order sworn to exterminate corruption and war in the Holy Land of the 12th century. The story is inspired by historical events, and that is a fitting adjective, since it takes more than a few liberties with recorded history. It is engaging and suitably convoluted, although the story's main twist is revealed almost instantaneously. Players who were expecting to find themselves dropped into an open world after a brief cutscene, ala Grand Theft Auto, will either be let down or delightfully surprised. The game does not remove the training wheels so hastily, but instead takes the player through a long tutorial that is part of the ongoing narrative, setting off the nine assassinations that the player will undertake.
The Holy Land in 1191 was divided by war, primarily the Third Crusade, and the world of Assassin's Creed reflects this in its three cities and connecting wilderness. Altair will face enemies from many different factions, and will find himself caught up in their ambitions and their sins. Bits and pieces of information about each mark is revealed through investigation, and cutscenes follow each successful assassination that reveal much about each target. The story may not appeal to everyone, but it is robust and entertaining.
This is where Assassin's Creed truly shines, and that brilliant light also reveals a few tiny cracks. The much touted free-running, by which Altair vaults off of rooftops and scales the faces of almost any structure, is remarkably smooth and accessible. As soon as you take control of Altair you'll be performing almost superhuman acrobatic feats. The freedom of being able to maintain forward momentum across massive cityscapes is pure fun. You will be experiencing each city from multiple levels, from the highest peak, to the narrowest street. Scaling designated view points will give you a sweeping view of the clustered buildings and towering walls beneath you in the form of a short cutscene. Even though there are sometimes well over ten view points in just one area of the city, somehow it is breathtaking each time. Ubisoft Montreal has truly set a new benchmark in exploration.
The creed of an assassin involves more than just performing daredevil stunts, however. Occasionally, you must kill, and chances are these occasions will become more frequent as your combat abilities develop. Combat is not quite as easy to master or to enjoy as free-running, but it does indeed have something to offer. Altair is not the typical meathead sword machine that you often find in the digital medieval world, and as such he cannot blindly slash his way through every armed guard in the Holy Land. Altair has an array of weapons: a hidden, retractable hand blade, a sword, throwing knives, and a short blade. The hidden blade is the star of the show, but the other weapons are useful for dispatching large groups of armed resistance. Combat is a somewhat slow-paced, dodge, block, and counter affair, providing visceral and rewarding kills for well timed counterattacks. Being an assassin, your best bet is to catch your targets unaware, but combat with groups of guards is inevitable. They watch Altair at all times, and with the help of a color-changing indicator, you will have to tread carefully to avoid their ire.
The main assassinations drive the story forward, and Altair progresses toward each by performing an investigation. Investigations consist of certain tasks, like pickpocketing a contractor who is performing repairs on a target's citadel, or eavesdropping on parties discussing some useful tidbit of information. These tasks are displayed on the map after completing view points, and it isn't necessary to complete all of them. The tasks do not change over the course of the game, they are the same in Damascus as they are in Jerusalem, and some may find them tedious after awhile. After the minimum information has been gathered, the assassination begins, and these events not only drive the story forward but are immensely well executed. On one mission you set out to execute a portly merchant, and in the next you are stalking an impressively well-guarded regent. The variety keeps you guessing what will come next, and the high production value fails to disappoint.
Given that so much of the gameplay is reliant on timing and complex strategies, any minor flaw in the control scheme could prove highly frustrating. It's a good thing that there are no such flaws, the controls couldn't be easier to use and serve their purpose well. Between exploring, fighting, fleeing, and assassinating, you'll have plenty to keep you busy even if you just complete the bare minimum. For the completionist, there are flags to collect, random Templars to fight, and optional side tasks like rescuing citizens from bullying guards. Assassin's Creed, even if a bit redundant, is a wide step forward in next-gen gameplay. Ubisoft has delivered as promised.
The cities are a sight to behold, impossibly detailed and stretching out across vast distances. Aside from the mountains in the wilderness between the cities, everything you see can be scaled and viewed up close. Once you unlock all of the districts, there are no barriers, no walls that you cannot overcome. The streets are teeming with life, choked with an unending stream of pedestrians and roaming guards, virtually forcing you to stop and observe just long enough to feel like you truly are in the 12th century. The artists did their homework the stunning, intricate architecture that the Holy Land has long been renowned for is recreated in glorious detail. The Dome of the Rock is there in its golden splendor, the streets of Acre are dotted with the rotting corpses of casualties from the recent siege. Altair looks just as striking in game as he does on the cover, and as he breaks into a full sprint, you can see his weapons and robe move with him.
There are so many tiny details it would be impossible to cover them all, but they work together to lend a sense of realism to the world. Whether it is tufts of smoke rising from a censure, or the shadows of clouds passing over the sun, you'll be noticing new things well into the game. The animations are spot on, when Altair begins to climb a wall, he actually grabs onto the beams and ledges protruding from the wall. Combat is laced with spurts of blood, cringe inducing finishing moves, and the sparks of clashing steel, it all looks great. The costumes and armor of the period are well represented, chainmail has never looked as good as it does in this game. Next-gen games often take flak for being little more than mere graphics upgrades, but the artwork of Assassin's Creed does indeed take visuals to a new level, and the game wouldn't be nearly as impressive without the fine work of Ubisoft Montreal.
According to Hollywood, everyone in the middle ages spoke with a British accent, regardless of their origin. This makes it all the more refreshing that the voicework in this game covers a range of accents, representing the clash of cultures that the Holy Land is famous for. Aside from strange accents, you will hear the typical bustle and flow of city life, with merchants hawking their wares and orators giving speeches on the merits of the Crusades. It is reminiscent of games like Baldur's Gate II, but with the atmosphere and graphics to back up the sounds of busy urban life. The voice actors have done an exceedingly well job of delivering their lines without sounding corny, and combined with relevant, well-written dialogue, the voices work in concert with everything else to maintain the amazing sense of a living world. All of Altair's actions are accompanied by appropriate sounds, and when he sinks his blade into the flesh of a target, it sounds just as painful as it should. Hearing a guard sob in pain as his life drains away adds another layer of realism, and is a rarity in video games, where enemies usually take their last breath in silence.
The game's score is everything you would expect, influenced heavily by the unique instruments of the region, and it blends seamlessly with the rest of the game. Overall, the sound is just as striking as the intricate environment. Ubisoft's greatest accomplishment in developing this game is the stunning world they have built, a world that begs for exploration, and the sound is not just an accomplice to this goal but an integral part of it.
Assassin's Creed only real flaw is its repetitive nature, the tasks do not change, after the first real mission you will have experienced them all. Once counterattacks are introduced in combat, it devolves into a rather simple but strangely satisfying series of insta-kills. I mention these weaknesses here because they should be brought up, but hardly as reasons to dissuade anyone from experiencing this title. Much has been said of the story's sci-fi twist, and although I will not divulge any details, I can say that some will love it and others will hate it. Still, you cannot deny the effort that went into every facet of the game, including the story. Effort is not everything, but when so much of it went into making the game great, it is hard not to notice.
If you own an Xbox 360, or a PS3, this is a game you absolutely must try. It is a rare thing in this age of sequels and franchises to see a new IP stand out so boldly, and although it was a calculated risk, Ubisoft should be applauded for blazing a new trail.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 09/02/08
Game Release: Assassin's Creed (US, 11/13/07)
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