Review by grasu
"Great world - antiquated design."
Every game has a gimmick. Sometimes it's enough to propel what would otherwise be a mundane experience into the sphere of greatness. Gamers have seen it happen before: Jet Grind Radio had graffiti, Forza Motorsport had the racing line and the Call of Duty series has its patented blend of high-octane non-stop cinematic action. For Assassin's Creed that gimmick is called Parkour, otherwise known as free-running.
Parkour is the ability of Altair, the game's protagonist, to climb or scale any building and run across every rooftop with the simple press of a button. In order to direct Altair towards some of the craziest stunts and most intense chase sequences ever all you need to do is engage High Profile mode by holding the right trigger and then a simple press of the A button will make climbing, jumping or running as simple a task as any. Gone are the pixel-perfect jumps or the tedious stop-get ready-jump sequences of other platformers and in their place a more fluid movement system emerges. All of these actions are even more believable as every building, rooftop or balcony in the game is designed in such a way as to be believable, with cracks, ledges or sculptures where one would expect them. Altair moves with extreme fluidity grabbing on realistically and believably to elements in the game world. The only drawback of this system comes from having to perform some more accurate platforming sections which can be tricky but thankfully Ubisoft made most of these portions optional so the main storyline doesn't bog players down with stupidly difficult climbs or runs.
Speaking of story Assassin's Creed's is one of contrasts. The main storyline, that of Altair a 12th century assassin, focuses on betrayal and redemption. In contrast Desmond, a modern day bartender, is Altair's ancestor and therefore carries the primer's collective memories stored in his DNA. Basically the game focuses on these two characters, Desmond who becomes the major interest of an underground organization for the information he holds and Altair who, after a botched attempt at an assassination, goes about redeeming himself by killing a list of men given to him by his master, Al Mualim.
While the story is ok as far as gaming stories go, its presentation is quite poor. All of the cutscenes are in-engine and as a result angles are poor, close-ups are nearly inexistent and their impact is far less resounding than it could be. What's more the voice acting and writing is spotty throughout, of special note being Altair's voice actor which easily ranks as one of the worst choices in terms of actors in recent memory. The story also relies way too heavily on surprise plot-twist, some of which can be seen coming a mile away, and ends fairly abruptly without much closure.
What redeems Assassin's Creed's world however is the setting itself. Action games based in medieval era settings have pretty much died with the Thief series and this time-zone is one that gaming has very sparsely explored. Having a game take place in the 12th century means historical accuracy is a must and Ubisoft have take their time in ensuring all of this data is as correct as possible. The three cities which players explore, Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre are all distinct in architectural style, mentality and inhabitants. Whereas Damascus is the more Muslim focused of the cities and Acre the more Christian one Jerusalem is a melange of both, much like in real life. Each city has an architectural style specific to its religious majority: Acre is dominated by gothic buildings, impressive churches and European-style buildings while Damascus is littered with mosques, prayer towers and Eastern-like structures. Jerusalem is predictably a combination between the two. Everything looks gorgeous both from a distance and up close thanks to sharp textures, huge draw distances and an almost unbelievable absence of draw-in. Taking to a tall building and viewing a city in its full glory is breathtaking.
Each of these cities do have some things in common, the most notable of which are the aforementioned tall buildings which can be scaled in order to synchronize your map. After climbing these tall structures, be they churches, prayer towers or castle towers the map will become dotted with a myriad of indicators, either pointing players in the direction of a story-based mission or indicating the location of optional missions. Unfortunately it is at this point where the game begins to fall apart. Upon entering a city the wannabe assassins need to check into their local Assassin's Bureau and grab some information pertaining to the next target. The information given here is sparse and it indicates the general direction in which players should head to gather information. Upon entering the area in question, which is neither marked on the map nor indicated in any fashion, it's time to climb tall structures. While this is fun for the first 10-20 times by the end of the game you'll have climbed anywhere from 70-100 churches, towers or pillars. It's incredibly frustrating to keep climbing structures over and over again in each of the three cities just to realize that the area you are in has absolutely no relevance to what was said at the Assassin's Bureau.
After successfully climbing and plotting sub-missions on your map it's time to go execute them. All of the game's major missions require the gathering of information by completing a set of at least 3 menial tasks - including beating up people for information, pickpocketing, eavesdropping or killing targets for informants. A structure such as this lends itself easily to tediousness or repetition and certainly by the middle of the game the sub-missions start feeling like a grind rather than fun. One of the many reasons for this also comes from the game's structure: you have to walk the streets in Low Profile mode in order to not alert guards to your presence. In other words, this means you'll literally walk the streets, dodging guards, beggars or drunkards in an attempt to carefully pickpocket some target or to kill another. Repetitiveness is the name of the game as the same 2-3 sound bytes will be repeated by every pedestrian, guard or beggar in the game. Everyone has something to say but they do so frequently and repetitively.
Upon completing all of the required information gathering missions the game will progress to the actual assassination mission. The same linear pattern is followed with each assassination in the game: get to point A, watch a cutscene and brutally murder the target after they're done talking. For a gaming calling itself Assassin's Creed the actual amount of assassinating going on is pretty slim. Each assassination quickly boils down into a blood bath as all, except one, of the assassinations involve killing two dozen guards before getting to the target. Furthermore just about everyone of the victims-to-be will flee leading into a prolonged chase throughout the streets of the city, dodging civilians or guards and brutally murdering your targets in open street. It doesn't feel like what an assassin would do at all and completely pulls players out of the game.
The combat mechanics in Assassin's Creed don't alleviate the situation at all. Altair has access to a number of weapons throughout the game, but only one is suitable for fighting: his sword. Fights however are laughably simplistic. Rather soon into the game, after regaining the counter-kill ability, every soldier will simply attack only to be countered by Altair in a bloody, yet cool fashion. Attacking in sword fights is virtually useless because, although guards will only attack one at a time, their reflexes and the damage they inflict is enough to throw Altair off his balance and kill him rather quickly even late into the game. The combat would have been passible if only Assassin's Creed didn't feature so much of it! By the later parts of the game armed patrols will be walking the streets of all major cities and guards will always be alerted at Altair's presence, making even the slightest mishap or socially unacceptable behavior (such as climbing walls) a reason for combat. Guards can be escaped from either by breaking line of sight or by combat. Breaking the line of sight allows Altair to hide in stacks of hay, rooftop gardens or with groups of people. Running and hiding however is overly long and tedious, as the equivalent of mall-cops in the middle ages can run up walls, jump off buildings and traverse the terrain just as skillfully as Altair.
Outside of the main game Assassin's Creed also sports a number of side missions and objectives. Completing any number of these will grant rewards, such as vigilante groups which stop guards in their tracks or scholars which Altair can use as cover. Neither of these bonuses are terribly useful however as the stealth element is virtually absent from the game and guards easily outnumber vigilantes in most cases. Additionally Altair can collect a number of flags scattered throughout the land but this last activity is extremely tedious and it offers absolutely no bonuses outside of achievements. It also implies traveling the vast wasteland in-between cities by horseback which is simply painful: going any faster than a snail's pace alerts every guard within the gameworld. While replayability is slim the game takes a good 10-14 hours to complete, but pacing is severely lacking.
Technically Assassin's Creed is an exceptional piece of software. The graphics, both in detail, accuracy and execution are masterful. Draw-in is the only noticeable graphic bug but even so it doesn't interfere with the game. Every now-and-then you'll also notice some slowdown but this is acceptable considering the sheer level of detail on screen. Animation is a particularly strong point as both Altair, and the world surrounding him move in an almost life-like fashion. The streets of all of the game's cities are densely populated with people form all walks of life and the screen is virtually littered with all manner of minute details: merchant stands, crowds gathering to hear speeches, guards going about their patrol routines or people shopping. Lighting is super with just the right amount of bloom and everything is self-shadowing.
The sound component is less awe-inspiring but the music and sound effects are well done. Particularly the chase music stands out as a high tempo sweeping anthem that'll get all but the most blaze gamer in the mood for a fistfight. Sound effects are accurate and well mixed, channels never seem to drown each other out and players can accurately pinpoint the direction from which someone is speaking just through use of sound. Voice acting on the other hand is poor, in large part due to the poorly written dialogue and badly picked voice actors. Several sound bytes, such as beggars asking for money, repeat themselves ad-nausea annoying more than immersing gamers into Assassin's Creed's world.
Easily the biggest redeeming feature of Assassin's Creed is the gameworld itself. It's something new, that you haven't seen before, and the game pulls off its ambitions goal of recreating the Crusade-era Holy Land very well. On the other hand the antiquated game mechanics, the repetitive nature of missions and the so-so story line make Assassin's Creed a major disappointment.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 08/09/10
Game Release: Assassin's Creed (Platinum Hits) (US, 12/31/08)
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