Review by DDJ
"Formulaic doesn't even begin to describe it."
Review in Brief
Game: A stealth action game (with platformer elements) centered around assassinations in the 12th century.
Good: Extremely original; breathtaking style; impressive scaffolding; good initial use of formulas.
Bad: Takes 'formulaic' to a whole new level, so much so that it almost becomes a joke; extremely aggravating at times; doesn't express information clearly; low on substance and skill required.
Verdict: An extremely original demonstration of some new ideas, but ultimately so formulaic that play almost becomes a chore.
Recommendation: Despite my low rating, play it anyway. It's still an instant classic, despite its fundamental faults.
Formulaic doesn't even begin to describe it.
The game's almost three years old, so I'll cut to the chase. Formulaic basically means that game follows some very distinct, recognizable pattern that guides the gameplay. When most people call a game formulaic, they mean externally formulaic: it follows the pattern set in place by the industry as a whole. To call a first-person shooter formulaic would typically mean that it follows the standard archetype of other first-person shooters. That would be externally formulaic: follows the formula of other games.
Assassin's Creed is not that kind of formulaic. There is no way in heck one could make the argument that it follows the formula of other games, with the possible exception of the liberal inspiration I feel the game draws from the Prince of Persia series.
No, Assassin's Creed is internally formulaic. Internally formulaic means that the game defines its own formula for use solely within the game, and follows it pretty closely. In reality, all games have some kind of formula; the question isn't the existence of a formula, but how clear it is to the player.
Formulaic isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's important for games to be formulaic in some senses. We'll cover why formulaic is a positive feature later, but suffice to say that Assassin's Creed taps the benefits quite aptly. The problem is that it doesn't stop there: the game becomes so formulaic that the player can almost see straight through it. The game becomes such a game that the formula it follows is completely transparent to the player. Playing it, you almost go into a mental suspension of the plot, understanding that the ensuing hour is really just a series of hurdles to plot progression.
The saving grace here is that those hurdles are still extremely fun to play; and in fact, many are completely optional, yet you'll feel inclined to play them anyway. But the clear formula to the game handicaps the plot and immersive quality to it substantially; rarely do you ever feel like you're actually immersed in a world rather than playing a game, and that's because the game's mechanics are so visible.
There's still a lot to love about the game, and it still remains an extremely solid release. However, the game shoots itself in the foot with its clearly visible mechanics, and nearly destroys the experience in the process.
As far as the plot goes, you play a character named Desmond who uses a complicated machine to relive the memories of his assassin ancestor, Altair. Most of the game is from Altair's perspective, where he is tasked with assassinating nine leaders from around Israel. As the plot goes on, more is revealed about the connections between the targets (who often oppose one another as well) and the background of Altair's own organization.
Gameplay centers largely on stealth; the areas Altair visits are crawling with soldiers, and getting into combat with one will quickly become combat with a half-dozen or more. Plenty of features are in place to help you retain your anonymity. When in combat, though, the player has commands for attacking and blocking, and can relatively easily engage in group combat as enemies take turns issuing their attacks.
A major part of the game involves climbing and exploring cities; nearly all surfaces can be climbed by Altair, grabbing ledges, windowsills and various other things to get to rooftops. This allows Altair to gain a better view of his surroundings, evade soldiers, and cut a clearer path to his destinations.
We live in an era of gaming where revolutionary games aren't exactly common. I won't go so far as to say, "You've played one FPS, you've played them all" -- but the concepts and skills you learn in one game typically generalize to others. It's rare to find one game that completely defies conventions.
Assassin's Creed may not be purely 100% original; fans of the Prince of Persia series will immediately notice a parallel with the wall-climbing-and-jumping skills they mastered in the classic platformers. But overall, the game is about as original as a game can get nowadays. You can't ask for more originality than you get with Assassin's Creed.
Let's start with the gameplay. I mentioned Prince of Persia, but even there the parallels are somewhat abstract. I can think of no game I've seen that involves the type of city navigation, path-finding and free roam gameplay that Assassin's Creed provides. Couple that with the stealth requirements of the game, and you have an incredibly original experience simply from a gameplay perspective.
Even the most prototypical games can save their non-originality with a unique plot; however, Assassin's Creed actually manages to go beyond that. The game has a unique plot at multiple levels, and it is the interplay between the various plots and plot elements that really brings out the strength of the narrative. In fact, I can think of at least four different ways the plot manages to be original.
First of all, the frame story. The game has a frame story you learn early on, where your "real" character is a bartender in an ambiguously futuristic society, though you spend 98% of the game controlling a character "through" him within the inner story. The frame story itself is nicely unique; world domination, hidden factions, unknown motives, mysterious characters -- you name it.
The inner story itself isn't terribly unique in its own right; as you learn early on, it's basically "kill these nine targets". However, the plot that motivates these killings is subtly spectacular. The game spends an unfortunately low amount of time really developing the interplay of the different factions, but the player does get a glimpse at how the different targets' roles go together. Plus, the game takes the time to pose intense moral questions with each character -- questions that seem so obvious, but yet after some dialogue have the player questioning where they stand. And, fittingly, the character asks the same questions that the player is left with along the way.
The third major strength is the overall expression of the story, especially the frame story (though the inner story in some ways, too). The game doesn't throw the plot in your face; it subtly presents hints and clues as to the overall narrative and how things play together. It provides things for the player to find that could easily be missed, providing context with the time period, factions, and other elements. Most importantly, the player gets the earnest impression that there is a strong, cohesive underlying plot to the game, and we see only the top of the iceberg.
Lastly, my favorite element of the game's plot originality is the way it actually manifests itself in the mechanics of the game. Many games take liberty in separating mechanics from plot; for example, why is it that an RPG character can stand and fight through dozens of sword slashes as long as their "HP" is above 0, but dies on that one last little flick? It's a marriage of convenience, but one that Assassin's Creed avoids. The game actually finds extremely interesting ways of incorporating the plot into the mechanics; for example,"health" has been replaced with "sync", with the implication being that if you die, you weren't really in "sync" with the skilled assassin you're pretending to be. This allows health to be logically damaged by other things, like killing civilians or leaping off tall buildings.
The game also does a great job of encouraging stealth behavior through the gameplay mechanics as well, usually without getting aggravating. Stealth is a major part, but games where compromising your identity is an instant-loss are annoying. Instead, Assassin's Creed gives you plenty of strength to fight off hordes of bad guys (in accordance with the 'skilled assassin' role you're playing), but provides no reward for doing so. In that way, you're encouraged to stay disguised: yes, you could fight them off, but it's just a waste of time with no reward for doing so.
Overall, the narrative plot is extremely strong and original, and is accentuated by excellent expression both in the direct story and in the manifested gameplay elements. All these fit together for a splendidly cohesive whole. There's a fair amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy the game (DNA memory? Really?), but once you're past that the originality shines.
I'll only touch on this briefly because I'm not totally convinced it couldn't have been done much quicker; but the game does a good job of bringing the player along and teaching them as the game progresses. In the beginning, the skills you have are enough to take care of early enemies with simplistic gameplay, and throughout more abilities are added on. By the end, your character is a very complex and dynamic fighter, able to stealth kill, direct fight or projectile assassinate -- inundating the player with these initially would be overwhelming, but the periodic presentation of the new skills allows the player to learn one before moving on to the next.
In addition, the overall gameplay increases in challenge to go along with this; yes, later enemies are more challenging, but you have more skills to do battle with. In this way, the game's overall difficulty doesn't increase tremendously, but it feels like it does because you have tangible signs you're improving at the game, through mastery of new skills.
Lots of style...
Until I became aware of how formulaic the game is, by tagline for this review was going to be "All style, little substance" -- and I stand by that as a fair descriptor of the game. We're in the positive section here, so I'll describe the style.
Visually, the game is breathtaking. Gorgeous, realistic graphics of a unique time period and area. This goes beyond just graphical capabilities: the game goes out of its way to visually blow the player away, through long placement shots of huge cities, and similarly long placement shots while the player sits atop high buildings. The attention to detail is remarkable, both in how things look, and how the game shows how they look.
But in order for the game to look incredible, it has to have something that can lend itself to looking incredible; and that's where the game's atmosphere comes in. Yes, a realistic city is nice, but if the player still doesn't feel like it's a real city, it's not going to have the same impact. But the design and layout of the city is extremely realistic: almost too realistic at times. There are NPCs by the thousands throughout the game, of various different styles and speech patterns. The layouts are enormous, and actually feel logical, with points of interest, street vendors, preachers, etc.
The biggest contributor to the atmospheric nature, though, is the way NPCs in the game actually react to what you do. If you climb a wall, you'll hear them muttering about how bizarre you are. If you kill someone, people will notice the body and wonder aloud what happened. Guards will be more likely to attack you if you're in the area with the body. And if you let a body fall off a roof, you'll hear people screaming below. Now that is fun.
A big part of the game is running, climbing buildings, and either fleeing guards or just jumping around for the fun of it (or because it tends to make navigation easier). And this part is really just plain fun. Running to a wall, running up the side, grabbing ledges to climb up, reaching tall points: none of it is complicated from a gameplay angle, but it's just simply fun to do. Battle is similar: battling is never terribly difficult, but the animations that go along with it just make it an enjoyable process.
I call these 'style' elements because when you get down to it, these don't really impact gameplay; they're almost entirely visual or atmospheric elements. The gameplay that leads to these is surprisingly shallow, as we'll discuss in a moment.
This entire review is named for the game's formulaic nature, but I think it's extremely important to clarify something: games need to be internally formulaic. It's a positive feature. Let me explain.
Quality games are all about immersion. The designers should want the player to feel completely immersed in the game's plot and environment. Playing the game should be like living inside the game, with the gameplay elements "disappearing" between the player and the screen. Anything that breaks that immersion detracts from the overall experience. The major place we see this is with controls: when you constantly have to think about the controls, you become very aware that you're playing a game. When the controls just flow smoothly, you can really feel like you're within the game.
Besides controls, though, there's a different way to break the immersion of the game; and that's to have the game telling you what to do next. Think of Final Fantasy 7 for a moment. You go through this big flashback scene in Kalm, you're immersed in the storyline, and you go to leave. Someone outside goes, "Oh, the guy you're looking for just went THAT WAY." It's very apparent that the game is talking to you, the player: and if the game is talking to the player and not the character, it highlights the line between the two and breaks the immersion.
That's an extremely subtle example, but I think the concept is pretty clear. That's where formulas come in: formulas help the player know what to do without the game having to expressly state it. In Assassin's Creed, when you get to a new city, you always have to go through the same steps: reach the bureau and climb some high points to get a good view of the city. This way, the game doesn't need to inform you of what you should be doing; you just know, so you feel like you're actually playing the character doing what he knows he needs to do; not what you know he needs to do.
The natural formula of the game makes progressing through it feel very natural at first, and it serves to augment the game's open-world environment as well; by ensuring that the player naturally knows what to do, the game can remain very open. If the player was to be unclear, the game would have to take steps to restrict the path toward the right goal, which itself would break the immersive qualities.
A formula helps keep the gameplay progression natural rather than forced; but the problem arises when the player becomes too aware of the formula...
Assassin's Creed has met rave reviews from those who managed to review it less than three years after it came out (what, I'm behind the times), and the positive features I've mentioned above have played a major role. But personally, my lasting impression is that it's actually a rather raw and shallow demonstration of some excellent ideas, but nearly fails to stand up as a singular game for the four reasons stated below.
...but WAY too formulaic
As I stated above, being formulaic is important. It helps the player know what to do next without having to go through an immersion-breaking tutorial or having characters basically break the fourth wall to tell you what to do next. Assassin's Creed hits this note well.
But the problem is that the game is so formulaic that it almost becomes a complete joke. The entire game can be outlined in a very straight forward flow chart: Arrive at new city -> visit the bureau -> climb a high point -> conduct investigations and optional objectives -> return to bureau -> attack the area's "boss". Without exaggeration, all nine areas of the game follow this exact formula. It's basically a joke.
The impact of this is that the player feels an extreme lack of actual continuity in the game. Rather than these portions actually contributing to the narrative, they feel more like chores that must be completed to unlock the next plot-continuing cutscene. There is nothing really to differentiate the first five steps in any of the nine areas. It's the same thing every damn time.
A partial contributing factor to this is that I'd estimate 80% of the game's content is actually optional. In a given area, you are given a set number of objectives: six investigations, some number of civilian rescues (usually around a dozen), and some number of high points to climb (usually a bit less than a dozen). Around two-dozen objectives per area, and you really only need to to 5-6 of them: three investigations are usually required, and you'll need to climb two to three high points just to find them.
The visibility of the formula breaks the game's immersion in an extreme way; in fact, it becomes almost difficult to see yourself as the character because you're conducting such clearly repetitive and largely meaningless chores. There are other contributing factors to this, as we'll see below in the Poor Information Expression section, but the visibility of the game's formula is the most dire element.
To a lesser extent as well, the game's battle system is extremely formulaic as well. By the end, you have basically four moves: light attack, heavy attack, counter and dodge. While I'm sure there are some slightly more in-depth and efficient strategies, the "winning" strategy (that is, the one that basically guarantees you'll win) is simple: guard all the time and wait for an enemy to attack. If it's a heavy attack, dodge. If light, counter. Repeat. This simple process can take care of every battle I encountered in the game -- and, what's more, it seemed to get even more effective with the later battles (though I might just have been getting better at recognizing attacks).
The formulaic nature of the game completely takes the player out of it, in my opinion. It's almost ironic; the game actually provides things that would make sense for the player to need to investigate, but the visible formula underneath it all gives the impression that it's all really just an artificially game-lengthening chore. We'll see elements of this formulaic nature come up in the following sections as well.
I mentioned above that the game is extremely stylish; visually breath-taking and atmospheric as all get out. But the problem I see is that underneath that style... there's really very little substance to the game.
Part of this is taken care of in the formulaic nature mentioned above, but there's a lot more to it than that. For example, take one of the more enjoyable parts of the game: just aimlessly climbing around the building walls. It's a big part of the game and it's fun, but is there really anything to it? Is there really any skill involved? I don't think so. You press a couple buttons to get onto a wall. Then you hold down up until there's nothing left above to grab on to. Left or right to search, or B to drop down and try again somewhere else.
Where's the skill? Anyone can do that. The battle system is similar; while there's a slight element of timing and recognition to it, the battle system is extremely shallow. There's just no real skills to learn. You counter when attacked, or dodge when the enemy takes especially long to telegraph their attacks.
Perhaps that's the best way to describe the game's problem: how would you describe someone being "good" at Assassin's Creed? There just aren't that many skills to master here. Counter when attacked, climb walls. The assassinations themselves can take skill, but there's a problem there, too...
Poor Information Expression
This one's a bit of a vague category; it applies to various different dimensions of the game, but at the same time, it seems to be the same continuous problem. It harkens back to what I just mentioned about assassinations, as we'll see.
First off: the game has nine major assassinations, I'd say. In each case, there is a particular "good" way to conduct the assassination. Usually the environment is set up in a manner that would allow you to dive in and kill the target and then run to escape, like a good assassin. The problem, though, is that the game doesn't give you quite enough information to really know how to stage the assassination the "right" way. The investigations you conduct are meant to give that information, but the hints tend to be too vague, especially when you're thrown into the assassination without a terribly long time to plan for it.
Plus, many of the pieces of information you gather don't have an obvious actual use. For example, in some investigations, you'll be told you receive a "map of the guards' locations". And where, pray tell, do we see this map? I might just be stupid, but it seemed that this information was theoretical: the character had it, but we don't need to see it because it's really only necessary so that he can say he has it.
This wouldn't be a problem if the assassination could only be done one way: try until you get it right. The problem is that once you've botched it and you're being attacked on all sides, it's not terribly hard just to outright win the battle -- but there went your chance to actually do what the game intended for you to do, and conduct entertaining assassinations. The problem isn't this so much, but that the game does a poor job of expressing the information to you about the assassination in the first place. It's just hard to connect why the investigations really matter from a gameplay standpoint -- they seem to be only plot devices.
This existence of an "ideal" assassination method shows at a higher level as well. Throughout the game, you're given information like, "Use dead bodies as distractions." These pieces of advice make you feel like there's always a really, really clever way to accomplish certain goals... but you never really discover what those ways really are. They're not necessary for success, so you're really not forced to figure them out, and instead you play the game just feeling kind of like you're missing something. Maybe you're not, I don't know -- but the feeling that you are is annoying.
Taking this dearth of information to an even broader level, I feel like the overall plot of the game isn't adequately expressed either. This flies a bit in the face of one of my 'Good' qualities of the game, but it applies specifically to the underlying super-narrative about factions rather than individual characters. My understanding of the game was that the three major cities were controlled by three factions, and that the factions were in the midst of a war; but in the time you're playing, it feels like they just freeze. No progress is made on the underlying plot, and everything just kind of stands still. Plus, you're never really sure what those underlying major background points are; they're barely alluded to.
The game takes special care to have a lot of interesting information to it, but the way it expresses it in many places leaves the player unclear to the information's significance, or to even the information's true meaning or usefulness. That's a pretty major problem in my opinion, and it leaves the player feeling like they never really experienced the game as it was meant to be played, through no fault of their own.
Breaks the cardinal rule: don't be annoying
This will be a short section as well because it should be an obvious point. Games should be challenging, but they should never be obnoxious.
Assassin's Creed is obnoxious in many places, and it's pretty inexcusable. Oftentimes it's impossible to tell how you tipped enemies off to your identity and why they're attacking you. Drawing your weapon can be a pain when you inadvertently had the wrong one selected. Fleeing from enemies is supposed to be a fun and exciting part of the game, but it can get so difficult because of their speed that it's less annoying (and oftentimes more efficient) to just stop and fight.
Those are just the minor things, though. The game's city streets are populated partially by beggars, drunks and crazy people. Beggars will run around you screaming annoyingly for you to give them money, getting in your way inevitably while you're following a target. Really, if I was actually the character, I'd give them some damn money just to shut them up. Drunks and crazy people, on the other hand, will literally attack you and knock you down. The annoying part is that oftentimes, they're in a big crowd of people, but somehow manage to pick you out to attack every time. Other times, they're in narrow alleyways that you have to go down, and there's simply no way around them. On the bright side, you can assassinate them, but it hurts your health (er, sync).
A little less annoying and more fundamental problem is that towards the end of the game, the plot also breaks its own internal mood pretty significantly; I won't spoil much for you, but suffice to say the ending doesn't really match the tone of the rest of the game. The plot part is fine, but the tone is just odd, and it has a way of breaking the immersion of the game.
Assassin's Creed is a hard game to pass a verdict on. On the one hand, it's far and away one of the most original games I've ever played. The plot is excellent, and many of the gameplay elements are extremely innovative. Stylistically, there's no better game out there, and the game does a truly great job of scaffolding the player along. Despite the lower score I'm going to give it, the game deserves its praise.
The problems with the game, though, absolutely dominate it for me. The formulaic nature kills it in my eyes. It's hard to enjoy a game that tries to be deep and interesting, but is on the surface even more shallow than a Mario platformer. The formula exists so separately from the plot that most of the game seems like a distraction (an enjoyable distraction, granted, but a distraction), and there really are no skills to master within the game.
So, I'm going to be harsh and pronounce Assassin's Creed a solid game, but extremely and fundamentally flawed. It's not just about glitches, oversights or annoyances; the very fabric of the game has some significant hang-ups to it, and while it remains enjoyable, they severely damage any objective rating of the game's overall quality.
Play it anyway. Yes, I'm giving it a 6 (which, frankly, to me is a decently solid score) which wouldn't suggest that it's a quality game; but it's still an experience you ought to have if only for the originality and stylistic strengths.
Assassin's Creed is a game that leaves you wanting more -- but it's worth that feeling to get the game's experience.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 08/31/10
Game Release: Assassin's Creed (US, 11/13/07)
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