Review by Crono09
The flaws mar what could have been a great game
There are two games that inspired me to get back into PC gaming. BioShock was one, and Assassin's Creed was the other. Assassin's Creed appealed to me because of its focus on stealth and strategy rather than mindless combat. As a fan of the Thief series, I love games with this theme, and Assassin's Creed looked like a much-needed update. I eventually learned that it was very different from Thief, being a sandbox-style game along the lines of Grand Theft Auto III rather than a first-person sneaker, but it still had the appeal that I go for.
First, I will talk about what's good about the game. The game's story is excellent, and it really keeps you interested in continuing the game. There are actually two separate storylines, but they eventually intersect. Technically, the game takes place in the year 2012. Someone named Desmond Miles has been kidnapped by a mysterious group that need to access information from one of his ancestors. To do this, he must relive the memories of his ancestor Altair Ibn La-Ahad using a device called the Animus.
Most of the game takes place inside the Animus where Desmond is controlling Altair to unlock his genetic memory. Altair is a member of a secret assassin organization in the Holy Land in the year 1191. The Crusades are going on during this time, and the conflict between Christians and Muslims serves as a backdrop for many of the game's events. Altair violated the three rules of the Assassin's Creed on a mission to retrieve a sacred object from King Solomon's Temple, resulting is his demotion. To regain his honor, he must perform a series of high-profile assassinations for the organization's leader, Al Mualim, killing people on both sides of the Middle East conflict.
At first, Altair is only allowed to follow orders. As the game progresses, the goals of each person are revealed. After each assassination, Altair speaks with his target in a surreal environment and hears them defend their actions. Meanwhile, he gradually regains the trust of Al Mualim who tells him more of the reasons why each target was selected. After completing a group of missions, Desmond will be taken out of the Animus where he can learn more of the story by talking to his kidnappers, eavesdropping on their conversations, or reading their e-mails. This is how he uncovers the conspiracy that links his ancestor's story to his own.
The visuals are some of the best that I have ever seen in a video game. The landscapes look realistic, and the cities are amazing. Each one has a distinct style, and even though I don't know what the Middle East looked like in the twelfth century, they appear to be about what I would imagine. Some of the best graphics are reserved for the characters. The faces are nearly photorealistic with small details such as stubble, wrinkles, moles, and other blemishes. There is also a lot of variety in even the generic faces so that it doesn't look like you're walking by the same person all the time.
The animations are also outstanding. Most games have generic movements that are performed in conjunction with a command, regardless of the environment. This can produce some awkward behaviors such as limbs moving through walls. Assassin's Creed resists that for the most part with animations dependent upon the environment. This is most apparent while scaling walls. Altair's movements while reaching or jumping to the next handhold will vary depending on what that hold is. Reaching for a hook looks different from reaching for a window ledge. In fact, the climbing animations are so good that it was one of my favorite activities in the game.
The excellence in animation carries over into combat. Most battle commands use only one button with the corresponding action being based on timing or the position of the opponent. Every movement appears realistic, and some particularly good actions get a cinematic that flows smoothly with the battle. The designers were creative with the many different movements that can be used to make a kill. In many games, enemies have a "life bar" that is gradually depleted with each hit. This often makes for good gameplay, but it's unrealistic for enemies to be fully functional after you've just stabbed them in the chest 10 times. Assassin's Creed forgoes this by making every enemy, even "bosses," a one-hit kill. Instead of having higher life bars, more difficult enemies are those who are better at parrying your attacks. If you manage to hit an arm or shoulder instead, it will not kill the enemy, but it will make him clearly in pain, which will make him an easier target.
All of this is excellent and adds to the enjoyment of the game, but it also covers up one unfortunate fact: this really isn't a very good game.
One of the common complaints about the game is that it is repetitious, and I found this to be true. After some introductory missions that serve as a tutorial, you are given nine assassinations that take place in three cities (Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem) each with three districts (Poor, Middle, and Rich). While the cities themselves are very different from one another, there is little to distinguish each district. In each mission, you visit the local Assassin's Guild, find all the View Points, rescue all of the harassed citizens, perform six investigations, and return to the Assassin's Guild before performing the assassination. I enjoyed the View Points, mainly because they required a lot of climbing onto very tall buildings, but I still felt that there were too many of them. The six investigations were monotonous since they were virtually the same on every mission, but at least they were short and revealed storyline information. In the end, the only things to distinguish each mission were the city layouts and assassination.
The biggest flaw in this structure is the "Save the Citizen" objective. There are about 10 of these per mission, and they end up taking most of the time in each one. Altair finds anywhere between three and six guards harassing an innocent person and must fight them off to rescue the citizen. By itself, this would be okay, except that any passing guard who walks by will join in the fight, meaning that you could easily end up fighting 10 or more guards. In addition, you are unable to move for about a minute after fighting them off while the citizen thanks you, and any guard who walks by during that time will go after you, forcing you to either run or get into another fight. In a game whose primary focus is not to be noticed, it seems strange that an objective would require so much fighting.
The stealth system in Assassin's Creed is very original. Most stealth-based games require you to find ways to keep enemies from seeing you. Assassin's Creed requires you to hide in plain sight by blending into the crowd. The assassins disguise themselves as scholars, so unless they do something suspicious such as brandish a weapon or climb onto rooftops, no one will notice them. In practice, I found that you could get away with just about anything. People might notice and make comments about it, but the guards won't do anything. Pretty much the only thing that alerted guards aside from attacking them directly was going into areas where you were not allowed, which was sometimes hard to gauge, or walking too close to a patrol.
Like many stealth games, the player is discouraged from killing anyone except for the target. In fact, the first rule of the assassins is not to kill an innocent. However, there is little penalty for doing so. Killing a civilian will result in only the loss of a single synchronization point, which will regenerate automatically in a matter of seconds. This is actually good because it is very easy to hit the wrong button and stab a passerby on accident or for a stray sword swing to hit an onlooker. On the other hand, all guards are not considered innocent and can be killed without abandon. That being said, recklessly killing someone will often attract attention and result in either a fight or a chase, neither of which is desirable. Therefore, while you are free to go on a killing spree if you want, the game ensures that there's not much fun in doing so (which is a good thing).
I also was not fond of the system for escaping guards. Once a guard starts chasing you, the only way to escape is to get out of his line of sight and go to a designated hiding spot. The problem is that guards seem to always know where you are even after you escape their sight, so you only have a few seconds to get to a hiding place before they spot you again. They will also alert other guards to start chasing you, find ways to cut you off, and form roadblocks ahead of you. This is somewhat realistic, but it means that chases can go on forever, and after enough time, there will be so many guards after you that hiding is impossible, forcing you to fight them off. I once tried to avoid capture for 15 minutes before giving up. A general rule is that if you cannot find a hiding spot within 30 seconds, don't even bother. This could have been improved by letting Altair outrun enemies or giving him the ability to hide in areas other than predetermined locations.
The assassinations themselves are the best part of the game, and it is unfortunate that you end up spending so little time on them. Every assassination is very different, and in most cases, there are several ways to go about performing it. After you reach the location of the target, Altair will witness him perform an atrocious act that confirms any doubts that he deserves to die. Altair must then find a way to get to the target and perform the assassination. There are usually at least two ways to do this, one stealthy method that takes the target by surprise, and one straightforward method that requires fighting off the guards and the target in direct combat. The former is generally the most fun, and I took pleasure in finding out how to get behind a target without him or anyone else noticing.
Another component of the game's tedium is an optional quest involving finding flags. This wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that there are 420 flags to find. I got bored of this before I found 50. This quest is completely optional, so there is no obligation to complete it, but I don't think that's a good excuse for putting boring features into a game.
The setting, story, and appearance of the game surprisingly made up for its flaws, and in the end, I enjoyed playing it. I cannot consider it a great game, but anyone who enjoys stealth gaming or sandbox-style gameplay will probably find it worthwhile. It is unfortunate that so many flaws exist since the game had so much more potential, but it looks like many of them will be resolved for the sequel. If you are willing to tolerate some frustration and monotony, there are some very cool elements of the game that make it worthy of a qualified recommendation.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Assassin's Creed: Director's Cut Edition (US, 04/08/08)
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