Review by pixielate_com

"Medieval Gear Solid: Assassination takes patience."

Here it is at last. A lot of people have been biting their nails over this title for a long time. The team behind Assassin's Creed is the same team responsible for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which even now still ranks high on many lists of The Best Games Ever Made. Between this reputation and the dazzling screenshots and previews that Ubisoft has been showing off for the last couple of years, expectations have been running very high. Too high, perhaps, for any game to truly satisfy, and now that the game is actually out, there's been a lot of muttering and grumbling about how it doesn't quite live up to expectation.

And I understand the grumbling. I was a bit nonplussed for the first six or seven hours I was playing the game. I was expecting, like many others I think, a sort of perfect fusion of Splinter Cell's stealth and information gathering mechanics with Prince of Persia's flawlessly athletic melee combat and platforming. This is certainly the mark that Assassin's Creed is aiming at as far as mechanics are concerned, but this is a very different kind of game than Ubisoft has done before. Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell are both very linear games. You move through these experiences room by room, solving puzzles, clearing away enemies, and interacting with the story continuously along the way.

Assassin's Creed is not that kind of game. Ubisoft has made a bold move into the sandbox genre in an attempt to deliver something more closely approximating a 9th century Grand Theft Auto. You have three great cities to roam about freely, interacting with citizens and guards, exploring, climbing about on rooftops, and generally getting into trouble. Because the gameplay is so non-linear, the designers don't have the luxury of delivering story elements continuously as you play, and are stuck with delivering it in big lumps instead.

This is a style of storytelling that Ubisoft is not as practiced with, and the results are honestly rather tedious. There are a LOT of cutscenes to sit through, and they consist almost entirely of Altair standing there talking to someone for ten minutes at a time. You spend an equally large amount of time in faux-cutscenes where you have limited control of your character, but you're still just listening to him talk to someone for a while without really being able to do anything but watch. Admittedly, this is a very ambitious story that Assassin's Creed is telling, and there's a lot of information that needs to be presented, but it's not done with much elegance and this is by far the biggest downfall the game suffers. You also can't skip any of the cutscenes, but honestly that's ok. Assassin's Creed asks for a lot of patience on the part of the player, but it is rewarded with a very complex and intriguing story.

Patience is called for a lot in this game, in fact. Apart from the main assassination targets in each chapter, there are also submissions you can go on to gather information about your targets and the best way to approach them. You can interrogate people who know things, pickpocket people who have things, and occasionally will be sent out to kill minor targets by your lazier compatriots in the Assassin's Guild. All of these tasks have to be accomplished on busy streets, and most of them will fail you if you alert the guards. This means you have to take your time and make your move only when the moment is right. This is particularly tricky on the timed assassination missions, but success comes more from knowing exactly what routes through the streets and rooftops will get you to all your targets in a timely fashion. Rushing the kill just gets you mobbed by guards.

You can always tell when you're near someone you need to interrogate, because all the interrogation targets are standing at podiums shouting political speeches at the top of their lungs, over and over and over. This is very annoying if you're moving around trying to do something else, but does make beating the snot out of the guy that much more satisfying. Still, this mechanic feels like an awkward excuse to force you to get into fistfights. The stealthy grab-and-interrogate mechanic from Splinter Cell would have been much more appropriate for the character and a bit more interesting than just running up and smacking a guy in the back of the head, regardless of how annoying he is.

The last kind of mission you can get involved in is rescuing poor helpless citizens from bands of guards, which gets you allies in the city. These come in two varieties: Vigilantes, who will obstruct your pursuers, and Scholars, who can get you into heavily guarded areas. I found it odd, given the otherwise ubiquitous emphasis on stealth, that the only way to rescue a citizen is to get into a huge street brawl with the assailants and whatever guards happen to be nearby. This isn't particularly difficult, but it'd be nice if you had some other options for dealing with the problem.

This is the other major criticism I would lay against Assassin's Creed. For a sandbox game, there just isn't enough to do. There are five things you can do in a city: Pickpocket, Interrogate, Rescue Citizens, Assassinate people, and Collect Flags. Assassination includes both the targets your Informants give you, as well as the sixty Knights Templar scattered throughout the game. This is not a particularly compelling list of options, and you are exposed to every single one of them on your first mission. This doesn't leave a lot of gameplay development for the rest of the game, and tend to create a rather repetitive experience, as many reviewers have noted. There really need to be more things for you to do, and more ways to reward you for having done it beyond just Achievement points.

Apart from that, this is a very, very good game. The visuals are quite stunning, especially from the high perches scattered throughout the cities. These perches are functional as well, since climbing to the top of the towers and steeples will add all the surrounding mission objectives to your map, aiding in navigation and collection activities. Most of these also have a conveniently placed pile of hay for you to jump into. Always look before you leap though, because a few of them don't, and the fall is usually terminal.

Combat is mostly very slick. The combat system puts a very high premium on precision timing of attack combos and counterattacks. This is cool because it really feels like you've accomplished something when you pull off a flawless guard break kill on your target and then counter-kill the guy behind you almost in the same breath. Early in the game the counter-kills are a bit overpowered, since they're an instant kill. Later on though, the enemies get smarter and by the end of the game you really have to rely on your full bag of tricks to get through the mass piles of enemies you have to deal with at the end of the game.

The one frustration I had was that it's very difficult to follow up on a single target, since the auto target system tends to switch you to whichever enemy is closest. This makes the grapple move a lot less useful than it would have been otherwise, since it's prohibitively difficult to finish off someone you've just thrown down if they have any friends around. Mostly I just use it for throwing people off roofs, which is admittedly rather fun. A way to stay fixed on one target would be nice; especially if paired with a way to quickly dash to someone I've just thrown to the ground and finish them off. Technically you can do this by swapping to the Hidden Blade, but switching weapons in combat is very awkward in practice, and almost impossible if you have multiple enemies attacking you.

All told, this is a very skillfully executed game and quite a lot of fun. There's some reviewers out there giving the game 7s, and I think they have some unreasonable expectations. There's also some reviewers out there giving it 9s, and I'm not sure it's that good yet. Pretty much every aspect of this game displays obvious room for improvement. The graphics are a bit glitchy sometimes, there aren't enough mission options and the ones you do have get pretty repetitive. Targeting in combat can be frustratingly vague, especially when using throwing knives, and I'd really like to see more indoor locations in these cities. Conveniently, Ubisoft has plenty of time to address these complaints in the sequel.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/19/07

Game Release: Assassin's Creed (US, 11/13/07)

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