Review by BloodGod65

"The Little Things Make All the Difference"

Real assassins are underrepresented in video games. It's a sad fact. Up until now, the only other credible killer we've seen is the slick-headed Agent 47. But now, gamers will be able to control a more noteworthy assassin (sorry Mr. 47, I am not impressed by your shining cranium or your little red tie). Of course, the real question here is whether Ubisoft was able to make a game that delivers all the excitement of the perfect kill.

The story of Assassin's Creed is a highly complex, slightly puzzling affair that should manage to suck in most players. It unfolds in two intricately interwoven yet distinct parts; one takes place in the future, another in the past. The main story is that of Altair, a Middle Eastern assassin in the time of the Crusades.
In order to save his homeland from the invaders, Altair is charged with eliminating a number of people who have a hand in the invasion.

The second part of the story is quite different. While only a tiny sliver of the game is devoted to it, it contains more revelations and shady allusions to the overall narrative than the other half of the story. I hesitate to give the details on any of it, other than to say that what you'll actually witness in Assassin's Creed is only part of a much larger struggle that goes well beyond the confines of this single game. Unfortunately, things come to a sudden halt just as the story really starts to get interesting, and players will be left with many more questions than answers.

Even though the game has an ending that will leave players scratching their heads, everyone at Ubisoft is to be commended for having the guts to write a story like this – especially in the paranoid, xenophobic age we live in. While many might have focused on a European hero, Ubisoft decided to show the unique perspective of someone living in the Holy Land. It is very interesting to see this era from the eyes of a native, instead of the invader, as is most common with anything dealing with the Crusades.

The game itself is as unique as its story. The first thing that needs to be addressed is the game's unusual control scheme. Instead of going with the traditional route, where each button has a specific function, Ubisoft uses a contextual approach. Instead of one button being a jump button, and another being a run button, the buttons in Assassin's Creed correspond to a body part. Y is for the head, X and B are for the hands, which are used for attacks and grabs, and A is for the feet, used for running and jumping. In addition, holding down the right trigger modifies all commands. In combat this means all the primary buttons that are used for offense become defensive. It sounds very complicated, and initially takes a bit of practice, but in effect it makes everything much more fluid. For instance, in most games if you wanted to jump, you'd have to gauge your distance beforehand. Here, you just line up the jump and hit the A button; Altair adjusts accordingly.

Using that system, combat becomes a hypnotic dance of death. Even though you'll often be facing off against numerous enemies, you'll always know what you need to do to survive. That's not to say that combat is easy, because you still have to dodge and counter, but the system is very intuitive. Counter moves are also delightfully brutal, with Altair running enemies through with his sword, or slitting throats with his knife. There are numerous animations for his counters and even after hours with the game, I never tired of seeing them.

Another big part of the game is exploration. Altair is able to roam around a large open world that consists of three ancient cities in the Holy Land and he will have to visit each in order to assassinate his targets. But before attempting this, it's a good idea to get a feel for the lay of the land. The main way to do this is to get to an elevated viewpoint so Altair can fill out his map. This entails all sorts of acrobatics as he climbs up towers and walls using only his hands. Ubisoft originally claimed that any object that stuck out more than two inches would be able to be used as a handhold for Altair to climb, a claim that was hard to believe, to say the least. But surprisingly enough, Ubisoft has done just that, meaning that pretty much anything that isn't flat can be climbed. Once you've scaled the building and your map has been filled in, you can jump off the side and down into a conveniently placed wagon of hay. These death-defying leaps never ceased to cause my stomach to clench up as I waited for Altair to miss his intended landing spot and crash down onto the ground.

The coolest thing about all this is actually Altair himself. His motions, from fighting to climbing and everything in between, have been animated perfectly. In fact, Ubisoft has made a character that moves exactly as you would expect a real person to. It never seems as though you are pressing buttons to trigger pre-animated moves; it always feels as if his movements are being strung together on the fly, with natural and fluid transitions between them.

Since you are tasked with taking out some high-profile targets, there's a lot of work to be done before you actually get to kill anybody. Aside from scoping out the surroundings, there are a number of sub-missions to complete before getting the contract. The game only requires the player to complete a few of these, but doing more leads to more information about the target. This is crucial if you want to plan an attack rather than go in blind.

These missions consist of pick-pocketing people, eavesdropping, interrogations and informers. These missions are painfully simple and play out more like mini-games than anything else. To pickpocket, you just have to follow behind someone for a few feet and then steal a document. Eavesdropping requires nothing more than sitting on a bench and listening to two people talk. An interrogation has Altair hitting someone with his fists a few times before they break down and talk, and informers usually need you to hunt down and kill a few people or complete a really stupid footrace around the city.

As lousy as these missions are the first time around, the formula never changes. Considering that these menial activities make up the vast majority of the game – apart from journeying back and forth between the cities – that's a considerable problem. Not only does the game rely on these activities too heavily, but they never evolve. From your first mission to your last, you'll follow the exact same routine and use the same tactics to complete each activity. The only difference is the information you receive from the various missions.

Completing these information missions will eventually allow you to go after your target. Usually, you will need to infiltrate a secure location, avoiding any security he has in place. Once you make the kill, you'll learn a little more about the plot as the villain gives a death-bed monologue, and then be forced to run for your life.

At first, swooping in undetected, making a kill, and then vanishing without a trace feels really cool. Unfortunately as the game rolls on, major issues begin to crop up. In many missions there doesn't seem to be any way to kill your target using stealth. In others, the window for a stealth kill is so narrow – and unrecognizeable – that you'll likely never get it on your own. Perhaps the biggest issue is the game's penchant for bottlenecking Altair into certain positions at points. When you get to a location, the game will often cut to a cinematic, and when it's over Altair is locked into the area. This makes it much more difficult to tackle missions how you want to. Even worse, in many missions, Altair is inadvertently discovered and chaos ensues – which brings us back to the issue of feeling like stealth is not always an option. Strange issue for a game that seems to be all about the silent kill. These problems are enough to reveal that though Ubisoft wants players to have the illusion of control over how to tackle a mission, there is really only one option and players must follow that line or fail.

Despite the significant faults the gameplay has, Assassin's Creed is one of the best looking games on the 360. My first real inkling of game's graphical prowess was when I came over a cliff and saw the entire city of Damascus lying below me. A sea of squat, sand colored buildings sprawled out to the horizon, and in places towering minarets seemed to pierce the sky. This moment of amazement was one of the defining moments in the game, and it still ranks high on the coolest moments I've experienced in this generation.

Once Altair starts walking around in the city, the sense of wonder only increases. The cities are incredibly realistic because of carefully designed architecture and the endless number of citizens. Light is also portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Unlike many games, where a light source is fixed, here the light shifts as clouds pass over head, making the shadows dance around the environment. When walking through a narrow alleyway, it may be bright one second and then dark another, which creates a real sense of actually being in the game. It would have been absolutely mind-blowing if there had been a cycling day and night cycle, but given the beauty of what's here I won't hold it against Ubisoft.

While the amazing attention to graphical detail helps the cities stand out, the sounds incorporated into them create an even further sense of realism. Street vendors cry out to attract customers, preachers and politicians stand on corners spreading their propaganda, the homeless beg for money and soldiers harass the citizens.

This wonderful ambience makes up for the fact that there is an almost complete lack of music in-game, but most of the time it is barely missed because of everything else that is going on. When the music does actually kick in, it is usually in cases where Altair is being chased by guards or some other dramatic moment.

The voice actors do a great job, even those who just voice minor parts, like the citizens. However, the pool of voice actors is relatively small, so you'll constantly be hearing the same voices. The number of available comments for the citizens is even smaller so you'll often hear two or three people saying the same thing within a few seconds of one another.

I was really looking forward to this game, but I can't say I never had my reservations about it. Who actually thought Ubisoft could make good on all their claims? I sure didn't. While the game is a technical achievement, the abnormal amount of repetition Assassin's Creed forces the player to endure does have severe effects on the game as a whole. Even though the game is constantly building towards an exciting climax, most players will be utterly sick of repeating the same routine by the time it arrives. It's a strange inverse correlation – the most interesting the game becomes, the less interested in it most people will be.

As it stands, Assassin's Creed is still an interesting title and Ubisoft has made some major innovations here. Unfortunately, the game is more significant for its technical prowess than its lackluster gameplay.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 01/22/08, Updated 01/11/12

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

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