Review by Sarumusha

Reviewed: 03/20/08 | Updated: 11/03/09

Plenty of style, not quite enough substance

When you think about it, “medieval assassin” should not be an appealing job description. It sounds cool, to be sure, but would be more likely to entail violent and squalid scuffles in back alleys, the sound of punctured organs and cracking bones, torrents of blood and bile, and an alarming lack of dental hygiene. However, these are problems are never encountered by Altair, the protagonist of Ubisoft’s third person action adventure Assassin’s Creed (though he does have a colossal nose, so it’s not all style).

Assassin’s Creed follows the exploits of Altair, a member of the inscrutable Hasashin sect (though you won’t see him taking any narcotics), who, rather than being a frenzied religious fanatic, is more concerned with taking out key targets to halt the ravages of the Third Crusade. Or rather, he was. I say he “was” because it is revealed within seconds of you starting the game that Altair’s adventures are being observed by a sinister present-day corporation who have constructed the Animus, a device that, with the power of science so vaguely defined it may as well be magic, can peer into a person’s “genetic memory” and thus create super-accurate simulations of their ancestors’ experiences. Thus, you play as Altair in the medieval “memories” and as his descendant, Adam Sandler-alike Desmond, in dull intermissions.

The story, as you can see, is certainly unusual, but it also combines enjoyable and poor elements. The medieval sections are fairly compelling, as Altair completely botches an important mission and is thus demoted. He then has to prove his worth by staking out and taking out nine Crusader and Saracen leaders, uncovering a vast conspiracy in the process. These sections are explained with a decent script and some interesting motives for the villains and Altair’s wise master. Unfortunately, the modern sections are not nearly as good. Desmond’s captors fall into the clichés of stern, driven male scientist and young, female, sympathetic assistant, and they swing carelessly between delivering vague, mysterious hints and massive chunks of exposition. By the end, the present-day sections have tarnished the well-paced and interesting storyline of the medieval sections by descending into full-blown conspiracy theory tomfoolery – it’s like a Dan Brown fanfic written by David Icke, and the ending is annoyingly abrupt.

At least the game manages to look good the vast majority of the time. The first time you see the sandy domes and minarets of Damascus sprawling across the landscape, you might need to pause the game while you scoop up your jaw from the floor. The world in which you perform your missions is packed with detail and lovingly constructed, with some excellent texture work. The draw distance is immense, and the three cities and the wilderness between them are teeming with life. The various characters are skilfully modelled (although clothing does tend to have an oddly “sculpted” and solid look rather than hanging and flowing naturally) and the animation ensures that they move realistically. Even in the midst of a crowd, the frame rate remains constant.

The main graphical showcase is Altair himself, and this is largely thanks to his beautifully realised movement. He’s full of personality, whether raising his hand to discreetly push a path through a crowd or in full flight. What is especially gratifying is the way that, when climbing structures, he doesn’t simply do generic climbing movements over any old surface – he actually uses handholds and footholds realistically, moving his head to look out for the next place to grab. Similarly, fight scenes are so well animated that to onlookers it must be like watching a movie.

Disappointingly, the graphics are somewhat less impressive in the rather generic-looking modern sections. Desmond spends his days in a drab laboratory that looks like a trendy hairdressing salon that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, and the characters in these sections walk around stiffly and have a weird plastic-like look to their clothing and faces. At least these sections are short.

The audio side is technically accomplished, but some elements are lacking in variety. The music is quiet and underused, which is as shame because it’s a Jesper Kyd score and thus excellent for setting the scene and complementing your actions. Voice acting is well done, especially that of the villains you track down (Altair is strictly of the stern and humourless school of game heroes), but you hear the same few phrases over and over again as you explore the cities. However, the ambient sound of the cities and the battle sound effects fit perfectly.

So far, so good, it seems, but the core game mechanics range from excellent to mediocre. It could be argued that Altair’s movement takes no skill, but it’s satisfying that his free-running skills are so accessible and climbing all over the cities is a blast. The ease with which you can get around (anything that protrudes two inches or more is a viable handhold) means that pursuits and battles can range across streets and rooftops without it feeling artificial. You simply begin a sprint, point the thumbstick at the place you’d like to be, and you’re off.

Thus, chases are far more enjoyable than fights – it’s just a shame that it’s easier to shake pursuers by fighting them, and the combat could have used a lot more depth. You do, as the story progresses, learn new fighting techniques like grabs and counters, but it’s possible to shatter an enemy’s defence by repeatedly hitting the attack button. If you choose to rely on your counter moves, learned fairly early in the game, you’ll be practically unbeatable. Any melee attack can be countered, and it’s usually instantly fatal to the enemy to do so – it seems the only way to avoid this, for the player willing to do so, is to make a conscious decision to limit the use of counter moves. It feels a bit like playing Doom and finding a rocket launcher with infinite ammo after a couple of levels – sure, you don’t need to use it. Opponents are also content to attack one at a time and although they can throw and counter, they never bother to take advantage of the situation if they knock you down.

In fact, AI as a whole often behaves oddly. In the wilderness guards will attack for no reason whatsoever (maybe you broke the speed limit on your horse), while in towns it’s easy to avoid suspicion by pretending to be deep in prayer. This is despite the fact that Altair is festooned with weapons. There are also some very obvious hiding places that enemies will never check, such as haystacks (it’s nothing like, say, the Metal Gear Solid series, where alert guards would lift up or kick over a box if you tried to hide under it).

Before you’re allowed to attack a target, you need to gather intelligence on them, and this is done by completing repetitive and simplistic tasks. To reveal your objectives and add detail to your map, you first have to locate view points, which are basically the highest points on the map. You climb these, look around…and that’s it. Easy. Then you begin the reconnaissance missions themselves, you’ll find them as taxing as picking up a pencil. Rather than making use of Altair’s talents, they involve picking pockets, beating up underlings, or – most thrilling of all – sitting on a bench and listening in on conversations. The tasks that take the most effort are the ones where you're expected to run round a timed course or eliminate guards in a limited time. These do at least take a little thought or skill to do but it's unfortunately quite easy to learn the routes and thus render them simple.

So, the scouting missions are dull, but the assassinations themselves for the most part manage to be fairly exciting. They are preceded by a short and well-made cutscene (in which you can, realistically, still move through the crowd to get a better view of the characters involved) and it’s possible to launch a frontal attack or use Altair’s abilities to find a more complex route to the target. Often, features of the game world are intelligently incorporated into the assassinations, and this sees some smart touches such as having to infiltrate a castle by climbing around the outer walls or leaping between boats to take out an enemy commander on a ship at anchor. The possibility of it all going wrong adds welcome tension and the targets are at least more robust and hit harder than the standard guards. If it all goes wrong, it's likely you'll have to fight your way to the target through a swarm of henchmen.

Overall, the game would perhaps be a good rental. It takes around 12 hours or so to get to the end, but most of the time you’re repeating the same tasks and the game’s length is padded out with completely unimaginative flag-collecting that offers no rewards. There are some excellent elements to this game, such as the graphics and wonderfully intuitive movement controls, but it’s a real shame that a thoroughly worthy game wasn’t built around them. The best parts of this game are truly enjoyable, such as the wonderfully smooth free-running and the cinematic battles with clashing blades, swift takedowns and enemies being flung from rooftops.Unfortunately they're mixed in with a large amount of the same old simplistic side missions and distracting present-day interludes, and those devastating counter attacks are an ever-present "easy mode" button waiting to be pushed. Hopefully these issues will be fixed for the inevitable sequel.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Assassin's Creed (EU, 11/16/07)

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