Review by Suprak the Stud

"Assassin's Echo"

Unfortunately, this review of Assassin's Creed isn't exactly what one would consider timely. They just released the fourth Assassin's Creed game and I just played the first one; Valve has kept more on top of their Half-Life releases than I have on this series. The problem was that I had heard from a lot of different people that while the second game in the series was amazing, the first was incredibly, amazingly, spectacularly bad, and that if I saw any copies I was to light them on fire, even if they were in the hands of a little girl or a nun. As I do not go out seeking pain or punishment, the Assassin's Creed series had always been on my list of game to avoid, but after playing the first one I really can't see why. Sure, it does have its fair share of problems and the repetition does get a bit unbearable at times. But all the negative coverage the game got seems a bit silly now, because the game itself is fairly enjoyable. I'm not willing to marry myself to the idea that the Assassin's Creed franchise is one of the best of this newest console generation, but at the very least the series deserves a second date.

You play as Altair, one of the most talented assassins in a city full of assassins. It is sort of like being the most talented cow tipper in Nebraska, but actually cool. Which sounds great, except you really aren't playing as him; you play as his ancestor Desmond Miles, who is less of an awesome assassin and more of a mediocre bartender and you're just remembering all the awesome things Altair has done. Apparently, at some point in the development cycle, one of the people in charge of the game decided a story about a Medieval assassin fighting to end the Crusades wasn't interesting enough, and instead the game needed a framing device where the assassin's ancestor was forced to relive his memories at the behest of an evil corporation looking for some magical thingamajig. Presumably after this he stuck his hand in a toaster and bought a pouch of magic beans from a homeless man. I would explain more about how the corporation has a machine that lets people unlock genetic memories, but the science is so incredibly stupid and catastrophically nonsensical that even typing it out would cause the standardized test scores for science in this state to plummet a couple standard deviations below the mean. The science is so wrong that even Alabama won't allow it in its textbooks, and the framing device is significantly less interesting than the actually story. I have to assume that it is used to connect the later games in the series, because the story resolves Desmond's story by not resolving it at all and kicking the can down to the sequel. It is nice to have some cohesion in a series like this, but it seems a little presumptuous to start planning for future stories when you aren't paying enough attention to the one you're writing now.

The story at times feels like it was written by a homeless man suffering from extreme paranoia on an old typewriter instead of a computer, so the government can't steal his thoughts. The framing device is unnecessarily convoluted and gets in the way of Altair's story, which is actually the more interesting part of the plot. It would be like if they kept interrupting the story in Bioshock to show how it was actually a fevered dream of a comatose Rhesus monkey. Even Altair's portion isn't without faults, and the surprise twist ending is about as unpredictable as the path of a train. I did enjoy the characters, however, and through each assassin you learn a bit more about the person and organization you have targeted. After killing your target, they each go on a little monologue because they haven't quite figured out how to act dead yet, and Altair isn't in any rush to get away what with a whole battalion of guards now chasing after him. But even if they don't make the most logical sense, I always enjoyed getting an insight into the motives of your targets, and they all end up being a bit more complex than initial expectations. The writing and dialogue is fairly decent, and the historical issues the story is intertwined with actually makes for a fairly interesting tale. In spite of the awful framing device and portions of the story that dragged, the story is at the very least serviceable.

What separates Assassin's Creed from most games, however, is that the game focuses primarily on stealth instead of what has become the standard gameplay style of shoot first ask questions never because no one would be able to hear you from over the sound of your constant shooting anyway. And not the bad kind of stealth either – nothing like those stupid side missions in primarily action games where you need to lumber around guards and if they see you or smell your men's body spray or hear your teeth clink together, you get an automatic game over and have to do the whole thing all over again. No, the stealth is actually good and entertaining and fun. The main focus on the game is assassinating nine different targets, who have increasing levels of protecting that you must sneak around before delivering the killing blow. Some of the early missions basically have your target pointing towards his exposed neck while he slowly turns in circles with his eyes closed, but the challenge ramps up from there. There is something immensely satisfying about planning a route of attack through a series of boats, avoiding the gazes of numerous arches, and then arriving to your target and offing him before he even knows you're there. The stealth is genuinely fun, and the enjoyment offered in the three to four minutes of each assassination surpasses that found in the entirety of some other games. Of course, if you are a complete bumbling fool and have all of the subtle, sneaky skills of a blind man in a room full of glass and musical instruments, you can power your way through every encounter by just jumping in front of your target, proclaiming you're there to "get-r-done" and just melee combating your way through every target. This is far less fun and sort of ruins what makes the game enjoyable, but at least they put in an option to allow dunces to stumble their way through the game as well.

And it isn't just the assassination missions that implement the stealth nicely, as the whole game is geared towards sneaky, hide-y cowardice. Part of what makes the game enjoyable is how well Altair controls. He implements a sort of parkour, free running sort of approach to travel, scaling up the sides of buildings with no regard for building codes or potted plants sticking out of windowsills. Traveling through the cities is easy, fast, and fairly enjoyable, and everything controls very nicely. Even skirmishes with all of the guards wandering around is fairly enjoyable, and the same sort of sneaky, hide-y stabbiness that you find in the main missions you can replicate here. Using your hidden blade allows you to eliminate foes without anyone noticing, which is a bit bizarre when you're in a crowded street and do it and people just keep walking by like clutching at your neck and collapsing in the street in a pool of blood is just something people did back then, like the Medieval version of planking. Even if the guards see you coming, you can still rely on your throwing knives or broad sword to take on foes, both of which work nicely. Actual combat relies a bit too much on counters for my liking, but most of these battles can be avoided entirely by either sneaking past the guards or just running and hiding somewhere until they lose the scent. Assassin's Creed is definitely far less reliant on action than a lot of other current releases, but the stealth is integrated into the gameplay very nicely and for the most part the game is quite enjoyable.

However, the gameplay is soured a bit by a couple of somewhat major issues. For example, the guards in this game have some of the most significantly misplaced priorities I've ever seen and bizarre things will set them off into a murder frenzy. The guards seem to be suffering from cases of extreme blindness, as there were points in the game that I murdered a guard directly in front of another one. When the guard would fall down dead, the other guard, who watched me sneak up on him, grab him from behind, and then stand there as he fell over, would slowly walk up, curiously yell out "WHO DID THIS?" before sauntering back to his initial position. Putting your hands up in prayer like you are one of the monks is a trick that works amazing well apparently, because apparently the guards assume your hands are now permanently glued together and thus you couldn't possibly have committed any crimes. There would be times I would murder five or six guards by killing one from behind and then immediately assuming my super innocent monk pose until the others returns to their original positions and then carrying out that same cycle again.

And while the murder of their follow colleges doesn't seem to bother any of the guards (presumably because that other guard had just stolen his lunch from the company fridge, even though he had CLEARLY marked it with his name) may whatever God you pray to cast mercy upon you if they see you stand upon a box. Standing on a box or accidentally bumping into someone apparently were banned in the Medieval period out of fear of all of the boxes in the kingdom becoming trodden on, because if you so much as look at a box the wrong way an entire platoon of guards and everyone they know will appear out of nowhere and attempt to kill you. They can always get more guards. Where could they possibly find more boxes? It isn't just boxes, and running too much or climbing up on things also sets them off, meaning they have all the same triggers as a disgruntled high school hall monitor. So you end up with guards that are extremely nearsighted, incredibly gullible, and prone to fits of inexplicable anger. Or, to put it more accurately, AI is difficult to program and the developers of this game did an embarrassingly inadequate job. If more time had been dedicated to giving the guards somewhat decent AI to make them feel like actual guards and not brain damaged monkeys, the segments in between the assassinations would have been more enjoyable, as you would have had to come up with clever ways to get past the guards. Instead, the whole thing is just kind of a joke that doesn't require much thinking or strategy of any kind other than what path offers you the fewest number of boxes you might accidentally mar.

Assassin's Creed also seems to be going out of its way to annoy you at times. Beggar women populate all of the city streets, and they seem to have been only included to drive you insane. Their voices and pleas were tweaked in a lab until the found the exact frequency that made children hate the homeless. I can only assume that the developers of this game had a second agenda to get people to vote to close all the homeless shelters, because the beggars in the game follow you around and demand money with the rabid determination typically only seem in Justin Bieber preteen fans. They are somehow too strong to be pushed out of the way normally, because apparently all the homeless people in the city either spend their time annoying you or doing massive amounts of push-ups so they can more efficiently annoy you. Instead, you have to grab and push them, something that draws the attention of everyone else on the street for some reason. Guards murmur and warn you to leave them alone, like they weren't thinking of doing the same thing just to get them to shut up. There are also crazies that lurk on the street and behind corners just waiting to shove you when you try to walk by them, which is annoying enough especially if you're trying to get somewhere. But if they push you into a guard, the guards get all mad at you and start calling you an assassin, because apparently only assassins are clumsy enough to get push by insane people wandering in the street. These are only minor annoyances because you can always travel the city by rooftop, but I have no idea why they were ever included in the first place. Sure, beggars and insane people might make walking around a city more realistic, but I sort of assumed we abandoned realism about the time the game told us our DNA is really a video recorder left by our ancestors. Paying taxes would have been more realistic too, but they omitted the scene where Altair has to find his 10W-2's and cross reference them with his 8WF-6's because it doesn't make for fun gameplay.

The game also seems to lose track of what made it fun towards the end, abandoning the stealth gameplay entirely and forcing you to take on hoards of enemies in direct combat. I had assumed the final confrontations would have me sneaking past entire fortresses of guards that had perhaps figured out that just because a person holds their hands together, it doesn't necessarily make them a monk. Unfortunately, it appears the designers of the game didn't know how to make the ending of a stealth game climactic, so instead of actually trying to come up with a good idea they decide to just revert to an action heavy last hour where Altair murders more Medieval guards than the bubonic plague. The actually combat was one of the weaker portions of the gameplay, and really only tolerable in moderation in between bouts of sneaky stabby fun. I don't know why the developers did this, and it would be like if someone saw Paul Giamatti act and then tried to force him to become a model. No one wants to see Paul Giamatti shirtless (not even his wife), and no one wants to see Altair go all hack-and-slash when for most of the game he was doing quite well as a sneak-and-stabber. Because of this, the last portion of the game is really unenjoyable, and even the ending boss is pretty dull.

However, the biggest problem with the game has to be how often it repeats itself repeats itself repeats itself. The game repeats itself more than a speaker suffering from short term memory loss and a severe stuttering problem giving a presentation at the Annual Conference for Redundancy, Repetition, and Redundancy. Assassin's Creed uses repetition like most games use actual gameplay, and it starts to grind on you after a while. Before you can actually do any of the enjoyable assassination missions, you must first collect some background information on your target, like the places he frequents, what times he will be left vulnerable, and what sort of blindness they are all suffering from that none of them notice a man in a big white cloak covered in knives and swords. I understand that they wanted to draw out the assassinations missions, and forcing you to study and profile your target could have actually increased the tension once you got to the assassination mission if they had done it right. Instead the game forces you to go through the same five mission types over and over, making you feel less like an assassin profiling your target and more like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Some of the missions aren't enjoyable the first time the game has you do them, and sitting on a bench and listening to two people talk isn't a recipe for an intriguing gameplay segment unless the game is Old People Have Nothing Better to Do. And collecting twenty flags for some guy so he'll tell you something has to be one of the most awkwardly integrated minigames I've ever encountered. It would be like if Toad refused to tell Mario where the Princess was until he went out and picked up his dry cleaning.

And it isn't just the missions themselves that repeat. Throughout the whole game you always have the sense you have just done something like this, and that's because you most likely have. There are nine different little segments of cities you can visit, but in each one you have similar high points you can scale to unlock more of the map and the same random civilians you can save from angry guards that don't have anything better to do than hit up an old monk for his pocket full of lint and buttons. Even the battles, which are somewhat enjoyable in short doses, begin to drag tremendously and almost all the fights in the game play out the same way. Block, counter, block, counter, repeat until all guards are lying around you in pools of their own blood and tears. In some battles this can repeat something like ten times in a row and you'll reach a point where fleeing is actually more entertaining than sticking around and fighting. All of the repetition really causes a majority of the game to be kind of dull, and I can't understand why they designed it the way they did because there are some really good ideas at the core of the game. My only theory is that the developers knew how fun the actual assassination missions were, and decided to highlight them by making the rest of the game as banal as possible, like a chef garnishing a perfectly cooked steak with grass and partially chewed saltines.

And beyond all of the aforementioned missions, there really isn't much to do in the game. You can go around and collect flags like an obsessive compulsive nationalist, but these don't really do anything other than get you a couple of extra achievements. It is mildly entertaining to search the cities for the flags because of how well Altair controls, but it would have been nice if they had linked this to something because as it stands it just makes Altair feel like a really efficient janitorial service. They managed to make the city easy and enjoyable to explore with Altair's parkour style antics, which is one of the ingredients to a good sandbox game. Unfortunately, the other key ingredient, actually giving you something to do in the sandbox, seems to have gone a bit rotten before they added it to the pot. I understand the point of delaying the actual assassinations a bit, but couldn't they have added something a bit more enjoyable in between them? Maybe Altair doesn't go after all the big targets who are all causing war and murder and what not, but why can't he assassinate some lesser target? Richard the chronic jaywalker or Sebastian the loud snorer or something? The failure to include anything worthwhile to do in between the actual missions is a shame, because it makes the game far more dull than it needed to be.

All of the various bells and whistles are pretty well done. The game looks very nice, and all the cities are nicely decorated and have unique feels to them. It does get a bit suspicious when the same five character models begin repeating themselves every couple of feet and it gives the impression that either the developers were kind of lazy or that these cities have a pretty severe inbreeding problem. The layout of the cities is generally pretty good, with everything well connecting for fast pace parkour fun. The sound effects and voice acting are both acceptable, and while you won't notice anything odd or bizarre, nothing really sticks out either. The voice acting in particular is fairly effective, but there is relatively little of it so you never get much of a chance to appreciate it. Still, everything from the visuals to the voice acting does a nice job establishing the mood and the atmosphere, so I suppose it should be considered a success.

For some reason, I feel like I enjoy Assassin's Creed more than I should. I've completely lambasted games with fewer crucial problems than this. Like I said earlier, the core gameplay here is solid, and parkouring your way across the city and laying out the perfect plans for your assassinations is genuinely fun and enjoyable in a way that is rarely executed in games. Unfortunately, the developers didn't really have anything else worthwhile to go around it so it feels a bit like a waste. It would be like if building contractors built the most perfectly stable foundation for a house they could, but then ended up using cardboard and old candy wrappers as the actual building materials. The game is incredibly repetitive, fairly empty, and large portions of it are just kind of boring. Yet, I still found myself enjoying it and I would recommend it to anyone out there looking for something a bit different. A few improvements and Assassin's Creed could have been great, because even as it stands it still almost can see greatness, if it got up on its tippy toes and pulled a chair over to climb on (preferably not one made out of another investigation mission). It is a good ride while it lasts, but don't be surprised if you realize about halfway through that you've already been through the same loop-de-loop a couple of times already.

Disciple of the Creed (THE GOOD):
+Assassinations themselves are really enjoyable; quite rewarding to figure out a plan of attack and see it through
+Controls are great, and parkouring yourself through the city is easy and enjoyable
+Stealth heavy gameplay is really well executed, and is actually entertaining; core gameplay is solid
+Somewhat interesting story; good cast of characters
+Looks and sounds pretty good, and there aren't many complaints from a technical standpoint
+Layout for each of the cities are pretty good and connected in a way to optimize the free roaming fun

Enemy of the Creed (THE BAD):
-Incredibly repetitive and the preparation for each assassinations unfolds the same way
-Some of the preparation missions aren't even enjoyable the first time you do them
-Bad ending that completely ignores the stealth portions that made the game fun
-Combat drags on when you are forced to engage in it and is too reliant on countering
-Enemy A.I. is really bad at times; murdering a guard in front of another one can go unnoticed but standing on a box draws an angry crowd
-Framing device for the story is bizarre and detracts from the narrative of Altair
-Large cities feel empty without much to do than collect flags or proceed with the story

Roadie for the Band Creed (THE UGLY): Trying to ignore a beggar woman and climbing away on a wall, only to be knocked down once she throws a rock at you. Seriously, the game punishes you for hurting them but at this point they are basically beginning for a stabbing. The actual enemies in the game did less to annoy me. Giving in to your darker urges and offing one doesn't really accomplish anything, because two more will spring up and start asking for some gold coins right on top of the previous one's body. They're like the freaking hydra, only more annoying and dirtier.

THE VERDICT: 6.00/10.00

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 02/27/12

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

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