The prophets of yesteryear’s next-gen gaming promised us that the new slew of consoles would bring us more than just better and more realistic graphics, such as more immersing worlds and deeper, more intricate gameplay. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed has been one of the spearheads of this development, and with its release comes the time to pass judgment upon whether the oft delayed game really presents the revolution it was lauded to bring.
In an industry ruled by hype and fail-safe sequels, the world cheered upon Ubisoft’s initiative to introduce a fresh new franchise in a brand new and seldom before seen setting. It certainly got its fair share of the hype train though, as initial videos at X06 showcased a level of interaction with a living and breathing world that went not one, but several steps at once further than anything we had witnessed before. Here was a man running through overcrowded alleys, pushing civilians aside, provoking realistic responses, instilling fear and awe through his actions. Gamers were impressed, and expectations of the game had risen to a level that one could realistically doubt to be realistically achievable. Not long after booting up the disc, these fears will be washed away like snow in the sun.
Assassin’s Creed can be disrespectfully described as ‘medieval Crackdown stars hooded Splinter Cell‘, blending in the wide open world with unlimited freedom of the former with the cunning, stealth and intricate plotlines of the latter. The starring protagonist is Altaïr, a master assassin living in the era of the Third Crusade. After his arrogance and selfishness made him violate his order’s Creed time after time, he gets punished for his actions, and he is forced to redeem his honor and rank through completing a list of tasks, unsurprisingly all boiling down to the assassination of a key player in the political spectrum.
From the second you enter the world, through means touched upon later during this review, it becomes clear that Ubisoft meant business when it promised to innovate on the concept of gaming with this title. Right away you will be stunned by graphics that are by all means brilliant, bringing its medieval world to life in a shocking showcase of colorful realism. Inhabiting this beautifully rendered world are not ten, not a hundred, but literally thousands of people, living their life, doing their thing, and generally not minding your presence until you interfere with them. And once you do, you will quickly notice that the crowd control governing their actions goes deeper than basic instinctual actions, with people correctly responding not only to what they see you do, but also to emotions they see and hear from other people. Stumble into the wrong person, and his friends will come to his aid, literally scaring away the faint of heart with their aggressive intentions.
To steer you through this world the designers behind Assassin’s Creed came up with a contextual control scheme, with the four face buttons executing actions related to your head, left or right arm, or feet, depending on situation and profile. While Altaïr keeps a low profile by default, pulling the right trigger enables him to execute high profile actions such as running and bumping people away. The system works surprisingly well and intuitively, and proves a powerful control scheme that allows you to seamlessly blend into a crowd at one moment, then tackle everyone in your way to make a quick escape a second later with the same button if need be. Sword fighting is also, while basic, highly intuitive, coupling movement commands to your contextual buttons to dodge, counter or grab opponents. Many of the more complex fighting combos trigger special camera positions for a short duration, highlighting the excellent character animations and choreography of the game.
Reading all this praise the casual reader might be convinced that Assassin’s Creed is the best game since Pac-Man. Rather depressingly, it is not: the game’s many delays have clearly not been enough to make it so, and after completing it one could even suspect that it was the marketing department’s decision to release the game as this year’s Christmas cash cow, rather than finishing up properly what they had started. If so, they would probably be the same marketing bozos responsible for introducing a completely unbelievable parallel storyline into the game. Assassin’s Creed is intended to be the first of a trilogy of games, yet rather than blending the franchise’s uniting storyline into the rather good main story of this installment, someone suggested a futuristic corporate setting in which the lead character plugs into a Matrix-like parallel world. While that movie’s success was based on the fact that the story as a whole added up to a believable conclusion, Ubisoft Montreal opted for letting the so-called Animus machine replay genetic memories of ancient ancestors over twenty generations before, encoded deep in the subject’s DNA. Right. Apart from ranking up so high on the bullshit meter it makes the entire side story unbelievable, the futuristic sections are also tediously long-winded and messy with the overload of information they provide. While at the end of the game the stories fall together well enough to more or less justify its existence and facilitate a sequel, it all feels tacked on in a way that was never originally intended, and to top it all off the future sections look like a 5 year old game graphically. The most positive thing to say about the parallel story is that it does a nice job of explaining controls, menu system, and the presence of GPS and the like in a medieval game.
The game as a whole also has a more than unnoticeable number of technical flaws and outright bugs. These range from the mildly irritating ones, such as the graphics engine suffering from occasional severe tearing and Ubisoft’s trademark clipping and culling issues found in many Tom Clancy titles before, to highly irritating ones, like on screen information about your mission not disappearing after a few seconds like it should, but keeping 60% of the screen covered until you trigger a new one, and people spontaneously disappearing so you cannot complete a task you just slew 25 guards for. There’s even some rather hilarious bugs: soldiers getting triggered into alarm state by witnessing a murder are frequently slightly misplaced, causing them to plummet off buildings to their death, and for some reason buff templars can run straight into water at times to a watery instant-death grave.
Design flaws are also present, and it’s mainly these that handicap the game’s replay value severely. First of all there’s the notable absence of a difficulty level, meaning the average slightly experienced gamer will never run into any kind of trouble during the entire game. Secondly, there’s no option whatsoever to skip through dialogs, and people were apparently very long winded in the 12th century. Failing a mission or dying means you have to restart it from a recent checkpoint, which always means listening to the entire mission description again, so expect to be shouting nasty words at your console a few times while you wait for the game to finally allow you a second attempt. Furthermore, restarting sections of the game after you have completed them will not alleviate anything here, and you’ll have to wait through seemingly endless conversations every time you want to see something again. While on the subject of shouting at your console, it deserves mention that the audio team apparently spent all their disk space on pre-mission and future-world dialogs, and then found out to their horror that they only had a few megabytes left for samples to be played in the cities during the core game. The lack of variety in people’s exclamations, merchants’ sales blurbs and thank-yous from rescued people will be on your nerve within an hour of actual gameplay.
The biggest flaw however is that someone in the design team decided one day that a grand and long introduction section, a well-written storyline full of trickery and deceit and a spectacular finale are enough to make a great game, and somehow completely forgot about the actual game itself. Assassin’s Creed tasks you with murdering nine key victims, which are spread throughout three cities all having three districts. To perform an assassination you must enter the victim’s district, climb a high point such as a church, perform two or three out of six investigations, return to a central location, and then do the actual assassination. Optionally you can decide to scale all high points in the district and rescue citizens being harassed by guards there, there will be about seven to twelve of both. That’s all there is, and you have to do it 9 times. That means the game consists of climbing about one hundred high points in an identical way, saving one hundred citizens in an identical way, playing 54 investigation minigames and doing nine big assassinations. That’s a whole lot of repetition, before even diving into the fact that the six minigames always consist of some no-efforts eavesdropping missions, identical 3 minute interrogations, identical 3 minute pickpocketings, and some informer missions, which thankfully occasionally introduce some sort of creativity in the shape of timed flag collection races and minor assassination requests. Realistically, after four or five assassinations, you will be yearning if not screaming for a change and some variation, yet the game brings none until you completed all nine. What happened to complex quests and missions found in other free-world games such as Oblivion and GTA? Why do we gamers have to repeat the same action over and over while identifiable quests, guild elements, complex chases, tailing, or essentially anything more creative could have made the game so much more entertaining? It is plain and simple boredom that guides your hand through the rest of the game, and the admittedly correct expectation that it will at least have a worthy ending to a good storyline.
The game attempts to introduce replay value by having you gather flags scattered throughout all the areas, much like the agility and secret orbs found in Crackdown. In that game however there was a clearly audible hint whenever you came near an orb, and they were easily spotted in their surroundings. In Assassin’s Creed many of the flags are barely noticeable given the background, hidden in back alleys or obscure corners, and they are so numerous that only the truly devoted will be able to collect the related achievements. Most of the other achievements are simply story markers, or milestone counters that you will automatically collect in the course of regular play anyway.
Painful as it is to consider, it seems that Assassin’s Creed has fallen victim to its own hype, and ultimately provides a relatively empty shell to showcase an at its core truly brilliant next-generation game engine. While the graphics and the game mechanics, coupled with an excellent introduction and finale, absolutely make the game highly enjoyable, its flaws and the lack of challenge and variation pull the game back from its potential classic status into mediocrity, destined to gather dust after a single playthrough. As a package, it stands above the crowd, but not remotely as far as it could and should have been.
Final Score: 7 out of 10 - Above Average (How do we rate games?)