Assassin's Creed Review
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
In the summer of 2012, a young man named Desmond Miles is abducted by a pharmaceutical corporation that has developed technology to unlock ancestral memories from RNA. Following a secret agenda, scientists force Desmond into a machine known as the Animus, trying to reconstruct secrets dating back to the Third Crusade.
Using the Animus, Desmond finds himself in the cowled robe of his ancestor Altair Ibn La-Ahad, reliving events from the summer of 1191. What Abstergo Industries hopes to learn by recreating a series of Twelfth Century assassinations remains to be seen, but that information will guide Desmond Miles into a conflict that has spanned millennia.
Assassin's Creed demonstrates (again) that, when dealt with in a mature and responsible fashion, sensitive subject matter can provide some of the most powerful material for a game. Set during the late days of the Third Crusade in the summer of 1191, you'll secretly execute Christians and Muslims alike, not because of their religion, but for their all-too-human offenses against their fellow man. Assassin's Creed takes extreme license with the historical events of the Third Crusade, but creates a dramatic political landscape and positively gorgeous architectural landscape that you can clamber all over on your way to ending the lives of evil men in the pursuit of peace.
Assassin's Creed is a great game, but the real triumph here is the technology. Ubisoft Montreal has developed an amazing parkour engine that lets the protagonist leap, climb and balance his way through the ancient urban landscape like some combination of a cat, mountain goat and bird of prey. Parkour (or "free running") is difficult to define, but it is precisely the thing that makes Assassin's Creed so much fun to play.
In past games, like the same studio's recent Prince of Persia efforts or Tomb Raider: Legend, ledges to which one could acrobatically leap were really obvious, making leaps and swooping jumps really just animations linking hotspots in the landscape. In Assassin's Creed, anything that sticks out, like a decorative tile, loose brick, window pane or scaffold, can be grabbed. The animations are brilliantly smooth, transitioning from easy, ladder-like climbing, to grabbing iron anchor rungs or running right up walls and chinning up to a rooftop.
Most of all, the controls are brilliantly simple. Just about anything on the landscape can be reached by pulling the trigger, holding a button and tilting the joystick toward a landscape feature. I felt in complete control. There are some limitations – occasionally the game will try to help you, thereby sending you jumping somewhere other than your intended destination, in an automatic effort to help you reach a destination the game (or the programmers) thought made more sense. But mostly they're easy to use and gorgeous to watch.
My favorite move was the "Leap of Faith." Lots of ledges, marked by birds, are located near (and high above) stacks of hay. Altair can leap from these ledges, falling stunt-man-like through the air, landing softly, hidden in the hay. Nearly every time I was chased by intrusive guards or soldiers, I'd find myself on the rooftops, looking for the telltale pigeons that flagged a potential Leap of Faith. The parkour was never as cool (or dangerous) in Assassin's Creed as while leaping from ship to ship in Acre's harbor with guards in hot pursuit.
As the name suggests, Assassin's Creed is a game about violent death, and the developer put considerable effort into the combat engine, as well. A long sword and short blade can be used against scores of enemies, and well-timed presses of a few buttons can yield spectacularly gruesome combo kills that are cinematic enough to stop passers-by and make them watch. Over time, Altair develops counters, grabs, dodges and other combat skills that make combat a sophisticated and gorgeous dance choreographed with a few taps of the thumb.
Sword fights play out more like a Captain Blood-style Errol Flynn battle than a bar-room brawl. Opponents tend to attack one at a time, allowing Altair to survive dozens of guards with careful counters and generous use of the landscape. I particularly loved grabbing guards and sending them crashing into collapsing merchant stalls. But combat does have one major flaw. As gorgeous as it is, when combos cause the game to cut to cinematic camera angles, in the tight corners of the game's cities, the camera often gets stuck behind a plant or beam.
Given Altair's mandate of stealthy assassination, Assassin's Creed plays very much like Splinter Cell meets Prince of Persia with a clever parkour-and-combat engine. In addition to his swords for close combat, Altair has a blade hidden in his bracers for silent assassinations, and throwing knives that can truncate the lives of distant guards. The trick is doing so without being seen. To take out Altair's ultimate target, he'll have to end the lives of literally hundreds of guards patrolling the streets and rooftops of the game's cities. He can't afford to be spotted, so alert guards need to be eliminated. He needs to escape, so it pays to remove archers and guards that surround Altair's targets. And all of that needs to be done from the cover of anonymity.
A gauge on the screen shows how closely Altair is being watched, and how suspicious the guards are. It's up to you whether Altair strolls up behind a target and pierces his neck with his arm blade, or stands on the rooftops and hurls knives from above. Whatever option you choose, much of the game will be spent either fleeing from guards and hiding (under cover or in plain sight, with the help of a convenient bench or group of wandering scholars) or killing every guard in the Holy Land who chooses to pursue Altair. However, beggars, drunks and others forced to dwell on the streets will harass and impede Altair, grabbing and begging for coin or pushing him around. Either can break his cover and spook a potential victim.
The animations and interactivity aren't the only things that are positively spectacular. The landscape is stunning. The environs evoke the Eastern Mediterranean of the twelfth century, offering the landmarks of Jerusalem, Acre (Akko) and Damascus without sticking strictly to geography. The cities are simply so beautiful (and filled with opportunities for free running) that I found myself running around the landscape leaping between rooftops and trotting across beams. I had to climb every high point in every city just to invoke the spinning overviews of the city that could be satisfyingly punctuated with a Leap of Faith to return to street level. The sound is easily on par with (or even better than) the visuals, ranging from the clangs of clashing swords to the positional mumbles of the crowds.
It did feel awkward to scale up the sides of some of the holiest sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The first time it struck me, I was just about send Altair climbing up the Dome of the Rock (where conveniently placed tiles with arrows pointed me in the right direction, in case I wasn't sure). I paused around halfway up, before actually reaching the golden dome. Was this disrespectful? Sacriligeous? Ultimately, I decided it wasn't. Besides, when you're a compulsive gamer, unlocking the achievement that requires reaching every viewpoint trumps deference.
The whole game is bracketed by an interesting conceit. The protagonist is actually Desmond Miles, coerced into a machine in the year 2012 that allows him to reconstruct the memories of his ancestors, locked in his RNA. While I admire the justification – the conceit at once explains everything from the video-game controls to the user interface and the birds that mark view points and convenient jumps – I'm appalled by the science. C'mon Ubisoft! You didn't have to resort to abysmal science to make a really cool game. But boy does the machine/memory device offer a great explanation for the easy ability to restart memories after failure or death.
At first, the story starts off brilliantly. It's an engaging setting (bracketed by occasional modern scenes), filled with rich and violent characters. And there's little that's more satisfying than getting to kill really bad men. The game tries to set things up as a moral dilemma, but the dilemma is shallow, and the defense the bad men provide is more like the rationalization of a sociopath than a compelling ethical argument. Still, you get to kill bad men. That's satisfying. I wasn't a fan of the mysterious artifacts and pseudo-science, but the game was still tremendously fun. I wish it had ended five minutes before it did. Then the ending would have been climactic rather than galling.
The parkour, combat and stealth elements really are most of the game. Thus, the fun in Assassin's Creed comes from getting from place to place, avoiding detection and indulging in the occasional fight on the way to epic assassinations that further the plot. There are small missions that involve eavesdropping, picking pockets or interrogating demagogues. You have to complete a few of these to unlock the final assassination, but rarely more than half the available missions. As a result, you can blow through the game pretty fast, or take a long time thoroughly exploring the cities and completing all the missions.
If you complete all the missions, the game gets extremely repetitive. With so much effort invested in the engine, animations and technology, it would have been nice if the missions and ambient dialog could have been beefed up. Particularly the citizens that you free from abusive soldiers – even though there are dozens to rescue, there are only a few bits of dialog, repeated over and over. A little extra story would have gone a long way to further flesh out the emergent play arising from the brilliant technology. Also, I'd swear that one of the Crusaders sounded exactly like the departed Steve Irwin (crocodile hunter) when he yelled "Death to the heathen!"
Assassin's Creed did freeze twice while I was playing, although that's no surprise given the complexity of the technology. But the game made up for that with its save system. Assassin's Creed sports the first auto-save system that I can wholeheartedly endorse. The game simply saves automatically and seamlessly after every single important event in the game – and plenty of other times besides. There was never a single moment in the game, be it a crash, accidental death or botched assassination that the game didn't immediately restart me from a point in play more convenient than if I had been managing my own saves. There's even an interesting way of making cut-scenes interactive – by pressing a button when "glitches" appear during cut scenes, you get better camera angles.
Assassin's Creed is a technical tour-de-force tied together with a plot that is still a cut above the average game. Assassin's Creed could have gone even further, giving the player more to do with the amazing technology, but if we held all games to that standard, all games would fail. This is a game you simply must try.