Not content with the Prince of Persia series, Ubisoft Montreal has taken their experience and love of all things acrobatic in a more deadly direction with Assassinís Creed. Instead of saving princesses and battling dastardly sultans, Altair, descendant of main character Desmond Miles, is a Hashshashin assassin during the Third Crusades that is tasked with eliminating his orderís foes. Despite being the main character, Miles is rarely used as the memories of his ancestor are relived while he is the near future inside the super duper advanced Amius machine. These memories Ė the adventures of Altair Ė are the first step of a convoluted tale involving religious conspiracies and the rising of a New World Order.
If you werenít aware before that Assassinís Creed is a sci-fi tale, then you are now. The game isnít the tale of intrigue and adventure set in 1191, but a tale set in the future where a memory of great import is hidden within the mind of Miles. Using the Amius, Miles must experience Altairís memories up to the point of breakage, the memory where the machine cannot access and must be unlocked by going through the preceding events to learn what happened. Doing this involves murdering nine historical figures, each giving a little more of the seemingly complex plot before dying. Donít be too disappointed though, and stick with it, because for as much as it is difficult to follow during the game, the storyís overall direction is pretty interesting.
Itís not all parkour and swordplay, oh no Ö well, okay, it is, but it takes a while to get to the good stuff. One of the greatest design annoyances is to have everything taken away from you at the beginning. It has been a long time since that has happened to me, which I had taken to mean that developers had realized that this was a weak crutch, but then here came Assassinís Creed. I donít mind certain story devices being utilized to introduce characters and elements, but having Altair stripped of rank and weapons is something altogether different from him being stripped of his moves. For whatever reason, Altair has to actually learn how to counter and dodge all over again. So all of the fancy moves and cool cutscenes that are around for the first few minutes are then taken away, then slowly doled out as missions are completed. Cue head-scratching now.
A gimped Altair is still an Altair, though. So with almost no weapons and few moves, the game begins as a quest for redemption and vengeance. Throughout the assassinations, Miles will randomly be reawakened to learn a little more about the present-day happenings and why these strangers have had him kidnapped and forced him to live through the happy-go-lucky days of the Third Crusade. These portions feature excruciatingly slow controls, a cranky scientist, and desire to get back into the machine to get on with the jumping and stabbing. Itís hard to go remain in some near future that is limited to a bedroom and a lab when thereís a medieval Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem just waiting for your return.
While in these cities, whose scale and full 3D structure are as wonderful and impressive as screenshots indicate, Altair will, aside from completing missions, assist the citizenry and some of his assassin brethren. The latter tend to want flags collected in a certain time limit, which is both an activity I loathed and an opportunity I felt missed Ė not to mention overdone, considering the hundreds of other flags lying about to fulfill collection achievements. The people will need help from the thuggish guards of the city, with intervention leading to the deaths of the aggressors and one of a handful of thankful responses that promise that that some member of their family will hear about the good deed. The former trial leads to new information, which is really just extra material about the assigned mission, while the latter encourages vigilantes, citizens that block pursuing guards, to help out when you are on the run. The other things to look forward to in the cities are beggars that are insistent and obnoxious, as well as the sickly that are overly aggressive. The whole manages to be a combination of limited use and needless aggravation.
As amazing as the cities are, they are home to some very odd design choices. For starters, there is very little to actually do. Before assassinating someone an investigation must take place. The investigations involve fulfilling three of six events, which consist of gathering information by listening in on conversations, interrogating someone, or picking a pocket, after having climbed one of the various high points throughout the city to scout the layout and synchronize Milesí with Altairís memory of the region. These are sandwiched in-between visits to the Assassinís Bureau, getting information on the next target, and providing proof of the kill. This routine becomes tedious fairly quickly. The high points can be a pain to climb up at times, and having to do it four or five times, because the others didnít point out any investigation possibilities, is a pain. You only do these things as well; thatís it, that same handful of techniques. This is only one portion of the repetitive chunks of the game. The beggars that whine in a high-pitched, raspy voice will also constantly block your path and will actually run and catch up with you as you evade the authorities; you can eve hear their insufferable wailing from over a block away when on a rooftop. The sick maniacs also enjoy punching and pushing you for no reason. Seriously: they will haul off and knock you about for no reason. Not only does this not make sense, as I never saw them pushed anyone else, but they will do this while you are running from the guards or scouting a target, blocking your way or calling attention to you. The behavior of both and their frequency boggle my mind.
Strange design choices arenít limited to the cities. Traveling between cities has to be done on foot or on horseback for a while, until Ďfast forwardingí through memories is allowed (re: transporting), but only at certain speeds: if you ride your horse too quickly, then the guards behavior meter will go from not caring about you, past curious (yellow), to angry (red). I have no idea why they do this. I can see them being curious about someone riding full bore, but people have to get places, right? Itís like how guards get mad when you are on a rooftop in the city, despite the ladders all over the place to allow access to them and the piles of hay (which are one of the handy methods used for escape) being stored there. The guards are also aware of you being wanted from afar when traveling, somehow just knowing that you are the guy from a small tower back that an unknown guard wasnít fond of. The horses are actually implemented well, having a good feel to them with a sense of momentum proportional to Altairís Ė and both feature really nice start and stopping animations that is some of the best Iíve seen. If my awesome costume and numerous swords donít immediately set guards on Ďkill,í then I donít see why traveling outside the cities or in places citizens obviously go is so conspicuous.
The combat is also limited and repetitive, with engagements simply being a waiting game to respond with a counter or a dodge and a counter. The various weapons used Ė hidden blade, short (throwing) daggers, and sword Ė have different cutscenes when moves are countered with a non- and lethal follow-up. All of this is done with an attack button often used in conjunction with a shoulder button. The timing of the counters, dodges, and combos is important, which is an easy system that can sometimes feel a smidge off. Being surrounded by enemies often results in each attacking one at a time and, if rhythm and game permits, a string of undeniably cool and satisfying action scenes follow, resulting in a pile of dead guards. Towards the end of the game combat ramps up and it becomes cumbersome, but this is due more to the design of the levels than the combat system itself. Despite being an assassin, which one would assume emphasized stealth, I had an achievement that said I had been in over 100 successful engagements, and that was a while before the end of the game! The Thief series this ainít.
There were also a handful of glitches that I experienced. There is a good amount of pop-up and draw-in, but I kind of expected that due to the scale of the cities and heavy populace, but I also had moments when a horse changed color after I went into a new area and I would also glitch on corners - the game seemingly confused as to what I was doing and what animation to load. Altair would also stall while climbing. There are moments when his automated moves stop and he needs to be commanded as to how to proceed, but sometimes this just wouldnít register and I would be stuck repeating the move sequence over and over before he would finally take action. When taken into account with the repetitive nature of the design, a frantic rush in getting it before the holidays seems to be the culprit of the many problems.
The thing is, there is very little thatís actually bad about Assassinís Creed. The problem is that the game has a lot of minor glitches, none show-stopping, and, despite the fantastic graphics and sound, it just doesnít feel finished. Investigations and combat are both initially enjoyable, but they end up being tiresome because there is so little variety. The voice-overs are good; yet, again, there are only a handful of phrases actually said. The city looks and feels alive Ė one of the few, thanks to a dense population Ė but the people donít really do anything and the potential is simply recognized rather than taken advantage of. It seems as though all of the time was spent creating a great foundation, then realizing that there wasnít enough content in time for launch so a bunch of menial, time-consuming tasks were thrown in as filler (see: last third of Halo: Combat Evolved). Thatís a shame, because Altair is a great anti-hero, the story weird enough to actually work, and a base system that could have provided an experience second to none.
I enjoyed my time with Assassinís Creed, but it is a game that seems to be limited more by time than talent. The investigations, citizens, voice work, combat, and nearly everything else speak to a schedule eaten up by building a solid foundation and subsequently struggling to quickly bulk up the content. The glitches and repetitive nature do get old, and the complaint that Assassinís Creed feels more like a tech demo than a completed game is entirely valid, as the spectacle of it far outweighs its content, but I enjoyed it enough to work past its hang-ups and become lost in its world.