Assassin’s Creed

It was easy to be suspicious of Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft’s attempts at sleight of hand were about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and their attempt to create a sense of mystique in their product was even worse. After their initial preview code was mauled by the associated press the focus drifted from the actual game to the games staff, notably the producer Jade Raymond. The numerous interviews with Jade seemed like an attempt to distract from a product which was looking increasingly flimsy, an ‘oops you were meant to see that, but you totally were meant to see that’ moment where the game’s ‘twist’ was exposed seemed like another feint. With all of this perceived ducking and diving, the biggest surprise was that the game actually turned out to be kinda decent.

I’m going to have to add a caveat now.

I played the game properly way after it was released, pretty much an exact month after its release to be precise. I had a few dabbles with the game on its release, but my actual playthrough occurred after the dust had had time to settle. Upon its release Assassin’s Creed was met with a Blitzkrieg of disappointment that calling it a Blitzkrieg seems rather unapt. Dumpfheitkrieg however is just a little too unwieldy to be appropriate. It’s not that reviewers didn’t like the game; it’s just that they were underwhelmed by the game. They recognised elements of greatness, but were put off by repetition and the weight of expectation the game had brought to bear upon itself.

The problem was that all of the interviews with Jade Raymond were essentially identical. On camera she’d sit there and be photogenic and then explain, using the exact same tautology each and every time, how dynamic and immersive the Creed would be. She explained about free form gameplay, about having to interact with citizens, and how the game was the closest you could get to exterminating people in the Holy Lands without joining the Israeli Military.

When the game turned out to be Prince of Persia with open plan cities, irritating crowds, lax AI, and ne’er-do-wells (or are they?*) to kill, the wolves were queuing up at the door. The game got hit by the kind of backlash you’d usually only see in British tabloids, with 1UP essentially calling the game a pox on humanity.

So with my expectations successfully abated, I fully expected to receive Aids upon loading the game, I acquired myself a copy of t’Creed and found a game that was at worst conflicted and at best a misguided shot at greatness.

You are Altair, douchebag extraordinaire and bane of phoneticists the world over. An opening sequence introduces Altair as being not only a dick but also the least subtle assassin ever known. Part of a brotherhood located in the Holy Land, Altair is tasked with recovering an artefact from a Templar Knight. He instead fucks up the mission royally and is demoted, forced to take on nine assassinations to earn back his previous status.

Subsequently you find yourself milling around Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre finding important people to shiv with your handy (or fingery) hidden blade. To bring Prince of Persia into play again, Altair is blessed with a mastery of parkour greatly unbefitting of his time. Using a streamlined control system (you hold down two buttons and run at shit) you’ll find Altair vaulting around the cities, scrabbling up walls, hopping from any foothold he can find and generally making a nuisance of himself. There’s a real joy in the free running element of Assassin’s Creed, helped by a smattering of viewpoints in each city which are critical to mission success. Scaling these vantage points is often the most rewarding part of the game and some of the more grandiose viewpoints require some truly epic footwork. There’s at least one building in each city which is so astronomically high that traversing it is genuinely awe inspiring (the Cathedral in Acre gets my personal seal of approval).

The free running aspects really serve to make Assassin’s Creed feel like a spiritual sequel to the Prince of Persia trilogy (although it’s freeform gameplay makes it far less of a bastard to play). Being a game about a man who kills people you’d imagine there to be lots of dynamic combat. You’d be right on one count, there’s a metric fuck ton of fighting spread throughout the game, but the only thing dynamic about it is the pre-rendered cut scenes that show you the cool shit you should be doing yourself. Until you’ve completed your first assassination you’re essentially helpless your paltry skills, low health and abundance of guards means that you’ll be destroyed as soon as you start any fights. This is only natural for a game about Assassins, the idea is to keep secretive and shit right? However once you obtain your ability to counterattack Altair stops being a flighty harbinger of death, he instead becomes a genocidal maniac.

During the first assassination guards are a problem, if you alert them you have to employ free running to quickly evade their awesome power. With counterattacks it becomes far more efficient to just slaughter every single one of them. This gung-ho play is rewarded by God of Waresque mini cut scenes where Altair does numerous horrible things to his foes. Using his hidden blade to stab an enemy in the eyes is a grisly highlight, as is his willingness to embed his short sword hilt deep into an opponent’s brainpan. There is a visceral satisfaction to breaking a crusaders arm and using the business end of your longsword to put him out of his misery, and it almost competes with the dynamic thrill of racing across the cityscapes in free run mode. But due to the nature of countering it does essentially make combat something of a turn based affair, brutal, but slow and far too reactive to really get the blood flowing. The power that the combat gives you almost picks things up, it’s thrilling to watch Altair destroy wave after wave of guard, his weight and heft giving his every movement and blow a delightful sense of purpose.

If only a game about Assassins was just about running around cities and killing people.

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The nine major (and I use major in a sense that they have five minute long cutscenes preceding and following the deed) assassinations are accessed by completing missions around the three cities. You’ll be given a list of targets each act and then you’ll have to head for their respective cities. Once in the city you’ll head for the Assassin’s Bureau where you’ll deal with the local Master (they come in three distinct flavours; Sycophantic, Ambivalent and Hostile) and set out to do some data collecting. Data collecting is spread over six tasks (of which only two are mandatory) culled from a list of five separate activities.

You can pickpocket people (ie you hear two people have a conversation about something important and then walk behind him and play Wake Up Mr. Wolf), Eavesdrop (where Altair uses his immense acrobatic skills to sit on a bench and listen to exceptionally prudent gossip), Interrogate (where Altair uses his years of training to beat the shit out a preacher before assassinating him in plain view), Flag Collect (where one of Altair’s assassin mates pleads with Altair to collect 20 or so flags using free running within 3 minutes or so) or Assassinate (where one of Altair’s useless assassin friends gets Altair to do his job for him and pull off some low level hits).

The first time you get hit by these it’s kinda cool, it feels immersive and it feels like you’re actually properly investigating something. The fact that by the time you’ve done the 3rd Assassination you’ve done every variant task and you’ve repeated some at least ten times starts to grate a little. By the seventh assassination where you’re repeating the same monotonous missions with minor quibbles (ie bench shortages, exceptionally hardy preachers, very wary pick pocket targets and ludicrous time limits on the minor assassinations) it’s gone past grating and into bone scraping badness.

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As well as these missions you have the opportunity to help the locals, this means saving them from a group of soldiers trying to Rodney King them. There is no logical reason why a woman is being molested on every city corner by a group of city guards, but by god does the game force you to become their champion. If you ignore them you’ll hear their yelps all across the city, if you walk past them the guards will use their Draconian Sense to figure out you might stop their raping and will attempt to pre-emptively end you. So each time you go to a subsection of a city you have to get into at least seven pre scripted fights (with some of the larger areas having 11 or 12 citizens to save) which invariably spill into large city wide battles, which invariably leave a trail of dead in your wake.

Your reward for this is either a vaguely helpful bunch of scholars (moveable hiding spot) or the worst vigilantes ever (they essentially grab hold of attackers and render your most powerful attacks unusable, as people being molested by greased shirtless guys can’t get countered). The bonus of city guards walking up to each body and shouting “What Happened Here!” is an ancillary bonus at best.

In fact the game actively goes out of its way to be irritating as much as possible, it’s like the combat and free running fill the fun quota and the rest of the game has to make up for it. It’s the only way to describe the ridiculous beggar women/lunatic situation (at later levels armies of these fuckers patrol the streets, the beggar women latching onto you as you move around, the lunatics throwing you into the path of guards who are already on high alert), the way the game makes you walk down from a fucking mountain (it takes about 3 or 4 minutes at least, EACH FUCKING TIME) after each and every assassination, the way that the game keeps robbing you of control of the super nimble Altair and placing you in the body of Desmond who has the grace of a dodgem and whose only reason for existence is exposition (and reading emails if you follow about a dozen vague steps), or the way that when not moving at high speeds Altair is actually almost uncontrollable.

But despite these problems the game is still incredibly fun and the world lucid and imaginative enough to make you forget the repetitive nature of your tasks. There’s a level of thought in the design which is quite astounding and an entire section of the game is used just to try and maintain a sense of reality and connection between the cities. The three cities are connected by a large Hyrule Field like hub; however once you’ve been to each city you can instantly warp to them. What the hub countryside does is serve the art direction to make the divergent design ethics of Acre, Jerusalem and Damascus seem completely natural. Indeed the fact that Acre, which looks like something out of Lord of the Rings, fits in perfectly with the Middle Eastern stylings of Damascus is largely because of subtle changes in atmosphere and scenery as you race across the countryside to the city.

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The story, hokey as it, is also refreshingly challenging. Despite dips into Dan Brown territory in the non-Altair sections, the main crux of the story, the idea of free will vs. faith is told in an interesting and surprisingly adult fashion. Indeed Altair’s story of redemption and enlightenment is so strong that it almost cries out for a cinematic translation, the highest praise being that it survives the awful excesses of the future segments of the tale. And that is Assassin’s Creed in a nutshell, it succeeds despite itself, its moments of greatness are so great that it almost emerges from the pall cast by its numerous shortcomings. But the feeling of freedom, of immersion, of grace and power makes the game a vital inclusion in anyone’s game collection. Besides which it’s a high profile game on the 360 which doesn’t involve shooting people, that’s reason enough to give it a go.

 

*SPOILER – Yes they totally fucking are

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