Game Description: The setting is 1191 AD. The Third Crusade is tearing the Holy Land apart. You, Altair, intend to stop the hostilities by suppressing both sides of the conflict. You are an Assassin, a warrior shrouded in secrecy and feared for your ruthlessness. Your actions can throw your immediate environment into chaos, and your existence will shape events during this pivotal moment in history.
I have to hand it to Ubisoft. The people they've got in their PR department are marketing geniuses. They could sell refrigerators to people living on an iceberg, or a stack of Bibles to a group of atheists. Look at Assassin's Creed. The smooth operators behind the ad campaign have taken what is essentially a tech demo propped up by a rudimentary mission structure and parlayed it into one of the most anticipated titles of the season. My hat is off to them; the work they do is without equal. However, the developers in Ubisoft's Montreal studio who actually created the game still have a way to go.
The epitome of "high concept," Assassin's Creed is split between two worlds. The first closely resembles modern times, just a short hop into the near future. In this setting of minimalist furnishings and sterile surfaces, two scientists use a supercomputing analytical device to extract "genetic memories" from a kidnapped bartender named Desmond. The information the machine mines from his DNA makes up the second world, and is the setting for the action in Assassin's Creed.
When reliving the "memories" conjured from Desmond's biological data, the player assumes the role of Altair, an unorthodox and incredibly acrobatic assassin whose life took place centuries in the past. After being disgraced by his own poor judgment, he's tasked with eliminating nine targets described as slavers, warmongers, and people corrupt with power. By removing those who stand in the way of peace, he hopes to regain his status and place within the assassin order.
Although bits and pieces of this "past/future" twist had leaked long before the game's release to cast doubts about the true storyline, I have to say that the dichotomy works beautifully. (And no, none of this is a spoiler... it's all revealed within the first five minutes.) I occasionally wondered whether or not the "future" portions should have been held back for a dramatic twist once players had gotten further in, but that's not a complaint. The whole thing is handled rather cleverly, actually.
As much as I can appreciate the concept, that's not the same as appreciating the game—which I don't. Although it looks stunning in demos and short clips, I became bored and disinterested with Assassin's Creed long before it was over. I would never have guessed that one of the titles I had been most looking forward to would end up being one of the most tedious slogs I've forced myself to sit through all year.
There are so many areas where the game goes awry that it's hard to know where to begin, but I'll start by saying that for a game about assassins, there's precious little assassination going on. I'm no expert on the subject, but it seems logical to expect subterfuge, hiding in the shadows, and slipping into a villain's lair unseen before silently delivering death's kiss on the deserving ne'er-do-well. Instead, Assassin's Creed completely bungles the concept by taking stealth and cleverness out of the equation, instead relying on cumbersome swordplay and tediously scripted scenes.
For example, at several assassinations I saw my subject in the process of murdering a helpless townsperson or some other similar act. Preparing the hidden blade concealed on Altair's left hand, I constantly tried to make my way through the masses in order to strike. I was always allowed to draw close enough to prevent the townsperson from being cruelly murdered, but consistently prevented from taking action until the scene played out. (In itself, a huge missed opportunity). Immediately following, my target would usually "see" me, my silent assassination becoming a clumsy, artless brawl and the complete opposite of my intentions.
Really, nearly every mission follows much the same pattern; rather than striking unseen from a vantage point earned by stealth or careful observation to escape anonymously, Ubisoft Montreal made the bizarre decision to craft the majority of these situations around chasing someone down busy streets or struggling through tiresome melees after expository cut-scenes. These choices don't make any sense until the "free-running" aspect of Assassin's Creed is taken into account.
Rather than making the player work for pixel-perfect jumps or split-second timing while navigating the rooftops and detailed architecture of the game's three environments, all that's required is to simply press a direction and let Altair find his own way. Although this system was originally seen in Toby Gard's Galleon on Xbox, the way Altair moves and adapts to the environment is a major technological achievement and the developers should be proud. However, just because the system is an impressive success doesn't mean that it's substantial enough to keep players engaged over the course of the game, because it's not.
Within an hour or so of venturing through Creed's Middle Eastern-themed cities, the novelty of Altair's Spider-Man act wore off and I started to wonder where the rest of the game was. This adaptive movement system should only be the means to an end, not the end in itself. Unfortunately, the developers seem to not understand this. Instead, they force the player to travel as much as possible, climb incessantly, and base everything in the game around this function. My guess is that they spent far too much time and energy creating the climbing aspect to the detriment of all else. I can see no other reason behind the nonsensical, so-called "assassinations" and the overuse of an incredibly dull combat system.
Adding insult to injury, the game's story burns as hot as a soggy matchbook, never fulfilling the promise of the ingenious DNA contrivance mentioned at the review's beginning. The too-frequent unskippable cut-scenes are enough to beat anyone into a vegetative state of bored submission, each one saying extremely little and taking an intolerable amount of time to do it. As if those weren't bad enough, every "boss" target drowns Altair with the sort of insipid deathbed filibustering that makes Metal Gear Solid's famed talkiness seem positively tight-lipped. If three quarters of the game is climbing, the last quarter is staring at the screen while characters spew endless amounts of emotionally empty dialogue.
Lapsing into formulaic predictability just moments past the title screen, Ubisoft Montreal makes players repeat the same tasks from start to finish while crisscrossing its beautifully-rendered cities an absurd amount of times, wrongly hoping that the impressive means of navigation would be enough to fool people into believing there's any sort of interesting, engaging gameplay to be found. The sad truth is, Assassin's Creed is a prime example of basing a project on a single mechanic rather than creating the appropriate mechanic to support a project. Everything except Altair's athletics feels underdeveloped and painfully shallow, making the end result an overhyped attempt to recoup the development costs for something that's little more than an extended tech demo.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: violence, blood, and strong language
Parents would be wise to steer their children away from this game. There are several scenes of fairly explicit blood and violence, and one of the main ideas of the game is to stab people with a knife when they're not looking. Factor in the bloated amount of sword fighting (complete with picturesque finishing flourishes) and you've got something that's not for the kiddies. There are a few brief occurrences of language, but in this case, I'd say the most important thing to be aware of is the violence level. There is no sexual content.
Stealth gamers and assassination fans, don't believe anything you've seen or heard until you've read my review. This game is not at all about stealth, it's about climbing walls and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. This game has basically nothing in common with any of the other games that could potentially fall into the "sneaky killing" genre, so be warned.
Action gamers and Prince of Persia fans, this game is probably not for you either. Although coming from the same publisher, there's almost nothing in common between the two titles. Lacking the same sense of structured pace and careful level design, there's there's no way this could be mistaken for a next-gen version of the Prince's continuing adventures except on the most superficial level.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers get the shaft. There are no subtitles anywhere in the game, so it's impossible to follow along with the story or dialogue. One of the development team was quoted as saying that adding subtitles was not as important as making sure the game was translated into several different spoken languages, but I'm afraid that isn't a sacrifice that should ever be made. Without access to the audio, several important gameplay tips will be missed and very little of anything will make sense, although to be honest, that's the case for hearing
Expected release date: November 13, 2007
Hyped features from publisher:
Videogames are filled with absurd contradictions. Always have been, always will be. One of the most pervasive of these contradictions by far, and one that I've been thinking about a lot lately, has to be the inability of game characters to interact realistically with their environments. We have role-playing games in which the hero can slay all manner of ferocious beasts but can't even climb over a simple fence. In Oblivion, the protagonist can survive a twenty foot fall, but climbing anywhere without the help of stairs, a ramp, or a ladder is pretty much out of the question. Yeah, I know. It's all about videogame logic, right? Games need arbitrary rules and restrictions. That's what makes them work. I get that. I really do. But that still doesn't take away from the fact that on some level all of these arbitrary limitations, most of which run totally counter to what these characters should be capable of, feel just plain weird sometimes.
It's precisely the inclusion of environmental interaction that makes Assassin's Creed so special. No, the game is not special because of its control scheme—the one that Jade Raymond kept touting as revolutionary because the buttons loosely correspond to Altair's body parts. Nope. Sorry Jade. The controls are okay, but nothing special. And no, the game is not special because of its fighting system, which for the record is also pretty unspectacular. And no, the hiding around in haystacks and on benches gameplay (By the way, if I ever have to hear Jade Raymond say the words "new gameplay" one more time I'm gonna lose it.) ain't that special either. Sorry again Jade. What makes Assassin's Creed so special is that maybe for the first time ever, at least that I'm aware of, we have a highly realistic looking game that takes all the standard videogame crap of having characters who inexplicably can't interact with the environment in even the most basic ways and blows it to smithereens.
Yeah, it's not entirely consistent. Altair still can't climb up trees or cliffs, skills that should come naturally to someone who can scale buildings with ease. Sure, I could focus on these inconsistencies. But I also want to give credit where credit is due. Altair's unprecedented abilities deserve recognition, not because they revolutionize gameplay (which I don't really think they do), but because they accomplish one very important thing: they sell the environment. By allowing its main character to touch and grab hold of almost every nook and cranny of the game's architecture, Assassin's Creed goes further than almost any game I can think of in selling the reality of its world. I'm not sure if I can think of a better way (using current technology) to make a virtual world more believable than by allowing the player to actually reach out and (virtually) touch it.
It's a terrible shame then that, having created such a remarkably realistic and tactile world, the makers of Assassin's Creed went to such great lengths to undermine that very realism. The entire premise of having Desmond plug Matrix-style into his ancestral DNA-encoded memories screams out to the player: this is fake. Whatever quasi-scientific pretense the story provides for the whole game-within-a-game setup, the end result is that the player is left two steps removed from the action. In addition to dealing with the normal barriers associated with playing a game (e.g., controller, tv, etc.), the player must also deal with a second internal barrier between Desmond and Altair. For me, this feels less like a creative twist than an overused crutch that the developers rely on to excuse their inability to find more creative ways of integrating things like health bars, loading screens, and radar-style maps into the game.
While playing Assassin's Creed, my mind kept going back to Shadow of the Colossus, a game that did an amazing job both of minimizing intrusive display features and of providing a control scheme that connects players to the main character. Instead of using an onscreen radar map, for instance, Colossus came up with an ingenious solution whereby raising the hero's sword in sunlight produces a beam of light pointing towards the next destination. On the control side, instead of having players click and release a button to grab hold of something, Colossus requires players to hold down the button, heightening the sense of having a physical grip on the virtual environment. While these solutions might not perfectly translate over to Assassin's Creed, they exemplify the kind of artistic sensibility and creative thinking that the game sorely lacks.
Rather than forcing players to rely on the onscreen radar, why not give them enough information through dialogue to find things on their own? Rather than highlighting every guard and soldier, why not just make them easier to identify by their clothing or appearance? Rather than putting an arrow over the heads of whomever Altair is locked on to and giving them a weird DNA-code aura, why not just manipulate the visual focus (something the game already does) to highlight important characters? I can't help but feel that if the developers could have found more organic ways to convey key information to the player, then perhaps the game could have approached something resembling a work of art. Instead, we're left with an above average game cluttered with distracting onscreen indicators.
Assassin's Creed possesses what might be called dialectical realism (that's right, I use words like dialectical)—i.e., a contradiction between those design choices that enhance realism and those that undermine it. One the one hand, the degree of interactivity and intimate physical engagement between Altair and his environment lends the game an almost unprecedented sense of realism. On the other hand, the game-within-a-game setup (and its pervasive visual manifestations) and an overcrowded HUD simultaneously shatter that realism at almost every turn. I think that Ubisoft should have ditched the game's present day story altogether to focus on elevating the core game into something truly great. As it stands, Assassin's Creed represents a profound miscalculation, a game that brutally and tragically killed its own potential.