Assassin's Creed review
If Aladdin Were a Cold-Blooded Killer
When you look back at the relatively harmless video games of the ‘70s and ‘80s, you wonder how killing has become the indispensible ingredient of AAA titles. Gamers have become so desensitised to blood and gore that none of us batted an eyelid in 2007 when Ubisoft’s new IP had us playing as a medieval, professional murderer. Indeed it speaks volumes about the appeal of animated slaughter that six years, seven titles and some 38 million sales later, Assassin’s Creed has become one of the more successful video game franchises in recent history. But don’t you dare say that video games glorify violence!
In this first instalment of the series you play as brooding rogue Altaïr, star recruit of a brotherhood of assassins during the Third Crusade. Well, actually, for whatever reason Ubisoft Montreal decided the plot needed fleshing out and so you technically play as Desmond Miles, Altaïr’s modern-day descendant. Abducted by an evil organisation, Desmond’s wired up to a fancy machine which through some inexplicable sci-fi wizardry allows him to access his ‘genetic memories’ and experience Altaïr’s story for himself. Sure, ok, whatever. For non- history buffs, the Third Crusade was the stand-off in the Holy Land between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. Assassin’s Creed pays a surprising amount of attention to historical accuracy, at least in terms of location and the characters who serve as the main protagonists and antagonists. All the main figures are there from Templar Grand Master Robert de Sablé to Hashashin leader Al Mualim, the latter of whom serves as your boss and primary mission-giver. Is this historical accuracy necessary? Not really. Is it the sort of thing that’s likely to be lost on the game’s primary target audience, who are more inclined to skip through the dialogue to return to the semi-stealth action as quickly as possible? Without a doubt. But when combined with brilliant storytelling devices, superb voice acting and twists and turns at every corner, Ubisoft deliver a gripping and creative alternate history which is sure to have every gamer...
...Yeah, not really. While I do admire developers who go that extra mile with respect to getting their names and dates right, it’s completely wasted in games like Assassin’s Creed which simply lack the narrative competence to use them to their full potential. You start out as an all-powerful warrior, fall from grace and are forced to win back your fellow assassins’ trust and gradually climb back up the ladder to your former glory. Gee, where have I heard that before? And while it’s great to hear English, German, French and Arabic characters who don’t have an American accent for a change, they’re surprisingly difficult to understand – and the fact that (a) most of the narrative is driven forward through dialogue and (b) there’s no option for subtitles, it makes an otherwise competent story much too hard to follow. Full credit to the voice actors though, they can only work with what they're given (minus Phil Shahbaz, voice of Altaïr – the main character HAD to be yet another all-American Eastwood type after all). And why the writers felt the need to pad an otherwise competent plot with bizarre conspiracy theories and science fiction is completely beyond me. I really got the impression that Ubisoft had high hopes for turning this into a movie from the outset, because that’s the only explanation I could come up with for the completely unnecessary Desmond sequences where you do literally nothing except walk between the Animus and your bedroom.
Thankfully these segments are relatively few in number, and the good news is that the medieval Middle East is a superb location for stealth action. As Aladdin taught us, there’s a significant amount of fun to be had in just roaming around the streets, back alleys and rooftops of contemporary Arabia. In typical video game fashion, Altaïr just so happens to be a superhuman athlete and launching yourself up a ladder and vaulting from building to building is as simple as pressing a button. In fact a good part of my enjoyment came from just exploring Acre, Jerusalem and Damascus between missions rather than the missions themselves. Navigation is constrained by borderline realistic physics (i.e. you’re not Mario) but controls are intuitive and generally responsive, aside from Altaïr’s occasional inability to recognise which tiny protrusion you want him to dangle from next. Combined with very good graphics comprising of sandy browns and yellows and poverty-stricken greys, and an adequate but suitably Middle Eastern soundtrack, immersion is perhaps Assassin’s Creed’s greatest achievement.
Despite reports to the contrary, Assassin’s Creed is not a sandbox game; it’s an open world where you can choose when to complete your objectives, but not what your objectives are. The map is big, but not on the scale of a Skyrim or San Andreas. That’s fine; we don’t need every IP converging on the same formula. There's a huge number of collectibles littered around the world, most of which are flags representing the various factions you’ll encounter, as well as the occasional Templar knight which you’re likewise rewarded for seeking out and killing. But considering that these ‘rewards’ only contribute to your maximum health (which recharges over time anyway) there’s never much of an incentive to actively search for them. They’re worth collecting if you spy one in the distance, but they’re less rewards for exploration than markers for routes you haven’t previously taken.
All this might sound largely negative, but it’s only because all these factors are completely unnecessary. The combat and stealth gameplay are good enough to stand up on their own, without the help of an arbitrary checklist of elements that Ubisoft seems convinced no game can do without. Unlike traditional stealth games, Altaïr is at least as good at broad daylight fighting as he is at shadowy assassination. In addition to your sword you ultimately earn throwing knives which Altaïr can hurl with unerring accuracy, and – my personal favourite – a hidden blade to kill your mark even in the middle of a crowd without anyone noticing. Particularly in later missions, you always have a number of options as to how to take down your targets and they require an increasing amount of planning. Scaling a city’s tallest points, casing the district for access points and information and timing your attacks to perfection become your bread and butter. Walking around the streets at a snail’s pace so as to not attract attention, conversely, becomes a frustrating and tedious alternative to leaping about the city’s roofs and walls at your leisure. Whether you take out the guards one by one and proceed to stab your mark in the back, or leap into the fray and hack and slash your way through the crowd, or even throw a lone dagger from the shadows and run like the wind before anyone spots you – it’s entirely up to you.
The downside is that missions end up becoming a touch formulaic. Travel to a city --> visit your local assassin’s bureau --> scale some viewpoints and collect information --> return to the assassin’s bureau --> kill your target --> return to Al Mualim for your reward. Repeat six or seven times and that’s more or less Assassin’s Creed in its entirety. There are only slight variations to this same, basic recipe and it’s simply the increasing health and damage of your enemies that keep the gameplay challenging. Thankfully the game isn’t enormously long, and the enjoyment doesn’t wear off before it’s over. In moderation it’s a winning formula, and you can’t fault Ubisoft for knowing when enough’s enough.
It’s a game where only a few tweaks are needed to turn something good into something great. The combat system, for instance, is little more than a glorified series of quick time events based on a rock-paper-scissors format. It’s made all the more simple by the fact that the majority of guards are idiots, attacking one at a time and generally unable to break through Altaïr’s almost ridiculous defences. You can grab one guard and throw him away while the rest just watch you do it. You’re actually better off fighting with your back to a wall to limit the directions from which you can be attacked, and Altaïr’s excessive health and ability to auto-block pretty much anything within a 180-degree radius make him virtually indestructible unless you screw up half a dozen times in quick succession. Thankfully it becomes much more challenging against Templars or Hospitaliers who, y’know, actually try to counterattack or grapple you rather than swinging wildly or waiting to be attacked. At times like this you’re afforded the added choice of breaking combat and running for your life while you try to break your pursuers’ line of sight, desperately searching for a haystack or rooftop garden to hide in while you wait for the heat to die down. But considering you’re supposed to be an expert of stealth and infiltration you do seem to rely on your swordplay an awful lot. The ending is especially guilty of this and is probably the game’s biggest let down; aside from a twist that you saw coming a mile away and a sudden and stupid shift into unrealistic science fiction, you’re forced into combat again and again under what ought to be impossible odds. Assassin’s Creed becomes God of War and it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
But I’m deliberately focusing on the negatives only so you know what to expect. The majority of the game builds well on the solid gameplay and adds to it here and there in some genuinely interesting ways. If you take the time to rescue citizens being bullied by the city’s guards, they’ll repay you in one of two ways: vigilantes will distract pursuing guards you lead to them long enough for you to make your escape, while scholars provide something of a moving hiding spot. In the course of a mission, you gather information on your target through pickpocketing, interrogation or (if you’re unlucky) timed races or kill x targets in x minutes missions which exist just for the hell of it. Fortunately you end up with the ability to choose which of these ‘side-missions’ you wish to complete, so if you really hate one or two types you don’t have to complete them, but a glaring oversight was the fact that this is also the only way to garner information about your target. In a given mission you might only need to complete three out of a possible seven of these side-quests, but the game seems to assume you’ve done them all – so when Altaïr talks to a fellow assassin about what he’s learned, he recites facts and details he couldn’t possibly know. This aside, the side-missions by themselves aren’t great, but collectively they’re a nice change of pace from skulking around rooftops or fencing with twenty guards simultaneously. If you needed a change of pace, that is - and in reality, you probably didn't. I don't know whether it's uncharacteristic insecurity on Ubisoft's part that led them to adding all these distractions from gameplay that works just fine without it. There's no point in having a million things a player can do if none of them are going to have much interest in doing them. Just concentrate on making the core gameplay good, yeah? The rest will take care of itself.
Conclusion: Assassin’s Creed has all the ingredients of an excellent game, but seems to struggle with their amounts. Good gameplay and great graphics cancel out a mediocre narrative and awful storytelling. I understand many of its shortcomings have been addressed in subsequent titles, but that doesn't make them any less glaring in this one. It’s an enjoyable game but probably not for the intended reasons; the chance to rampage around the medieval Middle East is perhaps even more enjoyable than being one of history’s greatest assassins. For a story that’s supposed to be about the ethics of murder and the blurring of right and wrong, you seldom understand why you’ve been ordered to kill these people. You just do it because you know you’re supposed to, and because figuring out creative ways to do so is always gratifying. Maybe that’s the moral of the story after all?
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