IGN Review of Assassin's Creed
Assassin's Creed could easily have been one of the best games of 2007. It is, without question, impressive on several fronts. But developer Ubisoft Montreal took some major missteps along the way and squandered the immense potential of its pseudo-stealth action title. A bad story, repetitive gameplay elements, and poor AI all lead to one of the most disappointing games in recent memory. Assassin's Creed should have been one of the great games of this generation. Instead, it turned into just another action title.
You play as Altair, a member of the Hashshashin (or Assassins), a real-life group that performed politically-motivated murders between the 11th and 13th centuries. Set in the Mideast during the third crusade, Assassin's Creed is steeped in historical fact. Each of the three main cities was well-researched and beautifully recreated. The nine men Altair is charged with dispatching did, in fact, all die or disappear around the time the game takes place. The attention paid to creating an accurate representation of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus is commendable. Were it not for the "anomalies" that flitter around characters, you would have little reason to ever question that this is indeed what these cities and people looked like centuries ago.
Though Assassin's Creed is an action game, the story plays a considerable role from start to finish. This is a story-heavy title, which proves a detriment in the long run. There is a major twist in the Assassin's story, the kind that (if it hasn't already been spoiled for you on the Internet) would likely blow the lid covering your brain. That is if this big twist were revealed towards the end of the story and not in the first five minutes. Ubisoft's decision to introduce the only major surprise just a few minutes into Assassin's Creed proves costly. Imagine if you were watching the Sixth Sense and ten minutes in the movie told you Bruce Willis is a ghost. It would deaden the remainder of the story. This is exactly what happens with Assassin's. The moments with Altair are well-told and interesting (though perhaps a bit too drawn out), but every time the "twist" elements come into play, the entire game grinds to a halt. Over a 10- or 12-hour gaming experience, that becomes grating. So much so that all of the clever story elements begin to play against Assassin's Creed rather than elevating it to high art as seems to have been the intention.
It doesn't help that the voice acting for Altair is abysmal. The 12th-century assassin speaks with an American accent and sounds as if he is auditioning for community theatre. He stands out against the rest of the cast, the rest of who offer fine performances. But when your star (who is forced to chatter almost as much as he kills) sounds like a B-movie reject, it takes away from the story. Sound in general is not impressive in Assassin's Creed. You'll hear the same handful of comments when running through cities repeated again and again. And the music is fairly absent in most instances to allow the atmosphere to be king. But there is little aural atmosphere.
A weak story is nothing new to videogames; it's the gameplay that really matters. Assassin's Creed does some great things; it does some revolutionary things. It also does some things poorly. But let's talk about the good first, because it is worth noting that while Assassin's Creed never becomes a truly great experience, there are some fantastic elements that lay the ground work for a potentially incredible sequel.
Each of the three major cities is broken into three sections: poor, middle-class, and rich. That's nine sections for nine assassinations. As standard videogame operating procedures dictate, a new section of a city is opened when you receive orders for a new assassination target. When you have all sections of a city unlocked, you can appreciate the best aspect of Assassin's Creed: vertical exploration. The lengthy load times for levels (upwards of five minutes at some points) is forgivable considering that once in game you can run from one end of Jerusalem to the other and from depths of the darkest alley to the tip-top of the highest building.
Controls for Assassin's Creed are unique. You are more or less a puppeteer with each face button representing a different part of Altair's body (head, arms and feet). If you want to look around, you use the "head" button. If you want to use your sword, it will be with your right hand. And to leap from building to building, you use the button controlling your legs. The context-sensitive actions can be modified by holding down a trigger to switch from stealth mode to high profile mode. This can mean the difference between a stealthy assassination of a guard and a cinematic (but loud) leap and knife to the throat.
Running along rooftops and climbing up buildings is simple execution, but a lot of fun. All you need to do is enter high profile mode and hold down the "legs" button. Altair will automatically leap from station to station. This may sound like a cheat, but with the action moving so quickly and with Altair's jumping direction not always easy to align, Ubisoft actually does a very wise thing by not turning this into a platform. The fast and easy free-run mode works well and makes for some enjoyable escapes.
To scale buildings, you use the same controls as for rooftop runs, only now you are moving the thumbstick to adjust your hands. The revolutionary element of Assassin's that I mentioned is that the architecture dictates how you scale a building. You must think like a rock climber, looking for cracks and wall ornaments that offer a good foothold. Every piece of art used for buildings matters in Assassin's Creed. Anything you see that looks like a place to grab almost always is a place to grab. Getting vertical is, without question, the best part of Assassin's Creed. Your reward comes when you find View Points. In these key locations (and there are dozens in every city), you gain a panoramic view over the city. It's breathtaking.
The View Points aren't just for show. When you are on an assassination mission, using a View Point allows you to spot people of interest. To make for a successful assassination, you must first gather information on your target. There are a half-dozen people to investigate for each assassination. You are required to investigate at least three of them for most assassinations. And here is where Assassin's Creed begins to slip into mediocrity. There are less than a handful of mini-quests possible for an investigation. You may be asked to pickpocket (walk up to the target and hold down your "empty hand" button without being noticed), eavesdrops (sit on a bench and hit the "head" button to listen to a conversation), interrogate a suspect (beat them up until they talk), or speak with an informant (who will have you either assassinate a citizen/guard or have you run a flag-collecting race).
The more investigations you perform, the more information you have available about your target. This includes maps of guard locations (which actually prove useless), the proper place to strike at your target, and hints on how to best pull off a stealthy assassination. For one or two missions, taking on these overly-simplistic tasks isn't so bad. Consider that you will eavesdrop and pickpocket perhaps a dozen times over the course of the campaign and it becomes incredibly tedious. It wouldn't be so bad to have these same tasks repeated if they weren't all so unbelievably boring. I can appreciate that one way to gain information is to sit on a bench and listen in to conversations. I'm sure if Altair really existed during the third crusade, he would have used this tactic at least once to get the 411 on a target. But that doesn't exactly make for a great game. In fact, that never makes for a great game. "Here, sit and do nothing." All the while you are forced to listen to the sometimes heavy-handed messages from sleazebags and would-be prophets.
The assassinations themselves are well-done for the most part and enjoyable. Almost every assassination allows for a stealthy approach or for a direct attack. The choice is yours, though often attempts at stealth fail, turning assassination missions into nothing more than brawls. Before you can even attempt an assassination, you must first witness a prolonged cut-scene where the target shows that he is a villain and is worthy of murder. At some point, it would be nice to be the assassin who shoves a knife in the throat of a long-winded politician. After you are freed from the cut-scene, you must stalk your target. In early missions, this is often quick, with the assassination coming in mere seconds. Later on, you will need to sneak into more fortified areas and the assassinations take considerably longer.
Once your target is killed you are forced into an extensive conversation with the victim. Each one says the same thing: you're being tricked. They may say it with more flowery dialogue, but the message is always the same. I didn't know it was possible for a game to be in love with its own words, but Assassin's Creed is indeed in love with the sound of its own voice. I like a great story, but Assassin's moves far too slowly for its own good.
Killing old rich men is always fun. And the main assassinations are one of the stronger elements of Assassin's Creed -- even if it does lead to prolonged babble. Once you off one of the city's fat cats, the guards will be notified to your presence. You need to run (though you could fight your way through the city if you like). The best option is to find some elevation and do some rooftop free-running. Your goal is the local the Assassin's Bureau, which can't be entered while you are being chased. So on your way to the Bureau, you must ditch your opponents. To do this, you need to break their line of sight and then hide in one of the city's many conveniently-placed piles of hay. Guards are persistent, especially when the city is on the alert (which occurs following any key assassination). They climb ladders, hop up on roofs, throw rocks and shoot arrows when you are too far to catch. But they are never too difficult to ditch. The chase, though, is enjoyable.
These chases happen at other points in Assassin's Creed away from the main assassinations. You are free to do as you please in the city, even take out every guard you pass, but you generally don't want to make a scene. In the upper left corner of the screen is a helpful meter showing the awareness of guards in the city. White means they are unaware of your presence, yellow indicates they are suspicious, and red shows when the guards are alerted. As the awareness meter moves from white to red, it takes fewer actions to tip the guards off to your location and give them reason to fight (or give chase). This can get annoying in the latter parts of Assassin's Creed, as you are often forced to move at a snail's pace to get from one end of town to the other without being spotted.
The good news for those who hate being stealthy is that the AI is pretty terrible. If you stick to the rooftops, you can get away with quite a lot. The guards on the roofs are plentiful, but dumb as bricks. If you are spotted, they will put hand to sword or raise their bow and warn you that you're not supposed to be on the roof. If you have a throwing knife handy you can kill them from afar with the tap of a button. You can also leap pretty far for a "loud" assassination. Since the guards tend not to hear anything, so long as you are not performing this cinematic kill in the view of another guard, you should be fine. Or, you could just drop off the edge of the roof. The guard won't think twice about the fact that you are just hanging on the ledge. Once he turns, you can pull yourself up and shove a knife through his back.
Even when the town is on full alert, many of the rooftop guards remain in their AI pattern. Altair is leaping from roof to roof as dozens of men scream for someone to stop him. The guard on the roof turns during his AI routine and sees this. He puts hand to sword and warns, "You're not supposed to be--" and then you knife him and move on. Good AI is crucial for a good stealth game. Assassin's Creed has some sub-par AI.
Should you be caught (or if you just get bored), Altair can hold his own in combat. At first glance, the combat system seems simple. It is, after all, little more than holding down a trigger to guard and pressing a single button to attack. But the combat is rhythm based. In fact, as someone else pointed out to me, it is almost like a dancing mini-game. If you learn the rhythm, you can completely dominate with some impressive kill animations that never get old. If you mash buttons, you will likely find the combat frustrating and dumb. The combat is not intuitive. There is nothing telling you that this is DDR for assassins. You have to figure that out on your own (or, I suppose, read this review). Many will dislike the combat system, but I found it to be enjoyable.
It doesn't hurt that the animation system in Assassin's Creed is top notch. Half the fun of fighting is seeing the slick moves of Altair. His motions are fluid. It's like watching a ballerina with a sword. Seeing Altair climb a building is a real treat too. His body has weight, his movements are lifelike. His ascension is sometimes a struggle (though a proper one) to reach higher elevation. The cities, as I stated earlier, are truly remarkable pieces of art. These big open worlds, which are fully interactive, do come at a severe cost on PS3. There is considerable texture pop-in and noticeable framerate issues. Playing back-to-back with the 360 version, it's obvious that Ubisoft did not devote enough resources to the PS3 edition. The framerate is considerably worse, so much so that it begins to affect gameplay in the later levels. You can get through the first two-thirds of Assassin with the framerate being just an annoyance, but it becomes more of an issue for the final third of the missions.
If Assassin's Creed focused more on its open world and less on the minutiae; if it was a bit more clever and a little less pedantic, it could have turned out to be an incredible game. But this is a title that delivers on too little of its potential. There are some baffling design decisions. Though you play as an assassin, the final hour of gameplay devolves into a series of combat exercises. There is no way to be stealthy and no opportunity to run along the rooftops in these final missions. You fight and fight and fight until you reach the end boss at which time the game becomes Prince of Persia. Many won't make it that far. Assassin's Creed is too slow and too repetitive. It's a shame, because there are many great things in Assassin's Creed. There just happens to be an equal number of bad things.
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