Before I begin, I’d like to point out that the game interface has elements that I won’t fully reveal in this review. Ubisoft has done a good job of keeping this aspect of Assassin’s Creed totally hush-hush, and although some reviews out there take away from the surprise, I find that the storytelling is best done in-game. I’ll speak to the elements in a round-about way inside a spoiler section later on.
And so begins my review proper.
Assassin’s Creed takes place in 1191 in the holy land as Altair, a skilled assassin is given a series of missions to assassinate key figures who pose a threat to the peace of the land. The secret brotherhood he is part of lives by a code who’s benevolent nature is to silently influence the social structure without upsetting the masses.
You spend most of your time Jeruselem, Acre, and Damascus; three cities that are well populated and carefully crafted to be your playground. The first time you get a topside view of Jeruselem, you might just lose your breath. The work put into making the setting come alive is almost as impressive as the realization that most of it is there to either help or hinder you.
I am going to tell you right now that this game is very, very good. It has its rough spots and the basic mechanics can get repetitive and are sometimes unnecessary, but the storyline is compelling and the characters have life to them. The graphical and audio presentation is outstanding as is the fluid animation and the ambience.
Some of the biggest complaints I’ve seen heard or experienced can be explained with Ubisoft Montreal’s different approach to gameplay. I found that there is a method to their madness; and although it does make sense and is consistent, it is not always successful. The non-conventional gameplay for restricting your access to areas, reasons for climbing tall buildings and even your health meter are far more plausible and less jarring than the abitrary (and often unnecessary) invisible barriers, automaps and outdated 3.5 out of 5 hearts.
If there was a problem with the graphics, I’d be the first person to cast that stone. Assassin’s Creed runs a tight ship and the presentation is top shelf. The animations are fluid and well strung together, the combat is amost never hindered by bad camera angles, and they even saw fit to give you chase cam modes when running from guards to better help you dash away.
The textures and models are excellent, and the use of cloud cover to change the lighting is subtle but very effective. The only thing is that shadows play no role in the way in which you interact with the world, so don’t expect to be bound to Sam Fisher style lurking.
The eagle view (allows you to see friends, foes, and targets in different coloured halos) is blurry and hard to use for any length of time, but since you can`t move with it on it seems like quick glance was it`s original intention. The halos remain for about 20 seconds, so you can still identify your target without being stuck in the otherwise “drunken” eagle view. I didn’t mind the camera, however a buddy of mine kept getting motion sickness, so naturally I used it whenever he was watching and least expecting it.
If I were to nit-pick, (and that’s probably why you’re here reading this) I could find a few chinks in the middle-ages armour, but nothing that warrants any real concern. There was rarely any performance hiccups and in all my time spent in 1191, and texture popping only happened two or three times.
Occasionally you may trigger a death-blow animation that swings the camera behind a pillar or shrub, but immediately afterwards it swings back to an isometric view and doesn’t in any way impact the combat. In most cases it comes across as cinematic rather than disruptive; I only mention it as it may bother some.
I only once ever ran into a combat bug. One time I had been standing on a bench against a building and was attacked by guards. They couldn’t find themselves onto my level so I eventually had to exit combat mode to step down.
If you close your eyes and try to picture the sounds of middle-ages, you might hear something similar to Assassin`s Creed. They have done a good job of creating ambient sound and music. It is a complete audio experience.
If you decide to act out like scaling a building or scamper noisily across railings you`ll note that others will question your actions with phrases like “What is he doing?” and “He’s going to hurt himself”. If you take ladders and move silently, you`ll draw less attention. What people are saying around you can clue you into whats happening off-screen, and my surround sound system has done an excellent job of keeping me informed of guards noticing my actions and warning me not to continue.
The character voices are a mixed bag. The French, German and British crusaders will speak in their respective accents (and in non-player conversations in their native languages too). The non-player characters are well-voiced and very much their own person. The two issues I have are with the main character and the people in the crowd.
Altair (pronounced “all-tie-ear”) has a distinctively non-middle-eastern voice. It isn’t jarring, but it seems out of place, when names like Acre are pronounced “Ack-hra”. I understand why they didn’t want a heavily accented assassin running around killing westerners and it might have alienated the gamer, but it does seem a little silly to have a north american accent.
While moving through the crowd the people will carry on conversations and generally it works fairly well. The only issue is that the same voices get reused throughout the entire game meaning that you’ll run into the same beggar woman at every street corner. You’d think she’d leave me alone, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thrown her into a brick wall. Before you ask, yes, there’s an achievement for that.
Assassins Creed has found the right balance between button mashing excitement and well-timed tactical combat. If you are having a hard time finding the sweet spot between them, rest on the block more than the blind attack. Trust me, complete button mashing will yield you more personal damage than success.
You have two basic modes; low profile and high profile. There are variants to these modes, but that’s basically it. To switch between modes you hold a trigger down to go to high profile, otherwise you’re in low mode. All of your controls and actions are based on the profile you’re in at the time. Your non-directional controls are based on head (Y), main hand (X), off-hand (B) and legs (A).
The combat is surprisingly deep, and although your targetting can sometimes be off (where you are surrounded by guards and one person is targetted, you may actually start attacking another guard as they are closer, or higher risk, etc) it works very well. You have four weapon types, in open combat you will likely use sword and the short blade/dagger. You have six different basic move types. You have grab, swing, and step and then versions of those while blocking (break grab, counter and dodge). You also have target lock, block, throw dagger, break block and combo. Not all of these combat skills are available initially; they are unlocked as you progress and face more difficult combat as you travel to the wealthier areas in the respective cities.
Non-combat control is just as well-thought out. Climbing can be a pure joy to do as well as moving through crowds. As you progress you will unlock non-combat abilities like catch ledge and tackle (a personal favorite of mine). Riding the horse is basic and intuitive, and it doesn’t take long to master racing with them and avoiding obstacles. The camera controls are intuitive, and you can take control with the right stick should you see fit. If you lock onto a target the camera will follow them, and this works especially well for assassinations and pickpocketing.
Here’s the meat and potatoes, folks. Is this game fun? Does it shine? Does it have shortcomings that need to be mentioned?
In a word, yes.
Ubisoft did so much right with this game, that if Grand Theft Auto and all the superhero/sandbox games that came out after it weren’t there, this would be a title to sit on the throne. Unfortunately Assassin’s Creed came after the previously mentioned titles but didn’t learn from all of the pitfalls of the repetitive game mechanics that we’ve seen far too often in other games. The types of missions are climb the tower, save the villagers, pickpocket, eavesdrop, interrogate, and informant (which includes assassinate multiple targets and fetch the flags with time limits). All of them end up being transparent by the end of the game, and several of them ended up annoying me. Tasks such as pickpocketing and eavesdropping become so easy that it takes seconds to complete but minutes to get there, and then others such as timed missions can take up to an hour to get right, such as one of the “kill the guards that know me” that has you kill 6 guards in under 5 minutes without being detected AT ALL. Ubisoft, take note for the sequel: missions should only be timed if they NEED to be.
It is possible to accomplish those goals, but it loses it’s fun around the 5th time out. Now, you don’t need to do all the missions to progress the storyline, but I’m all for the full experience the game has to offer. I mean, the game actually had me enjoying it even through the moments that had me grinding my teeth and questioning whether I was doing it right or not. I think Assassin’s Creed could have benefitted from some more playtime with Crackdown, such as the rooftop races or sound indicators when near a collectable item, or taken a queue from Saint’s Row way of introducing a twist in the storyline during what would be a routine and predictable mission.
If you see a mission on your map, it is going to be that mission. There is no deviation. If you save a villager it is either a woman or a man who has relatives who help you out after you save them. There is never a moment where a subplot is introduced that takes you down a different path. Given the detail they put into everything else, I would have hoped for more in this.
Another tired gameplay mechanic is civilian nuisance. Beggars are drawn to Altair like flies to midden. It must be the arsenal of weapons he carries; he seems like a giving sort of fellow. The only time they are truly annoying is during pickpocket missions, and they can normally be turned away with the low-profile push. Conversely, if there is a place where sneaking is critical, there will be a leper or two who will summon all their strength to drive you back and blow your cover. Do they push other people? No, for some reason debilitating mental or physical illnesses are provoked by the otherwise invisible Altair. Should you decide to dispatch the infirm you suffer both personal damage and unwanted attention. Used more sparingly they would be impressive, but by my 8th assassination mission I had turned leper assassination to a higher artform.
[Minor Spoiler alert - Gameplay mechanics]
In the opening I mentioned the mysterious gameplay mechanics, and this is the beating-around-the-middle-ages-bush method of describing it. You actually control another character who is experiencing Altair’s missions based on memory, so the interface is built around synchronizing yourself to Altair. As such your areas of restriction are based on where Altair would have gone during that particular mission. Eventually those barriers fall, so it’s used more as a way of keeping you on track and out of trouble rather than providing the invisible barrier from “the rest of the undeveloped world”.
Your map is built by acclimatizing yourself to the surroundings, hence why you climb the buildings and look around. This is also how you identify where missions are located as you are literally getting a bird’s eye view. I can’t say this enough, some of the vistas make climbing a second time worth it.
Physical damage causes a de-synchronization. The meter at the top shows your level of sync; if you are fatally wounded (through combat, extreme falls or failing critical missions), the game will trigger an automatic rewind to the last “good” connection to Altair. It also keeps you following the intentions of Altair; you need to follow the creed or you lose sync. Go ahead and kill an innocent, and you will lose synch. Do that too often at once and you will lose your connection.
There are poorly implemented restrictions though; Swimming, for instance. Altair is missing a finger to better be able to stab people with a hidden blade, but the guy can’t swim? It’s possible, I suppose, but it seems more like a developer not wanting to include yet another potentially gameplay-breaking dynamic as all of the guard logic would have to be re-written and tested to ensure they could chase you through water.
[End of Minor Spoiler]
Now I know I’ve focussed on a lot of negative points, and yet rated the gameplay relatively high. Why? Because the game is fun, and the gameplay works for the most part. If you’re not trying to race through it to complete it in “X” amount of time, then 1191 A.D. is very enjoyable. My favorite part of the game was scaling large buildings. There wasn’t enough challenging climbs, but there were a few that took the better part of an hour for me to successfully ascend. The feeling of accomplisment was well worth the effort.
As I’ve just stated, this game is fun. It has all the charm of a good sandbox game with the visuals and sound that completely immerse you. By the end of Assassin’s Creed I wanted to start the next chapter in the trilogy. There is something about Assassin’s Creed that makes me want to keep play it.
The game length is more than adequate, however the ending is a little jarring as it is quick and leaves you wanting more. The replay value is there with well-placed achievements that encourage different gameplay styles. My only qualm being the hunt-the-flag missions in each area. Audible indicators would have be nice to identify when you are close to one.
It would have been neat to have multiplayer assassination competitions or leaderboards, but it might have taken focus away from the compelling story and altered the gameplay. Ubisoft included the option revisit any part of the game during the storyline, and I find that is a welcome option, rather than forcing a complete restart. That feature coupled with the ability to do things completely differently means that I can go back and have a totally different experience. For instance, I could have relied more on stealth this time rather than being the Chuck Norris of the Middle East.
Am I ready to dive right back into it and hunt down the achievement points yet? No. I have other games to play and other things to do, and now that I’ve completed it I might just put this one up on the shelf for 6 months and play it again and then go through and hunt down all the collectables.
Assassin’s Creed is an excellent game that raises the bar in several categories which ends up highlighting its relatively few shortcomings. If I were to try comparing the game to other games, I would be say it is a cross between Crackdown and Prince of Persia with a Splinter Cell influence.
I would recommend to anyone that if they weren’t going to buy it, to at least rent this game and get to the 3rd or 4th assassination mission, as by then you’ve gotten some improved moves.I’ve put sunk 20+ hours into the game and haven’t regretted it. The momentum of the story builds and I found the new interface design choice a welcome attempt to wrap a decent premise around obvious game mechanics.
There are problems with the game that may bring it down for some; I went into playing this game with no preconcieved notions and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Creed has raised my expectations of the visuals and multi-level sandbox games; I am hoping Ubi fixes up the minor flaws for the next go-round as I am now anxiously awaiting the sequel.