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Ubisoft takes a trip to the Holy Land with the hugely anticipated release of Assassin's Creed on Xbox 360, PlayStation3, and PC...
- Fluid Free-Running.
- Historical accuracy.
- Intriguing plot.
- Formulaic structure.
- Repetitive gameplay.
- Doesn't live up to the hype.
First things first, it probably comes as no shock to discover that the big surprise, something that Ubisoft has made a great deal out of since unveiling the game, surrounds the concept of genetic memories. That's not really a spoiler given the fact that it's revealed within the first few minutes, but it begs the question why Ubisoft were so adamant to build it up and overshadow the actual game in the process. Whilst the majority of the game is played as the assassin Altair in the 12th century, the intriguing plot behind Assassin's Creed centres upon Abstirgo, a futuristic and somewhat shadowy pharmaceutical company, and their device that allows people to re-live memories stored in their genetic make-up. In between the Assassin stages, players take control of a character named Desmond Miles, who appears to be an unwilling test subject for the company and whose lineage dates back to the Assassins... it seems they were onto something back in the 12th century, and Aspergo wants it.
Given the setting and the Assassin's struggles against the Christians and Saracens it's welcoming to find the game starts with a disclaimer informing of the team's multi-cultural background. Dealing with such a sensitive subject, it's good to see that Ubisoft Montreal has approached all aspects with a careful degree of respect and understanding... unfortunately it's a shame that we can't say the same about the actual game.
Given the sheer amount of hype that Ubisoft has generated, it's perhaps expected that Assassin's Creed doesn't quite manage to deliver the goods. Rarely do games manage to ride the wave of expectation, and in Assassin's Creed's case that's a tsunami of trailers, dev diaries, and the almost celebrity-like status of game producer Jade Raymond.
Encompassing impressively grand and authentic depictions of Damascus, Jerusalem, Acre, Masyaf, and a Kingdom hub that interlinks the areas, Assassin's Creed's primary challenge revolves around assassinating nine targets that the brotherhood has identified for varying reasons. After breaking The Creed that underpins the assassins' motives, Altair is stripped of his rank early on with little knowledge about his overall mission. Embroiled in a plot that encompasses the Crusades, Templars, New World Order and genetic memory, Altair's attempts to understand the reasoning behind his actions and how they relate to Desmond in the future provides the major drive behind the game.
Essentially each target involves the same challenge. Arriving into a new city for the first time, Altair's initial challenge is to scale the highest towers to activate High Points, which in turn reveal the surrounding areas of the map and further challenges to undertake. Each target requires the player to undertake at least three of six intelligence missions, providing the background information necessary to perform the hit. With information such as escape routes and guard placements to discover, it's a shame that ultimately you can bumble your way through most of the assassinations with little need for this knowledge, because when you do plan the method of attack the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment is significantly expanded.
Scaling towers and generally running around the streets demonstrates the free-running technique that underpins the entire Assassin's Creed experience. Using the right shoulder button to switch between low and high profile states, which in turn affect what techniques are possible, Altair's ability to swing from post to post, leaping onto small ledges, and scaling walls is mightily impressive and gains a thumbs up from TVG's resident climbing fanatic. As a gamer however, there are some concerns that the streamlined approach, requiring little more than holding onto the shoulder trigger and a face button whilst navigating Altair in the general direction, is perhaps a little too streamlined. There's very little skill requirement to this aspect of the game, and whilst it all looks very neat the lack of a challenge poses a slight problem for us. That said, hats off to Ubisoft Montreal for what must have been a painstaking effort to create such vast environments that are fully climbable, and the astonishing animation of the main character that brings this feature to life.
Without a doubt Assassin's Creed's biggest issue is the sheer repetition that's involved with the challenge of taking down the nine targets. Essentially it always boils down to entering a town, scaling towers, and embarking on quests to gain information, which include pick pocketing, eavesdropping on conversations, and intimidating certain characters to spill the beans. Again these missions lack any real challenge (the pick pocketing is a breeze once you master the technique) and become little more than a chore to grind through. Aside from these are a variety of secondary missions such as helping civilians under attack, killing Templar Knights, finding all the High Points, and discovering multitudes of hidden Flags across the Holy Land. Helping civilians assists Altair, introducing groups of Scholars that Altair can walk amongst freely or packs of Vigilantes that will hold up opponents chasing after him. When it comes to Altair's reputation amongst the crowds, what sounded like a groundbreaking aspect to the game during its build up is realised as little more than rigid set-pieces that soon loose their appeal. Too often, the game re-uses the same old trick: guards' patrolling the entrance to a city typically means there will be a civilian in need of help, which in turn will unlock the scholars that Altair needs to enter into the city freely.
After the first couple of targets are eliminated, this cyclic process becomes increasingly formulaic, and begins to bog the game down without any sense of drive or progress. The game never really develops in the way that you'd hope for, it's the same process for each of the nine targets and as such repetition becomes the major issue with the game fairly early on. I found no need or desire to complete missions beyond those required to activate the actual assassination, whilst the clichéd arrangement of flags to collect fails to provide any real impulse to exploring the environments or taking your time and enjoying the game. It's one of those games that you just want to rush through to finish and put it away for good.
Despite a combat system that largely makes use of one button exclusively, combat in Assassin's Creed is a cinematic and often brutal affair. Using the X button to string combos or slower but harder attacks, progress in the game unlocks further techniques and equipment such as the ability to perform stylish counter-attacks. Armed with long and short blades, throwing knives, and his trusty concealed blade, combat at least provides a range of strategies and more importantly feels right when much of the game doesn't.
Distancing itself away from the stealth genre, Ubisoft will maintain that Assassin's Creed is more about becoming anonymous with the crowd than skulking in shadows (which you're never going to find in any case), and to be fair Ubisoft Montreal has managed to make 12th century locations the bustling places that you'd expect them to be. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of characters seems to have come at the cost of intelligence. It seems as though the civilians' response to Altair's actions is haphazard at best. Running in fear whenever a fight does occur, a classic example of Assassin's Creed's AI inadequacies involved killing a preacher (wrong I know, but the boredom drives you to it) giving a sermon to the watching crowd, only to turn around and watch the crowd quietly disperse without batting an eyelid. Perhaps they're too scared of the Assassin's clout to mention anything but some recognition would have at least helped create the sense that the game world was real, as it stands it all just feels a little flimsy.
Whilst Ubisoft has been keen to dispel the stealth label being attached to Assassin's Creed, the fact remains that keeping a low profile and hiding away from opponents plays a large role in the game. The basic process when a guard cottons onto the fact that you're doing something suspicious (climbing walls, near a dead body, etc..) revolves around running away to break their line-of-sight, before leaping into bundles of hay, conveniently placed towers, or simply sitting down on a bench to wait whilst the heat cools down. Presumably because Ubisoft Montreal has been adamant to ensure that Assassin's Creed isn't labelled as a stealth game this dynamic doesn't feel entirely developed, and as such the process just doesn't feel as smooth or convincing as we've seen from other Ubisoft Montreal efforts. Whilst it's fair to say Assassin's Creed is a very different game to Splinter Cell, I've got to say there's a considerable gulf between them both in terms of the sense of immersion created by believable NPC's and opponents. It's a shame that this aspect of the game feels a little too rigid, breaking the bubble of immersion that any decent videogame needs to create if it hopes to keep the player engaged in a convincing gameworld.
Away from the main issue over repetition and lack of development, Assassin's Creed also has a number of further issues that niggled at me. Replicating the sounds of Jerusalem and Damascus couldn't have been easy, but listening to the same one-lines ("Spare me a coin", "Why is he doing that?") soon begins to grate, when really Assassin's Creed should be the type of game that pushes presentation as paramount. Equally, whilst there's some gobsmacking animation, suitably impressive lighting effects, and grand environments, the game's visuals can be a little hit-and-miss and come nowhere near to the quality of the CG footage used during the game's various stages of development - just check out the cloth dynamics of Altair's cloak to see what I mean.