Game Review: Assassin’s Creed (PS3)

Authored June 2008, Originally appeared at GameSpot

Finally finished this game (which I started long ago) off.

Like the UBISoft classic “The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” this game works hard to provide compelling narrative explanations for game mechanics. In this case a fairly generic young man, Desmond, has been captured by a mysterious, powerful organization. He’s hooked up to a computer system which can replay ancestral memories, in this case those of a 12th century assassin named Altair. Apparently Altair was the last to know the whereabouts of a mysterious religious artifact lost during the Third Crusade that the organization wants. You must control Altair through a period of his life in order to learn the location of this artifact.

Getting to the Past

If you control Altair well you increase your “sync” (essentially a health bar) with him if you control him badly (by getting discovered, damaged or making poor choices) you lose sync. Losing sync completely resets the memory to a previous point in time (the equivalent of a “death”). Most of the game is played as Altair in the past, but certain segments are played in the present as Desmond where you may talk to your captors, gather information and so forth.

It’s these segments in the present that are most disappointing. The characters are larger but less defined and simply don’t look anywhere near as good as the characters in the rest of the game. These segments are also almost universally dull… you learn a lot about the organization (mostly innuendo and hints about its participation in nearly every well-known conspiracy theory) but it’s mostly through reading emails. Lots and lots of plain-text email.

In the past the game is played across four medieval cities (Jerusalem, Acre, Damascus and Masyaf) and a large connecting “kingdom” of outposts, villages and way stations. Each of the three main cities is split into three unlockable districts and, as luck would have it, you’re told at the outset that you have nine assassinations to complete.

Pete and Repeat

Beginning with the best: this game is absolutely stunning. The cities are, we’re told, historically accurate and I see no reason to argue the point. The draw distance is impressive and as you’ll spend most of your time leaping from rooftop to rooftop you’ll continually appreciate it. The attention to detail that went into the design is obvious. While many architectural elements are reused they’ve been crafted so well that the settings feel organic and realistic.

Unfortunately the populous isn’t as lucky in this. You’ll find many people to interact with… the trouble is there are really only about 10 or so, copied over and over. You’ll meet the same beggar woman over and over, sometimes two or three of these annoying clones in as many feet. The same man-carrying-box, woman-with-vase-on-her-head, merchant-with-hat and so forth. More distressing is that each character has the same spoken lines throughout the game: where they might have easily had at least some variation you’ll hear the exact same speeches, comments and remarks over and over (and over).

This repetitiveness is an unfortunate hallmark of the game. Each assassination takes place in a district and each district has a collection of optional tasks. There are a number of “viewpoints” – special high areas that, once reached, will illuminate areas of the map. You can save citizens (and hear one of a very small handful of thank you speeches) by battling gangs of thugs and earn friends amongst the populace.

Other missions offer up information about your assassination target, but none of them are particularly useful. Instead you’re forced to complete a certain number of these before you can be assigned the assassination. You can pick-pocket information from certain people, eavesdrop on others, beat information out of others and prove yourself to informers by either taking out troubling targets or gathering nearby flags within a set time limit.

These four types of missions had no variation from the beginning of the game to the end… and you need to do a LOT of them. If you’re bored of that you can also find any of… let’s say three million special flags strewn hidden throughout the world.

Moving and Fighting

The most exhilarating aspect of the game is the free-running acrobatics. There is the occasional ungainly plummet (which, graciously, is almost never fatal) but for the greater part you’ll be easily leaping from rooftop to ledge to post. When the system works (which, to its credit, is more often than not) a maddened rush from a horde of alerted guards is exhilarating and incredibly cinematic. When it doesn’t work you’ll be treated to frustrating ridiculousness. You may have a split second to reach a hiding spot, leap for it… and end up clinging to the side of it in plain sight and annoyingly vulnerable. These flubs are almost never fatal but can be very irksome as it will take you some time to either fight off the enraged guards or run and hide again.

Combat is visually impressive (except for those, rare, times when the camera gets stuck behind a plant) but minimal. You gain weapons and skills throughout the game so this, at least, is kept somewhat fresh. Quick response combos and positional attacks offer up breathtaking, cinematic finishing moves which surprisingly never really got old to me -there was always a nice visceral thrill when the music trilled and I leapt at the neck of a sentry. The only real complaint in this area is the truly drastic difficultly range exhibited in the last few battles: I nearly abandoned the game at least twice here.

Assassinations themselves are formulaic with a few exceptions. Clear the area of sentries, infiltrate the area, find your mark. They will either fight or run. Once you defeat them a lengthy, incongruous (because you are very likely still be surrounded by numerous guards) private conversation between you and your mark take place. You must then escape the guards and make it back to the assassins bureau to complete the mission.

The large outer “Kingdom” is nearly unused: once you reach a city overland you can warp directly to it from then on. There are viewpoints and flags in the kingdom, but no actual reward for obtaining them. Some of the areas are interesting, but with no useful treasure, collectables, weapons, etc there’s very little motivation to explore.

Exploration is further muddied because, especially near the end of the game, nearly every move you make will annoy any nearby gaurds into attacking you. So unlike, say, “Shadow of the Colossus” where riding across the landscape could be fund and relaxing doing the same in “Assassin’s Creed” is an exercise in frustration.

Final Thoughts

It feels like the game was stretched to meet an arbitrary length limit rather than sized to maintain the interest of its content. This is probably not a game that you will play from beginning to end: the game is simply too repetitive and dull for that. However as a game that you play in stints between other games this might grow on you. The difficultly level is smooth and the controls simple enough to make this a “pick up and play” game (at least if you’re generally competent with this kind of game).

The game is almost worth buying simply as a visual showpiece – it really does look that good. I truly think that if the game, as is, were half the length it would have been much more enjoyable. As is however there’s a very strong likelihood that this game will bore you into submission before you finish it.

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