Assassin's Creed is a commercially successful video game franchise owned by Ubisoft. The first title in the franchise is also called Assassin's Creed, and was developed by Ubisoft Montreal for release onto Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows.
This writeup will generally focus on the first title in the franchise.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: 3D action platformer
In Assassin's Creed, the player assumes the role of Desmond Miles in the modern day. Desmond is a bartender who has been kidnapped by the sinister Abstergo Corporation because he is descended from an ancient line of Assassins, loosely based on the historical hashishim and their belief that nothing is true, everything is permitted. Abstergo are in turn descended from the Knights Templar; this conflict between Templars and Assassins is the core conflict of the Assassin's Creed franchise to date. They have kidnapped Desmond because they have a machine called the Animus which is able to decode living memories of Desmond's ancestors from within his genetic code. For Abstergo to retrieve and observe these memories, Desmond must relive them as incredibly realistic simulations inside the machine.
They're after a specific memory from one of his ancestors, an Assassin named Altaïr, but are unable to retrieve the memory immediately because the specific context is too foreign to Desmond's own experiences. They are forced to have Desmond start his reliving of Altaïr's life at a much earlier point chronologically, and continue living out Altaïr's experiences until they can retrieve the piece of information they are seeking.
Functionally, the gameplay is divided into two sections: Desmond interacting with his captors and exploring the rooms he is being held captive in, and Desmond inside the Animus, living out the memories of his ancestor, an Assassin battling the Knights Templar during the Third Crusade. The sections with Desmond serve as interludes between the chapters featuring Altaïr. Those chapters are the core gameplay.
The game takes place in a full 3D environment. As a fully trained Assassin, Altaïr is able to run, jump, climb, hide, ride horseback, blend into crowds, pick pockets, and fight with a variety of melee and ranged weapons. The movement is mostly parkour/freerunning. The combat is comparable to the swordplay in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; the climbing is quite fluid but is also very similar to the gameplay in Prince of Persia, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and similar titles. The abilities to move through crowds--and indeed, the technology required to implement crowds themselves--were revelatory for this generation of video games. Altaïr uses these abilities for a variety of purposes: Exploration of his world, scouting of regions and cities, assisting citizens and other Assassins to gain allies, and most importantly, assassination of Knights Templar targets designated by Altaïr's master.
Altaïr combines these skills to attack from stealth and to escape back into anonymity. He follows an Assassin's Creed which goes: 1. Stay your blade from the flesh of the innocent. 2. Hide in plain sight. 3. Never compromise the Brotherhood. In life, Altaïr obeyed these rules without fail except during some very specific and story-significant circumstances; Desmond is free to disobey any of them to a certain degree, but in doing so he damages his synchronization with Altaïr's memories. Too much desynchronization means having to resume the game from an earlier, more perfectly synchronized memory. The Animus system also allows Desmond to revisit earlier memories, events that he has already played out as Altaïr. These replays can further increase the level of synchronization between Desmond and Altaïr--the sync bar is effectively a health meter in the game-within-a-game.
As the game progresses, a conspiracy unfolds both within Desmond's genetic memories and inside Abstergo itself. The game leaves certain key plot points unexplained, and there's some rich discussion of these story elements both in the sequels to the game and in fan discussion of the game in online communities.
This is a game that did some new things very well. Everybody talks about the lush environments that Altaïr occupies, about the stellar character animation as he free-runs across rooftops or pushes his way gently through crowds. There was some genuine innovation here, things we've seen improved on in the Assassin's Creed sequels and imported into other games. A good deal of effort was made to incorporate historical perspective into the game, particularly around things like architecture, clothing, and the use of real historical figures as targets and allies for Altaïr. The net effect is very immersive and stylishly entertaining. The game looks good and performs quite well; this technical excellence is likely a big part of the reason the franchise has been so successful.
The unique thing I liked best about this game is its approach to the controls: you're playing Desmond guiding the Animus through Altaïr's memories. The buttons don't initiate actions so much as intimate intentions. There is a button indicating a "legs" action, a button indicating a "weapon hand" action, a button indicating an "empty hand" action, a button indicating an "eyes" action, a trigger button that can be held to modify the intention of these actions from the default of "discreet" to an alternative of "provocative." Another trigger button is held to focus Altaïr's attention on a target. The overall effect is that you're not so much using the controller to do things as you are using the controller to tell Altaïr to do things. Free-running isn't therefore a paper-rock-scissors mechanism where you have to press the right buttons to make your character commit the right action to overcome an obstacle. Instead, you use a combination of buttons and thumbsticks to decide a direction and speed, and Altaïr does all the work of deciding between running, small jumps, and climbing. Occasionally you can make a mistake and send him over a ledge with no safe landing on the other side; the camera dutifully follows him over for a stomach-dropping fall to "desynchronization." More often he is able to take what the game describes as a "leap of faith." This is a dive off a tall building to land, safe and hidden, in a bale of hay below. These leaps from great heights can also be used to perform assassinations--again, a press of a button telling Altaïr to do something, which he then does. The result is very fluid, but still quite tactile.
This interface works perfectly with the movement-in-crowds gameplay. You can decide whether Altaïr should walk slowly, trying to blend in, or more quickly, gently pushing people away to move through them without attracting attention, or so quickly he begins to attract notice, tackling people in front of him to shove them out of the way. The fastest option, a headlong sprint, is almost never the right choice to escape pursuit the the crowds. Where you could have pressed the "empty hand" button to begin shoving people out of your way while still moving quickly, an attempt to sprint through will often end with Altaïr flat on his face, having tripped and fallen after crashing into someone. It's a fascinating design choice to give you a main character who can flow effortlessly over rough terrain but will fall flat on his face because a street beggar wouldn't get out of his way. It's poetic, really: the Assassin's most dangerous obstacles are other people.
The synchronization mechanics of the game offer some very interesting "unreliable narrator" moments. The game capitalizes on this by offering "glitches" in the recall of key memories--essentially quick-time events where you can press the button and see the scene from a different angle. It gives the sense that you're watching someone else (Desmond) watch Altaïr, begging the question: who else is watching? The series continues to expand on this line of questioning in the second and third titles. Desmond's progress through Altaïr's memories eventually reveals that he's not the first person Abstergo used the Animus to interrogate; these ideas are also expanded on--in dramatic fashion--in the later games of the series. The creed of the true Assassins, that nothing is true and everything is permissible, is quoted in the game and the player is encouraged to remember it throughout the course of both Altaïr's experiences and Desmond's interludes. Even the roll of the credits at the conclusion of the main game is designed to come as a surprise.
This first early game had some criticisms, as well. Not enough variety in the voice acting, too much repetition in tasks from city to city, not enough variety in the combat, even occasional serious bugs affecting gameplay in the end-game chapters. Horseback riding felt fairly tacked on, and for all its wearying repetition the game still ended too quickly. As rich as the save-and-replay mechanic was in Altaïr's half of the game, it was easy to miss things in Desmond's world and have no ability to recover. The majority of these concerns have been addressed in the sequels and so I will not discuss them further here.
Assassin's Creed was a breakout game for its generation of consoles. By the end of 2011, the series will have yielded three mainline sequels and a number of related offerings for handheld consoles and mobile devices. The white-hooded assassin dropping from the sky to mete out sudden and silent death and then fleeing faceless into crowds is an image that holds a certain cachet in gaming culture. This is a popular franchise and it started with this game. Not perfect, but excellent, iconic, beautifully made. People who don't play video games ask me what the appeal is, and to this day, this is the disc I put in my console. It used to be Grand Theft Auto 3, but now it's Assassin's Creed.
An experienced gamer can get every achievement the game offers in less than ten hours--and that number cuts in half if you ignore some of the more annoying exploration collectibles. It's short, but it's a masterpiece. Any serious gamer should try this one, if only to get a look at the interface ergonomics. I started here, went to Mirror's Edge, and almost broke my controller in frustration. Going from a fluid expression of intent to an attempt to manipulate a free-runner's body parts with a gamepad was an extraordinarily infuriating experience--and I know for a fact that if I had played the two games in the opposite order I would have found Mirror's Edge to be a revelation of its own.
It was also a gift to play a game where stealth meant something different than crouching, staying in cover, or staying in shadows. The experience isn't perfect, but it's so different from other sneaking franchises like Metal Gear, Tenchu, and Splinter Cell that it has changed the way I think about video games. Gameplay from these titles looks like trailers from other video games; trailers from these titles often look like something I would pay to see in a movie theater. One of the key things I look for in measuring the lasting legacy of a game is how the ideas that this title introduced will be incorporated into future games. Measured on those terms, Assassin's Creed is one of the all-time greats. It's a proud addition to any gamer's library.