Developer: UbiSoft Montreal
Publisher: UbiSoft
Release: November 2007
Format: XBox 360 (version played), PS3, PC (April 2008)

Genre Keywords: Sandbox, Single Player, Stealth, Swashbuckling

Assassin's Creed takes place (mostly) in 1191 where you, as Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad (الطائر ابن لااحد , Arabic), a member of the order of assassins, are chastised for arrogance and sent to work off penance in what turns out to be a major initiative by the order to bring about peace in the Holy Land. This is to be done by locating and slaying individuals responsible for masterminding and furthering the Crusades. The penance starts with the stripping of Altaïr's rank, weaponry and (somehow) special abilities such as countering or tackling. While this was originally not in the game spec, it was thought that regaining these abilities gave a stronger sense of character progression; unfortunately, it makes the early combat more tedious and frustrating due to lack of special moves. As Altaïr completes the order's objectives, he regains equipment and abilitiies and learns more of the task that has been given to him.

Each objective is to - as the name of the game might hint - assassinate a powerful figure. However, since Altaïr has been demoted as punishment, he can no longer simply waltz up to the targets with the information the Brotherhood provides. No, he instead must personally investigate and locate all of the info required for a successful infiltration, and only then is he given the assassin's mark. Each investigation is composed of two or three tasks - eavesdropping on vital exchanges, pickpocketing plans, extorting information, or running goal-based errands for other Brothers - unlocked by arriving in a city's district and surveying the surroundings in a edificeering minigame. There are more tasks that can be unlocked, but only a few needed to unlock each final objective. Once completed, Altaïr pays a visit to the local Assassin's Bureau and is able to set out for the assassination. Each successful elimination ends with a pseudo-interactive cutscene and more information divulged by the guildmaster.

There is a twist, of course. In fact, there are a couple. One deals with the Templars and one deals with how things aren't always as they appear. Both would, however, bring in unnecessary spoilers into the review so I'll omit them as they do not greatly impact gameplay. However, Ubisoft is to be applauded for a sly new take on gameplay mechanics such as hit points, death, saving, and a nonlinear approach to storytelling.

The phrase "more than a sum of its parts" is bandied about a bit in gaming reviews. Assassin's Creed, in contrast, is a game that is precisely the sum of its parts, and little else. The parts in question are often novel, occasionally groundbreaking, often implemented very well and overall a lot of fun - but whether due to time or budget constraints or lack of communication between the teams implementing them, the less-developed features jar painfully with the ones that work well.

The parts in question include: massive, sprawling cities that allow nearly endless freerunning; massive (I apologize for the overuse, but this is where the game really shines), lifelike crowds with consistent behaviors; an action-focused combat model intended to make the character feel powerful but not overpowered; consistent stealth model that actually feels effective; intuitive, kinetic avatar representation. While not all of these are novel, they are all competent and mesh together to provide a solid and beautiful, vivid game.

However (and you knew there was going to be a however), there are the parts that blatantly don't work and undermine the otherwise fantastic efforts of the previous parts. While several of these simply stem from how ambitious the project is, some are downright silly and should have never happened, considering the budget of the game. To wit:

  • A grand total of ~5 voice actors and perhaps 5 lines in each of the three locales (15 unique lines total) for the various passersby. To make things worse, even when the voice actors are different, the lines spoken by them as quest, or side mission results, are the same, verbatim! This mindboggling design choice destined to make the player go slowly insane over umpteen bazillion repetitions is downright unacceptable. Also see the "Speak quickly Outlander, or go away" syndrome (way back in 2003!).
  • The two major obstacle elements, beggars (impede your progress) and madmen (shove you around), react only to you, the player. While again this would have been acceptable in a last-gen game where "crowds" consist of 5 people, in a next-gen game that has realistic, utterly packed streets this behavior is ridiculous. On top of that it's a bit game-breaking, since having them be unpredictable would be much more interesting than simply knowing that you must go around them.
  • This highly trained assassin can't swim.
  • Pseudo-interactive cutscenes as a method of imparting information. I'm sure someone somewhere thought it was a good idea, but ultimately the ability to move two steps across and three down while talking heads do their thing is not particularly immersive. This is made even worse when the cutscene in question occurs after a lot of mayhem had just occurred and all you want to do is run away and hide from the incoming guardsmen.
  • Your character is the only one around that not only openly wears weaponry but also fancy weaponry, such as a short blade across the back - despite this, nobody seems to pay any particular attention to it. Again, while fine in older games where the world isn't observant or reactive, this stands out in Assassin's Creed as much as Gordon Freeman's endless silence does in Half Life II.
  • Finally, the game consists of 9 assassination missions, all of which proceed from start to finish in an identical manner; only the locations vary. While the missions themselves are entertaining, slapping 9 of them together back to back with no variation whatsoever seems very lazy. I would much rather take 3 or 4 missions that were more thoroughly developed instead.

Looking at those issues is instructive in itself: they are laughable, by merely yesterday's standards. But by making the game so immersive and consistent otherwise though, UbiSoft has raised the bar and promptly impaled itself on it due to these immersion-breakers, and that is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. It will be interesting to see what the inevitable sequel will bring in terms of expanding awareness that yesterday's game convention standards have become today's blunders.

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.

Vitals.


Title: Assassin's Creed
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: 3D action platformer
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Release date: 2007/11/13

Overview.

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.

Impressions.

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.

Conclusions.

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.

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