Developer: UbiSoft Montreal
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.