Note: This applies specifically to the console versions, not the PC version. Only the controls and graphical quality should be different, so consider this before spending money on any version.
Many gamers may not care about a five-year old game, particular one overshadowed by its successors. However, with the new installment on the horizon, it would be interesting to see how Ubisoft’s latest AAA franchise came to be. Thus, this is a retrospective review of Assassin’s Creed.
Assassin’s Creed is a sandbox game with elements of platforming, stealth and action-adventure gameplay, set in the Middle East during the Third Crusade (1191 CE). It follows the story of Altair ibn-La’Ahad, a life-long member of the Hashashin (commonly referred to as the titular Assassins), who is on a quest to save his order from the conspiring, power-mongering Knights Templar, their mortal enemies.
An interesting set-up for a story, isn’t it? This, however, is just the beginning.
As it turns out (after a brief hallucination-like sequence), the player is actually in control of another character in modern day, a man named Desmond Miles, who is viewing these events and is being held captive by the mysterious Abstergo Corporation. Here’s the kicker: Desmond is Altair’s distant descendant, and Abstergo knows it. The sneaky corporation has developed a Matrix-esque device known as the Animus, which allows them to access genetic memories of their subjects’ ancestors. Clever, but also questionable; what, one may ask, would be worth messing with the nature of DNA itself?
Essentially, this game’s plot is split unevenly in two: ninety percent of your time is spent in the shoes of Altair, who has recently been disgraced because of his arrogance and must prove his worth by fighting the rising Templar forces to impress his master, Al-Mualim, while the remainder of the story is set in present day with Desmond and two high-ranking members of Abstergo. As it stands, Altair’s portion is far more substantial, with more character development, more action and more depth (hints of historical conspiracy come up); Desmond is not quite as interesting or fleshed out as well and the supporting characters in his time meet the same fate.
Without spoiling too much else, the story manages to tie the Templar vs. Assassin conflict in the past (and present, as it seems) into this mysterious treasure hunt, although there will definitely be questions by the end, and the story is not very satisfying and somewhat uneven, overall. However, for what it’s worth, the events set in the Crusades, and Altair’s decaying student/mentor dynamic with Al-Mualim, are interesting enough to drive you to the conclusion.
Now, for the gameplay. In Assassin’s Creed, Altair must travel across the Holy Land, from the Assassin fortess in Masyaf to the vast cities of Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem, in search of nine key Templar leaders that he must systematically assassinate. Once he reaches the particular city (each split into three districts: Rich, Middle, and Poor), he must start gathering useful information on his targets by taking on side missions (only two of which are needed to take on the assassination), such as eavesdropping on conversations, stealing important documents, beating up informants or helping fellow Assassins…collect flags? There’s also other seemingly meaningless flags to collect.
Actually, that sums up the variety in this game nicely. Most players will take on a few missions, if they are savvy to the monotony of completionism, to get to the far more varied and interesting assassination missions, which have them using the info they have gathered to make informed decisions on how to strike. These targets also have interesting, if thematically similar, philosophical discussions with Altair as they die.
An important feature to the game is the use of parkour. Climbing surfaces onto rooftops and running wild is very gratifying, as the controls are smooth and nearly every surface is climbable. Altair’s body parts are mapped to the face buttons (Triangle/Y button controls his head, Square/X Button controls his weapon hand, Circle/B Button controls his open hand, and Cross/A Button controls his legs), with the left and right sticks controlling movement and the camera, which can be daunting at the start but quickly becomes second nature.
Combat, on the other hand, can be a mixed bag: some may find it refined and complex, others may find it cheap and frustrating. Altair gains use of a wrist-mounted hidden blade, a sword and throwing knives as the story goes along, and he has plenty of use for all three. Many times though, bumping into a guard or taking part in story missions will lead to drawn out confrontations with half a dozen or more swordsmen, forcing the player to use blocks, dodges and counter-strikes to fend off adversaries. It’s a game of timing and reflexes, not mindlessly hitting buttons.
Lastly, another detriment to the gameplay is the artificial intelligence of the enemies. Rooftop-mounted guards, the only problem with travelling across buildings, will take a few seconds too many to declare, “You shouldn’t be here”, before they are swiftly stabbed. In combat, the A.I chooses to attack recklessly and suddenly, allowing the player to take advantage of their mistake. Some may defend it by saying it creates “constant tension”; clearly the phrase “poor coding” still isn’t in the mainstream.
For all the flaws in the story and gameplay, the presentation helps to cope. The Holy Land is a truly awe-inspiring place, with beautiful horizons and bright environments. Although only a scholar could tell for certain, it appears as though each of the Middle Eastern cities are recreated in pain-staking detail. Despite some graphical hitches and glitches, as well as dreary lighting effects, this portion of the game is excellent.
Similarly, though not as noticeably, the sound work is well-done. All except Altair’s voice actor (who uses a drier, more American accent) are fitting and performed admirably, though it is clear several voices are reused for non-essential characters (the people you help in side missions). The music, when it is present, has a soothing presence that further immerses the player in the scenery.
Overall, the game has the feel of a product that was meant to be great, but fell short by a substantial amount – fairly substantial. Its use of parkour and platforming, interesting assassination missions and high production values ensure it is playable, but it lacks refinement in other areas. So farewell, Assassin’s Creed, and may your next installment bear a better fate than you.
Overall Score: 6/10
Author’s Opinion: I initially wanted to rate this game higher, because there were a lot of great ideas and many well-designed elements at work here. However, the key factor linked to my change of heart was the simple fact that I felt bored most of the time. I had to force myself to complete the game, and I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything significant. It left me wanting more.
No game should ever make you feel bored playing it, regardless of how innovative and unique its platforming mechanics and historical accuracy are. The game paved the way for better installments, so it should be praised for that, but on its own merits it is not a high-priority purchase (if you’re curious, it’s cheap enough to buy, but I only recommend a rental at the most).