Postcards from Damascus
[review originally posted on the Adventure Gamers forums]
So I finally had a chance to play this, specifically the PC "Director's Cut" version which is different in its greater variety of side-missions (adding Rooftop Race, Merchant-Stand Destruction, Archer Assassination and Assassin Escort).
I loooove the exploration. I like how intuitive the Parkour is, allowing you to focus on being awesome rather than having to think about the steps required to achieve awesome.
I'm not sure I buy into the reasoning behind Altair forgetting how to dodge and grab ledges as he's stripped of his rank at the start of the game, but once you've run some missions and regained your station you've got a pretty sweet arsenal of skills at your fingertips. And it's literally fingertips as the buttons on the 360 pad - still on the PC - correspond to your weapon hand, your free hand, your eyes and your legs... with the right trigger acting as a switch between high- and low profile, each action depending on context. So for example using your free hand in low profile allows you to gently push past your fellow pedestrians, while using it in high profile will let you grab and throw them.
The game's historical setting is something truly special. Three great ancient cities are brought to life in startling detail: Acre, Jerusalem and Damascus, each of them with its own distinctive ambiance. Truly a marvel. It's a bit of a shame then that the game's over-arching narrative is so at odds with it. We are thrust into the shoes of Desmond Miles, a modern-day bartender kidnapped by some shadowy corporation for the purpose of 'exploring his genetic memory', specifically that of his Hashshashin ancestor Altair in the Holy Land of 1191. It's all very "meta" and, while kind of interesting, strikes me as ultimately unnecessary, lacking the elegance of Sands of Time.
It would have been okay if they'd reserved the Matrixy glitches for when the 'simulation' was actually breaking down or initializing (such as in the first few moments, or when loading memories) but hints of fakery are found throughout: on collectible flags, on the glowing selection effect and on the goddamn popups that appear all the time long after you've finished all tutorials.
At least you can turn the HUD off.
Actually, the game was at its best I found when played entirely blind. That is to say, forget the GPS, don't even use the map more than once or twice and just explore... Climb a few towers to figure out where you are. Once you've done a few missions it's easy enough to recognize what you're looking for (eg Assassin's Bureau) and with 'sixth sense' vision it's easy enough to pick out your targets if you take the time.
Which is why I was surprised at the highly arbitrary time limits imposed on some side-missions. Why you had to do the standard Stealth Assassination in minutes when you could take your sweet time with the Archer Assassination I have no idea, but neither I think were in any hurry to leave town. Same with the (corrupt) Merchant-Stand Destruction. When you're being chased by guards because you just buried one of their colleagues in a pile of wood and assorted groceries it's kinda hard to slip away and anonymously report back to your buddy in under three minutes. Sans the time-pressure would have been more enjoyable.
Also I would like to know how Altair back in 1191 managed to do the Rooftop Race Challenge without functioning GPS. I can suspend disbelief on the haystack diving for gameplay purposes, but this is stretching it.
Given how free-form most of the game is, it's a bit perplexing that when the time comes for your target to die you are often required to move to a very specific position before events start to unfold in semi-cutscene form. When the talking starts you're still able to move around, but you cannot choose to move in and cut the monologue short with a well-placed stab in the back. It's only when the cinematic is over that you may proceed... In some missions this is more restrictive than others as often there's still enough room to act on your own terms, but just as often you will find yourself in highly impractical and conspicuous locations. It kind of defeats the purpose of all that careful preparation.
The main criticism leveled at Assassin was repetition, which I don't think weighs as heavily now as it did for the 360 version. As long as you don't try to rush it there's plenty variety to keep you entertained till the credits roll.
The game looks and sounds amazing. If you've got a rig that can handle it - I was able to hijack my housemate's PC for the purpose - and turn it up to full settings it is the stuff that blows minds. There's some issues with level of detail here and there and the aforementioned intentional glitches somewhat diminish the atmosphere but it never ceases to be genuinely awesome. The animation and the way it ties into interaction with the crowd and the environment is nothing short of groundbreaking.
So the verdict in the end? It's not perfect. Still, I can't help but love this game.