Where nothing (and everything) is what it seems
Assassin’s Creed is a third-person, Third Crusades-inspired, conspiracy-laden, sandbox-styled, stealth-oriented, action-filled, anti-religious, virtual reality simulating, preachy adventure game. As far as I can tell, Assassin’s Creed is the first third-person, Third Crusades-inspired, conspiracy-laden, sandbox-styled, stealth-oriented, action-filled, anti-religious, virtual reality simulating, preachy adventure game ever made, so I’ll give the game credit for that. We don’t get too many games with twenty million dollar budgets that don’t involve heavily armoured muscular men fighting aliens in space.
You play as Desmond, an ordinary human being with tight jeans and such superpowers as “walk gingerly” and “lie down here.” He’s been kidnapped by an unknown organization and forced to use his horizontal powers to lay inside a strange contraption called an “Animus.” This machine is used to analyze the “genetic memory” of Desmond’s ancestor while the rest of the world rolls their eyes during the mad scientist guy’s explanation of the technology.
So the third person stealth/action parts of the game are spent playing as Desmond’s great, great, grandassassinfather Altair. He shamed his clan by showing independent thought during a mission and must regain his honour by way of displaying great obedience in killing nine important targets. The dual futuristic/medieval timepiece settings work surprisingly well together. The virtual reality slant, while anything but a surprise to anyone that saw that original E3 trailer, makes a clever alibi for invisible walls, HUDs, lock-on targeting, restarting a level and other video game-isms that wouldn’t make sense in 1190. Assassin’s Creed also excels at leeching off the without feeling too overbearing. King Richard I makes a cameo appearance from 800 years beyond the grave to monologue his beliefs and be conspired against by the rest of the damn game. And there’s a strong aura of authenticity, from the angry lepers to angry guards to angry homeless people to angry preachers that makes the player feel like they’re in being discriminated against.
Then Altair opens his mouth, speaks perfect English and gives immersion a dropkick. He speaks perfect, usually emotionless English, as if a translator is speaking for him for a documentary. For all I know, that may have been the intended effect. As the story unfolds, the conspiracy(s?) begin to unravel and I felt myself getting intrigued. I began to think to myself “so here’s a story about warring factions with different philosophical beliefs. There’s a potential for something great here.” But as the game reached the final chapters, the plot twist that I anticipated and dreaded would happen did happen. Where I was wrong in predicting the storyline, however, was that the clashing moralities theme gets thrown asunder for the less intriguing twist of an evil madman using a powerful tool to achieve world domination. Yawn. Oh, and there’s something about religious stories being an illusion, which feels a bit too much like an attempt to earn Da Vinci Code-like notoriety in the press. Controversy that never quite picked up in the media or reached the ears of any conservative groups, for better or worse.
Perhaps this is due to the sheer labour that any player of Assassin’s Creed must go through to reach those potentially controversial bits.
Each assassination follows a strict routine. First, your leader gives you a stern chastising for questioning him. Then you have to walk down your hillside fortress and make your way to a large virtual space known simply as “the .” This “” consists of large, empty fields filled with horses to jack and scout towers to climb. The distance between each destination is fairly long, and the paths are filled with guards that take exception to speedy horse riding. This brings up one of the game’s strange quirks; speed is a grave crime punishable by death. If you ride with a speed faster than “inching forward as not to chip your horse’s shoes”, the guards will instantly assume that you are up to some kind of vile shenanigans and engage in pursuit. Late for a meeting? Need to use the bidet? Giving birth? Saladin won’t forgive any of these excuses for daring to ride a horse with any kind of haste. Fortunately, only a handful of missions force the navigation of this enigmatic “”. With all due respect to the programmers that poured a great deal of love and labour modeling this field, I can’t help but feel like their time was wasted and the game would have actually benefited by just letting the player jump straight to the desired city.
Once you enter either Acre, or , you must first enter an Assassin Bureau to be further chastised by the local wiseman. Then one enters the “investigation” stage. Each city is an open sandbox, with more actual sand than any other so-called “sandbox games” on mere virtue of particle effects. Altair has the freedom to climb any building, pimpslap any hobo and break any vase. It’s a mostly immersive game world that brims with life, despite the excessive repeating of voice samples from homeless people insisting that I don’t understand how poor they are. (I do understand, I just come from a time where your pushy panhandling would get your raggedy ass arrested. If you want change, have a clever sign like “need money for weed.”) But don’t mistake sandbox freedom with sandbox fun. Harming the innocent will drain your health, under the guise that you’re “breaking the Creed.” And just like in the , having the audacity to move faster than a gentle walk will net the attention of angry guards, especially in later missions. I’m sorry Ubi Soft, I’m sorry that instant-gratification video games and Youtube have shot my attention span to a point where I’d like to get to my next objective a little quicker than an hour. The only walking pace that won’t result in an army of angry crusaders up the ass is to hold the A button, hold your hands in prayer and make baby steps forward. Is the only way to avoid aggravating guards to pray to your god? I know the game has the opening message of “this game was made by a multi-cultural staff of different beliefs”, but do they all discriminate against Atheism that badly?
The next three steps in what feels like the 12-step program for rehabilitating your main victim away from life are as follows: First you must find a predetermined, very tall building to climb so that Altair can soak in the view. The climbing controls are very intuitive and will have Altair climbing in the direction you want him to…about 70% of the time. In reaching these high peaks, the investigation missions start appearing on the map. Altair must accomplish these missions to get information on his target. These can include picking a pocket, fistfighting a loudmouth, eavesdropping in on a conversation, stealth killing a few guards or running an obstacle course of flags. Also, there are about ten citizens per city being harassed by guards for REASONS THAT MUST NOT BE THEIR FAULT, and rescuing them will yield a group of vigilantes or priests that support your murderous cause. On my first run through Murder Rehab, I was so intrigued by the novelty of being an Assassin doing his own dirty work that I actually accomplished all of six investigation and ten-odd rescue missions without asking questions. After collecting the information necessary, the condescending wiseman gave me permission to stick my hidden sword down another man’s throat. That sounded wrong.
The problem with Assassin’s Creed is that all of the “assassinations” follow this same format. Enter a city, do the exact same missions over again, kill your target, move on. And there’s up to 12 civilian missions and 6 information missions per level, plus 100 optional “flags” throughout each city to collect. So to deliver what would otherwise be the final summary statement in a review halfway in the review, Assassin’s Creed is a good game to buy if you want to explore 12 century without having to play an actual video game, or you’re just an Xbox Live Achievement-hoarding freak. But if you enjoy dynamic gameplay experiences that change and become more enjoyable over time, well Assassin’s Creed feels like 6-10 hours wasted.
And adding to the sense of repetition, you can’t skip any cutscenes. Fail any given mission, and expect to sit through the pre-mission conversation about the madness of the kings before getting a second shot.
On a brighter note, once you’ve been given a 1190s license to kill, the actual assassinations are somewhat interesting. Some of them involve large structures, many guards and can demand a bit of thinking when it comes to devising a unique approach to a kill. Think Hitman, or at least Hitman-lite. The “kill your way in” approach works too sometimes, but there’s more grace in going in unnoticed and pouncing an unsuspecting religious leader rather than whip him around with your sword. In another of those moments that wouldn’t make sense if not for this whole Virtual Reality balderdash, each victim will begin to soliloquize his motivations even after you’ve deepthroated them with a dagger. Jade Raymond seems bent to make sure the player views as many speeches, monologues, gossips, public speaking and other forms of small talk as possible. After your victim has given their final speech, many guards will begin to give chase and you’ll have to either lose or slay them before returning to your wiseman to complete the mission.
If you choose fight over flight, the swordplay isn’t particularly deep but it’s sufficient. Based on timing button presses, Altair blocks or counters enemy attacks from all directions while delivering strikes of its own. It gets tiring fast, but being that Assassin’s Creed should be a game about stealth, resorting to combat as a punishment would otherwise be a fine idea in my books. On to the flight-side of the issue, running from the guards can be the most exhilarating aspect of the entire game. Trying to outrun and psyche out pursuing guards, find a pre-determined stack of hay or box or…bench, to hide in, it takes a lot of effort to elude the guards but a well-executed escape is a rewarding feeling. Unfortunately, during later missions, a guard sitting outside your next investigation objective may take offense to the way you’re walking faster than 10 paces a minute and will instantly alert his friends, needlessly slowing your progress in the actual game.
And going back to my earlier point about combat being a viable punishment for poor stealth, well…I can’t use that argument for Assassin’s Creed actually. The last few missions consist of an annoying series of forced battles with what feels like all opposing sides of the Crusades. I often felt as if Assassin’s Creed was progressively getting worse and worse as I further played it.
And after Altair has single-handedly fought all the warring armies in the Crusades and slays his final target, the game ends with cruel abruptness and the most obnoxious of cliffhangers. As if the game slaps you in the face and demands you pay another $70 to get any form of resolution out of this mess. Few plot ends are tied, many mysteries are created, and the game attempts to throw in numerous viral messages meant for message board posters to speculate on while they wait two years…TWO YEARS, for the next game. But rather than leaving me interested in decoding the messages, the ending (or lack thereof) killed much of my interest in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed 2. It’s already been announced that, just like every single damned new franchise of this console generation, Assassin’s Creed is intended to be a trilogy, and I have no interest having more unopened plot threads generated in the next game and having to wait another two years to seek any sense of closure. I don’t mind so many franchises being planned as lengthy, multi-game epics, so long as any one game leaves me feeling like my time wasn’t wasted. Mass Effect left the player feeling satisfied with his or her work, all the while opening up enough intrigue for an impending sequel. Assassin’s Creed leaves the player feeling ripped off, like all that time spying and pickpocketing was but for a mere couple of cryptic messages. As a result, I feel the best advice I can give gamers is to read plot spoilers on the internet, wait another two years and only play Assassin’s Creed 3.
And speaking of 3s, this game gets 3 stars.