Incredible ambition, almost negated by huge flaws
I wish that I could have been in the Ubisoft board meeting where the "Assassins Creed" project was approved. I wonder if it went something like this…
"CEO: Okay, guys, we need some surefire winners to keep our stockholders happy this year. I want a design document for Splinter Cell 6, another Rainbow Six game, and three more Tom Clancy games on my desk by tomorrow morning."
"Studio Head: Um, actually sir, we have this new idea that we've been thinking about."
"CEO: What? New idea? That's nonsense! Don't come in here and talk to me about this 'new idea' business. I want to see sequels, dammit!" <long pause> "Okay fine, tell me about it, but make it quick ."
"Studio Head: OK. It's sort of a stealth game, but not completely. It takes place in the Middle East during the Crusades. But it doesn't really take place in the Crusades. It's a futuristic game and the Crusades part is just as simulation. It has big open-ended cities and Prince of Persia style platforming. And it will have a new context-sensitive control scheme where the buttons are mapped to body parts like 'hands' and 'feet' instead of specific functions."
Assassins Creed is one of the most ambitious and unconventional games to ever arrive on any platform. Between its unique setting, wacky Medieval sci-fi premise, gorgeous visuals, inventive control scheme, and mixture of stealth and platforming gameplay, it is amazing that this game was given the green light. It is such a unique and memorable experience that it is actually possible to forgive the game for all of its problems. And boy, does Assassins Creed have problems. The ambition level of this game is matched only by its gaping holes in the gameplay. Wonky guard AI, mind-numbingly repetitive missions, and shallow combat all tarnish what is otherwise a finely polished and stunning game. It is a game that will amaze you, and then disappoint you because of all of the potential that it leaves on the table.
Assassins Creed is a game that is very hard to describe. It combines stealth, platforming, basic combat, and scavenger hunting in an open world for a wholly unique experience. Like Sid Meier's "Pirates!" or Grand Theft Auto, it is impossible to put the game into one category, so it might just be described as a huge "adventure" game. It sounds wonderful on paper, and the fact that it works so well without glitches or quirks is a testament to the incredible effort put into this game.
At the heart of Assassins Creed is its unique and innovative control scheme. Controls are context sensitive, which isn't always a good thing in games. Where this game excels is that it greatly enhances the experience for the player, instead of dumbing it down and frustratingly taking the controls out of the player's hands *cough* *cough* *Gears of War* *cough*. The controls enable all sorts of complex actions and gameplay, without taking the gameplay away from you. Control buttons are mapped to general ideas or body parts, and not specific actions. One button is for your weapon, another button is for your non-weapon hand, another button is for your feet. Another button toggles "socially unacceptable" and "socially unacceptable". Thus, "socially acceptable" combined with "hand" causes you to perform a gentle push against somebody. "Socially unacceptable" combined with "hand" causes you to grab somebody by the shirt collar and throw them. It works beautifully. It's darn near perfect. As the main character, Altair, you will repeatedly find yourself performing spectacular, breathtaking acrobatic feats smoothly and with almost no effort. The controls seem like they were designed to address a need, and not to dumb down the game. They are unique and unconventional, but also intuitive and very easy to learn. Thanks in large part to the controls, Assassins Creed is ultimately a pretty easy game. Some might argue that it is too easy, and that the game is a victim of its own success in this department.
The control scheme blends perfectly with the huge cadre of spectacularly animated moves that you can perform as Altair. Assassins Creed, in some ways, is a spiritual successor to Prince of Persia. Arguably the greatest asset of that series was all of the cinematic, acrobatic feats that you could pull off in real time. This game takes that feature to a new level. Assassins Creed, hands down, sports the best animation ever for a video game. The animation in this game is absolutely incredible. Every possible action or interaction has an animation for it. Every person in the game actually has realistic inertia. If you bump into somebody, you don't just come to a complete stop. You stumble, and the other person reels back. The animations in combat are perfectly seamless, so that you perform all sorts of attacks and counter-attacks with no clipping, no jerkiness, and no hit detection problems. The attention to detail in this department is nothing short of stunning. It's impossible to not appreciate the amount of playtesting and feedback that had to go into this game to get it to work the way it does.
Assassins Creed isn't only smoothly animated. Technically and artistically, it is a superb-looking game. It is one of the best looking games to date, and three or four years from now it will probably still look great. Lighting and texture qualities are excellent. The art direction is great too. The main character is nicely detailed and the game makes very good use of DirectX9 effects to give clothing realistic texture. The guards in each city wear different armor and all of their outfits look terrific. The highlight of the graphics might be the huge view distance, which is on display beautifully when you reach one of the game's numerous high points. There is no pop-in in this game, so when you are 100 feet up in the air on a wooden plank, you can still see a guard patrolling the streets hundreds of feet away. The one drawback to the game's look is that the game's three cities look too much the same, and the color palette is extremely drab. The Middle East in the 12th Century apparently was awash in nothing but brown and grey buildings.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft appears to have blown most of its budget on animators and artists, and then had nothing left over for mission design. The game consists of ten big assassination missions, each of which consists of a bunch of small secondary objectives. These secondary objectives include eavesdropping, reaching high observation points, and rescuing innocent civilians from overzealous guards. The secondary objectives are one of the most blatant examples of copy-and-paste, unimaginative game design that I have ever seen. Once you have done one civilian rescue or pickpocketing mission, you have done all of them. All of them are fairly short and extremely simple. The civilian rescue missions are especially bad in this regard. You simply press a button when you are nearby one of these missions, fight five or six guys, and you are done. The game has about 50 or 60 of these missions, and not one of them is different from any others. Ubisoft really dropped the ball in this category. How some parts of the game can be so inspired, while some parts are so uninspired, is baffling.
Guard AI makes or breaks a stealth game, and here it is good, but it also has issues. Guards will usually leave you alone if you are blending with a crowd and not drawing attention to yourself. They will examine dead bodies and look for a culprit, attacking you if you are nearby and acting suspicious. They also excel at pathfinding, chasing you everywhere flawlessly through alleyways and across rooftops. However, their reactions to your behavior are inconsistent. Guards will sometimes stand around and watch you climb the walls of a building. Other times, they will attack you for it. They will attack you on sight if you trot by on a horse.
Assassins Creed's combat is somewhat of a letdown. It can be spectacular to watch, with all of its fancy movies, parries, counters, and grapples. However, once you have learned it, it is very shallow, usually very easy, and ultimately not very entertaining. Most of the guards are fodder that can be killed by simply standing around and pressing a button to counter when one of them attacks. Your health regenerates so fast that even if you take some hits, you can shrug it off easily. Some of the stronger opponents are more resistant to this tactic, but you don't see a really good challenging opponent until the very last mission of the game. This is especially problematic because Assassins Creed is supposed to be more of a stealth game than a swordfighting game. What's the point of staying stealthy when you can slice up seven guys without breaking a sweat?
Repetition and copy-and-paste design are the Achilles heel of Assassins Creed. The three big cities, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre, are especially guilty of this. The only difference between Acre and the other two cities is that it is grey and the guards speak English. Every district in each city looks exactly the same. The distinction of the "wealthy" and "poor" districts is a complete joke. The mixture of citizens in each area is the same and the cities have absolutely no personality or character. The individual components, such as cathedrals, mosques, gardens, and markets, look wonderful, but they aren't arranged in any interesting way. Ubisoft could learn a valuable lesson about sandbox game design by looking at the Grand Theft Auto series. Open worlds that aren't fun to explore lose their charm as open worlds.
The question to ask at the end of the day is – "Is Assassins Creed fun to play?" In my case, the answer is a definitive yes. The thrill of stalking prey is there, and the fun of climbing up a 150-foot spire like a monkey and looking across the city skyline is something that never gets old. The unique setting, gorgeous visuals, innovative control scheme, and immersive gameplay do make the game worth playing despite some of its enormous flaws. These parts of the game amazing, at times. Ubisoft deserves to be commended for creating such a high concept game and then delivering on 80% of it. The repetitive design in the sub-missions and the city layouts is a major problem that needs to be fixed for the next game. You will probably like Assassins Creed, as long as you have reasonable expectations about what it does well.