If you’ve never seen the original Assassin’s Creed teaser trailer, here it is. While the trailer promises a lot in the way of gameplay, and for the most part it delivers, the clever use of historical fiction and an increasingly intriguing story are really what makes Assassin’s Creed stand out. Ubisoft took a risk with this game, but its success has ensured multiple entries for us to enjoy.
The story beings with a young man named Desmond Miles awaking from a terrible dream rife with faceless people to discover that he is not, in fact, dreaming. He is hooked up to a machine called the Animus, which allows the person to relive the collective memories of his ancestors which, it turns out, are passed on genetically almost like instinct. Desmond is actually slipping into the shared memories of his progenitors. Being held prisoner against his will, his mind is being plumbed by the evil Abstergo Corporation.
But why? Well, the Abstergo Corporation is actually known by a much more common moniker: the Knights Templar. They have pulled the strings of world politics and industry for centuries. They are the puppet masters. But there has always been a resistance, those who have attempted to balance the scales. They are known as the Brotherhood of Assassins. They work tirelessly to foil the Templars nefarious plots which center around the search for the Pieces of Eden. These are artifacts of supposedly enormous power. That’s where Desmond comes in, forced to relive the memories of his assassin ancestor Altair ibn La-Ghad, back in the time of the Third Crusade in the Holy Land.
Desmond doesn’t have much choice so he acquiesces and flashes back to Altair who is trailing a Templar named Robert de Sable. He is looking for the location of the Arc of the Covenant. Altair is a crass, egocentric, arrogant bugger. When Robert escapes Altair must return to Masyaf, the stronghold of the Brotherhood, empty-handed. There he is punished by their leader Al Mualim for his insolence and ignoring their creed. He’s stabbed, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s busted all the way down from master to lowly novice. To atone for his disgrace, Al Mualim demands he assassinate nine men who work towards the Templars evil ends in Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus.
But as Altair completes his tasks, it soon becomes apparent that more is going on here than was initially suggested. Each target, while contemptible in his own way, speaks to Altair before they pass on. With their dying breaths, they hint that perhaps things aren’t so simple. It all builds to a clever and enthralling conclusion. There were some surprising twists and turns that had me nodding and smiling as they came to light.
When you first get into AC you may find the controls take some getting used to… they certainly did for me. But with a little practice you’ll see how clever they actually are. There are essentially two different sets of controls, one passive and one active. By pressing 'RB' you put Altair in active mode, where you can run, climb, and fight. I'm not going to try to explain beyond that, it's just too confusing. Again, it takes practice, but once you learn the nuances you’ll be slicing your way through Templars and their minions with barely contained glee! Countering is the best though… if you time it right you can counter an enemy attack and pull off an instant kill with a cool graphical interlude. Even having seen these animations hundreds of times I still think it looks awesome!
But one of the things that makes AC so much fun is the parkour skills of our hero. Altair possesses the almost super-human ability to climb up, over and around… well, pretty much everything! It’s great fun, but it’s definitely not a perfect mechanic. You’ll find yourself occasionally taking a flying leap off the side of a building because you didn’t have the camera angled properly and suiciding yourself in the process. By keep your eyes open and you'll discover the path to follow up the side of a structure, and a quick flick of the thumb will guide Altair there.
While a true assassin isn’t seen or heard, things don’t always go to plan. Guards have an alert level that goes from yellow to red. Keep a wary eye out, and disappear to avoid their notice… or alternatively you can kill them before they can raise an alarm. If you attract the notice of the guards by being naughty, you know, dashing up the side of a building or killing their friends, you’ll be well advised to hightail it out of there. As soon as you get out of a line of sight from your pursuers you can avoid them by hiding in haystacks, blending in with a crowd, or sitting on benches until they give up the search.
Whenever you get to a new part of one of the three major cities, you need to find the Brotherhood's lair and speak to your handler. He will require you to do some research on your target before giving you the go-ahead to take him out. This involves things like eavesdropping on a conversation between conspirators, then pick-pocketing a map that may show where the guards are stationed. Sometimes you need to tail an informant to a secluded alley and beat the information out of him.
Once you get enough intel, you can take out the mark. These are usually cleverly designed setups where you have to get close to the mark without being seen, take him out, and escape the scene. It’s thrilling stuff, especially if you can pull it off like a true assassin and keep it from turning into a brawl. The sense of accomplishment to a well-performed assassination is very satisfying.
There are some major design complaints with AC though. The main issue is that the game does get a touch too repetitive. From the mission structure to the combat, by the time you’re at the end of the game you’ll hardly be paying attention. Once the enemies get a bit tougher (and better at blocking), combat turns into a waiting game as Altair waits patiently for his foes to attack so he can counter. It doesn’t really take any skill and rather than the game getting more difficult towards the end, it actually gets easier. The structure for each assassination mission revolves around doing the same basic mini-missions over and over again. Find a tower, scope out the landscape, then pick-pocket/eavesdrop/beat someone up to get information, go assassinate the target and then repeat. Personally, I enjoyed the gameplay so it didn’t bother me too much, but it’s still a problem.
I normally wouldn't mention this, but there is LOT of stuff to collect in AC. Flags litter up the place from the countryside to the cities. There are Templar Knights all over the place who need to be dealt with. Multiple vantage points need to be found, climbed, and leapt from. And all of this does… nothing. I spent an inordinate amount of time finding every bloody flag and killing every bastard Templar I could find only to get an Achievement/Trophy. That’s all well and good, but for that much effort there should really be some sort of in-game payoff like a lightsaber or the ability to fart on your enemies or… well, something! Fortunately, it appears that I’m not the only one to complain about this is in the subsequent sequels there exist similar collection side quests, but at least you get some cool stuff for your trouble.
Assassin’s Creed boasts some truly stunning vistas on a scale that was, at the time, completely mind blowing. Watching Altair perch on the top of a high tower and the camera panning around showing Jerusalem stretching out below was breathtaking. That said, the up-close cutscenes are far from perfect with the facial animations looking particularly blocky. The in-game animations are brilliant though, (albeit not without the occasional disappearance into the wall or through the floor). I particularly love the camera angle change when you time a counter move perfectly. It switches to a slightly different view as Altair does his dance of death, then returns to the normal view, blending together naturally. Those counter animations look painful!
Assassin’s Creed takes some pretty big leaps in gameplay and design, and while it’s certainly not perfect, it definitely sets a solid foundation from which Ubisoft can develop a long and fruitful franchise. The story, while clever and intriguing on it’s own, lends itself to any number of sequels. The gameplay is addictive even if it does get a bit repetitive. The wonderfully realized cities are a joy to explore especially since you can climb all over them! The actual assassination missions are not only cleverly designed, but devious as well. If you manage to pull them off properly, you’ll feel like a true assassin!
Score = 9.0 / 10