Thursday, December 2, 2010

Game Review: Assassin's Creed

Taking the term "stalker" to a whole new level.

Back in late 2007, two games came onto the video game scene that really grabbed my attention. The first was
Mass Effect, BioWare’s role-playing game/third-person shooter hybrid, and Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Montreal’s first action-adventure title since their much-celebrated Prince of Persia trilogy came to a close two years earlier. These two titles came out within one week of each other, and from where I was standing at my retail job, they garnered a goodly chunk of the holiday shopping dollars spent that season.

To be perfectly frank, these two games were the entire reason I purchased an Xbox 360 in the first place. Up until then, most of the titles that had come out for both “next gen” consoles simply weren’t doing it for me. Too many first-person shooters and racing games (two genres that I will fully admit to being HORRIBLE at playing) for my liking, and not much in the way of role-playing games. Once these games were announced and subsequently released, however, I ran out of excuses: The time had come to upgrade, and upgrade, I did.

Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all time. That, though, we will discuss at a later date. Today, we’re going to talk about Assassin’s Creed.

In Assassin’s Creed, you play Altair ibn La-Ahad, a member of the Hashshashin at the time of the Third Crusade. The Hashshashin, or Brotherhood of Assassins, are at war with a rival faction that has a familiar name but unfamiliar purpose: The Knights Templar. According to Altair’s mentor, Al Mualim, the Templars wish to bring about world peace by stripping mankind of their ability to think freely. To this end, they seek an artifact called the Apple, supposedly the same apple from the Garden of Eden. The Assassins, while also wishing for peace, feel that this plan is far too extreme (as how can one be human if he lacks free will?), and race to reach the Apple before their enemy can take over the world. As the Brotherhood’s top man, Altair’s job is to eliminate nine prominent Templars to not only ascertain the relic’s location, but to free the people of the Holy Land from fear and oppression.

There is more to the story, but I refuse to spoil it for you. So, while I won’t go into too much detail, I will say that as a method of driving the plot forward, it’s pretty darn unique and special.

Not entirely believable, mind you, but still pretty cool.

The Good

One of my biggest pet peeves in action-adventure and role-playing games is that maps usually leave much to be desired in terms of actually giving you information that helps you get from point A to point B in a quick-time fashion. I have thrown up my hands and rage-quit many a game simply because I couldn’t bloody well find my way through the terrain to my next destination. In many games, it feels like the maps are tacked on as an afterthought, and in some cases, are buried within menus so deeply you have to click through 4 or 5 layers to find it.

Not here.

I’m happy to say that Assassin’s Creed takes it’s cartography very seriously. Scattered throughout the Holy Land are Viewpoints, high points in the landscape that you climb up to in order to get the lay of the land. Literally. Once you’ve synchronized the area surrounding the Viewpoint, new things pop up on your map, and finding things you need (or just neat stuff to do) becomes much, much easier. Once you’re done surveying the scene in your immediate vicinity, it’s time to come down from your perch by performing a Leap of Faith. By holding down two buttons, Altair surges forward and performs an elegant swan dive with a half-gainer into a conveniently-placed pile of hay.

While that sounds like it would lose it’s novelty after the first dozen times, I can tell you right now it never gets old.

Viewpoints and the Leaps of Faith both tie into one of the more enjoyable parts of the game, which is the free-roaming exploration of a truly gorgeous open world. The team at Ubisoft Montreal really outdid themselves in this department, as I spent many, many hours clamoring up the sides of structures to the highest points of the game (Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher were two of the most daunting) just so I could gaze upon the life-like recreation of 12th century Palestine. The panoramic views are positively show-stopping, and I don’t think I have seen anything more amazing in another game to date.

In terms of creating atmosphere, however, vistas do not do the whole of the job. In the open countryside, certainly, but in urban settings, you need more than pretty buildings to make the experience immersive. Thankfully, AC delivers a dynamic world that is full of surprises. As you’re running across rooftops and jumping from medieval construction platforms, people in the streets below will comment on the state of your mental health; if you rush past someone and knock them down in the street, they will yell and sometimes even give chase to cold-clock you for being rude; people speak with believable accents, either Middle Eastern or European (though most everyone is speaking English, sadly), depending on who controls which city at that point in the timeline; town criers inform the populace of the goings-on in the city and beyond as you walk by, and the topic changes depending on what assassination you’ve most recently committed. All of this, combined with the art design, gives the world a richness that can really suck you in.

"It is not a "dress"; it's called an abaya. Infidel."

Speaking of assassinations, I should pause here to note that the designers went to great lengths to ensure a certain degree of historical accuracy with the subject matter, and not just with the maps of the countryside and the layout of the cities, either. All nine of Altair’s targets lived, and either died or disappeared, at the time this story takes place. Each time you receive a new target, the game gives you the option of pushing a button to see more intelligence on the person in question, including some actual historical information. Not enough for my liking, mind you, but then again, not everyone is an amateur history nut like myself. The fact that they included this little feature at all is quite telling in terms of what they were hoping to accomplish with this piece.

Which, unfortunately, makes the failures of Assassin’s Creed all the more prominent.

The Bad

While this game does a lot of things right, it gets many more things wrong.

Few digital games have ever gotten the whole “stealth” thing hammered out to the point of being fun to play. The Thief series, as well as many Splinter Cell titles and last year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, are the few shining examples of how stealth gameplay should go.

Notice I did not include Assassin’s Creed in that list.

There is a symbol at the upper-left-hand of your head’s up display (HUD, for short) that indicates your. . .for lack of a better term, we’ll call it ‘notoriety’. It’s pretty basic in it’s execution, as white means ‘no one gives a crap about what you’re doing’, yellow means ‘someone has taken notice of your shenanigans and you might want to tone it down a bit’, and red means ‘pick an exit strategy tout suite or risk becoming shish kabob’. By itself, it isn’t all that annoying. The things you have to do to get back into ‘anonymous’ status, however, can prove to be quite exasperating.

Once you've been "made," you need to break line of sight with your persuers so that you can hide until the heat is off. Methods of hiding run from the traditional, such as diving into piles of hay or covered rooftop gardens, to the in-plain-sight variety, by blending in with wandering groups of hooded scholars or citizens lounging on park benches. This sounds simple enough, but in reality, it can prove to be infuriatingly difficult.

See, as much as the Puppeteering System (Ubi’s name for the control scheme) can make for fun exploration, when it comes to running for your life, it leaves much to be desired. There are times that the face buttons don’t register that you’re using them, and when you’re running full-tilt in hopes of hiding in one of those aforementioned conveniently-placed piles of hay until the coast is clear, lining up your jumps isn’t exactly easy. More often than not, you wind up faceplanting onto the side of a church or into the packed-dirt alleyways below, and waiting for the game to reload so you can try again.

This is another place where the game flounders: Loading times. In the beginning, the loading times are noticeable in length, but not so much so that they can’t be shrugged off once you’re back in the thick of things. Once you get halfway to two-thirds of the way toward completing the game, however, the loading times get to be so long that I literally found myself tapping my foot in irritation when I left to get a bottle of water and a granola bar from the kitchen, checked the mail, gave each of my dogs a scritch behind the ear, and came back to find the game was still loading. Five bloody minutes or more for a loading sequence? On a next-gen console? Are you kidding me? I’ve got things to do, Ubisoft. Yeesh!

Of course, once you’re back in the game itself, some of this can be forgiven. What can’t be forgiven, really, is the combat system. I bought this game because Ubi promised that I could sneak around and shove a hidden blade into the throats of wrong-doers and slink away unnoticed; I did not sign up to engage in hack-and-slash fights where I am severely outnumbered and can’t disengage a target with any amount of ease. Hell, if these battles were truly hack-and-slash in nature, I’d be all over it like gravy on a biscuit. But these situations amount to holding down the ‘counterattack’ button for ten minutes running with little opportunity to run away. Not cool, Ubi. Not cool.

And while we’re on the subject, it should be mentioned that you can’t upgrade any of your equipment in this game. Your health meter increases as you progress through the game, as do the number and types of weapons you carry (I’m especially fond of the throwing knives, myself), but that’s about it. There are no shops where can load up on throwing knives (you have to pickpocket a certain type of NPC to get more of those), there are no health potions or poultices to heal yourself after a nasty fight (you have to wait for your meter to slowly regenerate), and the armor you start with is the armor you end with, which doesn’t say much given that it’s purely aesthetic.


Now, these gripes pale in comparison to some of the truly mind-blowingly awful things you encounter in Assassin's Creed. When I say "mind-blowingly awful" things, I don't mean in the "grotesque and thought-provoking" kind of occurrences that games like, say, BioShock, dole on an hourly basis; I'm referring to those sorts of things that make you want to scream with frustation until your throat is raw and bloody. Granted, this is purely subjective, but I know for a fact I'm not the only one who feels this way.

The assassinations themselves are fun, but the lead up is slow and arduous at the best of times. As a way of making the player understand all the planning and research that must go into a pre-meditated, politically-motivated murder, it accomplishes this goal quite nicely. The player has to pull off at least two out of four "investigations" before the assassination assignment will unlock. To gather information, you can eavesdrop, pick someone's pocket, beat intel out of an informant, and talk to fellow Brotherhood members throughout the city for help. The eavesdropping and pickpocketing are actually kind of neat, since stealth is what this game is supposed to be about, and the "interrogations" are pretty standard beat-em-up fare, which brings a nice change of pace when you get tired of running from guards all day. The things you have to do get information from your informants, though, definitely rank high on the "what were they thinking" scale.

Most of the time, you have to engage in a footrace, gather flags that have been "dropped" throughout the city, or eliminate some thugs that are out for your stool pigeon's blood, all without being "detected". These missions are timed, and given the control scheme issues outlined previously, you might have to try a dozen times just to get one piece of intel that could prove valuable. . .or could prove to be completely worthless. Maddening is the most accurate word that comes to mind to describe these missions, and eventually, most players will wind up skipping them altogether in favor of the other three investigations. This is a shame, as some of the informants dole out drips and drabs of conversation that give you an insight to Altair's past, but those aren't worth the level of effort you're forced to exert.

As to more things that aren't worth the effort, remember I mentioned the beautiful open world you get to play in? It has a major flaw: There is hardly a bloody, blessed thing to do while you're in it. Each city and the Kingdom (which is the designers' name for all that is depicted on your map) have a set of flags that you can collect while you're running around. . .and that's it. There are Viewpoints to scale, as well, but after the first few tries end in you getting skewered by the blade-happy AI, you just give up caring about those parts of the map and ignore them altogether.

The AI system, which is what controls your non-playable characters or NPCs, is so bad at times it makes you want to fling your controller into the screen. Sometimes, you can walk right up to a guard on a rooftop and stab him in the face before he even finishes telling you that you shouldn't be up there. Conversely, there are times when you'll have scouted out the area and found only one guard standing between you and where you want to be, and start scaling the side of a tower on the opposite side from where he's standing, and he manages to see you anyway. Then he calls his stupid guard buddies to his aid and you fall to the ground below because he broke your concentration by throwing a rock at you.

Really? A badass assassin, brought down by a piece of broken masonry?

As to that 'badass' label, methinks it was prematurely given to our pal Altair, and I say this for one reason: He can't swim.

And now we know why Alti always froze when he was dared to use the high dive board.

No, you read that right. He was trained from birth to stab first and ask questions later, yet, he falls into a canal and he's done for. I don't think I have to tell you how much of a buzz kill that can be, as there is much more water in the arid Holy Land than one is led to believe by school books.

Speaking of our intrepid hero, he's actually not that great a guy. Yes, he fights to right wrongs and all that malarkey, but when you first meet Altair ibn La-Ahad, he's coming off a collossal screwup of his own making that leaves a target alive and one of the Brotherhood dead, yet, he's not the least bit sorry . Nor does he seem to learn from this mistake in a meaningful way during the 10-15 (or so) hours you spend in his boots. I understand the concept of an anti-hero, but The Son of No One (as his name roughly translates to) sort of falls short of that category, too. This leaves the protagonist in a sort of character limbo, giving no clear picture as to whether we should love him or hate him, which in turn leaves the player feeling rather unfulfilled, story-wise.

Going back to gameplay, there are two methods for travel in this world, the shoe-leather express, or a horse. One would think riding a horse would make things easier, but to be perfectly honest, I avoided these beautifully-rendered beasts at all costs. See, the hair-trigger AI ruins yet another potentially-satisfying aspect of the game by hunting you down if you so much as canter, much less gallop. The only option to avoid detection is to walk your horse at a snail's pace, and in that case, why the hell bother?

Then there's the NPCs. Most of them don't do anything more than get in the way when you're running from the authorities, but the lepers and beggar women really work your last nerve. During one mission, outside of a Templar-run Medieval hospital, I was trying to sneak past the guards to reach the area below a broken window, and got pushed into a 4.5 minute chase by a leper who wouldn't leave me be. You get too close to one of these guys, and they push and punch you relentlessly, until you can't take it anymore and you haul off and punch them. This is frowned upon by the city's military, apparently, as this sometimes sets them off. The next thing you know, you're a kilometer away from where you started, and have to sneak and jump your way back to square one.

Why then, you ask, don't you simply stab them and be done with it? Well, dear reader, the game frowns up this and punishes you for it, as the first part of the assassin's creed (see what I did there?) states you must never kill an innocent. You take out a leper or a beggar woman who won't stop whining about her lot in life or any Mahmoud, Ali, or Ada who gets in your way, and the game sends you back to a loading screen with a sound verbal reprimand.

Thanks, Mom.

Lastly, the ending is. . .well, again, I won't ruin if for you, but it truly stands up to the label on this section of the review. I'm all for leaving things open-ended if you're going to make a sequel, but there are limits. To work all that way through the game, only to find out. . .

Oops. Almost spilled it. Best to walk away before I say more.


Given that you can now grab a new copy of Assassin’s Creed for roughly $20 (or a used copy for half that price), it wouldn’t hurt your wallet overly much to give this game a try. However, unless you’re a completionist and simply MUST play every title in a series (or you're some sort of masochist, which, hey, more power to you), you could easily skip over this installment and go straight for the sequel without missing much.

Besides, if you really want to see how it ends, there's always YouTube.


Anonymous said...

Wow, after all the compliments you've given the series in general, it's interesting to see how harsh you are with the first installment. I only played approximately 30 minutes of this game, then gave up in favor of Halo 3 because the maps were SO DANG FRUSTATING! LOL

Still, I may follow your advice and skip to AC2!

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