I recently completed Assassin’s Creed, and I thought what I would say about it if I were to write a review for it. This happens all the time when I play a game, and typically I end up thinking about the space constraints, which are the wall I’m eternally banging my head against.
Some reviews I write are by necessity very short. Trying to explain what the game is all about and critiquing it in, say, 2 000 characters — including spaces — is always a challenge, particularly if the game is something other than an average game that doesn’t evoke strong feelings one way or the other. Even when you’re writing for a publication that has more space available, the limits tend to be there, and even if they weren’t, there’s only so much detail you can go into without boring the target audience which, let’s face it, tends to be mainly composed of people who want to know if the fighting is fun and don’t give a rat’s ass about in-depth analysis. So you pretty much toe the line and try to get the best of both worlds in there.
Fun Pastimes, on the other hand, doesn’t really have those limitations. What the hell, might as well get right in there in excruciating detail.
That Citywide Playground
Assassin’s Creed has a lot going for it. It’s a really good-looking game, for starters. And I don’t just mean that the graphics are pretty; I think it’s a really well-designed game, as far as the visuals go. The animations are fluid and pretty, the color schemes hit the right buttons, and most importantly, the architecture in the cities looks great. Is it realistic? Honestly, I wouldn’t know, but when it think about Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, that’s pretty much the image I get, so what the hell.
In a game like this, architecture is a key thing; it was what made Crackdown an enjoyable game, despite the lackluster and repetitive gameplay. The city looked awesome, and all of it was designed just for the purpose of providing the player with handholds. Crackdown excelled on that front, and so does Assassin’s Creed. It’s not a perfect example of how it’s done — a little too often Altaïr just gets kind of stuck and it takes a little while for the player to get him going again, and there are moments when you wonder why the hell he jumped a little to the side when the target is obviously right in front of him, for example. Yeah, it could’ve used a little tuning. But even so, watching Altaïr climb and actually grab things that look like handholds instead of just kind of jamming his hands into the generic brickwork is great. The climbing animations are fantastic work.
And yet when the controls fail you, it’s ridiculous. For example, in Acre’s harbor there are times when you are essentially facing nothing but water, with a single pole jutting out of the sea. It’s obvious that if you’re jumping forward at that point, you really want to make like a ninja and land on the pole. Yet, at times, even though I swear I’m pushing the thumbstick in the right direction, Altaïr jumps a little to the side, and splash, I’m in the water. And of course, water means instant death.
So how do you avoid that? Uh, by being really lucky, I guess. I mean, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with whether you’re pushing in the right direction or not — sometimes you make the jump, sometimes you don’t. It’s no big deal on most rooftops, because you can always climb back up, but when failure means death, it’s a little different — particularly if it’s unclear why Altaïr didn’t make the jump. Or maybe I just suck, but strangely enough, I don’t seem to suck in other games that require similar feats of skill.
Overall, though, I get the feeling that the game was rushed out. There are little things — for example, if you exit out of a city through one of the side gates (and in some cases, you can do that by accident, because the camera tends to lock on to certain things at times, so you don’t see where you’re going, just what you’re running from), you are instantly taken to the quick travel menu. But there’s no option to cancel the exit or return to where you just came from. You need to exit the city area, reload the Kingdom area, then double back and reload the city area, actually enter the city which you can only do through the main gate, which involves fighting the guards, slipping in with some slow-moving scholars or acrobatics. And then you actually need to run through the city, dodge guards and whatnot, and make your way back to where you were. The whole thing usually takes, oh, about five minutes or so, when all is said and done, and all because you have no option to say “no, actually, I don’t want to exit after all” in the selection screen that pops up when you’re exiting the city. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not exactly user-friendly design, either.
As for the combat, I know people have complained about the game a great deal — the simplistic combat, the repetitive missions and so forth. And they aren’t unreasonable complaints, because the combat is pretty simplistic (though not fatally so; I think it does well enough), and it’s certainly true there’s little in the way of subtlety when it comes to taking out those targets.
But when people complain about how there should be more attacks or whatever, it feels like they’re kind of missing the point, because the focus of the game is so obviously elsewhere — on fluid movement and taking control of the environment. And yeah, since that’s so obviously what the game is really all about, what you spend most of the gameplay doing, I do wish they’d done more with that. It’d be nice if you could tie combat moves into the acrobatics, or something. But even so, it works well enough for me. That’s not where the game’s real weaknesses are.
Back in the Day
Something considerably fewer people have commented on is the storyline, which manages to be engaging and disappointing at the same time. I found the stuff with Altaïr to be almost completely non-fascinating. The guy’s a fucking bore — on the rooftops, he may be more fun than a barrelful of monkeys, but whenever he opens his mouth, I start snoozing. The script is simply weak, and it doesn’t help things any that all of the other characters in the past are equally nondescript. Sure, they go through the motions, but how many times do the guys behind the Assassins’ Bureau counters have to make essentially the same snide remark about Altaïr’s performance? Yes, they don’t like Altaïr. We get it. It’s not so much dialogue as it is exposition, and uninteresting exposition at that. Frankly, it shouldn’t be that hard to get some drama out of the Crusades, but apparently they couldn’t manage it.
It doesn’t help that the game has a good deal of dialogue that means nothing. There’s a lot of eavesdropping missions and whatnot, but nobody’s ever saying anything of importance. None of the information is in any way crucial to the way you play the game; in the end, you can always, without fail, just storm in, stab the target and fight your way out. It’s not the cool way, but there’s no real payoff to doing it any other way, either — even the cool way isn’t that cool. It’s not like in the Hitman games, where the entire point of the game is to keep everything as low-key as humanly possible and preferably get the hell out of the place before nobody even knows you were there. That’s just not an option; without exception, once the stabby bits are over, Altaïr runs a gauntlet through the city to get to the safety of the Assassins’ Bureau. (And that part is fun — repetitive, sure, but fun.)
The little dialogue-heavy animations you get whenever you take out a target are another example of pointless exposition — it has little or no bearing on the plot, and most of it is just pointless drivel with little in the way of drama. They’re just repetitions of the same old formula: Altaïr accuses them of being evil men, and they go “Ah, but is this really so evil? Aren’t you just as evil as I am, murderer? You understand nothing!”, and then Altaïr goes home and argues about it with the Daddy Assassin, who says that Altaïr must have faith, and here, have some more daggers. It’s just empty noise.
Right Here, Right Now
The stuff set in present day is considerably more interesting — at least in comparison — and much to my surprise, towards the end I actually started to get into it. Still, too little, too late, and even there they manage to fumble with the ball.
The basic idea of your DNA containing ancestral memories is, of course, ludicrous, but what the hell, they pull it off well enough. (I think the implication there is that the DNA itself doesn’t contain them, but it works as a kind of a map that allows the machine to pick the memories out of the global consciousness, or something like that. Whatever.) It actually justifies some things that would normally irritate the hell out of me, such as having invisible boundaries that you can’t cross. The memories say that Altaïr didn’t go there at this time, so you can’t go there! That little justification is easily enough to placate me. And in any case, there’s enough mystical mumbo-jumbo involved that most players are probably willing to go with the concept, even if they’re unreasonably pedantic motherfuckers, like yours truly.
Sadly, even so, the way they advance the storyline in the present day is hopelessly clumsy. The evil doctor’s sympathetic assistant all but broadcasts her duplicity towards her employers at every opportunity. There’s no subtletly here. For example, you can read some e-mail in there while nobody’s looking, and apparently nobody really deletes e-mail there — they just move it to the “deleted items” folder, where it can be read just like any e-mail. Of course, confidential e-mail is always placed in that folder, apparently to signify that the inbox’s owner has deleted it after reading it.
I guess we could just believe that these guys are stupid enough to not know that you need to empty the trashcan, but I’m not really buying it. Even if I did, that doesn’t help much, because it gets even more stupid: in the kindly assistant’s “deleted” e-mail can find a message that looks like spam, but it actually contains a secret message. yeS, Extremely seCret, so don’t waste youR timE looking for iT. It’s probably far beyond your means to discover. Also, below the “spam”, in the same message, is the previous correspondence between the mailbox’s owner and a mysterious third party, where she asks for help and says that someone should come and rescue her and the player character, and the super-secret response reads “WE WILL BE THERE SOON”. Way to maintain absolute operational secrecy there, guys, the Nazis’ll never crack that code.
And yeah, I realize that there’s a reason for not making a secret code so hard that the player can’t crack it, because that defeats it from a storytelling point of view, but there’s a difference between working your way around that problem and being downright stupid about it.
Making Like a Citizen
The game ostensibly features an interesting concept called “social stealth”, meaning that instead of avoiding guards, moving silently or sticking to the shadows, you hide in plain sight by pretending to be just an average citizen. They made a big deal out of this before the game was published, and the way it was told, we were led to believe that it was at the core of the gameplay experience.
But the whole social stealth thing doesn’t really work, except on the most basic level. In practice, it consists of two things: if the guards are suspicious of you when you walk around, you can bow your head like a pilgrim and they think you’re just some dude. This is great if you don’t mind being unable to do anything except move around very, very slowly — so slowly, in fact, that it’s not at all uncommon for them to get hip to who you actually are while you’re making your way out of the scene of your latest ghastly crime, or even when you’re just walking down the street. Secondly, there are eternally roving groups that consist of four scholars, who also dress up in white robes, and if you’re nearby you can walk up to them and press a button, after which you make like a scholar and are safe from guards.
Taken by themselves, these are not bad game mechanics, but they’ve got all the depth of a petri dish. The social stealth is almost completely cosmetic; you’re not trying to fool guards into thinking you’re just a harmless citizen — you’re just pushing a button that turns you invisible for a while. And more often than not, there’s no real point to fooling the guards — you can just run and hide for five seconds, and you’ll be fine again, and that’ll be faster than spending ages moving very slowly. There’s no gameplay advantage in the stealth — certainly nothing comparable to staying hidden in the Splinter Cell games, for example.
The game does say things like “ladders are a socially acceptable way to reach a rooftop”, which implies that if you use a ladder to climb up, no one is going to bat an eye, but if you do it by wild acrobatics, people are going to freak. This kind of happens in that whenever you do something insanely cool, people express annoyance or think you’re insane or hope you fall down and die, and if you climb a ladder, they don’t. But that really has no impact on the gameplay at all — you just hear some audio, and regardless of how you reach a rooftop, the guards hate it when you’re up there and do their best to stab you.
(Incidentally, I don’t know why nobody thinks the insanely cool thing is insanely cool. Nobody ever goes, “Wow, that guy’s good!” or “Did you see that?!” — no, it’s all “He must be mad!” and “Stop that!” At best they are surprised, but nobody is ever amazed. Guess all people were just big jerks during the Crusades.)
Oh, and to help with blending in, Altaïr wears an all-white robe with a small arsenal of weapons strapped to it. I wouldn’t really have an issue with that if at one point in the game another character didn’t remark that the guards are going to be looking for a guy in a white robe. Altaïr responds with some “I can take care of myself” type of a line or another. Yeah, you could do that, or you could, y’know, not look like a fucking assassin when you’re busy doing your social stealth thing. A little hint, Ubisoft? It’s one thing to give a character a cool distinctive costume for blending in and just go with it, content in the knowledge that nobody’s going to make a big deal of it, and another to specifically call attention to it, underlining your own silliness. So much for that suspension of disbelief.
Assassin’s Creed isn’t a terrible game by any means, and I had a fairly good time playing my way through it, mostly because I just enjoyed the acrobatic bits so much. I’m a sucker for that, and for the most part, the free running really looks and feels good. I didn’t mind the combat, and I even got some kicks out of the story, if only at the end. I cared enough to look forward to the sequel, and I certainly can’t say that about too many games. It’s worth the price on the sticker.
But it’s certainly true that it’s not the killer product a lot of people expected it to be. It’s too uneven and doesn’t have enough variety, and even when it works (as it often does), it’s clearly lacking that oomph a great game has to have.
Maybe this is yet another case of misplaced expectations combined with overly aggressive advertising; it wouldn’t be the first decent game that is built up to be something it isn’t and then drowned in whining that could’ve been easily avoided with a little more accuracy in describing the product. Of course, that kind of restraint just isn’t in the cards when you’re trying to beat everyone else in the Christmas rush, and in any case, honesty in advertising isn’t gonna happen — you’re selling a product, you’re gonna say it’s the best shit ever even if you know it isn’t.
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