When I first heard of Assassin’s Creed way back at E3 2006, I thought I was going to need to run out and buy a PS3 right there (though I suspected from the start that it would be multi-platform). I grew up with a fascination of knights, samurais, the Crusades and all forms of Dark Age warfare and mythos. So when a game is created actually ABOUT that era, rather than some Final Fantasy-like knockoff that involves guys wearing armor, was announced…man, was I excited. And when you consider how much was happening at E3 2006…that’s impressive. Time went on and I continued to get more and more excited about this game. Once again…a game actually about the days of chivalry and sword fighting was an incredible and (disappointingly) original idea. And when I found out it was going to be a huge, open-world game with legitimate effort being put into making it actually look and feel medieval…it was like the best getting better. Time passed and the game came and my enthusiasm left. This game is NOT the Assassin’s Creed I was looking forward to.
The thing is that the story just wasn’t about the era. Maybe my expectations were unfounded, but when the game was being hyped as a huge, sprawling Crusades experience, I expected the game to be about…I don’t know…a huge, sprawling experience that was somehow related to the biggest, most brutal war in the history of mankind. What the story is, however, is a sci-fi tale turned pretentious piece of crap than anything as deep or interesting as the Crusades. Rather than actually taking place in the Twelfth Century as you’d expect for a story about the Crusades, Assassin’s Creed actually takes place in 2012. Apparently, some definitely-not-evil organization, Abstergo Industries, picked up some random shmoe named Desmond Miles who is somehow descended from the guy you play as, Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad. It turns out Abstergo has found some sort of way for people to re-live the pasts of their ancestors and, apparently, Altaïr found something pretty interesting.
Altaïr, as the game’s title would suggest, is a capital-A Assassin. The Assassins, for those unaware, were a group of Muslims who split from Egypt around the Tenth or Eleventh century over the succession of religious leaders. They were known primarily for their involvement in the deaths of many of the Muslim leaders during the Crusades, as well as some key members of the Pope’s brigade, though their motivation and actual abilities have been greatly fictionalized over the years. I’ll skip the details to prevent spoilers but let me just say…there is some offensive stuff in this game. I’m not a religious person, but even I had to do a triple take at just what were saying. The game had consistently anti-religious undertones…but towards the end it just starts to get stupid.
The gameplay, unlike the story, has flashes of greatness, but joins it in its failure to live up to its potential. The game takes place in impressively large, well-made environments that look like they are fresh from nine hundred years ago. Large crowds, massive churches, huge castles and nicely-arranged marketplaces make up the numerous cities you are tasked with infiltrating.
The game wildly dances between historical fact and Ubisoft’s laughable fiction of the Assassins’ “greatest hits.” The majority of play rests in collecting information about the nine targets you are assigned to kill, rather than in the actual assassinating. This can be done in a handful of ways, including pick-pocketing insiders, roughing up people in back alleys for information, eavesdropping, scouting, or completing random tasks for other Assassins. After you collect a certain amount of information, you get the opportunity to take out the target. While this seems like a typical enough system, the novelty wears off fairly quickly. Having to repeatedly complete a handful of the same menial tasks between every kill wears thin a couple levels in, and is quite obviously simply meant to artificially lengthen the amount of time the game is played. What makes the sum enjoyable, however, is the combat.
The levels are huge, and the wall-running, jumping from rooftop to rooftop is easy and efficient. The crowd dynamic, while terribly underused, is still unique, responsive and adds a whole lot to the game. The swashbuckling is fun, though there are a few tweaks that need to be made for it to be seriously great (make counters harder, make actual attacks do something, more weapons, etc.), and being able to just wipe out an entire slew of soldiers systematically is entertaining at any point in the game. It’s fun stuff, but the necessity of the investigations holds the game back from being great. If the combat system was put into an Oblivion-like open-world game, I think it could have been considered one of the best games of this generation. But nope. Instead, you have to rough up a preacher at least nine times, collect flags, and so on.
What Assassin’s Creed has over other games, though, is that it has some of the best graphics on all the current-gen consoles so far. Every single element of the environments is made expertly, with great textures on the stone buildings, dirt roads and obstacles making up each huge level. Each NPC has a distinctive look, which keeps the game from contracting whatever disease Resident Evil 4 caught that made it have only six different NPCs. And when you climb to the top of a church, mosque or parapet, and the little sequence shows off the massive area from above, it’s quite impressive. The voice acting is solid. The conversation and dialogue isn’t intended to be particularly compelling, so it’s fine that it isn’t up to the standards of Metal Gear Solid or something like Xenosaga 1, but it’s noticeably above mediocre games.
While I was quite disappointed by Assassin’s Creed, it’s still a pretty good game if you take your time and soak up the well-made environments, rather than trying to hustle through it (if you want to just chug through this game, I’ll save you these last few sentences and say not to get it). But even so, it’s JUST a pretty good game among the likes of Oblivion, Call of Duty 4, Virtua Fighter 5, The Orange Box and Grand Theft Auto 4. Assassin’s Creed will only really be worth a purchase once it drops to bargain prices, and even then, it’s unlikely you’re going to beat it. For those who really love games, it’s worth picking up for its aesthetic value and its unique gameplay. If you subsist on a diet of Madden and GTA, however, look elsewhere.