Assassin’s Creed is a stunning game. It surprises you immediately, then patiently builds towards the main where its elegance and beauty is staggering. I honestly can’t remember the last time that I’ve wanted to show everyone I know a videogame, and that when I have, every single one of them has been in complete awe.
But let’s rewind, so to speak. Assassin’s Creed opens with a twist and one that you never see coming. After a fleeting spell in control of medieval hitman Altaïr, we jump forward over 800 years to July 2012. It turns out that we’re also playing as Desmond, a bartender kidnapped by a corporation which is using him to access his ancestor’s memories. The story goes that your genetic code holds the memories of your dead relatives and using a machine called the Animus, these can be relived. So held against his will, Desmond is made to access Altaïr’s memories and through this plot device, our story continues.
After breaking the Assassins’ Creed at the beginning of the game, Altaïr is demoted to a lowly novice and is given a chance to earn his rank back by eliminating nine targets. Your victims are actual historical figures who disappeared or were killed around the year that the game is set, 1191, which is nice touch. Leaving the Assassins’ home of Masyaf, you’ll journey around the Holy Land to the cities of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem to begin your slaying.
“It turns out that Altaïr is not just an assassin; he’s a free runner extraordinaire.”The game’s structure is fairly straightforward; get into the city, go to the assassin’s bureau, gather intelligence on your target and then take them out. The three cities are joined together with an area called The Kingdom, which you’ll have to travel through to get around, at least until you’re about a third the way through the game, when you can opt to skip these sections. The opening hour of the game slowly builds up the plot and introduces the core gameplay elements. It doesn’t impress a great deal at first, but you persist because you have a feeling that it’s worth sticking with. It’s only when you reach the first city, Damascus, that everything in Assassin’s Creed becomes perfectly clear.
It turns out that Altaïr is not just an assassin; he’s a free runner extraordinaire. Like a medieval Spider-Man without the swinging, he can climb almost any building to traverse or survey a city from above. Each of the game’s cities can be explored at street level or from the rooftops, as completely as you might expect. If you can see it, you’ll almost certainly be able to get to it. This freedom is essential to the game and not only affords you speedy travel, but a variety of strategies to carry out your missions.
A game of controlAssassin’s Creed’s control system is fresh and innovative, context sensitive and simplified. The left bumper is rarely used and the right one not at all. The four main buttons map to each of Altaïr’s limbs, so A actives leg-related actions, while B utilises the right arm. Climbing and free running is also remarkably easy. Just by holding the right trigger and pressing A, Altaïr will scramble up walls, swing from poles and jump from building to building in one fluid motion.
The horses that you get to ride between cities are also very easy to control and are probably amongst the best animated steeds that you’ll see in a game.This mobility comes into immediate use whenever you stroll into a new part of town. Before you can gather any intelligence on your target, you’ll need to climb up to marked viewpoints and then synchronise what you can see with your map. Once this is done, you can then access the investigation missions that you’re required to do before moving on your victim to be. These come in four forms; eavesdropping, pickpocketing or interrogating suspects and performing tasks for fellow assassins. Once you’ve reported back to the bureau, the actual assassination mission is activated and you can set off to plan your attack.
Unlike most games where you play as a hitman, Assassin’s Creed leans heavily towards action instead of stealth. It’s more a case of being discreet than hiding in the shadows and even if you are discovered, it’s never a situation that can’t be resolved. Altaïr can blend in with a crowd at a button press, lowering his head in a scholarly manner, which conceals your identity in almost all circumstances. Most of the time, the guards won’t spot you, but if you start doing socially unacceptable things like scaling buildings or pushing citizens around, then they’ll start to take notice.
However quiet your approach has been, things always kick off once you’ve taken out one of your nine targets and like many times in the game, it’ll be time to fight or take flight. Altaïr can only escape the guards by hiding, but must break their line of sight first. The most dramatic and satisfying way of doing this is to head up to the rooftops and find a group of birds resting on a ledge; a subtle pointer to a ‘leap of faith’. Jumping off of these often preposterous edges sees Altaïr flying off as the camera swoops upwards, following his miniature skydive to its conclusion. In true action movie style, your landing pad and hiding place is always a small pile of super-absorbent hay.
As much fun as escaping is, fighting is an equally appealing choice. Altaïr is rarely faced with anything other than multiple enemies and fending off increasing numbers of guards is a joy. Combat is more a case of executing well timed and directed moves than remembering which button to use, which suits the game’s fighting perfectly. The move Altaïr performs depends on the context he’s in, although there are some which you can initiate, like dodging, pushing and the extremely satisfying counter moves. It often makes more sense to flee the scene, but Assassin’s Creed’s combat is often so rewarding that you’ll frequently be tempted to stop and challenge a pursuing group to a fight.
“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”The game’s story is one of no absolutes, full of modern thoughts and intrigue. Altaïr becomes increasingly troubled with the dying testimonies of his victims, a warrior constantly questioning his master’s intentions. It doesn’t take much to guess where the Canadian development team got that idea from.
The sci-fi twist initially seems like a cheap plot device, but it does grow on you later in the game. It’s cut off before it can pan out, but questions will naturally be answered in the sequels that Ubisoft no doubt has planned.Unlike The Matrix, from which Assassin’s Creed takes cues, Altaïr’s death doesn’t result in Desmond’s as well. Instead, the game has a synchronisation bar which represents how close the current rendition of Altaïr’s memory is to the actual memory. Since he never dies during the timeline of the game, any death in the game is a ‘no, it didn’t happen like that’ moment akin to The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and you reset to the last saved point.
Thankfully, the Prince of Persia’s influences don’t end there. The games that Ubisoft Montreal have developed before have always been pretty, but Assassin’s Creed is something special. Quite simply, this is one of the best looking games to date. Each city is alive with thousands of people going about their daily business, in rowdy marketplaces and secluded alleyways which organically flow from one to another. When you see them from a perch high above, then their tangible beauty and incredible scale is particularly apparent. The draw distance never flinches, pop-up is a forgotten issue and the frame rate remains so quick that you’ll never notice it. Cutscenes are interactive for a change and run in real time, showcasing the game’s sharp graphics and depth of field effects.
Assassin’s Creed’s environments are commendably consistent in their design, so if something looks like you’d be able to climb it, you almost always can. You’d think that a city designed to let you scale buildings would seem overly artificial, but it feels less designed and looks far more natural than you’d suppose. Part of what makes Assassin’s Creed a great looking game is how believable your surroundings are, textured and lit to perfection.
The animation is equally outstanding. Altaïr leaps majestically from building to building, climbs walls with fluid ease and fights with style and poise. Each movement flows naturally into the next and shows the hallmarks of a developer who perfected the art of animation many games ago.
Assassin’s Creed’s audio is accomplished too. The subtle sounds of birds in the wind accompany those of the city below, and although these effects aren’t remarkable on their own, they come together to compliment the rest of the game well. The orchestral score is excellent, as is the voice acting, except for Altaïr himself. Casting Desmond as an American is understandable, but using the same voice for Altaïr not only creates a historical paradox, but detracts significantly from his personality as well. Like a medieval version of David Beckham, he is undoubtedly cool up to the point where he opens his mouth.
“Quite simply, this is one of the best looking games to date.”The voice acting is not the only place where Assassin’s Creed slips up either. The ending is badly conceived and confusing as well, leaving the player wondering round until they stumble on the right button press at the right time. Some players may also dislike the amount of repetition in the game, although steps have been made to reduce the amount of this.
There’s also been some criticism of the game for the lack of things to do in the cities, but this is rather a moot point. Assassin’s Creed’s scope is suitably narrow and there isn’t any RPG filler to bulk it out. The only real side missions involve you seeing off groups of guards who are harassing citizens, for which you’re rewarded with a group of vigilantes who slow down any pursuing guards when you pass by them. The lack of money, purchasable items, experience points and other distractions is not necessarily a bad thing. Just because there are three large cities doesn’t mean that you should expect a GTA-style experience.
Assassin’s Creed is quite possibly the coolest game I’ve ever played. Not only is it satisfying to play, but it looks incredible and is easy to control. Each city is alive with activity, designed with care and attention to detail. Assassin’s Creed may not be perfect, but it offers one of the best singleplayer experiences you’ll play this year, and that’s saying a lot.