The problem with reporting videogames in Australia is we often get a little left behind in the coverage of bigger games. Being that we’re a smaller country and so far away from the rest of the world, we’re forced to deal with the bigger, more corporate sites and magazines releasing information in the way of news, previews, reviews and exclusives, well and truly before we do. Sometimes we get lucky, but for the most part where AAA titles are concerned, by the time we come to the table the industry at large has already had their say. However, the silver lining to this is the concept of opinion, and this has never seemed more relevant than with the industry dividing Assassin’s Creed, where one side loves
the game and the other hates
It’s been a while since the industry has been this split over a game’s review score. And while, for the most part review scores are usually not as important as a reviewer’s opinion, perception and conclusion of a game (in my
opinion), with Assassin’s Creed the gap between good and bad is so vast, it’s difficult for punters to really know the score, so to speak.
Having spent more than a few hours with the game though, my perception is there is more than meets the eye with the title, which after a few minutes of looking
at could conjure scores of 9s and 10s easily. Only a few minutes with the controller in hand though, could drastically reverse this, dishing out scores of 5s and 6s. The point, however, is Assassin’s Creed is a game unlike any other. It certainly has a pedigree in the form of other Ubi outings such as Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell, but it is an entity unto itself, and a vision not fully realised
to its absolute potential. That said though, Assassin’s Creed must
be played in the way it was intended, and I feel a lot of the industry has missed out on this, perhaps rushing through to be the first
out with their review. Here at AusGamers, however, this is never
our intention, so rest assured, our time with Assassin’s Creed – nay, every game we ever review – is to the absolute fullest extent with no other intention than to give you the best possible coverage from every viewpoint regardless of industry weight.
That self-promotion out of the way, it’s time for us to get down and dirty with arguably one of the best videogame concepts ever created - Assassin’s Creed
While Ubisoft were initially very tight-lipped about the secret element of this Crusades-based gaming concept, the truth is, as soon as you fire it up, a huge slice of their secret is unravelled. You’re not actually
12th century master assassin Altair Ibn La-Ahad, your name is actually Desmond Miles and you live in the present day (2012 by the game’s concept of present day). You’ve been taken to a laboratory in a large pharmaceutical company called Abstergo Industries, drugged and run through an experimental machine called the Animus
. Dr Warren Vidic and his assistant, Lucy Stillman, are trying to sync you up with your genetic memory, but it’s simply not working. They pull you out of the animus and you, as Desmond Miles, demand answers. Why are you here? You’re just a simple barmen, what could they possibly want from you? But Vidic knows of your past; as a former assassin who escaped the life he knows you have something they need, they just have to access it through this machine – according to Vidic, we all have a genetic memory of our ancestors and the animus renders these memories in 3D, allowing you to fully relive them.
Assassin's Creed does much to instill a sense of immersion and realism to its game-world. While lying on the Animus Desmond [you] will see a HUD with interactive icons based on your head movement. Even the controller face buttons have been visually implemented as part of the Animus' overall controls. Beyond this, have a look at the game's actual manual - the whole thing has been designed as a seminal "Animus User's Guide". Very, very cool.
Moreover, almost all of the Altair in-game HUD items reflect normal gaming devices such as health, actions and hints and tips, however, it has all been done as though the Animus is helping you out. Nice work Ubi.
Just as animals know how to hunt, migrate and feed; humans too, according to Vidic, have a genetic code embedded in them that shares life with our ancestry. He has also discovered we can unravel actual memories from our distant relatives and relive them through the animus. It also appears there’s something in the code logged deep within Desmond Vidic and his cohorts are after, and no matter what old Dessy has to say about it, they’re going to get it. So after some not-so-gentle vocal persuasion, Desmond is forced to cooperate, and ‘living
’ the life of Altair in the 12th century begins. Initially the game runs you through a conveniently scripted tutorial that fits very easily into the overall game concept. This happens a lot throughout and actually adds to the immersive nature of Assassin’s Creed; the fact you’re essentially playing the past life of someone from your family lineage has given Ubisoft more than enough recourse to allow all kinds of real-life videogame parallels to actually sit comfortably in the game’s narrative. It’s really very clever and adds to the overall concept effortlessly.
As Altair, you are a member of an assassin’s guild in the Holy Land during the third crusade (lead by King Richard The Lionheart). Your guild has a war raging against the Knights Templar, and as a result of your bold actions early on in the game, the war escalates into an attack from the Templars on your home. Once they’ve been pushed back with a daring display of your Assassin’s Creed
(ie your fearlessness), and your cunning, Altair is made face his misdeeds from earlier and is not only stripped of his rank and items (a clever way to downgrade your abilities and weapons), but is also no longer respected by other members of the guild. However, as he is one of the most gifted assassins, he is given another chance to redeem himself. It seems there are nine targets spread throughout the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre, and it’s his job to learn as much information about each one before being given the okay to proceed with taking them from this life and into the next.
The premise of the game then stems from this concept of investigation and permission to proceed. Initially you’ll visit each of the cities and only have access to the poor districts. These areas are still pretty big, and within each there are six counts of information you can gather, but you only need three to ask for permission to go ahead with the assassination. Once you arrive at each city you’ll need to make your way in. However, each entrance is heavily guarded, but lucky for you, there is always a citizen outside being harassed. Help him by killing the harassing guards and you’ll be able to mix in with a chanting group of scholars who apparently have access to anything wherever they go. Once inside the city you need to find the Assassin’s Bureau
, this is where you meet agents for the guild who approve or disapprove of intended targets. They’ll give you an area to start investigating and usually a bit of lip (on a count of you being shunned). Once you know where to start it’s off to play Sherlock.
Out in each city, you can scale practically anything that looks scaleable. This is good news because one of the key investigatory things you need to do is reach specific heights within each district to both flesh out your map and see where your next area of interest lies. Each target’s information points come in the form of letters, maps or notes that can be pickpocketed, conversations you can eavesdrop in on, guild informants who give you tasks to perform before any information is handed over or people you can interrogate. You only need three to gain permission to proceed, but it’s always good to gather as much information as possible given there are always a few different ways in which you can approach your target. That said, you can also pretty much just go blazing in through the front door to face them head-on, it’s just you’ll end up having to tackle them and their guard entourage, which can prove a little menacing depending on the situation (and is also far less fun).
All that said though, and cool as the concept is, it’s also where Assassin’s Creed starts to fall apart. On the one hand, the idea of having to gather information about each target is great as it fleshes out the game’s story and theoretically offers you a different style of gameplay, on the other though, it serves only as a means to an end and actually becomes quite tedious. The downfall for Assassin’s Creed is it kicks off wonderfully then immediately falls into a routine that is very easy to perform and not in the slightest bit engaging. As soon as you flesh out a particular portion of your map from one of the city’s Viewpoints
, your GPS is updated with not only the information’s position, but also the type of information it is; essentially making the seemingly robust and alive world of the 12th century Holy Land nothing more than a background or an aesthetic tool. This idea is furthered as a result of poor AI dynamics and repetitive patterns for each city’s denizens – after a while they’re nothing more than background noise.
In each city you can save citizens who’re being harassed by guards. Once they’ve been saved the district’s vigilantes will block the paths of any pursuing guards if you’ve been caught or spotted. This is one of the more exciting areas of Assassin’s Creed; having the guards’ alertness level raised as a result of your actions means you can either fight or run. The latter usually proving the better (and more fun) choice. As mentioned earlier, you can pretty much climb anything in the game, and the context sensitive run controls means Altair will interact with whatever surface he comes into contact with. However, just like before, this can also prove somewhat detrimental to the experience. The camera is dynamic but often can’t keep up with any sudden turns – as a result, it’s incredibly easy to attempt to turn a corner only to clip the side of a building where Altair will stop running and actually begin to climb. The same again can be said of jumping across rooftops – the slightest odd angle when leaping from a beam or roof ledge can be the end of your perfect line; sending you plummeting to a halt below, or worse still, your death.
This can also really mess with your assassination attempt of your main target. To lock onto enemies you simply tap a button, however, more often than not they’re surrounded by guards and in many instances as a result of having my attack run interrupted by the context sensitive controls, I’ve target the wrong person, giving the target, and the guards, more than a heads up that I’m there, thus killing my stealth style. You can nail it, which comes down to the idea Ubisoft have a specific idea in mind about how
the game should be played, but it can be really frustrating if things screw up because of this.
All that said, however, the further you get into the game, the more the story and characters will suck you in. The cities may actually lack a real sense of AI dynamic, but it doesn’t stop the game from coming to life. Each target you take out will share a moment with you before they pass into the next life and this will gradually flesh out the game’s story – which crescendos wonderfully after all the time you’ll put in (and all the repetitiveness you’ll deal with). Obviously it would be a stupid idea to spoil it, but I can say it’s more than worth the investment on your part. Also, interjected between Altair sequences, you’ll be given breaks from the animus machine as Desmond. These are information gathering sessions unto themselves and you can engage in conversations with Lucy Stillman to flesh out the modern surroundings of Abstergo Industries, Dr Vidic and yourself. In fact, if you manage to finish off every conversation you can have with Lucy, you’ll unlock an Achievement.
Gameplay and story aside, Assassin’s Creed is a wonderment to modern technology. Visually, there are few games that can top this and the engine Ubi have created here is simply a marvel. Climbing the highest point of each city to look around is something I highly recommend, and equally something you should do when friends are over – just to show it off. Altair’s animations are amazing, and he almost never looks awkward or clumsy, in fact his demeanour is bold and brash – a perfect reflection of his storied character within the game’s narrative. The cities themselves are massive, but so is the land that links them all together. Initially you’ll ride your horse to each, but once you’ve visited all three you’re given the option to jump straight to each one (a good thing too, as each one can take you close to 10 minutes to ride to). The architecture between each city is stunning and varies enough you never feel your always just in the same place. All that being said, it’s still not perfect though.
There are a few standout tech issues I couldn’t help but notice. Clipping happens regularly, as does poor collision detection (or more that it doesn’t
happen). The refresh rate on the 360 version is a little out and I noticed a lot of environmental pop-up in the way of trees, buildings and even people. Other issues come in the form of no volumetric fogging, it’s all sprite-based which, given the power and grandeur of the game’s engine, just seems lazy to me. Overall, a few more months polishing this stuff would have gone a long way to really mailing home the vision Ubisoft Montreal had for this title. Still, it really is a thing of beauty, I can’t state that enough. On the sound landscape, Assassin’s Creed is near flawless with amazing voice-acting (thanks largely to an incredible script) and a soundtrack to die for (there’s a reason they pulled Jesper Kyd
The idea, concept and story are sound, stunning and wanting of more attention, but unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed is marred by some repetitive structural issues in the way of AI and specific gameplay elements. The game-world is far less dynamic than it should
have been and as a result, the product is let down. However, it is one of the more enjoyable outings, and prospects for the franchise living on (and hopefully learning from its own early pitfalls) are high and most likely in demand. Don’t feel let down if you expected this to be the greatest experience of your life, instead feel sated Ubisoft had the cajones to try and bring their concept to life – it’s by no means a slouch of a game or gaming experience, it just might not be what you expected of it.