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Assassin's Creed

David Yun (PSN Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (PSN Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-03-11 04:43:49

Assassin's Creed - Rank C


Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Date: 11/13/07

Also available for Xbox 360 and PC

Assassin's Creed is controversial in several ways. Firstly, it sold phenomenally well, despite not being an established property. These sales numbers were tallied up in a frenzied opening salvo, not as the kind of slow burn that quality titles amass over time due to word of mouth. The credit (blame?) belongs entirely to Ubisoft's skillful marketing team. All I heard over Xbox Live, just prior to its release, was eagerness to run out and plunk down $60 as soon as it was available. I tried explaining that my experience previewing Assassin's Creed at E3 wasn't very good, but people had already decided that this was going to be a great game, and to a man, they all pooh-poohed my skepticism.

The success of Assassin's Creed is somewhat disturbing. Its profits were so enormous, that they apparently saved Ubisoft from hostile takeover by Electronic Arts, who had been steadily buying up shares in the company. The videogame industry has now hit the point where so-called "Triple A" titles can be manufactured and packaged by public relations departments. It's like a mediocre summer blockbuster film that only has to have a good opening weekend to be "successful". My enthusiasm for videogaming pressing into mainstream acceptance is tempered by my distress at an increasingly undiscerning consumer base.

Secondly, and more germane to a review, Assassin's Creed is extremely polarizing. Players tend to either love or hate it, with ample reason. Its positive aspects are indeed compelling, and its lowlights verge on terribleness. This makes Assassin's Creed difficult to definitively grade and review, and more than ever, the actual text of this review is important to put the Rank C in proper context, to help you decide if you should play it.

I'll start with the positive. Assassin's Creed is absolutely beautiful, sporting gorgeous visuals and art direction. There is some mildly noticeable pop-in and screen tearing (a touch worse on the PlayStation 3) from time to time, but the game makes up for it with massive medieval cities that convincingly bustle with life. The control scheme is wonderfully elegant. Scaling walls, leaping acrobatically between rafters or flagpoles, and sword fighting are all simple to initiate and fluid in execution. I wouldn't expect anything less from the people that brought us Prince of Persia.

My favorite part of Assassin's Creed is the story. It's set in the Holy Lands during King Richard's Crusade (flavored with historical liberties) with a dash of post-modern techno-punk. If that sounds confusingly intriguing to you, that's because it deliberately is. Without revealing any critical spoilers, the bulk of the game is played as a medieval assassin, but it's wrapped inside a cool meta-story involving a Templar conspiracy that stretches through the millennia. If you're not worried about spoilers or never intend to play the game, a thorough (albeit uninspired) synopsis can be found at Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, Assassin's Creed is exceedingly tedious. It suffers from the same goofy mechanics as most stealth based games: stupid guards. Once you're detected, you need to elude the guards and then "hide" by jumping into a haystack, folding your hands together and bowing your head to become a "scholar", or sitting on a bench in between some other people. Your imbecilic pursuers will eventually give up and behave as if they'd never noticed you if you sit tight long enough. I do realize that this sort of design is a conceit of the genre, and is a representation of a skilled operative "hiding in plain sight". I can excuse this gross simplification, but some of the triggers that cause guards to be alerted to your presence are overbearing. Why does your assassin character become wanted just because he's riding his horse faster than 2 mph? Can these idiot guards deduce your murderous intent from the gait of your steed, or do they just want to give you a speeding ticket? The end result is that portions of the game force you to tediously plod around at a snail's pace if you want to avoid detection. There is an art to creating drama and tension from these sorts of sequences, but Assassin's Creed delivers only drudgery.

Even worse is Assassin's Creed's mission structure. The overall goal is to assassinate nine evildoers. The process is mind-numbingly same every time. You climb to the top of a tower to survey an area. You spot a target to eavesdrop, pickpocket, or interrogate (with your fists). This process yields a bit of "intelligence" on your target. You repeat the climbing and spying several times, until you have enough information to have a go at your target. Then you repeat this entire process eight more times in order to beat the game. You may have heard that Assassin's Creed is repetitive, but I cannot stress this shortcoming strongly enough. The problem is that you do the same two hours of gameplay for twenty hours. This wouldn't be a problem if it was fun, but sitting on a bench and pressing a button to listen in on a tepid conversation isn't particularly exhilarating.

There is optional material to pursue in Assassin's Creed, but this is even more tedious. You can choose to finish off any extra "climbing and spying" that wasn't necessary to accomplish the assassinations. You can rescue nondescript civilians who are being hassled by the guards, but for all you know, they are criminals that deserve the persecution. Worst of all is the flag collectathon. We've all seen this before: collecting cogs in Gears of War, laptops in Call of Duty 4, etc. Only, now there are hundreds of the damnable hidden things, and the only reward for finding them is a few achievement points (or nothing on the PlayStation 3 version).

In many ways, Assassin's Creed is very similar to the gang-fighting action of Crackdown. The main objective is analogous: gather enough intelligence/bump off enough gang lieutenants in order to take a shot at the leader of that faction. The secondary objective is paralleled as well: explore the city and scale its heights in order to find flags/orbs. The difference is that Crackdown's orbs reward you with greater abilities, allowing you to explore more and more of the city. The motivational factor involved here cannot be overstated. Also, I get the sense that Assassin's Creed is intended to be a "sandbox" game, with humongous cities to explore and simply play in. However, unlike Crackdown, there's no meaningful way to interact with the environment and make your own fun. There's no sand in Assassin's Creed's sandbox.

The structure of Assassin's Creed even waters down the positive aspects of the game. As I previously mentioned, the story is interesting. However, you never really play through any of it. In between chunks of tedious climbing and spying, you're subjected to non-interactive dialogue wherein the narrative is related to you. While this might be appropriate for literature or film, it doesnt fit the language of videogaming. I found myself utterly conflicted when it came to Assassin's Creed, because as intriguing as these sequences could be, they made for poor gaming, because I wasn't interacting in any substantial way. Worse, as soon as the gameplay kicked back up, I found myself wishing I could skip the tedium and get more of the non-interactive story. As it stands, Assassin's Creed would've worked much better as a novel.

Ubisoft did too many things right with Assassin's Creed for me to give it a truly poor grade. It also isn't nearly as fun as a flawed game like Crackdown, which is clearly a Rank B title. This has been one of the longest game reviews I'll ever write, and my hope is that I've given you a clear idea of its strengths and failings, and what that Rank C actually entails. Ubisoft laid the groundwork for a great game with Assassin's Creed, and the potential is abundantly visible. Now that they've gotten past the labors of developing the game engine, Ubisoft will hopefully be able to concentrate on the actual gameplay for the inevitable sequel.

I did imply above that the Xbox 360 version is superior, and it is, but only by a smidgen. The visuals are slightly more stable, and as always, the ever-addicting Achievement Points break any tie if you own both systems.

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