In Depth Review: Assassin's Creed [X360]
This is Assassin’s Creed, an astounding mixture of technology and concepts that doesn’t quite capitalize on its core premise or promise.
Assassin’s Creed appears to be an open-world game that grants the player intuitive, acrobatic control over Altair, an assassin during the Crusades. Altair can run a few steps up walls to grab ledges, bound across wooden planks, jump between and scale buildings, and leap safely into bales of hay from hundreds of feet up. For us as players, performing these actions is as simple as holding down the R trigger, the A button and Up on the analog stick, and Ubisoft gives us three beautifully realized cities in which to show off our neat little tricks: Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem.
Each of the three cities is broken up into different districts identified by class—poor, middle, and rich—and while not all of the districts are open to start (they unlock as you progress through the game), each of them is filled to the brim with denizens going about their daily business. Beggars pester you for coin; men and women carry crates of work materials and urns of water about town; soldiers will patrol the roofs and streets, even stopping to harass helpless citizens. All buildings and tall structures, further, are built with procedural traversal in mind: Stones or bricks that jut out, window gratings, cracks in walls, wooden framework, window sills—these all can be grabbed and used as footholds to help you climb. Something even as thin as a flagpole is fair game for Altair to spring across. Of course, you should be careful about how nuts you get within city limits. Start jumping around buildings and climbing walls, and people will take notice of you, and soldiers will look at you with a suspicious eye. It is because of the vast, seemingly unscripted traversal opportunities—as well as the living, breathing nature of the cities—that Assassin’s Creed does appear to be “open.”
In truth, there is actually very little to do that doesn’t directly service your ultimate goal, which is assassinating your designated target. Upon being assigned a mark, you must travel to the town in which he resides, find the Assassin’s Bureau to better understand your target and gather introductory information, then go about “investigations.” Investigations serve the illusion that Altair is gaining valuable information about his target, and if these were handled procedurally, we might actually get the feeling that we’re doing our own due diligence to find and plan out the best way to kill the poor bastard. In reality, each mission comes with a minimum number of investigations to complete. Once you hit this number, you’re free to go in for the kill. All you really need to do is hit that minimum, go back to the Bureau, and then just follow the marker painted on your radar.
What’s more is that the actual investigations are, for the most part, banal. Among the different types of tasks you can accomplish are eavesdropping, pick-pocketing, interrogations, guard assassinations, and flag collection. Taking down guards can be fun because, you know, it’s part of the fun of assassinating. Eavesdropping, however, is nothing more than sitting on a bench near a pair of designated citizens. Pick-pocketing and interrogations involve you just following someone around until they’re not paying attention (in the case of the former) or no one’s watching (in the case of the latter), at which point you steal an important document or engage in a fistfight until your victim coughs up information, respectively. And flag collection is just weird—an informant will tell you that he has valuable gossip for you, but will only divulge it if you can collect a series of flags strewn about the area. In a game that’s all about stressing your need to be stealthy and which strives to provide a realistic portrayal of the world you’re in, it seems out of place to see a bunch of flags just pop up out of nowhere at the behest of an informant—which you then have to collect by leaping around and swinging from poles, during which you happen to pretty much go unnoticed by anyone.
So, the investigations can get quite rote. You must do between two and four (or so) of them every mission, and there are never any intriguing variations on the archetypes. You can stop to help a citizen being harassed by soldiers, an act which always results in combat; doing so will result in the citizen’s friends helping you out later by distracting any guards who are pursuing you. You can also elect to climb as many towers—or “viewpoints”—as you desire, since with every tower you climb, you uncover more investigations on the map in which to partake. But that’s really about it. You’re locked into the “bureau, viewpoint, investigations, and assassination” pattern, and it’s simply a matter of hitting that arbitrary minimum number of investigations.
This isn’t to say that the information you gather throughout your investigations is worthless, but this is an aspect of the game that starts to make you realize that there’s very little that’s truly open or free. The target will always be in the same general area, giving the same speech or causing the same public spectacle, and then retreat elsewhere so that you have to find a way to get the drop on him. At this point, things lighten up a bit and at least you’re given the choice to fight your way through bodyguards, slink around and take out said guards before stealth-assassinating him, or blending into a crowd and shanking him right as he’s staring into your eyes. But it would have been so much nicer to see a larger variety of investigations, and better yet, be offered a more procedural way to kill your mark (for example, if you just happened to come across him and had an opportunity to strike).
It’s a shame how the gameplay breaks the illusion and becomes so monotonous, because there are a great many things to like about the world of Assassin’s Creed. The level of detail with which everything is rendered is astonishing. Altair’s animations are fluid and believable, and every building he climbs is covered in sharp, detailed textures. Each city has its own color tone—Acre is a cold blue, Damascus is bright and sunny, and Jerusalem boasts an organic sheen that is somewhere in between. Any time you climb up to a viewpoint, the camera takes a circular pan around the city below, giving you a breathtaking view of the hundreds of structures littering the area. This is all supplemented by an intriguing story that takes place across two different eras (hint: Altair isn’t the only character whose shoes you fill), and while the two seemingly have little to do with each other, part of the fun is trying to uncover how they end up coming together.
Of course, even the aesthetic superiority of Assassin’s Creed doesn’t go without flaws. Altair’s voice actor seems to just want his check and call it a day, and smaller voice samples are repeated far too often. It gets to the point where the same lines—“He’s going to hurt himself! And when he does, I won’t be the one to help him”—are repeated across different towns, just with different accents. Then there’s the ridiculousness of an assassinated target—with your hidden blade sticking in his throat, no less—giving you minutes-long monologues which exist only to uncover more of the story. This is both a little implausible and a chore to sit through.
Whether open world like Grand Theft Auto or linear like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed could have been a great time if only the things that you did within each mission were creative or at least not the same thing every time. It’s worth experiencing to see Ubisoft’s impressive vision of what the Crusades were like (at least from a graphical standpoint), and the attention to detail necessary to make every structure have some sort of traversable architecture is a feat in itself. But as it stands, what we have here is a wonderful game engine that’s lacking much of the “game” it needs to be a real killer.