Assassin's Creed, this one has been a while coming, both in game development and the review itself. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I set myself the challenge of beating it, so Gabe @ Penny Arcade, if you're reading this (you're a Legend) I have the 'Visions of the Future' achievement on my console. I happen to agree with Gabe's point of view on the subject but here's my own review garnered by actually playing/completing the game. And yes, I did find a lot of the sub-missions repetitious; it didn't bother me all that much since I remember similar from the likes of GTA and Saint's Row.
You begin the game as Desmond Myles, someone who has the blood of Altair flowing in his veins, you've been kidnapped by a corporation and introduced into their project Animus, a machine that can bring to life ancestral memories and re-create them in a near-perfect virtual world simulation. You very quickly find out that your ancestor Altair, the assassin of the Third Crusade is an arrogant sod that falls from grace and is quickly stripped of all rank and skill. It's worth mentioning that the mix of sci-fi and medieval gameplay is an odd one at first, I found it somewhat jarring to begin with but soon settled into the story.
The first memory block/part of the game you encounter you'll be at full strength, the cocky Altair will all his skills and abilities. You'll be given a tutorial level in Solomon's temple where you're going to learn about free running (parkour) and how to perform hidden-blade (stealth) kills. You'll move on to the assassin's fortress and village and notice that Assassin's Creed does a very good job bringing to life the Third Crusade in both the look and the design.
It creates some wonderfully detailed vistas and the first starting area is quite massive, the fortress is suitable imposing and there are numerous things to do before you get to take off the training wheels and get out into the game proper. I'll also mention here that you'll be able to collect 20 or so flags scattered all about the place, these seem to be a staple of free roaming games like this, see Spiderman and so on.
You're introduced to the staple elements of the game from Solomon's temple and the fortress, after learning to free run and leap around like mad you'll be taught the basics of combat as the place comes under attack, it's up to Altair to defend it and help the good people survive. You have access to:
Short blade: good for attacking and defending against multiple opponents, this swift weapon has a decent balance of speed and attack power.
Throwing knives: on the same direction as the short blade these are one-hit-one kill weapons (except against bosses) that can be useful when you're in a fight and need to thin out some enemies that are out of blade range.
Sword: slower than the short blade this weapon has more power however; it can break enemies' defences easier and is a good way to counter heavier armoured foes.
Hidden blade: it can be employed in a fight but best used for sneak-kills and showing off by knocking an enemy to the ground and quickly dispatching him using it.
Fists: are you mad, who puts up their fists in a sword fight, put that blade back on now. Useful only against thugs and unarmed opponents, or you'll be minced in no time.
Grab: not really a weapon but a useful tactic if you can nab an enemy and throw him towards a wall, or his friends.
Each hit depletes Desmond's link (DNA bar) with Altair and by remaining hidden or defending in combat, health comes back. The DNA bar is also increased every time you complete a series of missions or a specific task, like saving a citizen or climbing a View Point. Lose the entire DNA bar and you're completely de-synched with Altair and must start again from a checkpoint.
Yes, the game uses checkpoints, so it's not save anywhere.
Later on you'll learn about counter-kills, dodges and grab breaks.
As you move through the area, you're not confined to just pegging it across the ground, you can gain an advantage and look good as you parkour across from roof to roof, if you see a cluster of birds that marks the Leap of Faith, a useful move where Altair can hurl himself blindly off a high point and into a safe landing spot (bale of hay or cart full of hay) to hide from the guards, or just quickly get down from a View Point.
You can also do it for fun, it looks pretty cool and you can do it whilst running from roof to roof.
Eventually you repel the enemy attack and you're given a stern lecture (not to mention a severe punishment) for your behaviour at Solomon's temple. Finally after some lengthy exposition you'll be let out into the world proper and this is where the game becomes more interesting.
This is the huge chunk of landmass that connects Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem. It's littered with View Points, sub objectives like collecting flags, or killing Templars (60 of them in the game) who are hidden away. At first as well, certain regions will be locked, the memory sectors not yet open. This takes away from the free roaming aspect initially but by the last few missions of the game the entire Kingdom will be yours for the exploring.
It's also littered with various guards from the Saracen and Crusader factions; you'll be able to traverse it on foot or with one of the many horses. The controls for the horse riding are simple and you can gallop to jump obstacles and flatten enemy soldiers. You can also slash them with Altair's sword whilst on horse back. If you want you can even make the horse rear (Lone Ranger style) and the beast will even kick out at enemy soldiers if you're battling them close to it.
If you're stealthier, you can opt to blend (on foot or on your horse) this slows you down to a snail's pace and provides you ample opportunity to slip past most guards unnoticed. Of course there are some guards that can spot your garb and will pick you out no matter what you do, these are usually archers and must be psychic compared to the foot soldiers.
It's worth mentioning here, the guards have several states of awareness. These are all indicated by their stances, if they are unaware, they stroll casually on by with their hands at their sides. Suspicious guards move their hand to their swords and will be on the look out for anything odd. Informed guards trigger a red eye and a sound, these won't tolerate you for long and if you so much as bump them, you're in for a fight.
The game can be broken up into 3 phases, once you get to a city; you're in the first phase. Investigation:
You can seek out a View Point and unlock the sub-missions that way, or if you want you can head to the Assassin's Bureau and speak to the guy in charge there. Later on in the game you'll need to do your own work in that respect. View Points are denoted by the eagle circling them; once you're up there you can synchronise with Altair's memory of the area and unlock GPS icons in the Animus map screen.
It's there that the various sub-missions suffer from some very basic problems; they are all the same pretty much. Sure, they are fun to do, but once you've done a set in one sector of the city you know what to expect for the rest. I'd have preferred a lot more variety in these to be honest.
Save the Citizens: By battling a group of guards, more guards, and possible some more who show up just to annoy you, you'll earn the gratitude of the peasant, not to mention unlocking Vigilantes or Scholars. The former are good blockers when you're being chased, the latter allow you to blend with them and sneak into places where a bit of parkour might be hard to do.
Informant Missions: I hate these, I hate timed missions and in a game where I'm supposed to be a stealthy assassin I'd prefer to take things at my own pace. If you rush someone with a timer, you will artificially shorten their play experience not to mention frustrate the hell out of them. The missions are usually in the vein of, collecting a bunch of flags in a clock-based parkour race, killing some people because your fellow assassins are so thick they screwed it up. Killing said individuals but against a timer.
Eavesdropping: Sit on a bench; listen in, hard to fail.
Interrogation: Listen to a Despot rant on about how cool his master is but how bad someone else is and then follow them. Have a bout of fisticuffs and then find out important information; let them go, into the arms of death. Stab.
When you're in the city it is advisable to remember the rules of being a social chameleon, move slowly, don't run and don't climb up buildings unless you really have to. Use ladders to reach rooftops and if you're having trouble with those pesky timed assassination missions against multiple targets, get onto the roof tops and use throwing knives. If you run out of knives, you'll need to nick some more by pick-pocketing thugs
You can easily use the crowd to blend in, push past people gently in low profile mode and press B to nudge jar carriers out of the way without smashing their goods to the ground roughly. Resist the urge to hurl annoying nutters or beggars out of the way.
Once you've done 2-3 of these side-missions, you get to go back to the AB and report on what you've found. The guy in charge gives you a white feather and you're off on phase #2
The big fat kill
You have to make your way to a predetermined location, taking out guards on the route or just roof-running like mad until you get there. You're often treated to a short cut-scene (fully interactive, where you can walk around, change the angle and perspective when a strange graphical effect glitch appears on screen) that explains more of the story. Once that's over you're given the freedom to scope out the area some more, find a way in past the guards or just blast in and take down everyone with some seriously quick swordplay.
I preferred to try and be as stealthy as possible, used knives to take out rooftop guards and make my way to the target quickly but quietly. I was able to often take them down via hidden blade before anyone could do anything and once I even slipped away without having to battle a whole retinue of guards.
Phase 3: Running away
Should the worst happen and you're discovered after you kill your target, sometimes this is unavoidable and I'd have preferred to have the chance to sneak away myself. You're going to have to escape though and you can use a variety of methods to accomplish this, without resorting to combat. Altair is a nimble bugger and you should make sure you've done a lot of parkour to get used to the system; it's the best way to get the guards out of your hair.
You'll need to use high profile moves, sprinting for definite and you'll also want to tackle enemies or civilians to create chaos. Dive through market stalls and pick alternate routes over small beams, anything that allows you to break your pursuer's line of sight. I found that getting off the streets once I'd got some breathing space made for an excellent tactic, at one point I was able to round a corner and sit on a bench to fade away as my errant pursuers ran straight past me. Other times I wasn't so lucky and I made it to the rooftops, hid in a rooftop garden. At one point I was able to run across six separate buildings at breakneck speeds with a hoard of guards following me.
I reached the edge of the roof where I saw some birds, went into sprint mode and watched Altair execute a Leap of Faith fluidly from one movement to the next. That was fun!
If escape isn't for you, then there's always:
If you're cornered or you're just in the mood to leave a trail of bodies to upset the local guards, it's time to fight. Battles in Assassin's Creed can be huge affairs of many quick strokes against a large armed force of guards, or a quick exchange of blows as you break and run for a new area. Left Trigger allows you to lock onto an enemy and strafe around them, whilst RT puts Altair into a defensive stance.
If you are in normal stance you can execute combo attacks, step attacks and grabs. The combo attacks are a matter of timing and vary based on pressure; they can mean the difference between being diced by numerous guards or Altair getting away without a single block of DNA damage. The enemy AI is more aggressive and it will send men at you more than one at a time, looking for weak spots and getting multiple hits in.
You can freely switch between your weapons as you fight, using the hidden blade on downed foes if you're quick enough. The AI reacts to threats and the more you dispatch their men and leaders, the worse their morale becomes until they break and run.
If you're in defensive mode, you can execute grab breaks, counter attacks and dodges. The counter attacks are your best tool against a large number of foes and the timing is critical in that respect, it's not about button bashing. These are normally one hit kills against the weaker guards, but against guard leaders they become a knock-down or stun move.
I found the combat system easy enough but it has depth to become quite tactical if you take the time to master the various moves.
Once you've escaped the guards and gotten back to the HQ, you are debriefed by the guy and usually sent back to the Assassin's fortress. Here you'll gain more insight into the story, new equipment and perhaps a new move. You'll also gain more DNA.
Rinse repeat is the order of the day from then on; this is where the game falls into repetition. The story assassinations are all different but the side-missions are painfully similar and there are 3 sectors to each city and 3 cities...and that means 9 areas where you have to rinse/repeat the same old same old.
I've talked a lot about the game play and the way you control Altair, sub-missions and all that. Now I'm going to spend some time on the other elements of the game:
Ok, pop up? POP UP in a next-gen game? I'm seriously peeved with certain aspects of the graphics here whilst I think the others are incredible. Assassin's Creed does a massively good job of bringing to life the world of the Third Crusade in terms of staggering long range vistas and some of the most beautiful city and land graphics to date. It's a visual feast for the eyes with subtle light/shadow and texture design that is absolutely breath taking. But it pops into view various objects in a rather jarring manner from time to time, this somewhat breaks the immersion and it's somewhat sad to see.
I'm really impressed with this area, the buildings and locations have been created with an architect's eye for detail, from historical blueprints and documents. They have been crafted to provide exhilarating parkour throughout the whole city so I can't fault the game on any of that at all. The walls and windows are rife with handholds and features that allow Altair to scale into the highest reaches of the game, coupled with the fluid design of these elements it's a truly fantastic experience to explore the three cities and the kingdom itself.
The model for Altair is fantastic, he's been created to have real character and he's unique amongst his brothers. He has several features about him that fit the character they designed, the peaked hood and the flowing garments all of which have been created to fit smoothly around him. The rest of the world is brought to life with the same amount of detail, the peasants and the guards have a visual appeal to them based on the city they come from and the very area they inhabit within that city.
The animation in Assassin's Creed is some of the most fluid and incredible animation in a game to date, Altair alone has thousands of animations that cover his every move. The parkour climbing animations and the combat animations are fantastic to watch in action and the way that Altair interacts with his environment is superb. In combat he's a killing machine and someone who has mastered the combat system can make it appear like it's a deadly dance. The same can be said for his adversaries and the people around him, it all fits together beautifully and has been extremely well done.
I also have to sing the praises of the AI, since there are so many different systems running here it's hard to keep track of them all. From the crowd AI that reacts to your social motions to the guard AI that will chase you down across the rooftops taking advantage of ladders and alternate routes to chase areas, jumping and climbing where they can, this has to be the best use of animation and AI combined for a long time. It's truly something and a little scary to see the guard leap from roof to roof and I want Ubisoft to use this engine and design to make a decent free-roaming Batman game!
In combat the AI adapts its tactics based on your actions, if you slaughter them in droves and use the defensive stance a lot, they'll be more cautious. Otherwise if you're losing and they're winning, they become more aggressive and confident, especially if you're not defending. Kill too many of a particular group and they might even make a break for it or cower like the dogs they are!
The crowd AI reacts as well, sometimes it's hostile and sometimes it will fetch the guard based on what you do.
The game has a few issues where a body might appear to bounce the wrong way, but mostly the physics engine is solid with the correct kind of ragdoll applied to a hapless idiot thrown off a roof for example.
Another area where the developers haven't skimped at all, the game brims with gloriously done spot effects, such as the wind when you're high up, the general murmur of the crowds and the clash of steel upon steel. There were times where the sound dropped out during a combat however, especially with a couple of counter kills.
This is fair to outstanding; each actor delivers their lines very well. The only problem I have is that there are but a handful of sayings when you rescue a peasant or complete a side-mission of that ilk. The same voice actress used for the same damn peasant really irritated me and it only added to my annoyance over the repetition in those missions. It wouldn't have been hard to add several more lines or at least make them more interesting.
Jesper Kyd of Hitman fame brings the score to Assassin's Creed to life, he has done an outstanding job and the music really adds to the game.
Glitches, not the in-game ones
There are some physics bugs, the odd camera hiccup especially in combat. It uses a kill-cam from time to time and that can often get blocked by a guard's ass as they stand in the way watching in horror as their friend dies. I'd have liked to see that myself too, but the guard's metal glad ass was in the way!
The camera can also get caught on a wall, yeah; the invisible camera that should be intangible too...can get caught on a solid object.
Falling into the void? I've had this happen only once, and I'm led to believe that it's if you have a second controller plugged in. Actually, there is one place where it will happen no matter what you try if you have a second controller plugged in. I suggest playing the game with only one controller.
Right near the end of the game, your last target, out in the Holy Land you'll find that you'll be asked to chase him down. On your horse, you ride and ride and suddenly...fall into a void. You'll die and then respawn as two Altair's; this is a bit of a problem from then on, since you can't actually fight without the Altair's killing each other. How this bug got into the retail I will never know, but it's a game breaker if you've left a second controller plugged in.
The last strike
So, with all this said and done. I found the game fun, I got right to the end and watched the credits, I know a lot about the story after piecing together the bits and clues from various emails. I'm curious about the second game and I dearly want to see it made. I'd have also loved to give AC 9.5/10 or something but even though I think it's an amazing and fantastic game, breaking a lot of new ground in the free-roaming genre its game-breaking bug and general repetitious nature have given me pause for thought.
I'm still in love with the Leap of Faith!
I'd still recommend it as a great next-gen title, with superb graphics and fantastic animation.
Hopefully Ubi can deliver something superlative for the sequel!