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Assassin’s Creed

United States, 07 April 2008, Raymond Santos Estrella

Warning! The following summary contains spoilers.

Story

Despite enormous commercial success on consoles, developer Ubisoft didn’t completely slack off when it came to developing the PC version of their highly successful third-person action game, Assassin’s Creed. This is a real concern for PC gamers. Many developers seem to almost forget they’re even bringing their console-focused titles to mouse and keyboard aficionados, sometimes neglecting to remove console interface layouts (The Club), omitting adequate video or control configurations (Resident Evil 4), or just otherwise displaying obvious disregard for functionality and ease of use (Phantasy Star Universe).

Assassin’s Creed, on the other hand, has all the features you’d expect in a PC game. Customizable controls, various graphical settings to scale performance, the choice of DX 9 and DX 10 modes for gamers with more high-end hardware, and all the proper UI icons mean PC gamers won’t have to wince in pain at the sight of a giant green “A” button icon to select or apply options in menus. Yes it’s minor in the overall scheme of things, but it shows Ubisoft actually paid attention. Beyond that, Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut represents a style of gameplay not often seen on PCs. It’s not without quirks and definitely tailored for the tastes of someone like me, a guy who appreciates sandbox environments and the ability to sow destruction and mayhem into a virtual world, although such a description could likely be ascribed to a wide range of gamers.

Yet the game offers a different style of sandbox play than something like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (hereafter referred to as GTA and Stalker, respectively), so it’s likely the masses of people who enjoy those games (or at least GTA—quite a few people didn’t appreciate Stalker) wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to Assassin’s Creed. The mission structure accounts for a large portion of the difference, as do the basic gameplay mechanics and rules that govern how the sandbox cities function.

Assassin’s Creed’s story centers on Altair, a murderous gent in a fancy white robe who hops around the cities of Jerusalem, Acre, Damascus, and smaller township of Masyaf. It’s all loosely based around figures who inhabited the area back in 1191, the time of the Third Crusade, and follows an often disturbing, violent tale of how controlling factions vie for dominance and the disruptive role you play between them. Through your brotherhood of assassins’ leader, Al Mualim, you’re tasked with wiping out nine prominent people to maintain order in the area.

I don’t want to get too involved with plot description as I found much of the layered narrative to be enjoyable, often surprising, and would prefer not to ruin anything for anyone who didn’t experience it on consoles. Although the ending leaves much to be desired (things are set up for an obvious sequel), the unraveling and twining of plot threads, character double-crosses, and quirky, often entirely surreal dialogue sequences maintained my attention. It’s not executed as smoothly or seamlessly as it could have been, but considering the fast-food tales we’re forced to satiate ourselves with on most occasions when it comes to action games (Gears of War), Assassin’s Creed’s attempt at originality is much appreciated. The same goes for the setting, offering an opportunity to explore locales not often visited by any games, let alone the action variety. The developers could just as easily turned off their brains and done something in World War II, but instead generated three sprawling cities, a smaller town, and an open expanse of terrain connecting the four with an awe-inspiring amount of detail.

Starting out you’re forced to slog through a tutorial that assumes your IQ must be on par with phytoplankton, but it’s more than worth the hour-plus exercise in patience. Afterward the world opens up and you’re free to head out beyond the training area of Masyaf to the countryside, called the Kingdom, and put into practice the techniques you’ve learned. Though Altair begins the game in a fairly weak state, he gains new abilities and health pellets for completing missions and side-quests. After a couple of hours you should be in decent enough shape to hold your own against the groups of enemies attackers you find as the environments are explored.

Like GTA and Stalker, more of the game world opens up as you complete primary missions. You’ll have access to the cities early on but several neighborhoods will be off-limits until you move deeper into the game. To break down these barriers (and acquire new gear and advance the plot), you’ll have to kill your primary targets, and the methods by which you go about doing so represent the most irritating aspects of the game.

Before a primary target can be assaulted, you need to gather intelligence. So far, so good. I’m not an assassin, but it certainly makes sense that one would want to wander around and collect information and helpful items before mounting an assault on a well-protected public figure. To get this information you need to approach citizens around the cities, listen in on their conversations, steal maps and other important documents, and perform chores for shady informers in exchange for information. Though the concept is interesting, in practice the experience comes off feeling more like busywork than engaging gameplay.

The eavesdropping missions, for instance, require Altair to sit on a bench, tap a few keys, and remain motionless while listening to a conversation between NPCs. That’s it. Granted, that’s pretty easy, but there’s practically nothing satisfying about it. Picking pockets requires players tail an NPC and snag a document out of their belt (fanny pack?), which proves to be rather bland and unsatisfying as well. Other mission types give you the option to brainlessly wail on an interrogation target until they talk or try to complete a devilishly annoying timed flag collection quest. By far the best task from the console version’s assortment of side quests is the target elimination type of mission, where an informant instructs you to saunter through crowded marketplaces and knife a few unwitting targets without being spotted by guards.

Aside from some of the tasks being irritating to perform on their own, there’s the larger problem of their integration into the gameplay. After completing the arbitrary total of three side-quests of any variety, the game informs you that your primary target is available for assassination. At that point you head over to an assassin’s bureau in the city and rest up before setting out to do the deed. Before going to the bureau you could continue on and complete the rest of the available missions, but there’s hardly a point. The problem is that the maps (which can contain marked guard positions), information, and other bits of intelligence you pick up while on side-quests have too little impact on how the eventual primary target mission plays out. Why not reward players in some way for collecting all the potential information on a kill and somehow significantly alter how the eventual mission plays out? If I’m supposed to feel like an assassin piecing together a cohesive portfolio of intelligence, wouldn’t it make sense that if I do a better job gathering information I should be able to much more effectively execute my target? Instead, the side-missions feel more like tick marks on a checklist than anything else.

Beyond that problem, with the console version I found that after repeating this process for each and every target, things got boring, plain and simple. You’re forced to repeat the same kind of tasks, employ the same gameplay techniques, and for the same ultimate result for the entirety of the game, something Ubisoftapparently recognized and took steps to correct with the PC version. For the Director’s Cut edition, four new types of missions have been added. While they certainly alleviate some of the ennui brought on by the console version’s side-quests, the additional content doesn’t solve the larger problem of those tasks having little impact on the overall game experience.

The argument could be made that a side-quest, by definition, isn’t supposed to drastically impact the rest of the game. That’s why it’s called a side-quest. While that may be true, in role-playing games side-quests at the very least offer experience, money, weapons, armor, or something of value to the player that makes them worth doing. In Assassin’s Creed completing side-quests very slowly fills a bar that eventually boosts your number of health pellets, but you wind up getting plenty of health just from completing the main missions. Had the side-quests been loaded with more tantalizing incentives, then this likely wouldn’t have been an issue.

That being said, the PC-specific side-quests are definitely the most entertaining. There are stealth archer assassination quests, where you need to take out a number of archers posted on rooftops without being seen, a timed rooftop race sequence, and an escort quest where you periodically fend off attackers while protecting an NPC. The chaotic merchant stand destruction missions were the best, requiring you to toss guards into targeted vendor structures while battling hordes of enemies. They’re better because they actually require you to do something challenging, making use of Altair’s fighting skills and insane athletic ability to a larger extent than, say, sitting on a bench or reaching into someone’s pocket.

There’s more to do than just missions and side-quests, though. You can, for instance, engage in a kind of GTA-style “cop chase” by alerting the guards to your presence and hopping all around the city in an attempt to escape. The control mechanism allows you to attach to and climb any number of surfaces around the cities, be it a wooden board, crack in a wall, or ornamental stone outcropping. It’s a thrilling feeling to sprint across rooftops, bound across gaps bustling with citizens, latch onto precarious pedestals and reach the tops of towers overlooking the entire urban sprawl. You’ll find yourself doing this quite a bit, as climbing is required for surveying the area to detect available side-quests, to break the line of sight from pursuing guards so you can hide, and proves to be enjoyable to watch even if all you’re doing on the control side of things is holding down a few keys. Really, it’s the animation system that’ll steal your attention, which is beautifully smooth as Altair crosses hand-over-hand across a narrow ridge, runs up a wall to grab hold of a windowsill, or hops daintily along sets of narrow beams to avoid the bustle of a marketplace.

Unfortunately, aside from marveling at the sights and creating your own action sequences with pursuing guards, there isn’t much of a reason to actually explore the cities or the Kingdom area. Little collectible flags dot the landscape, but they’re not really worth wasting your time on. You’ll also find the odd save a citizen quest where you can beat back guards and work your way toward increasing your health pellets, but these aren’t particularly engaging, and, by the end of the game, any disturbance caused draws so many guards that it’s really not worth the trouble. So you wind up with these large landscapes featuring all these tantalizing places to climb, but once you’ve clambered up everything you wanted to there’s little else worth doing.

As far as control goes, you can choose to play Assassin’s Creed with a gamepad, but I found the mouse and keyboard to be the better option. Using the mouse buttons and WASD keys gave me more precise control, I felt, of Altair’s movement as I attempted to find the best route to the tops of structures or weave my way through streets choked with innocent bystander NPCs.

The graphics, if you’ve looked at any of the videos for the game, are fantastic, though the requirements are fairly high. We tried the game on an older XP rig for preview and found it still ran at an acceptable framerate with some of the graphics options turned down, so it is actually playable on outdated systems. If you’ve got the hardware to properly power the game on max settings, you’ll be treated to a gorgeous title, mixing amazing animations with strikingly realistic urban landscapes, something that adds to the allure of climbing all over everything. And whether your pounding through the countryside on horseback or slashing at enemies in battle, you’ll be treated to some incredible sound effects.

Conclusion

While Assassin’s Creed is a sandbox-style game, it doesn’t possess the depth of environment of something like Stalker or GTA. Instead, it focuses primarily on its main mission structure. So while the game does deliver marvelously detailed cities and landscapes to explore, there isn’t all that much to do aside from pure exploration and a few types of collectible missions. What you’re left with is a repetitive side-quest requirement for completing each primary mission, though the issue is alleviated somewhat with the PC version’s additional content. It’s not enough for someone who played the game on consoles already, but for somebody totally unfamiliar with the game, it’s certainly worth playing. Even if the game does falter in spots, it still offers a unique mix of action and exploration that deserves to be experienced.

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