Summary: Assassin's Creed finally makes its way to the PC. How does it stack up? Does it meet the Thief legacy? Brett explores this deep philosophical question.
So I was mighty jazzed when people started calling Assassin's Creed the second coming of Thief last year. Wild talk about sneaking through wide-open medieval cities you could explore from top to bottom had me so fired up that I almost bought the game for the Xbox 360 last year. Only word of a PC port stayed my hand, largely because I thought that mouse-and-keyboard controls would be the only way to properly experience a hardcore sneaker like this.
Now that the game has finally hit the PC, I'm glad that I waited. Maybe this is just another case of me arriving late for the party and being spoiled by months of hype, but Assassin's Creed seems overproduced and flimsy. Even though the three cities in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre are big and have an authentic Middle Eastern vibe (minarets everywhere will do that, I guess), everything is laid out in such a step-by-step fashion that it's like you're walking with mommy through a crowded store. Sneaking is almost entirely absent, which feels weird in a game about a hooded assassin with the powers of The Shadow, the storyline is clunky, and level goals are so repetitive that you've seen everything that the game has to offer after a few hours of play. There is no room for free thinking here, let alone any Thiefly freewheeling.
Trouble begins with the plot. While the meat of the game takes place in the Middle Eastern Crusader kingdoms of the 12th century, that story is introduced with a cutscene-anchored plot device about searching for information through genetic memories. So while you're mainly stepping out in the sneakers of Altair, a ninja-like Islamic assassin plying his trade and killing nine public figures in the aforementioned medieval burgs during the Crusader occupation, you're also a 21st century bartender named Desmond Miles who's been kidnapped and hooked up to a geegaw called the Animus so that sinister scientists can peek at his brain. All of the events occurring in the game are just memories that you're recalling while laid out on a table. It's all sort of like Vanilla Sky with extra pretentiousness.
Which is nifty…in theory. The story evolves into a grand conspiracy running through the centuries that's vaguely reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, and rather entertaining if you don't look too closely at the multicultural-friendly "Muslims good, Christians bad" characterizations and dialogue. Using this sort of you-are-there gimmick to draw players into a fantastic world has worked well in the past, too. The Ultima RPGs, for instance, had the protagonist venturing to the fantasy realm of Britannia from our own world at the start of every adventure. Seeing some average schlub sucked out of his easy chair and into a magical gate set up a great, geeky "That could be me!" vibe.
Here, though, the modern stuff is too big of an influence on gameplay. Instead of just introducing the genetic memory claptrap and then ditching it for cutting throats in medieval Damascus, you're beaten over the head with sci-fi nonsense. Visuals are frequently interrupted by computer code that runs up the screen like blips in the matrix. Even something as simple as locking on to an NPC gives him or her a halo of funky electronic gibberish. Larger static-like glitches are even used as a gameplay device during cutscenes, as you're rewarded with a new camera angle if you click the mouse fast enough when this interference ripples across the screen.
Repetitive gameplay in Assassin's Creed adds even more problems. A template is established early on and the game then rarely varies from it. Your nine kills always play out the same way. A mission starts by being given a mystery to solve, largely by taking on the same mini-quests over and over again. You climb identical towers to gain viewpoints over cities and reveal more of the map. You pick pockets and eavesdrop on conversations. You dodge guards by doing a monk-walk in the midst of wandering scholars. You kill guards who are bullying citizens. You "interrogate" weaselly informants by beating them up. After going through these motions, you then determine a victim who needs assassinating, meet with the local assassin bureau chief to get a feather signifying acceptance of the contract, and finally run down your target and dispatch him in a fashion that the plot pretty much shoehorns you into accepting.
At first, this is all rather awesome. It's different, thanks to the Middle Eastern architecture and the varied crowds of people you bump into on the streets. Scaling walls like Spider-Man and running up walls like the dudes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a lot of fun. And the mouse-and-keyboard controls provide an extraordinarily fine ability to guide Altair through his acrobatics, balancing hands-on control with automated leaping about. Kills can be made with a blade tucked up your sleeve or in wild scimitar-flashing melees loaded with combos. Getting spotted by guards leads to pell-mell scrambles down streets and across rooftops where you try to escape just long enough to hide in a haystack or a roof garden. The feel here is a lot like being chased by the cops in a GTA game, with the hay and gardens standing in for Pay-and-Sprays. So the action sequences can be an absolute blast.
But there is just too much routine. It's like the developers at Ubisoft Montreal finished off the great atmosphere and attitude, then broke for the day and never got back to finishing the gameplay. Instead of designing interesting scenarios and throwing Altair into the middle of them to sink or swim, they crafted a fairly generic ninja-like assassin with a handful of canned trick moves to perform ad nauseum. There also isn't really any stealth here, despite press hype to the contrary. Blending into crowds and performing sneaky kills is often a waste of time, as you can easily slaughter your way through packs of alerted guards once you get a feel for the combat controls. Again, everything is too straightforward and formulaic--especially for a game about an assassin prowling city streets.
At least those city streets look amazing. Assassin's Creed is spectacularly gorgeous. Great lighting effects and city architecture evocative of the medieval Holy Land do such a great job of immersing you in Altair's world that it's intensely frustrating every time that you're yanked into Miles' spookily sterile laboratory. Audio effects are quite varied, as well, and the voice-acting more than respectable despite the use of a lot of accents. The only presentation problems involve high system requirements (although I personally didn't have any gripes over how the game ran on my 8800 GTX system) and a lot of audio glitches like over-the-top echo effects on voices that render conversations in rooms almost incomprehensible.
Stop me if you've heard this one before
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