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Reviewed: Assassin's Creed
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: November 28th, 2007
Page: 2

The first thing Assassin's Creed sets off to do is confuse the player - before any tutorial pops up, before anything else happens, they are hit with a massive blast of storyline. Despite the ads, the game isn't "technically" set in ancient times... no, you see, it's about having a man hooked up to an entirely-too-complicated machine and being forced to relive his "genetic memories" (read: memories of his great-great-great-ancestors somehow stored in his genetic code) to certain points so that a rather mad scientist can extract information relevant to "certain people" from his brain.

Why this is any more compelling than a storyline that merely follows three different people, who happen to be relatives of each other, through history I'm not entirely sure either. It hurts far worse that this is the biggest plot twist in the game, and is given away even before the tutorial level, effectively ending any real speculation or storyline mystery Assassin's Creed might otherwise have had.

After this massive blast of storyline, however, players are finally set the task of actually following the game's challenges - which isn't necessarily just playing levels, but being the most "in sync" with their ancestor's actions. Fairly rampant cutscenes will show "glitches" from time to time, allowing the player to temporarily "switch perspectives" during preprogrammed conversations, and certain abilities (such as the uncanny ability to tell friend from foe from informant from innocent civilian from assassination target) are only unlocked while you're fully "in sync."

Yes, it's that complicated, and it gets more so.

The next phase of the game has the player learning to navigate crowds and be undetected. Choosing weapons happens on the D-pad. Actually going past a crowd (by bumping people lightly instead of merely forcing your way through) requires holding a button; motion is on the analog stick. The oddest part is the distinction between "socially acceptable" and "socially unacceptable" actions, those being the ones that nobody will notice and those that will instantly bring guards to you with swords drawn. Obviously, killing someone qualifies, as does running through a crowd shoulder-blocking everyone, but for some reason standing in the middle of the road and jumping up and down earns the player a rush of amazingly homicidal guards rather than mere strange looks from passersby. I'm not sure the point of that particular programming anomaly, but it's part of the game, so here's a free tip: don't randomly jump around in public.

It's also essential to note that the buttons don't correspond to actions, but to body parts, just to further confuse players - there's not an "attack" button but a "left arm" button, not a "sword" but "right arm", not a "look" but "head" button, and not "run" but "legs" - in short, the controls feel odd. It takes an extra bit of getting used to before the controls are really second nature thanks to that little 'twist.'

Now that we're out of the weird sci-fi storyline and into what appears to be the main game storyline, a few other things - this is a game "steeped in historical fact" and written "by a diverse crew." No, seriously, they have to inform you of this during the opening credits for some reason. The bare bones is that you're an Assassin (if the game's title didn't already clue you in), aka a member of the famed "Hashshashin" group that plotted politically-motivated murders during the 11th through 13th centuries and were rumored to imbibe hashish (where the name of the group comes from) to put themselves into a trance before executing their grim tasks. You get your orders, figure out who you're supposed to kill, and do it... over and over again.

The game slowly unlocks more areas and possibilities, including exploration of rooftops. You can literally run from one end of Jerusalem to the other, taking in the sights and scenery, and checking out each roof and house and alleyway along the way. You can attract a slew of guards hunting you down, or take your time and become invisible in plain sight, just another wandering scholar on the roadways. Every time you get a new assassination target, more areas open up, and you've got more to work with. Sure, each level has a 5+ minute load time, but once you're in, you're in - you at least don't have to suffer load zones much. There's an extra bit hidden in the climbing mode; first you get to actually control the climbing, picking out handholds and footholds like a real climber, but every now and then you'll find a zone where the camera swings out to give you a good, long-distance city view. It's admittedly a cheap way to showcase the graphical goodies in the engine, but it's still breathtaking when you find them.

Unfortunately, the possible real "killer" for Assassin's Creed comes in the repetitive nature of the gameplay. You're not given your target straight away, but instead forced to "investigate" each one, which comes down to a few simple tasks; kill a guard to gain an informant's trust, pick someone's pocket, or run a race for a bunch of little flags. Yeah, you heard right - and let's face it, of all the options, that last one really does the best to break the suspension of disbelief that up until that point the game had managed to achieve. It's a mission that just screams "Hey, this is a game!" to the player from behind the fourth wall. Once you find your mark, you're also forced to watch a rather longwinded cutscene on just why it is that this guy deserves to die; nevermind that mostly, the reason for the Hashshashin targeting someone is that they just didn't like his politics, the game's writers felt that it be important you were doing something "noble" by sticking a stealthy dagger through their hearts.

There's also a pretty big disconnect in AI - despite the fact that guards are supposed to go on "city wide alert" once you've cruelly stuck a knife in some corrupt politician's back and sneered as you twist, there are plenty of guards in the city who just never get the memo, and go into preprogrammed patterns of "challenging" the player and giving plenty of time for escape or just killing them, too. They also, as in far too many games, drop out of "aware mode" far too fast; once you've got line of sight dropped, you can pretty much go into your "wandering scholar" disguise and waltz right by without their noticing you.

Want to be a brawler instead of a sneaker? Get used to rhythmic button-tapping (there's one "Guard" and one "Attack" button in melee, and it's more a matter of working out the pattern to win than winning by mashing) and you're there. Not much changes, so it should be possible to get some satisfying cutscenes and just leave a trail of dead guards in your wake. At least, until it gets boring to do so.

As a shorter title, and one that has equal potential to be loved or hated, I must definitely classify Assassin's Creed as a rent before buying title. You may finish it, with perseverance, in a weekend rental. If you're on one of the various game rental services, now's the time to use them - you won't be on this one more than a week. If you absolutely love it, you'll come back for another play-through, but there's an equal chance of your wanting to put it right back into its mailing envelope 2-3 hours in.

Added:  Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf
Page: 2/3

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