Assassin's Creed Review
Earlier this year, Ubisoft treated the gaming world to one of the most impressive trailers anybody had ever seen (be sure to check out our other Creed videos, too). Considering the big-name franchises continue to garner most of the attention in this industry, it was exciting to hear about a title that didn't seem to fit into any given mold. We couldn't lump it into the straightforward action genre with Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, it wasn't "stealth" enough to fit in with Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, and the open-ended sandbox style wasn't quite as freedom-oriented as Grand Theft Auto. Toss in a cohesive and engaging story, significant platforming, role-playing and adventure elements, and you've got one intriguing interactive experience. So now that Ubisoft's grand vision has finally arrived, what exactly is this game? Well, it's a beautiful game that aspires to be engrossing, riveting, addictive and epic, all at the same time; an ambitious endeavor to be sure, and one worthy of praise. Of course, based on the absurd amount of hype and outrageously high expectations, everyone wonders if Ubisoft Montreal hit their lofty goal. Short answer? No, but they got damn close.
As you might've expected, Assassin's Creed is one of the prettiest games out there. In looking at some early reviews, we've noticed complaints regarding pop-in and texture tearing, but in our experience, all of that is quite rare and almost never hinders the overall visual presentation one iota. You know you're looking at a vastly accomplished graphical display when you continually smile in amazement, regardless of your position in this vast and sweeping world. Whether you're on the city streets, working your way through the throng or perched high atop a View Point, the majesty of your surroundings rarely fails. Character and NPC animation is fluid and nigh-on flawless, although the cut-scenes aren't nearly as impressive as we would've liked. It's not perfect, and there are flaws here and there, but to focus on them is nitpicking and anybody who says otherwise needs to take the stick out of you-know-where. In the end, we find it quite difficult to locate better visual depictions in 2007, and in direct comparison, very few games top Assassin's Creed. We can't make it any simpler than that.
Unfortunately, while the graphics set the stage for a truly magical and visceral adventure, the sound doesn't exhibit the same level of outstanding quality. The voice acting is solid - even great, at times - but for whatever reason, the least impressive cast member is Altair...the main character should be a highlight, not a low point. The sound effects are excellent throughout; from the hawkers on the streets to the cries of frightened citizens to the shouts of guards. All of that sounds wonderful, but the balance is a bit off. For example, after saving a citizen from a group of unruly guards, you often won't be able to hear what he or she says in thanks, primarily because the surrounding din of dying soldiers and freaked-out citizens overrides the speech. Now, this may be realistic, but it's still frustrating. The soundtrack works well and is the most consistent aspect of this category, as the music captures Creed's feel nicely. Perhaps best of all, Ubisoft doesn't make the mistake of giving us an overbearing set of tracks; the music never shatters the tension or urgency of the moment, it only augments the atmosphere. It's just too bad the effects lack balance and fine-tuning.
Those of you who aren't familiar with the story may be surprised to learn this game doesn't exactly take place in the Middle Ages. In fact, you are a seemingly normal guy living in present time, but through an advanced form of memory recall and a deeper purpose lacing the proceedings, you relive your days as an assassin many centuries ago. Thing is, your memories are incomplete and even locked, which means you'll have to fill in the blanks as you explore the past. Thankfully, you spend the vast majority of your time as Altair in that past life, which is the crux of the gameplay. At first, the main character appears to us as a brash, over-confident yet very competent individual who doesn't adhere to the "Creed." Early on, we see how this rashness costs him his life, and why he must be "reborn" in order to set things right. Throughout the course of your adventure, you will unravel an admittedly loosely woven mystery; all the while exploring one of the most fully realized virtual worlds in video game history. The key to success centers on your ability to blend in, investigate, and ultimately come to grips with who you are in both the past and present.
These are the basics. But damn, this game is about a lot more than just the basics, although it slips and tends to recycle early themes far too often. During the first hour of play, you will be stripped of your weapons, abilities, and typical assassin skills after that "rebirth" we just mentioned, and you're forced to start over as a novice. As you progress, you will earn back what you lost, and it won't be long before you are a dangerous yet silent individual, one who has no fear of heights and an inherent ability to blend in. You will have access to a sword, short blade, throwing knives, and that nifty hidden blade mounted on a tiny spring on your wrist (obviously, it's for stealth kills). Altair exhibits unbelievable climbing ability, a way of moving with ease through crowds, the typical combat training, and special stealth skills like Pickpocket and Eavesdropping. If he needs to, he can engage multiple enemies at once, save citizens in need, and even attack from horseback. Obviously, this is one diverse guy. However, the player will need to understand that drawing any attention to himself is almost always a bad idea, and herein lies the core of this finely constructed concept.
It's all about subtleness and intricacy. Running and scrambling around on buildings will draw attention; walking and climbing a ladder is "socially acceptable." But even bumping into any one of those many women carrying pots on their heads - inevitably causing them to drop it - will make the guards suspicious. Every soldier you encounter will either be "Unaware," "Suspicious," or "Informed," and there is a particular stance for each status (for instance, if they're walking around with a hand on their sword, they're "Suspicious"). If you want an all-encompassing view of some guards, you can use Eagle Vision to pinpoint their status, thereby giving you the edge. Provided you keep to yourself and don't cause a ruckus, nobody is likely to bother you, but sometimes, it's unavoidable. Saving a citizen is a noble yet very visible act; it's going to gain a lot of attention because you're out there on the streets killing soldiers. But a quick stealth kill on a lone guard won't be a problem, so long as nobody sees you or stumbles upon the body. The most appealing part centers on your relative freedom, as you can approach your objective in a variety of different ways.
Because the world is so huge and many things are optional, one would think we'd continually see a ton of new stuff throughout our quest. But, and this is the main downfall of Assassin's Creed, the developers fell too much in love with a series of awesome missions, and we end up with a gigantic title that tends to repeat itself. In most every new area, the astute gamer will want to track down every View Point, Pickpocket, Eavesdropping, and Save Citizen mini-objective in the area, but while that's always fun, we spend far too much time doing this. There simply isn't enough evolvement; they just don't build on a splendid foundation. However, this being said, we have to reiterate- it is fun, and it's always fun. Granted, if you want to run around in circles beating on people, this isn't the game for you - like we said, it's not for straight-up action aficionados - because you need a goodly amount of patience, imagination and appreciation for the gameplay. It's easy to get tired of walking slowly through the cities, but for those of us who enjoy a thorough and involving virtual experience, we're treated to a singular form of entertainment. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, wait for Devil May Cry 4.
But even if it's not your bag, you'd still be missing out if you opted not to play Assassin's Creed. At first, we seriously questioned the control scheme, which, oddly enough, doesn't feature a jump button and requires a lot of "holding." To leap between buildings, beams or ledges, you run at the gap while holding the R1 and X button. You hold the R1 button for "action" options (punch, for example), and this puts you in "High Profile" mode, which means if you run around with the R1 button held, you'll gain a lot of attention. However, the default is "Low Profile," which means you just walk along. You can even lower your head to "Blend" or blend even further by being amongst scholars or vigilantes; doing so will get you past guard posts without raising an alert. There are also plenty of places to hide in the city, even though Ubisoft only decided to provide us with three: haystacks in wagons, behind the curtains of miniature gardens on rooftops, and simply sitting in between a couple people on a bench. If you're getting chased, you'll want to look for one of these places. However, you'll have to be out of the "line of sight" of your pursuers before you can.
Much like a stealth game, you have a meter that will dictate your visibility status. If it's blue, you're in the clear and you're not drawing any unwanted attention. If it's yellow, the guards are suspicious but if you stay away from that R1 button, you should be fine. If it's red, you've been spotted doing something unsavory and you're gonna get chased. Now, when you're being chased, you need to break the line of sight so you can hide; once the indicator flashes yellow, it means you've temporarily lost the pursuing soldiers and you can seek out a hiding place. Once you've got that, sit tight and you will soon go "invisible" again, and everything is back to normal. The control scheme may seem a little nutty, especially when things get fast-paced, but the system actually works extremely well. You just have to get used to it. As soon as you realize you should never be pressing X while scaling a wall - just use the directional control - you'll be fine. Although we never could figure out if the Leap of Faith required just the R1, just the X, or both at the same time... But whatever. It may not be standard, and the quirkiness can get annoying, but it's more than functional.
One other minor irritant that we soon got used to is the map. They really should've given us a way to discern height, because sometimes, we just had no idea which way to go even though the marker is clear. On the other hand, it's fantastic that we can place a marker over every mini-quest currently available, and simply head to them. This leads us to another plus, which is good news for those who want to take their time- there are no time restrictions in accomplishing your objectives, even if they're optional. Those citizens who need saving will last however long it takes for you to come to their rescue, and that group you wish to eavesdrop on will always have something to say when you've targeted them from the bench. Furthermore, if you miss a Pickpocket or fail in some other objective, it will be reset if you leave for a bit and come back. Practice makes perfect! The map really can be a pain, though, especially with so large a world. With so much to explore, we had hoped they'd point out a few more things in the Kingdom, too.
Finally, we'd like to end on a high note and outline several aspects of this game that are truly "next-gen." It starts with how characters react to Altair, even if he's just walking through a crowd. If you're running and knock into a character, you could go sprawling, but if you carefully push your way through, nobody will be adversely affected. Your sword stance and maneuvers are accurate, and you and your foes will respond realistically when struck or when parrying. But perhaps best of all is the AI and how your pursuers will track you through the city. You will quickly realize that Altair is one agile dude, but those soldiers aren't mindless dolts. They will diligently chase you through the city streets, other guards will instantly be alerted and join the pursuit, and if they can't follow you...well, we're about to describe one moment where we actually said "wow." We found a View Point - they're really high - with about a half-dozen soldiers following, and we immediately started to scale the building. Yep, we're safe. Wait, was that a rock...? The soldiers can't reach, so they're tossing rocks! One of them hits its mark, and we lose our grasp and fall a very long way down.
See? That's the kind of thing that we just love to see. It's only a small part of the game, but it greatly enhances the innovation and quality. And in the end, all the small things added together make this title a gem; how Altair clearly grabs and scales wonderfully detailed sides of buildings and structures is only one tiny positive. But what about the way a citizen might spot downed guards and Altair walking away and exclaim, "Help! That man's a murderer! Guards!" Or how Altair and his horse actually has real physical momentum (it takes a bit of time to slow down or reverse direction)? And let's not forget the downright absurd number of NPCs; the reason we find such a lively and teeming world is because there are dozens upon dozens of unique figures on every city street! The very untraditional control scheme may turn on you from time to time, but you'll learn. It's only because Ubisoft doesn't completely follow through with this vision of theirs that Altair and Co. falls just shy of being overwhelmingly incredible. But bear in mind one thing- the repetition tends to lie mostly in the optional aspects of the game; if you simply go straight through and follow the story closely, that recycling of the same ol' same ol' may not be too evident. The story is really worth delving into, but we're not about to give everything away.
Assassin's Creed wants to be the best of the best. It strives for interactive nirvana and seeks to provide the player with one of those games that stands head-and-shoulders above anything else, and for quite a long time. But as hard as they tried and as much as we want to say it, they don't quite reach that uber-ambitious goal. It almost seems as if the humungous world they created and the idea that lies beneath the premise was too big to embrace; it was simply beyond current development possibilities. On the other hand, Ubisoft Montreal did come close, which means we end up with a great game. It's one of the best of this new generation and proves two things: 1. just how far the industry has come, and 2. just how far it can go. We continually catch glimpses of video game revolution in Creed, and sooner or later, we'll get more than just glimpses. For now, though, we'll take this. We'll take it because it's fun, beautiful, accomplished, challenging, original, atmospheric, detailed and even breathtaking. Those who can view this one in either 720p or 1080i high-definition are in for a real treat.
Oh, and one last thing- anybody who awards this game less than an 8.5 needs surgery to remove the elitist "hey, I did that before and there's a pop-in; this game is only average now" mentality. Seriously, get over yourself.
11/14/2007 Ben Dutka