Even a few years after its release, the development and release of Assassin’s Creed still feels like a pleasant surprise, especially considering its overwhelming sales intake since. Beset on all sides by gray-and-brown shooters and other safe bets, a third-person stealth-action title set simultaneously in the not-so-distant future and the Third Crusade was about the furthest thing from industry expectations. Early trailers were brilliant, and pre-release reviews only furthered the hype, but after getting their hands on it, many games felt let down by the game’s imbalance. What it did well was done spectacularly, but the some complained of obvious design pitfalls and mistakes that dragged the game’s value down steeply.
But how does Ubisoft’s hidden-blade-packing IP fare in Elder-Geek hands? More importantly, does the later release of a “Director’s Cut” edition for the PC add any more muscle to the game, or is this leap of faith better left to trailer-nostalgia?
Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
The original Creed hit the market like a knife thrust into a throat, promising an open-world with nine evil men that needed dispatching, and plenty of parkour-inspired flair and skill to help get the job done. Many gamers avoiding initial reviews were shocked, however, that the much publicized Altair was not the character they were truly playing.
You are given the reigns to Desmond, a seemingly blasé bartender of the near-future, who was recruited against his will to participate in a mega-company’s experiments regarding genetic memory. For the majority of the game Desmond is hooked to the Animus, a device capable of retracting and recording ancient memories from Desmond’s very bloodline and instincts. This is where the Third Crusade comes in. The ancestor of choice for the Animus is Altair, an elite assassin who looses his weapons and abilities ala Metroid after failing a mission and attracting Templar attention to his order.
In order to regain his status, he is set to the three major cities of the realm; Acre, Jerusalem, and Damascus; and charged with the death of nine key players in the Last Crusade. The science fiction elements of the plot, while spoiling what seemed like a cool concept for some gamers, is implemented well, appearing only as bookmarked sequences in between several successful assassinations. They break up the action with great effect, giving the game a much needed aid to pacing, especially after the repetitive nature of the assassination routine begins to set in.
For the most part, the game is set in the 12th century, and the story flows well into a deep philosophical meandering around human nature and the perception of good and evil, life and afterlife. Accents aid in the narrative absorption, and the real-time cutscenes are placed and performed well, with the player having the option to change to a more dramatic angle at a fluttering prompt from the Animus. What carries the weight of the tale most, however, is Ubisoft’s attention to detail. Those willing to research will find most city layout, costumes, and character design accurate to history, and the attention goes far in creating a tangible reality up against the static, sterile environment of the future story segments.
Once you begin to retract from the storied debates on morality, however, you begin to see the binary relationship Assassin’s Creed has with quality. For everything done well, there is another mechanic that could have used a major overhaul. In your various adventures you’ll be thrust into various populaces in various socio-economic portions of each city. And while the collected NPCs of the town move both with distinctive individuality and an incredible awareness for the others around them, they also succumb to infuriating lapses of disruptive behavior, making the player less aware of their technical sophistication and more aware of their constant annoyance. The fiftieth time a beggar women isolates you from the throngs of those around you and enters a begging orbit around you, its difficult to appreciate the rest of the NPCs complicated movement patterns.
One thing that escapes Creed’s half-good/half-bad motif is Altair’s own controls. When launching yourself across the sun-baked rooftops of Jerusalem, Altair’s character animation flawlessly maneuvering from one to the next with nary a seam, it still feels impressive. Even with the recent comic-book action title Infamous building upon – and perfecting – the free-running formula, Assassin’s Creed still manages to entertain, guiding Altair with only the analog stick and the occasional jump button press goes a long way to making you feel as bad ass as the game tells you that you are. He can grab on to any hand or foothold, and effortlessly glide to the next available with a single flick, something that is breathlessly cool when doing so passive, and even more so used to escape an entire armed militia.
But by far the most deterring factor to the title is its combat. Initially, your basic skills make a combat a irritating, if engrossing, beast. But once you learn Altair’s counter-kill maneuver, however, combat becomes nothing more than a tedious quick-time event, with you positioning Altair next to your intended victim, waiting for him to telegraph his strike, and rapidly pressing the counter-kill button to dispatch him. Couple that with the game’s tendency to draw you into 1 on 20 battles with guards, each one patiently waiting for their turn to attack as you pick up every single one of their unit, and it’s difficult to appreciate the fluid combat animations and brutal sword finishing moves. If fighting isn’t your bag, you could always attempt escape, by breaking your opponent’s line of sighting and entering into several different hiding places; from the sensible hanging garden to the oddly cartoonish bench-sitting.
Getting to the combat portion of your assassination missions quickly becomes monotonous as well. In order to establish a profile on each of your nine victims, you must first gather three facets of information from five available challenge types across the city. You must do this for every single assassination, and the thrill of sitting on a bench to eavesdrop on a conversation quickly looses its luster. The first four missions or so will be a thrill; you are given free reign over a section of a city to perform information gathering or various side missions (like saving a harassed citizen) before making the big kill. Once you obtain the required intel and receive permission to perform the kill, you’ll be treated to the game’s main set-pieces, pitting you and your mastery over your various weapons and skills to dispatch your target and receive his final soliloquy over his views on his actions and morality. It never gets old, but you’ll most likely be forcing yourself through the pre-assassination drudgery after a while to just get back to the game’s high points, the game becoming a truncated boot camp of sorts: long stretches of monotony punctuated by brief periods of intensity
How much value you’ll receive out of Assassin’s Creed is directly related to how much you can force yourself to play beyond pleasure. With only scant collectibles to offer in re-played sessions, you’re paying for everything you can get one-time through. What begins as entertaining side missions devolves into tests of endurance and patience, testaments to how much you’ll put yourself through for each story segment and assassination. But the high points still pack enough punch, even two years after release, to merit at least an attempt on most gamer’s part. The development team’s eye for history and balanced, intelligent storytelling should keep most intrigued enough to keep playing throughout and those will less patience will still have some truly exquisite moments of Assassin-style power-play to satiate their appetite. Anyone hungering for a game that at least attempts to be different in such a safe market should give this one a chance.
Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut (PC)
Luckily, those PC gamers hesitant to risk their paycheck on yet another console-to-keyboard translation will be rewarded with Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut edition. In-depth customization options for everything from controls to utilized software will definitely ease the translation from the d-pad to the mouse-and-keyboard, although those that wish to experience the best possible control over the smooth-moving Altair will do well to opt for a 360-controller option.
One of the major revisions to the overall structure of the game, thankfully, is the addition of four new information-gathering side missions: requiring you to perform additional tasks like taking out archer-guards from their post without being spotted and a highly entertaining rooftop race mission. For some reason though, Ubisoft took a giant step back in gameplay and included an escort mission variety, one of the key features any great game lacks. These new sub-missions greatly alleviate much of the game’s core tedium, and opens up the majority of the game to the player’s preference and style. There is also much more challenge to them; following a bystander and beating him for information doesn’t really scream “assassin.”
If the original game was a visual painting, then the Director’s Cut is a Monet; an advancement to the existing graphical engine, without breaking the pre-defined borders to the next visual level. The specification requirements are steep though, negating many of the middling XP machines and even putting higher-end ones to the test depending on how high you set the bar. While incredible in fidelity and scope, the lack of variety in the color palette and stiff entry-bar makes it a difficult purchase to recommend on graphics alone.
Sadly, the listed changes are the most PC gamers will find different, and considering how far a simple combat control loosening would have done, it’s a noticeable blemish on the title. However, the expansion and additions to the side missions greatly free up what was the game’s major ugliness, and for those with rig enough to handle it, it’s worth opting out of the console market for that alone. However, those unsure of their rigs will definitely want to compare specs before taking the leap of faith. A definite purchase if you can stomach sub-par combat, especially if you are familiar with what the game has to offer from the console versions.