Nov 8, 2007
We're just going to come right out and say it: Assassin's Creed is fantastic. More to the point, it's beautifully realized, richly detailed and carried by a story with twists that rival the surprises of BioShock. It's also endlessly fun, giving players complete freedom to tear ass across the rooftops and streets of its medieval cities as they track down their targets and try to avoid attracting attention while doing so.
Cherry-picking elements from games like Prince of Persia, Gun, Crackdown and Hitman, Assassin's Creed offers up a huge, freely explorable game world consisting of three crowded, historically accurate cities - Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem - as well as the Assassin-controlled fortress village of Masyaf. All of these are connected by The Kingdom, a vast expanse of secret-filled wilderness that can be explored on horseback.
The meat of the game revolves around slipping undetected into each of the cities in turn, fully exploring one of its three districts while investigating a single assassination target, and then pulling off a risky, high-profile hit in public before cheesing it to safety and reporting back to Masyaf. Along the way, you'll pick pockets, save citizens from armed bullies, sprint recklessly up walls and across debris-strewn rooftops and play lots and lots of cat-and-mouse games with the cities’ guards.
Publisher Ubisoft has been extremely cagey about the game's long-rumored sci-fi trappings, but because they're revealed so quickly, it's not really a spoiler to say what we're about to say (although if you really don't want to spoil the game's first five minutes, go ahead and skip to the next page): Assassin's Creed actually follows two storylines. First, there's white-robed Altair, an arrogant young Assassin cultist who lives in the Kingdom of Jerusalem circa 1191, during the Third Crusade. Soon after the game begins, Altair botches a vital mission deep underneath Solomon's Temple; disgraced, he's given a chance to restore his honor by assassinating nine key Muslim and Crusader political figures, thereby restoring some peace to the region.
Then there's Desmond Miles, Altair's near-future descendant, who's kidnapped by a shadowy corporation and strapped into a machine that can unlock the ancestral memories stored in his DNA. His segments - which bookend each chapter of Altair's story - play a little like a point-and-click adventure and are confined to the lab where he's imprisoned. Why this layer of sci-fi weirdness even exists isn't clear at first, but it never feels tacked on, and the things you'll learn here will gradually cast an unsettling new light on Altair's story.
Each of the game's nine central missions breaks down in a similar way: when Altair enters the district where your target lives, his knowledge of the area will be a complete blank - the map is fogged over, and there are no visible objectives. To unfog your map and reveal points of interest, you'll need to seek out and scale an assortment of "View Points," dizzyingly tall structures that range from relatively small watchtowers and minarets to gigantic, realistically detailed castles, cathedrals and lighthouses. Climbing to the top of one reveals the locations of the others in the area, as well as opening up access to a couple of side missions. The best part is that, when you're finished climbing, you can get down quickly via a vertigo-inducing swan dive into a conveniently placed haystack (which will automatically break Altair's fall from any height, anywhere).
Key to getting up there in the first place is the game's free running feature, which takes a little getting used to but is incredibly fun once you do. Rather than worrying about jumping over obstacles manually, you can just hold down two buttons while running and you'll automatically parkour over anything in your way, whether it's a crate, a wall or a series of tightropes. It feels a little like cheating, until you realize that it enables you to effortlessly get around in a hurry, which is especially useful when a bunch of guards are hot on your tail and you don't want to deal with any complex jumping puzzles.
The side missions you discover by climbing view points, meanwhile, are what you need to pursue in between entering a district and actually killing your target, and they break down into a few simple tasks: eavesdropping on conversations; pickpocketing sensitive documents; interrogating some preaching demagogue by following them into an alley and beating them senseless; doing a favor for an informant (which always either involves stealth-killing soldiers or collecting flags in some inane rooftop race); or saving some citizen who's being pushed around by a small group of guards.
That last one is the most repetitive by far, as it always involves breaking up the fight and then getting into one yourself, although the rewards it offers - releasing a group of monks to hide among or vigilantes to waylay your pursuers - make it completely optional. In fact, unless you're a completist, most of the side missions can be ignored altogether; you'll only really need to accomplish two or three of them before you'll have enough intel to go after your intended victim.
Assassin's Creed offers a lot of options for tackling your objectives; if some soldiers are guarding a gate, for example, you can climb over the wall next to them, blend in with a group of monks and walk right past them, create a distraction to lure them away or just pick a fight with them. Whatever you decide to do, however, the crowd is often your greatest tool. The game is really incredible in this respect, rendering dozens of highly detailed, unique citizens at once, and they can either be a huge asset or a huge hindrance. If you're playing it slow and cool, they're your cover, and you can gently push your way through them unnoticed, or try to blend in with them when suspicious guards give you the stink eye.
On the other hand, they act more or less like real people, and they'll draw attention to you the second you do anything out of the ordinary. Start climbing the side of a building, for example, and they'll get upset and start shouting that you're going to fall and hurt yourself. If you're trying to run from guards, they'll unwittingly get in your way, forcing you to shove them aside instead of just sprinting like crazy. And then there are the beggars and crazies, whose job it is to irritate you, get in your way and bring attention to you by whining loudly or shoving you around.
Despite all the annoyances and the game's strange resemblance to a medieval Grand Theft Auto IV, however, you can't just randomly kill people, at least not unless you want your life bar to take a hit. A silent stab and a falling body can create a diversion that draws everyone's attention away from you, but since Altair is nominally a good guy, it's best to save that stuff for use on guards, Knights Templar and other bullies.
When the guards catch wise to you - and they will - you'll have two options: run and find a hiding place until the alert phase is over, or stand and fight until nobody wants to mess with you anymore. If you pick the latter, expect to be surrounded by a group of guards that attack one at a time, like bad guys in a kung fu movie. This is stupid, yes, but it works in the context of the game's unique combat system.
Survival here isn't a matter of just wildly hacking at your enemies, but of careful timing; your enemies are extremely good at blocking your strikes, so it's often best to simply hang back in a defensive stance (which will deflect most attacks) and rely on precisely timed counterattacks, which usually kill instantly. Later on, you'll learn a lot of moves that will give you an edge in a fight (as well as some instant-kill throwing knives that will let you avoid most of them), but they're never really necessary for survival.
What makes the fights interesting is that the guards don't act like robots - they'll sometimes drop their guard to taunt you or scratch an itch, leaving them open to a strike (note: taking advantage of this will prompt other guards to immediately attack you from behind). They'll also react with horror when you messily kill their friends, and will sometimes even give up and run away screaming if things aren't going their way. The crowds around you will react in much the same way, gathering around to watch at first, and then scattering in terror at the first sign of blood.
But guards aren't who you're there to kill. The actual assassinations that cap each mission vary wildly, beginning with a simple, quiet stabbing in the middle of a crowd and working up to increasingly elaborate set-pieces in which you'll have to stab a magistrate at a public execution (in front of a huge crowd of onlookers and guards, no less), or chase a slaver through crowded streets. And when you finally deliver the killing blow, you'll have a weird, heart-to-heart conversation with them in which they (usually) defend their seemingly despicable work as good and just, leaving you to wonder just what the hell is going on.
With its riveting story, beautiful visuals and surprisingly lifelike world, Assassin's Creed is an incredibly deep, enjoyable game that kept us addicted from beginning to bizarre end. It's bogged down by a lot of monotonous repetition and a fighting system that's sure to frustrate hack-and-slash fans, but neither of those things really diminished our enjoyment of the game, and both were far outweighed by the thrill of tearing around its enormous cities and carefully planning spectacular assassinations. It might not be for everyone, but playing through Assassin's Creed still stands as one of the most outstanding gaming experiences of 2007.