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SummaryOkay, we've got the playground. Now all we need is a game...
The GoodTo what can I compare Assassin's Creed?.. Prince of Persia? The Middle Eastern setting and the acrobatic manoeuvres are pretty much the only common denominators. Metal Gear Solid comes to mind when you think about sneaking and infiltrating with a larger-than-life story on the background. But for the reasons mentioned in the "Bad" section, even Hideo Kojima's convoluted soap opera heroes look like trained real-life spies compared to the sheer dilettantism of Altair and his adversaries. Actually, the games I thought of most while playing Assassin's Creed were (perhaps surprisingly) GTA series. Exploring large cities, hijacking horses and having trouble with the law brought back memories.
This alone should give you an idea about how unorthodox Assassin's Creed is. So let my praise begin with just that. The gameplay of Assassin's Creed is unique. It's like a gigantic mega-platform game in a sandbox world with stealth. And even though it is very far from perfect, some of its gameplay works very well and manages to be genuinely exciting.
The most interesting aspect of the game is its acrobatic platform action, which comes in nearly unlimited amounts. Platform games are associated with linearity. The best platform game is usually one that has the tightest design. The developers invent clever puzzles, intricately constructed levels, and then invite you to play inside their creation. But Assassin's Creed shows that platforming can also be fun (at least for a while) when it is open-ended. The platform "levels" of the game are entire cities; the walls, the windows, the roofs - an organic whole that looks natural no matter in which part of it you are. You always feel that you are in a city, not in some cleverly designed contraption. Only the conveniently placed little chambers on the roofs and the hay stacks feel like "game elements"; but those aren't integral parts of the platform gameplay.
The platform action is splendidly animated, feels natural, is never frustrating, and is fun to do even without any particular goal - which is most of the time, since the game almost never forces you to take a particular route. Want to do some sports? The roofs are open to you. Tired of monkeying around? Go down into the city and walk like a human being.
The sheer fun of being able to go anywhere in the city, (at least outside, since you can't enter most of the houses) is incomparable. The moment you visit one of those vast, beautiful cities, you have a mad desire to jump and climb, because you know you can. You see huge buildings towering over the city, and the first thing that comes to your mind is: "I want to climb there!". And you can. Go ahead and climb wherever you want. You jump over rooftops, hang from ledges, walk over narrow planks, and finally climb on that huge tower. The wind is your only friend now, you are far, far above everything and everyone, you carefully stand up and look down - the city lies at your feet...
The game is worth playing just for such moments. The views are so breathtaking that you'll feel that you don't want to go back. But when you do go, down onto the streets, you find yourself in really crowded cities. Narrow streets, people walking everywhere, pushing you aside, merchants selling their wares, guards bullying innocents, beggars blocking your way and asking for money - the cities live their life. Walking around those cities, exploring them, seeing their two faces - the world underneath and the world of the rooftops - is what makes the game unlike anything you've seen before.
Of course, Assassin's Creed owes a lot to its magical setting. Maybe I'm not completely objective, because this is one of the few games that are set in my country, at least partially (Damascus is in today's Syria, but Jerusalem and Acre are in Israel). Jerusalem is the city I grew up in, and it was a very moving experience for me to visit it in a game. Actually, Jerusalem of Assassin's Creed is only based on the real Jerusalem; anyone who knows the city can see that the layout doesn't match. But still, the atmosphere is there, and the general depiction is rather accurate.
So, what do you do in those cities, beside performing stunts on the roofs? Well, it is certain that Assassin's Creed has interesting gameplay ideas. Some of the stuff you can do in the game is cool and original. Putting your palms together in a hypocrite prayer and mixing with a crowd of religious scholars while harboring a sharp dagger in your sleeve and a wish to kill in your heart is a good example.
There are a lot of such nice little touches, things that you wouldn't normally be able to do in other games - like moving through a crowd and gently pushing people aside. I loved the way the crowd reacted to your movements, the breaking of the jars people carried on their heads, and the sheer chaos the cities turned into after you are discovered by the guards. Similarly to GTA, you can wreak havoc in the cities, simply starting killing people or destroying things.
The assassinations, which play the role of "boss fights", or rather "boss levels" in this game, have some scripted events and generally take place in unique buildings. Despite the simplistic nature of their goals (go and kill that person), the assassinations have enough variety to sustain the interest of the player even without paying much attention to the story.
Speaking of which, I didn't quite expect Assassin's Creed to have a good story; I thought it would be more of an "assassin simulation" with all the focus on the gameplay. But to my delight, the story turned out to be a rather intriguing piece of work with enough alternate history and philosophical speculations to satisfy a fan of such things. Though it had way too much of a banal "conspiracy theory" flavor for my taste, it was interesting to witness an attempt of a "historical reconstruction" in a video game narrative.
There is an interesting twist in the way this narrative is structured: the "frame" story is actually set in modern times, and while 99% of the action takes place in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades, the true protagonist of the game is not Altair, but his descendant Desmond (this is not a spoiler, since it is revealed in the very beginning of the game). Everything that happens to Altair is a "memory" experienced by Desmond through a special device that lets him connect to the mind of his ancestor.
The BadSome games don't have any noticeable flaws, but also don't have anything that would raise them above the rest of the crowd. Assassin's Creed is just the opposite: there are plenty of things to love in it, but also too many things it does wrong - or should I rather say: doesn't do at all.
For starters, the premise of the game is absolutely misleading. When we begin to play it, everything indicates a stealth game. Which is logical, since we control an assassin in this game, somebody who has to hide and to stay unnoticed to perform his dark deeds successfully. That's what the game was probably supposed to be. But in reality, it's something entirely different. If you expected something along the lines of Thief, you will be sorely disappointed. The stealth in Assassin's Creed is useless.
You don't need to hide for one simple reason: the incredibly easy combat. Now, this is coming from a guy who plays every damn action game on the lowest difficulty level. This is probably the first time that I complain about easy combat in an action game. But seriously, the combat in Assassin's Creed is a joke. In a most ridiculous way, enemies can attack you only one at a time. Even if you are surrounded by ten enemies (which happens quite often), they will all take turns in attacking you. That would have been half the trouble; but early in the game, you learn the counter move, and that settles it. By using this move every time, you can defeat even the toughest opponents in a few strikes.
In a game in which you can do so many cool things in order to stay unnoticed, the laughable combat kills the necessity of doing those things, effectively depriving the game of some of its most interesting features. Why run away, looking for a place to hide, if you can just stand in the middle of a crowded market and kill all those guards that come at you one by one?
Unfortunately, the cool things that I mentioned in the "Good" section are not all that cool, either. In the beginning of the game, it's exciting to learn how to pick-pocket people, how to trace informers, how to overhear conversations. But very soon you realize that all those activities are little more than extremely simple mini-games that appear only when they serve some purpose for the plot. You can't just pick-pocket somebody on the street or eavesdrop on any conversation you like. You'll be restricted to doing it to a few select characters as part of advancing the story. And even then, doing those things is extremely easy and requires virtually no skill from you.
Seeing how all this suggested gameplay variety gets reduced to a number of harmless gimmicks, it's no wonder that the core gameplay of Assassin's Creed quickly becomes extremely repetitive. The entire game is composed of nine assassination missions, which are all built exactly the same way: you go to a city, climb tall buildings to find out what's going on, choose one of the several available mini-games, which repeat themselves over and over again, automatically obtain information about the target, and then perform the actual assassination. Granted, the assassinations themselves can vary, but the way to get there is the same no matter what, and it gets old very quickly.
The platforming action, smooth as it is, is ultimately of little importance, since the game does too many things for you. It's very hard to do something wrong because the game zealously protects you from harm. Jumps don't need to be timed, climbing is nearly automatic, and the routes are always convenient for you. You basically press the two mouse buttons and move them forward, and voila - Altair will do everything for you.
That pretty much defines the game's main problem: it is set in a beautiful environment, but this environment is little more than a backdrop, instead of being something that demands interaction and challenge. You learn all your tricks very early in the game, and after this there is nothing left but follow the depressing routine of assassination missions. You can't do anything else in the game. The few mini-games that were added in the PC version are like tiny snacks offered to a hungry person.
Despite its interesting premise, the story has left me cold. Worse than the narrative itself is the necessity to play as Altair - a thoroughly unlikeable person, a killer who obviously enjoys his work and is not motivated by anything else but personal gain.