Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360) review
"When you first enter a city, you'll generally follow the same process: climb a tower to reveal more of the map, visit your guild, investigate until you have enough clues to find your target, then take his life. Along the way, you can stop soldiers from picking on unlucky citizens and you can scale the tallest structures to aid in your search, but a lot of that is unnecessary and time-consuming. Even the investigations themselves grow old, since they almost always involve punching someone a few times, picking a pocket or sitting down on a bench to eavesdrop on suspicious characters."
What is instinct? What causes a deer to run when it smells a man's scent, prompts a bird to build a nest? Some would say that's the sort of basic knowledge all creatures possess, and they'd be right, but where does it come from? What is the source?
Like most people, Desmond Miles never gave the matter much thought. He had no reason to. Now he's a captive in a research facility run by a prestigious company called Abstergo and the answers to those questions matter a great deal. He soon learns that his mind holds critical memories from 1000 years ago, remembrances he had no idea he even possessed. Though he's not sure that he can unlock that information, his captors are. The key is an invention called the Animus.
Assassin's Creed, the first in a projected series of action games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, doesn't begin with Desmond's story. It opens in the Holy Land, circa 1191. An ambitious young assassin named Altair leads a group of men as they seek out their target in an underground chamber. When poor judgment results in spectacular failure, Altair is stripped of his rank and nearly killed. To make amends, he must slay nine men designated by his master. Only then will he regain favor with his clan.
As you progress through the game, you'll control Desmond in the present and Altair in the past. Both characters figure prominently in the story, but many of the key events are viewed through Altair's eyes. Desmond's adventures, though important, do more to paint the big picture than to answer immediate concerns. With each successful string of assassinations, you uncover new clues in both plot arcs and come closer to figuring out how the disparate threads relate to one another.
To gain the knowledge you seek, you'll need to complete what amounts to nine levels (plus some other content along the way) that take place throughout three cities. Assassin's Creed doesn't use a rigid structure, but there are some restrictions that keep you from going anywhere ahead of schedule. The available cities feel almost like characters themselves and are one of the primary reasons you'll keep playing. Damascus is a beautiful place with plenty of greenery between its stone structures. Jerusalem is dusty but majestic. Acre is built along cliffs facing the sea and has a damp, misty feel to it. Each environment is packed with guards, merchants, beggars, scholars, townsfolk, heretics and government officials. The numerous towers and rooftops you can climb and explore are another highlight. Despite the expansive architecture and the throngs of people milling about, you'll notice very little in the way of graphical flaws. Some textures slowly slide into place if you try to look too far and then start nudging the camera, but that's about it. The game really is a technical wonder.
Though the developers should be commended for putting so much effort into making all three environments such a joy to explore, it's obvious they skimped in a few other areas. As an unfortunate result, much of Assassin's Creed feels repetitive. When you first enter a city, you'll generally follow the same process: climb a tower to reveal more of the map, visit your guild, investigate until you have enough clues to find your target, then take his life. Along the way, you can stop soldiers from picking on unlucky citizens and you can scale the tallest structures to aid in your search, but a lot of that is unnecessary and time-consuming. Even the investigations themselves grow old, since they almost always involve punching someone a few times, picking a pocket or sitting down on a bench to eavesdrop on suspicious characters.
Even some of the assassinations that advance the plot can start to feel predictable. You'll head to the appointed place on the map, view a long speech (that you can't skip) and then fight some people. Sometimes, someone will run and you'll have to give chase. Otherwise, you pretty much just chop a few people apart until no one is left standing. Speeches aside, these kills don't really feel much different than any other skirmish that might take place throughout the city at any given moment. After you've slain your current foe, he'll launch into a long lecture (yet again, there'll be no skipping) and then you have to get your butt out of there before the soldiers slice it to ribbons.
Combat and cowardice are both good options in such cases. The game really shines in this manner, since it lets you proceed however you like. After an assassination--and pretty much any other time--you're given a starting point and a destination. Everything in between comes down to discretion or convenience. If guards give chase and you don't want to battle, slip out of sight and hide in a pile of hay or similar place. You might even choose to melt into a group of wandering scholars if you think it'll help. Also, you can run up walls, find outcroppings and climb your way to safety, just so long as no one thinks to bring you down by throwing stones or firing arrows at you (and don't think for a second that they won't).
The control scheme is what makes such freedom possible. The analog stick dictates movement and the face buttons perform primary actions such as attacking, picking pockets or nudging civilians gently out of your way to avoid disturbances. Holding a shoulder button turns each function more aggressive, or can enable 'free run.' What that means is that as you run along ledges, you'll automatically leap from one building or wall to the next without having to pause and carefully realign yourself. This allows for a city that feels organic. Buildings seldom form perfect lines. Instead they follow a design that feels a lot more realistic. It's really a case where the control scheme allows the game to shine in new and exciting ways.
Even with the fluid controls, you can't always run. Sometimes, a head-on approach is a must. Fortunately, there's a satisfying combat system in place. As the game progresses, you'll build up a collection of several cool weapons, each with spectacular finishing moves that really add personality to the fights. If you're surrounded by a gang of soldiers, for example, you can dodge out of the way of an attack, then counter your opponent by running a sword cleanly through his gut. Dodges and grabs and rushes are also available as options, but most players should be able to get through the game using nothing but counter-attacks and combo skills.
Even though it boasts spectacular combat and environments, Assassin's Creed wears out its welcome before the final credits scroll. There are plenty of non-critical objectives you can complete to increase the game's duration (including tedious scavenger hunts for hundreds of hidden flags), but you'll probably enjoy yourself more if you mostly take your time and steadily chip away at the story while having fun running around the cities. Then you'll hit the cliffhanger ending and suddenly it doesn't matter that the assassinations are starting to grow tiresome, that you've been running around the same rooftops for most of the last 10 or 12 hours. The final few scenes somehow make that all feel irrelevant. You'll find yourself looking forward to the sequel in spite of yourself, convinced that it's going to be even better. Call it gamer instinct.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 23, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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