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Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360) artwork

Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360) review

"Stealth is not important as you’d think. With a name like Assassin’s Creed, wouldn’t you expect the gameplay to revolve around sneaking around and killing your targets and getting out undetected? Of course you would! The brotherhood makes a big deal about not drawing attention, but you’ll find its borderline impossible NOT to draw attention. Most of the assassinations take place in crowded, guarded areas, full of frustrating gameplay mechanics like twitchy guards and troublemakers."

Assassin’s Creed is a strange but incredibly ambitious mix that seems to be at war with itself. There are a few moments of awesome to be had. The conflicting nature of the game with what it wants to accomplish versus what it does accomplish makes it very difficult to review and categorize.

Take the story, for example; we are thrown in instantly with Altair, an assassin living during the Crusades. We get to know him just enough before we cut to the present day and meet Desmond. Desmond is a laid-back bartender who happened to get kidnapped by Abstergo (generic evil company #45). They’ve hooked up Desmond to a machine called the Animus, which lets you relive your ancestors’ memories because they’re a part of your genetic DNA makeup… or something…

Turns out that Altair and Desmond are related. The Abstergo heads desperately want to find something Altair had found back in the day, and the key lies in Desmond’s buzzed skull. The story plays out both in the time of the Crusades via the Animus and in brief, action-free interludes in the Animus labs where Desmond tries to uncover Abstergo’s plans.

The hardcore science-fiction aspect mixes oddly with the history-based locales. It’s no spoiler and should be obvious to anyone that once you hear characters talking about powerful artifacts, you can guess that they aren’t talking about some bauble whose power is symbolic; Desmond and Altair both learn that Abstergo is after some serious heavy-duty stuff that defies logic and explanation.

Unfortunately, the hardcore science-fiction aspects are the most compelling parts of Desmond’s story – a shame considering they run the basic gamut of science-fiction clichés. The brief interludes where Desmond gets up and is able to talk to some Abstergo employees is much more compelling.

Altair’s quest has him trying to regain his assassin levels (which are apparently like Boy Scout badges) by killing off nine people involved with the work of the Templars. These people want some all-powerful MacGuffin artifact. Noble assassins like the brotherhood want to keep these evil men from getting the artifact. Of course, this leads to some pseudo-religious babble and philosophical discussions… a lot of pseudo-religious babble and philosophical discussions.

The gameplay only serves to further the issue of what the game aims to do versus what it ultimately achieves. In a linear fashion, Altair is given a target by the head of the brotherhood, told what city to find him in, and is sent off to gather information to plan the assassination. You must progress through the first few assassinations in a set order; after achieving the first two or three does the game open up a bit and allows you to tackle assassinations in the order you prefer. Along with the information missions are viewpoint and save-the-citizen side quests.

Viewpoints have Altair scaling the highest buildings around to scout locations and open up more of the map while saving citizens from harassment by the guards turns them into roadblocks for guards chasing you.
The cities range from Acre to Jerusalem, and they are all full of things to do in your quest. The most important of these missions are the research Altair does on his target. By following a mini-map and markers, you’re directed to places where you can find some important information and research on your assassination targets. These missions can have you pickpocketing a map of guard locations or simply eavesdropping on an important conversation between two locals. There’s roughly four or five variations of these missions, and you really only need to do two or three for each target to unlock the assassination mission. Doing more gives you more information regarding your target, but it never really is necessary unless you’re an achievement whore. Things like maps of your target’s location and guard placement is never really made important, which is one of the game’s failures.

I must comment on the most idiotic of these information-gathering missions, the informers. Each assassination target has one or two informer missions. These informers won’t talk unless you do one of two things; you must either silently assassinate guards that have seen them, or you must (unforgivably) race around the city to find flags that the informer had hid to “test Altair”. This is just a completely archaic and ridiculous gameplay aspect; the collect-a-thon race is idiotic in this context. You test an assassin by making him find flags? How about I gut you and walk away all stealthy like instead?

Stealth is not important as you’d think. With a name like Assassin’s Creed, wouldn’t you expect the gameplay to revolve around sneaking around and killing your targets and getting out undetected? Of course you would! The brotherhood makes a big deal about not drawing attention, but you’ll find its borderline impossible NOT to draw attention. Most of the assassinations take place in crowded, guarded areas, full of frustrating gameplay mechanics like twitchy guards and troublemakers. Troublemaker NPCs are one of the most frustrating and ill-conceived annoyances that snap you out of the game.

Beggars rush you and block your way, begging and pleading for money – but they only run in front of you to impede your progress. If you stay out of their target range, they barely move. The city streets are also full of drunks and mentally-challenged folks. They usually keep to themselves; should you get near, they shove you to the ground. Nobody else do they bother, but something about Altair’s “look at me I’m wearing a white robe in the middle of the city and don’t look conspicuous at all do I” getup bothers them so much that they shove you down. You can’t kill these people because they’re innocents; doing so alerts the guards almost instantly. If these NPCs actually INTERACTED with the rest of the NPCs instead of singling you out, it would still be frustrating do to the sheer number of them in just the right spots. It’s not challenging – it’s artificially
inflated difficulty.

Few of the nine assassinations seem to be able to be completed with pure stealth. Most of the times, trying to sneak up and assassinate a target with the use of my hidden blade proved fruitless – most of these targets are so paranoid that even getting remotely close to them prompts them to yell and attack you. You can kill these targets in plain sight, but you attract guards and these targets put up a pretty hard fight. Barely any of the targets are not surrounded by innocents and guards. Isn’t the point of being an assassin being sneaky? Too many times did I end up fighting the target head on and abandoning stealth tactics; this is unforgiveable. The one I did manage to take out with stealth and not alerting the guards were the moments where the game seemed to click and remember that it was a stealth game. I barely felt like an assassin at all throughout the game – I was just a grunt doing the work of the brotherhood. Not good. What’s worse is that there are NO incentives aside from an achievement in using stealth.

The combat is simple and easy to grasp. R targets the enemy while L provides a more defensive posture. You get three weapons throughout the course of the game, but the basic sword is the most useful. Combat is pure button-mashing – press A with the right timing and parrying with counter-attacks won most fights. I rarely pulled out the hidden blade for fights or the short blades, which the game swears is better for fighting off large groups. The game lies.

The best thing about this game is the one thing that makes you feel like an assassin the most. Altair controls like a dream. He moves fluidly and quickly, and is capable of climbing most buildings and structures like a historic Spider-Man. When you piss a guard off and the chase begins, the actual chase is quite cool; climbing windows, leaping from building to building, jumping on thin sign posts… Altair recognizes the environment change remarkably well as he’s playing parkour. The game doesn’t require anything from you to scale and hop from building to building other than running. It’s a pretty remarkable gameplay aspect that deserves some recognition. It’s the closest you’ll feel to being sneaky.

The game holds up incredibly well graphically. The cities are absolutely huge and varied. The environments do a lot to bring you into the game, which helps considering how much of the gameplay elements do what they can to take you out of the experience. You’re technically in a machine throughout the gameplay and reliving memories via the Animus, the game has fun with that. Targeting enemies brings a bit of a data-like cloud around them. The final breaths of your targets are lived out in a cloudy, foggy limbo. There is multiple times where you can influence the viewing angle of cut scenes when you see data streams flash on the screen. When Altair is near-death, the environment turns blood red and foggy. The use of the Animus and the sci-fi aspects are once again the best part of the game. The only downsides are the limited models for the NPCs. The city is absolutely teeming with NPCs and not that many models. It’s noticeable.

It sounds nice, sure, but nothing remarkable. The voice-actors are good – Altair’s voice actor comes off as dull and boring and is the weak point. The game doesn’t have much of a score for a feeling of realism. The music is mostly subtle, but it kicks in once you alert the guards and are in a fight. There is a generic crowd murmuring in the cities, but if I have to hear one more beggar use the same exact line as they block my way, I’ll kill them all. I don’t care if your child is poor and starving, I have a job to do. Just like the NPC models, their lines are repeated and quite noticeable.

Replay value isn’t there. The interesting thing about the viewpoint side quests and citizen saving quests is just how many there are and how they’re spread out on the map. They take less than a few minutes to do each. They are organized in such a way that it’s quite easy to do them all each time you’re in a city. After all, you’re probably crossing by that way anyway. That’s how I approached it and I can’t see doing so any differently. Just completing the bare minimum of the game would cut the length down by a few hours. I usually don’t like inflated game time, but this isn’t as bad as most games out there. Also included are collect-a-thon flags hidden in each city. Once again, I’ll state that the cities are HUGE and the flags are MANY. You get nothing but achievements for this, and I couldn’t imagine liking this game enough to hit the quests that hard.

Assassin’s Creed is ambitious as hell. The way the game ends is quite impressive if only for the developers having the balls to end it like that. There are tons of solid ideas but just as much poor execution. If Altair’s story doesn’t grab you, the modern-day story of Desmond will, and I’m pretty interested in seeing how the series unfolds. I’ve yet to play the rest of the series, and it might be a bit until I actually do – the starting game left a less-than-favorable impression. It offers a good-looking but ultimately empty experience. If it had focused more on what it must feel like to be an assassin instead of frustrating mechanics and missed ideas, we would have a winner. Instead, it’s a schizophrenic game unable to decide what it wants to be.

Rating: 5/10

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Community review by Mega5010 (March 24, 2011)

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