Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360) review
"At long last, a medieval Grand Theft Auto crossed with Virtuosity with a whole lot of Hashishism and no small amount of heinous Arabic stereotypes. To be fair, Ubisoft Montreal consists of many people of differing beliefs and opinions, so there is no doubt the handful of Christian characters are also uptight, militant arseholes. Yes, it's the Middle East during the Crusades, the glorious 12th century AD. Even in the heart of Mesopotamia, everyone speaks in the tongue of the heretic..."
At long last, a medieval Grand Theft Auto crossed with Virtuosity with a whole lot of Hashishism and no small amount of heinous Arabic stereotypes. To be fair, Ubisoft Montreal consists of many people of differing beliefs and opinions, so there is no doubt the handful of Christian characters are also uptight, militant arseholes. Yes, it's the Middle East during the Crusades, the glorious 12th century AD. Even in the heart of Mesopotamia, everyone speaks in the tongue of the heretic Anglo king in the worst psuedo-Arabian accents imaginable. Except for the main character, brooding impetuous "badass" Altair, who speaks in a flat yet potently douche-like American drawl. That's because Altair is about 80 generations removed from an actual douche in modern-day America, with the oddly perfect name of Desmond. He's trapped in a lab with a sexy blonde scientist and a gray-haired blowhard scientist who has an irritating penchant for irrational speeches. Desmond is in constant competition with the blowhard to see who is the biggest prick in any given scene -- when he's not whining about hooking up to the "Animus" to access his ancestor's memories (via some preposterous scheme involving DNA), he's whining about being bored, or whining about having to wear the same smelly white hoodie for weeks on end.
That's the short version of Assassin's Creed, a very ambitious third-person swashbuckling epic that sounds awful on paper but plays out with confidence. Not a whole lot, granted, but you'll at least want to play all the way to the head-scratching conclusion.
Most of the game will be spent inside the Animus machine re-enacting various missions and sitting through tons of unskippable speeches. Altair's storyline is your tired old "rogue assassin uncovers gigantic conspiracy" plot, which unfolds as your boss with an unpronouncable Arabic name dispatches you to one of four cities to take out various Templar Knights and losers in positions of tremendous power. In his flowing white robe, Altair is able to conceal a massive sword, two short blades and 20 throwing knives, in addition to having a retractable blade hidden under his right sleeve at all times. Just a bit of overcompensation, especially when you realize you can beat 90 percent of your missions with nothing but the huge two-handed sword and quite a bit of patience.
The moment you first enter Jerusalem, blended into a group of scholars (the idiotic city guards remaining ignorant of the 20 throwing knives strapped to your thighs), it is breathtaking to see the amount of life and activity around you at any given moment. Merchants peddle goods, civilians mill about (and there are at least six different character models), street preachers harangue the multitudes with Anti-Christian sermons. You must always be mindful of the city guards who are poised on rooftops and towers; an icon on your HUD indicates your status Tenchu style, and if you are ever suspect the icon will flash and you'll hear a supremely irritating beeping until you're in the clear. Sometimes all you need to do is chill out on a bench or take a belly flop into a convenient pile of straw. My preferred method was simply to annihilate any grunt who dared challenge me.
For a game that seems to emphasize stealth, the face-to-face combat system was quite robust, simple to master, and very effective at silencing the AI fools who swarm Altair if he does something as offensive as jumping in front of a suspicious guard. Running is a sure way to get noticed, as is scaling the side of a building, but city guards will be the least of your worries as you cleave their skulls and run them through with incredible ease. Worst case scenario, you'll have to climb on top of a building and mow the guards down with throwing knives the instant they come into view. Altair throws these blades with surgical precision and can lock onto a foe from 100 feet away. Killing is made even easier. Since you will be climbing a lot of tall buildings to uncover missions throughout these massive levels, accidentally triggering a citywide manhunt is a simple proposition.
But that's OK; civilians are cartoonishly jaded to the amount of mayhem unfolding around them in a given day. They'll proceed unhindered to their destinations, tiptoeing around massive piles of corpses laying on the cobblestones. Should you save one from being menaced by the tyrannical officers of the law, they'll even risk life and limb to hinder their pursuit of you during the next citywide manhunt. You have to complete "investigations" before embarking on your latest assassination attempt. The variety here is pathetic. You'll either have to kill a bunch of people with your hidden blade (ramming a knife through someone's spinal column seems to be socially acceptable in this universe), pickpocket someone with an important document, beat the crap out of someone till they break and start blabbering secrets, or simply sit on a bench and listen to an incriminating (and loud) conversation between conspirators. Of these, the assassination missions are the only ones posing any sort of challenge; should you mess up, the dead men will be magically reborn and milling the streets once more. Despite the "investigation" trapping (a transparent way to extend gameplay time), you are doing nothing more than fulfilling a quota. My first tip was that my target would be giving a speech at an execution, then my next tip told me that he'd be attending the execution. The final tip that sent me on my merry way was the mind-blowing information that there would possibly be an execution that my man may or may not be attending.
Eat your heart out, William of Baskerville.
The action comes to a head when you must sneak into a fortified area or otherwise brave a whole lot of guards. It is easy to set off alerts if you even come within five feet of your target; guards shout repetetive phrases and the Arabs, naturally, love to use the word "infidel" whenever possible. Stealth is poorly executed here and even the solidest of snakes would be hard pressed not to give in and kill a shitload of guards. This gives you valuable training for the endgame which consists of you killing shitloads of guards. It's so simple, why not whittle down all of his bodyguards before moving in for the kill? Jesper Kyd's awesome score, while used sparingly, comes to life during moments of extreme violence and confusion, using a massive chorus and full orchestra along with ancient period-specific percussion and wind instruments. It's a sonicscape worthy of an epic adventure, too bad it's in Assassin's Creed.
During one of these climactic takedowns, you have the option to either engage your target in a fencing duel or somehow sneak in and give him the shaft with your hidden blade. Even if the entire lower part of his body is paralyzed due to your blade being lodged between his fourth and fifth vertebra, that won't stop him from delivering a Shakespearean-in-magnitude death monologue. This happens EVERY SINGLE TIME you slay a mark in a game built around slaying these marks. There appears to be some kind of moral dilemma being set up, but you will not remember a single well-written exchange or line of dialogue because there are none to be found. The ending of the story also renders Altair's character arc meaningless because everything is building towards an outrageous twist reveal, which I will be spoiling in the next paragraph.
If there is a moral to the story of Assassin's Creed, it would be that if your ancestor happened to view an image projected by a levitating, glowing yellow ball that may or may not be of alien origin, you can expect to spend a lot of time wandering around a lab and occasionally playing video games. Yes, the big reveal is that everyone's after this weird-ass artifact, and also Douchey Desmond may or may not be part of an ancient guild of assassins. Also, the doctor's hot blonde assistant Lucy may or may not be a spy working for these assassins. But all those questions are annoyingly left unanswered and once you look at the bizarre, cryptic writing on the wall of Desmond's room, it's game over. All you can do is hop into the Animus and collect flags and "glitches". Speaking of which, the game is filled with unintentional glitches that you can't collect. One memorable instance involved an invisible barrier blocking the path to Altair's contracted target, which provoked a restart (and no small amount of colorful swearing from myself). The problem was avoided by using Altair's innate, natural-born Parkour abilities. For those of you not from France, Parkour is the French national sport, which involves running non-stop through urban environments, jumping down stairways and between roofs and the like. It may also be responsible for a lot of dead teenagers -- Darwinism in action.
One reason why Assassin's Creed isn't complete and utter shite is because of the sheer scale and activity in these cities, not to mention the in-depth Parkour engine. Granted, the civilian behavior is nothing more than a series of algorithms, and the same sermons rape your eardrums on repeated visits. Yet the varied period-specific architecture is marvelous to behold, and being able to run all over it is even more marvelous. It's exhilirating to be able to scale damn near every building in every city, leap ridiculous distances, or even better, time your fall so that you land on your target and execute them instantly. One memorable kill involved Altair jumping down an entire flight of stairs and ramming his hidden blade directly through his target's brainstem. Then the guards come pouring out of the woodwork, Mr. Kyd's score flares up, and your adrenaline soars through the roof. Odd how this "stealth adventure" only truly comes alive during moments of sheer panic and desperation. Too bad 90% of my deaths were Parkour-related and the other 10% were due to me not knowing how to block and parry enemy attacks.
As much as singular moments shimmer with brilliance, the overall product is just too mediocre and unpolished. It feels rushed. Maybe Assassin's Creed 2: Assassinate Harder will give Desmond the Douche something to do and perhaps introduce the Parkour mechanics into a modern-day urban setting. Or maybe there will be more unskippable pompous speeches and mumbo-jumbo about this yellow alien sphere. On second thought, count me out.
Featured community review by johnny_cairo (February 20, 2008)
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