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So this is obviously a well-overdue review. But having played it several times now and with Brotherhood having spent enough time in the ether, it seemed right to revisit the original game and go on the journey through the franchise, much like how the character Desmond Miles must travel through history. Throughout the journey, the big improvements and small tweaks have made the franchise much more interesting and “bearable,” however, there are some rough beginnings.
At the time of its initial release, Assassin’s Creed was praised with being innovative and exceptional. The graphics were unlike anything anyone had seen with gameplay like no other. It was the fact that it was so different and new that made it so forgivable at the time, whereas just a few short years later the praise would have been replaced with scoffs.
The entire Assassin’s Creed franchise’s story tries to be a lot bigger than it ever really feels. Essentially, it comes down to world domination through unopposed control over sacred artifacts that hold some sort of supernatural dominion over men. It takes a while to get to the point in the game where that becomes apparent, but once that point is hit, there’s no turning back. The villains are flat out obsessed with finding a particular object or clue and all you can do is show them the way.
Rewinding a bit, you play as Desmond Miles, ordinary dude in unfortunate conditions. He’s been kidnapped by a company called Abstergo and being held captive for strange experiments involving some virtual reality device called an Animus. Why him? Because apparently his ancestors were assassins and his bloodline holds the key to finding the items and clues the villains, or “Templars,” are after.
How will they get these clues from his blood? The Animus is designed to create virtual reality and reenact its history, loosely, based on DNA alone. By this point players have certainly suspended their disbelief because there is not much past this that is any more believable, so just go with it.
With the use of this virtual reality, a majority of the game is played in the shoes of his headstrong assassin ancestor, Altair. With an introduction that plays him off as an egotistical badass only to have his abilities stripped away, it isn’t long before players are thrust into the plot of the conflict between Assassins and Templars during the Crusades. The dialogue and plotting are laid on real thick and they waste no time telling you “Templars bad, Assassins good.” Yet this theme only stays for so long before the game tries to become the next Heart of Darkness.
The storytelling of the game comes across as amateurish to say the least. Much of the dialogue feels like very simple arguments that are disguised by English that is spoken in circles to give the illusion of complexity and wisdom. Everything that Altair says sounds like a child that is naïve and foolish trying to fit in with the big kids so he speaks like everyone else. But the master in charge of dispensing missions is no better at doling out information in a manner that is truly interesting. The story wastes no time getting into the thick of things, but it doesn’t do much to hurry through it.
And that is where the problem truly lies in the game: pacing. Thick story themes and amateurish characterization are introduced early on, but it takes a while to start getting down to business and really getting anything out of it. Every assassination mission that is received takes ages to complete because so many smaller assignments must be completed before the mission itself is available. Once it’s done though, it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment because each time a target is eliminated, a lengthy monologue from the victim tells players why Templars are “justified,” to try and blur the lines between good and bad. This feels yet again amateurish because it is a method of trying to illustrate duality in story telling without actually showing it in any creative or subtle means. It is merely exposition that either bores the audience or simply makes them view the situation with apathy.
This would all be forgivable if there were some sort of twist or payoff at the end that was truly unpredictable. Alas, everything is visible a mile away, and the story never really goes anywhere beyond where it started. Actually, players are treated to a belaboring series of final battles until they finally reach an end that is simply thrust into their laps with images and cinema that might as well have a cheesy “The End?” flying on the screen with the classic lame music that makes everyone just not care anymore.
The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed is both satisfying and infuriating. Before any of the sequels came out, it was a rough ride that was praised for its ingenuity and innovation. But with some time to sit on the shelf, or for those who were able to catch on quickly enough, the gameplay was a dry cake with moist frosting.
Most often it’s the platforming that is unanimously decreed as the best part of the game. Mirror’s Edge attempted parkour from a first-person perspective and was successful in some respects, but the limitation of the different paths to traverse left a bitter taste. Infamous, a game that came out after AC tried its hand at platforming buildings, and while the jumping and climbing were faster and more accessible, Assassin’s Creed still managed to be more fulfilling.
It may have simply been the presentation or the way that there was some depth of realism the game had that made the platforming in Infamous less enjoyable. In the end, it was a satisfying experience to climb the tallest tower you could find using tiny cracks or bricks jutting out from the structure to reach the top then gaze over the land on it before taking a dive into a bale of hay. And it was fun just running along the rooftops, jumping gaps, or swinging on poles in dramatic fashion.
Perhaps the most fulfilling moments were upsetting the guards then getting an armada of them chasing Altair down the streets, then taking it to the rooftops. It felt like something out of an action movie running through crowds, climbing buildings, jumping over streets, and hiding in alleys. In some ways Mirror’s Edge trumped AC in moments like this to get the blood pumping, but it was still a fun experience while it lasted.
Sadly it wouldn’t last long enough. Much like the story, the gameplay suffered from poor planning and pacing. The biggest outrage of this game is simply repetition. Everything that you do in this game will be done multiple times over till it is dead in the ground. Every single big story-based assassination requires a brooding time where Altair gathers as much information as possible about the target before planning the assault and killing him.
This sounds interesting and would make for some great moments if it weren’t for the fact that every time you got to an assassination it would pretty much have you go about it the same way, making all the planning and strategizing for nothing. For instance, there is one where information you’ve gathered says the best time to strike is when he has his back to the crowd for a dramatic moment on stage. Yet, you cannot do anything till the cinema has ended and everyone pretty much waits for you to leave the crowd and stab the target, who is most likely facing you at the time regardless.
This make the planning feel even more pointless than it already does. What makes it so irritating to begin with is the methods of gathering information. The required side-missions came in variations of: race, escort, pickpocket, eavesdrop, intimidate, and assassinate. In the vaguest sense it doesn’t sound bad, but having to do each variation well over 3 times in 3 different cities, is simply tedious. The most desired one was eavesdropping because all that was required was to sit on a bench and target an NPC. Meanwhile, in races and assassination missions, players had to interact with other members of the brotherhood who would ask for favors or challenge Altair’s manhood by giving him stupid errands to do like “collect these flags in 2 minutes” or “kill these guards that I’m too lazy to do myself” and then they tell you information about the contract that will not help you at all when the time to strike comes.
Then there’s the fighting. The fighting itself is repetitive and often avoided at all costs, simply because it can take so long to kill everyone or because it is too boring. The enemies are stiff scarecrows who stand with their sword out and wait till they each take turns randomly attacking. Regardless if Altair is surrounded or what weapon he wields, it will always play the same. The only redeeming thing about the combat is the counter-kills. With proper timing, a press of the button can render an opponent immobile or dead. There were far too many times that it would have just been better to assure a death each time rather than a simple defensive attack, but it still moved the slow-paced fighting along.
The game was tedious, and it was much more fun to run from the authorities than to fight them, but even that would get old in the game’s 9hour+ runtime. The only thing that could have made it much longer would be to actually travel on horse or foot between each city every time. Thankfully, Ubisoft thought ahead on that one.
At the time of its release, this game’s graphics blew everyone away. These days, not so much. They’re still impressive, but not quite and jaw-dropping as they were several years ago.
The cities Altair visits are massive in scale with thousands of NPCs occupying space in the streets and thousands of places for the player to climb and scale. Programming a world that vast must have been a nightmare to make, but the developers pulled it off and managed to make it look pretty good overall.
The textures on the buildings all look gritty and muddy with the constant variations on how the buildings are assembled. The dirty streets and crummy environments are great to admire in the game’s impressive lighting. The light will constantly fade with cloud cover moving overhead and adds to the shades of color in each city. It’s too bad the shadows can look so bad.
There were plenty of recycled skins for the NPCs though. It did not take long for you to run into clones or crowds of clones walking through the streets. Some people would look identical but were wearing different colored clothing. And what was visible of their features wasn’t all that impressive. It would actually be difficult to position the camera in a way to see their features up close, which was likely on purpose.
Altair looked good though. The attention to detail on his outfit as well as his movement and how the clothing moved with him was superb. This is good since the camera is always on him so he’d better look good. Though when his face is visible the skin texture is just as bland as everyone else, so it’s a good thing he wears a hood.
The sound quality is also hit and miss. The music is good with it picking up during chase sequences and being an ominous ambience in the back when nothing else is happening. The sound effects are good with the sound of horses running, of falling through the air at high speeds, and of crashing through food stands while making daring escapes. The material the voices speak of have some relevance to the time-period and it’s good to hear some idle chatter among the people, if only for a little while.
It’s too bad that everyone has something to say at all times and it is only a handful of things before it starts to feel like a broken record. Sadly, even on rooftops the constant propaganda spewing sermons of the village prophet(idiot) would cycle and make their way up and it wasn’t long before he was added to the hitlist if only for some solace in that area. In fact, the main reason the sound is a miss is simply because the idle chatter is so damn annoying. This was another game that was muted several hours in for the sake of trying to enjoy it more.
Assassin’s Creed did some interesting and new things for its time. Since it was the first for many of these innovations, it isn’t fair to degrade it for any mistakes within that range. However, looking past the innovations at simple gameplay mechanics, the game needed some work and did not deserve the praise it got at the time of its launch. With some time to sit and rest peacefully till a Late Bird came to check it out, all that can be said is that it’s a good thing it did well enough for a sequel to get a lot of things right.
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