I’ve never touched upon the Assassin’s Creed series, in fact I know little about it other than a few friends have told me it’s “good”, although I’m not sure if they mean the series as a whole, or a single game, or what. To be honest, I’m not really sure why this one slipped entirely under my radar.
Luckily for me, Steam came to the rescue again with stupidly cheap prices during an offer week, so I managed to pick up the first two games nice and cheap. Let’s see what they’re like…
Before we start, let me just have a small whinge about the control scheme. There are four interaction types – head, weapon hand, off hand and legs – which work very well, but are clearly designed to represent the Xbox controller, as they have the relevant layout and colour. Unfortunately, this was kept verbatim for the PC, and it makes the controls much less intuitive. It’s a minor foible that dampens the first interaction with the game – but, at least it has a 5-button mouse control scheme built in, although it numbers the buttons from zero, which again I’m sure will confuse some users.
Anyway, without spoiling much that you don’t learn in the first 5 minutes of play: you play a character called Desmond, who is using a machine called an Animus to access his “genetic memories” and effectively relive the life of one of his ancestors – Altair, an assassin operating in the Middle East during the Third Crusade (so, the 12th Century). You play mainly in the “memory” world, but there are breaks where you run through the parallel narrative in the real world. The Animus also provides possibly the best excuse for the game elements of the game that I’ve seen for some time. For example, if you die or fail a mission it’s just a desynchronisation of the memory playback, and so the system just resynchronises and the error is fixed. No other obscure excuses or game over screen required.
The assassin Altair doesn’t use the gaming standard for stealth; there’s no light=visible/dark=hidden mechanic. Instead, stealth is achieved by getting out of the line of sight of enemies and then either blending in with the crowd or diving in to a hiding place such as a haystack. This is true when undetected as well, where running like a maniac and knocking people over will draw attention, so blending in to the crowd is important. It works quite well, and being chased across the city is fun, but its conversely a bit irritating to have to blend (and thus move so very slowly) sometimes to avoid unnecessary conflicts.
The alternative to blending on the streets to avoid detection, is moving across the roof tops. This works brilliantly, you simply hold the relevant controls to sprint and aim where you need to go, Altair will then leap gaps, scale walls, hop across beams, you name it. It’s pretty intuitive, works fluidly and the character animations are well polished, especially when scaling buildings – Altair will use hand and foot holds accurately, even with those placed abnormally on the structures.
The cities are uniquely constructed, with very little apparent copy-paste design except for a few landmarks, which is excusable because it’s feasible that multiple churches, mosques, etc would be built with the same design. Each of the three cities has a slightly different flavour of citizens and soldiers, and some variation of visual style – all of which are visually detailed (unfortunately, the voice audio is limited and repeats a lot). However, combined with the movement and climbing mechanics just mentioned, the cities are simply a pleasure to move around in and explore.
It’s just a shame them that to reach them you have to pass through the comparatively poor “Kingdom” area. Its wide expansive layout that you are expected to take on horse just felt out of place and tedious to me, some of scenery is very nice, but it just requires too much time to traverse. It’s a good job that after a few assassinations you get the option to fast travel between the cities when moving out to an assassination.
The main thrust of the game has you given a target to assassinate and you exploring the relevant city to get the job done. You climb specific tall buildings (viewpoints) to unlock the city’s map and discover the locations of various investigations that you can perform. These investigations take the form of pick pocketing, eavesdropping, intimidation and helping informants with minor assassinations, runner’s jobs, etc. These provide information about the target and can include maps, guard placements, etc, that help you hit your target. Once enough of these investigations are complete you can move on to take down the target.
Unfortunately, after the first few assassinations these preparation elements become quite repetitive. You’re usually doing the same few tasks, just in a different setting each time. It doesn’t help that the delivery of the game’s narrative is so disjoint from the gameplay, being mostly delivered in cutscenes where you retain only minor movement control of Altair and are usually locked in to a small area that you cannot walk from. This becomes frustrating when you’ve saving your twentieth citizen, and find them saying one of the very few “thank you” lines while you can’t run and have the camera locked to them. It breaks the entire flow of the game, to the point where I started to ignore as many of these side elements as I could by the end of the game.
But, to offset this, the combat is fun and fluid. It’s not particularly difficult, even when against large groups of enemies. Attacking or defending is a case of carefully timed dodges, deflections and attacks, and if you can get in to the rhythm of the fight its good fun, and you’re rewarded with more well polished animations, that never quite get dull.
The environments and animations are top notch; the gameplay is essentially fun, but progression gets a little repetitive by the end; and the narrative would be much more interesting if the delivery wasn’t so disjoint from the gameplay. But overall, Assassin’s Creed is a good enough game, and one that I’ve enjoyed playing through – but it’s a good job it ended when it did; if it was much longer I suspect I’d have got bored before reaching the end.
I’m not going to make a recommendation just yet. First, I’m going to play through the second one and then make a decision, because it might well be the case that it’s better to just skip the first game entirely… expect an update in the next week or two with something that’s hopefully going to be more conclusive.
Update (29th July): I’ve now posted my thoughts on the second game, make sure you have a read of them as well, because the second game comes with quite a few improvements…