Console Yourself: Assassin's Creed
“It seems my students do not truly understand what it means to wield a blade.” -Brotherhood Trainer
Format: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC • Developer: Ubi Soft • Released: Dec 2007
It’s hard to imagine a more multi-levelled high-concept for a game then that presented here. You play as Desmond, a retired assassin who is kidnapped by a mysterious organisation and forced to aid its experiments. Using a device called the Animus, Desmond can experience several days in the life of his twelfth century ancestor, Altair, who used his lethal skills to influence the troubled holy land. Desmond’s captors need information about a secret uncovered through Altair’s missions, and Desmond must retrace the assassin’s footsteps in order to solve the riddle. It’s a rich idea, allowing the creators to embrace political issues, as the Brotherhood of Assassins’ attempt to divine the best way to bring a peaceful end to the crusades, and matters of theology, with the atheist Altair interacting with both Christians and Muslims. The model day element is a canny move, appealing to players immune to the appeal of spending time in 1192. It also allows a return to the storytelling tricks the developer pioneered during the Prince Of Persia games. Told in narrative flashbacks, death in POP was met with words such as “No, that’s not how it happened…”. There’s more of a sci-fi sheen to Assassin’s Creed, but there’s a clear echo as the Animus intones “Memory desynchronised. Reloading…”.
Unfortunately, the game rapidly sets about pummelling its most appealing features. It’s now ten years since Metal Gear Solid added the words “discretion” and “pacifism” to the mainstream action gaming lexicon, but Ubi Soft has obviously decided that the idea of stealth must be painstaking re-introduced to the games playing public. In the process, they remove almost any chance of the player truly identifying with the title’s hero. The titular Creed has been a widely promoted aspect of the game, and the tutorial sections further expand how Altair must avoid attention or aggression to innocents at all costs. Yet for the entirety of his first mission, the assassin is forced to act as an arrogant, violent bore, who jeopardises the brotherhood’s goals by refusing to follow its principles. The sledgehammer rebukes of the Brotherhoods’ master are a severe irritant to the player, who had no choice but to commit the acts for which he is being chastised. The subsequently penitent Altair makes a reasonable blank slate for the player to project their personality onto, but any chance of empathy with the assassin is lost, while Desmond is largely confined to cut-scenes. Having removed much of the appeal from its main character, the game then turns its attention to its settings. Aside from the opening and conclusion, the game takes the form of nine missions, spread between the three carefully modelled cities. In each task, Altair must jump through a number of hoops for the local assassin’s guild to gather information, before tracking down and executing his assigned target. Sadly, both the information gathering missions and optional citizen-aiding side-quests are the same in every instance, robbing the three cities of any distinctive features. Although Altair’s pakor-influenced move set is a joy, its charm palls as the player is repeatedly forced to embark on a rooftop assault course to persuade an informer to give up titbits of information about the intended victim.
The game has limited success in overcoming the old stealth problem of combat. For a player to want to hide they must be penalised for not avoiding fights, but this has traditionally lead to many absurdities. In previous games, fearsomely equipped killers have been utterly unable to defend themselves when faced with even light opposition- Sam Fisher’s inept close combat moves spring to mind, which lead to the character being easily defeated by foes he could manhandle with ease as long as he initially had the element of surprise. In contrast Altair can fight his way out of any situation, but only by enduring one of the most tedious combat mechanics the medium has yet seen. His move set is focussed on counterattacks, which initially kill an opponent in one hit. This leads to prolonged exchanges, as the assassin is surrounded by hoards of motionless foes, impatiently waiting for the first hint that one is about to step forward and strike. It’s arguable that boring the player in combat to enforce the stealth mechanic is a cunning alternative to providing a weak avatar, but the system devised is utterly lacking in subtlety. It’s immediately obvious when the difficulty is raised, as Altair’s foes require greater numbers of identical blows before they fall. Surprisingly, the final act of the story focuses much more on the present-day elements, inducing several Da Vinci Code overtones as the reality of Desmond’s situation emerges. The game is clearly intended as a continuing saga in the Halo/ Half-Life mould, but the first instalments of those series were careful to provide at least some narrative conclusion. Assassin’s Creed simply stops in mid-flow, assuming that the player will happily part with another forty pounds to see any sort of narrative payoff. The final twist suggests that future titles in the series will see more content set in the present day- a not entirely welcome prospect.
It’s impossible begrudge Assassin’s Creed it’s commercial success. New, distinctive and lavishly budgeted intellectual properties remain rare, and its setting alone makes it stand out. However, it’s hard to see the game winning a following on its own merits- it’s only “what might have been” that keeps the player interested.