Review: Assassin’s Creed (** stars)

TL;DR – Although Assassin’s Creed contains a story worthy of some philosophical debate and contemplation, it’s brought down by its repetitive game pacing and inaccurate controls. The setting and the graphics exemplify the story, but weren’t designed with the game’s mechanics in mind. Like many have said, the first game in the series is a proof of concept rather than an actual, enjoyable game.

Playing a game twice within the span of five years gives an appreciation for the mechanics and the experience all in one. Whereas a first playthrough usually gives you a general idea of how the game works and what the developer wanted, a second playthrough lets you ignore all of the facade and see the nitty-gritty beneath the game’s structure.

What I found here wasn’t good.

In essence, Assassin’s Creed consists of a wish-fulfillment simulator and historian’s delight tacked with a subversive story. It’s interesting that the story ends up in a better position than the game! It’s a questioning tale, filled with moral dilemmas, the problem of having knowledge, utilitarianism, reasons versus faith, and the wisdom/folly of listening to authority. The Third Crusades, in our time period, gives us opportunity to reflect on the decisions and mindsets that led to such bloody wars for such a tiny speck of land; Assassin’s Creed captures the tumultuous time period perfectly, with Crusaders and Saracins alike patrolling cities both conquered and destitute. People driven crazy by fever or worse roam the streets, and vultures circle overhead; this is especially noticeable in the city of Acre, whose recent battles have piles of bodies and bones outside – the dark clor palette adds quite a bit to this scene. The first visit to each location, then, is astounding (especially the PC version), where you can see a vast, sprawling city filled with people and famous landmark. Being a virtual historical tourist was never so breathtaking.

Still, the story isn’t without its troubles. Much of it consists of musings on morality, but the script was written like an undergraduate philosophy class; who, in real life, talks like this? The best parallel I can see to this was the Matrix trilogy. Everything in that movie series was told, rather than shown; philosophy was a component, yes, but everyone talked less like human beings with emotions and more like archetypes meant to convey a particular idea to the viewer. This can work, surely, but this content won’t hold the average gamer’s attention. It forces you to pay attention, but in all the wrong ways, with portentous and pretentious dialogue at various points. Having an assassinated target speak to Altair for three minutes after you stab them in the throat to talk about philosophy has to be one of the weirder experiences in the game.

To be reductionist, Assassin’s Creed is the recent Prince of Persia series made into an open world. If the world was designed around these mechanics, this would become an unbelievable free-form running experience, with your agile assassin bounding across rooftops to his target. As it is, the city was designed without these mechanics in mind. Why is there no way to cross to this building without jumping to street level? Why can’t I make this jump, and why is it too wide? It’s difficult to describe why this is a problem until three to four guards are chasing you on the rooftops of Jerusalem and you’re unable to find an escape route. If you’re going to give the player the ability to free-run and climb, at least make sure most of the buildings connect in some fashion. There’s a grip button for more harrowing jumps, but it means you have to climb again either way.

And boy, does Altair climb slowly. Realistic? Absolutely; who would want to climb fast at these heights? Fun? Not really. It makes many climbs absolutely tedious for no discernible reason other than to annoy the player. Furthermore, the controls don’t always work your way on these climbs. See, Assassin’s Creed only requires you to hold two button and press whatever direction you want to move to climb. Every obstacle has its own contextual action associated with it, determined both by your position as you enter said obstacles and the camera’s position (something every reviewer I have read hasn’t mentioned; this helps a LOT). Thus, if you’re quick, approach the right way, and have the camera facing the right direction, you’ll go the way you desire.

Unfortunately, Altair will sometimes jump off a building for no reason, or jump a completely different way as if the game doesn’t know how to interpret your commands. These are frustrating, to say the least, and they tend to happen when the correct command means the difference between success and failure. Player input error from stress does make up a part of these problems, but some instances still make Altair go nuts. It could just be level geometry or the connection of objects in the environment, but it’s a noticeable issue.

The assassinating doesn’t fare much better. Enemies display the same problem with most stealth action games: there’s no good feedback as to whether you’re detected or not. Guard nor hiding spots are located on the map, which forces the player to run from the law until he happens upon 1. a hiding spot that is 2. out of the range of the local authorities. I found myself running for ten minutes without finding this perfect coincidence, and it’s frustrating that there isn’t a way to tell how far you need to run! If they were striving for realism, again, this isn’t fun; it’s annoying and tedious.

Perhaps the stealth mechanics are the problem. See, the game will supposedly make you more  suspicious if you kill people in public, or run across rooftops, but it’s not that clear which actions do this. Holding the A button (or the green one in the options menu) allows you to go into places without being suspected, but it isn’t foolproof. Guards can suddenly turn towards you and attack out of the blue. There are hiding spots that do this as well, but if you’re in the guard’s range, they’ll poke swords into these places. The difference between yellow (suspected) and red (actively looking for you) isn’t that clear. It’s frustrating to have a foolproof plan, only to bump into a guard slightly and set him off like a ticking time bomb you didn’t know existed.

Combat, for that matter, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Attacking enemies, though sometimes useful, won’t work towards the latter half of the game. Counterattacking (basically a parry with proper timing) is the only way to kill many enemies, and this requires waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. Because you face multiple foes at once, the game goes easy on Altair by having them attack one at a time so he can counterattack. If this sounds boring, it is; many fights take much longer than they should, simply because normal attacks become useless at the end of the game. Enemies will counter you incessantly and throw you around, forcing you to sit and wait for the counterattack moment. Given that the last sequence has you fighting upwards of one hundred men in a gauntlet setting, this isn’t ideal.

The overall pacing of the game doesn’t help. It’s not exaggerating to say “kill nine dudes” is the sum of it. Do that, then do it again, and then do it seven more time (or eight, actually). The sidequests do little to break up the tedium, as there’s only about three or four variations (which, on my second playthrough, I completely ignored). The rewards aren’t even worth the effort, nor is the flag scavenger hunt in each city. It’s a very focused experience, you might say, but why make it so repetitive?

In sum, Assassin’s Creed brims with interesting ideas, but only ideas. It’s a proof of concept that you can make an open world game with Prince of Persia mechanics, but not much of a game you’d want to play and replay. An interesting (if not especially well-told) story, plus beautiful graphics and art design, can’t make up for the lack of game underneath. It’s not that any of these elements are horrible in themselves; they just aren’t developed enough to carry the game’s ambitions. For being a game that quotes Ecclesiastes, it seems to exemplify the message: the game has wisdom, or thinks it does, but its mechanics are full of folly and bizarre missteps. It never combines both into a whole. All of its labor is futile because it doesn’t quite understand what it wants to be. Ecclesiastes 6 makes this clear:

All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living? What the eyessee is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.