Assassin’s Creed – A gamer’s perspective

Some of you might be surprised to see me posting about my thoughts of this particular game today. Truth be told, I bought the game months ago when it first came out. I was looking forward to the game so much I actually pre-ordered it. I began playing the game the day it was released. In large part, the delay is due to my struggle to experience the game in its entirety and then to decide what exactly I had to say about it.

It’s not that I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoyed the game or not. To the contrary, I was immediately certain that I loved it, and no part of my continued play could convince me otherwise. The game was hugely enjoyable. Every time I set my X-Box controller down I found myself looking forward to the next time I would be able to play the game.

I think, overall, that my trouble was that the game was considerably different from any other game I’d ever played. Many video games are simply variations on the theme of other games I’ve played in the past. Those games can be very good even if they’re not entirely innovative. While Assassin’s Creed certainly was reminiscent of certain other games I’ve played, it confounded my expectations, and required me to do a lot more thinking before I could clearly articulate my experience with it.

The game is based around the story of Altair, a young man living in the Holy Land during the early 1190’s, during the Third Crusade. Altair is a Hashshashin, a member of a historical group who’s name is the root of the modern English word ‘assassin.’ Although the player spends most of their time controlling Altair as he moves through the end of the twelfth century, there are also aspects of the game during which you control Desmond. Desmond is the distant, modern day descendant of Altair, and the game explains that by putting him in a machine called the Animus, he is able to access ancestral memories stored in his DNA in order to re-live Altair’s experiences.

The developers have certainly taken some artistic license in how they represent the historical context of events in the game, but the cities that Altair travels to are modeled with what by video game standards can only be regarded as exceptional realism. The feature most touted for the game before its release, and easily the most viscerally satisfying aspect of the entire experience, is how Altair can climb nearly any building he encounters. There are not specific parts of buildings that you can climb, as in most games. You need not find the one spot where there is a ladder or a vine that clearly identifies the single route up the side of a large structure the game intends you to take. The buildings are modeled realistically, and the game will allow Altair to use any part of the architecture that extends at least two inches out from the face of the building as a handhold.

The ability to simply run up to a building and begin climbing is startling at first, but once you get used to the idea that anything that looks like a possible handhold will almost assuredly function as one, you’ll wonder how you tolerated other games with an aspect of acrobatic climbing that didn’t work this way. There are various tall buildings throughout the game world which you can climb in order to survey your surroundings and fill in greater detail on your map. Even if the game didn’t give you any immediately practical reason to do so, the view from these high points would be more than worth the time it takes to reach them.

The second important part of the game, as you might gather from the name, is killing people. In this, too, the game gives the player more options than might be expected from other games with similar themes. Altair is capable of blending into a crowd, and there is great fun to be had carefully, patiently approaching a target, killing them with a single strike before they ever realize your presence, then melting silently back into the crowd before the body even hits the paving stones. The game does an excellent job of making this challenging enough to be very satisfying when you pull it off, easy enough to be worth trying to get it right, and reasonably believable looking when you manage it. There are obviously some issues with a man in a hood with a sword at his belt walking away from a city guard bleeding in the streets without raising any eyebrows, but by video game standards, this requires very little suspension of disbelief.

The other option is to simply stride up to people, with your weapon out, and begin open combat. The game does a good job transitioning back and forth between stealthy and flagrant interactions with your foes, and gives you reasonable options to return to anonymity after raising the attention of the guards if you can escape them for long enough to hide out of their sight for a few minutes. As much as I enjoyed the careful, stealthy version of combat in the game, though, I was most impressed with the more obvious sort.

The developers of Assassin’s Creed have done an outstanding job in how they modeled and balanced open combat. Altair can certainly handle himself against even a well-skilled opponent, but it is in fights against huge numbers of them that both the character and the game engine really shine. When surrounded by many foes, it is important to spend most of your time being highly defensive. You can choose to aggressively attack your opponents, but the ones behind you are likely to do you a great deal of harm while you are busy swinging at the ones in front of you. Instead, Altair relies on counters, blocking or avoiding his opponent’s attacks and then striking quickly before his enemies can recover.

Altair has his choice of several different weapons, ranging from his sword to a long knife, to throwing knives, to a small retractable blade built into his arm guard. Each has advantages and disadvantages, based mostly on reach and damage balanced against speed and defensive effectiveness. All of the weapons feature different fighting styles. They are all closely related enough to be very believable next to one another, but varied enough to produce an appreciable difference between them, and to force the player to make real choices about which weapon to use under which circumstances.

What really set the fighting in Assassin’s Creed apart for me, though, was the way in which the system off attack and defend was presented. Altair does not engage in Hong Kong style flips and outrageous swordplay. The basic blocks and attacks are all remarkably realistic. The counters, however, manage to combine this realistic, very restrained swordplay with what was at times shocking brutality. When you counter an opponent’s attack, the follow-up attack is horrifying to behold. Indeed, many of your opponents will react with visible dismay to your treatment of their comrades. The ability of the game to combine realism, even during the counter attacks, with highly focused brutality gives the combat a feel that I have not seen from other games. The message is clear: Altair is careful, he is in control, and he is a man to be feared. I, for one, found it very satisfying to play a character who comes off with all three of those traits.

The scenes with Desmond provide an interesting counterpoint to those with his ancestor. Unlike Altair, Desmond is fairly quiet. He cannot engage in combat of any kind. In fact, he can’t even move above a calm walking pace. The elements of the story that include him are not really important to completing the game, and they can be quickly skipped if you don’t care to explore them. They do begin the work of building a fairly interesting context around the parts of the game set in the twelfth century, however. In many ways, they seem engineered to set the stage for a sequel to be released sometime in the future.

Many others who have written about the game complain about the ending. They gripe that it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and that serves as nothing more than a shameless ploy to set up the sequel. I can certainly see this point of view, but I’m not sure I agree with it. For one thing, the ending that people complain about comes after what I would actually consider the end of the game. You must sit through all of the credits, then pick up again when they are done, in order to even see this ending. The ending that comes before the credits resolves all of the major points of the plot of the game, and I think would have been perfectly satisfying to most players if it were the only one.

The content after the credits does virtually nothing to answer questions, I admit. It really just creates new questions which it fails to answer. That being said, it was interesting, and I’m not really prepared to go out of my way to complain about being given an interesting teaser in compensation for reading all of the credits. Good for the developers for throwing a little something extra on there for me.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the game. I did not find the search for the flags scattered throughout the various levels to be compelling enough to go back and collect all of them, but for a die-hard completionist, there is plenty to do after you finish the plot. In general, I felt that the plot was engaging, the game mechanic natural and well-executed, and the level of polish on the game generally excellent. I feel comfortable strongly recommending the game.

-posted by Mark

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