Saturday, May 30, 2009

Beaten : Assassin's Creed

My tour of old XBox 360 classics has brought me to Assassin's Creed, one of the more interesting and refreshingly unique games I've encountered during this generation. It's a graphically gorgeous adventure game with combat and stealth elements, as well as collection quests, and a bizarre, bookended storyline that's just plain goofy as all get out.

Let's start there, with the story. One might look at the box or the screenshots of Assassin's Creed and think that it's the adventure of a medieval-era assassin. A safe assumption, until you begin playing and find out that you're actually a hoodie-wearing slacker in the near future being held hostage by a gruff middle-aged scientist and a hot assistant chick.

See, you're the descendent of an assassin. Yeah. Apparently you're also a disgrace to the bloodline, because you don't even try to snap the scrawny scientist-guy's neck and escape, you just accept your imprisonment and do what they want you to do, which is lie back on a table that allows you to play the real game.

The real game is that of the assassin Altair, who is sent by his guild master to take out a bunch of supposedly bad guys who are all plotting some evil thing together. You ride to one of three stunningly realized ancient cities - Jerusalem, Damascus, or Acre - and do all sorts of side missions in order to learn what you need to know to make your assassination.

You can spend a lot of time just sneaking about, trying not to get noticed at all by the guards, who get really pissed if you do anything wrong, like running through the streets or climbing up the side of a building. When the stealth aspect of the game fails, you'll have to fight, and the combat in Assassin's Creed is another one of its innovative designs.

Simple button-mashing will end the game very quickly. No, this is the antithesis of button-mashing, as you must watch the combat very carefully and execute precisely timed counter-moves. It took me awhile to figure this out, but once I did I was fine for the rest of the game. The guards get increasingly complex moves as the game progresses, and will in many cases break your attempts to block thier blows, but still, that counter move was all I needed for the remainder of the experience.

It's very satisfying to pull these moves off, and once you're good you'll find yourself enjoying the flow of battle, and not being afraid of any number of guards you encounter. And you'll encounter them a lot, as the sheer size of the game's nine main missions means you'll be doing all sorts of things to piss them off.

Another cool aspect of the gameplay is climbing the towers in each area to get an overview. Some of the vistas seen from up there are breathtaking, and doing so adds icons to your map for that area. When you're done looking you can make a safe dive off your perch and into a pile of conveniently-placed hay. The climbing and jumping of this game are also revolutionary and spot-on. Instead of pressing a button to jump, Altair knows when you're running along a rooftop and you come to a ledge, that it's time to jump. If you're not running, he'll stop. A great design choice.

To gain information about your assassination target in each area, you'll interrogate, pickpocket, and eavesdrop on the townspeople, and you'll do jobs pawned off onto you by other members of the assassin's guild. Apparently Altair is the ONLY member of the guild who's not afraid to do an honest day's work. Every other assassin you meet is a lazy, cowardly piece of crap. On top of that, all the jobs they give you are cheap-ass time limit tasks - like, say, kill the three guys the lazy assassin was supposed to kill in three minutes, and he'll give you a tip about the guy you're supposed to kill. We're all in one big happy guild, huh? Right.

In addition to the frustrating time-limit missions, there are tedious flag-collecting missions everywhere, with no apparent reward, so I only did the first and easiest one of those. Repetitiveness premeates this game's design, as tasks like saving citizens from pushy guards, pickpocketing throwing knoves, and hell, everything else basically repeat nine times, forming the body of the gameplay.

All of these gameplay aspects are enjoyable enough, but for individual gamers I suspect that their mileage may vary, and some won't find the repetitiion enjoyable all through the ending. I did, though. Barely. The ending was cool, and not difficult at all, having mastered the previously mentioned counter moves.

At least the ending of Altair's story was cool. The ending of the hooded slacker descendent of Altair, cowering in the future, was however completely unsatisfying and thoroughly stupid. Only a sequel could alleviate some of the lingering questions of the unresolved future-story, and fortuantely, one's coming this fall.

A few minor complaints do come to mind. This skilled assassin and acrobat I'm playing can't swim? Seriously, a dive into a shallow river in town means death? What is this, 1993 all over again? And there was once a window ledge I found that, once I'd grabbed onto it, I couldn't let go nor climb up on it. I was literally left hanging and had to restart at my last save point. It wasn't too big of a deal, as the autosave system, unlike, say, the SWIMMING system, is modern. Loading screens are also a bit on the slow side.

In spite of the repetitive gameplay and some very odd design choices, Assassin's Creed works and is a visual and gameplay masterpiece. Enough of it is so refreshingly unique - the controls, the setting - as to offset any of the inherent tediousness of the tasks presented over and over. I am looking forward to the sequel, if only to answer the many lingering questions about the unfinished story that bookends the tale of Altair and his fellow assassins.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

I agree with your assessment. I thoroughly enjoyed the game and can't wait for the sequel. I went on to do all of the flag missions and actually got all 1000 gamer points since I enjoyed the game that much.

At the end, when you're able to move around freely and everyone has left you can use your perception ability to see a bunch of painted symbols all over the room. There are a few web pages out that explain what these mean and it's very interesting. Also, throughout the game there are ways to steal the old geezer's keycard to get you into the conference room and some interesting story elements are added from the computer on the table.

If you like this platformer style, you might also check out the new Prince of Persia game for the 360; that's another game that I really enjoyed (and it's made by the same people) :D