Thursday, 28 May 2009

Assassin's Creed Retrospective

Well, I say retrospective only because *checks - oh good grief* something like 19 months after the release is a little late for a review. So what if I only just got around to playing it.

So, Assassin's Creed is a stabby-stabby, runny-runny game that fits snugly into the spot on a Ven diagram between Prince of Persia, Thief, Mirror's Edge and surprisingly Deus Ex. It tells the story of Crusades-era Hashshashin Altair (Alt-eye-ear) as remembered by his modern day descendant, Desmond.

Coming to this game I knew to expect some measure of combat, hiding in plain sight and free running and Assassin's Creed delivered. Combat feels brutal and fluid, blades clanging off one another and sweeping around into flesh in graceful arcs and claret impalements without feeling excessive. While it is easy to hold Altair in a defensive stance and counter each attack, it is more fun to mix up the moves - attack, parry, grab and throw into a market stall or off a 30 foot high roof, whatever takes your fancy.

The hiding mechanic was completely new to gaming in 2007 and I don't believe it's been used since. When overwhelmed or if you simply have better things to do than slaughter the city guard, you take off through the city streets and over the roofs. When you're out of sight of your dogged pursuers, you can dive into a stack of hay, hide yourself amongst a group of wandering scholars or just take a breather on a municipal bench until they give you up as lost.

And the fleeing is the best bit of all that. Altair crosses the city skyline in leaps and bounds, scrambling over shingle, bouncing from beam to beam or if all else fails careening through the milling crowds. It's every bit as exhilarating as it should be and by the end is only limited by the extent of the city walls. Parkour becomes absolutely necessary when you explore new areas of each of the three major cities - in order to extend your handy map every few streets you have to climb to high view points - church towers, minarets - and even on minimal settings the view is often breathtaking. Of course, when you're all that way up it's a bugger to get down again so Assassin's Creed generously provides you with carts of hay in which to swan dive.

In the Director's Cut edition, prior to each of the game's nine assassinations you have to complete at least 2 of 6 intelligence-gathering tasks. These, in addition to many optional fights and view-point objectives, are why some players have called it repetitive. True enough but I found that the completionist urge in me and the desire to see the next hit and continue the story was more than enough for me to complete every objective (except the obnoxiously difficult find-all-the-flags tasks).

I'd already heard about the complaints of repetative gameplay. What no one had told me was just how fascinating the story is, or how wonderfully morally grey every action and event is. Each execution is book-ended by conversation with the soon-to-dead and the dying where each one of them justifies their actions. They all believe that whatever actions they take ultimately serve to better mankind and ensure peace. This is not the Us vs. Them blandness I have come to expect from AAA games - both Altair and myself became uncertain about our actions and the whole sorry mess of things across the Holy Land. There came a point when I asked myself 'Am I the baddie here?' and even after the end I'm not entirely sure I know either way.

As mentioned, the whole Altair story is wrapped up in Desmond's memory. An ex-assassin, now an average Joe bartender, he is kidnapped by a cutting-edge corporation and his memories used for their own means. Desmond it seems is much slower on the uptake than most players must be and spends much of the time clueless to the big twist seen coming a mile off. Still his times in the real world with the single-minded evil genius and the sympathetic assistant are interesting enough. Generally I'd prefer some choice over my dialogue but I can see that's not the kind of game the devs were trying to make.

Overall I can definitely recommend giving Assassin's Creed a shot, preferably on rental on consoles or like me you can pick it up on Steam for about £20. It's a solid action game with plenty of acrobatics, a strong and intriguing story but poor replay potential. I'd love to tell you about the graphics but I can't - I had to turn everything most of the way down. And as for sound... that's probably lovely, too, but it stuttered something awful for me - probably due to my lack of multiple processor cores.

Assassin's Creed should be getting a sequel by the end of the year. I haven't dared look for screenshots or minimum specs yet, for fear of making my computer curl up and die of shame but fingers crossed.

NOTE - Assassin's Creed has just come on sale on Steam at £10 so now's the perfect time to give it a try. Lucky for you, hey? I still paid double that -.-

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