When Ubisoft asked us if we'd like to send one of our forumites to Montreal to play Assassin's Creed, we said no, we'd like to send ourselves instead. When they told us to sod off, we had a sulk for a bit and then elected someone - in this case, the young and dashing Richard Horne. What follows is his untouched impressions of the game based on... well, we'll let him explain. We also inserted lots of errors and typos so he doesn't put us out of a job. Good day.
As a cynical and jaded gamer, I appreciate that were the proverbial boot on the other foot, I'd not necessarily place too much faith or confidence in the glowing impressions of a game written by someone who'd just been flown to Montreal (economy class in case you're wondering) and had been very much looked after for three days by the game's developer. However, those of you that don't know me should be reassured by the fact that I'm a straight talking Yorkshireman who's not afraid to tell it like it is.
But just before I delve into describing the intricacies of the game, I'd just like to spend a few moments outlining some of the details described in the exclusive presentation given to us by Assassin's Creed's producer Jade Raymond and Creative Director Patrice Desilets.
Ubisoft began work on Assassin's Creed in 2004 after the completion of the third Prince of Persia title and from the very beginning, even before the first piece of concept art was drawn up, Ubisoft's mandate was to clearly redefine the action adventure genre and present gamers with a level of immersion never before seen in a game. Patrice and Jade described how in order to achieve this, throughout development of the game, it was imperative to do away with traditional gaming conventions such as floating energy top-ups, invisible boundaries, NPCs that don't react to the actions of the main character and more importantly the lack of freedom to explore every single nook and cranny of a game's world. I'll come back to why this is important later.
My preview of the game began in Masyaf, which is the assassin stronghold and home to Altair (pronounced Al-tie-ear) who is the game's main protagonist. Masyaf is set in a vast area of countryside called The Kingdom which is located centrally between the game's three main towns - Acre, Jerusalem and Damascus. The Kingdom acts as a sort of central hub area, similar to Hyrule Field in Zelda if you will, and can be traversed on foot or on Altair's trusty steed which officially beats both Shadow of the Colossus and Zelda by easily being the best videogame representation of a horse. In the preview build I played, I was able to freely explore both Acre and Jerusalem. However, I got so suckered in to my time with Acre that I didn't actually have the time to visit Jerusalem - in fact our time with the game full stop was unfortunately cut short by an impatient French coach driver.
The main bulk of the game focuses on successfully completing the assassinations of various 'boss' characters that are key figures in the game's universe and narrative. However, in order to gather the intel required to be able to attempt these assassinations, various side quests must first be completed. These range from pick-pocket missions to stealthy assassinations of some of the lesser characters, to interrogations (which usually involve a fist fight), to the rescuing of citizens from various sticky situations to scouting objectives which require you to scale the summit of a particularly tall building within the town in order to successfully "synchronise" yourself with the world.
The reason I've put the word synchronise in air quotes is that while for the main part the game seems fairly straightforward in terms of its medieval narrative, there's also some underlying futuristic plot branch that's yet to be revealed in its entirety. You'll have noticed in the gameplay videos, I'm sure, the various digital effects that appear over enemies and characters within the game. There are also references to memory rewinds and fast forwards, the aforementioned synchronisations with the game world, error messages that appear when cut-scenes start and lots of other seemingly out of place events that hint at some sort of contemporary link to what's happening within the game. Ubisoft would not elaborate on this but did assure me that everything is explained and becomes clear and logical within the first few minutes of the full game.
Assassin's Creed is, if you didn't already know, a third-person action adventure similar at first glance to Prince of Persia. Some would suggest, and they'd no doubt have a fair point, that Assassin's Creed is actually a logical extension of that franchise as there are undoubtedly many similarities - mainly in how the characters move. However, while PoP funneled you down straightforward, linear tunnels, the world of Assassin's Creed is a much more open and free-roaming place where it's possible to play the game exactly how you choose to instead of being dictated to by the tight, narrow level design. In fact the assassinations required to drive the story forward can apparently be completed in any order, providing you've uncovered the necessary intel beforehand.
For me personally, Altair also happens to be one of the most well-designed videogame characters in recent memory. But bear with me on this, for I'm already anticipating your groans of "but he's just another hoodie-wearing emo bastard!" Altair's hood and cape were intentionally designed so that the shadow he casts (due to the pointed peak on his hood and the split down the back of his cape) closely resembles an eagle. Which while looking fantastic in action, is also a brilliant metaphor for the grace with which Altair floats around the world of Assassin's Creed, as well as the speed and lethality with which he attacks his prey. Jade also mentioned that the final design they chose for Altair was actually the very first concept they created but was then never surpassed by any of the designs that followed.
There's a general rule in Assassin's Creed (which I'll now refer to as AC as I'm sick of typing the word ass) that dictates that any ledge, stone or object that sticks out by more than 10cm can be used by Altair as a foot or hand grab in order to climb up any of the game's architecture. And in actual practice this system works brilliantly well. It's deliciously satisfying planning out the many different routes Altair can take to climb to his intended destination. And much like Crackdown, which incidentally parts of the game very much reminded me of, it was fantastic fun just to pick a building in the distance and work out the best way of getting to the top of it. Again like I experienced after playing Crackdown, later on that evening as we were wandering around Montreal I found myself looking at real life buildings contemplating which edges or windows I could grab a hold of, and which ledges were perfect for propelling myself to the top. The graphics and draw distance in the game are quite staggering and that new next-gen feature of "if you can see it you can scale it" was more than evident.
I also noticed very early on that the animation of Altair is quite simply second to none. I especially found myself hugely impressed by the grace and speed at which he moves around the levels. The transitions between the many different types of actions are simply flawless and a staggering achievement when you consider the multitude and complexity of accomplishing real-time and very often random changes in direction and motion.
While we're on the topic of visuals, I'd noticed in preview videos before my trip that the game had some serious v-synch issues that made the game tear as bad as, if not worse than, God of War 2 and this was top of my list of pertinent questions to ask Ubisoft while I was there. However, before I'd even played the game and completely unprompted, Patrice went to great pains to say that the game had gone through a massive optimisation process recently which had removed tearing in its entirety. Now I realise that for most of you this is very much a non-issue, but Ubisoft has garnered a bad reputation for itself in this department in recent games and I know a lot of people that will breathe a huge sigh of relief as I confirm that in my time with the game I did not experience a single screen tear. I confirmed this with some of the other people playing the game and they all backed up my claims. However, there was mention from one person of a single slight occurrence of tearing during an in engine cut-scene as the camera closed in on one of the main characters.
The characters in the game are also particularly varied and great in their numbers, which is one of the game's unique selling points. Huge, bustling crowds exist throughout the game, every single individual of which can be interacted with in one way or another. I actually found myself chuckling as I continued to rudely barge into women NPCs carrying large water bottles and knocking them over. Ubisoft actually created its own procedural system to generate random and varied NPCs, and, in the aforementioned presentation, demonstrated just how easy it was to create hundreds of different characters by adjusting various variables. My wanton cruelty was soon brought to an end, however, as the city guards decided they'd had enough of my anti-social behaviour and issued me with an ASBO, medieval style, which involved sharp pointy objects and a lot of pain. The game employs, to great effect I might add, its own social behaviour system that determines whether or not your conduct is deemed acceptable. An indicator on the game's HUD highlights when you're being monitored by the guards - yellow meaning that you're being watched but are acting in an acceptable manner whereas red means the opposite. It's then up to you to lose the chasing guards by breaking their direct line of sight to you for a certain length of time, or by hiding un-noticed in one of the many rooftop huts positioned around the game's world. These huts act as safe houses and if you can hide behind their curtains without being spotted allow you to then carry on your business, whatever it may be, without fear of further repercussions.
The game's combat, while initially confusing, is eventually very satisfying. But button-mashers should beware as employing that strategy will get you nowhere. Altercations, in my experience, are best won by using counter-attacks which require very precise timing - pressing the X button just as an enemy is about to attack results in some fantastically brutal counters, with Altair viciously gutting opponents with his hidden blade. There's a definite rhythm to the combat with attacks and counters constantly flowing back and forth.
It's worth mentioning at this point, however, that I am slightly concerned that the combat will fast become repetitive - even during my short time with the game I found myself automatically resorting to repeatedly pushing X to counter and soon found this somewhat monotonous. But in fairness, there are various new moves and attacks to be learned as you progress through the game and each of the game's four weapons - long sword, hidden blade, throwing knives (which are wisely in limited supply and are ineffective against 'boss targets') and fist - all perform a wide variety of ferocious and ruthless attacks. It's too early to predict just how big a deal this will turn out to be, but this was one of the first concerns that came to my attention.
The game also features some brilliant AI - combatants will quickly learn your patterns if you insist on repeatedly attacking them in the same way. I even tested this claim for myself and quickly found myself being out-countered and definitely had to mix it up. The enemies also have a morale system in place which means that if one of the guards fighting you gets the upper hand, his compadres will shout words of encouragement and join in on the fight. Conversely, if you start to dominate proceedings, group morale will be low and your enemies will back off, become hesitant and even decide you're too tough an opponent before fleeing with their tails between their legs.
The controls were also a slight bone of contention for me during my preview. Mainly because it actually took me a good 30-45 minutes to become fully accustomed to them. Though in hindsight, I was thrown into the middle of the game without any instructions. The full game features various tutorials early on explaining all the game's nuances in much more detail, whereas I had to basically figure them out for myself.
The other criticisms I have of the game relate back to the point I made in my opening paragraphs about how Ubisoft strived to create as immersive an experience as is possible. While in the main it's clearly obvious that it has created a stunningly sumptuous adventure, there were one or two minor issues that unfortunately managed to break that immersion for me. While in the main the animation and collision detections are exemplary, I did notice an unfortunate ragdoll related incident where a downed enemy's legs ended up perpendicular to his head.
The second and probably most jarring incident I had with the game was when I was stalking a victim I was about to pick-pocket. After following for a short while and managing to evade the guards blocking the path to my intended target, I eventually managed to sneak up on him and was about to pick his pockets when he simply vanished into thin air before re-spawning at the start of his patrol path. Now normally, those two admittedly minor (in the grand scale of things) issues wouldn't have been that significant, especially as games exhibit this sort of behaviour regularly. However, vanishing and re-spawning NPCs completely spoiled that one specific moment substantially because at that point I was fully focused on stalking my prey and was very much engrossed in the moment and more importantly the game.
The thing that drove this point home even more so, though, was Ubisoft's opening insistence that it had strived to do everything possible to ramp up the levels of immersion. I mentioned this to one of the game's developers who pulled a face before adding that unfortunately I'd not managed to pick my target's pockets in time and thus had failed the side mission and it had to be restarted. Now, this "memory reset" might make sense in terms of the game's otherwise unexplained and mysterious plot, and might not have been quite so jarring had I been privy to the game's full narrative. So I am prepared to give the game some leeway as apart from this issue I was pretty much blown away by it.
So in conclusion, before my trip to Montreal, Assassin's Creed wasn't anywhere near being on my games radar, but it's now up there on my list of essential purchases and I'm eagerly anticipating finally discovering just what the hell is going on in terms of the narrative. As well as, of course, being able to play the game at my own pace from the beginning while mastering and experiencing the controls and combat mechanics in their full glory. Patrice promised that the game will deliver 20+ hours of gameplay and even went so far as telling us a story about how one of Ubisoft's testers has completely mapped out the most efficient and economical route through the game, completing only the bare minimum required to see the finale and can still only complete the game in 8.5 hours. Assassin's Creed looks absolutely stunning and in my opinion may well turn out to be one of the contenders for game of the year.