Version tested: PSP
If there is one area in which Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines exceeds expectations, it is in the volume of chickens stalking Cyprus in the Middle Ages. They are everywhere. In the streets, in the marketplaces, in the churchyards - they're even on the rooftops. You can't free-run more than a few metres without encountering a chicken.
If there are two areas in which Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines exceeds expectations, however, surely the second is that Gryptonite Games has built a series of openworld levels with very small loading times separating them, and that you can traverse each of them in much the same way you can in the PC and console versions. What's more, the frame-rate is good and there's a surprising amount of detail: your flowing assassin uniform, the vines, haybales, civilians, etc. Did I mention the chickens?
However, exceeding expectations was never really going to be Bloodlines' problem, because nobody expected very much from this - apart from six unlockable weapons for use in the PS3 version of Assassin's Creed II. No, the problem was always going to be whether Gryptonite would simply coax a passable impression of Assassin's Creed out of the PSP, or whether it could do more.
Rather than copying the excellent Assassin's Creed II by plunging you into Renaissance Italy, Bloodlines returns you to Altair right after the end of the first game. The idea in the Assassin's Creed series is that you are really a captive descendant of Altair in the present day, and you are reliving genetic memories in a machine called the Animus, but according to Assassin's Creed II you don't go back to Altair to relive any more memories after the events of the first game, so Bloodlines doesn't make sense. Then again, if you can forgive that and do care about the Assassin's Creed storyline, you will at least find out what Altair did with the Apple of Eden. And if you're new and have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, don't worry, I barely do either.
The important things to bear in mind are that Altair is a medieval assassin, he's basically king of the assassins at this point, and he's off to Cyprus to sort out the evil Templar knights, who are trying to recover their power after his crushing one-man smackdown at the end of the first game.
The continuity does at least stretch to giving you most of Altair's abilities straight from the off. Walking around by default, he can also run and climb onto pretty much anything, since all the world in Assassin's Creed is peppered with convenient hand-holds. There's a mini-map showing you objective markers and side missions, and the streets are patrolled by guards marked in yellow, who react suspiciously to anything more than a cautious stroll with your hands clasped together in prayer. It's a bit like a particularly strict swimming pool - sometimes men draw their swords and bark, "Who's that running over there?!"
Should they decide to give chase, or should you be plunged into a fight by the mission design, you'll be alerted to this by a shift in music and an icon in the top-left, and you can either fight them off or leg it. Fighting involves either striking rhythmically with your sword - timing each button press to coincide with the previous blow hitting its target - or waiting for an enemy attack animation to begin and getting in there first with a counter, resulting in a knockout or a grisly instant-kill finishing move.
Leg it, however, and all you have to do is break line-of-sight from your pursuers and you can take advantage of one of many rooftop gardens (shacks with curtains) or haybales to restore your anonymity. When you're anonymous, you're best placed to employ your signature move: selecting and then plunging your hidden blade into a victim by going up to them and pressing the attack button.
The original Assassin's Creed was criticised for its repetitive and lacklustre missions, and Bloodlines tries to avoid this. Rather than being given a target and having to perform rote activities to reach an imaginary threshold that allows you to go off and be an assassin, a selection of different tasks is fed to you in linear fashion, some of which are assassinations, some of which are intelligence-gathering, and each of which typically consists of several phases.
For example, you kill a man in the city of Kyrenia - one of two major locations in the game - and the next mission is to break up the riots caused by your actions, which involves going to a particular place and getting in a fight, but then also taking down a group of archers on rooftops within a time limit because they're firing burning arrows at a church. The key assassinations themselves are often more like linear third-person action game levels, where you have to stealth or fight your way through a sequence of rooms and courtyards until you reach a boss, who needs to be fought to the death.
Elsewhere you can do side missions that are closer to those of the first game, like fighting Templars who are accosting random civilians in the street, or climbing up to viewpoints on towers. You can also collect Templar coins, scattered around the streets and rooftops, which you can invest in upgrades at intervals - things like more throwing knife inventory, more health, and so on.
So far then, a passable impression with some slightly different bits. Unfortunately though, despite adopting a slightly better approach than the original Assassin's Creed in some places, things fall down somewhat in the details. Those side missions, for example, are almost all pointless, while the collectables and upgrades are perfunctory.
One of the greater problems is the AI, and it's at this point you start to hope all those chickens aren't borrowing too much from the CPU, because whichever cycles they're using up, these guys could do with them. The NPC Templars and other guards are programmed to chase you down whenever you do anything fun, or especially if you start running by the pool, but that's not the problem - the problem is that they're stupid beyond explanation.
You can happily run up to a Templar and stab him to death in full view of a patrolling colleague further down the way, and then dive conspicuously into a haybale sitting next to the body, safe in the knowledge that the guard who saw you will draw his sword, look around in bewilderment straight at your hiding place, and then put his sword away and wander off. Guard reaction times aren't much better: at one point two Templars were stood facing each other having a chat, so I killed one and then had time to stand up again and kill the other before he thought to get his sword out.
There are other issues too. The camera is controlled by holding the left shoulder button and using the face buttons. This is restrictive anyway, because you can't really do it while doing anything else, but in a game that loves verticality it doesn't help not being able to look very far up or down. Tapping the button is meant to centre the camera, but I still found myself jumping the wrong way a lot on account of it, too.
Meanwhile, for all the fact that we're in an open world, each space is small and repetitive enough for the novelty to wear off within five minutes, and the original thrill of climbing up to viewpoints is somewhat negated by the lack of a view when you get there.
But the biggest problem is simply that it's all very boring. Despite being under constant threat, anyone who played either of the big Assassin's Creed games will find it tiringly easy to prance through these levels without much incident, probably completing it in around five hours, and there is little joy to be had on the way. Even if you haven't played the originals, I struggle to imagine anyone with motor function will get stuck on it for very long.
The main story thread is dull, the dialogue threadbare, the combat basic and repetitive, and the objectives unimaginative, however jumbled up they are compared to the original game's checklist approach. Without the many story-infused collectables of the second game, we are also back to platforming without a purpose, except now we're doing it in a much less detailed world.
You could argue that it doesn't make sense to compare Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines to its PC and console relatives, which it can't hope to replicate, and I would normally agree - except they are exactly what it is trying to replicate, with mediocre results. For the record though, platform game fans would be better served by Jak & Daxter, while action game fans can go back to God of War. Bloodlines isn't a terrible or frustrating game, but it's as unnecessary as all those chickens.
5 / 10