Version tested: PC
Let's talk a little about the term "director's cut". If we were to take it literally, it would refer to those rare occasions upon which a maligned film director revisits a studio-butchered film and re-cuts it to his or her satisfaction. In reality, it usually means "we found an extra fifteen minutes of footage that we cut out to make the movie better, but now we've put it back in". But what does it mean in videogames and, in particular, what does it mean for this long-overdue PC version of last year's stabby console hit?
Assassin's Creed was a game burdened with potential, but one that could ultimately only earn the tag of "pretty vacant". For all its expansive medieval vistas and acrobatic action, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the long term. Once you'd guided Altair through his first assassination, you'd pretty much seen everything on offer in terms of gameplay. That you then had to repeat the process eight more times left some players feeling more than a little weary, no matter how lovely the view along the way. So does this "director's cut" represent the fruits of a re-energised creative team polishing a tarnished gem to their satisfaction? Or is it just a tardy port with some inconsequential new bits tacked on?
The second one, sadly.
When I hear the words "director's cut", I tend to expect some fairly substantial changes. New scenes, new characters, new levels, resolutions to otherwise unfinished plot arcs. That sort of thing. For Assassin's Creed PC, the net result of six months of additional work is four new types of "investigation mission". These are the secondary objectives you have to complete in order to amass enough information to launch an attack on one of your nine historical targets. In the console version there were only five such mission types, some of which involved nothing more involved than sitting on a bench and looking at someone. The shallow nature of the tasks, and the protracted repetition, soon began to grate. In theory, bumping that total up to nine should alleviate the problem. And it does. Slightly.
You see, there's nothing in any of the four new mission types that offers anything more in-depth than what PS3 and 360 owners got to sample in November. Rather than exciting new experiences, they're more like variations on established themes. Rooftop Race Challenge, for instance, requires you to run from one informant to another within a time limit. Another fun excuse to hurl yourself from rooftops and scramble up walls, but nothing you won't have already done in the existing flag race missions.
Archer Stealth Assassination asks you to bump off a set number of rooftop snipers without being seen. Again, if you played the console version then you've already done this - both as part of the main gameplay, and also in the missions where you must help a fellow assassin by stealthily killing a set number of ground-based targets. Assassin Escort is self-explanatory, and it'll be a cold day in Hell when I praise the addition of sodding escort missions as something to cheer about. That just leaves the Merchant Stand Destruction challenge in which you, well, destroy merchant stands. It's another simplistic and arbitrary task that hardly gets the blood pumping.
And that's the sum total of the new gameplay elements. They hardly justify the "director's cut" tag, nor do they seem like the sort of overhaul that needed six months to implement.
There are some minor technical improvements, of course. Most notably a couple of tweaks to the guard AI that makes it slightly less easy to murder dozens of soldiers by loitering near the scene of the crime with your head bowed but, again, this isn't a radical reinvention and many of the old exploits involving laughably illogical use of haystack hiding places still work. The undeniably gorgeous visuals look the business in the sort of resolutions that consoles can't manage, but for most people playing on an average home gaming rig the difference will be negligible at best, unattainable at worst. The game comes with some fairly daunting minimum specs, and if you don't have at least a 2.2GHz dual-core processor you can expect the game to chug like a traction engine as it struggles to render all those crowds.
DirectX 10 is supported, but generally seems to be more herky-jerky than a stable DirectX 9 system, so that's pretty much a big waste of time. Control, meanwhile, is decent but never particularly intuitive. Playing with a gamepad is the obvious choice, but as Windows can have trouble recognising the trigger buttons of a 360 pad then the game can become even more of a fiddle as you fight to overcome the instinctive forefinger reaction to tug on those triggers.
Keyboard and mouse control, on the other hand, also takes some getting used to. Running, climbing and basic fighting are easy enough to grasp but functions like the lock-on and modifying your actions from low to high visibility proves a bit of a fumble to begin with. It's nothing you won't get to grips with, but you're always aware that you're dealing with a control system originally designed specifically for a different input device. You can remap the controls on both gamepad and keyboard, and on-screen prompts remind you which buttons do what, but it still took me a while to find a setup that felt comfortable.
On the whole though, everything that's been added works well enough. What's depressing is what they haven't done. The new investigation missions make the bulk of the gameplay marginally less repetitive, but it's not a dramatic fix and these sections are still glaringly pointless, nothing more than a series of interchangeable chores that trigger the boss level once you've done enough donkey work.
The information you gather still has no bearing on the assassinations themselves, where you simply run up to your target, slaughter them in plain sight and then run away and hide until everybody forgets about you rather than planning anything based on what you discover. This half-baked execution of the game's core theme was annoying on consoles, but on the PC where memories of the more flexible Thief and the original Hitman still linger, this shallow, rigid structure is left embarrassingly exposed. You have a stunning free-roaming world, but the only things you can actually do are the handful of tasks the game offers. It looks like a real place, but it never actually feels like it. It's a backdrop. A very pretty, animated backdrop, but it's not a place worthy of exploration.
Of course, those sorts of changes would require a fairly major rewrite, but even the easy-to-fix grumbles haven't been addressed, such as the tiny pool of voice samples which leave you grinding your teeth at every cry of "I'll have your hand for that!" Or the way the difficulty of the game is crudely and obviously ratcheted up by populating the streets with increasing numbers of tenacious beggars and belligerent lepers, who only ever harass you out of the dozens of people wandering around. And there's no escaping the fact that, apart from the investigation missions, the only other thing to do in these richly realised environments is to either save peasants by grinding through more counter-based combat, or sproing around looking for hidden flags and Templars. As there's no Achievement system in place for the PC version, these collection quests are revealed as the hollow chore they always were. With no incentive to find them, and no benefits for their discovery, they might as well not exist.
So Assassin's Creed on the PC proves to be dispiritingly similar to Assassin's Creed on the consoles, only six months late for a party most people have already grown tired of. This certainly leaves the unearned "director's cut" title looking a lot like a transparent marketing hook to make disgruntled PC owners feel like their half-year wait makes them favoured customers rather than a secondary concern. Sure, the game certainly looks lovely, and you'll ooh and aah at the way Altair glides seamlessly through a crowd, or climbs up a wall with his virtual hands visibly connecting with virtual outcrops. But the surface lustre soon wears off, and you're left with a game that goes to impressive lengths to make it fun to explore the environment, but still fails to give you any compelling reason to do so beyond empty eye candy.
Tom may have given the 360 version 7/10 back in November but even though the PC version is virtually identical I always found Assassin's Creed to be a 6/10 experience wrapped up in a 9/10 game engine. Waiting six months for what amounts to some minor tech tweaks and four additional mini-games certainly hasn't changed my mind, so...
6 / 10