Version tested: Xbox 360
Obviously we're not going to tell you anything. Ubisoft has worked hard to make sure that you're not only excited about playing Assassin's Creed, but that you're also dying to find out what's going on. What are all those glitchy graphical effects in aid of? Are you really in the Third Crusade at all? You want to find out for yourself, so go ahead.
What goes on in the Third Crusade is fair game though - and a fairly good game. Taking on the role of Altair, a quickly disgraced mega-assassin who doesn't respect his elders, you're given the chance to restore your name and rank by killing a sequence of increasingly naughty men scattered across the Holy Land in Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre - the three sprawling cities that host most of the game's running, jumping and assassering.
The two most arresting things about this are the astonishing graphics - more dazzling even than BioShock's, largely thanks to brilliant use of light and shadow - and the Canadian developer's unmatched interpretation of parkour, the art of "free running". As you approach a building, you can run up the wall and grab a small ledge, and then feel around for additional hand-holds, using the analogue stick to crawl up the side like Spider-Man. You can also bound across rafters, swing from beams and combine these actions, and while it's not quite limitless - there are plenty of times you'll wonder why you can't scale something - it puts even the silky platforming of Tomb Raider: Anniversary to shame as you dance beautiful, flowing escape routes across the tops of buildings.
With nine main targets to kill across the span of the game, a lot of the time you spend in the Third Crusade is given over to information-gathering - eavesdropping on conversations, pick-pocketing messengers, interrogating, and tracking down informers - but despite Altair's fancy smock and bossy tone, he has to go and find them first, and to do this he climbs tall buildings. The "viewpoints" he reaches are a bit like Crackdown's Agency Supply Points - elevated positions that give you an overview of the surrounding area, and sometimes require a bit of skill to get to. Even when they're not, though, you find yourself drawn to them anyway, if only for the view.
Staring out across any of the game's cities, the largely optional Kingdom hub area that divides them, or from the peak of your Order's home city of Masyaf, crowned by a castle on a mountain, it's hard to catch your breath. The game drops barely a frame as Altair crouches - his gown dangling from his hooded head to give the impression of an eagle perched on a beam - and stares out over a sea of flat-roofed shanties, town houses, mosques and forts. And later the actual sea with boats in it. When you've "synchronised" to acquire mission data, you can leap headfirst into a hay-cart far below - something you can also do wherever you find pigeons congregating on the edge of a rooftop.
As a spectacle, Assassin's Creed remains convincing whether you're atop the highest building or sprinting down the narrowest street. Much has been made of the crowd technology (producer Jade Raymond called it "one of the promises of the next generation"), which treats non-player characters as proper, physical people with their own routines and attitudes to your behaviour. This manifests itself most obviously when you do something high profile, like climbing a building, and a chorus of quirky onlookers questions your sanity, but it's equally true that barging into them sows discontent and eventually puts the city guards on your case.
The controls are peculiar, but work very well in general. Altair is set up as a sort of marionette (cue additional intrigue) with feet, hands and head mapped across the face buttons, while left trigger locks on and off of targets and holding the right trigger modifies the function of the face buttons to "high profile" actions. This allows for a degree of adaptability in your attempts to remain unseen in crowds or evade angry city guards. Holding A on its own reduces Altair's visibility by having him pretend to be a monk as he walks at a very slow pace, but holding A with the right trigger down makes him sprint. The fact that holding the right trigger locks Altair to movement across low walls and other parkour elements as he moves can be disruptive, but you learn to work around it.
The crowd stops short of being an obstacle, too. After a few minutes you're happily weaving through and around the people at surprising pace, using your "gentle push" button to brush through without causing a ruckus, or dodging them completely by climbing, jumping or just, you know, not running directly into them. Much as you would navigate a crowd in real life.
Occasionally you do alert the guards though - whether by knocking people over or doing something suspicious within their line of sight, or by attacking them, for that matter - and so they give chase. And fight. And here the game looks even better, as Altair stands poised with his sword waiting to strike.
It's a perfect blend of combat mechanics and animation. Swords clash and clang against one another, and guards grab you and try to throw you to the ground, but you twist their arm and boot them away. Physical contact is near perfect. Your hand wraps around their wrist, they buckle in pain as you rotate them away from you, and your foot makes solid contact with their backside as you boot them into a wall. And when they attempt to tackle you, one by one, you counter devastatingly. The execution of these counters - unlocked early in the game - is similar to the good old Mark of Kri. Remember that? Probably not, but I like to reference it.
Locked on to any opponent in a crowd, you hold the block button and wait for them to strike one by one, and as someone advances you hit the counter button and Altair deftly avoids their blow and savagely brutalises them in response. Whether it's driving his sword upward through their chest, striking at their calf and then spinning into a downward stab through the heart, or breaking their sword arm with the flat of the blade and then slicing them nearly in half, it's amazingly brutal (especially for a 15 certificate - watch out, Mum).
There is a system of parries and attacks to master for those of you with a passion for fighting (although it's hardly Ninja Gaiden), but being able to shortcut the entire combat system with satisfying counters demonstrates a tacit understanding of the division between gamers who enjoy third-person combat and those who just want to get it out of the way.
Within a couple of hours, then, a structure emerges: receive your target, gather intelligence and then strike. Again, a bit like Crackdown. In fact, the parallels are increasingly uncanny. Granted, Real Time Worlds' Xbox 360 game had guns rather than swords, and it preferred speed, height and regular platforming limitations to the subtlety of Altair's urban mountaineering, but the comparison certainly stands up for the most part. Except, while you could lessen the strength of your enemy's force by taking down his lieutenants in Crackdown, Assassin's Creed is more regimented: you must complete a number of investigations before striking at the target.
And these, frankly, become a bit dull. Eavesdropping involves sitting on a bench, locating the source of the gossip, targeting them and pressing Y. That's it. Pick-pocketing involves much the same, except you have to follow someone for a bit and press B when your hand's within grabbing distance of their back pocket. It's sleuthy, but also a bit one-dimensional. If you get spotted, you hide until the heat's off, then go back and try again. The same's true of interrogations - listen to some chatter, follow them for a few seconds, then punch them until you get a cut-scene. That's not simplification on our part; that's literally what you do.
Each section of each city is also home to around a dozen innocent strangers - scholars, monks, damsels - who are being slapped around by the guards and need to be liberated. These encounters are identical to one another: start a fight, kill all the guards and then target the rescued civilian to receive praise and - as reward - the loyalty of some nearby vigilantes, who will block the path of guards if they ever pursue you through the same area.
The informer missions are no more varied, but are more fun to do. Generally they involve stealth-assassinating a few targets (later in the game, time limits are imposed), which is a careful task of finding them on your mini-map, walking up to them, quietly stabbing them with your concealed blade, and then beating an inconspicuous path to the next target. Doing these without alerting the guards is the closest the game comes to making you feel like a proper assassin.
Which is to say that the actual assassinations are a bit ropey. You might imagine that you stalk carefully through heavily guarded hallways, keeping to the shadows, climbing across ceilings, and eventually steal into your target's presence and hold a dagger to their throat like a sort of medieval Leon. But the truth is, again, closer to Crackdown. You do indeed stalk a bit, but only by virtue of the guards being too thick to spot you at more than about 40 feet. There's no clever hiding or skulking. There are no interesting approach tactics. You just get close, watch a cut-scene, and then strike. You seldom do this without alerting the target and his guards - instead you either give chase before planting a dagger in his throat, or you get into the usual sort of block-and-counter fight and go at it until you've stabbed him enough to get the final cut-scene.
Then you run away until nobody can see you and you can duck into a bale of hay or a rooftop shack until the alert indicator's run down.
If this all sounds familiar and slightly disappointing, then I've picked the right words. It is. It would be lovely to wax flowery like Jim did about Crysis. But there simply isn't any variety to wax about. Enemies spot you and then surround you and you either kill them or leg it and hide. That's it. There's almost no fun to be had just playing with the world. The castle at Masyaf looks like Lara Croft's mansion, but dreams of climbing around exploring it are just that, as you struggle and fail to gain any purchase or hop between ledges and lips that ought to support you.
By contrast, Crackdown is a much better and more imaginative free-roaming action game, and its very existence dulls the impact of a lot of Assassin's Creed's inventions. Creed's collectibles - flags hidden around each city - are less visible but also less exciting than Agility Orbs. Having to reach the peak of viewpoint towers is less satisfying than getting to Agency Supply Points because, despite articulating one of the best and most interesting platform game schemes in memory, Ubisoft doesn't really challenge you with it. In fact, there are only one or two viewpoints you'll have trouble reaching in the whole game.
It might seem a bit unfair to make such a song and dance of a comparison with a game that - on one platform at least - Creed isn't even up against, but by the end the glove fits so completely that it's impossible to ignore your fingers poking out of the holes, feeling around for missing comforts. For two such similar games to succeed in the same year, the second one has to be up to the quality of the first, or distinguish itself enough to evade comparison. Assassin's Creed sadly doesn't.
It even trips and stumbles on all the old quirks and flaws we're tired of: NPCs who say the same thing over and over again (worse: different voice actors saying the same thing for each city - get used to "You dirty thief, I'll have your hand for that"), guards who get stuck glitching up against walls, failing missions for arbitrary reasons, a third-person camera with which you're often forced to wrestle. After about hour four, the most amusing thing is checking the Achievements screen to discover there's one for beating up female beggars. Er?
Even more damning is that the game's big reveal falls almost completely flat. You see it coming a mile off, and then it stands there going "Ta-da!" And - perhaps with a view to filling out the inevitable sequels - there's little in the way of resolution anyway. One storyline concludes, in similarly predictable fashion, and the other just winks at you and then buggers off. I don't think I've ever stared at a credits screen in as much disbelief and disappointment. Not helped all that much by the preceding hour of gameplay, which consists entirely of fighting. Fighting fighting fighting. Had enough of fighting? Good, because there's some fighting to do.
It's a fitting end to a game that starts off brightly, wriggling elusively as you try and grasp what's going on, delighting in the mechanics and beautiful visuals, before sinking into a pattern that, while fairly gratifying, never evolves and ultimately becomes a bit boring, and quite amazingly repetitive. After each briefing, you travel the same route to the Masyaf border with no way to skip the journey, and it takes five minutes. You will play to the end anyway, I imagine, because it's not very frustrating, it looks nice and the low-level mechanics are engagingly fluid and spectacular to watch. And you certainly want to know what's going on. Or will do, until it stops dazzling to deceive and goes a bit Dan Brown. But while there's no end of potential to the foundations Ubisoft Montreal has set, the game built upon them is ultimately disappointing, and leaves you unfulfilled.
7 / 10