Assassin's Creed Reader Review
When I was a kid I used to play with Lego (essentially building blocks, for anyone who is now sat with a look of puzzlement on their face). I had a really big box full of the stuff and I loved playing with it. Whilst you could get sets for building pre-determined things, complete with step-by-step instructions, the real fun was just building something, anything, you could imagine; or so I saw it. I had a friend who also liked Lego, but he very much stuck to using the instructions to build the specific things. He wanted to have a race car that looked just like the one on the box, not one with wings and laser guns. I didn't quite see the fun in that, and equally he didn't quite get why I enjoyed building spaceships that looked a bit like something an animal had sicked up. As I got older I started to appreciate the pre-determined sets a bit more (got me them fancy Technics kits), but ultimately I still enjoyed customising them with my own special modifications.
To my mind sandbox and open-world games divide people into two similar camps, those who take the building blocks given to them and see what messed up crap they can make, and those who want a set of instructions to tell them what to do. Now I'm not going to chastise those who fall into the latter camp, it takes all sorts after all, and some sandbox games cater very well to them, others leave you to your own devices a bit more, and I can't help but feel a bit bad for those people as they miss out on some of the best bits in sandbox games: sicking up retarded looking spaceships.
Assassin's Creed is just such a game, one who's simple delights could be easily missed in an effort to follow the set of instructions for progress.
What we have here is a sandbox adventure where the main aim is to assassinate a number of targets in three main cities: Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem. The game world is comprised of these three rather large cities as well as the Assassin's village (not all that large) and the kingdom which links them all (and which can be traversed on the game's incredibly well-realised horses, trumping even that of Shadow of the Colossus, which is quite an achievement). Once you have your target you head to the relevant city and city district, find and climb to some high points which reveal missions in the area, and do a number of those in order to get enough information to progress onto the main target. After a trip back to the city's local Assassin's Bureau (naturally) you then head to your main target and take them out. In essence, that is the entire game, you just do that a number of times over.
However, to strip it down to such bare bones feels wrong. There's a world here for you to experience, to be a part of and interact with. The game does an excellent job of making the places feel alive, populated by people who just want to get on with life, beggars who just want a bit of change, guards who want to keep the peace. And then there's you, in the middle of it, looking to disturb the peace. And if you do so the world reacts to you in a way you'd expect. Knock into a guard and they'll threaten you, if you draw a weapon they'll attack. Climb a wall and onlookers will question your sanity, some even wishing for you to fall just to teach you a lesson, the bastards.
It works, I was completely sucked in and loved interacting with the game world that laid at my feet. I probably spent far longer getting through the game than I should have as I kept finding myself going off on little tangents, seeing if I could climb over here, or how many guards can I stealth assassinate under the noses of other guards without getting caught, or going after a flag I'd seen out of the corner of my eye. Or just getting into the rather brutal (and excellent) fights just for shits and giggles.
Of course interacting with the world is only enjoyable if the control scheme allows it to be enjoyable, and on this point I have to give kudos to Ubisoft as the control system, which is rather unlike anything you would have encountered before, works incredibly well. OK, so a couple of times I found Altair doing something a bit stupid (jumping into water and certain death rather than onto the nice safe non-death-inducing ledge I was actually aiming at), but 99% of the time I found myself feeling fully in control, navigating the world with grace and planning intricate routes across rooftops (which in and of itself makes for an entertaining distraction).
But it's not all sunshine and roses. The problem with creating such an immersive world is that some really minor issues can ruin the effect and jar you out of the game world and if they happen often enough, they can become somewhat irritating. And there are a few minor things that just smack of laziness every time you encounter them.
Indulge me in a little rant, dear readers, if you will: The most obvious showing of laziness being the annoying over- and re-use of character voices, phrases and models associated with your missions. For example, in each of a city's three districts you will come across a number of citizens to save (unlocking guard blocking vigilantes for your trouble), say about six or seven per district. So around about 60 in total. Problem is, all of them share about four different phrases that are spoken once you save them. Would it have been that much trouble to record 60 different things? It's like one or two sentences at most. The fact that most also share the same voice actor (the difference essentially being gender), makes it all the more irksome. Then there's a number of interrogation missions where you beat up some street ranter for information, and there's only about 10 of those in the whole game, yet I found myself continually beating up the same two people. I get that the masses of the city are going to be re-used character models, but I noticed that a lot less as you're not focussed on individuals, the crowd is an entity to itself, but in these missions you do interact and focus on individuals, so why make them the same model nearly every time? Laziness is all. The one other thing that got on my nerves a little was the drunks/madmen you find on the street. These irritating fellows bumble about in the street and knock into, or shove you. Except they only ever knock into, or shove you, targeting Altair in a passing crowd with precision that would make most military spec missiles jealous.
Leap of faith
When all is said and done though, those are some of my biggest issues with the game, and yet they remain minor complaints when push comes to shove. I will concede that there is definitely an element of repetition to the game structure, not that it ever bothered me. I think if you tried to play huge amounts of the game in one go, or tried to get through missions quickly, it could easily wind you up, but really it is a title that demands you take your time with it. Trying to rush through misses the point entirely.
So, is it a good game? Certainly, very good in fact. Is it as good a game as it wanted to believe itself to be? No. But it is a bucket load of potential, and a foundation on which the rumoured sequels can be built. Sequels I'll be looking forward to.