A quick hands-on with the final build.
When Ubisoft asks you if it's okay to pop 'round for elevenses, you don't generally say no - unless you're on a hideous deadline, haven't dusted for three months, or are just feeling particularly cranky and antisocial that day. But even if all of the above apply, when they come armed with a finished Xbox 360 build of Assassin's Creed, even concerns about black moods, dustballs and writing reviews at 5am seem to vanish magically into the ether.
After 19 months of hyping up the game as the official Next Big Thing, it's understandable for anyone to approach the game with a certain amount of scepticism. EG forumite Richard Horne certainly felt that way, despite being shipped off by Ubi to its Montreal studio to see the game first hand. Also, in the back of my mind, I wondered whether Ubi's extra effort in coming to see me was insurance against the risk of me getting a tetchy first impression about a game which is evidently enormously important to everyone connected to the company. Not since Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has the publisher seemingly had so much riding on one particular product. No pressure.
Pad in hand, I was willing the game to deliver, but also all-too-aware that it could simply be a poster child for an extremely ambitious game engine. Given a chance to sample the fourth major section of the game, we rode into the town of Acre on horseback, marvelling at the fluid realism of our trusty steed, and taking care to ram into anyone in the way. You know, for research. Better still was the realisation that we could swish your sword at passers-by, causing mayhem, with guards trailing in our wake. After one mis-timed jump, it's safe to say that yours truly was faced with one large angry mob.
It's a theme that runs throughout Assassin's Creed - you can't just throw your weight around and expect to get away with it. Simple actions like running around town cause absolute havoc - basically because you'll find yourself knocking over civilians, barging into heavily armed guards and generally drawing attention to yourself. As much as we've been conditioned to run around videogames like headless chickens, sticking to those habits will just get you into trouble. As incredibly nimble as Altair is, even amazing feats of free-running building ascending athleticism aren't always guaranteed to evade their attentions - nor is jumping a few rooftops. The thing you'll find out very early on is that your assailants are (improbably) almost as fit and daring as you are, so when you first offend a guard, the best idea might actually be to kill him before anyone notices. Running away will inevitably drag other guards into the fray, and cause a huge chase sequence to ensue - so unless you enjoy wasting enormous amounts of time, the key to a trouble-free Assassin's Creed session is to try as much as possible to blend in with the crowd - or find a decent hiding spot until things cool down.
Staying vigilant and maintaining socially acceptable behaviour is actually easier than you might imagine - holding down A on the 360 pad actions the 'blend' command, meaning you walk around, hands pressed together, walking slowly, head bowed like a scholar. Pressing B allows you to carefully guide Altair past people, gently ushering them to one side with an empty hand in a polite manner. It looks a little odd initially to see the way he almost swims through a cluster of people, but it's far more preferable than running around with your gaming head on and getting into a bundle of trouble.
Now and then, though, a bit of a bundle is desirable - or even necessary - so if you do find yourself facing a combat situation, Altair has a few cunning tricks up his sleeve (literally in the case of his hidden blade, which he keeps out of sight up his cuff). Although mashing the X button does deal with the game's earlier enemies, it doesn't take long before you're required to pay more attention to timing and take advantage of countering techniques. By taking a more methodical approach to your slashing, it's clear that patience pays dividends - usually in the form of thoroughly grisly death animations that our chums at Rockstar would doubtlessly admire. Apparently such actions as stabbing folk right through the heart sailed through certification on the basis that it's fantasy violence. It's certainty one of the goriest games I've ever seen get a 15 rating - and such swish animation too...