You know a game is great when you emerge from your lounge and realise that nine hours have passed, your eyes are blood-shot and your wife has left you. But it doesn't matter. Assassin's Creed is so great that you grab some eye-drops and sit back down.
In what could be described as a sort of Prince of Persia-meets-Hitman genre, Assassin's Creed is the product of over sixteen months of hard work by the people at Ubisoft's Montreal studio. Taking full advantage of the new console technology and teaming it with a novel control system, they have created one of the most cinematic and fluid games of the year. And it is fun to play. Loads of fun.
However, the worst feature of the game has to get mentioned first. Despite the screenshots and the media attention, nothing could prepare you for the completely obscure storyline that unfolds. You may think that I am about to spoil the plot but all of this is revealed almost immediately in the game. You aren't actually an assassin from 1191 AD living in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. You're a barman living in a world that closely resembles current-day. The catch is you're a distant descendant or possible reincarnation of a hitman during the days of the Templar Knights. A bunch of scientists are holding you, almost against your will in a laboratory and using a virtual reality-like machine – transporting you back to your past life in order to unlock a secret history for reasons unbeknownst to you.
Whoever came up with this was on some serious wacky-baccy. To be honest, I'm not sure why they chose this angle. I can only assume they wanted to base the game in a reality that we could comprehend. But the problem is you'll be too busy trying to figure out if you’ve purchased the wrong game to actually enjoy the multiple cinematics explaining everything. This modern-day angle does lend itself to some nifty visuals however. The tutorial sequences play out like the training scene from the Matrix and any areas of the map which cannot be accessed (and these are very few and far between) are masked by a haze of digital code indicating that your memory cannot process these areas. During gameplay characters of importance and collectable items are also decorated with a Matrix type code swirl around them. It is a strange juxtaposition to your ancient surroundings but actually works very well aesthetically.
Once you get past the tutorials and ignore the plot, the main bulk of the game is truly magic. You play as Altair, a highly respected member of a Guild of Assassins with more notches in your belt than Chuck Norris. Unfortunately though, your impressive kill-count has also granted you a massive ego and your arrogance leads to a series of mistakes that result in the death of your colleagues. Returning home alone and failing to achieve your mission, you are stripped of your rank and forced to rejoin the order from the lowest level. The genius behind this is that during the first few levels of the game you get to experience Altair in all his glory with his entire repertoire of moves and skills. When you are demoted you are left with the bare essentials, forcing you to earn them again. This not only gives you something to aim towards but you will find yourself changing your style of play according to your abilities throughout.
As you should have guessed by now, you are an assassin. There is no right or wrong here, only orders that you must obey and targets to eliminate. The freedom of choice comes as you try to decide how to go about achieving your objectives. Assassin's Creed is an amazingly open-ended game that is packed full of details that would keep anyone enthralled for hours. Huge sprawling cities are set out for you to explore with each one filled with a bustling community. Simply walking around you will overhear conversations, see drunks milling in corners, guards harassing civilians and possibly see an execution or two. Scaling buildings and leaping from rooftops give you epic views of your distant surrounds from one end of the city to the other. Sometimes you can just sit down on a bench and gaze out lovingly at your virtual environment. But all of this eye-candy would be useless if the controls didn’t work.
Everyone can recall the painful frustrations endured when trying to pull off a wall climb in Prince of Persia. With Ubisoft responsible for that thumb-wrecker you could be worried. Thankfully though, the control system in Assassin's Creed is brilliant. In a novel method of thought they have modeled the controls around a puppet concept where the four main buttons each correspond to a part of the body. So for example, Y controls the head, X is your right or weapon arm, the left is your free arm and A is used for any lower body movement. It may sound confusing but it works extremely well once used to it. These buttons are also teamed up with the right trigger which activates either Low or High Profile behaviour. Low Profile is used for normal walking and stealth movement. The High Profile is used for action and quicker movements such as running, scaling and of course fighting.
The controls are complex in their simplicity. Leaping between ledges and running down narrow walls is a matter of simply holding down the right trigger and the A button. You may think that this ruins the experience but this game is more than just a platform game. Ubisoft has removed the frustrating need to nail every jump with exact timing and instead let the game flow at break-neck pace. The results are intense five minute chases through bustling towns as you desperately try to evade your attackers. You can throw pedestrians at them, try and blend into a crowd of scholars and walk quietly past them or dive into a hay bale in the nick of time. My personal favourite is to scale a building and wait for them to come up before quickly pushing them off the edge and watching them fall to the street below.
The way you want to play the game is entirely up to you. You could charge in with your sword drawn screaming the name of Allah like a lunatic. Or if you’d rather use stealth you can do a quick assassination from behind in a dark alley way before slinking off into the shadows. The game features both elements so well you’ll find yourself using both. Luckily the days of the Splinter Cell “You’ve been spotted = Game Over” are long gone and Assassin’s Creed features a line-of-sight-style wanted level. Dodgy behaviour near guards may result in them coming over with their swords drawn. Ducking into alleyways or climbing onto rooftops is usually a good way to evade them but as the game progresses the AI get more determined to hunt you down. It would be fair to say that the enemy AI isn’t perfect and sometimes you have to snigger at how easily you can merge with a group of students dressed in white and the guards fail to spot you. Even though you have a crossbow and daggers strapped to your back. This still isn’t enough to ruin the atmosphere of the game though.
In your efforts to restore your high position in the Assassin’s Guild you must please your Master by eliminating nine victims across three huge cities; Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre. Each city has completely different regions within them from the poor slums through to the upper-class areas and royal castles. Trying to find your targets will require you to mingle with its inhabitants and eavesdrop or interrogate them to gain information. Gathering clues will eventually lead you to the rough whereabouts of your victim and from there it will be up to you as to how you want to take them out. Depending on their background this will affect how you proceed. For example, upper-class members of society are likely to be surrounded by guards and so you may even need to plan your escape route before hand. This could include picking out nearby hiding spots or perhaps even arranging for some hired goons to get in the way of your pursuers down a narrow passageway.
With the left and right control sticks you can either move Altair or the camera angle respectively. Combined with the right trigger you will soon be showing your acrobatic prowess and thanks to the incredible character animations, you look pretty damn cool in the process. The graphics in Assassin’s Creed are breath-taking. Every piece of cloth moves fluidly and diving through tiny gaps shows Altair twisting and moving his body perfectly. Despite the fact that you are wearing white, you really feel like a Ninja playing this game.
The combat controls are equally extensive without being complicated. Throughout the game you will have access to several medieval-like weapons, but to start with your bread and butter are a sword and assassin’s blade. The assassin’s blade is a short little knife that conceals neatly within your sleeve and can be drawn seconds before you make the kill. With the sword you can block, counter attack and hold off up to five guys at once. The sword fighting is definitely a highlight and still relatively realistic considering how fun it is. You can’t go into a fight against five guys and be guaranteed a victory. Quite often quick thinking will get you out of trouble. In one instance I was faced with daunting odds but by throwing the first guy over a railing and into a river I was able to even the score. Sometimes even running away to quickly scale a building before leaping down on them from behind is an option.
Later in the game you will get long-range weaponry like throwing daggers and a crossbow and if this isn’t enough you can even ride horses in Assassin’s Creed. This opens the doors to sword fights atop your trusty stead and again, the controls and animations of the horses are incredible. You almost feel a shiver of remorse when your horse gets hurt during your attack of madness against a small army.
Finally the sound definitely deserves a mention. From the orchestral score through to the hours of ambient effects the overall atmosphere in Assassin’s Creed is truly immersive. The voice acting for all of the characters is brilliant except for perhaps, and this is slightly strange, the lead actor. Altair’s voice doesn’t seem as consistent as the other actors and at times sounds a little forced. But this could only be in contrast to the other great voice actors throughout the game. With everything else going on around you I doubt many people will notice.
Assassin’s Creed isn’t perfect. However, it is so close to being that perfect 10 that this game is definitely worth checking out. Apart from the slight faults in the AI and voice-acting, Ubisoft has done an amazing job in creating a unique gaming experience and a solid new franchise. Yes, there is definitely room for a sequel and the strange storyline does give them room to build upon. Assassin’s is minus any multiplayer modes and although these would be awesome, getting that level of detail and maintaining the gameplay integrity would be a mammoth task. Single-player wise many gamers could finish the core missions in around 10 hours. But to explore every aspect along with side missions, there are easily over 18 hours of solid enjoyment here and a very worthy title for a wide audience.