Thursday, April 15, 2010

Assassin's Creed

Ubisoft puts a hit out on boring gameplay.

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360
Published by: Ubisoft
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Action
Players: 1
US Release Date: November 13, 2007
ESRB Rating: Mature - Blood, Strong Language, Violence

Story: The year is 2012, and you are placed into the shoes of...Desmond Miles, a scrawny, weenie of a bartender, who can't even run. Desmond is kidnapped by Abstergo, a pharmaceutical company using cutting-edge technology in secretive, and most likely illegal research. Abstergo makes Desmond a guinea pig for a machine called the Animus - a piece of equipment reminiscent of the chairs used by Neo in The Matrix, and capable of letting an individual relive the memories of their ancestors via their genetic code, in a virtual reality/dream-like state. After Desmond is plugged into the Animus, the game shifts points of view, as well as time periods: enter Altaïr ibn La-Ahad (say that three times fast), an assassin from the year 1191, during the Third Crusade of the Holy Land. This viewpoint starts off with Altaïr's master and leader of the the Assassin's, Al Mualim, tasking the young assassin with finding an artifact known as the "Piece of Eden"; however, during the mission, Altaïr breaks the three rules of his sect's Creed, endangering the lives of his companions and failing the mission. Altaïr's rank is stripped, and it is up to the player to complete missions for Al Mualim, in turn restoring his honor within the clan. The primary targets of these missions are members of the crusading Knights Templar, all of whom are connected in some sort of secret plot.

As the player progresses through the game and the bodies start to pile up, the story develops from simple, badass assassination missions into something much more: the rabbit hole gets much deeper, twisting religion and mythology into a conspiracy that binds the past and the present together. Loyalties and ideologies are tested, but unfortunately so is player patience - there are moments during Assassin's Creed during which the story crawls to a snail's pace, bogging down an otherwise intense and action-packed experience. While these instances can be painfully boring at times, pushing through them will reward the player with some really deep, unique storytelling - with Ubisoft doing an amazing job of incorporating some historical accuracy into the mix - that is well worth the wait.

"Hello Face?"
"Yeah, Hidden Blade?"
"Let's meet up sometime. How about now?"

Graphics: Graphically, Assassin's Creed is a mixed bag: for every glaring jagged texture and moment of framerate lag, there is an equally impressive breathtaking environment or top-notch character animation. There were times during Assassin's Creed when I literally put down my Xbox controller and just stared at the beauty unfolding on my TV screen; Ubisoft did an excellent job of injecting real, vibrant life into the cities of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus. Lighting effects and impressive fabric movement effects are just some of the minor details the development team threw in that make this title really shine. The occasional poor framerate only seems to affect the game during intense action/chase sequences, or when new areas of a city are being loaded (and trust me, the cities are pretty much huge), and even then only minimally detracts from the experience.

The realism of the character models and details of the environments add some incredible emotion to each and every interaction, making it amazingly easy to get pulled into the world of the 12th century Holy Land. Blood splatters from felled guards, the flash of blades in the sunlight, and the wind blowing through Altaïr's cloak as he sprints across rooftops are all captured with the brilliance of a Hollywood movie. Even the menus are designed with aesthetic value in mind, coming up sharp, bright, and crisp.

Though at times flawed, Assassin's Creed is overall a very pretty game, and shows off some of the 360's finer graphical capabilities.

Views like this one made my jaw drop so far that it hit me in the crotch. So worth it.

Sound/Music: Assassin's Creed boasts an impressive score composed by Jesper Kyd, ranging in tone from dark and brooding, to majestic and epic, to high-paced and explosive. Chase scenes, battles, and story elements are all appropriately accompanied by Assassin's Creed's sweeping soundtrack. A Latin chorus and powerful orchestra add to the ominous and heavy tone already set by the game's storyline.

Sound effects in this game are fitting for the settings and inevitable ensuing action: marketplaces are initially filled with quietly murmuring crowds, preaching holy men, and whimpering beggars; start a fight with a Templar guard, and the whole street will become a mess of screaming civilians and clanging swords. Ambient noise is an important part of the experience, with some missions requiring Altaïr to eavesdrop on conversations from nearby hiding places. Guards will also offer verbal cues that they are suspicious of your actions, making it easy to know when to duck into an alleyway or bale of hay to avoid detection.

As far as voice acting is concerned, Ubisoft did an excellent job of for one individual: Altaïr, our bold protagonist. While the rest of the cast does a great job of spicing up the dialogue with vibrant emotion and authentic-sounding accents, Altaïr's voice actor seems intent on draining all life out of his performance. I have trouble believing that Altaïr is committed to his mission or beliefs when he can't inflect beyond a plodding monotone.

Despite this solitary drawback, the audio of Assassin's Creed is as solid as it gets.

Gameplay: What is cooler than being an assassin? The answer should be "nothing"; however, Assassin's Creed suffers from several drawbacks that prevent it from achieving this idea. While the gameplay may feel varied during the first few hours of your quest - and believe me, the gameplay is incredibly solid - eventually the novelty begins to wear thin. Altaïr's action sequences are broken up by Desmond's interactions with members of Abstergo in the present, which end up being utterly forgettable at best. While it's a blast figuring out the most efficient strategy of assassinating a major target, the path to get to these too-few-and-far-between missions quickly becomes undeniably tedious. Assassin's Creed tries to remedy this by including a number of "side quests," but these ultimately end up being pointless (unless you REALLY want those achievement points). My biggest qualm is with the investigation quests: pickpocketing Templars or eavesdropping on two palace guards is entertaining for only so long before it becomes a mindless chore. Should you fail a timed assassination of Templar targets for one of your assassin brethren, you will be forced to listen to his full explanation of your mission, without an option to skip the dialogue. A flawed lock-on/camera system combo will occasionally impede some from successful combat encounters.

Fortunately, Assassin's Creed offers some great nonlinear gameplay to spice up the tedium of random guard fights, exploration, and investigation quests. The open world, Grand Theft Auto-style "kill anyone, at any time" ideal works well with this game, allowing the player to choose when to take on certain tasks essential to progressing the storyline. While the weapons roster is limited to only four different blades (longsword, short blade, hidden blade, and throwing knives), experimenting with each to find out its unique tactical advantage is guaranteed entertainment. Assassin's Creed also boasts one of the most fluid, user-friendly counter systems I've ever experienced, making devastating combos and reversals as easy as a single button-push, and allowing you to sit back and watch Altaïr's brutality unfold on screen.

In terms of gameplay, the strong points outweigh the weaker moments of Assassin's Creed, but unfortunately stepping into the shoes of an assassin feels far less badass than it should.

Altaïr is a master of disguise, capable of avoiding detection by any pursuer. Here he is using one of his favorite, most efficient disguises: Bench-sitting guy.

Overall: Without a doubt, Assassin's Creed does exactly what an action game should do: it gives the player the opportunity to take on the role of a hardass protagonist and embark on a quest of considerable proportion. Assassin's Creed does a great job of presenting its unique plot of conspiracy and mystery, while its soundtrack sets an appropriately ominous tone; a strong battle system, and some gorgeous graphics help flesh out an overall entertaining package. Unfortunately, this game falls victim to a handful of flaws not uncommon to this particular genre. In truth, the positive aspects of Assassin's Creed outdo most, if not all, of the negatives, leaving the player with a solid game definitely worth checking out. Unfortunately, the drawbacks that are present detract from an experience that should have otherwise been far more epic. Without ruining anything, the disappointing, cliffhanger ending of Assassin's Creed opens the doors wide for Assassin's Creed 2, a sequel so powerful that any downfalls of this game can be easily overlooked and forgotten. So, go ahead and take the plunge, and let Altaïr's 12th century world of secrecy and death consume you; you might walk away a little disappointed, but I guarantee you'll crave Ubisoft's second helping of this series.

Score (out of 10): 8

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