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Monday, August 27, 2012

Backlog Review: Assassin's Creed

Time to party like it's 1191.

I've somehow managed to avoid the Assassin's Creed franchise for the last five years. Towards the end of 2007 and beginning of '08, when the first AC game was released, my gaming time was being dominated by World of Warcraft and Call of Duty 4. Leading WoW raids 4-5 nights per week for 4+ hours a night has a way of cutting into your free time, and there are a bunch of universally-acclaimed titles that I've just never played.

I picked up Assassin's Creed from Amazon last year during the holidays. I was aware that it was a successful series about a guy in a hood who sneaks around and dispatches bad guys, but that was pretty much the extent of my familiarity with the games. As it turns out, that's only half of the story.

The Setup

Warren Vidic, aka Dr. Douchebag
The game's protagonist is a bartender named Desmond Miles and it's apparent from the start that he's a prisoner in a high-tech facility. We quickly learn that he's being held hostage by a doctor who's after something in his head - information stored in memories, though not his own. Warren Vidic, some sort of doctor and a member of the group holding you hostage, explains that human DNA is an archive that contains the past memories of our ancestors. He claims that Desmond's ancestors were assassins; in order to access the memories of one of those assassins Desmond jumps into a machine called the "Animus." It kinda reminds me of The Matrix: hop onto a table, strap in, and enter a different world.

Once inside the Animus, Desmond starts reliving the memories of an assassin named Altair, a distant ancestor, in the year 1191. This is the part of the game that everyone's familiar with from the commercials and trailers - a guy in a hood running around like a parkour champion stabbing people.

Desmond sitting on the Animus. They need an interior decorator.

Release Info, System Requirements, and Installation

Like I said above, I nabbed the game from Amazon at the end of last year. Unfortunately, the game didn't activate on Steam so I ended up using the Amazon downloader - nothing special, but it worked. Here are the game's system requirements:

  Minimum Recommended My Setup
CPU Dual-core 2.6 GHz Pentium D
Athlon 64 X2 3800+
2.2 GHz Core 2 Duo
Athlon 64 X2 4400+
4.0 GHz i5-2500K
GPU 256 MB DX9.0c 512 MB DX10 1GB 560 Ti DX11
RAM 512 MB for XP, 1 GB for Vista 2 GB 8 GB
HDD 9 GB -- --

Assassin's Creed was released for consoles in 2007 and for PC in April 2008, so system reqs are obviously pretty low by today's standards. The size of the AC folder on my hard drive is 6.65 GB.

The First Thirty Minutes

It's apparent from the start the Ubisoft is pushing the plot and immersive environment of the Third Crusade with Assassin's Creed. The first half-hour is arguably more interactive movie than game, filled with numerous cutscenes and a pretty lengthy and in-depth tutorial. There's obviously a lot to introduce since you're controlling both Desmond at present and Altair in the past, and the game does a pretty good job of getting you up to speed in both time periods. In the end, you probably spend as much time watching and listening as you do actually playing in the first hour.

Once you jump into the Animus and enter Altair's first memory you finally get to do a little bit of running around, though the first area is extremely linear and more like a second tutorial. You finally get to assassinate someone around the 15 or 20-minute mark - don't expect to be smashing heads within five minutes of starting. The main plot of the game is revealed via some more cutscenes interspersed with some running around. The assassin brotherhood of which Altair is a member adheres to an "assassin's creed" with three main tenets:

  • Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent
  • Hide in plain sight
  • Never compromise the Brotherhood

Both the assassin guild and the Templars are interested in an ancient artifact, a "Piece of Eden," and Altair has been tasked with picking it up quickly and quietly. During the course of the mission he manages to break all of the guild's tenets in record time. He's stripped of his rank and the majority of the game involves him starting again as an initiate and working to redeem himself as the plot unfolds.

Altair regains ranks as he performs assassinations, with each rank restoring skills.

The cutscene-fest continues throughout the entire game, and while the plot and historical references are pretty interesting, you ultimately spend a lot of the game watching events unfold. They try to keep you involved by letting you switch camera positions at random times during each scene - you'll see a "glitch" in the display and can press a button to see another angle. I guess the cutscenes fit with the whole "assassin" concept - fade into the shadows and take in as much information as you can anonymously. For an action game, though, there's a lot of inaction.

A glitch in the Matrix--er, Animus. It's brighter and more noticeable in-game.


Controlling Altair is similar to controlling a puppet: you've got buttons corresponding to actions for his feet, head, and each hand, as well as a modifier that determines your stance. The default control setup leaves a lot to be desired:

I swapped things around to the following and found it a lot more enjoyable:

Basically, the "high profile" button determines whether you're performing offensive or stealth actions. The two hand buttons control your weapons, let you grab and throw people, or let you gently maneuver your way through a crowd. The "head" button switches to a first-person view while standing still and also triggers a scanning mode called "eagle vision" that identifies enemies. Finally, "feet" lets you sprint and jump. Since "high profile" is basically a modifier, I switched that to Shift and assigned my two hands to the mouse buttons.

When you're actually playing, the combat is a little one-note. You learn new skills throughout the game as you regain your rank in the order, but combat never really evolves. After locking onto an enemy, you can either play defensively or go on the offensive. If you go on the attack, you mostly end up flailing around and most of your attacks get parried. You can grab and throw enemies with your off-hand, and throwing people off of rooftops is fair game.

It's much easier and more efficient (albeit a little slower) to play defensively. In high profile mode (holding Shift for me), you parry incoming attacks; if you click to attack at the same time as you parry, you'll perform a counter move and kill your opponent in one of a dozen or so pre-scripted movements. Towards the end of the game the number of opponents really ramps up and you'll find yourself surrounded by groups of 10 or 20 guys if you're not careful. This is never really a challenge, though, since they pretty much hang back and attack you one by one - just counter each one and you're done.

Your life meter, showing how in-sync you are with Desmond's ancestral memory, grows every time you rank up or complete a dozen or so objectives. Towards the end of the game you'll have something like 15 or 18 units of health, so you can take a bunch of damage and keep moving. Some of the enemies hit a little harder, but having so much life doesn't exactly help the difficulty level.

Stealth and Exploration

The free-running and parkour aspects of the game are pretty fun. There's a ton of stuff to climb and buildings are within jumping distance for the most part, so you can cover a lot of ground in each city by running across rooftops. As the game progresses you'll see more and more guards around the city including more archers on the rooftops, so you'll get opportunities to either avoid or eliminate guys who get in your way. There are also a bunch of banners scattered around the world, giving you something to look for while you're wall jumping around like an animal. They're not required, just something hidden to look for.

When it comes to stealth, city guards back in the time of the Crusades must have been pretty lazy and incompetent. The game UI has an icon at the top left that tells you Altair's anonymity level - whether you're a face in a crowd or being watched and when you've been spotted. Avoiding detection is mostly an exercise in patience. You can apparently "blend" into the crowd and walk right by guards by putting your head down and pretending to be a scholar deep in thought. Both Altair and the scholars wear white robes and hoods, though it'd be pretty hard not to spot the swords and throwing knives hanging off of the assassin's back. Like I said, they must be lazy or incompetent.

Don't worry guys, I'm just a scholar doing scholarly things.

If you get spotted by guards you can either fight off a seemingly endless stream of 15 or 20 guys or you can run away. Once you break line of sight you can hop into a convenient rooftop garden or dive into a pile of hay, either of which will cause you to rapidly regain your anonymity and make the guards give up their search. You'd think they'd poke their head into the only apparent hiding places near where they lost their target, but hey, who am I to be critical of a guy from 1191 doing his job?

Investigations and Assassinations

Each of the game's memory blocks is incredibly formulaic. Altair receives a target from the assassin guild master and rides off to either Damascus, Jerusalem, or Acre to go to work. Once there you sneak into the city and locate the Assassin's Bureau where you get an introduction to your target from the resident assassin. From here, you perform investigations to figure out your target's habits and the best time to strike, report back to the bureau, and then set out to finish the job.

This is literally the same throughout the entire game. To unveil areas of the map and uncover investigations you must climb to the top of towers, turrets, or domes for a better view of the area. Each city is broken up into three or four districts, and each one has around seven viewpoints, meaning you'll do a lot of running around and climbing. Having to go through the same tedious process in every area gets old in a hurry. The investigations themselves fall into six or eight categories with six being available in each memory. Thankfully you only need to complete 2-3 to gain access to your assassination target. Performing extra investigations helps to add another notch to your life meter if you want to go all out.

After reporting back to the bureau, you set out to find and kill your target. These are probably the most exciting and action-packed moments of the game but they're unfortunately only a small fraction of the experience time-wise. You wander up to your target, who is usually surrounded by guards, and view one of the ever-present cutscenes. The assassinations themselves involve either finding an opportune time to strike and fighting your way out or chasing your target down while running through the city. After landing the death blow you see a deathbed conversation between Altair and his target where the soon-to-be-deceased tries to put a positive spin on his actions and get inside Altair's head. Once he finally passes Altair dips a feather in his blood as proof of the kill.

Like I said, these are the best parts of the game even with the combat being a little boring; it's unfortunate that you need to go through the motions in every city just to get to that point. Go to a city; climb towers to reveal the area; perform investigations; head back to the bureau; find and kill your target; escape the area and blend back into the shadows. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Atmosphere, Graphics, and Performance

Despite being almost five years old and not having the benefit of super high-res textures, the game looks very good. Each environment is varied and highly detailed; there's not a lot of copy/paste going on to fill out each area. Viewpoints on top of towers give you an idea of how much work went into each city, each one being packed with buildings of different sizes and shapes. If there's one area of the game that's a little weak in comparison it's the Kingdom connecting the major cities of the game. It's gigantic and pretty bland, but at least there are plenty of horses around for you to play Grand Theft Equine with.

Each city has a ridiculous amount of people living in it, so you're not going to be able to jog around freely. Most of the citizens and guards patrol around, too, so it's not like you're weaving your way through a bunch of NPCs who are standing still. You'll be pestered by beggars and assaulted by drunks and disturbed individuals.

All things considered, the game has held up pretty well graphically over the last five years. The game's textures are detailed enough to look good at 1920x1080 on a 23" monitor, something the large majority of people weren't using back when Assassin's Creed was released. The game has both DX9 and DX10 modes launched using separate EXE files, though nothing is really gained visually by running DX10 - DX10 is mainly used to optimize performance.

Character models look a little bit dated and most noticeably reveal the game's age. The colors and textures on the models are bright and detailed, but characters have the sharp edges that you would expect from an older game. Don't get me wrong though - AC probably looked amazing in 2008, and it still doesn't look half bad today.

Al Mualim's beard looks a little crusty.

Value, Replayability, and Final Thoughts

Assassin's Creed retails for 20 bucks as of August 2012, but it's usually on sale for significantly less. Amazonhas the boxed version for $7 and the download for $15 right now. I picked up the game for $5 last December and it was worth every penny.

You get a lot of game for the money, especially when it's on sale. The game is single-player-only, and the campaign probably took me around 12 or 15 hours to beat. Once you complete the game and sit through the credits, you can jump back into the Animus and replay any memory block in the game, though there's probably not much reason to do so. You could complete the investigations you skipped the first time around, uncover all of the viewpoints and find every hidden flag in the world, but as far as I know there's no reward for reaching 100% completion.

To be honest, I almost gave up on the game halfway through. The scenery and plot and everything are really engaging, but the gameplay is just so monotonous and repetitive that it's borderline boring at times. After climbing a tower for the 38th time and killing a pack of 25 guards one at a time via counterattacking you wonder if it'll be worth it in the end. After slogging through all of the content the plot turn at the end was pretty predictable and the actual ending was abrupt, which was kinda disappointing.

I was ready to give Assassin's Creed a 3.0 or a 3.5 until the last few seconds of the game. We all know that Ubisoft has gone on to publish three more main titles in the AC series (with AC3 coming up in November on PC), so the first game obviously leaves the door wide open for a sequel. The way in which they drop major teasers and hints as to the direction of the series is pretty amazing. You can immediately tell that they put a pretty sizable amount of effort into the overarching plot of the games and their attempts to tie historical events into the storyline. After finishing the game I immediately found a [SPOILER] CVG blog post and a [SPOILER] 98-page forum thread on the Ubisoft forums discussing the game's last few minutes. Luckily for me I bought AC2 at the same time as the first game, so I only need to wait a couple of hours for it to download instead of waiting months for the next game's release.

There's one more oddity that needs mentioning: exiting the game is laughably idiotic. Here are the steps you need to take to quit from the middle of a level:

ESC -> "Exit Memory"
Click "Exit Animus"
ESC -> "Exit Game," answer "yes" to confirmation
Press any key, select profile
Click "Exit," answer "yes" to confirmation

Alt+F4 works too.

Score: 4.0 / 5.0

4 out of 5
  • The Good: Atmosphere, storylines and historical context, free-running/parkour
  • The So-so: Lots of cutscenes, combat isn't anything exciting
  • The Bad: Investigation routine is tedious, exiting game is ridiculous


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