Assassin’s Creed Retro Review – Revisiting the First Kill
Assassin’s Creed is a game that feels as if there was something keeping it held back from true greatness. Not time or a budget but a solid framework, something to keep the amazing premise afloat. In a lot of ways, the game does stay afloat. The mechanics are enjoyable, the premise is interesting, and even the story evolves into something intriguing. Still, the checklist-like objectives, bad ending, abysmal Desmond sections, and ultimately repetitive gameplay keeps the game from really living up to its potential.
Developed by Ubisoft Montreal
Published by Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Windows [reviewed], Xbox 360
Released on November 13, 2013 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), April 8, 2013 (Windows)
The story and premise is really a good example of this. For the majority of the game, you play as Altair, an assassin during the time of the Third Crusade, but you are actually Altair’s current day ancestor, Desmond. He is hooked up to a device called the Animus that lets him relive his ancestor’s life through genetic memory. That’s a really cool idea. However, that cool idea is simultaneously realized and squandered as the story progresses. Desmond’s side of the story offers a few brief interesting moments that further the plot but time spent in Desmond’s confinement is, for the lack of a better term, restrictive. Altair’s side, on the other hand, starts off relatively slow but builds into a more interesting, if less profound, story. Altair himself becomes a interesting character and you’ll become invested in the motives of your targets and your master. Until you get to the ending, which is so abrupt that it feels like then ending of a half hour TV show instead of a 15 hour plus game.
For the majority of that 15+ hours, you will be playing a very enjoyable game, namely the parkour system of platforming. Running across rooftops and climbing high buildings is a visceral rush, something that few games have been able to replicate. Making your way up to the top of a high building to activate the game’s many View Points is paid off not only in progress further to 100% completion but also in the sprawling and beautiful view of the city below. This is due also in part to the level design, that give stunning alleyways and bazzars to climb and survey from above. Something also extremely enjoyable is the means needed to climb some buildings. Altair grabs onto cracks, indents and moldings on buildings but sometimes, they are not readily available to you on your current ascension path. Therefore, you’ll need to maneuver around the building to find a way to get where you need to go. This gives platforming in Assassin’s Creed a puzzle like element that gives a welcome cognitive challenge to platforming.
The other side of the mechanics is not as well developed. Combat in the game is heavily dependent on countering in theory. You draw your sword, wait until your opponent lunges at you and then parry their attack to make a fatal one of your own. That’s what you’re supposed to do. However — save the last third of the game when the A.I. difficulty increases — wildly swinging your sword at your enemy will work too. Another trick that also works is throwing your opponent on the ground and slicing him while he gets up. Basically, the combat lacks structure, as it’s relatively easy to break and it doesn’t handle a big crowd of enemies well. If you are surrounded, there will be less of an opportunity to counter properly, leading you to use the combat-breaking tactics mentioned before. You will essentially use these tactics because there’s no effective way to be an offensive fighter.
Not that the game thought you would need to be as Assassin’s Creed is meant to be something of a stealth game. I say something of a stealth game because your “stealth” is just not getting noticed. Which is not to say that you are sneaking around. Many of the objectives have you hiding in plain sight. For example, you’ll sit on a bench and overhear a conversation. Or you’ll pickpocket a letter or map from a messenger or accomplice. None of these require you to be hidden from sight so the stealth tendencies are minimal at best. To be fair, there are stealthy ways to kill enemies, by way of your throwing knives and the flagship weapon of the game, the hidden blade. Throwing a knife at anyone is an instant kill, nifty for archers, as is the hidden blade which will kill someone without raising attention at first.
However, these don’t help when confronted with an actual battle as opposed to one or two guards in your way. In fact, the only way the guards will attack you is if you’ve already attacked them yourself or they already know who you are, which you can’t do anything about. As such, the combat feels like it was meant to be a last resort as opposed to not rising suspicion or running away, thought this is rarely the case in many situations including the final disappointing hour or so of the game which is nothing but combat.
After all, you’re playing a game called Assassin’s Creed, and assassinate you shall. Assassin’s Creed follows the pattern of getting assigned a target to kill, traveling to the town they’re at, doing reconnaissance missions on your target and then actually assassinating him. Your recon missions get old quick. They are always the same thing and even the NPCs involved are the same character models. You eavesdrop on conversations, pickpocket stuff, interrogate people, and do tasks for informers. In the PC version, you also have flag collecting, escort, archer elimination, and merchant stand destruction missions. All of these are okay at first but become tedious. Making matters worse is doing all of the recon missions tend to give you more info in killing your target, in theory making it easier. However, many of the targets devolve into pre-scripted sequences that makes all your planning pointless. This further devolves the stealth aspects of the game. It’s still satisfying to get your target but there’s not much to it despite what the game tells you.
Like in many action-adventure titles with a fully explorable world, there are side missions for you to complete such as flags strewn across each city for you to collect, citizens to save from the city guards, Templars to kill, and view points to activate. None of these are particularly enjoyable — the flags especially are a slog to collect — but some like the view points are easy to do and beneficial to the gameplay. Also, I found that there are some glitches and wonky moments with the mechanics. A few times, Altair wouldn’t climb up despite there clearly being something for him to grab onto sometimes, Altair would jump off a platform in the wrong direction and various clipping and occasional drops in frame rate would happen. None of these usually affect the gameplay but I did encounter moments when they did — especially the second to last assassination target — so it’s worth mentioning. Oh and when you control Desmond, you look up emails and open doors. That’s it. Controls are terrible and that’s all there is to say about that. I would’ve rather these segments be made into cutscenes.
As mentioned before, the level design lends itself well to the platforming mechanics of the game. Unfortunately, from an aesthetic standpoint, the design is lacking. Many of the streets of Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem look similar and even as more districts are unlocked, the differences are slim. Even the NPCs tend to repeat themselves a little too often in the game, making that feeling of deja vu all the more apparent. Graphically, the game features a lot of blurry textures, especially today, but the game still looks really good. Playing the PC version on a 120Hz TV yielded some impressive visuals.
Presentation features a sci-fi look that’s a bit plain for my taste but at least it’s noticeable, unlike the soundtrack. Music in this game never goes beyond appropriate for the action onscreen. It’s in one ear, out the other soon after it stops. Voice acting is also good with everyone having middle eastern accents. Except for Altair, who sounds WAY out of place. His delivery is wooden and clearly a poor choice of actor. One thing of note: the PS3 version suffers from major frame drops towards the second half of the game, crippling the experience. The 360 version and especially the PC version — with its clearer visuals — are preferred.
Assassin’s Creed really feels like the developers struggled to convey the awesome concept they had came up with. An engaging story and fun climbing mechanics are marred by dull gameplay progression and shoddy combat. Future iterations in the franchise would address the issues in this game but for a first title in now a yearly franchise with over six games to its name, the first game is a solid effort that remains enjoyable despite its flaws. Because of the nature of the story and how well the first game holds up, this is the ideal way to introduce yourself to the Assassin’s Creed series and is worth your time playing if you have interest in the franchise as a whole. Others might want to skip it until they have already enjoyed the better games in the series.
3.5 out of 5